When thinking about the impact of aquarium water quality, it’s useful to compare it to the air we breathe. Because essentially, that’s what water is to fish.
If you’ve ever lived in a polluted area, you’ll know the effect that poor air quality can have on your day to day life. And, if you don’t regulate the condition of the water in your aquarium, the effects can be even more drastic on fish.
Should you allow the levels of certain chemicals and minerals in the water to fall outside the correct range, it could lead to illness or even an untimely death for your aquatic pals.
This is why you should invest in the best aquarium test kit to monitor your water parameters, so you can make changes if the need arises, and BEFORE it impacts your fishes health.
In this post, we’re going to focus on the best master test kits for freshwater, seawater and reef / marine tanks.
We’ll start by examining exactly what a master test kit is, then look at the pros and cons compared to individual tests, before discovering more about the two types of kit available and the best kits of each type to suit different aquarium setups.
We will also give brief but easy to follow instructions on how to use a test kit, how often, and how to avoid some common pitfalls in their use.
At a Glance: Our Top 5 Choices for Best Aquarium Test Kit
- API Freshwater Master test Kit
- API Freshwater test Strips
- API Saltwater Master Test Kit
- Coralife Energy Savers Deep Six Hydrometer
- API Reef Master Test Kit
Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Contents - Click to Jump to Section
What is a Master Aquarium Test Kit?
Before you go out and purchase a master test kit for your aquarium, you’re going to want to know what it is, and rightly so!
An aquarium master test kit contains a bundle of different tests for different elements of water quality, that should encompass the main levels you need to check in order to maintain a healthy tank.
These tests generally include checking for the correct levels of chemicals and acidity / alkalinity such as pH, nitrate, nitrite and ammonia levels, as well as trace elements in saltwater and marine tanks, such as calcium, copper and more.
The pros of buying just one master test kit, as opposed to buying them all individually, is that it generally works out much cheaper. You also know that every chemical in the kit has the same expiration or use by date, so it’s easier to keep track of when you need to replace them.
Finally, it’s simply more convenient, and less confusing for beginner aquarium keepers.
There are, however, cons to buying a master kit, too.
The main problem is you can’t customize which tests you get in the kit, meaning you might find yourself needing to buy some additional single tests.
It’s also likely there will be tests you don’t need as often and others that you use more frequently, meaning you can get into a situation where you’ve run out of one or two types but still have nearly all of some others.
Different Aquarium Water Test Types Available
There are two main types of master test kits available:
- Those using paper strips
- Those using liquid chemicals.
There are pros and cons to each type, so it’s important to learn about both so you can pick the best option for you.
Paper Test Strips
Paper test strips work just like the litmus paper that you probably used in science class.
You can either dip these strips into the aquarium water or take a pipette of water from the tank and squeeze a few drops out onto the paper. The paper then changes color to indicate the level of whatever chemical it is that you’re testing for.
Each test will come with a comparison chart so you can match the color on your strip to the chart and find out the levels.
The main advantage of paper test kits is they’re easy to use, even for someone who has never used them before, and rely on just a one-step process. They also tend to be fairly inexpensive compared to some of the liquid types.
However, they do come with a big downside: they’re generally less accurate and reliable than liquid chemical tests.
Not only are they less accurate in general, the comparison chart can be difficult to interpret, especially for people with colorblindness. Also, once they’re exposed to air, they quickly become less effective, meaning they have a short shelf life.
Experts tend to consider paper tests the worse of the two options, but they may be useful as a back up when you’re short on time.
Liquid Chemical Tests
Liquid chemical tests, sometimes known as liquid titrations, are the other main way of testing aquarium water. They consist of a liquid chemical which you add to a vial of water from your aquarium.
There are a few different ways they can work, depending on the brand you’re using, but generally you either add a specified amount of drops of the chemical into your vial of water and look for a reaction, or you add drops until a reaction occurs and the number of drops added will tell you the levels.
The best thing about liquid chemical tests is they’re generally much more accurate than paper types and the results shouldn’t be difficult to interpret.
The main downside is they’re trickier to perform than paper tests, but they’re still not hard to figure out if you read the instructions fully.
They can also be pricier to buy than their paper strip counterparts, but because they have a longer shelf life, it may work out better value for money in the long run.
How Accurate are Aquarium Water Test Kits?
Liquid test kits are more than accurate enough for the home aquarist. They aren’t as accurate as scientific digital meters, but then they can cost upwards of hundreds of dollars each!
With liquid kits, you measure against color cards, and the scales aren’t in the smallest of increments, but the color coding helps you ‘keep the parameter within safe levels and where you want it.’
You may not be able to measure 0.1% increments like you can with a digital meter, but it’s really not needed.
Another issue with liquid kits is when you are following instructions, it is open to human error. So they will only be as accurate as the person using them. If you add an extra 10ml of water, or an extra drip of reagent from the pipette into the test tube, you will get an inaccurate reading. But if you follow the instructions correctly, you will be OK.
