By Steven Pro
It is with some
trepidation that I wade into the murky waters of the sea salt debate.
There are only a few other topics in ornamental marine aquarium keeping that
elicit such a visceral reaction from hobbyists as arguments regarding the water
that we use. Brand “A” versus brand “B”, natural versus synthetic, and the
raging disputes regarding the various experiments and publications regarding sea
salts are a hot topic right now. The only other discussions that become
more heated are the substrate and lighting debates. I am going to try to
steer clear of the controversy and simply state my experience and impressions of
the various brands I have used over the years. For those of you interested
in some of the ongoing deliberations, please see my list of related links at the
end of this article.
Most retailers that deal in marine
ornamentals stock a variety of salt mix choices in a variety of sizes.
Pictured here are buckets that make 160 gallons of Instant Ocean and
Reef Crystals or 200 gallons of Crystal Sea. Photo by Adam
I will begin with
the characteristics I consider when evaluating a sea salt. I much prefer a
solid alkalinity level and chose salts that have a moderate to high alkalinity
levels, even if that comes at the expense of calcium concentration. To me,
it matters little if my calcium level is constantly 350, 400, or 450 ppm.
The growth rate of my animals seems to be the same regardless. But, when
the pH or alkalinity starts to dip, I see some adverse reactions. These
considerations strongly influence my preference in salt brands.
Aquarium Systems Instant Ocean and
Reef Crystals are very popular and widely available. Photo By Adam
Aquarium Systems Instant Ocean
This salt has been
around for decades. It is tried and true and is quite possibly the most
popular brand of artificial sea salt in the world making it easy to find at just
about any local fish store that deals in marine ornamentals. It is also a
good value, being reasonably priced most places I have seen it offered for sale.
It is a little weak in both calcium and alkalinity levels, particularly when
mixed with deionized water, but both can be adjusted relatively easy for little
Aquarium Systems Reef Crystals
This is currently
my preferred brand and has been so over the years. While I have tried
others over the years, I keep coming back home to Reef Crystals. It is
easily found, has an attractive price and I have never had any problems that I
could directly attribute to it. It also mixes to reasonable concentrations
of calcium and alkalinity.
I just recently had
the opportunity to try some of this salt and I have to say I was impressed.
I liked it just as much as any other brand of salt I currently use. This
salt also has the distinction of being one of the brands that tested very well
in Dr. Shimek’s urchin larvae study, which is a strong plus to me. The
downside is that this salt is very hard to find. I can’t find it for sale
anywhere around me, and I really can’t recall ever seeing it for sale at any
fish store in my travels across the country. As such, it makes it hard for
me to recommend.
Back when I first
started in the aquarium maintenance business and I was working for someone else,
we had one customer that special-ordered in this salt for us to use on his
display. It was a standard 55 gallon aquarium with an undergravel filter,
driven by two powerhead water pumps and a canister filter. There was no
protein skimmer and very little live rock. The majority of the decorations
were bleached coral skeletons. This was truly back in the “olden
days” of marine ornamentals when things generally did not go very well.
But, this tank was the exception to the rule. It housed an Emperor
Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator), a pair of Maroon Clownfish (Premnas
biaculatus) with a Bubble Tip anemone host (Entamacea quadricolor), a Yellow
Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) and an Algae Blenny (Salarias fasciatus).
Maintenance consisted of a monthly 75% water change, and every three months or
so the canister filter was cleaned and media replaced. I would describe
the diet as adequate for the times. As I recall, it was a variety of
flake, freeze-dried, and frozen foods, but nothing like the quality that we take
for granted today. Lighting consisted of two normal-output, 40 watt
fluorescent tubes, one Vita Light and one Blue Moon.
thing about this display was the health and appearance of the livestock.
Back then, keeping marine fishes was a tricky proposition. But these fish
not only survived, they thrived and demonstrated noticeable growth over the
years. And even more importantly, they were as beautiful as the day they
arrived at the store for sale. There was absolutely no fading of color or
Marine Head and Lateral Line Erosion (http://reefkeeping.com/issues/2005-06/sp/index.htm)
so common at the times. Also, since I was working aquarium maintenance and
we were servicing quite a number of other marine aquariums, I had a direct
comparison to other similar setups with the same maintenance, livestock, and
feedings and yet none was even close to housing animals of the same health and
vigor. Not to mention, this aquarium had a healthy anemone, an occurrence
practically unheard of at the time.
The only thing
stopping me from giving this brand a ringing endorsement is it has been over a
decade since I have last used it. The store I worked for never picked up
the brand despite the endorsement of my manager, because the store’s normal
distributors didn’t carry it, and none of my current vendors carry it either.
