The Ultimate Saltwater Aquarium Equipment Guide

aquarium equipment

Now that we are comfortable with the basic factors of a saltwater aquarium, let’s look at the aquarium equipment and guides that you need to run a successful tank.

 ADVICE: A lot of factors should be considered before you choose the saltwater aquarium equipment.

  • The components needed to run a successful saltwater tank depends what you are trying to achieve
  • A saltwater tank running an under gravel filter (UGF) with minimal circulation will be much more work than a system running a wet/dry filter and a couple of power heads.
  • Wet/Dry filters tend to require less maintenance, as UGF’s tend to become clogged over time.

For a saltwater aquarium tank to function optimally, the following basic components are needed:

  • Tank
  • Decorations
  • Filtration (including protein skimming)
  • Lighting
  • Water

Selecting the right saltwater aquarium tank size

One of the most important decisions in starting a saltwater aquarium will be the size of the tank.

The basic rule of thumb is the bigger the better:

  • A larger tank will be easier to control and gives a bit more leeway for mistakes (which are inevitable).
  • The smallest tank for beginners should be no less than 20 gallons, with 55 gallons being even better. For someone versed in fish keeping (i.e., converting from fresh to saltwater), a 10 or 15 gallon tank will work, but is not suggested.

In general, fish flourish in long wide tanks. The more surface area a tank has, the better the gas exchange will be and the happier the fish will be.

Determining the fish densities

Before finally deciding on the size of the tank, you should factor in that fish densities are much lower for saltwater than freshwater.

You cannot put as many fish in a saltwater tank as you can in a freshwater tank.

Putting more than 2 saltwater fish in 10 gallon tank is asking for trouble.

  • A general rule of thumb is 4″ (10cm) of small-to-medium fish per 10 gallons, or 2″ (5cm) of larger/fast growing fish per 10 gallons. This is just a rough estimate of the number of fish. There is no exact number since finding the stocking density has to take into account the filtration, maintenance, feeding schedule, etc..
  • The tank’s size will also affect your filtration and lighting choices, both in cost and design. Tanks which are 48 inches (122cm) long are usually cheaper to light because the lamps are more readily available. However, the larger the tank, the more light you will need to provide your inhabitants. Moreover, a larger tank needs efficient filtration to keep the system thriving. A good size tank is around 55 gallons.

NOTE: Scrutinize hoods carefully. Many of them are designed for 48″ tanks, but require two 24″ lamps rather than one 48″ lamp. (24″ lamps are usually more expensive than 48″ lamps.)

aquarium equipment

Avoid Direct Exposure to Sunlight

Once you have decided on a tank, make sure you have a place to put it.

  • The tank should not be in direct sunlight or in an area which is very drafty.
  • Make very certain the stand will be capable of holding the weight of the tank, plus substrate, plus rocks, plus water. In total, a 55 gallon tank will probably weigh over 800 pounds.

Selecting the Substrate and Filtration System

After selecting the tank, consideration must be given to the substrate and filtration system.

Selecting the Substrate

A calcareous substrate such as crushed coral or dolomite is highly recommended.

Why is the substrate important?

  • The substrates initially help buffer the water by adding ions to the buffering system.

The perfect substrate:

  • Should not be so tiny as to get sucked into the filter or pumps
  • Should not be so large as to make the tank unsightly
  • Fits the type of fish that you have – some fish (e.g., Gobies) like smaller grades of substrate over larger ones. Something in the 2-5mm department seems average

Live sand is one substrate which has recently gained a fair amount of publicity. This technology is really in its infancy and is not recommended for beginners.

Filtration System

After you select a substrate, consider the filtration system you plan to use.

Your choice in filtration may impact the amount to substrate you need.


  • A UGF or RUGF filter should have about 2-3″ (5cm) of medium grade (2-3mm) substrate covering the filter plate
  • You do not need substrate when you use non-UGF filters (e.g., hang-on-the-back power filters), but, most people use between a 1/2″ to 1″ for such tanks
  • Too much substrate in a non-UGF system might lead to dead spots, which can kill your inhabitants (a plug for regular gravel cleaning)
This Video Shows You How To Set Undergravel Filter For Fish Tank

Saltwater Aquarium Decorations

Next, consider the decorations. You can decorate saltwater aquarium in any number of ways.


