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Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 2): Essential Equipment

Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 2): Essential Equipment

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t already, give Part 1 of this series a read first: Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 1): The Tank and Stand

As part of our multipart blog series for Reef Tanks on a Budget, in today’s feature we’ll discuss the equipment needed to make your reef tank run. Most experienced hobbyists would consider the products on this list essential for keeping a successful reef tank. We will talk about what to look for in each piece of equipment, as well as provide pointers for keeping costs at a minimum.

The Sump

Reef Tanks on a Budget - The Sump: Simplicity 75SS Sump
Simplicity 75SS Sump

The sump is the heart of most reef tanks’ filtration systems. It usually includes a protein skimmer, filter sock, heater and return pump. Sumps can also contain a refugium along with additional equipment, depending on the type.

Sumps are one of the easiest DIY projects for an aquarium. One option is to purchase a DIY sump conversion kit, then convert an inexpensive glass aquarium into a sump. Alternatively, you could also purchase a filter sock holder and a couple of baffles to turn a cheap glass aquarium into a sump. The last option is to buy a pre-made sump; however, these are generally more expensive.

Budget Recommendation: DIY sump

The Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer removes fish waste, food and other organic waste before it can break down. Removing this waste helps keep ammonia and nitrite levels at zero, and it will keep nitrate and phosphate in check as well.

There are two primary types of skimmers: internal and external. Internal skimmers are the most common because they are readily available and inexpensive. They are also hidden from plain sight inside the sump. Generally, they are safer than external skimmers because the sump will contain any leaks or overflows. 

A good quality protein skimmer does not have to break the bank. In many cases, skimmers are more expensive merely because of the brand name on the box. Instead, you should look for a quality skimmer that features a reliable pump, a wedge pipe and an air valve for dialing in performance.

Need help choosing the right protein skimmer? Click here to read our tips for selecting the right protein skimmer for your aquarium here.

Budget Recommendation: Simplicity DC In-Sump Protein Skimmer or similar.

The Return Pump

The return pump pushes water that drains into the sump, back into the tank. In a saltwater aquarium, the general rule is to turn over the tank’s volume 5-10 times per hour.

Internal return pumps are placed inside a sump. This saves space underneath the aquarium stand and is generally cheaper and quieter than an external pump of comparable size. External return pumps are usually more powerful. They are generally more powerful than a submersible pump.

Prices vary widely, but generally it’s safe to purchase a budget-friendly pump. Just ensure the pump has a solid reputation with fellow aquarists and a dependable manufacturer’s warranty.

Budget Recommendation: Simplicity DC Internal Pump or similar.

The Circulation / Wave Pump

Reef Tanks on a Budget - Circulation: Rossmont M900 Mover Circulation Pump
Rossmont M900 Mover Circulation Pump

Good water flow is a necessity for corals in a reef tank. As a general rule, the flow should be 20 times the size of the aquarium. For a 40 gallon tank, that translates to a circulation pump rated at 800 or more gallons per hour. Additionally, as the length of the aquarium increases, more circulation pumps are needed. As a general rule, we recommend two or more pumps for tanks that are 4 feet long or longer.

There is a wide variety of features and pricing among wave pumps. Higher-end circulation pumps feature advanced control and synchronization. These can cost nearly the same as the tank and stand. If you are willing to live without some of these advanced features though, it’s definitely possible to find a wave pump for a fraction of the cost.  

Budget Recommendation: A wave pump with adequate flow and a dependable manufacturer’s warranty.

The Lighting

The Lighting: ATI SunPower Lighting
ATI SunPower Lighting

Quality lighting on a tight budget can be tricky. Although plenty of inexpensive options exist, the quality of these lights can be questionable. And what is the point of having a reef tank if you can’t keep and grow beautiful corals?

On the high end of the spectrum, top-end lighting can run into the thousands of dollars. To get a quality light without breaking the bank, consider a middle-of-the-road option. For example, a good quality T5 light fixture is considerably cheaper than a quality LED light. However, replacing T5 bulbs every 6-12 months can add up quickly. If you have your heart set on LEDs, consider a modular LED lighting system where you can add additional lights to your set-up as your aquarium matures.

Budget Recommendation: No recommendation. Lights are essential, so pick a quality light that will let you keep and grow the coral you desire.

The Heater

Aquarium Heater
Aquarium Heater

Most aquariums require a heater to keep water temperatures from dropping, especially in the colder months of the year. There are two primary option: glass heaters and titanium heaters.

Glass heaters are more economical; however, these can break or crack, causing an electrical short or overheating an aquarium. In contrast, titanium heaters are more expensive but are generally more reliable and safer to use.

Budget Recommendation: Spend a little more on a titanium heater. It is a good insurance policy since the cost of replacing livestock from a failed, or faulty glass heater is much higher than the price of a titanium heater.

When shopping around for products to stay within budget, always make sure to read the reviews! Multiple bad reviews and low ratings of a product are usually signs that you should look in a different direction. With so many options out there though, finding reef tanks on a budget while suiting your needs shouldn’t be too difficult. Happy reefing!

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