So you think you have your reef tank all figured out?

Just when you have installed the ATO, got your dosing regimen down and your corals are starting to grow in nicely—your return pump freezes up and now your tank is down until you can get it back up and running. 

Maybe you went on vacation for the weekend and your buddy Bobby doesn't seem to grasp the concept of one cube of frozen food per day! You get home to green walls, sucked up corals and a load of frustration you simply did not need.

In these unexpected instances, it is much better to be prepared. Hope for the best but plan for the worst, right?

We put together a list of important tools every reef hobbyist should have on hand at all times. These items will not only help make reef keeping more enjoyable, but also keep you prepared for that unexpected reef tank emergency.


Refractometers are pretty much a staple tool for any marine aquarium hobbyist. They quickly and accurately provide you with salinity readings. Refractometers are helpful for mixing your own saltwater at home and spot checking your aquarium to ensure your ATO is functioning properly.

Coral Propogation Supplies

Fragging is not reserved for mature reef tanks that need a pruning. Many times I have been cleaning my glass and accidentally broke off a piece of SPS. How about those pesky polyps that seem to grow like weeds and kill everything they touch? By having some fragging tools within reach, it makes it easy to quickly mount these extra corals to share with friends or trade with your local fish store.


Seems simple, but most of us fail to keep towels close to our fish tank. I don't know how many times I have removed my powerhead for maintenance and dripped water halfway across my living room to the kitchen sink. Towels also come in handy to quickly wipe down the outside of your tank after some routine maintenance to keep the dreaded salt creep at bay.

Tongs and/or Tweezers

Some nice tongs or tweezers are very useful for reef aquariums. They provide a safe and easy way to move around frags inside the aquarium without harming yourself or the corals. They are also great when feeding large chunks of frozen food and seaweed. I have found them very handy when fragging and pruning back overgrown corals as well.

Distilled White Vinegar

Seems a bit strange, but distilled white vinegar works miracles when cleaning your pumps, heaters or filters. Vinegar is very acidic and after just a few hours of soaking your equipment, the calcareous build-up can easily be scrubbed away with a firm bristle brush. This makes it easy to keep your pumps in working order and avoid an emergency pump failure. Just be sure to thoroughly rinse with RO/DI water before placing the equipment back into your aquarium.

Spare Return Pump and Heater

Just in case the unexpected should arise, having a spare heater and return pump can really save you some headache. Especially if you have a mature reef tank, where the equipment being used may be 2-3 years old. A fully stocked reef tank can crash within just a few hours of losing water flow and/or stable temperatures.

Water Parameter Reference Chart and Log

If you're like me, maintaining stable water chemistry is one of the most intriguing and challenging parts of keeping a reef. By keeping a reference chart handy along with an ongoing log of your water tests, it makes maintaining your reef much easier. A modern aquarium controller can even provide you with graphical displays of your tank's parameters making it easy to spot trends and quickly identify hidden problems in your tank.

Turkey Baster or Bulb Syringe

Spot feeding with a bulb syringe is one of the best things you can do to give your corals an extra boost. While most of the energy corals use to grow comes from photosynthesis, it has been proven that supplemental feeding helps corals grow and maintain vibrant colors. A bulb syringe also makes it easier to feed those finicky-eating fish on the bottom of your tank, such as Mandarin Gobies or Hawk Fish. I use a bulb syringe just about every time I feed my aquarium and my fish have learned to eat directly from the syringe. This makes it easy to get food to all of the fish in the aquarium, reduces the amount of food getting lost inside your rocks or filter and makes feeding time that much more fun and interactive.

Rubber Gloves and Goggles

While I may be the biggest culprit of breaking this rule, it is always a good idea to use rubber gloves and goggles when working with corals. Corals can contain some serious toxins! The use of safety gear will drastically decrease the chances of these toxins entering your body when working with corals.

Test Kits

There is no excuse not to test your water regularly. Many new hobbyists I have mentored over the years have relied on local fish stores to test their water parameters. Having another eye to help monitor your parameters is useful, but should never be the sole source of testing your water conditions. Having a complete line up of water test kits at home will not only help you understand more about your aquarium water, but will also make it much easier to keep a happy, healthy reef.

Handheld TDS Meter

A TDS meter measures the total dissolved solids in freshwater. This comes in handy when maintaining your RO/DI system to ensure your water is clean and free of unwanted elements. All water entering your tank should measure 0 TDS. By having a TDS meter on hand, you can check the filters on your RO/DI system to ensure they are not exhausted. You can also monitor the water in your top-off container. Without regular rinsing, a top-off container can slowly build up measurable levels of unwanted elements known as "TDS Creep."

Long Handle Tank Scraper

Algae magnets are great! They make it easy to quickly remove build-up from inside your tank walls. From my experience, no matter how careful you plan your aquascape, there will always be some area of the tank that cannot be cleaned with an algae magnet and this is why it is nice to have a long handle algae scraper. Whether your aquascape, heater, filter, plumbing or powerhead are getting in the way, a long handle tank scraper will make it easier to clean these hard-to-reach areas of the tank walls. You will also be less likely to ignore these areas of the tank which tend to quickly turn into unsightly algae farms.