Water test kits are often overlooked but are extremely important. Whether you’re setting up a brand new tank or monitoring one that’s been running for years, it takes constant monitoring to detect issues before they can become problems. And since not every test kit is created equally, I’ve written this extensive guide on understanding how test kits work and choosing the right one for you!
Table of Contents
- Our Top Picks
- 12 Best Saltwater and Freshwater Aquarium Test Kits and Strips Review
- 1. API Freshwater Master Test Kit
- 2. Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit
- 3. API GH & KH Liquid Test Kit
- 4. API 5-in-1 Test Strips
- 5. Tetra EasyStrips
- 6. Sera Aqua-Test Box (+Cl)
- 7. BOSIKE Aquarium Test Strips
- 8. 6 in 1 Freshwater Aquarium Test Strips
- 9. Aquarium Test Strip Kit With Thermometer
- 10. JNW Direct Aquarium Test Strips
- 11. Milliard Aquarium Test Strips
- 12. Qguai Aquarium Test Strips
- The Importance of Aquarium Test Kits
- The Main Types of Aquarium Test Kits
- Aquarium Water Test Strips vs Liquid Water Tests
- What To Look For In An Aquarium Test Kit
- Which Test Kit is Best?
Our Top Picks
Each one of these tests will ensure you get the information you need on your water parameters. However, the two that stand apart from the rest are the API Freshwater Master Test Kit and the Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit. Both of these are highly sensitive, easy to use, and cover the range of chemistry aquarists are most concerned with!
12 Best Saltwater and Freshwater Aquarium Test Kits and Strips Review
1. API Freshwater Master Test Kit
- pH – 6.0-7.6.
- High Range pH – 7.4-8.8.
- Total ammonia – ammonium (NH4+) and ammonia (NH3).
- Nitrite (NO2-).
- Nitrate (NO3-).
When it comes to convenience, aquarium water test paper strips are hard to beat. But when it comes to accuracy, there’s no substitute for liquid testing kits. Testing solutions allow you to narrow down the parameter levels in question to a much greater degree.
The API Fresh Water Master Test Kit includes each of the most commonly tested water parameters, allowing you to diagnose issues, as well as any pet store could. Since you need a test tube for the reactions, four are included in the Freshwater Master kit. The separate high pH testing solution is convenient if you keep African Cichlids, which thrive in conditions beyond pH 7.6.
Master Test kits provide all of the most common tests, but they don’t provide carbonate hardness, micronutrient levels, and other necessary results for less common problems. You also need to collect water, carefully follow the instructions, and wait up to 5 minutes to get results. On the other hand, testing strips provide instant results across multiple water tests with a quick dip of the paper.
- It covers all five of the most important water test kits.
- Highly accurate results.
- Inexpensive and long-lasting.
- It contains enough reagents for 800 tests.
- It takes longer to get results.
- Requires separate test kits for GH, KH, and other important water parameters.
2. Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit
- High Range pH (7.6-8.6).
- Total ammonia – ammonium (NH4+) and ammonia (NH3).
- Nitrite (NO2-).
- Nitrate (NO3-).
- Carbonate Hardness (KH).
Red Sea’s Marine Care Test Kit is one of our favorite saltwater aquarium water test kits. This saltwater master test kit covers the essential parameters: pH, total ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and carbonate hardness. Testing carbonate hardness gives you an idea of how well buffered against pH swings you are. This way, your water remains stable, promoting fish health. High KH also boosts coral growth!
Considering it’s meant for the saltwater fish tank, the pH color chart is for high-end results and tests from 7.6 to 8.6. Instead of a standard test tube set, you get a series of testing vials in the kit that you fill with tank water.
Red Sea guarantees the following levels for their testing kit: 100 Ammonia test with accuracy of 0. 02 ppm, 100 and 60 nitrate test with accuracy of 2 ppm and 0. 05 ppm. In addition, they include 100 pH tests with an accuracy of 0. 2 ppm and 55 alkalinity tests with an accuracy of 1 dKH/0.36 meq/L.
- Extremely accurate liquid testing kit.
- Tests several important parameters.
- Color charts included.
- Significantly fewer tests than the API Master Water Test kits.
3. API GH & KH Liquid Test Kit
GH (General Hardness) and KH (Carbonate Hardness) are important parameters to track if you keep plants, cichlids, and other aquatic organisms in need of precise water conditions. The more minerals present in your water, the better protected it is against sudden swings towards acidity.
