7 Best Aquarium Test Kits & Strips Reviewed in 2020

Testing is important, and the best water testing kit will depend on what you need to test for.

In this guide, I’ll discuss each type and review the best aquarium water testing kits so you can get the right one for you

Product Comparison Table

For me, the best water test kit for your aquarium is the API freshwater master kit with the GH & KH kit added on. That covers all key areas.

PreviewProductPrice
Tetra 19544 EasyStrips Complete Kit, 25-Count Tetra 19544 EasyStrips Complete Kit, 25-Count $16.99
API 5-in-1 Test Strips Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box API 5-in-1 Test Strips Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box $14.99 $12.74
ULTIMATE 14-in-1 Aquarium Test Kit with Trace Heavy Metals | 50 Water Testing Strips for Fresh-Water or Salt-Water Aquarium, Fish-Tank, Reef & Pond | Alkalinity, pH, Nitrate, Carbonate Hardness & More ULTIMATE 14-in-1 Aquarium Test Kit with Trace Heavy Metals | 50 Water Testing Strips for Fresh-Water... $14.95
API FRESHWATER MASTER TEST KIT 800-Test Freshwater Aquarium Water Master Test Kit API FRESHWATER MASTER TEST KIT 800-Test Freshwater Aquarium Water Master Test Kit $35.79 $33.04
GH & KH Liquid Test for Freshwater Test Kit by API GH & KH Liquid Test for Freshwater Test Kit by API $15.94
Sera Aqua-Test Box (+ Cl) Aquarium Test Kits Sera Aqua-Test Box (+ Cl) Aquarium Test Kits $89.95
Hanna Instruments HI98103 Checker pH Tester with Ph Electrode and Batteries, 0.00 to 14.00 pH, +/-0.2 pH Accuracy, 0.1 pH Resolution Hanna Instruments HI98103 Checker pH Tester with Ph Electrode and Batteries, 0.00 to 14.00 pH,... $44.49 $29.95
Hanna Instrument HI775 Freshwater Alkalinity Checker Test Kit - Freshwater Aquariums Hanna Instrument HI775 Freshwater Alkalinity Checker Test Kit - Freshwater Aquariums $89.57
Hanna Instruments HI721 Iron Checker HC Handheld Colorimeter 0.00 to 5.00 ppm Range Hanna Instruments HI721 Iron Checker HC Handheld Colorimeter 0.00 to 5.00 ppm Range $66.00

Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Types of Aquarium Test Kits

There are several different kinds of aquarium test kits but they all rely on a chemical reaction of some sort. 

For some you test your tank water directly, while others, you test only a small sample.

Test Strips

Test strips are the simplest kind of tests to perform.

The strip itself is a slender piece of plastic that has several reactive pads glued along its length. 

Each pad reacts to a different kind of chemical and they change color when they’re exposed to the dissolved substances in your water.

Generally, you just dip the strip in your tank, remove it immediately and wait 30-60 seconds while the color develops.

Then you compare the strip to a color chart on the bottle and figure out what range your tank water falls under.

While fast and easy to use, test strips are not always the most accurate. The strips can become contaminated from humid air, leading pads to not react anymore and give false negatives. 

Reaching into the bottle with damp fingers can also contaminate strips. These tests also don’t have as long a shelf life as liquid tests.

Pros: 

  • Fast results

Cons: 

  • Don’t have the longest shelf life
  • Easily contaminated
  • Results are not always reliable

Liquid Tests

One nice thing about liquid tests, they have a much longer shelf life than test strips. 

It’s also just about impossible to contaminate the testing solutions. You’d have to really go out of your way big time to do this.

A downfall of liquid test kits is that it takes more time to run these tests than if you were using  strips. Dipping a strip and reading your results is almost instant. 

But with liquid tests, especially nitrate and ammonia, you have to go through several steps and then wait for the color to develop for several minutes.

If you only have one tank, this isn’t that big of a deal. You can get most of your tests done within 15 or 20 minutes. 

But for multiple tanks, I’ve spent well over 90 minutes running a full set of tests.

There’s also the issue that you are handling chemicals when you use these tests. It is possible to expose yourself to skin and eye irritants. Don’t get me wrong, this is pretty rare, but it could happen. 

Pros: 

  • More accurate than test strips
  • Longer shelf life than strips

Cons: 

  • Takes much longer than strips
  • Some chemicals are skin irritants

Electronic Testers

Electronic testers are small battery operated devices that give a precise readout of a given water parameter.

For most, a small water sample is mixed with either a liquid or powdered chemical, called a reagent, and then placed inside the body of the meter. The meter then gives an exact number on the front of the device.

