While 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.