This API liquid test kit is meant for freshwater aquariums. While it doesn’t come with a color chart, the instructions for reading it are straightforward and easy to follow. You’ll need to know which fish benefit most from the readings in question as GH and KH aren’t toxic in of themselves. Mollies, African Cichlids, Swordtails, and Goldfish are a few fish that prefer moderate to high GH & KH readings.
- Covers two water tests in the same kit.
- Results are quick to develop.
- Not every fish tank needs GH & KH readings.
4. API 5-in-1 Test Strips
Liquid water test kits often worry new aquarists and bring back memories of struggling through chemistry class. That’s where paper tests come in handy! API’s 5-in-1 test strips cover three vital compounds to monitor as well as general and carbonate hardness. Unlike liquid master test kits, which sometimes take several minutes to get the results, these testing strips only take 30 seconds to 1 minute to be readable!
The fact that pH, nitrite, and nitrate are included are beneficial and broadly applicable. But ammonia is the obvious fourth agent to include, and it’s a shame you have to buy a separate test for such an essential testing parameter.
Another issue with testing strips is that the levels are much harder to gauge. They use color for the final results. And it can be hard to tell if you’re testing in the safe zone sometimes.
- No chemicals to mix; simply dip and wait.
- Little time required; speedy results.
- Not as accurate as liquid test kits.
- Ammonia is a separate testing kit.
5. Tetra EasyStrips
If you aren’t happy with having to buy API’s ammonia testing strips separately, you can instead have everything included in the Tetra EasyStrips box. They even include a chlorine test strip, which is of occasional value. But as long as you’re using de-chlorinator before you add tap water to your aquarium, this is probably the least useful of the seven tests.
On the other hand, having ammonia, pH, nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, alkalinity (KH), and hardness (GH) all in a single box is very handy! You can diagnose any fish or aquarium water quality issue within 60 seconds. And the included color chart gives you a good idea of what adjustments will need to be made.
Just remember that test strips are never quite as accurate as liquid test kits. These will tell you if something is dangerously off. They also work for both freshwater and saltwater aquariums!
- Includes all of the most important water parameters.
- Freshwater and saltwater aquarium compatible.
- Little time required; very fast results.
- Not as accurate as liquid test kits.
- Chlorine test strips are only useful for specific purposes.
6. Sera Aqua-Test Box (+Cl)
If you need precise aquarium water quality tests for several macronutrients and pollutants, then the Sera Aqua-Test Box covers just about everything you’d want in a freshwater test kit. Ph, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, GH, and KH are all included, as expected. However, you can also test phosphate levels, iron, and chlorine.
Phosphate is an important plant and algae nutrient. And when phosphate levels are too high or too low, problems can arise, such as green water or thin plant growth. Iron is also essential for synthesizing chlorophyll for photosynthesis.
Being a liquid freshwater test kit, some of the results take a few minutes to get. Assuming you have the time, there’s nothing better for the sake of accuracy!
- Includes all of the most important water parameters plus phosphate and iron.
- Very accurate final results and included color chart.
- An excellent single water test kit for all purposes.
- Only for the freshwater aquarium.
- The test results take more time than testing strips.
- Chlorine testing is only useful for specific purposes.
7. BOSIKE Aquarium Test Strips
If you’re a fan of all-in-one test kit solutions, then BOSIKE has a great sort of test for you! This set of testing strips allows you to monitor your aquarium water for nitrite, nitrate, pH, carbonate hardness (KH), general hardness (GH), and chlorine levels.
And with 125 strips included, you have everything you need to perform tests on your freshwater aquariums for months or even years. The results are available in 90 seconds and only take a brief dip in your tank, unlike having to collect water into several vials using a liquid test kit.
While these aren’t usable for saltwater tanks, anyone with a pond or freshwater aquarium will find these ideas for long-term use!
- Monitors several important parameters at once
- Includes both GH & KH
- Takes little time for results to develop
- Not as accurate as a liquid test kit
- Chlorine is only found in untreated tap water
- Not usable with saltwater aquariums
8. 6 in 1 Freshwater Aquarium Test Strips
If you’re looking for an improved design over the standard aquarium test strips, these are an excellent sort of alternative to the previous brands.
Being wide strips, there is a larger surface area for aquarium water to come into contact with the test reagents. This gives much better readability than the test strips that are often only half the size. It’s much easier to compare these larger squares to the color charts and get a good idea of where your water parameters stand.
I also like that they have half of each bottle wrapped to ensure freshness. It’s too easy for moisture to penetrate when working around your aquarium. A simple spill or keeping your test strips in a high humidity environment can ruin the entire batch.