As cool as all that is, there are some drawbacks to electronic testers.

First of all, the meters are pricey, usually running somewhere around $60 each. And most only do one parameter. So you need one for nitrate, another for ammonia, another for pH, etc. So that can definitely get expensive.

You also have to keep purchasing the reagent chemicals for each test, which means there are ongoing costs as well.

For some of the meters, like pH or total dissolved solids (TDS), you will also need to purchase chemicals so that you can periodically calibrate the device.

So, electronic testers are definitely not the cheapest way to go. However, I would argue that if you’re keeping a delicate variety of fish or a lot of tanks, the electronic testers are a worthwhile investment. 

Pros: 

  • Fast results
  • More precise than comparing a sample to a color chart

Cons: 

  • Expensive
  • You have to buy a tester for each parameter
  • You have to buy reagent compound
  • Requires calibration 

Test Strips vs. Liquid

Whether or not strips or liquid tests are best is a hotly debated topic in the aquarium hobby. I have seen online forum posts that went on for pages and pages as people debated back and forth which kind of test is more accurate and reliable.

Some argue that test strips can be contaminated by humidity in the air or wet fingers when someone goes to pull out a second test strip.

There are some users who have had obvious false negatives from test strips. I have experienced this myself.

Others have tried test strips on multiple water sources, like different tanks and even tap water, but the strips give the exact same results no matter where the water sample came from.

Another complaint is that the dye from testing pads on the strip can run and contaminate other pads, especially on test strips that have 5 or more on the same strip.

Others say that they’ve never had a problem with test strips and the convenience far outweighs any possible issues. They state that they don’t need an exact number when it comes to test results. If anything shows up as being off, the reaction is always the same: start doing water changes, so why go to the trouble to use liquid tests? 

They’d much rather dip and be done and don’t see what all the fuss is about.

I’ll admit, I don’t have definitive, scientific evidence to tell you for certain that liquid tests are better than test strips, but I can share my own experiences.

Since I live in Florida, it’s always pretty darn humid in my house, even with air conditioning. It seems like test strips have a very short shelf life, even though I always screw the lid back on and make sure my hands are dry when I get out a strip.

I have also experienced blatant false negatives, like a strip saying there was 0 nitrate in a fully stocked tank that had been set up for more than a year.

Test strips also tend to be 4 or 5 times more expensive than liquid tests.

For these reasons, I only buy liquid test kits. 

Plus, I’m a nerd who likes playing pretend scientist testing my water. I don’t know why, I guess it makes me feel smart or something.

So I can’t necessarily give you definitive proof that one is superior to the other, but that’s just what my experience has been.

But maybe your experience is the complete opposite. 

I would just recommend that you buy test strips in smaller batches so they’re less likely to “go bad” before you’ve used them all.

7 Best Freshwater Aquarium Test Kits and Strips Reviewed

1. Tetra EasyStrips

Tests for:

  • Chlorine
  • Total ammonia: ammonium (NH4+) and ammonia (NH3)
  • Nitrite
  • Nitrate 
  • General hardness (GH)
  • Carbonate hardness (KH)
  • pH

OK, I have to admit that I am generally not a huge fan of most Tetra products, but I think their test strips are pretty great.

They’re sold in small batches, which should help keep them from going bad on you.

I did run the numbers on these tests. They cost about $0.68 per test versus an average of $0.14 per test from liquid kits. So that’s about 4.8 times the cost of liquid tests.

These are convenient since you’re running seven tests at once. And I’ve found that these are pretty easy to read when you’re comparing them to the chart.

I would still caution you to use common sense when you’re using these (and any other brand of test strip). If something reads 0, and that just really doesn’t make sense, use another strip and/or use a liquid test kit so you can compare the results.

I also don’t like that the bottle does not tell you whether it tests total chlorine or just free chlorine. 

There’s a big difference. 

Total chlorine tells you how much free chlorine (regular chlorine) and bound chlorine (chloramine) is in the water. A test that only registers free chlorine won’t show chloramine in the water.

So you could think your tap water is safe without dechlorination, when in fact, it contains a deadly substance that can kill your fish.

Since the manufacturer doesn’t specify which kind of test it is, you don’t know if chloramine will even show up.

Just play it safe, add dechlorinator.

