Week 5. What Equipment is Essential?

Updated 2023

Choosing the right aquarium and its placement can pose a challenge for many. Yet, the complexity escalates when it’s time to determine the necessary equipment to ensure a thriving saltwater aquarium. Queries about equipment flood our inbox on a regular basis.

This week, we’re delving into the essential equipment across three key categories. Remember, the precise equipment within these categories can differ depending on your setup and requirements. Fear not, though—we’ve peppered the blog with handy links to help you effortlessly locate and purchase the gear you need! 🐠🛠️🌊

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Category one: Basic necessities

Within the first category, we’re diving into the bedrock essentials that underpin any saltwater aquarium operation. These gear choices are foundational, and getting them right is paramount to your success.


If your aspirations extend beyond a fish-only saltwater setup, then lighting is non-negotiable. Your corals, macroalgae, and clams require it for growth. The options boil down to three: LED, T5, and metal halides. In today’s landscape, most novices and even seasoned hobbyists gravitate toward LEDs, particularly for smaller to moderately advanced setups.

LEDs shine as the go-to choice due to their adaptability, energy efficiency, and user-friendliness. While technical aspects like PAR (light usable by corals/macroalgae) and light spectrum (color emitted by the light) can seem intricate, a quality LED light designed for reef setups will suffice.

Salt Mix and Refractometer

Amid the myriad salt mix options, any reputable brand will suffice. Opting for a style and brand that aligns with your setup plans can be enjoyable, but the process need not be complex. Crucially, a refractometer is essential to gauge salinity. While other methods exist, a refractometer is often the most cost-effective and reliable choice.

Water Source (LFS or RO/DI)

Using tap water is ill-advised due to its contaminants and potential detriments. This water serves for topping off your tank as it evaporates and for crafting new saltwater. Opt for the purest source available. For small setups, store-bought distilled or RO/DI filtered water might suffice. For the long haul, investing in an RO/DI filter for DIY water production, especially with a larger aquarium, is prudent.

Heater or Chiller

Given the tropical nature of most saltwater setups, maintaining a temperature range of 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit is crucial. For the majority, a heater fits the bill, with plenty of reliable and budget-friendly options accessible. In warmer climates or for cold water setups, aquarium fans or chillers might be necessary. Even without these, a temperature controller can be a savior, safeguarding your tank by regulating equipment based on preset temperature thresholds.

Return Pump and Wavemakers

The return pump channels water from your filter (sump or chamber within the aquarium) back to your display tank. Some setups come with suitable pumps, but you might need to purchase your own. It’s wise to have a spare on hand—while not as critical as backup heaters or chillers, a replacement pump can be a lifesaver.

In addition, ensuring optimal water flow is vital. While return pumps offer some, it’s rarely sufficient for a thriving environment. Enter wavemakers. Their necessity hinges on your livestock—soft and LPS corals can manage with gentler flows, while SPS corals demand more robust currents.

Category two: Filtration Support

This category delves into filtration and related aspects, focusing on straightforward and beginner-friendly methods. While the realm of filtration offers numerous strategies, we’ll explore the simplest and most accessible options.


A filter is often indispensable for most saltwater setups. Essential is grasping the significance of biological filtration, where bacteria transform waste compounds into less harmful substances. While your rocks and sand significantly contribute to this, incorporating an external filter enhances capacity. This could manifest as an internal chamber, sump, or even a hang-on-back filter.

These components amplify biological filtration by accommodating more media for bacterial growth. Furthermore, they physically capture floating detritus like hair, dust, and residual fish food, thereby refining your water quality. This avenue also allows room for additional filtration, such as chemical filtration, often employing carbon to neutralize chemical pollutants.

A sump generally stands as the preferred choice, offering versatility and superior filtration capacity. However, the other options remain equally viable for smaller aquariums.

Filtration Media

As noted earlier, filtration predominantly falls into three categories, each aligned with specific media.

Biological media encompasses natural rock, sand, or artificial counterparts. Some media can surpass live rocks in hosting bacteria, and if aiming for a minimalist tank with fewer rocks and sand, incorporating biological media into the filter compensates.

Mechanical media serves to trap floating particles, food debris, and the like. It can range from basic filter floss pads to automated rollers. While not obligatory, it aids in water parameter control by removing waste and enhancing water clarity.

Chemical filtration encompasses diverse methods. Sometimes it integrates into your broader filtration strategy, such as employing carbon and GFO in reactors. On other occasions, it addresses abrupt issues like accidental spills. Whether to adopt chemical filtration depends on your goals and budget.

Test Kits

A crucial facet of filtration involves utilizing test kits to measure ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels. This helps ascertain the completion of the nitrogen cycle when initially setting up your saltwater aquarium. Consistently conducting these tests thereafter informs you about necessary filtration adjustments and potential emerging problems.

Category three: Maintenance and others

Wrapping up the journey to a thriving saltwater aquarium is the maintenance phase. Once the setup is complete, maintenance becomes the ongoing focal point of your efforts. While the approach to maintenance can vary, certain foundational elements contribute to its efficiency and effectiveness.

Auto Top Off or Manual

An auto top off is an automated device that replenishes your aquarium’s water level with fresh, pure water. This counteracts the concentration of salt as water evaporates. While manual topping off is an option, investing in an automatic system is beneficial, particularly when you’re away or aiming for optimal stability.

Algae Scrapers

Essentially, an algae scraper is a safe tool designed to remove algae buildup from your glass or acrylic surfaces. Regular use, approximately weekly, keeps your aquarium visually appealing.

Gravel Vacuum and Siphon

Food and debris tend to accumulate between sand particles. Utilizing the natural suction created while extracting water for a water change efficiently eliminates larger particles settled on your aquarium’s substrate. This dual-purpose method refreshes the water while tidying up the substrate.


While not obligatory, lids provide protection and peace of mind. Concerns about fish jumping out or curious pets hopping in can be addressed with a well-designed lid that allows light penetration and is easy to remove and clean.

Test Kits and Dosing

For coral enthusiasts, test kits for calcium and alkalinity prove beneficial. Advanced kits provide further precision and insights into your aquarium’s dynamics. Corals consume essential elements as they grow, necessitating replenishment through water changes or direct dosing. In cases where coral demand outpaces water changes, dosing becomes a critical practice.

Maintenance Tools and Gear

Maintenance can be a messy endeavor, demanding specific tools and equipment. Dedicated buckets, spare towels, gloves, and other essentials streamline the process. The key to overcoming the potential tedium of maintenance lies in optimizing your gear and establishing an efficient routine.

Embarking on this maintenance journey equips you to sustain a flourishing saltwater aquarium, ensuring the health and vibrancy of its inhabitants.

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