That said, you do get fewer strips to make up for the larger squares, which means fewer tests per bottle. You also get the standard array of pH, nitrite, nitrate, GH, KH, and chlorine. Ammonia is always a separate water test.
- Protected against accidental moisture exposure.
- Larger squares are easier to examine and compare to color charts.
- Near-instant results relative to liquid test kits.
- Not usable with saltwater aquariums.
- Liquid test kits offer better accuracy.
- Chlorine testing is not something you’ll need very often.
9. Aquarium Test Strip Kit With Thermometer
At first, this kit seems like an average choice. Like the other options, it includes testing strips for pH, nitrite, nitrate, general hardness (GH), and chlorine.
What makes these test strips a great alternative to the other options here is the included thermometer. Normally, a thermometer is a separate purchase, adding to the burden of setting up a new tank. One hundred test strips plus a thermal liquid crystal thermometer for the front glass effectively expands the number of tests this kit performs to six!
I don’t like that KH or ammonia aren’t included, and chlorine isn’t the most useful of test strips to own. But a thermometer is essential and is nice to see bundled along!
- Thermometer included for six tests in total.
- Includes tests for most of the important water parameters.
- Faster results compared to liquid test kits.
- Chlorine tests aren’t that useful.
- No carbonate hardness (KH) or ammonia testing.
10. JNW Direct Aquarium Test Strips
JNW Direct makes the finest testing strips on the market. They managed to fit 9 water parameters onto a single strip: total hardness (GH), chlorine, iron, copper, nitrite, nitrate, pH, total alkalinity, and & carbonate hardness (KH). Iron levels are useful to track if you keep aquatic plants as its an essential nutrient. And copper is a heavy metal that’s toxic to invertebrates and is sometimes found in trace amounts in tap water.
Each container includes enough strips for 100 water tests. And even better, JNW Direct has gone digital and designed an app that lets you input and track your water test results over time. Rather than going from memory, you can see over the course of months if a shift in aquarium water conditions occurs.
An ebook is also included that precisely explains how fish are affected by each parameter.
- Includes the largest number of water parameter tests in a single kit.
- Near-instant results for 9 parameters.
- App for logging and tracking results over time.
- eBook detailing what the results mean.
- 100 test strips per kit is a smaller number than many of the other brands here.
- Water test strips aren’t as accurate as liquid test kits.
11. Milliard Aquarium Test Strips
Milliard Aquarium Test Strips include each of the most common parameters for aquarists that can be added to a single piece of paper: pH, nitrite, nitrate, total alkalinity, carbonate hardness (KH), general hardness (GH), and chlorine. This set of strips interests me because it includes all three of the water hardness measurements, which only a few other test strip options do.
According to Milliard, the 100 included strips are enough test strips to check your aquarium water twice a week for an entire year! You’ll still need separate ammonia test strips as well as a kit for any other parameter you’re interested in. But these are excellent aquarium water tests to keep on hand for everything else.
- Every commonly measured test besides ammonia.
- All three water hardness test kits.
- Results are faster but less accurate than liquid test kits.
- Many other brands offer more than 100 testing strips.
12. Qguai Aquarium Test Strips
Qguai Aquarium Test Strips are tied with JNW Direct for the most content added to each strip. Qguai’s strips can test your tank water for 9 different parameters: pH, nitrate, nitrite, carbonate (KH), chlorine, alkalinity, iron, copper, and general hardness (GH).
These are all useful to varying degrees, but the heavy metal tests are especially interesting. Iron is an important nutrient for plants. And copper is a heavy metal that’s toxic to invertebrates, making it useful for testing tao water with.
The only real downside is that Qguai includes the fewest number of paper strips of any company; 50 strips will last you 6 months of frequent testing, but most companies offer over 100 per test kit.
- Tests 9 different water parameters.
- Test kit offers results in under 1 minute.
- Low number of strips.
- Results aren’t as precise as with other test kits.
The Importance of Aquarium Test Kits
New aquarists might think that the purer your aquarium water, the better it is for fish. The fact is that it’s all of the dissolved chemicals and elements that give water its life-giving properties. A tank full of ultra-pure distilled water would be quickly fatal to your fish!
That’s why we want just the right salt, acid, base, and oxygen levels. And we need to monitor nitrogenous wastes like ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. But if we’re keeping plants and other creatures that feed on these molecules, we still want there to be some detectable amounts. Just enough that the plants can feed without poisoning the fish. An aquarium water test kit helps us balance these parameters.
Aquarium water test kits are also an excellent teaching tool. By observing how the water chemistry evolves through dosing, feeding, etc., and seeing the effects on your fish, you can learn precisely what settings lead to ideal fish health! It does take time to understand the chemistry, but a test kit is essential to graduating into a master aquarist!
