What Is Absolutely Needed For A Saltwater Fish-Only Aquarium
(besides the livestock)what is absolutely needed for a saltwater fish-only aquarium
The 16 products you definitely need,
the 3 you might need, and the decor you probably want

You wish to have a saltwater fish-only aquarium. What do you need to be able to put fish into the aquarium with a reasonable expectation they will survive and thrive? Here are the 16 essential products necessary to have a saltwater fish-only aquarium.

NOTE: We also have an article on What Is Absolutely Needed For A Reef Aquarium.

With a quality filter, you will need to do less work cleaning your tank. For tanks less than 40 gallons a simple hang-on Power Filter or Canister Filter is perfect. For larger tanks, the best solution is a high-quality protein skimmer. We recommend the protein skimmers from Reef Octopus, Maxspect, IceCap, Simplicity, and Tunze.

Our protein skimmer section organizes skimmers by tank size and where the skimmer is located (hang-on back, in-sump, or in tank). A sump is a great place to put a protein skimmer as it removes it from view. For those without a sump, you can use a hang on the back skimmer.

Some “complete” nano tanks, such as the Coralife BioCube, have a filtration chamber built into a back compartment of the aquarium. There is an area there to house a small protein skimmer.

Further Reading:
- Protein Skimmer Overview
- Filtration Overview

Fish-only aquariums do not have to have as much light as reef aquariums. The fish need very little light. However, you may want to have a brighter light so you can better enjoy your aquarium. Refer to the Fish Only Tanks Lighting Chart when choosing a light.

LED lights will save you money because they are energy efficient and you won't need to change the bulbs. They should last for five to ten years although with some of the cheaper LED lights you might see earlier failure of some of the individual LEDs.

Testing is needed to ensure that your water is safe for your fish. When you first set up a tank you will want to test for ammonia, pH, nitrite and nitrate. The Aquarium Pharmaceuticals Saltwater Test Kit both include these four tests.

Once your tank is set up and running the pH and the nitrate tests will be the most important. If your nitrates are at 20 ppm or above, you definitely should do a water change. If your pH drops below 7.8, you need to add buffer (see the Aquarium Buffer section for buffer use).

You will need to test the salinity of your saltwater. The Coralife Deep Six Hydrometer and MarineAndReef.com Reefractometer (aka Refractometer) are good choices. You will also need an aquarium thermometer.

Further Reading:
- Test Kit Overview

You will need to clean your aquarium to keep it healthy and attractive. For maintenance, you will need a good gravel vac and algae magnet. The Python Gravel Vacs and the Flipper Magnet Cleaners are good choices. Make sure to look at the depth of your aquarium when choosing a gravel vac and thickness of your glass when choosing an algae magnet.

Further Reading:
- Cleaning Basics 101: Five Pro Cleaning Tips
- Top 10 Aquarium Maintenance Hacks

All of the aquarium salts we sell are high quality. For smaller tanks, we recommend the Two Little Fishies AccuraSea1 because it comes in five-gallon packets that make it easy to mix saltwater in five-gallon increments. You might consider the Two Little Fishies Small Saltwater Aquarium Salt Mixing & Water Change Package for smaller reef aquariums.

Mixing saltwater should start with RO or RO/DI water. You can buy the water at your local fish store or grocery store or make your own using an RO System. Ideally, you will want to use one that is an RO/DI (DI stands for deionization) instead of just RO (reverse osmosis). If you insist on using tap water, we don't recommend it. But if you do be sure to dechlorinate the water using a product such as Seachem Prime.

Further Reading:
- RO & RO/DI System Overview
- Aquarium Water Changes: Making It Simple


Most saltwater aquariums have tropical fish and you will probably want to create an environment that looks appropriate for tropical saltwater fish.

You will want some sand. We recommend using an aragonite sand substrate. CaribSea Florida Crushed Coral and CaribSea Seafloor Special Grade Reef Sand are good sand substrate choices.

Most people with saltwater fish-only tanks have some sort of rock structure. You can use either live rock or dry rock. Live rock is critical in a reef aquarium as it helps with biological filtration. This biological filtration is also helpful in a fish-only aquarium. Live rock is harvested from the ocean and can be purchased locally. Dry rock is cheaper than live rock and creating interesting structures is easier with dry rock. You can use Two Little Fishies STAX Rock or CaribSea LifeRock Shapes. You will need coral/coral rock adhesive to glue your rocks together.

