Choosing your suppliers

When setting up your first reef tank, finding good suppliers for the tank equipment, the consumables such as the additives to maintain the water chemistry and the livestock to put into your new reef tank is important.

The first question that invariably comes up is whether you will buy from a large pet superstore, your local fish store (LFS), or order on-line from one of the many internet stores that service the hobby.Pet Superstore

Pet Superstores:  First regarding the large pet superstores, some such as PetSmart do not carry saltwater livestock though they do carry some reef supplies.  Petco does carry some saltwater livestock though the selection is generally poor and the husbandry of the animals in these stores vary somewhere between barely adequate to abysmal. The staff may or may not know much about maintaining the specimens that they do sell.  The equipment selection is generally limited to a few basics like heaters and lighting and what equipment they do carry is from the very low end of the cost/performance spectrum.  The consumables that they carry like salt are generally recognized brands and that is what I would limit my purchases to from these stores.


Internet Mail Order:  Ordering over the internet has become increasingly popular in this hobby.  Its main advantage whether you are talking about equipment, consumables or livestock is the massive selection that is available as well as a possible lower cost especially on equipment and consumables.  One of the long-time hidden costs have been shipping and handling fees, but most of the major players now either ship for free or for a reasonable shipping cost, often fixed so that you know what your final cost will be before ordering the product.

Ordering livestock over the internet has continued to significantly increase in volume driven primarily by the following:

  1. Improvements in overnight shipping methods with hot or cold packs have decreased mortality rates significantly.
  2. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) ordering where pictures of the actual specimen you will receive are used on the website stores gives you much more confidence in what it is that you are buying.
  3. Livestock selection.  Long gone are the days when most people were happy buying brown polyps.  Now there are many colorful variations of most corals, many of which can only be found on the internet.
  4. The internet has allowed many small home propagation and a few commercial propagation companies to start-up and sell directly through the internet which means they have a much larger market for their particular livestock than if they were to only sell to local fish stores

Cautions for on-line ordering:  While WYSIWYG has been a great improvement when buying corals on-line, you must also be cautious that it is very easy for the sellers to manipulate the colors of a coral from drab to dramatic in photo editingPhotoshopped Ricordia software and charge a premium over what it is worth.  It is normal for photographs to be corrected for black/white levels as is done on this website to compensate for camera color and brightness offsets, but the final image should represent the actual look of the specimen as close as possible.  If an on-line stores corals all look brilliantly colored and are better than anything your can find locally, you can be pretty sure that they are being creative with their photo editing.  When the drab coral arrives, you will probably be told that it is due to shipping stress and should color back up.  This can be true, especially for SPS corals that can quickly change color based on stress.  It is also not uncommon for SPS corals to color back up differently when placed in a different system with different lighting and water parameters.  LPS and Soft corals are less likely to do this.

Also be aware that often the corals are photographed only under heavy actinic lights to make them fluoresce and look their best and will not look like that when placed under standard lighting.

To the right is a simple example of Ricordia that  are shown in their true color at the top and with their colors artificially improved on the bottom.

The other thing to watch out for when ordering on-line is the size of the coral.  This is especially true if it is a propagated coral.  Most propagators take small cuttings and sell the coral as soon as they have attached to their substrate.  While most are honest about size, it is easy to see the 3″ specimen zoomed in on your computer screen and be disappointed when you receive a 0.3″ specimen.


LFS:  Local Fish Stores should be your first stop, especially for livestock. There is nothing like seeing your new coral or fish in person to check it for health, color and size before plunking down your money.  These specimens have already suffered through the inevitable transit process unlike specimens that you order on-line, so you have a better idea of the health of the specimen as it goes into your tank and you don’t need to worry about meeting a delivery person to sign for the package.

There is also something to be said for buying locally when you can and supporting your local economy.  When shopping for equipment, you can almost always find it cheaper on the internet than buying from a local fish store, but that is not always the case. Some equipment suppliers are now taking measures to ensure that the price you can find on-line for an item will be the same as you can buy it for at an LFS.  Supporting your local LFS means that they will be able to carry a bigger and better selection.

Finding a Good LFS:

If you have one LFS in your area that carries reef livestock, you may not have much choice, but most larger metropolitan areas have at least a few to chose from.  It is well worth your time to visit any of the LFS within your local area to Local Fish Storedetermine which provide the best livestock, supplies and advice.

