This page contains affiliate links.  All that means for you is that if you click on one of my links and make a purchase, I receive a small commission.  This helps me keep this content 100% free!  But rest assured, I only recommend products I know and trust! Happy Reefing!

Week 5. What Equipment is Essential?

Deciding what aquarium to get and where to put it can be a difficult choice for many people. But, even more confusing is figuring out what equipment you then need to buy to run a successful saltwater aquarium. Equipment related questions are amongst the most common questions we receive here! 

This week we will cover what equipment we believe is essential based on three categories. Even within these categories, the specific equipment will vary based on your needs and setup. However, we will leave some useful links throughout the blog for you to be able to find and buy what you need easily! 

If you are interested in getting some gear already, consider using our affiliate link to

As well, consider checking out Coral Vault if you are searching for corals! You can find them here

These are great companies and by using the links you support us in making more content for you, without any extra cost to you!!

Table of Contents

This Week's Video:

Category one: Basic necessities

In this first category we will cover the truly essential things you need to run a saltwater aquarium. These pieces of gear are essentially universal and choosing what you buy is one of the most important decisions for you to make.


Unless you plan on having a fish only saltwater aquarium, then you absolutely need a light to support the growth of your corals, macro algae, clams, etc. There are basically three types of lights: LED, T5’s, and metal halides. However, beginners and really most hobbyists only use the first two nowadays. Unless you are planning out a larger and more advanced aquarium, it is best for you to look at LED lights.

The LED light has become the most common style because it has a lot of versatility, is the most energy efficient, and is easier to work with than the other types. There is a lot of nuance with PAR (basically how much of the light is useable by the corals/macro algae) and light spectrum (color given off by the light). However, as long as you get a decent quality LED light made for reef aquariums, you will be able to grow what you want! 

Salt Mix and Refractometer

There are many different brands and “styles” of salt mix, but any respectable brand of salt mix will do okay. You can have some fun with it and choose a brand and style that fits your setup plans, but it does not need to be complicated if you don’t want it to be. To be able to measure salinity, you should always have a refractometer. There are other ways to measure salinity, but a refractometer is usually the cheapest and most reliable way to do so. 

Water Source (LFS or RO/DI)

When it comes to your water source, it highly discouraged to use tap water as it contains many contaminants and potential nasty things that will cause problems in your saltwater aquarium. This water is used for “topping off” your aquarium as water evaporates, and for making new saltwater. Essentially, you want something as close to pure water as you can get!

If you have a small aquarium, you could just buy distilled or RO/DI filtered water from your local grocery store or local fish store. However, over time it is worth it to get your own RO/DI filter and make your own pure water, especially if you have a larger aquarium. 

Heater or Chiller

Most of our saltwater aquarium are tropical and require water temperatures around 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit. A majority of people will thus need a heater to keep this up, and there are plenty of reliable and cheap options out there. Some may also need to actually cool down their aquariums in the summer, so you might want to get some aquarium fans.

For those with a cold water aquarium, or just in a really hot area, a dedicated chiller is what you might need. As well, even if you do not have a fan or chiller, it is a good idea to get some temperature controller that will independently monitor the temperature of your aquarium. This piece of equipment can literally save your aquarium by turning equipment on and off when the temperature goes past a certain threshold.   

Finally, always have a reserve of whatever heater or chiller you use. If it were to break during an inconvenient time, you risk losing all your inhabitants before you can get a replacement. Better to be safe than sorry. 

Return Pump and Wavemakers

A return pump is the pump that returns the water from your filter, whether that is a sump or a chamber within your aquarium, back to your display aquarium. Many aquarium kits that come with the internal chamber or a sump, also come with a return pump that will work just fine. However, you might also need to buy one yourself!

As well, it is always a good idea to have a secondary return pump in reserve, especially if you have a sump. It is not as critical as having a reserve heater/chiller, but get a replacement pump as soon as you can afford it! 

While the return pump provides some flow, only in the smallest of aquariums will this flow be enough to create a healthy environment in your saltwater aquarium. Really you will want to be able to provide adequate flow using a wavemaker. What is adequate really depends on what livestock you have, soft and LPS corals don’t need intense flow while SPS corals do! 

Product Link: If you are looking to get any of this gear, use the following link to support us without any extra cost to you!


