Saltwater Setup: What Equipment will be Needed?

What Equipment will be Needed?

 Essential Equipment List:

  • The Aquarium
  • A REEF-SPEC Cabinet
  • Return Pump
  • A Mechanical Filter
  • A Chemical Filter
  • The Lighting
  • Substrate
  • Live Rock
  • Sand 
  • A Refractometer
  • A Thermometer 

1. The Aquarium

Choosing the right type of aquarium setup can greatly enhance the visual appeal and functionality of your reef tank. Here are the key features and benefits of a reef-ready aquarium:

Ultra-Clear Glass

  • Enhanced Visibility: Ultra-clear glass (sometimes referred to as low-iron glass) minimizes distortion and provides a crystal-clear view of your aquarium's inhabitants, allowing you to fully appreciate the vivid colors of fish, corals, and other marine life.

Reef-Ready Design

  • Integrated Sump: A reef-ready aquarium typically comes with an integrated sump located either in the lower cabinet or at the back of the tank. This design hides equipment such as protein skimmers, heaters, and filtration media from view, creating a clean and aesthetically pleasing display.
  • Increased Filtration Capacity: The sump provides additional space for filtration equipment, allowing for a higher level of filtration to maintain water quality in a saltwater ecosystem. It also allows for the use of larger and more efficient filtration components compared to what can fit inside the main display tank.

Surface Skimming

  • Efficient Particle Removal: A reef-ready aquarium often includes a surface skimming feature in the overflow system. This skimmer helps remove organic film, debris, and floating particles from the water's surface, preventing them from accumulating and affecting water quality. It also promotes better gas exchange, increasing oxygen levels in the water.

2. REEF-SPEC Cabinet

A Reef-Spec cabinet is specifically designed to meet the unique demands of supporting the weight of a marine aquarium while also providing a durable and aesthetically pleasing solution. Here are some key points to consider when selecting a Reef-Spec cabinet:

Structural Support

  • Weight Capacity: A Reef-Spec cabinet is designed to safely support the weight of your aquarium, including the water, substrate, rockwork, equipment, and any additional decorations. It's crucial to choose a cabinet that can handle the specific weight of your setup to prevent structural issues or safety hazards.

  • Sturdy Construction: Look for cabinets made from robust materials such as high-quality wood, metal frames, or reinforced materials designed to withstand the weight and pressure of a fully loaded aquarium.

Reef-Spec Materials

  • Water-Resistant: Reef-Spec cabinets are built to withstand the humid and potentially corrosive conditions associated with saltwater aquariums. The materials used should be water-resistant or treated to resist moisture and prevent warping or deterioration over time.

  • Corrosion-Resistant Hardware: Ensure that the cabinet's hardware, such as hinges, handles, and screws, is made from corrosion-resistant materials like stainless steel or coated alloys. This helps prevent rusting and maintains the cabinet's structural integrity.

Aesthetic Appeal

  • Design and Finish: A Reef-Spec cabinet should complement the overall aesthetics of your aquarium setup. Choose a design and finish that aligns with your decor preferences, whether it's a sleek modern look, a natural wood finish, or a custom design to match your existing furniture.

  • Integrated Features: Some Reef-Spec cabinets come with integrated features such as hidden compartments for equipment, adjustable shelves, cable management systems, and ventilation openings to ensure optimal functionality and a clean appearance. 

3. Return Pump

Ensuring optimal water quality and the health of its inhabitants involves several crucial elements, with effective filtration and circulation being paramount. A well-designed aquarium filtration system, often incorporating a sump, is key to achieving this goal. The guideline you mentioned—having a return pump that can circulate the entire water volume of the aquarium approximately 10 times per hour—is indeed a good rule of thumb for many aquarium setups, especially for saltwater and reef aquariums. Here's a closer look at how it works and why it's important:

Why 10 Times Per Hour?

  1. Adequate Filtration: Moving the water through the filtration system at this rate ensures that all the water in the tank is thoroughly filtered multiple times within an hour. This is crucial for removing detritus, particulates, and ensuring that the water chemistry is stable and healthy for the tank inhabitants.

  2. Oxygenation: Circulating the water also helps in oxygenation, ensuring that the water surface is constantly moving. This movement allows for the exchange of gases (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out), which is vital for the health of both fish and beneficial bacteria.