Should you have an unfortunate emergency, an aquarium test kit allows you to rule out several problems at once. If your fish are gasping for oxygen near the surface, is it low oxygen levels? High nitrate levels? Something else? A nitrate test quickly narrows down the cause of the stress your fish are showing!
Lastly, it’s good to remember that we shouldn’t only perform tests when we see a problem. It’s much better to test your aquarium water (and your tap water) once or twice per week. This way, you can diagnose an issue before it becomes a problem. For example, slowly rising ammonia and nitrite levels can clue you in to the fact that leftover food is accumulating somewhere in the system that needs to be removed.
The Main Types of Aquarium Test Kits
There are three major types of aquarium test kits that you’ll come across: paper testing strips, liquid test kits, and electronic testing devices.
Besides these three types, some meters attach to the inner glass and provide constant readings similar to a thermometer. Hydrometers for testing salinity are another test kit that is useful for saltwater aquariums.
Paper Testing Strips
Of the three methods here, paper test strips are by far the simplest and most affordable option. All that is required is to dip the paper strip into your tank so that each of the colored squares gets briefly immersed.
Each square has reagents that react in the presence of ammonia, nitrites, iron, and other specific chemicals to indicate how much is present in your tank water. What’s handy with these strips is just how fast you get results back. It generally takes no more than 60 seconds for the colors to stabilize, after which you can then compare your results to an included color chat.
You may have noticed that ammonia never comes included in kits that do pH, nitrite, nitrate, etc. While it would be handy to have it, the chemicals used for the ammonia tests are highly reactive and incompatible with the other reagents. That’s why ammonia test kits are always sold separately!
The main downside to using paper testing strips is that the results are very generalized. When reading the strip, it can be hard to narrow down the precise color you’re seeing. The light pink of a nitrite test strip’s results may appear to be anything between 0-80 ppm, for example, which covers a huge range.
You also may get tests that aren’t always the most useful. Many companies include chlorine tests on their strips. But unless you forgot to use de-chlorinator when adding your tap water, chlorine tests aren’t very useful.
Paper Test Kit Pros:
- Near-instant results for several tests all at once.
- Very affordable and convenient.
Paper Test Kit Cons:
- Hard to choose which tests are included.
- Inaccurate results compared to liquid test kits.
- Paper kits sometimes have a short shelf life.
Liquid Test Kit
If accuracy is what you want over anything else, it’s hard to beat a salt or freshwater master test kit. These kits typically use liquid chemical reagents that use test tubes with small amounts of tank water. You add a precise number of drops at prescribed times, shake, and then wait for the results to appear.
While there is a color chart used with these kits, the readings tend to cover a much narrower range than with paper test strips. As a result, you aren’t left guessing whether you have 20 ppm or 40 ppm of a given agent.
The main downside is that liquid test kits are much more time-consuming to run than paper testing strips. If you only need to test one or two parameters, it will only take around 5-10 minutes. But if you want to make a full diagnosis, it might take 30 minutes or longer to get your results. And if you have more than one aquarium, you better block off an hour or more for measuring, dripping, shaking, and waiting.
Some of the chemicals are also rather harsh and not safe for bare skin exposure. It’s not easy to get these agents on you, but be aware that you may need to quickly wash if you manage it.
Liquid Test Kit Pros:
- Offers very accurate results.
- Longer shelf life.
Liquid Test Kit Cons:
- Time-consuming compared to paper test kits.
- Chemicals can be irritating to the skin and eyes.
Electronic Testing Devices
The third most common way to diagnose water quality issues is by using electronic testing devices. These machines usually use a probe that’s placed into the tank water. The device can then directly measure the levels of ammonia, hardness, oxygen, or other ions present.
Electronic testing devices usually offer results in just seconds and are even more accurate than liquid test kits. You can often get exact parts per million readings and never have to refer to a color chart.
These products do have a few downsides, though. The first is their price. Electronic testing devices cost much more than test strips and usually more than liquid test kits. They run anywhere from $50-200, making them better purchases for pet stores, fish distributors, and other places where you want fast, accurate, and instantly repeatable results.
Secondly, electronic testing devices only test for a single parameter. You’ll need several if you want to test for ammonia, pH, salinity, and so on. But if you’re a big fish-centered business, the expense is well worth the savings in having to buy new test strips or liquid kits over time, as well as the time saved from having to wait for results!
Electronic Testing Device Pros:
- Highly accurate results in just seconds.
- Simple to use and no color charts to reference.