Category two: Filtration Support

This category mainly covers filtration and some additional things that go hand in hand with filtration. There a tons of ways and methodologies to achieve adequate filtration, but we will be sticking with the most simple and beginner friendly options. 


A filter in itself is practically a necessity for most saltwater aquariums. It is important to understand that biological filtration (bacteria converting waste chemicals into less toxic chemicals) is the most important filtration. While your rocks and sand will play a massive part in biological filtration, it is a good idea to have some sort of external filter. This could be an internal chamber, a sump, or even just a hang on back filter. 
These pieces of gear allow you to expand your capacity for biological filtration by giving you more room to add rocks and other media for bacteria to grow on. As well, the filter will be able to physically capture things floating in your aquarium (like hair, dust, and leftover fish food), thus polishing your water. Finally, you also have the ability to add on extra filtration such as chemical filtration, most commonly carbon to take out chemical pollutants in your water. 

Having a sump is generally considered the best option, with the most versatility and usually the greatest capacity for various filtration. But, with smaller aquariums, the other options are just as viable!

Filtration Media 

As previously mentioned, there are basically three types of filtration and corresponding media that goes with it.
Biological media could be natural rock and sand, or manmade biological media. Some of these media can be better at hosting bacteria than the rocks being used in your aquarium. As well, if you want a minimalist aquarium with less rock and sand, using biological media in your filter can make up for it. 
Mechanical media is more or less just for capturing floating particles, food, etc. This can be as simple as a single filter floss pad or as complicated as roller that changes itself. While it is not necessary, it certainly helps control the water parameters in you aquarium by helping remove poop and food. As well, who doesn’t want to look at crystal clear water. 
Finally, chemical filtration can include many different things. Sometimes it can be incorporated as a part of your whole filtration plan, such as using carbon and GFO in reactors. In other cases, you can use chemical filtration in response to a sudden issue, like if you spilled something into your aquarium. Again, whether you use chemical filtration or not, really depends on what your goals are and how much you want to spend! 


Test Kits 

The last part of filtration is having a test kit to test your levels of ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite. This will let you know when first setting up your saltwater aquarium that nitrogen cycle is done. As well, doing these tests consistently after will let you know if you need to up your filtration or if there might be some underlying issue developing. 

Product Link: If you are looking to get any of this gear, use the following link to support us without any extra cost to you!

Category three: Maintenance and others

The final part of running a successful saltwater aquarium is the maintenance. Truly, maintaining the aquarium is what you do most of the time after you setup it up! This part is where you can have the most variation in how you get it done, but here are some general things you should probably have to make maintenance efficient and effective. 

Auto Top Off or Manual

Auto Top Off’s are a piece of gear that automatically adds fresh, pure water to keep your aquarium’s water level at the top. This is important because as water evaporates the salt levels get more concentrated. You could do this by hand, but if you ever go on vacation, or just want maximum stability, it is a good idea to get an automatic auto top off. 

Algae Scrapers

Simply put, this is a glass or acrylic safe scraper used to remove algae from your glass, which you will have to do about weekly!

Gravel Vacuum and Siphon

Food and other stuff will get stuck in between sand particles. The best way to remove it is by using the natural suction power that comes from the tubes you are using to remove water for a water change. So not only are you changing water but you are also “vacuuming” the larger particles that settle out on your aquarium’s floor. 


A lid is not necessary, and in some cases people would rather not have one at all. However, if you are afraid your fish will jump off, or you are afraid a cat might jump in, a lid is the perfect solution. You just want to make sure it lets light through, is easy to remove and to clean. 

Test Kits and Dosing

If you have corals, it is a good idea to get test kits for calcium and alkalinity. There are more test kits you can get to be even more precise and informed about what is happening within your aquarium. Basically, your corals will consume things as they grow, and you will need to replenish these things through water changes or directly dosing the used up elements. In some cases, water changes won’t be able to keep up with coral demand, so dosing will become a necessity.

Buckets, Spare towels, gloves, etc. 

Finally, maintenance can be messy and dirty. It is a good idea to have dedicated buckets, towels, gloves and other equipment for your maintenance. The main reason people struggle with doing maintenance is because it is too tedious. If you have all your gear figured out and have an efficient system, motivating yourself to do maintenance will be easy! 

Product Link: If you are looking to get any of this gear, use the following link to support us without any extra cost to you!