Stock list and tips for maintaining your SW tank.

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Aquarium Advice Addict
Sep 28, 2005
Often new SW tank owners or ones contemplating setting up a SW tank are overwhelmed with all the equipment/expense that goes into a SW tank. I"ve created a basic and optional list of equipment and general tips on maintaining to help answer basic questions and possibly save you money/headaches down the road.

All links are in bold and you can either hover over acronyms or review the Common Abbreviations for clarification.

Basic equipment

Tank selection
Tank type and size are going to greatly affect overall cost of setting up a SW tank, especially when considering lighting/filtration requirements for corals. Most tanks use tempered glass which will shatter if drilled. A "reef ready" tank pre-drilled is highly recommended if you plan to have corals. Larger tanks (ie: 30+ gal) are easier to maintain and offer more stocking opportunities but lighting costs can be cost prohibitive. Smaller tanks are great to setup for a nano reef tank and will save money considerably but can be more difficult to maintain and require more attention.

Lighting choices
NO, PC, VHO, & MH are the most popular ways to light an aquarium and is often a confusing topic for most.
NO lights are fine for FO but if you are thinking of starting a FOWLR or reef setup and you have not purchased your lights yet do not waste your money on NO lighting. The typical NO lighting is only about 50% cheaper then PC/VHO lighting and the little bit of extra you spend on PC/VHO lighting will then allow you to be able to house medium light corals assuming you increase the watts to 4-6 per gal. For high light corals the use of MH is highly recommended.

Tank height also has to be taken into consideration versus gal per watt solely. ie: a 30 gal high which is 24" high with PC or VHO lighting of 260W gives you 8.6 WPG but still may not be enough to house high light corals. Positioning of high/low light corals is key also with lower light corals closer to the sand and high light corals placed up high.

Checkout our sponsors for great deals on lighting:

Heater / thermometer / GFCI
Maintaining a constant temperature is required and getting a heater in the 3-5 watts per gal is usually adequate. Setting your heater to the max temp during the day so it doesn't fluctuate at night and a temp of 76-82 as long as it's steady is fine. I prefer titanium heaters versus glass ones to avoid breakage issues and having two incase one fails is a good idea as well.

Any thermometer will work ranging from glass to digital but is important for monitoring tank temp.

The use of a GFCI (Ground fault circuit interrupter) is highly recommended along with a Titanium Grounding Probe to eliminate the possibility of shocking you or your stock.

You can use a swing arm or floating hydrometer for FO/FOWLR setups to check/maintain sg. Keeping your sg anywhere from 1.019-1.022 for FO/FOWLR is fine but make sure it also remains constant. For reef setups I'd aim for a sg closer to 1.025 and the use of a refractometer is highly recommended for greater accuracy.

Power Head
The use of a power head to move your water is necessary with a SW tank and a tank turn over of 15-20 times for FO/FOWLR/REEF is good since all benefit from good current. I would get at least two. Point them upwards and at each other to create a slight ripple on the surface for good oxygen exchange and convulsing currents. If the PH doesn't come with a pre-filter/screen then consider adding a sponge to keep fish/inverts/sand from getting sucked into it.

For 55 gal or less sized tanks the following power heads are good choices IME.
Maxi-Jet, Marineland Penguin 1140, Hagen AquaClear Powerhead, & the Hydor Koralia

For tanks larger then 55 gal:
Seio Super Pump (cheap and low watts but should not be put on a controller)
Hydor Koralia
Tunze Turbelle (more expensive but considered "the best" by many and can be put on a controller)

Optionally a closed loop system using an outside pump can also help you to reach your gph goal if you don't want power heads in the tank. You can use either PVC or vinyl tubing and for intake a simple intake screen does the job. For output you can use PVC, a cheap return pipe, use an expensive Lifegard Customflo Water System, or custom design your output with Loc-Line. (Loc-Line will give you the most options.)

There are many brands to choose from and some have more/less ca or a higher/lower ph then others. Consistency is more important then the actual brand used along with maintaining ph/sg/temp in the tank and when doing PWC. Some of the more readily available brands are:
Instant Ocean, Oceanic, & Red Sea. Higher quality salts would include: Tropic Marine Salt, Kent Sea Salt, & Crystal Sea Marinemix which are better formulated for reef tanks.

It should also be noted that each salt should be tested for limitations (major chemistry components) and adjusted prior to use in the aquarium based on target goals.