So on that note: Please do read and follow the instructions precisely, concentrate and do things as instructed. For our male readers, please don’t do the normal thing and throw away the manual, winging it by male intuition. This is not like flat-pack Ikea furniture 😉
Paper strips are less accurate than liquid kits, because with exposure to air over time they deteriorate. We actually recommend avoiding these unless you are on a very tight budget, in which case they are far better than nothing.
In terms of accuracy:
- Scientific, digital meters – Most accurate, cost a fortune.
- Liquid kits – More than good enough for home use, easily affordable, but PLEASE follow the instructions accurately, your fishes lives may depend on it!
- Paper strips – the least accurate, get worse with age, we recommend to avoid unless you have very tight budget constraints, in which case they are better than nothing.
Best Liquid Test Kits for Freshwater Aquariums
If you prefer a more accurate kit, and don’t mind having to perform a more complex procedure to find your results, liquid testing is the way to go and is the best aquarium test kit in terms of value for money vs accuracy of results.
Here are three of our favorite liquid master kits on the market.
API Freshwater Master Test Kit
The API Freshwater Master Kit comes complete with everything you need to keep an eye on the levels of the most important water parameters for freshwater aquariums. This is our choice for best freshwater aquarium test kit overall.
The tests it can perform are:
- High reange pH
These are arguably the most vital tests to keep freshwater fish healthy.
Included in the kit is seven bottles of testing solutions, one computer calibrated laminated color card (laminated is good, it WILL get wet and is protected) and four glass test tubes with cap and a holding tray to keep it all together and easy to use.
You’ll also find the instruction manual easy to read and to follow, so although it’s more involved and time-consuming than paper tests, it isn’t more difficult, yet is more accurate.
The amount of chemicals present allow you to perform a total of 800 tests, which when following the suggestion of testing once weekly – or if any problems arise with the health of your fish or live plants – means this kit should last you a good couple of years, making it very good value.
Nutrafin Master Test Kit
The Nutrafin Master Kit is basically a deluxe version of the mini kit below, which can test for six additional parameters, so that’s ten in total.
The full master kit can test levels of:
- pH high range
- pH low range
- Carbonate hardness
- General hardness
Unless you have a really specific issue with your freshwater tank, these are essentially all the tests that you’re ever going to need to perform on your aquarium water, even in a well-planted tank, so it’s perfect if you like to be thorough.
You also get five glass tubes with caps, two pipettes, a spoon and four instruction booklets, which provides you all the equipment and know-how you’ll need to make sure your aquarium water is healthy for your fish.
Because different levels of chemicals are needed for each test, it’s hard to say exactly how many you can perform with it before it runs out, but the general consensus seems to be that one kit will last you at least a year, even with weekly testing.
However, this kit isn’t perfect. Some customer complaints include that the glass tube caps can sometimes leak a little, and the instruction booklets are made from thin paper, so can be damaged if they get wet.
Nutrafin Mini Master Test Kit
This Nutrafin kit is the best for very simple freshwater aquarium set ups and beginners. It checks for only four of the most important water parameters, and we’ve included it here for people who have the most basic of aquarium setups with no live plants and just a few fish, for which the above two kits may be overwhelming and a bit overkill. This kit tests for:
- Wide range pH
While some aquarium-keepers may find they like to perform more tests, these are the bare bones of what you need to know to keep your tank healthy. Therefore, it can be a good starting place and then, if you feel you need more specific tests, you can choose which other individual tests you need to purchase.
This kit does come with glass tubes, but since they’re round-bottomed, you can’t set them down without a rack, which some users have found to be an annoyance.
All in all, the Nutrafin Mini Master Kit is a good place to get started with if you’re new to aquarium water testing.
Best Paper Strip Test Kits for Freshwater Aquariums
We’re now going to run through what we think are three of the best paper strip master test kits on the market, in terms of accuracy and value for money.
API 5 in 1 Aquarium Test Strips
These are one of the most popular types of test strips around, they have good reviews from the vast majority of their customers and we’re happy to recommend it as our choice for best aquarium test kit if you really want to go down the route of paper testing strips instead of a liquid kit.
They come in a desiccant-lined tube, which means they should last longer than some other paper strips that quickly deteriorate and become less accurate when they suffer prolonged exposure to air.
One of the things that are great about them is the convenience, as each strip tests for levels of pH, nitrite, nitrate, carbonate and general hardness, so you just have to dip in one strip and you get results for all five levels.
However, some customers claim that the results can be slightly difficult to interpret using the color comparison chart. Another downside is they don’t check for ammonia levels, so you will most likely need to get a separate test to check this.
Tetra EasyStrips 6-in-1 Test Strips
These 6-in-1 strips test for levels of chlorine, alkalinity, nitrite, general hardness, nitrate and pH.
Like the API strips, with Tetra EasyStrips, you just have to dip one strip into your aquarium water and you have your results.
The difference is, Tetra claim their strips are more accurate as they stop developing after 60 seconds. This means you shouldn’t get false highs due to the strips absorbing additional moisture from the air.
