Saltwater Fish Tank Buying Guide

Saltwater Fish Tank

If you are a new saltwater fish tank owner or have never researched aquariums before, the process of selecting the equipment and setup can be a true challenge. Because of this we have created this saltwater fish tank selection tips article that will aid you in the process of choosing the right setup.

Set Up A Budget

Saltwater fish tanks are expensive.  There is no myth about it and we prefer to be transparent and honest with our customers.  With the amount of equipment needed to setup a tank properly and on-going maintenance, the dollars can add up.  Most of the cost is upfront with the investment in the equipment needed to properly run the tank.  Setting a budget beforehand will help you determine what you can afford and what equipment to look for.  The rule of thumb is to go with the biggest tank and sump combination you can afford. The reason for this is because the more water volume you have in your tank, the better it is protected against changes in your water parameters.

Select A Tank

There are great ready to run aquariums available these days, but not everyone can afford them.  We recommend what the industry calls a reef ready tank.  A reef ready tank is a tank that has been pre-drilled to accept a sump.  They come with an overflow to skim the surface if your tank.  You can also purchase a glass tank and have it drilled, but you will have to keep in mind that some tank manufacturers have tempered glass.  You can attempt to drill yourself, or you can do what we would recommend if you cannot afford a reef ready system.  You can join a local aquarium society chapter and one of the members can either walk you through the process or even do it for you!  We recommend glass tanks over acrylic.  Glass does not scratch easily and is able to accommodate an open stand, which means you can hold a larger sump.  When it comes to tank size, we recommend the following sizes for starting out:

SizeGallonsStandard Dimensions
Small4036 x 18 x 17
Medium7548 x 19 x 22
Large12573 x 19 x 24

Get A Sump

We recommend anyone getting into the saltwater hobby to obtain a sump.  You can have a perfectly healthy system without a sump, but a sump provides a buffer by adding additional water volume.  It also provides incredible flexibility for you to hide all your equipment, place a refugium, and a place to add additional equipment as you upgrade.  Add the largest sump you can place in your system.

When it comes to sump, we feel that the best sumps are the ones that you build yourself with a cheap chain store glass aquarium.  If you are part of an aquarium society, many of the members in the group can assist you with customizing a sump for your needs.  The chart outlines our recommend sump sizes based on tank size:

SizeDisplay GallonsSump Size From Chain Store
Small4010 – 20
Medium7520 – 29
Large12540 – 55

However, if you are not ready to venture into the DIY space, we also sell high quality sumps.

Purchase A Protein Skimmer

A protein is one of the more critical pieces of equipment for a saltwater tank for both fish only and reef setups.  They can pull all sorts of nasty waste material out of your tank.  An in-sump skimmer is our recommendation, but for those without sumps, you can purchase a high quality Reef Octopus hang on back (HOB) skimmer from us.  It is the only HOB skimmer we recommend.

Get Quality Rock

Saltwater fish tanks are unique when compared to freshwater aquariums as you can run a complete biological cycle with the right rock.  These days, the preferred method is to obtain high-quality dry rock for your tank.  We carry some of the finest dry rock on the market.

Get High Quality Water

In order to prevent nuisance algae and to carry corals in the system, we recommend purchasing a reverse osmosis unit.  Aquarium RO units work to eliminate all dissolved solid (known as Total Disolved Solids or TDS).  If you cannot afford an RO unit, you can purchase RO water locally from a local fish store.  You can purchase our recommended salt mixes from us to create the ideal blend for your needs.

Determine Your Lighting

Lighting if you plan to house corals is a big factor in a successful setup.  Determining your lighting means that you will need to determine what plans you have with your tank.  Do you want to house only fish, do you want to house fish and easy care corals, or do you want to house SPS corals.  Determine what your want will help you determine your lighting.  The good thing about lighting is that they are one of the easier pieces of equipment to upgrade later on if you change your tank plans.  We can work with you to determine your lighting needs.  These days, LED lighting is the current trend.  We recommend LEDs as the replacement costs and low wattage demands will pay off over the long-run compared to VHOs and Metal Halide systems.  You can check out our LED Aquarium Lighting guide for more info or if you are ready to shop – we sell high quality lighting from for your tank needs.

Determine Your Water Flow Requirements

Determining your flow requirements is going to come down to what you want to stock in your tank.  The flow requirements are vastly different if you plan on just keep fish versus say keeping SPS corals.  If you want just fish only, you can get by with just the flow you get from your sump return and another powerhead.  If you want corals, you will want at minimum 15-20 times the tank volume per hour of flow. This minimum can be as high as 35 -55 times for SPS corals.  The good thing with water flow is it is another area that is easily upgraded in your tank if your plans change.

Buy Test Kits

Test kits are a necessity in this hobby.  You always want to monitor your tank’s levels to ensure everything is healthy.  We recommend at minimum refractometer.  If you cannot afford a test kit, most local fish stores will test your water.