Buying larger buckets is more economical and will last anywhere from 3-9 months for the average sized tank and PWC schedule.

Aragonite sand is recommended in depths of 1"-5" (sandbed calculator) to keep from limiting your fish/invert choices.

Buying bagged "live sand" is not recommended since whatever was alive is more then likely dead from sitting on the shelf. Getting a couple of scoops from your lfs or friend can help to seed your sand bed.

The substrate depth should be relative to the goal of the tank design, animal load and grain size of the sand. Depending on what sand is used, as little as 1" will allow for a decent facultative bacterial colony to perform denitrification. Keep in mind that bacteria can create their own environments so every part of the tank contributes even if a small amount.

Also note on borrowed sand that it should never be obtained from a tank containing fish at the lfs. Copper contamination is highly likely. Coral tanks only at the lfs that do not share filtration with tanks containing fish or from a friend that has never used medication in their main tank is OK.

If you use crush coral it limits your fish/invert choices and builds up waste and needs to be vacuumed often.

Chemicals / Test kits / Water quality
If using tap with a FO/FOWLR setup test it for nh3/no2/no3/po4 and if all are not 0 then consider getting a ro/di unit to filter out all impurities. If planning for a reef ro/di is highly recommended. (more on ro/di under optional equipment below)

Testing the tap for alk/ph for excessively hard water or high ph as sometimes found in well systems is important also.

If tap tests are OK and you can not afford ro/di at this time make sure you use a dechlorinator.

If you use tap that contains no3/po4 you will have algae issues.

For test kits you will need the following for FO/FOWLR:
ph/sg/nh3/no2/no3/po4/alk as a minimum. For reef you will also need additional tests for anything you dose in the tank ie: ca/I2/Mg, ect... so that doses can be monitored to keep from overdosing.

A Saltwater Master Test is fine for the basics. I'd recommend Salifert for all the others.

Filtration: Natural / Mechanical
For FO set ups you can use mechanical filtration to establish anaerobic bacteria. The sand bed will help establish facultative bacteria. This can be achieved using a sump, HOB filter, or canister. Some of the more popular brands in no particular order are:
Marineland, Rena FilStar, Hagen, Eheim, & tons of wet/dry sumps to choose from.

Keep in mind that these units need to be cleaned weekly or every other week depending on the amount of fish you have and feeding schedule. (See more in maintenance tips)

For FOWLR or reef setups you will get all the biological filtration you need from stocking your tank/sump/fuge with 1.5-2+ lbs of base/lr per gal along with a skimmer & proper flow from the use of power heads/sump or a closed loop system . The use of mechanical filtration can be used in conjunction with lr as well as long as its waste is cleaned regularly. The advantage of having both is the easy addition of media like Seachem Matrix , Black Diamond, or Purigen along with Bio-Marine Poly Filter pads & PURA pads to maintain good water quality.

If looking for cheap live rock checkout Welcome to International Marine Fish - Premium Live Rock which has lr for as little as $3-$4 per lb shipped.

Couple of more places with quality lr:
Saltwater live rock, Florida live reef sand at great wholesale prices
Aquarium Fish: Tropical Freshwater Fish and Saltwater Fish for Home Aquariums
Live Rock - Tampa Bay Saltwater Aquacultured Live Rock

For base rock checkout Marco's base rock. You can buy mostly base rock and seed with 30%-50% live rock and it will all be "live" within a year or so.

For skimmers the following brands are popular broken down by tank size and whether you are looking for HOB or in-sump.

For at or less then 75 gal tanks:
AquaC Remora Pro (HOB)
Kent Marine Nautilus TE Skimmer (sump)
Coralife super skimmer (HOB or sump)
Bak Pak Skimmer (hob)

For greater then 75 gal tanks:
ASM - G3 Protein Skimmer (sump)
Kent Marine Nautilus EX Skimmer (sump)
Reef Devil Deluxe (sump)
Euro-Reef RC (sump)
AquaC EV skimmer (sump)
AquaC Remora Pro (HOB)

Checkout our sponsors for excellent pricing on filters:

Optional equipment

Personally I feel a ro/di unit should be used for every type of tank but I also realize that many aquarists have survived for decades from just using tap so I put it on this list but still consider it to be a great investment. A ro/di performance in removing potentially harmful elements and keeping the water as pure as the fish/invert's natural environment will greatly aid your long term success in keeping a SW tank.