Pros: 

  • Convenient
  • Runs several tests at once
  • Easy to read
  • Comes in small batches

Cons: 

  • Almost 5 times more expensive than liquid
  • No way to know if it tests total or free chlorine
Tetra 19544 EasyStrips Complete Kit, 25-Count
Tetra 19544 EasyStrips Complete Kit, 25-Count

    Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

    2. API 5 in 1 Aquarium Test Strips

    Tests for:

    • Nitrite 
    • Nitrate 
    • General hardness (GH)
    • Carbonate hardness (KH)
    • pH

    API 5 in 1 test strips cover most of the basic tests that you need to monitor your tank once it’s been fully cycled. If you’re not concerned about ammonia levels, these strips can give you a quick glance at your water parameters.

    On the surface, it seems like the API has a better price per test than the Tetra test strips, but it’s not really the case. If you want to add on the ammonia test, you have to buy another box of test strips that adds on another $14.24. 

    So that would bring the total to $24.48. If you break it down by price, that’s $0.98 a test. This makes the Tetra more economical.

    Pros: 

    • Covers most basic tests

    Cons: 

    • Does not include ammonia test
    • Not as good a price per test
    Sale
    API 5-in-1 Test Strips Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box
    API 5-in-1 Test Strips Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box

      Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

      3. Life2O Ultimate Aquarium Water Test Strips

      Tests for:

      • Free chlorine
      • Nitrite 
      • Nitrate 
      • General hardness (GH)
      • Carbonate hardness (KH)
      • pH
      • Total alkalinity
      • Mercury 
      • Lead 
      • Iron 
      • Manganese
      • Copper 
      • Zinc 
      • Fluoride 

      I like that these let you test for heavy metals, something that can sometimes contaminate municipal drinking supplies. Fish can be even more sensitive to these than humans so it’s best to know if they’re present in your tap water.

      If you use a reverse osmosis (RO) unit to purify part of your replacement water, these would also be a great way to monitor how efficiently your membrane is working. 

      RO membranes wear out over time. So if you periodically used a strip on your RO water, tests that started to show a positive result would let you know if you need to replace your unit’s membrane. 

      At $0.30 a test, these are fairly economical compared to other test strips.

      One downside is that these strips show free chlorine, but not total chlorine. This means that they will only show results if your water supply uses straight chlorine. 

      But these days, more and more water companies have switched over to chloramine, which is chlorine bound with ammonia. Chloramine won’t show up on a free chlorine test. This could lead some aquarists to think their water is fish safe, when in fact, it contains a deadly substance.

      My other gripe is that these strips test for 14 different substances, but ammonia isn’t one of them! Since ammonia can be a silent killer in your tank, it would be better to skip something like flouride (not toxic to fish) and replace it with ammonia (very toxic to fish).

      Pros: 

      • Tests for a wide variety of substances
      • Great for checking the health of your RO unit
      • Helps monitor heavy metal levels
      • Economical 

      Cons: 

      • Does not include ammonia test
      • May be more than the average user needs
      • Only tests for chlorine, not chloramine
      ULTIMATE 14-in-1 Aquarium Test Kit with Trace Heavy Metals | 50 Water Testing Strips for Fresh-Water or Salt-Water Aquarium, Fish-Tank, Reef & Pond | Alkalinity, pH, Nitrate, Carbonate Hardness & More
      ULTIMATE 14-in-1 Aquarium Test Kit with Trace Heavy Metals | 50 Water Testing Strips for Fresh-Water or Salt-Water Aquarium, Fish-Tank, Reef & Pond | Alkalinity, pH, Nitrate, Carbonate Hardness & More

        Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

        4. API Freshwater Master Test Kit

        Tests for:

        • High range pH
        • Low range pH
        • Total ammonia: ammonium (NH4+) and ammonia (NH3)
        • Nitrite 
        • Nitrate 

        The API Freshwater Master Kit lets you test your most basic water parameters.

        The instructions are easy to understand and are very beginner friendly. 

        I like that it comes with enough test tubes so that you can run all your tests at once. Just keep in mind, you’d need to have a few kitchen timers on hand since several of the tests need to sit for several minutes so the color can develop.

        Some users complain that the lids on the test tubes leak. I have personally never experienced this. And I’ve run the nitrate test, that requires you to shake the test tube for a full minute, more than any other test. 

        I’ve gone through several of these kits over the years. I don’t know if I’ve just managed to get lucky, or if some users aren’t putting the lids on correctly, but I’ve never had a problem with test tubes leaking. 

        In fact, I’ve also used quite a few of the stand alone GH/KH kits. All the API kits use the same test tubes and none of those have leaked either.

        But, in my opinion, the color chart can be a little difficult. For example, the nitrate test, when you place the test tube against the card to check your results, the hue of the sample never matches the color swatches on the card.

