Saltwater Aquarium Checklist: What You Must Absolutely Have

Two of the major mistakes I made when I setup my saltwater aquarium was assuming saltwater tanks were similar to freshwater along with not doing enough reading on what supplies where required in order to be successful.

To keep you from making the same mistakes, the following checklist of supplies are what I have found to be must have supplies in order to have a successful and healthy aquarium from the start:

A large tank

If you are new to saltwater, having a large tank will have a tremendous impact on your success. They are more forgiving of mistakes, and when things do go bad they don’t go bad as quickly as a smaller tank.

This isn’t to say that you can’t be successful with a smaller tank, just that you’ll be far more successful with larger saltwater tanks. This is particularly true when you are new to the hobby and first starting out.

The smaller the fish tank, the more maintenance and experience required. I would suggest starting with at least a 30 gallon tank, and preferably a 55 or larger. You can read more about the benefits of larger tank in my recent article saltwater tank size.

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A protein skimmer

When I started my tank, I didn’t even know what a protein skimmer was!

Big mistake.

A protein skimmer is a device that either sits in your sump or hangs on the side of your tank.

A protein skimmer removes organic compounds from the water before they break down into harmful byproducts. Protein skimmers out of any piece of equipment, have probably had the single biggest positive impact on saltwater quality and maintain pristine and incredibly clean water.

There are two types of skimmers: skimmers that sit in a sump and skimmers that hang on the back of your tank. While sumps are highly beneficial, they are a bit complex for the beginner. A better and more affordable option is a hang on skimmer. These hang on the back of your aquarium.

One thing you will quickly learn about saltwater aquarium supplies is that you often get what you pay for. I made the mistake of buying a cheap skimmer from the local chain pet store and while it worked, it didn’t work well at all.

After reading many saltwater aquarium forums, I found that the Aqua C Remora to be reasonably priced and really gets the job done. The Remora comes highly recommended. While not the cheapest item, it is money well spent.

Important Tip: Keeping the collection cup of your skimmer clean and empty is important to the efficiency of your aquarium. You should dump and clean the collection cup out daily. Also import is proper adjustment. Your cup contents should be dark in color, like a strong tea. If it is too watery, you are skimming too wet and should adjust the cup higher.

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Proper lighting

Whether you are keeping a fish or reef aquarium, proper lighting plays a key role in the health of your fish. This is particularly true for a reef aquarium where you’ll have lots of corals and invertebrates. For fish only aquariums, a standard florescent fixture with Reef Sun or similar bulb with saltwater hood will work fine.

Reef aquariums require far more sophisticated lighting.

Proper lighting is required for corals and invertebrates to survive. Corals and most invertebrates require special lighting for photosynthesis in order to generate energy (similar to your plants).

Corals and invertebrates that don’t get proper lighting will not survive. Given the expense of the various corals and invertebrates, it pays to invest in good quality lighting.

The types of corals you plan to keep will drive the lighting requirements you will need. VHO (Very High Output) and PC (Power Compact) fluorescent lighting systems are best for corals with low to medium lighting requirements. Examples of these are leather corals, mushrooms, and LPS (large-polyped stony) corals.

Metal Halide lighting is best for corals that require more intense lighting requirements, such as SPS (small-polyped stony) corals, anemones, and clams.

The best option in my opinion is a combined lighting system that contains both types and ads blue LED lighting for simulating moon light. While not the best quality light, a very low priced and decent unit is sold by Aquatraders.

Many people have had mixed success with these hoods, but mine has worked well thus far. I use the different lights in the system to simulate dawn to dusk lighting.

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RO/DI water filter

High quality water is essential in a saltwater aquarium. I made the mistake of assuming the same water principles apply to saltwater as freshwater.


Think about it, the ocean is huge. As a result, changes to the water conditions such as temperature, Ph, salinity, etc. don’t happen often, and when they do, they are very gradual. Ocean water is also very pure and clean and as a result, the fish and corals require living in very similar conditions. To cut to the chase, you can’t use de-chlorinated tap water like you can with a freshwater aquarium.

Instead, you need to use water from an RO/DI (RO = Reverse Osmosis, DI=De-ionizing) water filter. I purchased a 100GPD unit on eBay for $63.99 plus shipping.

Another option is to purchase this water from our local fish store. It generally runs $.50 to $1.00 per gallon. At these prices, you will pay for the RO/DI water filter after 60 – 100 gallons or so. Given you should change 10%-15% of your water weekly, having your own fish tank filter can be a significant long term saving.

Worried about installation? Don’t be. Most aquarium filtration systems are easy to install and come with various options depending on the location and type of hook-ups you have.

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A quality heater

As I already mentioned, saltwater fish required stable temperatures. This requires high quality and reliable aquarium heaters. The best option is a submersible heater. There are many good manufacturers. I have a Jager and thus far it has worked great. The appropriate wattage to get is about 5 watts per gallon. I tend to go higher rather than lower.

Important Tip: Wait at least 15 minutes before plugging in your heater after placed in the tank. Also, wait at least 15 minutes before removing it once in the tank. Failure to do this will result in your heater overheating and potentially cracking.

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A Mechanical Filter

If you have a fish only aquarium, having a high flow and high quality filter is critical. For a reef aquarium, as long as you have the appropriate amount of live rock and proper water flow, mechanical filtration is not required but still useful for running your water through various buffers and carbon.

I personally use mine to run both carbon and phosphate remover.

I recommend a high quality canister filter that contains multiple areas for different types of filtration. I have an Eheim ECCO canister filter. Thus far I’ve been very satisfied with it. It is easy to maintain, quiet, and really moves the water.

Other options are hang-on power filters that hang on the back of the tank. These work well too, but typically don’t filter as efficiently and are often harder to maintain. They don’t offer the options of replacing the filter media with various buffers and larger amounts of carbon.