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So You Think You Want an Aquarium?

Part 2: Getting the Right Equipment

Last issue we picked out a tank, now it's time to get the equipment for it. I'm going to compare Saltwater requirements to Freshwater throughout this whole article. Saltwater information will be in blue.

These are just "basic requirements". Your aquarium can be simpler or more complex. These are what I recommend to a newbie who knows little to nothing about aquariums.

[Lighting] [Filtration] [Heating and Hydrometers]


Lighting is very important to Saltwater tanks. If you have a fish only tank, it's easy. A few fluorescent bulbs will do the trick! If you are planning on a reef tank (corals and fish) lighting is the MOST important factor you have to consider. You won't have any success if you skimp on the lights. I mean it. Don't try it!

If you are planning a reef tank you need lights that, basically, emulate the intensity sun. Some corals need more light than others and the deeper the tank the more powerful lighting you'll need to get the light all the way down to the bottom.

There are lots of different lighting choices and you can combine types of light. The most popular are fluorescent bulbs, VHO fluorescents, compact fluorescents and metal halides. A key factor in choosing a bulb is its K-value. The higher the K-value, the "cooler" the light that the bulb produces.

This is a topic you need to research carefully before you set up your tank. What corals do you want to keep? Just low light ones? Fluorescent lighting would be OK for that. You need about 5 watts per gallon for soft corals.

VHOs are even better. They are very high output fluorescent lighting. These produce less heat and more light.

Do you want to try more light hungry corals like some hard corals? Then you'll probably need metal halide lighting. These are very high intensity lights. They run VERY hot and use a lot of power. However, the effect is stunning. They have what reefers call a "shimmer" effect. The light makes little shadows in the water. Once you've seen a halide lit tank you'll want one for yourself.

Most experts recommend combining halides with fluorescents to get the complete color spectrum (which isn't so much a visual thing as it is important for your corals to survive).

Lighting a reef tank is such a debated about topic. I'm not even going to try to address all the arguments over intensity, color temperature, how many watts per gallon, etc. Even the experts all say something different. I'll just say to get the best lighting system you can afford (because reef tank lighting can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousands dollars) and only try corals that will be happy with that light.

To give you an example, I have a mixture of 2 blue 110 watt VHO fluorescents and 2 15K 275 W metal halide bulbs over my 75 gallon tank. The setup was about $400. I think the 15K bulbs (among the cheapest of the halides) are a very ugly color and the blue VHO (also a very ugly color alone) make the tank nicer to look at.

Here are a few good links and you can decide for yourself what you want to do.

Reef Lighting | Reef Lighting (some do it yourself projects) | Metal Halides| FINS: Lighting and Costs

The topic of lighting with freshwater is a bit easier. The main considerations are aesthetics, algae grown and plant growth. You have two basic choices here: fluorescent or incandescent. Personally, I prefer fluorescent for a fish tank. They run much cooler (you won't boil your fish) and put out more light with less energy. A normal full spectrum fluorescent light is good for plants and fish although they do have special bulbs on the market for plants. They also have some that enhance fish colors.

In a freshwater tank, about 1.5 watts of fluorescent light per gallon would be good. You should only leave the lights on 8-10 hours of the day or algae will grow.


There are two types of filtration I'll be focusing on: biological and mechanical. Biological uses bacteria which grow in the tank to break up metabolic wastes (mainly ammonia and nitrite) from the animals living in the tank. It's very important! A lot of fish are needlessly killed by ammonia levels. The term "cycling a tank" is referencing this type of filtration. "Cycling" is the initial build up these bacteria to a level where they can successfully break down waste.

Mechanical filtration is what a typical "canister filter" does. It runs water through some kind of media to catch waste particles so they won't be in the viewable part of the tank. It's mainly to keep the water looking clean. The waste stays in the aquarium system. It's not removed until you remove the media. Because it's not removed from the system, having a very dirty mechanical filter can cause spikes in ammonia, nitrate or nitrate. You need to clean your mechanical filter according to the instructions.

This is an easy topic for saltwater. First, I'll start with the don't. Most experts do not recommend using under gravel or canister filters (although it can be done).

The main biological filter should be live rock and/or live sand. Live rock is pieces of reef rock that have broken off and normally house bacteria, copepods and all sorts of cool stuff. There are lots of varieties of Live Rock with different porosity. The best live rock is very porous and has a lot of surface area for bacteria to colonize.