  3. Preventing Dead Zones: Proper circulation helps prevent areas of stagnant water within the aquarium. Stagnant areas can lead to the accumulation of detritus, excess nutrients, and harmful chemicals, creating unhealthy conditions for fish and other aquatic life.

How to Calculate

To adhere to this guideline, you first need to calculate the total volume of your aquarium system, which includes not just the display tank but also the sump and any other connected water volumes. Once you have the total volume, you can determine the flow rate required for your return pump. For example, for a 100-gallon system, you would aim for a return pump with a flow rate of approximately 1000 gallons per hour (GPH).


  • True Flow Rate: The advertised flow rate of a pump is usually based on optimal conditions with no head height or resistance. In practice, the flow rate will be lower due to the height the pump must push water up (head height) and resistance from hoses, fittings, and equipment like UV sterilizers or chillers.

  • Type of Aquarium: While 10 times turnover per hour is a good starting point, the specific needs of your aquarium may vary. For example, heavily stocked fish tanks or tanks with large, messy fish might benefit from even greater turnover. Conversely, tanks housing species that prefer low-flow environments may require adjustments.

  • Multiple Pumps: It's also worth considering the use of multiple pumps for both redundancy and to ensure more even water flow and distribution throughout the tank.

4. Mechanical Filter

Mechanical Filtration:

  • Filter socks and sponges are indeed popular choices among aquarium hobbyists for mechanical filtration. They are designed to physically remove particles and debris from the water, such as uneaten food, plant matter, and detritus. These filter media need to be cleaned or replaced regularly to prevent them from becoming clogged and turning into a source of nitrate and phosphate buildup in the tank.

Protein Skimming:

  • Protein skimmers are vital for marine aquariums as they help remove organic compounds before they decompose and release nitrogenous waste (ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate) and phosphates. By doing so, skimmers significantly reduce the load on the biological filtration and help maintain high water quality, which is crucial for the health of corals and fish.

  • The efficiency of a protein skimmer is indeed dependent on the air-to-water ratio it can achieve. The more air bubbles a skimmer can mix with tank water, the more effective it will be at removing dissolved organic compounds. This is because the organic compounds adhere to the bubbles and are then removed from the water column as the bubbles burst in the collection cup.

  • Adjusting to Bioload: As you mentioned, the amount of waste produced in an aquarium increases with the number of fish, corals, and other organisms. This requires a proportionate increase in skimming capacity to maintain optimal water quality. An undersized skimmer might struggle to keep up with the waste produced by a heavily stocked tank, leading to accumulation of organics, which can result in algae blooms, poor water quality, and stressed or diseased livestock.

It's important for hobbyists to choose a protein skimmer that is rated for their tank size or even slightly larger, especially if they plan to keep a high bioload or are particularly interested in maintaining a pristine environment for sensitive species. Regular maintenance of the skimmer, including cleaning the collection cup and neck, as well as occasionally servicing the pump, ensures it operates efficiently over time.

Balancing mechanical filtration with effective protein skimming, alongside regular water changes and monitoring of water parameters, forms the backbone of a healthy marine aquarium ecosystem.

5. Chemical Filter 

Chemical filtration plays a crucial role in maintaining the aesthetic and chemical stability of aquarium water, complementing mechanical and biological filtration methods. Among the various types of chemical filtration media, activated carbon is indeed one of the most popular and widely recommended due to its effectiveness and ease of use. Here's a bit more detail on how it works and why it's so beneficial:

Activated Carbon

  • High Porosity: Activated carbon is highly porous, allowing it to absorb a wide range of chemical compounds from aquarium water. This includes phenols, tannins, and other organic compounds that can cause water to become discolored and odorous.

  • Crystal Clear Water: By adsorbing these compounds, activated carbon helps to keep aquarium water crystal clear and free from any unpleasant smells. This is particularly important in display aquariums, where visual clarity is a key aspect of the hobby.

  • Removal of Toxins: Beyond aesthetic improvements, activated carbon can also adsorb various toxins and some medications from the water, making it an essential tool for maintaining a healthy environment for aquatic life. However, this also means it should be removed if you're intentionally medicating your aquarium, as it can adsorb the medication and reduce its effectiveness.

  • Limited Lifespan: It's important to note that activated carbon does not last indefinitely. Its effectiveness is finite because once all the adsorption sites are filled, it can no longer absorb contaminants. Therefore, it needs to be replaced regularly, typically every 2-4 weeks, depending on the tank's bioload and the amount of organic waste produced.

