Basic Equipment List

Setting up a marine tank requires a wide range of equipment in order to give your livestock the best possible chance of flourishing. Summarised below is a list of the basic equipment you will need to successfully start up a marine tank. You should research each item thouroughly to get the most suitable product for your size tank. Note: This is a basic list which only considers items that are considered essential and does not include more advanced items such as calcium reactors, o-zone and uv sterilisers, nitrate reactors etc.


Marine animals require water to be kept within a specific temperature range. This range varies from 74-80°F, however, stability is more important than the exact value you try to achieve within this range. Aquarium heaters have a thermostat which automatically turns on the heater when the water is too cold and turns off the heater when the temperature is at the desired level. It is important to select a heater that has a suitable wattage for your tank. A basic rule is to have 5 watts per gallon of water in your tank.



The function of lighting in your tank is two-fold. It provides essential energy for all photosynthetic organisms e.g. corals and secondly it allows you to see what’s inside your tank!

There are 3 main types of lighting:
  • T5/T8 Fluorescent Lighting
  • Metal Halide
  • LED
It is important to consider how big and what kind of livestock you are going to have before selecting the most suitable lighting for your tank.



Powerheads are important because they allow water to move around your tank. This is essential for the efficient colonissation of bacteria in filters and on live rock. Many types of powerhead are available but it is typically best to have one that gives a stream output rather than a focussed jet of water.

One of the most common questions regarding flow is “how much do I need?” This can be answered by considering what you want to keep in your tank. The basic rules are:
  • Live rock with soft corals – 20x your tank volume per hour
  • LPS and SPS corals – 40x your tank volume per hour
So a tank of 20 gallons containing live rock, soft and hard corals could have 2 powerheads each with a flow rate of 40 gallons per hour.


Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer removes organic waste from the water column. It does this by creating a foam to which the waste becomes attached. This foam is then collected and removed from the aquarium along with the waste. It is considered essential for large tanks with live rock as it lessens the biological load on the bacteria within the live rock.

It is very important to get a skimmer which is suitable for your tank. Many aquarists advise that it is better to get a skimmer that is over-rated for your tank. While there are some people who argue that over skimming is a bad thing, the potential problems that can arise from not selecting an adequate skimmer could result in failure for your tank.

It is also worth considering where you want to put the skimmer in your tank. The are 2 main types: those that sit in the tank or preferably the sump, and those that hang on the back of your aquarium (HOB).



A refractometer allows you to accurately measure the level of salt in your tank. It is of vital importance to be able to measure this accurately as small changes in salt levels can adversely affect your tank. As the saying goes “stability is the key”. Refractometers are a little more expensive than hydrometers, which can also be used, but are much more accurate and come highly recommended.


Reverse Osmosis Unit

A reverse osmosis (RO) unit is essential in marine keeping as it strips your tap water of all chemicals and impurities which can lead to health problems in livestock due to copper in tap water or nuisance algae due to phosphates and nitrates. The unit essentially gives you a blank canvas to which you can add salt and any chemical supplements you may require.


Test Kits

It is absolutely vital, especially in a new tank, that you test the water regularly to ensure it is in perfect health. With regular testing, any changes in your water quality can be observed and quickly put right.

There are many test kits available but the basic ones you will need are:
  • Ammonia
  • Nitrite
  • Nitrate
  • pH
  • Alkalinity
Some people find it useful to have phosphate and oxygen tests while if you intend to keep hard corals you will also need the following:
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
In addition, if you are using copper based medication in a hospital tank, you will need a copper test kit.


Phosphate Reactor

Phosphate is a major cause of nuisance algae within a tank whether or not to employ a reactor to remove it could be the difference between a beautiful reef aquarium or a green slimy mess! Media, such as Rowaphos, is fluidised within the reactor and strips phosphate from the water passing through it.

Although not an essential piece of equipment, it is recommended that you use one from day one.


Auto Top-up

An auto top-up unit is not essential, however, for most tanks, especially those without a closed lid, evaporation is a major problem. This evaporated water must be replaced in the tank to prevent changes in the salt levels. An auto top-up constantly measures the water level of the tank and uses a pump to replace any water that is lost to evaporation. The main reason for having an auto top-up is convenience as it saves you having to manually add water to the tank every day.

Note: Always add unsalted RO water to your tank when toppping up. Otherwise you will increase the level of salt in the water.
Automatic Timers

Automatic timers are a cheap and easy way to automate your tank, thus making your life easier. The main reason you would use an automatic timer is for controlling your lighting period, however, some people use them to turn off skimmers and pumps during feeding. They are available as segmented analogue or digital timers. From personal experience, I would recommend the digital version as the analogue ones are prone to breaking.