Again, there is no ammonia test, but you can buy a separate Tetra strip to check your tank’s ammonia levels. That said, some aquarium-keepers doubt the effectiveness of paper strips for ammonia testing and would recommend using liquid chemicals to check for ammonia.
AZAQUA Accurate 5-in-1 Aquarium Test Strip
The AZAQUA 5-in-1 strips can be used for both freshwater and saltwater aquariums. So, if you keep both, these are especially handy to keep around.
Like the other strips we’ve featured, you just need to dip the strip in and see your results for all levels at once, which means they’re extremely convenient and simple to use.
That said, many aquarium-keepers believe that they’re not hugely accurate or easy to read when it comes to precise levels.
Therefore, they may be better for simply getting a snapshot of the levels in your tank and then, if anything seems amiss, you can do a more precise but time-consuming test using liquid chemicals.
The Best Aquarium Test Kit for Saltwater Tanks
Saltwater aquariums have the same water quality parameters to check as do freshwater aquariums, but they also have some parameters you need to keep an eye on the levels of, above and beyond the normal pH, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates.
We’ll start by looking at our favorite master test kit for the basics and then go from there:
API Saltwater Master Test Kit
This kit is all but identical to the freshwater kit from API we discussed above. However, it’s made for saltwater tanks.
The salinity and other chemicals present in a saltwater tank mean different tests must be performed for the same water parameters, so you cannot use a freshwater kit in a saltwater tank.
This kit tests for High pH range, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates. The kit contains 6 bottles of chemical reagents, 4 glass test tubes, laminated color charts and a tray for keeping it all together.
This kit should last a good two years if used weekly as instructed, and you can buy the individual tests separately if required.
Testing for Salinity
Saltwater aquariums must, by their very definition, have some level of salt content, it’s the most obvious defining feature of such environments. Without salt, it cannot be saltwater! Therefore, you need to test for this and keep levels stable.
Salinity is the measure of how much salt is dissolved in your water. It’s usually measured by ‘specific gravity’ though can also sometimes be referred to by ‘part per million’ (ppm.)
The normal range is somewhere between 1.020-1.028 specific gravity.
The most common way to measure salinity is with a Hydrometer, such as this model from Coralife:
Coralife is one of the market’s leading manufacturers of premium aquarium products.
Coralife’s Hydrometer takes a true water sample at six inch depth. It does, as per the instructions, take 24 hours of soaking to take an accurate reading, but it’s far more economical that buying a refractometer, even though they take readings in a far shorter time.
Easy to read and accurate, this specific gravity meter is designed to give temperature-corrected readings in warm water aquariums so is suited to any saltwater tank.
The Best Aquarium Test Kit for Reef / Marine Tanks
Reef / marine tests kits are different again to freshwater and basic saltwater kits, because the plants and corals that live in reef tanks are highly sensitive to water parameters and the trace elements they need to survive.
Keeping a reef tank successfully is not easy, you really do need to check your water parameters frequently and make sure all is stable and within range for corals to thrive. Get it wrong, and they can very quickly and easily die off.
API Reef Master Test Kit
This reef master kit from API is arguably the most popular and most highly rated in customer feedback of all on the market at the time of this writing.
With this kit, you can test for calcium, calcium hardness, phosphate, and nitrate. This kit should be used in tandem with the saltwater kit and hydrometers discussed above, to check for the whole range of parameters that can affect reef aquariums.
This kit contains enough reagents to perform 550 tests, so at the recommended weekly usage guidelines, should last a couple of years.
In the kit you get seven bottles of testing chemicals, four glass tubes, two laminated, computer calibrated test cards that will not deteriorate if they get wet, you can simply wipe them dry. And of course a detailed and easy to follow instruction booklet.
How Often Should You Test Your Water Parameters?
The general rule is to test your important water parameters once per week, and this is the instructions on most kits that you buy. However, there are exceptions.
If you’ve set up a new tank, or done a thorough and deep clean of your tank where you’ve completely broken it down, emptied and refilled it, then you should be testing every day.
With a new tank setup – or a tank with a 100% water change after a deep clean – the nitrogen cycle needs to re-establish, and water parameters can fluctuate wildly during this time. It pays to keep a close eye on this, so you can take any action if needed. So this requires testing every day.
Secondly, if any of your fish or plants show signs of illness or distress, it can sometimes be down to water quality, and not necessarily disease or parasites. So you should always test your water to rule out issues there before reaching for any medications.
Last of all, if your water turns cloudy or murky, or if algae gets out of control in your tank, it might simply be down to a chemical imbalance in your water. So test for it.
Now that you know a little bit more about aquarium test kits, you should have a good idea of which type you need to pick.
Although paper kits are cheap and simple to use, they’re generally believed to be less accurate by experienced aquarium-keepers, so they shouldn’t necessarily be the only type of test you ever perform.
That said, they can be useful for regular testing in between chemical tests just to get a vague idea of the levels in your tank and get an early warning if anything’s wrong, which can then be confirmed with a more accurate test.
The main thing is that you’re doing some kind of testing of the water in your aquarium, as it is vital for keeping your fish healthy and happy.
Product image credits: © Amazon.com
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