Saltwater Aquariums 101 – Marine Tank Equipment And Set Up

Reef and marine tanks are usually breathtaking; anemones, corals and brightly colored and oddly shaped fish, moving slowly among rocks and white sands. While a marine tank may not be the first choice for a novice aquarist, they can be very rewarding and not so much hard work as you would think. However, in order to set up a marine tank you will need a fair bit of equipment.

This is a list of basic equipment needed for a marine tank set up, but it’s by no means exhaustive. As you progress towards more complex set ups you may want to incorporate additional equipment to your marine tank setup.

Reference Books

The Internet is full of websites such as this one that provide exhaustive information about aquariums, not to mention forums and help sites. However, you should still arm yourself with a good reference book on marine tanks or two. Depending on the kind of marine aquarium that you want to keep (Fish, Fish with live rock, or Reef aquarium) some books will be better than others.

A Pocket Expert Guide to Marine Fishes (500+ Essential-To-Know Aquarium Species) by Scott W. Micheal is a pretty exhaustive guide to marine fish covering almost 500 pages. Get it before you start buying fish for your Aquarium.

Aquarium Corals, Selection, Husbandry, and Natural History by Eric Borneman is the equivalent to the pocket guide (somebody was having a laugh when they named that book pocket guide…) but for corals, which you will need if you decide to go for a reef aquarium.

You should also get a marine aquarium guide or handbook that is as recent as you can. While some books such as The Marine Aquarium Handbook – Beginner to Breeder by Martin A. Moe are great reference books, new advances on aquarium filtration and equipment happen often.

While buying books may seem expensive, knowledge will pay for itself as you avoid the death of valuable aquarium fish and corals.

Choosing a Marine Tank

Marine Aquarium Setup (Reef Aquarium)
Marine Aquarium Setup (Reef Aquarium)

The best type of tank for a saltwater aquarium is low and long, as this will maximise surface area and allow light to reach the bottom of the aquarium better. This is particularly important if you intend to keep corals in a reef aquarium, as light is vital and a taller tank is much more expensive to light up enough to cover the needs of photosynthetic inhabitants.

As with any other aquarium, the larger the tank the better. It may be more expensive but more water means a more stable environment and allows you to have a bigger variety of fish and invertebrates. The tank will need a suitable cabinet or stand that can deal with the weight of a filled aquarium, plus rocks, plus equipment, so don’t just expect to place it on top of a chest of drawers. A 350l marine aquarium can easily weight half a tonne once full! So make sure the floor where you place it can deal with it (some old houses have remarkably weak upper levels) and get a suitable aquarium stand.


The substrate is the material at the bottom of your aquarium, and in some marine tanks it will have an important role as part of the biological filter. Most people choose aragonite substrate, as it helps maintain the alkalinity and pH levels. Live sand is the collective name for marine aquarium sands with live bacteria and micro-organisms that act as a biological filter. Live sand is often used along with live rock in reef setups, whereas aragonite is mostly used for fish only aquariums.


Regular tap water is full of contaminants and impurities that will disrupt the chemistry of your marine aquarium. You can use Reverse Osmosis systems to purify tap water, or can buy RO water from a local fish store. Another alternative is to buy salt water from a fish keeping store. RO water is pure water, with no impurities and a neutral pH of 7, which means it is not suitable to be used on an aquarium directly.

If you use RO water for your marine aquarium you will need to mix in oceanic salt mix in order to create saltwater. Once mixed in you will need to use an hydrometer to measure the salinity of the water, and aerate the water using an aquarium air pump. Only then, at the correct temperature and proper concentration, the water will be safe to add to your aquarium. As you can see this option is cheaper than buying saltwater but a bit more messy.


If you are happy with a fish only aquarium (one where no inhabitants are photosynthetic) you should be fine with standard aquarium fluorescent light for marine aquariums. However, if you choose to have a reef aquarium with corals and live rock, anemones, etc… you will need specialist lighting that has wider spectrum and is strong enough to reach the bottom of the aquarium.


Not any filter will do to keep a marine aquarium healthy, but if you are using live rock as biological filtration you should be able to get away with a chemical filter to get rid of the impurities and organic build up. Biological filtration reduces the ammonia and nitrite levels through the nitrogen cycle, through the intervention of nitrifying bacteria. Until that biological filtration is full active (which may take a few weeks) your aquarium won’t be safe for fish. This is what is known as cycling an aquarium. Choose a filter as big as you can afford, no fish has ever died of over-filtering and it will help keep the water cleaner and reduce your maintenance requirements.


A protein skimmer works similarly to waves hitting on the beach. It removes dissolved proteins and organic waste that come from metabolic processes by creating foam which is accumulated on a collection cup (which you will need to empty regularly). Invertebrates, corals and live rock are much more needy than fish in terms of protein skimmers, but as with filtration it pays to buy a good, reliable system at the top end of what you can afford. If you go on holidays you may need somebody to come and empty the collection cup for you, which is pretty yucky but totally safe.

Heather and Thermometer

You will need a fully submersible heather to keep the aquarium temperature stable at the levels your fish and aquarium require, which is often around 26C, but depends on your particular inhabitants. If your heather fails your fish may die pretty quickly, so some people prefer to use two heathers on a large tank so the water remains warm. A digital thermometer is vital to ensure the aquarium temperature stays at the required levels.


A wavemaker or circulation pump will ensure your reef aquarium has a strong current of water. This carries food towards the corals and other immobile invertebrates, ensures waste reaches the skimmer and spreads oxygen rich water through the tank. The correct type and style of flow will depend on your intended tank inhabitants.

Test Kits and Hydrometer

You will need, at the very list, to be able to measure Nitrite, Nitrate, Alkalinity, pH, Ammonia, Calcium and Phosphate. Controlling the water quality of your tank is key to keep a healthy environment for your fish and corals. Marine aquariums are very susceptible to changes in the water chemistry, so frequent measuring is extremely important.

Aquarium monitoring systems such as Seneye+ can even send you a text message when the parameters on your tank change. This could make a world of difference if you are on holidays and able to get somebody to come by and check on the fish, so depending on how much your stock is worth it may be a good investment.

A Refugium

Refugiums are secondary tanks, usually placed under the main tank in the *sump,* used in reef tanks to as a source of live food, nutrient export and to control pH when the lights are turned off in the main tank at night. It holds plants and live sand or refugium mud, and it has its own light system with water slowly pumped through it slowly. This will grow macroalgae and micro crustaceans which will then migrate to the main tank as food for your fish and invertebrates. It also supports the protein skimmer in removing excess nutrients, and as such is a vital part of algae control.

Example of Marine Aquarium Set Up (Reef)

Example saltwater aquarium set up
Example saltwater aquarium set up

Getting an idea of the equipment and hardware requirements of a marine aquarium is the first step towards setting up your own amazing reef tank or any sort of saltwater aquarium. Many traditional freshwater aquariums can be transformed into a saltwater setup with a bit of extra equipment (and in some cases, glass drilling) so if you already own a freshwater tank you may be able to refurbish it into your new marine tank.

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