Other Chemical Filtration Media

While activated carbon is versatile and effective, there are other types of chemical filtration media tailored to specific needs:

  • Ion-exchange resins can be used to soften water by removing calcium and magnesium ions or to target specific contaminants like ammonia or nitrates.

  • Phosphate removers are specially designed to adsorb phosphates, which can contribute to algae growth if levels become too high.

  • Activated Alumina is used for the removal of arsenic, fluoride, selenium, and silicate.

The choice of chemical filtration media should be based on the specific requirements of your aquarium and its inhabitants. Regular testing of water parameters can help identify the need for specific types of chemical filtration.

6. Lighting

Lighting in reef aquariums is not just about illuminating the tank beautifully; it's crucial for the health and growth of corals and other photosynthetic organisms. The lighting system you choose can significantly impact the vibrancy, color, and growth rate of the corals in your tank. Let's explore the options you mentioned and why LEDs have become the preferred choice for many hobbyists.

Options for Reef Tank Lighting

  • Metal Halides: Once the gold standard for reef aquarium lighting, metal halides are excellent at penetrating deep tanks and supporting the growth of almost any type of coral. However, they generate a lot of heat and consume more energy than more modern lighting solutions.

  • T5 Fluorescent Bulbs: T5s are known for their even distribution of light and are less expensive than LEDs. They're effective for coral growth and produce less heat compared to metal halides. However, they do require regular bulb replacements and consume more energy than LEDs.

  • LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes): LED lighting has surged in popularity due to its energy efficiency, low heat output, and long lifespan. Modern LED systems offer a full spectrum of colors and intensities, which can be tailored to the needs of specific corals and marine life. The ability to customize light intensity and color blends, including the critical blue and violet spectrums that corals use for photosynthesis, makes LEDs particularly appealing.

Advantages of LEDs in Reef Tanks

  • Energy Efficiency: LEDs consume significantly less power than metal halides or T5 fluorescents, making them more economical to run in the long term.

  • Low Heat Output: LEDs generate less heat, reducing the need for additional cooling equipment to maintain optimal tank temperatures.

  • Controllability: Many LED systems come with built-in timers and controllers that allow hobbyists to simulate natural daylight cycles, including sunrise, sunset, and moonlight phases. This feature helps in preventing coral stress by ensuring they're not overexposed to intense light and provides a more natural environment for all tank inhabitants.

  • Adjustable Positioning: LEDs are available in various mounting options, including adjustable arms and pendants, allowing for precise control over light positioning. This flexibility ensures that the light can be distributed evenly across the tank or focused on specific areas, depending on the needs of the corals.

  • Longevity: LED units typically last much longer than metal halide bulbs or T5 fluorescent tubes, reducing the need for frequent replacements.

When setting up lighting for a reef tank, it's crucial to consider the specific light requirements of your corals. Different species have different needs in terms of light intensity and spectrum. LEDs offer the versatility to cater to these diverse requirements while being energy-efficient and user-friendly. Whether you're aiming for rapid coral growth, vibrant colors, or simulating natural light cycles, modern LED lighting systems can meet these needs effectively, making them a top choice for reef aquarium enthusiasts.

7. Substrate

The substrate in a reef aquarium does more than just add to the aesthetic appeal of the tank; it plays a significant role in the overall health and stability of the aquarium environment. As you've pointed out, one of the key functions of the substrate is to serve as a biological filter. Let's delve deeper into the characteristics and benefits of using a substrate made primarily of aragonite with a grain size of about 1-2 mm.

Aragonite Substrate

  • Biological Filtration: Aragonite sand provides a vast surface area for beneficial bacteria to colonize. These bacteria are essential for the nitrogen cycle, as they help to convert harmful ammonia and nitrite into less harmful nitrate, which can then be removed by water changes or absorbed by certain types of macroalgae.

  • pH Stability: Aragonite is composed of calcium carbonate, which can help to buffer the water and maintain a stable pH in the marine aquarium. This is crucial for the health of corals and other marine organisms, which thrive in a stable pH environment.

  • Trace Elements: Aragonite naturally contains trace elements found in seawater. As it slowly dissolves, it releases calcium and other beneficial ions into the water, which can be used by corals and other calcifying organisms to grow their skeletons.