A lot of people get them from ebay for around $100.

Our sponsored site is an excellent place to go also if you don't want to deal with ebay

Quarantine tank / Acclimation
The use of a QT tank while not mandatory is highly recommended as well.

Drip acclimation is only needed in a QT for invertebrates preferably for 2+ hours. With fish, you need to get them out of the transport bag as quickly as possible. Test the transport water for temp, salinity, pH and so on. Then manipulate the QT parameters to match. Once done, the acclimation timeframe can be greatly reduced. Temp, pH and salinity being the main concerns. Bring the QT sg/ph/temp up to the main tank over the 6+ weeks kept in QT and increase the sg/ph slowly and every 3+ days to avoid stress.

See Help setting up a QT tank & Equipment for drip acclimation.

Sump / Refugium
See Sumps explained & Refugiums, aka fuges or refuge

A DIY sump is the most economical. This post from RLG2182 goes into good detail If you don't have room for a refugium below the tank you also might want to consider a HOB refugium from Usa-Refugium.

The HOB fuge they sell does require to be put together but is quite easy. It doesn't come with a ph, lighting, lr, sand, or Chaetomorpha Algae but all can be bought elsewhere fairly cheaply.

Any ph will work and I'd get one that you can hook up a vinyl tube to the ph end to place the other end in the fuge. From there gravity will just force it out the other end after going through your fuge. I'd aim for around 100-200 gph for ph. You don’t want the current too strong in which it would displace the algae or sand in the fuge.

Personally I wouldn't use sand because you wouldn't be able to create the 4" sand bed easily to aid in no3 reduction. The use or lr rubble and chaeto is sufficient for no3 reduction and a place to cultivate pods. Make sure you trim and remove the chaeto as it grows to export nutrients. Growing it alone will not achieve that goal.

For pod cultivation if you don't already have a substantial amount you can purchase them from the following sites:

Welcome to Reef Nutrition
: : : : Indo-Pacific Sea Farms : : : :
Detritivore Products Page

The design of the refugium also allows them to easily escape into the main tank as well.

To simplify things and to keep this post shorter I'm just going to link the other optional equipment articles on drsfostersmith which explains everything in detail.
Calcium Reactors/Chillers/Wavemakers/controllers & monitors

Tips for maintaining your SW aqaurium
Research is key to a successful SW tank and I'd highly recommend reading all the saltwater articles on this site, the articles on, & picking up a good book. All are excellent ways to get acquainted with all that’s required for this expensive hobby.

Water changes
I'm a huge advocate for maintaining a strict PWC schedule of 10%-15% per week for the first 6+ months. Afterwards and depending on stock & filtration this can usually be done every other week or even monthly if lightly stocked. By keeping up with the weekly PWC you will greatly increase your chances of being successful and easily maintain your levels while your tank stabilizes.

Marking your tank in the back with a fine black marker or with tape in intervals of 10%, 20%, 30%, ect... will also help with knowing how much to drain from the tank.

New SW needs to be aerated and brought up to tank temp/sg/ph over the course of 24 hours in an unsealed, dedicated, & clean container or else your fish/inverts/lr could die from adding newly mixed salt directly to the tank. Salt is caustic to fish/inverts if not properly mixed. Never mix salt directly in the tank unless it is completely empty.

Use a ph aimed towards the surface and a heater to aerate/heat the water.

Using your sump is the easiest way to do a PWC assuming you can change out 10% with just your sump volume.

I use a clean 30 gal trashcan on wheels and premix my pwc water all at once for the month (about 25 gal) using a dedicated pump and heater to maintain temp and aeration. When I do 6 gal changes each week I just roll the trashcan out of the closet and hook up the pump to vinyl tubing to suck most of the water out of my sump to another trashcan (turning off the sump pump) and then refill the sump using the pump and vinyl tubing again. You can also just drain it to a toilet or sink if one is close by.

The whole process takes less then 10 minutes from start to finish and is the personally the way I would do it for simplicity. The easier it is to do the PWC the more likely you will keep doing it.

Cleaning of filters
If cleaning a canister/HOB that uses a bio-wheel takes longer then 10 minutes then float the bio-wheel in the tank to keep the bacteria wet/alive. Rinse all filter media in old sw when you do a PWC or use ro. Never use tap or hot water to rinse media since doing so can kill off bacteria. Only replace filter media when worn/torn. Using lr rubble (broken up lr) in your HOB/canisters/sumps versus bio-balls will help keep waste from building up and aid in denitrification.

