Heaters and Heating

The 3 Basic Types of Aquarium Heaters

  • Hang-On-Tank Style
    This type provides basic heating and is less efficient, because they are only partially submerged in the aquarium water.

  • Submersible Style
    This type is much more efficient, because the heating unit is fully submerged in the water, which provides more consistent heating of the aquarium.

  • Heating Cable System
    This is a type you install underneath your gravel or substrate, and is manipulated by an additionally needed electronic controlling unit. It is used most often in freshwater planted aquariums to eliminate reduction areas (dead spots) by convection, but sometimes are used by saltwater aquarists. This type of unit does distribute heat evenly throughout an aquarium from the bottom to the top (heat rises), and not only heats the water, but allows the substrate to retain and generate an evenly distributed heat source. The downside is that when it breaks or wears out you have to remove and replace it, which means you have to dig up your substrate bed to do so. Might be OK for fish-only tanks, but not wise to use in reef systems.

Heater Usage Tips

  • No matter what type of heater you decide on, it is wise to use multiple units with the hang-ons and submersibles. Putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak, can present a problem if your one and only heater goes out or breaks, particularly in winter time. This also provides a more even, consistent distribution of heat throughout the aquarium, especially in larger set ups, and doesn't overwork the heaters.
  • Keep a spare heater on hand as a back up.
  • Choose a heater tube length appropriate for the height of your aquarium. Because heat rises, shorter units will not heat as efficiently as taller ones.
  • Unplug your heaters when doing work on your aquarium. If you drain the water down where your heater is no long in the water, or you take it out and remove it to place it aside while you work, the glass can quickly over heat and shatter from the coil still heating.
  • Be sure to check the manufacturers specifications to see that the heater you choose is saltwater or brackish water safe.

Other Factors to Consider on Which Type & How Many Heaters to Use

  • Where does heat come from? Other aquarium equipment, indoor home heating units or vents, and other contributing heat sources can add to rising or fluctuating temperatures.
  • How much heat do your lights give off?
  • What is the ambient temperature of where you have your aquarium set up?
  • All of these things will be a factor in determining the size of your heater needs. The basic rule of thumb for wattage is to use between 2.5 and 5 watts per gallon of actual water volume in the aquarium. Example: For 50 gallons of water using 5 watts per gallon you want 250 watts total. You can choose to use 1-250 watt unit, or 2-125 watt units, and so on.
  • Are you going to place the heater(s) in the main tank, or a sump? What length of heater(s) you can buy depends on placement.

Temperatures Conversion Tip

  • Referred to in degrees (°) as Celsius or Centigrade (C), and Fahrenheit (F), most saltwater aquarium books and articles use only one reference or the other, therefore to convert from °C to °F, or vice versa, you'll find this unit conversion calculator from Aquatics by Design helpful.

Maintaining an optimal and steady temperature is of the utmost importance to your tank inhabitants, but can sometimes present challenges for many aquarist, especially during cold winter or hot summer months. One solution to controlling falling, rising, or constantly fluctuating temperatures any time of the year is to install a chiller.

Many aquarists ask what the optimal temperature is for a saltwater system? Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question, because there really is no such thing as an "optimal" temperature. The opinions of a what a tank's temperature should be is as varied as the owners of saltwater aquariums and what they keep in them.

Temperatures are referred to in degress (°) as Celsius or Centrigrade (C), and Fahrenheit (F). We will be using ° F here, so if you need to convert from °F to °C, you can use this unit conversion calculator from Aquatics by Design to do so. Now, some aquarists feel that maintaining your tank between 75-77° F is best, some say 75-80° F, while others feel that 80-85° F, or even higher is suitable. Here are some prime examples.

Ronald Shimek's view is that corals you have in your tank may come from many different ocean water temperatures, ranging from 72° F up to about 92° F. For example, keeping reef organisms from the central Indo-Pacific in the upper 70° F range will stress them, as it is too cold, because this is near the upper limits for subtropical organisms. He states that, "It would be better for all concerned if aquarists concentrated their efforts on maintaining separate systems for organisms from geographically disparate areas." In other words, knowing what kind of organisms you have and "where" they come from is an important factor when determining a tank temperature for your system.
  • Richard Harker's view is that, "A hobbyist who decides to increase the temperature of his or her tank needs to make sure that it is a stable tank with healthy corals, no sign of algae, and has equipment necessary to efficiently remove the increased waste products. Under these conditions it would be safe to increase the tank's temperature." However, he points out that rather than trying to run your temperatures high, you should reach a happy medium at about 79 degrees, because this temperature provides the largest margin of safety for the hobbyist, as corals have been shown to thrive in water several degrees on either side of this temperature.
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