When it comes to decorations, you have a lot of choice:

  • Dead coral
  • Lava rock
  • Tufa rock
  • Live rock
  • and many more.

Coral pieces are the most popular, but are also some of the most expensive.

Lava and tufa rock are inexpensive and may also be stacked to make interesting reef looking tanks.

Live rock is one of those buzz words that people like to throw around and one which gets a lot of hype. Live rock is simply rock taken from a reef system which has been populated by many different organisms.

Live Rocks: A natural environment

Live rock produces a more natural environment for the fish and also aids in nitrification and de-nitrification.

Benefits of live rocks:

  • Function as decoration
  • It is part of the filtration system.

Live rocks have to be used as part of a complete of filtration system in a fish-only setup. It helps to effectively reduce nitrates.

How do live rocks enhance the filtration system?

If nutrient levels in the aquarium are high, the live rocks will be the first to demonstrate this fact.

Live rock in presence of high nutrient levels will grow unhealthy amounts of hair algae, and in some cases, cyanobacteria (slime algae).

3 Rules to avoid outbreaks of plague algaes in the aquarium tank using live rocks:

  1. First, you must start will high quality live rock; live rock which is highly encrusted in coralline algae. Avoid live rock which already has hair algae growing on it. Regular additions of calcium may also be needed to keep the coralline algae thriving
  2. Next, you need to keep nitrate levels low (~10ppm) and ensure you have nearly undetectable levels of phosphate (~0.02 ppm)
  3. Finally, feed sparingly; decomposing food is one of the main avenues for introducing phosphate/nitrate and contributing to alga e problems

Important live rocks consideration

  • If you plan to add live rock to your system, remember live rock contains living organisms, so they can be killed along with any other organism in your tank
  • It’s a good idea to wait until after the tank is set up before buying live rock. There is no good place to store live rock other than in a circulating tank
  • Trying to do otherwise will be disastrous and costly. Also, if you are going to put live rock into an established tank, the rock must be cured live rock
This video for beginner shows you step by step how to set up a saltwater reef aquarium. Watch to learn how to mix saltwater, how to aquascape a saltwater tank plus much more.

Proper Water Movement

In addition to good filtration, water movement is a must in saltwater aquaria.

Without circulation, a saltwater system will be unstable and eventually grow unhealthy amounts of algae and other undesirables. You therefore need the correct aquarium equipment and guides to help you.

RUGF: Reverse flow setups

There are certain caveats that should be noted.

If you decide to use a UGF, reverse flow setups are better.

 A RUGF will keep nitrates lower by keeping the substrate cleaner and will aid water movement and circulation.

Proper Water Movement

The easiest way to achieve water movement is to have a power head in the tank for circulation.

One must be careful though; a medium sized power head in a small tank will easily make a tornado- like environment and cause problems for small or slow moving creatures.

Wet/Dry Filter: best filtration systems for a fish-only tank

One of the best possible filtration systems for a fish-only marine tank is a wet/dry filter.

Although commercial setups are fairly expensive, a wet/dry filter can be made very inexpensively at home with little effort.

A filtration systems may be used for a marine tank. They should:

  • Provide adequate biological filtration without trapping excess detritus. Trapping detritus produces nitrates and inevitably leads to problem algae outbreaks.
  • Be easy to rinse the mechanical filtration media at least once a week. Ideally you should rinse the media in old saltwater from the tank to minimize the disruption of any nitrifying bacteria growing on the media.

Aquarium Equipment: Protein Skimming

A part of filtration which most recently has gained wide spread acceptance is protein skimming, or foam fractionation.

Protein Skimming

Protein skimmers are a must for a decently stocked saltwater tank as they strip dissolved organic particles from the water before they can be converted to nitrates.

There are simply too many models and manufacturers to discuss all of them, but the two basic designs are air-driven and venture:

Air-Driven Protein Skimmers

Air-driven protein skimmers use a wooden or glass air stone to produce bubbles in a column of water.