Dosing / Other chemicals
For anything and everything you add to the tank you should have a test kit for to make sure you do not overdose! Salifert test kits are the most reliable IME. With a proper PWC schedule about the only thing for most setups you will have to add is ca to keep it in the 380-415 ppm range.

The use of media like Seachem Matrix , Black Diamond, or Purigen can also greatly help keep your water pure.

Make sure you rinse these off well in old sw or ro water to get all the dust off before adding to your filtration.

Algae removal / control
New tanks often accumulate algae (brown/green) and keeping the lights off during your fishless cycle will help keep it down. Once the tank as cycled adding a clean up crew of red/blue leg hermits & Turbo/Nassarius snails will help keep detritus and algae down.

Shrimp and starfish can also help but require a more stabilized aquarium. I would wait 3+ months for shrimp and 6+ months for any starfish. Most starfish are not "reef safe" and for beginners I would only get one starfish for tanks <=75 gal and would stick with serpent or brittle starfish.

All hermits/snails/shrimp/starfish need to be drip acclimated for 2+ hours as they are more sensitive to ph/sg/temp changes then fish.

For removal and control of algae see Hara's 10 Step Plan for Nuisance Algae Control

These items are just a few of the basic/optional equipment available and are no way an inclusive list of all you will come across. I hope I've helped to narrow down some of your choices and explain what is required so you can fully enjoy keeping your SW tank :D

I'd love to see other experienced aquarist add their tips to this thread as well so we can all benefit.

Last edited by a moderator:
Great info given here, Micah!

I would like to add a couple more things.

Although it is possible to maintain a SW system in a Hex tank, it's far from ideal. Hex tanks have several disadvantages in my opinion. The biggest one being that it doesn't allow for optimal gas exchange due to it's decreased surface area with respect to its total volume of contained water (tall tanks fall short on gas exchange as well).

I also think that for people wanting to hide as much equipment as possible, the hex tanks will not be your best option. These tanks are designed for 360 degree viewing, therefore a backdrop that could be used to mask the outer portion of equipment (typically the bulk of the equipment), just defeats the purpose of using a hex. Also, hanging various types of filters/skimmers or overflows, could require modifications to make it work.

Tecwzrd made mention to water changes, but I would like to add this... I think many people who get out of the hobby, mainly do it because the maintenance begins to wear on them. After the hefty chunk of cash that is dished out to get in, it's ashame to give it up and only recoup a fraction of that original $ value. My thoughts are then to ensure that you make your maintenance as easy as possible by having the "extra" items that are never mentioned in a list of SW supplies.

This list includes:
- 2 rubbermaid tubs larger than the amount of water you plan on changing (one for waste water)
- extra heater for bringing WC water up to temp
- floating glass thermometer
- at least 1 MJ 1200 powerhead or equivalent for mixing the SW
- Tubing to connect to your mixing pump

And the #1 thing I recommend is, an auto top-off device, which can be a simple float valve.

Last but not least, I strongly believe that SW aquariums are very tricky to do right with tight budgets. People do them, but its challenging. There will ALWAYS be way more to purchase than you think, and things will be more expensive than you think.

Also, monthly maintenance costs aren't cheap, (your added electricity usage needs to be thought about too!)

Cheers, HTH!!


Thanks SO much for this invaluable and straightforward information. I have googled the night away and luckily found this informative break down. I am myself a mid/advanced aquarist, and will be pointing lots of people here.


Thank you this is great information. I see this was posted in 05 so some of the links under the sump and refugium are old and not able to load. Do you have any newer links. I somehow thought that a sump and refugium were one in the same.

Great information...

I have a sump being made for me right now that should be complete in about a day or so.

I have chosen to used my current crushed coral as my bed and still need one more small heater for a better temp balance.

The sump will be a combination of two-in-one sump tanks. I will also be moving my Protein Skimmer down there for a nice and clean look up top.

When i returned home from work yesterday, I added another filter to my tank. It is a high powered can filter that pushes roughly 200 gallons per hour. I now have lots of water flow in the tank. That is something I was missing from the beginning. I now have a total of (3) three filters and (2) two under substrate air stones, along with the soon to be added sumps underneath.

My only concern at this point is my lighting now.

I do not have the right lighting for corals and am unsure, due to differences in opinion from everybody that I speak with. And unfortunately, it will end up being the most expensive part of my set-up.

