Saltwater Aquariums Demystified: Tanks & Stands

Table of Contents

I) Introduction

Alrighty, let’s jump right in!  When you are just starting out in this hobby, the various styles, shapes, and brand names of aquariums doesn’t mean a whole lot to you.  You might hear some terms that you don’t understand (think frag tank, drop off, Starphire glass, etc…)

But the most important piece of equipment you need to purchase is your tank (and maybe a stand!).

In Saltwater Aquariums Demystified Part 02, we are going to cover everything a beginner needs to know about saltwater tanks and stands.

If you want to jump to any episode, just click on the link below.

To watch the entire vlog, just scroll down a skosh more and click play!

II) Commercially Available Brands

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does comprise of the majority of big names out there.  You can purchase these tanks online or sometimes through your LFS.

For each company, we are going to show you a couple of their most popular options, so you can click on the picture for more details about that tank.

IM Nuvo Drop Off 70
IM Nuvo Fusion Peninsula 20 Pro

One of our favorite brands, Innovative Marine (IM) is more than just a tank/stand manufacturer.  They also sell various other products such as protein skimmers, ATO reservoirs, acrylic media caddies, DC return pumps, and tons more.

Most of their tanks are on the small to medium end (10-75 gallon), and they have some creative ideas with their Nuvo Concept series.

The quality of their tanks is outstanding, and they make aluminum APS stands to match their tanks.

2) Red Sea

Red Sea MAX E-Series 170 w/LED Lights
Red Sea Reefer Deluxe Peninsula 650 w/LED Lights

I love Red Sea.  My first ever saltwater tank was the Red Sea Reefer 170, and it was great.  I currently use Red Sea Coral Pro Salt, the Foundation Pro Test Kit, the Marine Care Test Kit, and the Phosphate Pro Test Kit.

I don’t often recommend Red Sea tanks to beginners, only because they are more pricey than other brands.  There are much more affordable options to get started. But, I do recommend their test kits and salt to everybody, because they are fantastic.

Red Sea has recently upped their game with the addition of their Reef LED Lights, as well as their Reefer Protein Skimmers.  I’ve seen both in person, but have not used them personally so I can’t give you any feedback other than Red Sea almost always makes a high quality product.

3) Fluval

Fluval evo 13.5 gallon all glass saltwater aquarium with led canopy, rear filtration,
Fluval SEA EVO 13.5 Gallon
Fluval SEA EVO 5 Gallon

Fluval is big on the freshwater side, but they make one saltwater tank in two sizes.

While I don’t think they are necessarily the best tank out there, I do often recommend them to beginners because they look nice, are an AIO (all in one) system, you can easily purchase them on Amazon, and they are super budget friendly.

I have owned one of their freshwater tanks called the Fluval Spec, and it was a fantastic home for a Betta fish.  Check out one of my rare freshwater videos that features this tank by clicking this sentence.

4) Waterbox

10 gallon glass aquarium full of colorful corals and saltwater fish
Waterbox Cube 20+ w/LED Lights
Waterbox Marine 70.3 Plus With LED Lights
Waterbox Marine 70.3+ w/LED Lights

Waterbox is a relative newcomer to the scene, only popping up in the last couple years.  All of their tanks are low iron glass, including the rear baffle (which is awesome!), and they span from tiny 5 gallon AIO tanks to large peninsula style tanks over 200 gallons.  

They are similar in quality to Red Sea, but more affordable.  The only issue with them currently, is they are so popular that a lot of their tanks are on backorder!

I put together a tank for my neighbor and used their Marine 70.3+ with the white stand.  It’s gorgeous and just so sleek and clean.

Their smaller AIO tanks are a great value for beginners.

5) Lifegard

Lifegard Aquatics Full View (Bowfront) 7 Gallon Aquarium
Lifegard Aquatics CRYSTAL 7.4 Gallon Aquarium

So I’m going to level with you… I’ve never owned a Lifegard tank.  But, I saw them at Reefapalooza Anaheim last year and was impressed with their tanks.

Lifegard is big on the freshwater side, but they make tanks that would work for saltwater as well.  When I think Lifegard, I think bowfront tank.  They are the only major manufacturer that I know of that produces the unique bowfront aquarium.

