Aquarium & Tropical Fish Site

Basic Components and Costs of a Reef Tank

 Age of Aquariums > Aquarium Articles


Starting a reef tank is an enjoyable hobby, although an expensive and time consuming one. Below is a list of basic equipment that you will need to ensure survival of your corals. This equipment list is for those who wish to keep hard corals, either SPS or LPS or both. I chose equipment of known quality. Although it is not on the upper end of the spectrum, it is easily serviceable and will be sufficient for good growth and healthy corals. With this system you can also keep soft corals, and the lighting and filtration should be considered a minimum for keeping an anemone.

The equipment list is based on brands commonly available in the USA. All values are figured in U.S. Dollars as of April 2006. Neither the author nor this website have any commercial association or interest in the brands listed, they were chosen as examples and based on purely technical criteria.

  •  75G tank (280 L) and stand (not reef ready) - $300.00
    The price difference between a 55G (200 L) tank and a 75G tank is negligible. More water volume plus a larger footprint will make placement of rock and corals easier and water parameters more stable.

  •  RO/DI filter - $120.00
    Reefs require nearly perfect water conditions. Tap water is treated with many different chemicals, and these cause problems in a Reef. It is better to start with pure water and add what is needed.

  •  AquaC Remora Skimmer - $170.00
    There are many skimmers available in the market today. The Remora is a very simple design and works very well at removing wastes in the water. Please don't buy ineffective skimmers, and remember to ask other reefers about a choice you have made before you buy it. Experience from others in this hobby is one of your best resources.

  •  Instant Ocean Salt 150 gal - $40.00

  •  CaribSea substrate #40 - $40.00

  • Titanium Heater with digital control - $70.00
    Glass heaters work, but you have a lot of rock in a tank and if a piece of rock falls on a glass heater and breaks it, you will lose power and possibly lose all of your livestock as well. The titanium heater solves this problem, and a remote digitally controlled one is more stable and less likely to fail.

  •  2x Hamilton Reefstar HQI 250 Watt DE 14K bulbs - $650.00
    Corals require intensive lighting. High power flourescents are OK for soft corals, but our goal here is hard corals. They require the best lighting, and that is metal halides. Each fixture is designed to cover approximately 60 cm of tank length.

  •  100 lbs live rock 8.00/ lb - $800.00
    Live rock is essential for its filtering ability and coral placement. Nitrates are always produced in the aquarium, and need to be converted. Live rock achieves this de-nitrification in its anoxic or oxygen deprived areas. Normally you want to figure 1 or 2 kg of rock per 10 liters of water.

  •  2x Seio 1500 Powerheads - $160.00
    Intense circulation is important, but you do not want a concentrated blast of water aimed at your corals. The Seio and Tunze equipment give you a soft but large volume of water movement.

  •  Precision Marine Calcium Reactor - $250.00
    A calcium reactor is used to keep the calcium, alkalinity and magnesium levels constant. Hard corals use these 3 major components for growth and the reactor provides them without the need to constantly monitor and dose chemicals. Stability is the key here and dosing chemicals is hazardous to the corals if you make a mistake and overdose.

  •  ARM Media - $20.00
    This is the media that powers a calcium reactor, as it dissolves it releases back into the water the calcium, alkalinity and magnesium needed.

  •  CO2 regulator - $100.00
    Used to keep a constant and correct amount of CO2 to the reactor and control dissolution rate.

  •  Milwaukee PH Controller - $100.00
    This is used to monitor and control the effluent coming from the reactor. Dissolution of the ARM media is achieved by injecting co2 into the reactor which reduces the ph to the a point where the media begins to dissolve. This is where the calcium, alkalinity and magnesium come from. You need control over the ph and co2 injection and this controller gives you that control.

  •  Calibration Solution - $10.00
    Controllers need periodic calibration to remain accurate.

  •  10 lb (5 kg) tank of CO2 - $80.00
    A 10 lb tank of CO2 is only slightly larger than a 5 lb (2.5 kg) and will last from 6 months to a year before needing to be re-filled. It is only slightly more in initial cost than a 5 lb tank.

  •  Salifert Test Kits, Calcium, Alkalinity and Magnesium - $70.00
    There are many brands of testing kits on the market, these are considered the best quality and the best value. They are easy to use and easy to store.

  •  Refractometer - $50.00
    Used to measure salinity. Don't use a swing arm Hydrometer, they are known for being inaccurate.

  •  Mag 3 for mixing salt - $40.00
    This pump is used to mix new water for water changes, it has an added benefit of heating the water as well, negating the need for a separate heater, and will provide sufficient water movement in the mixing container to negate the need for aeration of the water.

  •  Filstar XP2 Canister for carbon and phosban - $70.00
    Most reefers use a canister filter for this purpose. Carbon is important to remove any toxins in the water and the phosban removes phosphates. Some also use a nitrate absorbing resin here as well, to help control nitrates. Remember to change the carbon weekly. It is recommended to have the carbon in the topmost chamber of the filter, as you will replace it more frequently than the other media. Remember to clean the filter weekly to avoid the production of nitrates.

  •  Total - $3140.00

    This list is for equipment that will make it easier to keep your livestock alive. There are some items many choose not to use such as a calcium reactor. They choose to test and dose daily to keep the water parameters correct. This works when you first start a system and the requirements for calcium and alkalinity are small. As the corals grow, the battle to keep your water parameters correct becomes overwhelming for most, and the costs of supplements and test kits add up quickly. The cost of a reactor is negligible for long term health. The cost of the supplements and test kits and your time become extensive after 1 year, and equal the cost of the reactor and required equipment.

    Quite often people lose all of their livestock simply because they cannot keep their water parameters stable and the tank crashes. Stability is the key to growth and health. The last thing anyone wants to see is a tank crash...which is what happens when things start going wrong and escalate rapidly. There are numerous reasons for a crash, but usually it is caused by poor water conditions, balance not kept and poor selections of livestock. Excessive nutrients are the usual culprit or death of a species that releases its toxic components into the water. The effects of a tank not in balance are devasting and can kill everything in the tank. There is an old addage in this hobby that is very true: "Good things take a very long time and bad things happen overnight."

    There are ways to cut the cost slightly, with a dead base rock and seeding it with live rock. This does work, and can save you about half the cost of all live rock. Buying used equipment can also save some money, just make sure of its origin and condition. There are no substitutes for high-end equipment. A cheaper skimmer that works only when perfectly clean will require a lot more maintenance and can cause instablilty in the water. Avoid the cheap skimmer, this is one of the most important items in your equipment list.

    Finally, I would like to touch on safety for a moment. You will have a lot of electrical equipment near salt water, which is highly conductive of electricity. It is of utmost importance to have your equipment plugged into GFCI circuitry, which in simple terms is a circuit designed to cut off the electricity in case of a short circuit. Frequently your body is that short circuit and protection is important for your safety. Many people use a grounding probe to catch stray voltage from poorly designed and malfunctioning equipment. This is important as well, but that stray voltage can usually be traced to cheap equipment. I do suggest buying equipment that is Underwriters Laboratories approved. (UL for short) If it isn't labeled as such, contact the manufacturer and find out if it is. Avoid products that are not UL approved, if at all possible.

    Reader Comments

     Submit a Comment 

    Got some experience to share for this page? No registration necessary to contribute! Your privacy is respected: your e-mail is published only if you wish so. All submissions are reviewed before addition. Write based on your personal experiences, with no abbreviations, no chat lingo, and using proper punctuation and capitalization. Ready? Then send your comments!

  • oF <=> oC in <=> cm G <=> L