- A single device provides an infinite number of water tests.
Electronic Testing Device Cons:
- Pricier than other test kits.
- Each device only measures a single water parameter.
- Often requires recalibration over time.
Aquarium Water Test Strips vs Liquid Water Tests
Since electronic testing devices are a little outside most aquarists’ budgets, we will instead focus our attention on water test strips and liquid test kits. So which is right for your tank? The fact is, it depends on certain factors.
If you need fast results that give you a ballpark idea of potential issues with your water, it’s hard to beat the speed and ease of using paper tests. While you may not know exactly how much nitrite you have or whether your pH is 6.5 or 6.7, you can definitely tell if there’s a problem in any one area.
This makes paper test kits perfect for beginners who aren’t interested in exact water chemistry anyway. Intermediate to advanced level aquarists will want to know precisely how many ppm of a given chemical are present to monitor nutrients, pollutants, and other issues for sensitive fish, plants, and invertebrates.
Testing strips tend to lose even more accuracy over time, especially if exposed to high humidity levels or any kind of liquid water. A set of paper strips older than a year or so may already have gone bad and won’t provide proper results.
If precision is what you’re after, then having liquid water test kits on hand is right for you. The downside is undoubtedly time. You need to add tank water to each test tube, add the right amount of drops, shake the tube, and sometimes add more drops and shake again. And then you need to wait. Some tests develop in as little as 30 seconds, while others take up to 5 minutes. And this is all done for a single test. But there’s no better way to get accurate results than waiting for them to develop with a liquid water test kit.
Many people also end up buying paper testing strips for ballpark readings on the most common water quality concerns. But they also own one or a few liquid test kits for issues like potassium or heavy metals, where a few ppm out of balance can lead to big problems!
What To Look For In An Aquarium Test Kit
Assuming you’ve come to understand the major differences between each type of aquarium test kit, what should you be looking for when shopping for them?
Number of Tests Contained
Most test kits are fairly generous with the total number of tests contained. No kit has fewer than 50 tests included, and several go as far as 200 tests per kit. Liquid test kits tend to have fewer, though the master kits can hold hundreds at a time!
The kind of tests that you have the most need of are the ones you’ll want the largest number of tests for. Ammonia, pH, nitrate, and other major parameters are what you’ll want to be testing frequently. Except for specific circumstances (such as planted tanks), iron, chlorine, and other tests just aren’t that important to be testing for fish-only systems. Therefore the number of tests for these isn’t as important.
Consider how many tests you get for the money spent to see how good a deal you’re getting. Water test strips tend to fall within a narrow range of prices. So ensure that you’re getting both the number and variety of tests you’ll need the most.
Liquid test kits tend to vary much more because the amount of solution offered dictates how many tests you get. Some test kits offer twice as much solution as smaller liquid test kits. Some also use different reagents, which may have different costs.
Are you looking for ballpark results, or do you want precision measurements? Many parameters only need to be measured to a rough degree of accuracy, so long as there isn’t an obvious problem. Aquariums that are fully mature are also very stable and unlikely to experience sudden shifts in water chemistry. These are times where paper test kits are convenient to have on hand, even for experienced aquarists. But if you’re trying to monitor the dosing of a coral or plant nutrient or need exact pH reading for fish breeding, there’s no substitute for a liquid test kit.
Ease of Use
Ease of use goes a long way towards any product, and water test kits are no exception. Kits that are easier to use will be used more often. This gives paper test strips a solid advantage over the sometimes fussy feel of liquid test kits. Personally, I always recommend keeping both on hand so that you can get fast and easy results when needed but slow and precise ones for other moments!
Which Test Kit is Best?
So which test kit is best? Out of all of the kits I’ve reviewed here, the API Freshwater Master Test Kit and Red Sea Marine Care Test Kit are unrivaled in their accuracy balanced by affordability. Having pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and water hardness all included in a single, highly accurate test kit if too great not to have on hand for any situation.
I would then keep a set of paper water tests for biweekly water quality monitoring, such as the API 5-in-1 Test Strips. If the paper tests indicate that a parameter is outside its normal range, I can use one of my liquid test kits to get a more precise reading of the problem agent!
I know that some aquarists are intimidated by the cost or time-consuming mixing that liquid test kits need. If you’d prefer to stick with paper test kits, then the JNW Direct Aquarium Test Strips are what I’d recommend, combined with a single ammonia test kit. They offer the widest spread of tests!
Hopefully, you now have a solid understanding of test kits and how they will meet your aquarium maintenance needs! Feel free to let me know which kit you decided to go with and how it’s working for you!