They don’t sell any large tanks, but they do have a couple different styles that would make great beginner options, and at a good price! Their glass is low iron and comes with an impressive 92% clarity.  Some of their tanks are AIO systems that even come with a return pump.

6) JBJ

JBJ Rimless Flat Panel 45 Gallon AIO
jbj nano cube 28 gallon low iron glass saltwater aquarium with black led canopy and tropical corals.
JBJ Nano Cube WiFi LED 28 Gallon

JBJ is a saltwater aquarium company, probably best known for their Arctica line of chillers, as well as their Flat Panel AIO Systems.

I have never owned a JBJ tank, but have friends who have.  Again, low iron glass is the norm, and they have various styles from rimless to AIO style cubes with rounded glass edges.

I believe (at the time of writing), that their largest tank is 65 gallon, so their entire line would be a good beginner size.

7) Coralife

Coralife Biocube

I would call Coralife a budget type saltwater aquarium company.  Their items would never be considered top-of-the-line, but I don’t think that’s what they are going for.

They sell a wide variety of inexpensive products, but only one type of tank: the Coralife Biocube.

The Biocube comes in two sizes, and there is an optional stand as well.  The Biocube makes a great beginner tank, because it is a true AIO system that comes with return pump and programmable lights. You would need to pick up a heater and then whatever else you want to put inside the tank itself.

Their 16 gallon size would easily fit on a sturdy counter or desktop, and the LED lights put out just enough light for soft corals, and probably LPS corals as well.

III) Tanks/Aquariums

If you thought deciding on your first saltwater aquarium was the easy part, think again.  Not only are there a ton of options available, this hobby is so full of jargon that you might not fully understand what you’re getting.  We are going to break it all down for you below, from sizes, shapes, styles, to materials and filtration types. Enjoy!

1) Size

There is no hard and fast rule as to what makes a tank small or large.  But here is how I would break it down, with an example of each size.


a) Nano/Small (1-30 Gallon)

Fluval evo 13.5 gallon all glass saltwater aquarium with led canopy, rear filtration,
Fluval SEA EVO 13.5 Gallon

Typically, when hobbyists refer to nano tanks they are referencing anything under 20 gallons, but maybe even as small as a single gallon.  I would classify a small tank as anything 30 gallons or less.

Small tanks can make great beginner options, because they are obviously more affordable and will fit in any home, but that comes with a caveat.

Yes, smaller means less expensive, but small also means less water.  Less water means that water parameters can change quicker.  Why does that matter?  Because as a beginner, you are going to make mistakes.  And a small mistake can easily overwhelm your tank and kill all of the livestock.

So if possible, I think a 20 gallon size would make a great beginner build.  It’s small enough to be affordable and fit anywhere, but large enough to be able to temper small mistakes and fluctuations in water parameters.

b) Medium (30-100 Gallon)

Waterbox Marine 70.3 Plus With LED Lights
Waterbox Marine 70.3+ w/LED Lights

Let’s classify a medium sized tank as anything from 30-100 gallons.  For a lot of hobbyists, while they may begin with a small tank, their goal would be something more in this range.  It’s not quite large enough to take up a large portion of the house, but it is big enough to make a statement.

A medium sized build is great because you can just hold more livestock.  This is especially true if your build comes with a sump. Then you would be able to have a high powered protein skimmer to really keep the water column clean, upping the ability to hold more fish and corals.

I built this 70 gallon tank for my neighbor, and it is just the right size to draw the eye of any guest, but not big enough to seem overwhelming or obtrusive.

c) Large (100 Gallon +)

Red Sea Reefer Deluxe Peninsula 650 w/LED Lights

My dream tank would be a large peninsula style tank like this Red Sea Reefer 650. It would make a stunning room divider.  The only problem I have is my home just isn’t big enough for it!

A lot of beginners think bigger is better when it comes to saltwater tanks, and in some ways they are right.  You can certainly keep the water parameters more stable due to the increase in overall water volume.  You will usually get a stand and a sump which can hide all of your filtration equipment giving your tank a super clean look.  And you can stock the tank with a ton of livestock.

