How Simple Can You Get with Your Marine Aquarium?

Simple saltwater aquariumWhile the title of this post puts me in mind of a song performed by Nick Rivers in the 1984 comedy film Top Secret, it’s a question many a novice has posed before setting up his or her first marine aquarium. How basic can it be? Or, put another way, what equipment is absolutely essential and what isn’t?

This is a perfectly logical question because ours can be a highly equipment-intensive hobby, and the choices of gear and gadgets designed to make our lives easier can be downright mind-blowing. Add in all the online forum chatter about—and volatile disputes over—the latest-and-greatest hobby technology and methodology, and it’s no surprise that many beginners have a heck of a time distinguishing between the bare essentials and the “bells and whistles.”

Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that opinions on what constitutes “essential equipment” can vary widely from one hobbyist to the next.

I would humbly submit that the following items are all you really need for a bare-bones saltwater setup:

  • Tank and stand
  • Submersible heater(s)
  • Powerhead(s) for water movement
  • A lighting system—either normal output or reef-grade depending on livestock
  • Live rock for biofiltration and natural reef structure/aquascaping
  • A quality protein skimmer for export of dissolved organic compounds
  • A hydrometer or refractometer and a good water-parameter test kit.

(Note that you’ll also need various and sundry small-ticket items used for regular operation and maintenance, such as aquarium brushes, an algae magnet, etc. Plus, if you plan to keep a reef system, you’ll need to add some means of calcium/alkalinity supplementation to the list.)

Some folks might say this list is grossly incomplete while others might contend you could get by without some of the items on it. But with the exception of a sump and its associated overflow and return pump, this is pretty much all I use for my 125-gallon system. In fact, every system I’ve ever kept has been, more or less, this basic, and I’ve always been quite gratified with the results.

Do keep in mind, however, that the less equipment-intensive you make your system, the more labor-intensive it will tend to be. For example, if you were to forego the protein skimmer (as some hobbyists do), you would need to compensate with more frequent water changes and/or other means of nutrient export to maintain good water quality.

Also, because no chores are automated in a bare-bones system, you’re more directly tied to it on a day-to-day basis. That means vacation travel, business trips, etc. can present a dilemma if you can’t find anyone to step in and attend to these chores for you. I’m fortunate in that my in-laws are always willing to help in this regard and have done so often enough to have a fairly solid grasp of what needs to be done.

As I see it, “simple” isn’t so much a question of the exact equipment lineup, but the philosophy with which you approach that initial setup. There’s no right or wrong, but for beginners, I generally think it’s best to start with a very basic setup, master those fundamental concepts and techniques, and then work up to the bells and whistles if desired.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Leslie Melling says

    Keeping marines is no different than any other hobby apart from the fact we are keeping live animals and so they deserve to get the best possible treatment are and cwe can provide. That is the bottom line, but having said that like any hobby you can make it as simple or more complicated as you wish. EG compare it to say photography. You can spend a few $ or many thousands, but neither will guarantee you success.

    Back in the day we had success with under gravel filtration no skimmers and just a tube or two. salt and the available equipment was poor by today’s standards. Sure the success was limited but then we only kept fish and maybe a few hardy soft corals. Information what there was, was poor with no interweb thing and just the odd article in fishkeeping magazines. The variety of fish was small and limited in choice of corals.

    I grew Caulerpa in my tanks used air pumps that made a racket to power under gravel filters. Few people start in this hobby with an all singing all dancing set up, Is it better to cut your teeth starting with a basic system and learning your trade as we did? I think it is. With technology comes an even bigger learning curve and to a newbie it can be daunting, it was bad enough back in the day even though in many ways it was simpler and easy to coach somebody into marines.

    We don’t know how lucky we are today but with that luck comes down sides.

  2. This is easy. As Leslie said, you can make it as complicated as you like or as simple. What is definitely “needed” is water and some means to move the water like an airpump or powerhead. That is as simple as you can get. You can even do a reef like that, but of course you will only be able to keep some non photosynthetic corals and inverts. Most fish will be fine on just some daylight. But the majority of us don’t strive for a Beta tank. Virtually everything else you add to a tank besides the water and circulating means is to “help” us with maintenance. If you want to change water very often, you can get away with no skimmer. If you don’t mind dosing some chemicals by hand every few days (like I do) then you don’t need any dosers. If you don’t mind turning on the lights by hand, then you don’t need any timers. If you are planning on only keeping temperate species, then you don’t need a heater. Leslie mentioned that back in the day, we got along with an undergravel filter. That is true and I still use one. Are there better options? That is debatable. Just like many years ago the idea of a perfect Supermodel was vastly different than they are today. Tastes change.

  3. As a novice myself, only 8 months in the hobby I started out very simple and slowly purchased upgrades. I started with a 38gal tank, t5 lighting, 35 lbs base rock, 5 lbs live rock (to seed) a small protein skimmer, hob filter and a submersible heater. That’s it. With only that equipment after 6 months I threw in a new and it is thriving. I am also able to keep sps and lps without any problems. Oh Ya, I also threw in 10lbs of coral sand.

    It doesn’t have to be difficult however I do a 10 gal water change every other week. As I started upgrading, I replaced the light with a 165 watt led and upgraded to a canister filter as my bio load increased so did my need to constantly replace the filter media in my hob filter. The light was my most important upgrade and I got this off eBay for 130 dollars and needed it prior to putting the sps and nem in. My t5 only had one 22 inch white and one blue in it and I figured this was not enough

    Just my thoughts.

  4. Woops, I also started with 3 power heads to ensure adequate flow.

  5. My first Marine tank was a 60l tank with a under gravel filter and a very small wet and dry filter and protein skimmer and two T8 18/20 watt actanic and white light.With this tank I cut my teeth into keeping marine fish.I had 3 tube worms and 4 Green Chromis in it and With it I made all the mistakes one can make and that was 25yrs ago without all of todays technolgy

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