It is a sad fact of business that it doesn’t matter how good a product is, if
you can’t get it, you can’t get it. And, if no one in an area offers it
for sale then the general buying public doesn’t demand it because they are
unfamiliar with it. If customers are not demanding a product, then the
retailer doesn’t go out of its way to obtain it. It is a vicious
cycle. Without having more recent experience with this salt, I can’t offer a
true evaluation, but I can say that if it became available again, I would
certainly try it.
Marine Enterprises International Crystal Sea
This salt became
very popular on the various online message boards shortly after Dr. Shimek’s sea
salt bioassay testing and subsequent article (http://reefkeeping.com/issues/2003-03/rs/feature/index.php).
I, like many others, experienced widespread bleaching problems when I used this
salt. I don’t know why my corals bleached the day after a water change
with this brand of salt and frankly I don’t care. I simply choose to not
use this brand anymore in favor of other brands that don’t seem to cause such an
Sea Chem makes two formulations of salt
mix. Pictured is the ReefSalt formulation which contains elevated
calcium and alkalinity. Photo by Adam Cesnales
I tried this salt a
few years ago when it first came out and became all the rage amongst message
board contributors. The hot selling point for this brand is its high
calcium level. But that level comes at the price of low alkalinity, at
least in the packages I used and tested. And while I don’t mind making
minor adjustments to bring levels up, the imbalanced ratio of calcium to
alkalinity were particularly problematic for me to compensate for.
Seachem Reef Salt
I have only tried a
few bags of this salt, but what I have seen I have liked. The values seem
reasonable and my system’s inhabitants didn’t seem to have any adverse reaction
to its use. I just have not used enough of it to give it a ringing
endorsement as of this moment.
Tropic Marin Pro Reef
I just recently
tried this salt and I have to say I was not impressed. In every tank that
I used this salt and with every package I tried, I seemed to experience an
abundance of diatoms and film algae. So while the pH, calcium, and
alkalinity values I measured were all good and I didn’t detect any noticeable
nitrates or phosphates in my batches, I still got excessive growth of algae on
the glass necessitating more frequent cleanings.
Tropic Marin salt is yet another brand
that offers a reef formula and general marine formula. Photo by
favorite right now is Aquarium Systems Reef Crystals. As I said before, I
have tried a variety of other brands and keep coming back to Reef Crystals based
on my positive experience, widespread availability, and reasonable price.
I would also recommend Aquacraft Bio-Sea if you can find it. I have also
been intrigued enough with hW Marinemix and Seachem Reef Salt to continue
experimenting with them.
Tips for getting the most from your salt mix
Always add the salt
mix to the water, not the other way around. Adding water to the salt mix
briefly creates a very highly concentrated solution which can lead to
precipitation of some ingredients.
Always allow newly
mixed salt water to circulate with a powerhead or airstone at least over night
before use. This allows carbon dioxide to equilibrate with the atmosphere
which normalizes pH. It also allows oxygen to be added.
Check at least the
alkalinity and pH of your newly mixed salt water at least once for each new
package of mix that you open. More than one manufacturer has released bad
batches of salt in the last couple of years and an occasional spot-check might
help reveal a problem and save the lives of your charges. Not to mention
that many commercial blends of salt are formulated for "average" tap water
hardness and may need adjusted when used with demineralized/purified water.
2003. “Is It Really in the Water, Part 1?” Advanced Aquarist Online Magazine,
2004. “Is It Really in the Water, Part 2?” Advanced Aquarist Online Magazine,
Randy. 2004. “Reef Aquarium Water Parameters.” Reefkeeping Online Magazine, May
Timothy & Jennifer Coshland. 2004 “A Chemical Analysis of Select Trace Elements
in Synthetic Sea Salts and Natural Seawater.” Advanced Aquarist Online Magazine,
Timothy, Elena Toy, Jennifer Westerlund, & Jennifer Coshland. 2005. “The
Toxicity of Synthetic Sea Salts and Natural Development of White Sea Urchin
(Lytichinus pictus) Larvae.” Advanced Aquarist Online Magazine, March 2005.
and Thomas O’Toole. 2005. “Inland Reef Aquaria Sea Salt Study, Part I.” Advanced
Aquarist Online Magazine, November 2005.
and Thomas O’Toole. 2005. “Inland Reef Aquaria Sea Salt Study, Part II.”
Advanced Aquarist Online Magazine, December 2005.
Sekha, Habib. 2003.
“Toxicity of Trace Elements: Truth or Myth?” Advanced Aquarist Online Magazine,
Shimek, Dr. Ronald.
2002. “Its (In) The Water.” Reefkeeping Online Magazine, February 2002.
Shimek, Dr. Ronald.
2002. “It Is Still In The Water.” Reefkeeping Online Magazine, March 2002.
Shimek, Dr. Ronald.
2003. “The Toxicity of Some Freshly Mixed Artificial Sea Water.” Reefkeeping
Online Magazine, March 2003.