But there is a dark side to larger tanks.  First and foremost… they cost a lot more money!  Not just the tank itself, but the larger lights, the larger return pump, the larger wavemaker, etc. They also require a significantly greater amount of time clean and maintain.

I have a 120 gallon tank, and I love it, but I won’t go any bigger… at least not for a while ;-)!

2) Shape

Different shaped tanks are better for different reasons, usually having to do with livestock options.

a) Rectangle

JBJ Rimless Flat Panel 45 Gallon AIO

By far the most common shape, they come in various sizes and different styles (which I’ll discuss in section 3).  They sit flat against the wall, and can have any type of filtration.  Every single one of my 5 tanks is some sort of rectangle.

b) Cube

10 gallon glass aquarium full of colorful corals and saltwater fish
Waterbox Cube 20+ w/LED Lights

Both a shape and a style of tank, cubes are usually smaller tanks that are great on a desktop or counter.  Most cubes have some sort of rear filtration, but the larger ones can also make use of a sump.

c) Rounded Edge

Coralife Biocube

Only a couple brands make these tanks, but they are cool because instead of a hard 90 degree angle edge, the corners are rounded which gives a bit of an infinite look to them.  I think the rounded portion can be a bit more difficult to clean though!

d) Bowfront

Lifegard Aquatics Full View (Bowfront) 7 Gallon Aquarium

In this hobby, bowfront (or bow front) typically means either an aquarium whose front pane is sloping toward the back.  It can also connote an aquarium whose front pane is completely curved, sort of like the front window of your car.

3) Style

There is quite a bit of overlap when talking about shapes and styles.  But when hobbyists use certain terms to describe a tank, they are usually referring to something specific.

a) AIO (All In One)

Innovative Marine Nuvo Concept Encore 20 Pro

A bit of a misnomer, most all in one systems don’t come with everything you need.  I know, it doesn’t make sense.. trust me I get it!

When hobbyists refer to an AIO system, they usually mean any sort of tank that comes with basic filtration items and a return pump.  Sometimes an AIO tank comes with lights as well, but almost never with a heater.

I also think that most AIO tanks utilize a rear filtration chamber, not a sump or an HOB.  Why is this?  I have no idea!  If a tank comes with plumbing, a return pump, and a sump, we usually call it a reef tank.

So let’s define an AIO as this: A small to medium tank with a rear filtration chamber that comes with some filtration elements and a return pump.

b) Cube

10 gallon glass aquarium full of colorful corals and saltwater fish
Waterbox Cube 20+ w/LED Lights

Don’t shoot the messenger here, but a cube style tank is more than just referring to the shape.  I wish I could explain why… but I can’t.

When hobbyists think of a cube tank, they think relatively small, clean lines, rear filtration (or maybe a sump), minimal aquascaping, and rimless.  Think of a minimalist style of decorating, and this tank would fit right in.

c) Peninsula

Fluval evo 13.5 gallon all glass saltwater aquarium with led canopy, rear filtration,
Fluval SEA EVO 13.5 Gallon

Finally a style that is easy to understand!  A peninsula style tank is a long, relatively thin rectangle, with its two long sides meant for viewing.  These make stunning room dividers for the larger sizes, or just great desktop tanks in the smaller range.

d) Breeder

black rimmed 40 gallon glass aquarium on white background
40 Gallon Breeder Tank 36" x 18" x 16"

First off, do NOT buy this tank through the Amazon “Shop” button.  It’s a ridiculous price.  Wait for a sale at a big box pet store, and you can get this for around $60, not $250 at Amazon!

I’ve never, ever, heard of any size breeder tank other than a 40 gallon breeder.  So, a 40 gallon breeder tank has these dimensions: 36″L x 18″W x 16″H.  I assume the name comes from it being an ideal size for breeding fish, but I really don’t know.

e) Drop Off

IM Nuvo Drop Off 70

Dream tank #1 is a large peninsula, but dream tank #2 is a drop off, and specifically this one from Innovative Marine!

There aren’t many commercially available drop off tanks.  In fact, I only know of three, and Innovative Marine makes all of them.

