Chapter 6: An Equipment Overview

     First and foremost, I’d like to apologize that I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of weeks. I’ve been preparing for a huge series that I’ll announce within the next couple of weeks and I’ve been absolutely, CRAZY busy. Needless to say, I’d rather put the Beginner’s Aquarium Guide series on hold for a couple of weeks, rather than dish out sub-par, in-a-hurry information. I’m all about quality, not quantity!

     When it comes to setting up your very first reef, quality equipment is often overlooked to save a few bucks. That’s not to say that you should put yourself in to debt for the hobby, but you’ll certainly get what you pay for in most instances.


     Let’s talk about a few necessary pieces of equipment, but first, let’s decide what type of tank you’ll be working with. Here’s a few common configurations for reef tanks.

1.       Pre-Drilled Tank (With Sump) – In this setup, tanks are often drilled with holes for internal overflow drains and return pipes. The benefit of these setups is that your display tank will filter to an external sump, refugium, or other tanks, providing plenty of customization tailored to your individual needs. Customization comes with a price, though! Expect to put in a lot more blood, sweat, and tears if you choose this configuration.

2.       HOB Overflow Box on Tank (With Sump) – Often times, this setup is for those of us with a glass or acrylic that you can’t take the drill to. Since you won’t have any holes drilled, also keep in mind that your return plumbing will need to be external as well. After personal experience with a HOB Overflow, I don’t have the kindest of words about them, but more power to you if it’s all you’ve got to work with! Other than not having holes drilled for overflow or plumbing, this setup is similar to your typical reef-ready (Pre-drilled) tank.

3.       All-in-One – You’ve always got the option of doing an All-in-One system. With an internal filtration and return pump (usually built into the back), this system holds true to its classification. All-in-One systems usually fall under the category of Nano Reefs and are generally more sensitive to regular maintenance and changes in water parameters.

4.       HOB Filters or Cannister Filtered Tanks – While these are certainly some of the easiest to set up, these configurations usually require more frequent water changes and consistent testing. These options are generally for Nano Reefs and aren’t recommended for larger reef setups.

     Alright, so you’ve decided on the type of system you want and you’re ready to start buying some equipment. Hold on there, partner! Certain pieces of equipment will only apply to certain setups.

     Let’s get the easiest system out of the way first. The All-in-One system really only needs four pieces of equipment to sustain itself. You’ll need a heater, a return pump, powerheads, and of course lighting. Let’s go ahead and talk about a few of these basic pieces of equipment as well as some more intermediate to advanced pieces of equipment.

The Basics

  • Heaters – Essential in maintaining an adequate temperature for your livestock, a heater is a must in your reef aquarium. Heaters come in various wattage outputs and usually mention on their packaging the water volume that they support. With heaters, ensure that you carefully follow the directions and keep it submersed in water while running.

  • Chillers and Fans – Just like heaters, chillers and fans can be used to control the temperature of your water, particularly if you live in a warmer climate or you like to keep your home a little warmer. They do just the opposite of a heater. Generally you want to keep that temperature somewhere between 72-82 degrees Fahrenheit, but that’s all subjective and depending on your livestock. Do your research!

  • Pumps – Pumps are important in keeping the water moving throughout your system. Pumps will often be referred to as “Return Pumps” as they are used to return water to your display tank or main system.

  • Powerheads – Used to provide movement/current in the water column and stir up detritus/debris from within your rocks and your sand bed, powerheads are another essential piece of equipment to sustain aquatic life.

  • Lighting – As a pretty self-explanatory necessity to running your Reef Aquarium, ensure that you don’t skimp on your lights. With options like T5s, LEDs, High Output LEDs, and Metal Halides, you’ve got plenty of affordable solutions to provide the right lighting to your reef environment. Be sure to do plenty of research on lighting to ensure you’re not overpowering or “underpowering” your livestock.

The Intermediate

  • Protein Skimmers – They might sound complicated but perform the very simple task of forming a “foam head” to break down and lift organic compounds like food and fish waste into a collection cup for removal from your aquarium. Protein Skimmers can either run internal, external, or as a hang-on. When shopping, be sure to understand what type of skimmer you’re buying to meet your system’s needs. Spend as much as you can comfortably part with and you’ll thank yourself in the long run!

  • Timers – Timers allow you to customize your time schedules. For example, if your lighting doesn’t come with a built in timer, you can utilize a timer that plugs right into your wall outlet to set your lighting schedule. They’re also helpful in scheduling other pieces of equipment that would otherwise need a controller.

  • RO/DI Systems – These are used to take normal tap water and filter it to ideally 0 PPM or Parts Per Million which, in lamens terms, means removing 99% of the elements in your city water that can be harmful to your livestock. While they aren’t a necessity, investing in an RO/DI system will save you plenty of money, gas, time, and effort in the long run; Not to mention you’ll always have a fresh batch on hand.

  • Auto Top Off Systems – Again, not a necessity, but Auto Top Off systems are used quite literally to automatically top off your system with fresh water due to natural evaporation. Many Auto Top Off systems utilize electronics, switches, and sensors, but a popular and affordable form of Auto Top Off is Gravity Fed Top Offs which use a float valve to halt the water supply from the top off reservoir when it reaches a desired level. Gravity Fed solutions generally don’t need any electronics.

The Advanced

  • Reactors – Carbon, Media, Biopellet, Nitrate, and Calcium Reactors, oh my! Reactors are usually cylinder-like containers that push water through series of different filtrations, depending on your needs. In a nut shell, reactors are by no means a necessity, but do provide plenty more bells and whistles to better control your water parameters.

  • UV Sterilizers – These are normally used as an extra precaution, passing your system’s water through a UV bulb to kill off unwanted parasites, algae, and bacteria. You know, just an extra measure to keep your mini ecosystem in check!

  • Controllers – Controllers are the bee’s knees, guys. Especially for you techies, controllers allow you to control a variety of equipment throughout your system from one platform, rather than going around and individually setting everything. They can be especially useful with configuring lighting, pumps, and powerheads. If you’ve got the extra cash, go for it!

  • Dosing Equipment – Dosing equipment allows you to automatically dose trace elements and other aquarium additives to your system. Again, it’s one of those things that won’t make or break your tank, but it’ll certainly make life a little easier on you.

     Anyways, the list goes on and on, folks! I’ve just listed a few of many, many pieces of equipment that continually emerge in the growing hobby. I personally don’t use a lot of the more advanced equipment available, but I also don’t have a big fat wad of cash hanging out my britches. This is the basics of the basics, guys. Don’t get overwhelmed. Get what you need to start out with and spend the big bucks on the essentials. Don’t go out and buy a $300 UV Sterilizer if you don’t even have an adequate heater in your tank!

     Be smart, do your research, and stay tuned for next week’s Beginner’s Aquarium Guide, CH 7: Plumbing. You won’t want to miss out next week! As always, feel free to share your thoughts and hit that “like” button below!