Saltwater Tank Setup Checklist: 15 Must-Have Items

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Owning a saltwater tank was always a dream of mine. Since I was a kid, I dreamed about keeping saltwater fish, corals, and other different marine organisms.

This year, the dream came true. After years of fear and hesitation, I finally decided to set up a saltwater tank.

Before going on a shopping frenzy, I made a saltwater tank setup checklist. My thoughts were that a list could help a lot in the decision process of what I need to set up a saltwater tank. And I was right. It made the experience much easier.

Here is the saltwater tank setup list I am talking about.



The first thing on this list is obviously the aquarium. One of the most important and expensive decisions you will make in this hobby is selecting an appropriate aquarium.

Before buying a tank, make sure you know what kind of livestock you want to keep. This is a major decision that will dictate many of your future choices. If you go with a smaller tank, you will be limited on what you can keep. But the maintenance cost will be cheaper. 

On the other hand, you can keep consistent water parameters in larger tanks due to their large water volume. The biggest downside of owning a large reef tank is that it is more expensive to maintain.

Aquarium Stand

When it comes to aquarium stands, you can go two routes; make your DIY stand to save money or buy a new one. Whatever path you choose, you can’t go wrong.

Most of the companies that make aquariums make stands as well. I used to make my own aquarium stands in the past, but for the last build, I chose to purchase an aquarium stand from my LFS.

If you plan to go the DIY route, make sure that the stand is sturdy and capable of holding the tank weight.

RODI System

The reverse osmosis water filter system is one of those things you think you don’t need but is actually one of the most important parts of this hobby. 

Using tap water in our reef tanks is not an option for most of us. Here where the reverse osmosis system comes in handy. 

Its purpose is to produce safe water for the aquarium. The reverse osmosis system removes most of the contaminants in our tap water, including chlorine, nitrates, and phosphates. 

These filters can produce zero TDS (total dissolved solids) water which is the kind of water we want in our tanks.


The substrate is not just a visual aid in your aquarium. It serves a purpose, and it’s a big one. I know some of you might disagree with me but hear me out. 

Bare bottom tanks are a personal preference for some people, especially in the saltwater aquarium hobby, but the substrate adds more surface for the beneficial bacteria to live. In addition, bare bottom tanks take a longer time to cycle.

There are many different types of substrates you can use, so make sure to research and find something suited to your needs. I personally use the Aquaforest Bio Sand, which looks amazing, in my opinion.

Filtration System

Filtration is as important in saltwater tanks as much is in freshwater tanks. However, we pay the most attention to biological filtration in saltwater tanks. 

For larger tanks, a sump would be the ideal choice. For smaller tanks, you can use a HOB filter. It’s what I use on my nano reef tank. Additionally, you can buy an all-in-one aquarium kit with all the essential parts you need to start your journey.

Live or Dry Rock

The live rock is the backbone of the saltwater aquarium. It’s the single most important thing in your aquarium, and without it, you will face many problems in the future.

The rocks in your aquarium serve as a surface for the beneficial bacteria to attach, replicate and live. The bacteria that live on the rocks is very important because it converts the ammonia to nitrites and then to nitrates making the aquarium a safe environment for all the inhabitants.

Sea Salt Mix

This item on the list is pretty obvious because salt is what makes the aquarium saltwater. 

There are many different brands on the market, and you can’t go wrong whether you choose.

I use the Aquaforest Reef Salt in my nano reef tank.

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Make yourself a favor and buy a refractometer, not a hydrometer. You will thank me later.

Keeping stable salinity levels in a saltwater tank is vital for the health of your fish, so buying a quality refractometer should be your priority.

Luckily for us, the refractometers are more affordable today than they used to be.


If you plan to keep only fish in your saltwater aquarium, the lighting won’t play a significant role. 

However, organisms such as corals are photosynthetic and receive part of the nutritional requirements from the lighting they receive.

If insufficient lighting is provided, these animals will slowly starve to death. Lighting is probably the most important decision in setting up a saltwater aquarium.

You can skimp on virtually everything else, but not on the lighting system unless you are willing to limit your reef inhabitants to those who can tolerate the lower quality light you can provide.

Your budget and the size of the tank may determine the quality of light that you can give your reef.


The organisms in your tank rely on the temperature in the water. You need to provide heat and maintain it at the right temperature your fish and corals need.

The type of heater you need will depend on the water volume in your tank and the room temperature. If you have a larger tank, you may need two heaters.


Thermometers are pretty cheap but valuable tools in your arsenal. 

Without a thermometer, you won’t know your reef tank’s exact temperature. 

Temperature fluctuations can negatively affect both fish and corals, so having a reliable thermometer to track the temperature at different periods can help you detect arising problems and react on time.

Powerhead & Wavemakers

Powerheads and wavemakers provide water circulation and oxygenation in the aquarium. The more water movement you have, the better the water quality is. They also remove the detritus from the bottom of the tank and provide flow for the corals to thrive.

Test Kits

Part of this hobby is to test the water parameters regularly. When the aquarium is in the early stages, you need to test for ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates in the first few months. 

Those are essential test kits in your arsenal. Later on, you will need tests for pH, phosphates, alkalinity, and other important reef tank parameters.

Fish Food

There a many different types of foods you can give to your fish. Choose your type of food based on the kind of fish you intend to keep.

Maintenance Tools

To maintain a saltwater aquarium, you will need specific tools. I am talking about buckets, hoses, nets, algae scrapers, or any other tool that can help you clean the tank.

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