Air-Driven Protein Skimmers come in co-current and counter-current designs. The counter-current protein skimmers are considered superior to co-current models.

Venturi Skimmers

Venturi skimmers use a venturi valve to inject bubbles into the water column.

Venturi Protein Skimmers come in co-current and counter-current designs. The counter-current protein skimmers are considered superior to co-current models.

Factors to consider when choosing a protein skimmer

  • Air-driven skimmers use air stones which must be replaced on a regular basis (usually every month or so).
  • For optimal skimming, air-driven skimmers require more maintenance than venturi skimmers
  • Venturi skimmers require very powerful pumps to achieve effective protein skimming. They are usually more expensive than air-driven skimmers as well. Also, any skimmer smaller than 24″ should be avoided for heavily loaded tanks.

Types of Protein Skimmers

Here are a few different types of protein skimmers on the market today:

Hang On Back Protein Skimmers

HOB Protein Skimmers hang on the back of the tank and use a pump to pull water from the aquarium into the Skimmer.

Disadvantages of Hang On Protein Skimmers
  • They are often more expensive
  • They lack the power compared to other skimmers

In-Tank Protein Skimmers

In-Tank Protein Skimmers are simple skimmers set inside the tank.

They are a cost effective design which can be used as an alternative for anyone who can’t afford a good HOB Skimmer.

Disadvantages of In-Tank Protein Skimmers
  • They lack the same power and effectiveness on In-Sump Skimmers
  • They take up valuable tank space and can be an eye sore, but it you are not worried about that they can be great!

In-Sump Protein Skimmers

Considered the most powerful and effective skimmers at removing waste.

Top of the line models are capable of processing hundreds of gallons of water per hour and remove tons of waste.

The best protein skimmers are game-changing pieces of equipment and can really take your tank to the next level.

Disadvantages of In-Sump Protein Skimmers
  • They are very expensive

Installing Aquarium Equipment: Lighting Requirement

At this point, your saltwater setup is nearly complete.

You will now need to decide on the immediate and long term lighting requirements.

  • If you plan on having a fish-only tank forever, then you only need a single full spectrum bulb.
  • If you plan to advance in your hobby and keep more sensitive animals such as anemones, you must carefully select your lighting (and filtration as well).

Important lighting factors to consider as part of your aquarium equipment selection process

  • The general rule of thumb is a minimum of 3-4 watts per gallon, with the higher values for deeper tanks (greater than 18-24 inches).
  • Anemones require very strong, full spectrum lighting, supplemented with actinic blue. The standard Perfecto hood will not provide enough light to keep anemones alive (or other light-loving invertebrates for that matter).
  • Metal halide fluorescent lighting is really for reef keeping and heavily planted freshwater tanks.
  • If you do not find the most appropriate light, it’s time to build your own aquarium equipment to hold your choice of lighting. The best thing is to build your own hood with custom lighting.
  • If you select a custom fluorescent hood, then you will have to choose between normal output (NO), high output (HO) and very high output (VHO). Most people with fish-only tanks stay with NO lamps. Both HO and VHO lamps require special ballasts, are more expensive than NO lamps, and need to be replaced more often.

Aquarium Equipment Critical Component: Marine Salt

One critical item in a saltwater tank that doesn’t really fit into any of the above topics is that which sets it apart – the marine salt.

There are many different types of salt on the market, all of them being basically the same.

What are factors should you consider when choosing salt?

  • How much Calcium and magnesium is in the salt
  • The alkalinity of the salt
  • Cost per gallon
  • The ecosystem of your aquarium and its inhabitants

Which salts should you avoid?

  • Salts with nitrates and phosphates – both of these are very bad for aquaria

What are the best reef salt mixes for your Saltwater Aquarium?

  • Ocean (IO)
  • Seachem Reef Salt.
  • IO Reef Crystals
  • Coralife
  • Instant Ocean Reef Sea Salt Mix.
  • Instant Ocean Sea Salt.
  • Red Sea Fish Pharm ARE11230 Coral Pro Salt Mix.
  • Kent Marine Saltwater Aquarium Salt Mix.
  • Brightwell Aquatics ABANMAR150
  • Neomarine Marine Salt.