Grain Size Considerations

  • 1-2 mm Grain Size: This is considered an ideal size for several reasons. It's small enough to provide a natural look and feel, mimicking the sandy bottoms found in many coral reef environments, yet large enough to prevent excessive compaction. This size allows for adequate water flow through the substrate, which is essential for the health of the biological filter.

  • Avoiding Sandstorms: Finer substrates, such as those with grain sizes smaller than 1 mm, can easily be stirred up by the activity of fish or the flow of water, leading to "sandstorms" in the tank. These can cloud the water and settle on corals, potentially smothering them.

  • Preventing Waste Traps: Larger grains or chunks of substrate can create spaces where detritus and waste particles can accumulate. If not cleaned regularly, these areas can become anaerobic zones that produce harmful gases and negatively impact water quality. A medium grain size helps in reducing these dead spots by balancing flow and accessibility for cleaning.

8. Live Rocks 

Live rocks are indeed foundational elements of biological filtration in marine and reef aquariums. Their porous nature provides an ideal environment for beneficial bacteria to colonize, which are essential for the nitrogen cycle, converting harmful ammonia and nitrite into less harmful nitrate. Understanding the distinction between natural and artificial live rocks can help aquarists make informed decisions for their setups.

Natural Live Rocks

  • Sourced from Reefs: Natural live rocks are harvested from ocean reefs. They come packed with a diverse community of beneficial microorganisms, small invertebrates, and sometimes even macroalgae. This biodiversity can kickstart the biological filtration in a new aquarium and introduce some elements of the natural reef ecosystem.

  • Immediate Biological Activity: Due to their origin, natural live rocks often contain active bacterial populations. This means they can immediately begin processing waste products, significantly reducing the time needed to cycle a new aquarium.

  • Conservation Concerns: The practice of harvesting live rock from natural reefs has raised environmental and conservation concerns. Overharvesting can damage reef ecosystems. As a result, some regions have restrictions or bans on the collection and sale of natural live rocks.

Artificial Live Rocks

  • Man-Made: Artificial live rocks are manufactured from various materials, often including natural compounds like aragonite. They are designed to mimic the appearance and porosity of natural live rocks but without the immediate biological activity.

  • Eco-Friendly: Since they are not harvested from natural environments, artificial live rocks offer a sustainable alternative to natural live rocks. They do not contribute to the degradation of reef ecosystems.

  • Seeding Required: To become biologically active, artificial live rocks need to be "seeded" with beneficial bacteria. This can be done by introducing bacteria cultures available in liquid or powder form or by placing the artificial rocks in an established aquarium for several weeks.

  • Customizable: Many artificial live rocks are designed with aquascaping in mind, offering shapes and sizes that might not be commonly found in natural live rocks. This allows for more creative and personalized aquarium designs.

Importance of Surface Area and Porosity

Whether natural or artificial, the key feature of live rocks that makes them so effective at biological filtration is their surface area and porosity. The more nooks and crannies they have, the more space is available for beneficial bacteria to colonize. This extensive bacterial colonization is crucial for effectively processing the waste produced by the tank inhabitants.

9. Salt

Choosing a high-quality and reliable reef salt brand is indeed crucial for maintaining stable and optimal water parameters in a reef tank. Consistency in the levels of essential chemical elements such as calcium, magnesium, alkalinity, and trace elements is paramount for the health and growth of corals and other marine organisms. Here are some key points to consider when selecting a reef salt brand:

1. Consistency and Quality Control

  • Look for brands that have a reputation for consistency in their product. This means that each batch of reef salt they produce should have similar levels of essential elements, ensuring stability in your tank's parameters.

  • Choose a brand that implements strict quality control measures during the manufacturing process. This includes accurate mixing of ingredients, regular testing of finished products, and adherence to industry standards for reef aquarium salt composition.

2. Essential Elements and Parameters

  • Check the composition of the reef salt to ensure it provides adequate levels of calcium, magnesium, and alkalinity, which are crucial for coral growth and skeletal formation.

  • The salt mix should also contain essential trace elements like iodine, strontium, potassium, and iron, which support various biological processes in the reef aquarium and contribute to the overall health of marine life.

3. Dissolvability and Residue

  • Opt for a reef salt brand that dissolves easily and leaves minimal residue or precipitation after mixing. This ensures that the elements in the salt mix are readily available for use by corals and other organisms in the tank.