I did a fish only tank for years without Live Rock so it is possible. Bacteria will also colonize the substrate (the sand or crushed coral on the bottom). However you're never going to get as stable a setup as you will with Live Rock. I recommend getting a few chunks even if you have a fish only tank.

A reef tank should have about 2 lbs of live rock per gallon. Live Rock ranges from about $5 per/lb to $20 per/lb in some areas. I recommend buying it online (FFexpress has good quality rock for cheap). Even if the shipping is more expensive, you save a lot over more local stores.

While not technically mechanical filtration, the only other filtration that is necessary for a saltwater reef tank is a good quality skimmer. According to Fins:

"Protein skimmers are devices that mix large volumes of air and tank water to produce foam. This foam is then collected and disposed of. The foam will contain a fair amount of particulate material, lots of organic material that would otherwise breakdown and pollute the tank, and unfortunately some trace elements like iodine. Besides removing organic material, skimmers play a key role in maintaining proper O2 and CO2 levels in tank water. For instance, having a large skimmer that processes a large amount of air will allow larger quantities of kalkwasser addition, both due to increased evaporation, and due to improved CO2 absorbtion capacity."

In plain English, protein skimmers are very helpful in keeping water quality high and clear. A good quality protein skimmer should be around $150 (there are skimmers for less too. The Seaclone is a decent $70 skimmer for a small tank). It's worth investing in a good one.

You also need a few powerheads to circulate the water and perhaps to aim over some corals.

It's greatly debated whether mechanical filters are good for the reef or not. Many swear by using canister filters (and I am one who does use a canister filter). Many say they are nitrate tanks and will ruin your setup. It is agreed that they can be useful when you need to quickly clean the water of some contaminate.

In freshwater we have sponge filters, box filters, canister filters and under gravel filters.

Sponge filters aren't a reliable method of filtration in most cases. These should only be used when you're raising baby fish (it's hard to suck a little fish into a sponge) or really delicate fish. They do make great additions to a quarantine tank. You can keep the sponge inside of your canister filter or at the back of your main aquarium so bacteria will colonize it and then if you have to move a fish to a quarantine tank you can move the sponge and move some good bacteria too. Sponges, to a small extent, have both biological and mechanical filtration.

Box filters work great for little tanks. These have some kind of carbon pad or other filter media that the water flows through. They normally run off of an air pump and work really well when the tank is not very large. These really just provide mechanical filtration.

Canister filters are similar but more powerful. They run off of a water pump or powerhead which forces the water through some kind of media (carbon or other). These also really only provide mechanical filtration but they do a great job of it. There are a few filters on the market (such as Biowheels) that combine biological and mechanical filtration (they have a special area for bacteria to build up).

Under gravel filters are a good way to get both biological & mechanical filtration. They sit under the gravel and uplift tubes connect them to an air pump or powerhead which forces water through the filter. The bacteria grows underneath the filter and waste collects in the gravel. It's a really easy way to get a nice tank!


All aquariums need something to regulate the temperature and a thermometer to check it. Most saltwater fish and tropical freshwater fish prefer temperatures around 75 degrees F. Some fish require colder water. Picking a heater isn't that big a deal. You just need to look for the tank size rating. If you have a large tank, it's probably better to get two or three smaller heaters than one big one. The temperature will be more homogenized that way.

When you get a new heater, especially if you already have fish in the tank, be sure to check the temperature frequently. Sometimes heaters aren't calibrated properly and you can unknowingly kill your animals by setting them too high.

Saltwater tanks need a hydrometer to measure salinity. Their are several types. The most high tech is actually called a "refractometer". It's very accurate. There's no guess work involved. The second best kind is a glass, floating hydrometer. These are accurate (read at the bottom of the meniscus, remember your high school chemistry!) but you have to make sure the water is perfectly still (I take a little water out of the tank and float the hydrometer in that) and you have to use your own judgement. The worst kind is the plastic kind with the floating arm. Buy 3 or 4 of these and see for yourself. They all differ by a few hundredths. Every now and then you'll find a good one. To get these to work the best, you should use the plastic one to measure some saltwater of a known salinity (or some you checked with a glass hydrometer or a refractometer). You can then see where the needle points and figure out how far off it is. Also, in my experience, the plastic ones seem to degrade over time. You should recalibrate it every once in a while.

I have a glass one and a plastic. I use the plastic one more often (it's easier) but I sometimes check it with the glass one.

Next Time: Part 3: Putting it all together!

Q and A

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All info copyright © Amanda Galiano