In the 7th installment of this multipart series, Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 7) Test Kits & Other Testing Equipment, we will go over test equipment options for your reef tank.
Editor’s Note: If you haven’t already, please give Part 1-6 a read as well:
- Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 1): The Tank and Stand
- Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 2): Essential Equipment
- Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 3): Other Equipment
- Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 4): Aquascaping
- Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 5): Additives and Food
- Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 6): Water and Salt
Regularly testing your water will ensure your water parameters are where they should be and remain stable over time. This regular testing is a crucial component to maintaining a happy and thriving reef tank.
1. Starter Kits / Test Kits for Cycling a New Tank
During the cycling process, your tank will go through several significant and time-consuming chemical changes. In the beginning, Nitrosomonas bacteria convert ammonia to nitrites. Additional bacteria then convert these nitrites into nitrates. In the final stage, water changes remove these nitrates from the system. To have a successful and full cycle, you must experience a spike in all three areas; ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Monitoring this process with daily water tests is the only way to ensure your tank goes through a full cycle. Kits are available for this process, and they commonly include pH, Nitrate, Nitrite, and Ammonia tests. Individual test kits are also available.
Recommended Test Kits: Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate
Budget Recommendation: Price ranges from $25 to $60 for kits and $5 to $30 for singles kits. The API Saltwater Master Kit is a great budget option. Although not the most accurate, they are good enough to show you how the cycling process is proceeding. The Red Sea and Salifert test kits are also reliable; however, more expensive options.
2. Standard Kits / Kits for Everyday Use
Each of these parameters is essential to maintaining a thriving reef tank. These parameters are also interrelated, so a change to one parameter may impact another. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend testing these parameters at least once a week. Let’s go over why each parameter is important and how the other parameters impact them.
Calcium: Ideally kept between 400-450ppm
Corals, coralline algae, and more depend on calcium to grow. Corals with a skeleton can not develop a calcium carbonate skeleton without the proper levels of calcium. Inadequate calcium levels can cause a lack of coloration, stunted growth, coral stress, and even death. Both alkalinity and magnesium levels will impact an aquarium’s calcium level.
Alkalinity: Ideally kept between 8-12 dKH
Alkalinity is not technically one specific parameter but instead a summation of many individual measurements. This parameter serves two critical roles; maintaining a stable pH and providing carbonate and bicarbonate for coral health and growth. Alkalinity and calcium parameters play an important role together. If one is high, it usually means the other is low and vice versa.
Magnesium: Ideally kept between 1250-1350 ppm
Magnesium is not only essential to all organism’s biological functions, but it also plays a vital role in maintaining calcium and alkalinity levels for your reef tank.
Nitrate: Ideally kept between 0.25-5 ppm
Corals and reef plants feed off nitrate, which is why aquariums with 0 nitrate levels are unhappy. As silly as it sounds, raising your nitrates just a touch may be the solution. On the flip side, high nitrates can cause coral stress, death, and algae growth.
Phosphate: Ideally kept between .02 and .05 ppm
Like nitrate, corals, reef plants, and other livestock need a little bit of phosphate to thrive as phosphorus is essential for growing tissue. The trick is finding the right balance between the right amount and too much as any organic substance in the tank can break down and cause phosphate levels to rise to unsafe levels. If you’re having issues with pest or nuisance algae in your tank, your phosphate levels will usually test low even though, in reality, they are high. This is because the nuisance algae are using up the phosphate as soon as it becomes available.
Recommended Test Kits: Calcium, Alkalinity, Magnesium, Nitrate, and Phosphate
Budget Recommendation: You can expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $100 for a good, all spectrum kit. One of the best bangs for your buck is the Salifert Master Kit, which includes Calcium, Nitrate, Phosphate, pH, Alkalinity, and Magnesium for around $90.
3. Other Common Kits
Test Iodine and strontium as needed. Here’s why they are important.
Iodine: Ideally kept around 0.06 ppm
Low levels of iodine may inhibit growth and digestion, while high levels can be toxic to fish, invertebrates, and coral. Iodide is an inorganic form of iodine and is the safest and most common form of iodine to add to a reef tank. With regular water changes dosing iodine, separately is usually not needed. However, if you add/dose Iodine separately, we recommend testing iodine levels every week as high iodine levels are toxic.
Strontium: Ideally kept between 5-15 ppm
Many organisms use strontium in the development of their skeletons. Keeping these levels stable and in the ideal range has increased both hard corals and coralline algae’s growth rates. Levels too high can be toxic to marine life. We recommend testing at least once a month.
Budget Recommendation: Expect to pay $20-$30 for each test. Both Red Sea and Salifert made reliable options. A Hanna Checker for Iodine, which runs around $50, is more expensive up front, but it is generally cheaper in the long run if you are testing iodine regularly.
Other Testing Equipment
1. ICP Testing
An ICP or Inductively Coupled Plasma test kit measures 30+ parameters by injecting the sample water into a plasma chamber at high temperatures. This process breaks everything down into individual elements. Each element produces a unique spectrum, which is measured to determine its concentration. We recommended ICP testing every 3-4 months as it will help troubleshoot potential issues with your aquarium and cross-reference the accuracy of the test kits you are using.
Budget Recommendation: Expect to pay $30 to $50 for each test.
Section 2: Hydrometer / Refractometer
Salinity in your tank can be measured using both a hydrometer and a refractometer. Hydrometers are more affordable, however, refractometers are generally more accurate. If you opt for a hydrometer, please clean it after each use as salt residue or anything on the swing arm can throw off your measurement.
Budget Recommendation: Expect to pay $8 to $15 for a hydrometer. Refractometers start at about $25 and can run upwards of $100. At approximately $9, the Instant Ocean and Fluval Sea hydrometers are a great value. The Bulk Reef Supply Refractometers starting at $35 are an excellent bang for your buck.
Once you find a particular test kit or brand you like, it is generally a good idea to continue using that same kit for consistency.