  • Some reef salt brands may produce excessive precipitation or residue, which can lead to issues such as cloudy water or the formation of deposits on equipment. Choose a brand with a reputation for producing clear and clean saltwater solutions.

4. Reviews and Recommendations

  • Research and read reviews from other reef aquarium hobbyists regarding their experiences with different reef salt brands. Pay attention to feedback on consistency, ease of use, and the overall performance of the salt mix in maintaining water parameters.

5. Cost and Availability

  • Consider the cost of the reef salt brand relative to your budget, but prioritize quality and consistency over price alone. Investing in a reliable reef salt brand can contribute significantly to the long-term success of your reef tank.

  • Ensure that the chosen reef salt brand is readily available from reputable aquarium supply stores or online retailers. Consistency in using the same brand for water changes and top-offs helps maintain stability in your tank's parameters.

10. A Refractometer

A refractometer is an essential tool for accurately measuring salinity in marine aquariums, particularly reef tanks where precise water parameters are crucial for the health of corals and other marine organisms. When choosing a refractometer for use in a reef tank, it's important to ensure that it is specifically calibrated for seawater, as standard refractometers designed for freshwater or brackish water may not provide accurate readings. Here are some key considerations when selecting a refractometer calibrated for seawater:

1. Seawater Calibration

  • Look for refractometers that are explicitly labeled or marketed as being calibrated for seawater. These refractometers are designed to provide accurate and reliable readings for salinity levels typically found in marine environments, including reef tanks.

2. Salinity Range

  • Check the salinity range of the refractometer to ensure it covers the appropriate levels for reef tanks. Most marine aquariums aim for a specific salinity range, typically around 1.024 to 1.026 specific gravity (SG) or 35 to 36 parts per thousand (ppt) for optimal coral and fish health.

3. Accuracy and Precision

  • Choose a refractometer known for its accuracy and precision. High-quality refractometers will provide consistent and repeatable readings, allowing you to make informed adjustments to salinity levels as needed.

4. Quality Construction

  • Opt for a refractometer with durable construction and a clear, easy-to-read scale. A sturdy design and quality materials will ensure the refractometer's longevity and reliability over time.

5. Calibration and Maintenance

  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for calibration and maintenance of the refractometer. Regular calibration helps maintain accuracy, and proper cleaning and storage prolong its lifespan.

6. Budget Considerations

  • Consider your budget when choosing a refractometer, but prioritize quality and accuracy. Investing in a reliable and accurately calibrated refractometer is essential for maintaining optimal water parameters in a reef tank.

11. Thermostat 

Maintaining stable water temperature within the optimal range is crucial for the health and well-being of marine organisms in a reef aquarium. To achieve this, aquarists often rely on either heaters or chillers, depending on the climate conditions and temperature fluctuations in their location. Here are some key considerations when selecting a thermostat-controlled device (heater or chiller) for your reef tank:

1. Temperature Range

  • Choose a thermostat-controlled device (heater or chiller) that can accurately maintain the desired temperature range for a reef aquarium, typically between 77-79°F (25-26°C). Ensure that the device has a reliable thermostat with precise temperature settings to prevent fluctuations.

2. Heating or Cooling Requirements

  • Assess whether your reef tank requires a heater or a chiller based on the ambient temperature of your location and any seasonal variations. Heaters are necessary in colder climates to raise water temperature, while chillers are essential in warmer climates to lower water temperature.

3. Durability and Quality

  • Look for heaters or chillers from reputable brands known for their durability and quality construction. The device should be made from sturdy materials that can withstand the corrosive nature of saltwater environments.

4. Efficiency and Energy Consumption

  • Choose a heater or chiller that is energy-efficient to minimize electricity consumption and operating costs over time. Energy-efficient devices can maintain stable temperatures without excessive power usage.

5. Thermostat Accuracy

  • Ensure that the device's thermostat is accurate and reliable. It should have a tight temperature control range and maintain consistent temperatures within the desired range without large fluctuations.

6. Safety Features

  • Consider heaters or chillers with built-in safety features such as automatic shut-off mechanisms, temperature alarms, and protective covers to prevent accidents and overheating.

7. Size and Compatibility

  • Select a heater or chiller that is appropriately sized for your reef tank's volume. An undersized device may struggle to maintain stable temperatures, while an oversized device can lead to temperature fluctuations and inefficiency.