Further Reading:
- BioCube 32 Rock, Sand, and Salt Package Guide (this is specific to the BioCube, but the concepts apply to all reef aquariums)

You will notice on our website we have hundreds of different additives for aquariums. The good news is that most of these are for advanced aquarists looking for specific results. Reef aquariums need additives that fish-only saltwater aquariums do not require. Most aquariums with sufficient water changes will just need to add pH buffer. Buffer should be added based on need after testing the pH. The Brightwell Aquatics PH Plus is a good choice.
Further Reading:
- Additives Overview

Water Flow
Water movement is important in fish-only tanks to oxygenate the water and stir up the waste so the filter can remove it. As a general rule, you will want to have enough water movement to turn over your aquarium’s total water volume at least 6 to 7 times per hour. More is better. When calculating the total water turnover you can add together the flow of all the pumps in your system.

With the Coralife BioCube and other integrated nano aquariums, there is a circulation pump in the back chamber. You can add an additional powerhead in the tank to increase flow.

Tanks without a back chamber or a sump will require powerheads inside the tank. We recommend using two—one in each corner. The Rossmont Movers and Hydor Koralias are great choices.

Larger aquariums with sumps can count the return pump flow from the sump, but they may also require powerheads in the tank for additional flow if the return pump volume is not at least 6 to 7 times the tank volume. We have large aquarium pumps from Little Giant, Iwaki, Lifegard, and Reeflo. DC pumps, such as the Reef Octopus Controllable, are very energy efficient.

Further Reading:
- Pump Overview

Temperature Control
Saltwater aquariums need to have a temperature between 76-82 degrees. You will need a thermometer to know your tank temperature.

If the room where your aquarium is located has a steady temperature of around 75-80 degrees, you probably will not need a heater or chiller. These days, with low-heat LED lights and DC pumps, the need for chillers is less common, but if you keep the room with your aquarium at a temperature over 80 degrees you will probably need a chiller (the equipment will raise the temperature over the 82 degree threshold).

With chillers, we highly recommend that you get a bigger chiller than is absolutely necessary as it will not cost much more. In the event of a heat wave or an air conditioner failure that extra capacity may save you aquarium’s inhabitants.

If your aquarium temperature is dropping below 76 degrees at any time you will need a heater. All the heaters we carry have aquarium-size ratings. Keep in mind the rating assumes you only need to raise the temperature by 10 degrees.

Further Reading:
- Heater Overview
- Chiller Overview

GF/CI Outlet
Your home may have GF/CI outlets, but if they don’t you might want to have one installed for your aquarium equipment.

Fish Food
This really depends on the type of fish you purchase. Ask at the aquarium store about the best food for the fish you purchase.

If you travel and no one is at home to take care of your fish, you might consider an automatic fish feeder.

Fish Net
You will always want to use a fish net to move fish you purchase at the aquarium store.

Every saltwater fish-only aquarium definitely needs these 16 Products:
1. Aquarium (& stand)
2. GF/CI outlet or adapter
3. RO/DI water (you can make your own or purchase it from the store as needed)
4. Salt
5. Hydrometer
6. Thermometer
7. Protein skimmer, Power Filter or Canister Filter
8. Light
9. Pumps
10. Test kits
11. Ph Buffer
12. Substrate/Sand
13. Gravel vac
14. Algae magnet
15. Fish food
16. Fish net

Your reef aquarium might need these products:
1 If your tank gets above 82 you need a chiller
2. If your tank gets below 76 you need a heater
3. Fish feeder

You will probably want to add decorations. The fish will be fine without them, but your aquarium will be a bit boring to look at. You will need to attach the decorations to a rock structure (STAX Rock or LifeRock Shapes) using an appropriate adhesive (coral adhesives will work with artificial corals). Many of the decorations we carry are very realistic looking and they'll have a long life even if you don't pay attention to them.

For help in getting your tank started we recommend you read the Coralife LED BioCube Aquarium Setup Guide. The guide is specific to the Coralife BioCube (and it does show how to set up a tank for corals), but most of the concepts presented in the article apply to all saltwater aquariums. There are links to videos we produced that will help with cycling your tank, adding livestock, and much more.

If you need further help please always feel free to shoot an Email to [email protected].