In-Store Display Tank

Most good pet stores that carry reef supplies will maintain a display reef tank of their own. The long term health of their own tank(s) gives you a direct correlation as to how well they really understand reef keeping. The key words here are ‘long term health’. Frequently a poor quality pet store that has difficulty in maintaining their own tank, will tear it down every few months and then set it back up to keep it looking OK. You might see it soon after setup and make the false assumption that they know what they are doing. Monitor the tank over the next few months and see if the specimens are thriving and algae is kept under control.

Another thing to watch for is a display tank in which the specimens are for sale. This tank may look OK, but since the specimens are constantly being rotated in and out of the tank, you cannot tell if they are thriving or merely surviving until someone hopefully takes them home before they die. These tanks are often seriously under lighted which prevents algae blooms, but which also would prevent many of the specimens from surviving long term.

If a pet store does not have a nice display tank, it does not mean you should not necessarily do business with them at some level, but it does mean that you should regard any suggestions on how to maintain a reef tank suspect. After all, if they can’t or choose not to keep a high quality reef tank themselves, how can you have any confidence that they are talking from experience rather than from something they read in a book. Worse yet, they may be telling you something only to sell whatever product they have sitting on their shelves and unfortunately, there are a lot of expensive snake oils being sold in this hobby to the unsuspecting hobbyist.

The picture below is a picture of a local LFS (Upscales in Tualatin Oregon) display tank from some time ago.  When you see a display tank of this caliber in an LFS, it gives you great confidence that they can provide advice on how to make your own reef tank thrive over times since they have demonstrated that they can do it themselves.

Upscales Tank

Observe the Specimen Tanks

A quality pet store takes pride in their specimen tanks as well as their display tanks. There should not be dead or dying fish in the tanks. Some mortality is to be expected since the animals are always subjected to considerable stress during shipment to the store, but it should not be excessive or due to obvious disease symptoms and if it does occur, the fish should be removed immediately and sick fish should be quarantined.  Corals, clams and other light requiring specimens should be under adequate lighting to maintain them in good health. Typical specimen display tanks are fairly narrow and shallow and VHO or T-5 fluorescent, metal halide or LED lighting is usually needed for long term health of the specimens.  Some low light corals such as mushroom corals are happy with relatively modest lighting.

Other Things To Consider

It is a good sign when store clerks ask about your home tank when making a purchase of livestock to ensure that your tank will be suitable for the specimen you are considering buying especially if it is rare, delicate or expensive.

Check out the frozen food freezer and see what kind of selection they carry.  Feeding a good variety of high quality frozen foods is both fun for you and healthy for your tank.  Live food such as brine shrimp, copepods or blackworms are nice to have at times especially when trying to entice a finicky eater.  Live phytoplankton is nice to have if you plan to have filter feeders in the tank.  They should also carry good high quality flake and pellet food.

If you plan to setup a larger tank, check to see if they will special order live rock for you.  This is a much better way to get good fresh live rock for your tank, but you generally need to order by the 50lb box or so, so it’s not practical for smaller tanks.  You can often ask for specific sizes of rock such as small, medium or large and can get it within a couple of days of when it was pulled out of the ocean.  This is much better rock to start with than the base rock that is often sold as live rock in LFS.

Tank equipment is important, but it also costs a store a lot of money to have a bunch of equipment sitting on the shelf waiting for someone to buy it.  Floor space also tends to be at a premium.  If you don’t see a lot of equipment in stock or the type that you are interested in, ask the store clerk if they can special order in stuff.  It is a better business model for the LFS to order in stuff that you want and take a smaller margin to be competitive with internet stores price wise than  it is to take a chance on buying inventory that may sit on the shelf for a year.

My Rule of Thumb:

If a good quality LFS exists in your area, try to buy as much as you can through them. Remember that this is a hobby for you, but it is their livelihood and the more they sell, the better they will be able to stock their store and support your hobby.  Good advice is invaluable; as is being able to hand select your specimens. Use mail order for specimens that you cannot easily get locally or when significant cost savings can be obtained on dry goods or equipment, especially items that you purchase over and over such as supplements or  you are looking for specialized equipment that don’t carry such as LED lighting.