Saltwater Fish Tank Essentials (The Complete List For 2020)

This is the complete list of saltwater fish tank essentials that you will need this year.

Not everyone in the saltwater aquarium hobby can incorporate all the many pieces of equipment available to run a saltwater tank. Although having the fancy gear and extra equipment is nice to have, not all of it is necessary.

Actually, you can operate a saltwater tank with very little equipment. As long as you have the essentials, you will be able to keep a saltwater tank thriving and looking great.

So if you are looking to set up a new saltwater tank, check out these essential items that you should incorporate into your setup.

Essential Equipment

  • Heaters
  • Wavemaker/Powerhead
  • Filtration
  • Lighting for corals
  • Test kits
  • Refractometer
  • Tank maintenance supplies
  • Salt
  • Rocks and substrate
  • RO/DI water filter

Recommended Equipment

how much live rock per gallon

Aquarium heaters

The normal range of temperature for a saltwater tank is between 74-80 F. Depending on your livestock needs, this temperature can vary. I normally set the temperature in my tanks at 79 F. So in order to maintain a constant temperature and avoid temperature fluctuations, a heater is required. You may need multiple heaters depending on tank size and heater size.

The only time a heater will not be necessary is if your livestock doesn’t require it or you live in an area where the weather is hot and to keep the water from being too warm, you may need an aquarium chiller.

What size heater do I need?

Choosing the proper size heater is important to ensuring the right temperature can be maintained. There are a few variables to consider like how much temperature increase do you need? What is your current room temperature? How much water volume do you need to heat? There is no set hard rule for this, but just follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on heater size for your specific tanks water volume.

A general rule of thumb for water volume and heater size:

  • 5-10 gallons – 25-75 watt
  • 15-30 gallons – 50-150 watt
  • 40-50 gallons – 100-300 watt
  • 55-75 gallons – 200-400 watt
  • 75+ gallons – 300-400 watt +

If you have a larger aquarium, you may find that you need 2 heaters to heat and maintain the desired temperature.

Recommended heaters for saltwater tanks

Both Eheim and Fluval brand heaters are known to be reliable and efficient. They have a wide range of sizes available and are long-lasting, affordable, and durable heaters.

Check today’s price of the Eheim Jager heater on Marine Depot here.

Check today’s price of the Fluval E-Series heaters on Marine Depot here.

Marine Depot Aquarium Supplies


Having a method to move water properly in your tank is essential. Not only essential, but it’s critical to sustain life in your tank. Water movement is a must. I mentioned in the article Best affordable wavemakers for saltwater tanks, that there are a variety of wavemakers to choose from. They don’t need to be expensive, but they must be reliable.

What size wavemaker do I need?

Well, that will depend on what you have in your tank. Certain corals like softies will only require low flow, LPS corals prefer low-medium flow, and SPS corals will do better with high water flow rates. A general rule of thumb is to aim for a 20-50x turnover rate for the water volume in your tank. For example, if you have a 50-gallon reef aquarium with LPS corals, aim to have your water turnover at least 1000-1500GPH.

Here is a great video from Marine Depot showing how to choose the right wavemaker for your aquarium.



Being able to filter your water and keep it clean is essential for a saltwater tank to thrive. In saltwater tanks, the main filtration is done through the live rocks. Some people rely on the rocks for the only source of filtration in the tank.  It’s important to have the proper amount of live rocks for your tank. A general rule of thumb is 1 lb of live rock per gallon of water volume. Of course, this can vary.

Other sources of filtration include hang on the back filters, canister filters, internal filters, media reactors, and sump systems. You can choose any combination of these depending on what you need to accomplish with your filter. A common method of filtration for saltwater tanks is by using a sump system. Although not required, a sump can incorporate many different forms of filtration all in one unit. Hang on filters and reactors can be used for chemical, mechanical, and biological filtration.


Hydra 26 LED Click image to view more

Although lighting is not required on a fish only saltwater tank, it is necessary for any tank that has corals. As mentioned in the article Best low light beginner corals, not all corals are the same with respect to lighting requirements. Soft corals, LPS, and SPS corals all need certain lighting to survive.

If you have a fish only tank or fish only with live rock (FOWLR) tank, you won’t require the higher quality lighting that the corals need. But most hobbyists love to have nice lighting to showcase their fish and tanks. The great thing about lighting is there many options available and depending on your tank’s specific needs, you should have no problem finding great lighting at an affordable price.

Test Kits

In order to maintain the important water parameters that your saltwater tanks needs, a quality test kit is required. It’s important to know that not all test kits are the same. Many have different testing methods, items used, and the quality of the test or it’s precision are not all equal. Some test kits are more precise than others. There are many things that you can test in your water. The most common items are Nitrate, Nitrite, Ammonia, Calcium, Alkalinity, Magnesium, temperature, specific gravity.

You can normally buy these kits individually, or if you are starting out, I would recommend purchasing a larger kit that will have a number of tests included saving you money in the end.


