After you have decided what sort of Saltwater Aquarium set up you really want and have planned on paper everything you need for your dream set up it’s time to purchase all the basic equipment.
Remember that you can add non-essential stuff later on or as your budget allows.
At this point is really easy to get overwhelmed with all the available options and all the contradicting advice you will hear or read about what is the “right” way to set up your marine aquarium.
In truth there are many different approaches that work and it ultimately comes down to the level of cost and complexity you want.
I want to help you cut through all these different opinions and contradictions and give you the fundamentals you need to do this properly without going though all the annoyance and time of filtering out good information from bad.
At the start all this different equipment and technology may seem quite complex, and it can put a lot of first timers off; paralysis by analysis!
But persevere because after you have figured out the fundamentals and what everything does you realize that there is a lot you really don’t need to know, its like buying a car; ultimately they all do the same thing to varying degrees of efficiency but there are hundreds of different makes and models out there to choose between.
Standard equipment will vary a bit with the kind of set up you are going for, for example a full reef aquarium needs better lighting and a way of adding and testing for calcium in the water that a fish only set up does not require.
Additionally size of the set up plays a part too, a smaller aquarium will require equipment that is also designed for small aquariums, which will cost less, but smaller set-ups generally have fewer options because of the physical size constraints.
This article is designed to give you a basic overview, and you can read more details about each in our Knowledge Base articles.
So lets get into the bare bones of what you really need to get your set-up running with a few fish and invertebrates:
⪼ Purified Water
⪼ Test Kits
⪼ Biological Filtration
⪼ Physical and Chemical Filtration
⪼ Protein Skimmer
The first (rather obvious) purchase to make is your aquarium.
Buy the biggest size you can afford as this will give you more room for error and allowance for your set-up to evolve with new inhabitants as you get into the wonderful world of keeping marine life at home.
The first question you need to ask is acrylic or glass.
The major disadvantage of acrylic is getting scratched, however you can cheaply buy scratch repair kits if this does happen.
The advantages over glass are strength, lightness, better insulation and clarity to view your marine life. Glass aquariums are generally slightly easier to work with in terms of positioning lights and getting things in and out.
You also need to decide things like shape of the aquarium and whether you want it to have a stand or not.
You must have suitably purified water, because tap water contains many harmful chemicals for marine life.
You can filter your water yourself using a reverse osmosis unit, or purchase pre-filtered water and a suitable salt mix for making up the water.
You’ll also need some large clean plastic containers (brand new rubbish bins are good for this) to make your water and a powerhead to stir it all up and aerate it.
To start with, you’ll need test kits for the major components of the nitrogen cycle: Ammonium, Nitrite and Nitrate as well as pH.
Specific gravity (conductivity is a more accurate measure of this) and temperature need regular measuring too.
If you have a reef set up you should also get test kits for calcium, phosphate and iodine.
Now we come to the very important area of biological filtration which is the process of bacteria cycling nitrogenous biological waste, namely excrement, decaying food and organic detritus into less harmful chemical compounds.
It’s important because water quality can easily degrade to toxic levels that can kill all life if left untreated.
The single best product for biological filtration is live rock. This not only looks natural in your aquarium but gives fish a place to hide and is packed with beneficial micro organisms, interesting algae and entire tiny invertebrate eco-systems.
The rock harbours both aerobic and anaerobic zones which will see biological waste broken down to nitrate and converted to harmless nitrogen gas; the complete marine nitrogen cycle.
Bio balls, sponges, or any other media that beneficial marine bacteria can grow on can also be used as biological filtration.
A good quality biological filter is a must, my personal favorites are Wet/Dry filters because they thoroughly aerate the water and are very effective at converting ammonium to nitrite then nitrate through a huge surface area.
Most also have a pre-filter that acts as an effective mechanical filter and good ones have enough space to put other filter media or marine life.
When used in conjunction with denitrification system (regular partial water changes, live rock or a commercial filter), these filters have been bullet proof in my experience.
Physical filtration removes floating particulate matter from the water, which is important for water quality.
Chemical filtration uses such media as activated carbon to remove unwanted chemicals from the water such as phenol or heavy metals.
Many aquarists keep thriving aquariums without any chemical filtration, they just are very careful about what goes into the water.
Many commercial filters on the market today incorporate all 3 type of filtration into one filter device such as Wet-Dry/Trickle filters, which usually go in sumps if you choose one of the devices be sure there will be sufficient surface area for adequate biological filtration for your aquarium size/bioload or use live rock as well.
When considering filtration you will need to decide whether or not you will have a sump or a refugium, which are physical chambers separate from the display tank, often beneath the aquarium that pump water from the aquarium and back to it.
The advantages of sumps are increased area for water treatment/water dilution; you can add various filtration components to it, have easy access for maintenance and hide equipment that otherwise would be around the tank itself.
A refugium is a modified sump, which has a chamber where you can keep filtering marine life or even grow food species.
Physical filtration is key in maintaining excellent water quality and the best way to tackle this is with a Protein Skimmer.
A protein skimmer uses fine bubbles to attract and remove dissolved organic waste from the water column as a concentrated, smelly brown liquid. A good quality protein skimmer is an absolute must in ANY marine aquarium set up.
Aeration and water movement are very important factors for a saltwater aquarium especially if you intend to keep corals and other invertebrates.
Basically its hard to have too much of these two factors. Good filtration equipment will serve both purposes well, but I really advise the use of a couple of powerheads to provide multidirectional water flow this is healthy for marine life and stirs up detritus which could cause water quality problems.
The major consideration here is whether or not you intend to keep corals and other photosynthetic organisms.
If so you will need HO (high output) or VHO (very HO) fluorescent lights with a combination of actinic (blue light) and “daylight” bulbs (with a colour temperature of 6500°K up to about 12000°K for regular reef applications).
Metal halide lights are also commonly used but produce greater amounts of heat, often requiring the use of a water chiller and cost a lot more for similar performance. You should aim for 3 (soft corals) to 5 (hard corals) watts of light per gallon of saltwater.
If you do not intend to keep corals life for you is simpler!
For a Fish Only set up you can have regular fluorescent bulbs, full spectrum light bulbs look better here and will bring out the colour of your fish.
Live Rock (FOWLR) applications as above but use actinic light too as the coralline algae on the rock and other tiny photosynthetic organisms will do better which will in turn enhance water quality.