IMPORTANT: Standard rock salt cannot be used as a substitute for marine salt mixes. Rock salt does not contain the important elements that marine creatures need to survive.

Aquarium Equipment for measuring the saltwater gravity

To measure the specific gravity of your saltwater you will need a hydrometer.

There are two basic types of hydrometers available to hobbyist:

  • Floating hydrometer which also measures temperature
  • Plastic hydrometer with a floating arm – it has a larger scale and is easier to read

Saltwater Aquarium Test Kits

The final aquarium equipment component needed to run a successful saltwater aquarium is test kits.

List of saltwater aquarium test kits in order of importance:

  • pH – a good pH test kit is critical, and an electronic pH monitor is even better
  • Nitrate – good overall test for water quality after the tank becomes established
  • Phosphate
  • Alkalinity
  • Nitrite – only needed occasionally after cycling.
  • Ammonia – only needed occasionally after cycling
  • Calcium (for reef tanks, the calcium test kit is more important than nitrite and ammonia)

Important notes to remember regarding saltwater aquarium test kits

  • You should perform a pH test once a week
  • You should perform a nitrate test every two weeks
  • If you have specific issues with the aquarium, the other kits might come in handy
  • If you advance to more delicate creatures, the extra test kits will be useful

Setting up your tank using aquarium equipment

The following section briefly explains what you need to do to initially setup your tank.

Stand Placement

  • The first thing you need to do is to place the stand in its final position
  • Make sure the stand is level in all direction
  • Next, place a piece of Styrofoam or rubber on the top of stand where the tank will sit. This eliminates small gaps between the stand and tank reducing pressure points which might cause the tank to crack after being filled
  • After the stand is positioned, place the tank on the stand
  • Make sure the tank is level in all directions

Important notes on stand placement

  • A tank that is not level has a great chance of cracking after it is filled
  • Where ever you place the tank now is most likely where it will remain for its lifetime. You should never move a tank that has water in it since this is a sure way to crack it

Filtration Installation

Once the tank is placed, install the filtration.

  • If it is an UGF, then place the filter plate(s) on the bottom of the tank.
  • If it is a wet/dry, then connect the pre-filter and all the hoses.


Prior to adding the substrate,

Adding De-chlorinated Water and Salt Mix

When initially setting up your tank it is okay to fill the tank with de-chlorinated water and then add the salt mix.

However, subsequent water changes need to be premixed.

Reasons for pre-mixing saltwater

  • It gives time for the salt to thoroughly dissolve
  • It allows the water factors to stabilize

IMPORTANT Notes on making saltwater

  • Adding 10 gallons of freshwater and then an appropriate amount of salt to an established tank is a big mistake (and an excellent way to kill your inhabitants)
  • The source water you use for mixing is extremely important to the overall success and health of the system. You need to realize that tap water probably won’t be good enough for your tank.

Final steps before adding fish

  • When all the water is in place start up the filter system and check for any leaks (of both water and air)
  • Let the tank sit for a day or so to clarify (with the filtration running)
  • Now you can add fish.
Cycling your tank without fish

You can cycle a tank without any fish at all. In this case, you add ammonium chloride to simulate fish waste and an initial source of nitrifying bacteria.

It is best to get a bacteria culture from an established saltwater tank. This can be in the form of some substrate, old filter media, or some macro algae such as Caulerpa spp.

Live rocks are also an excellent source of nitrifying bacteria.

Cycling your tank using fish

How many fish you add for the cycling process depends on

  • The size of the tank
  • The cycling method you choose
How many fish should I add for cycling?
  • In any case, two fish are preferable to one. If one fish dies, you will still have one to finish the cycling. Of course the second fish may pass on too
  • If all the fish die, then you have to remove all the contaminants from the tank and introduce more organisms (read this as start all over)

NOTE: Cycling doesn’t have to be limited to fish though. Crabs and mollusks can also be used. However, since these organisms don’t produce much waste, it will take longer to cycle the tank.