In or­der to run a suc­cess­ful ma­rine tank, a few key pieces of hard­ware are es­sen­tial. Here’s what you’ll need…

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Marine Guide -

Cir­cu­la­tion pumps

Flow is vi­tal, es­pe­cially where corals are con­cerned. With­out it, they can­not feed prop­erly and can­not ex­crete their wastes.

Pumps should be sized ac­cord­ing to the tank you have – there’s no ex­tra econ­omy of scale in­volved in buy­ing too large a pump for your aquar­ium. In­deed, it may turn out to up­set corals and kill them off.

For ex­tra ef­fect, pumps can be con­nected to a wave-maker de­vice, with al­ter­nate flows from one to the other in or­der to cre­ate a back-and­forth wash­ing mo­tion.

Test kit

Ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial. At a bare min­i­mum you want tests for am­mo­nia, ni­trite and ni­trate, as well as ph. Th­ese will tell you whether your tank is safe, and if any ad­just­ments in wa­ter man­age­ment are needed.

Don’t be daunted by test kits – most of them are now very user-friendly, with easy to read in­struc­tions. Test­ing usu­ally in­volves adding wa­ter to a test tube, mix­ing reagents from one or two bot­tles and com­par­ing to a colour chart. They are quick to per­form and make the dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure.

Note that in a stony coral reef tank, the level of test­ing may be so ad­vanced as to re­quire send­ing sam­ples to a lab for a full anal­y­sis. How­ever, for a be­gin­ner with a soft coral tank, a good se­lec­tion of liq­uid tests will suf­fice.

Hy­drom­e­ter or re­frac­tome­ter

Given a choice be­tween a hy­drom­e­ter and a re­frac­tome­ter (pic­tured be­low), the lat­ter is gen­er­ally more ac­cu­rate, but both of th­ese de­vices are de­signed to mea­sure the amount of salt in your aquar­ium wa­ter.

Ma­rine fish need to be kept within a very nar­row range of salin­ity, which equates to roughly 35g of salt per litre of wa­ter. Reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing will al­low you to see whether nat­u­ral evap­o­ra­tion has made the wa­ter in your tank es­pe­cially salty. If it has, you can di­lute it as nec­es­sary un­til it’s within the ac­cept­able range again. A hy­drom­e­ter or re­frac­tome­ter is also a vi­tal piece of equip­ment when it comes to do­ing your

reg­u­lar par­tial wa­ter changes.


The type of heater used in aquaria is called a ‘heater­stat’, which is a heat­ing el­e­ment en­cased in a wa­ter­tight glass tube that has a ther­mo­static con­trol on it some­where (usu­ally on the top). Ther­mostats can be ana­logue – a sim­ple dial that moves up or down – or they can be dig­i­tally con­trolled. Note that in the world of heaters, you gen­er­ally get what you pay for, and cheaper mod­els tend to have a higher fail­ure rate.


Aquar­ium lights will have the cor­rect spec­trum for grow­ing corals, and come in two types – flu­o­res­cent and light-emit­ting diode (LED).

Flu­o­res­cent lights are the cheaper op­tion to buy ini­tially, but have rel­a­tively high run­ning costs due to high wattages and the need to re­place light tubes reg­u­larly.

LED lights are more ex­pen­sive, but are far more cost ef­fec­tive in the long run, and most have a life­span that runs into tens of thou­sands of hours be­fore they need re­plac­ing. LED lights are of­ten con­trol­lable in a way that flu­o­res­cent lights are not, al­low­ing you to dim and brighten them, change colours and spec­trums to suit par­tic­u­lar corals, even to the point of repli­cat­ing nat­u­ral sun­light (in­clud­ing cloud cover) over the course of a 24-hour cy­cle.

Protein skim­mer

Most new­com­ers are baf­fled by protein skim­mers, but they’re ac­tu­ally quite sim­ple de­vices. Protein skim­mers use the power and prop­er­ties of tiny bub­bles (which are ex­tremely sticky to pro­teins) to col­lect a froth of protein foam in a cup that sits on top of the skim­mer.

The beauty of this is that in re­mov­ing pro­teins (which are made up of amino acids), the skim­mer is re­mov­ing lots of the waste that has the po­ten­tial to turn into am­mo­nia (see page 8 for more on this) be­fore it has had chance to be­come am­mo­nia. In turn, that puts a great re­lief on bi­o­log­i­cal fil­tra­tion, mean­ing cleaner wa­ter and fewer wa­ter changes.

Protein skim­mers can be fid­dly to work with and do re­quire reg­u­lar ad­just­ments to keep work­ing at their best, but once you get the hang of them, they’re no trick­ier than any other piece of aquar­ium equip­ment.


This can be made of ei­ther glass or acrylic. Acrylic is tougher, and a safer bet if you have chil­dren or pets in the house, but it does scratch more eas­ily.

Glass aquaria come in ei­ther plain or ‘low iron’ (some­times called op­ti­white, or high-clar­ity) con­struc­tion. Some tanks have lids, oth­ers are open-topped. Note that open-topped tanks in­crease the risk of fish jump­ing out (and of things fall­ing in), as well as in­crease the rate of evap­o­ra­tion, but tanks with a built-in hood may be re­stric­tive on light­ing op­tions.


This must be aquar­ium suit­able. Cheap MDF cab­i­nets from generic fur­ni­ture sup­pli­ers may be too weak, and are also prone to swelling and de­grad­ing if they get wet. Al­ways use a des­ig­nated aquar­ium cab­i­net where pos­si­ble. Note that one litre of wa­ter weighs 1kg, so a 120-litre tank, com­bined with glass and rocks, may weigh well over 150kg – far be­yond the ca­pac­ity of your av­er­age bed­side dress­ing ta­ble.

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