As mentioned in the article Best auto top off systems for reef tanks, it’s important to maintain a constant salinity level in your tank. A good number to aim for is 1.026 SG. In order to get an accurate reading of the salinity, you should use a refractometer. There are a number of higher-end testers you can use to measure salinity, but I find a refractometer works great. They are not expensive, reliable and most will come with the calibration fluid, cleaning cloth and solid case. Here is a recommended refractometer for saltwater tanks on Amazon.

Tank maintenance supplies

There are a few other things that are necessary to have when starting a saltwater tank. Water drain hose, buckets, glass cleaner, clean cloths, are all things you will use on a regular basis. The one thing you will probably use the most is some kind of glass cleaner/tool to keep the algae off the glass. It doesn’t take long in a saltwater tank for the glass to get covered in algae. If you want to keep your tank clean to showcase your fish and corals than this is a must. I recently wrote an article Best aquarium glass cleaning magnet, where I review the Flipper magnet. This is one of the best purchases I ever made for my tank! Read the article and check out the Flipper.


Using a good quality salt will have huge benefits for your saltwater tank. Salt can vary in price and not all salt is the same. Depending on the type of corals you are keeping, you may choose one type of salt over another. You can research and see what the salt contains for elements and see which one is best for your tank.

For the most part, you can’t go wrong with the name brand salts like Red Sea and Instant Ocean.

Red Sea Coral Pro is my choice of salt. It’s available on Amazon.

saltwater nutrient comparison

Rocks and substrate

Live rocks are a huge source of filtration for all saltwater tanks. It’s important to have plenty of live rock in your tank. Although you may decide to start your tank with dry rock and over time have them establish into live.

You don’t need live rock from the beginning to start a saltwater tank. There are many benefits of starting a new tank with dry rock over live rock.

There are many different types of dry rock to consider, and normally it is quite a bit cheaper than using live rock.

When choosing rock for your tank, it’s important to plan ahead of time to determine how much you are going to need. Also buy rock that is very porous as this will give plenty of surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow and provide filtration for your tank.

Natures Ocean rock is a great choice.

There are also many different types of substrates you can use as well. Sand is the most popular choice, and there are many options depending on a few factors. Sand is available in different colors and sizes. Some sand is very fine while others are course.

Although sand is not always required, there are plenty of bare bottom saltwater tanks out there, most people tend to lean towards a white fine sand.

Some fish require a sand base to dig in. For example, the Yellow Watchman Goby is one of them.

Aragonite sand is a fine sand that looks great in all tanks. Fiji Pink is my favorite sand.

Another type of substrate that is popular is crushed coral. Crushed coral is made of larger pieces of coral skeletons that are crushed up to form “crushed coral”.

RODI water filter

A very common question in the hobby is do you need to use rodi water for your saltwater tank? The answer is yes.

Using tap water should not be an option for you. Trust me from experience, tap water may seem like it’s ok at first but it will eventually lead to many problems.

You can purchase reverse osmosis water from aquarium stores and other retailers, but lugging water is just not convenient and the cost of buying water long term will cost more than buying an affordable rodi filter.

Using an rodi filter will allow you to use water with TDS of 0. Meaning the total dissolved solids in the water is 0. Most tap water will have high TDS and other minerals that are not healthy for your saltwater tank.

A great rodi filter unit it the AquaFX.

Other recommended equipment

Protein skimmer

In the article Best protein skimmers for saltwater tanks, I talk about the importance of using a skimmer in your tank. Although they are not a necessary piece of equipment, they are highly recommended.

Bubble Magus makes high quality and reliable protein skimmers at an affordable price.

Sump systems

Aquarium sumps are another great and convenient to have item. But not essential or necessary. You can have a successful saltwater tank without a sump system as I mentioned in the article Sumps for saltwater tanks-are the necessary?. Read all about sump systems here.

Media reactors

Media reactors are a great piece of equipment to have on your tank. There are in sump and hang on tank styles, and depending on what you want to use them for, they can be an important addition to your tank.

A common use for media reactors would be for chemical filtration like Carbon and GFO. You can also use them for bio pellets, Kalkwasser, Calcium, etc.. there are many uses.

You can even use them for macroalgae and attach lighting to grow cheato which is an effective way to control nutrient levels in your tank. Media reactors are affordable and easy to use. They can be very beneficial to your tank but not essential.


An aquarium controller on a saltwater tank can be one of the most important pieces of equipment you buy. If you like gadgets and being able to monitor and control your tank using a smartphone, then a controller might be for you.

They provide many fail-safes and are one of those items that most hobbyists would love to have. But unfortunately, when starting out, not everyone wants to spend the extra money on something that is not considered cheap and concentrate more on the essential items.

The most common aquarium controller used today is the Apex. If you decide to incorporate a controller on your tank, I suggest you look into Apex. So although they are a really great piece of equipment that everyone loves, they are not considered essential.

So when you are planning out a new saltwater tank you may only want to stick to the essentials. It’s a big decision to figure out what gear is important to have. Saltwater equipment is getting bigger and better all the time and as technology advances, we will have so many options to choose from.

Plan out what equipment will suit your tank ahead of time and this will save you money and frustration!

Thanks for reading!