For any of you snorkelers and scuba divers out there who have been lucky enough to see the reefs up close, a reef tank tries to mimic the edge of the reef, right as it falls off into the abyss.  Just think of Nemo’s first day of school when they take a field trip to the “drop off.” 

f) Rimless

© My First Fish Tank

Every single tank (except the ones with lighted canopies) in this blog, is a rimless tank.

A rimless style tank is any aquarium that does not have anything holding it together except the silicone seams.  For example, a lot of inexpensive tanks that you find at a big box pet store carry simple glass aquariums with a black plastic rim around the edge.  That would be an example of a tank that is not “rimless”.

g) Euro Braced

© My First Fish Tank

A euro brace is an interior glass rim that is attached on all sides by silicone.  This is meant to help hold the tank together and counteract the force of the water pushing the panes of glass outward.

I’m guessing the euro brace was first developed in Europe!?!?  These used to be common with larger tanks, but most commercially available tanks now, even the huge ones, are rimless.  I have no idea how a 200 gallon tank can be structurally sound when it’s only held together by 4 thin layers of silicone, but I place my trust in the structural engineers that designed them!

h) Lagoon

IM Nuvo EXT Lagoon 50 w/APS STand

What makes a lagoon a lagoon you ask?  Mangroves, and maybe low flow.

A lagoon tank tries to mimic the brackish water environment where fish live amongst the roots.  It could really be any shape tank, but they are typically shorter and wider, and you usually have to put the lights significantly higher so that they are above the tips of the mangroves.

There would likely be no corals in this tank, as its goal is not to mimic a reef, but brackish water.  Really cool tanks, with a lot of schooling fish swimming amongst the mangrove roots.

So there is really nothing special about the tank per se.  It’s what you put inside it that makes it a lagoon.

i) Frag

IM Nuvo Fusion Lagoon 25 (Frag Tank)

Any size tank that has a low height. That’s pretty much it.  It’s called a frag tank because hobbyists primarily use these tanks to store and grow out coral frags.  A frag is just a small piece of coral that has been removed from a larger colony.

A frag tank is super handy for corals for two reasons.  The first is that you can get strong light penetration to the bottom of the tank since it is not filtered out by a lot of water.  And second you don’t have to constantly reach your entire arm into the tank to remove a frag, since everything is relatively close to the water’s surface.

4) Material

For all intents and purposes, there are only two types of material that saltwater aquariums are made out of: glass and acrylic.

a) Glass

Glass is the most common material for fish tanks.  


  • Inexpensive.
  • Easy to find.
  • Does not scratch easily.


  • Heavy.
  • Cannot repair scratches.
  • Less clear than acrylic.

Low iron glass is a bit more expensive, but it removes a lot of the greenish hue found in standard glass, upping the clarity.

Starphire glass is just a brand name for low iron glass.

b) Acrylic

Acrylic is not as common as glass, but it’s great because you can get custom made tanks in a variety of shapes and sizes with acrylic.


  • Lightweight.
  • High clarity.
  • Can buff out scratches.
  • Can bend acrylic to most any shape.


  • Easy to scratch.
  • Hard to find commercially available tanks.

5) Filtration

Saltwater Aquariums come with 1 of 3 types of filtration: Rear, sump, or HOB.

a) HOB (Hang on Back) Power Filter

© My First Fish Tank

An HOB filter is the most simple and least expensive saltwater aquarium filter.  It is also by far the most unsightly as you have this large brick hanging off the side of your tank!

A hang on the back filter has a pump that sucks the water out of the tank, and then some sort of sponge filter and whatever filtration media you opt to put in.

While often providing adequate mechanical filtration, that’s about where an HOB stops.  That’s not to say there aren’t some fancy HOB filters on the market that allow for built in refugiums, protein skimmers, and more, but if you are going to spend the money on a fancy HOB, why not just buy a saltwater tank with a rear filtration chamber?

If building the most budget friendly tank is your primary concern, then a HOB filter is a good bet. I would recommend buying one that is rated for twice the size of your tank, just to make sure you get enough water turnover each hour.

b) Rear Filtration Chamber

© My First Fish Tank

A rear filtration chamber is located in the back of your tank, and hides your return pump, heater, and filtration media.  Some rear filtration chambers even have a space for a refugium and protein skimmer.