I'm trying to find a very affordable set of lights now... Or, maybe replace the bulb in my current set up with UV or something until I can afford it. I won't chance getting any corals until I have the right set-up but I need to be pushed into the right direction.

Any advice...
Thanks for the write-up. Being a newbie, I have a few questions regarding acronyms. In the lighting section, it mentions NO, PC, VHO, and MH lights. What do these acronyms stand for? I know it says to check the "common acronyms" page, however I don't have access to that link. (says I'm not permitted to view that page). Thanks!
SW - SaltWater
FW - FreshWater
FO - Fish Only
FOWLR - Fish Only With Live Rock
LR - Live Rock
RO - Reverse Osmosis (filters)
DI (De Ionisation (filters)
W/gal - Watts per Gallon
NO - Normal Output ((fluorescent lights)
PC - Power Compact (fluorescent lamps)
VHO - Very High Output (fluorescent lamps)
MH - Metal Halide (lamps)
P/I - Photosynthesis/Irradiance
LPS - Large polyped Scleractinian (stoney coral)
SPS - Small polyped Scleractinian (stoney coral)
LFS - Local Fish Store
PM - Private Message (Seen in the buy/sell forums)
UV - Ultra Violet (you should know this already)
DSB - Deep Sand Bed
RDSB - Remote Deep Sand Bed
AC Activated carbon, chemical filtration media / alternating current
AFM Aquarium Fish Monthly, magazine
AGA All-Glass Aquarium, Aquarium manufacturer
AL Aqualink, aquarium bulletin board
ATS Algae turf scrubber, reef setup technique
BOD Biological oxygen demand
CC Counter current, type of protein skimmer
CSL Custom Sea Life, lighting manufacturer
CTA Cellulose triacetate, type of RO membrane
CUC - Clean Up Crew
Cyano Cyanobacteria
DC Direct current
DD Downdraft, type of protein skimmer
DI Deionisation, type of water purification
DIY Do it yourself
DKH D[SIZE=-1]egrees of carbonate hardness[/SIZE]
DSB Deep Sand Bed
FAMA Freshwater and Marine Aquaria, magazine
FFE Flying Fish Express, Mail Order Company
FO Fish only
FOWLR Fish only with live rock
FW Freshwater
GBR Great Barrier Reef
GPH Gallons per hour
GSP- Green star polyps
HO High output fluorescent light
HQI Mercury (Hg) Quartz Iodide, a type of metal halide lamp
IA Inland Aquatics, mail order company
IMHO In My Humble Opinion
IMO In My Opinion
IO Instant Ocean, brand of aquarium salt
IR Infrared
Kalk Kalkwasser, German for calcium hydroxide solution or limewater
LFS Local fish store
LHS Local hardware store
LPS Large polyped Scleractinian (stoney) coral
LR Live rock
LS Live sand
MACNA Marine Aquaria Conference of North America, held annually
MASNA Marine Aquarium Societies of North America
MD Marine Depot, mail order company
MH Metal halide light
MJ Maxijet, powerhead manufacturer
MM Miracle Mud, method of aquarium filtration
MO Mail order
MTS Multiple tank syndrome
NO Normal output fluorescent light
NSW Natural seawater
PA Premium Aquatics, mail order company
PC Power compact fluorescent light
PH Powerhead, water pump
PVC Poly vinyl chloride, used for piping / plumbing
RC Reef Crystals, brand of aquarium salt
RDO ("reefs-dot-org"), aquarium bulletin board
RK Reef Keeping, on-line aquarium magazine
RO Reverse osmosis, type of water purification
RO/DI Reverse osmosis, followed by deionisation, type of water purification
RR Reef ready, aquaria with pre-drilled holes and overflows
RTN Rapid tissue necrosis, protozoal infection of corals; can be rapidly fatal if not treated
SG Specific gravity
SPS Small polyped Scleractinian (stoney) coral
SW Saltwater / seawater
TBS Tampa Bay Saltwater, Mail Order Company
TFC Thin film composite, type of RO membrane
TRT The Reef Tank, aquarium bulletin board
TWP Tap Water Purifier from Aquatic Pharmaceuticals
UGF Undergravel filter
UV Ultra violet light
VHO Very high output fluorescent light
W/D Wet-dry (a method of aquarium filtration)
WD Wet-dry (a method of aquarium filtration)
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