Commonly found in most small-medium saltwater tanks, rear filtration chambers are great because you can hide all of your ugly gear inside, leaving your display tank free of anything except livestock.  

It’s definitely a step up from a HOB filter, while not as large or fancy as a sump.

I currently have five tanks at home, and three of them have a rear filtration chamber.

c) Sump

© My First Fish Tank

A sump is considered the gold standard when it comes to saltwater aquarium filtration.  Simply put, a sump is a separate container of water, usually residing directly underneath your display tank, with different baffles that enable you to utilize different filtration techniques.

For example, a common setup would start with filter socks, then into a large chamber for a protein skimmer, heaters, and reactors, then into another refugium chamber, through a bubble trap, and into the return chamber.

A sump not only allows you to hide all of your filtration gear, it also increases the overall water volume of your system, meaning you can keep your water parameters more stable.

IV) Stands

Phew, this blog was a lot longer than I thought it would be!  If you’ve stuck around this long, don’t worry, we are on the home stretch!

Stands are a much easier topic to discuss, so let’s jump right in!

1) Do You Need A Stand?

Maybe.  The primary concern is weight.  If your tank is 20 gallons or less, you can probably get away with using a super sturdy countertop or desk.  But consider this, 20 gallons of water weighs 167 pounds! 

Personally, I have always used stands with a 20 gallon tank.  I find a 20 gallon tank to be big enough that I don’t want in on a countertop or desk, but rather as a display in the living room, bedroom, or kitchen even (yes, I have a reef tank in my kitchen!).

If I have a tank that is 10 gallons or less, then I use a countertop or desk.

For any tank over 20 gallons, I would purchase a stand or buy a system that comes with a stand. Unless you are a professional, I wouldn’t recommend building your own stand.  A stand needs to hold the weight of the tank, and also be super level so as not to cause stress fractures to the bottom of the tank over time.

2) Material

I’m sure there are more options out there, but I’ve only ever seen stands made out of three different materials: solid wood, composite wood, and metal.

a) Solid Wood

© My First Fish Tank

Arguably the nicest option out there, solid wood tanks are surprisingly hard to find!  My SCA 120 gallon PNP tank came with a solid wood stand, but all of the major brands I’ve mentioned in this blog either carry composite or metal stands. 

I prefer solid wood because I like the natural look of the grain.  There is no structural benefit over composite or metal, it’s purely aesthetic.

b) Composite Wood

© My First Fish Tank

If you like that super clean look, composite is probably the right choice for you.  Most major saltwater aquarium brands offer some sort of composite stand, almost entirely in white or black options.

c) Metal

Innovative Marine APS Stand

Let me get this out of the way first.  I’m not personally drawn to metal stands for the most part.  There is just something warm and inviting about wood that metal just can’t achieve.

That being said, metal makes a great option.  It’s strong, and if its made out of aluminum, it is significantly lighter than its wooden counterpart.

It really just comes down to what is available, will it fit your tank, and what are your personal preferences.

3) Function

a) Weight

Easy enough to understand, a properly sized stand is meant to hold the massive weight of your tank.

b) Hides Gear

© My First Fish Tank

One of the most shocking things you’ll soon discover in this hobby, is it takes a lot of gear to run a saltwater aquarium.  And if you are anything like me, you’ll always want to upgrade to the newest high tech options available.  

Rather than having to stare at your filter socks, sponges, reactors, skimmers, refugiums, pumps, or controllers, you can stash it all away in your stand (that is if it has a sump of course!)

A stand is also a great place to keep your maintenance equipment, an auto top off reservoir, and your test kits.

c) Sump

© My First Fish Tank

For larger tanks, a stand is the place where the sump goes.  Water overflows from your display tank and is carried to the sump via your hard or soft plumbing.  Then a return pump transports the filtered water back to your display.

4) Wire Management

© My First Fish Tank

Last, but certainly not least, a stand can be used to hide all of your wires.  Wire management has never been my greatest strength, but even a small amount of work will keep all of those wires out of view, so your guests can just sit back and enjoy the beauty of your tank!

IV) Episode 03: Aquascaping, Live Rock, & Sand

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