        So you sort of have to just go by the darkness a lot of the time. 

        Also the appearance of the colors can vary greatly under different lighting.

        It is missing other tests that most aquarists need, like general hardness (GH) and carbonate hardness (KH). These are important parameters that need to be monitored, even in fish only setups.

        And when it comes to planted tanks, you should also add on tests for things like phosphate and/or iron, especially if you’re dosing with fertilizers.

        So this kit covers the bare necessities, but still leaves something to be desired. 

        Pros:

        • Covers your most basic parameters

        Cons:

        • You need to buy stand alone tests for things like GH, KH, phosphate, iron, etc.
        • Color chart can be somewhat subjective
        • Only tests for total ammonia
        Sale
        API FRESHWATER MASTER TEST KIT 800-Test Freshwater Aquarium Water Master Test Kit
        API FRESHWATER MASTER TEST KIT 800-Test Freshwater Aquarium Water Master Test Kit

          Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

          5. API GH & KH Liquid Test Kit

          Tests for:

          • General hardness (GH)
          • Carbonate hardness (KH)

          The API GH & KH Liquid Test Kit lets you check the general and carbonate hardness of your tank water. 

          These work a little differently than other tests. You put the testing solution into the water sample one drop at a time, capping and inverting the sample in between each one to mix it evenly. 

          You count the drops as you go, until the sample turns a specific color. Each drop represents one degree of hardness (works the same for general or carbonate hardness). So if it takes 3 drops to get the right color, then the water has a hardness of 3 degrees.

          These tests are very accurate and are the same thing that scientists use to test water hardness in the field.

          One downfall is that it can be hard to see the color change. If you’re having trouble, look down through the open top of the test tube instead of viewing it from the side. 

          It also gripes me that you have to buy these tests separately from the Master Test Kit. I guess the logic is that lots of aquarists don’t even pay attention to their GH and KH.

          Pros: 

          • Very precise way to measure both kinds of hardness
          • Very quick

          Cons: 

          • Only tests for two parameters
          • Can be difficult to read results
          GH & KH Liquid Test for Freshwater Test Kit by API
          GH & KH Liquid Test for Freshwater Test Kit by API

          Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

          6. Sera Aqua-Test Box (+Cl)

          Tests for:

          • High range pH
          • Low range pH
          • General hardness (GH)
          • Carbonate hardness (KH)
          • Total ammonia: ammonium (NH4+) and ammonia (NH3)
          • Nitrite 
          • Nitrate
          • Phosphate
          • Iron 
          • Chlorine 

          The Sera Aqua-Test Box (+Cl) is a great all around test kit that covers your basic water parameters plus some extras, like phosphate and iron, that are great for planted tanks. 

          You can keep everything organized in the carrying case so you’re not constantly losing parts or dealing with having each individual test in a cardboard box.

          The test tubes are much larger than a lot of standard liquid tests that makes them easier to use since you don’t have to constantly worry about them falling over.

          I was really impressed by the color comparison chart because it’s much larger than in most tests, making it easier to read.

          The instructions can be tough, especially for beginners, because the English instructions are sandwiched in with German and other languages. Some users complain that the print is tiny and cramped, not something you can scan quickly and glean what you need to carry out the test.

          It also only tests for total ammonia, there’s not a separate test that lets you compare total ammonia (ammonia and ammonium) to free ammonia (just ammonia).

          And it doesn’t specify whether it tests total chlorine or just free chlorine. It’s an important distinction since total chlorine will show you regular chlorine and chloramine and free chlorine tests only register regular chlorine.

          Pros:

          • Multiple tests in one kit
          • Great for a planted tank
          • Nice organizer case
          • Large test tubes
          • Easy to read color chart

          Cons:

          • Instructions can be difficult to read
          • May not be beginner friendly
          • Only tests for total ammonia
          • Doesn’t specify what kind of chlorine it tests for
          Sera Aqua-Test Box (+ Cl) Aquarium Test Kits
          Sera Aqua-Test Box (+ Cl) Aquarium Test Kits

            Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

            7. Hanna Checkers

            Test for:

            • pH
            • Carbonate hardness (KH)
            • Phosphate
            • Iron 

            Hanna Checkers are the industry standard when it comes to water testing. They give you an exact number, not a range on a chart. 

            This is especially important if you’re keeping a delicate species, like discus, and need precise control over your parameters. Even with more hardy species, someone trying to mimic specific conditions in order to trigger fish to spawn could also benefit from one of these meters.

            They are a major investment up front since an individual checker can run around $60. But, they can also save you a lot of time and hassle if you’re going to be checking your parameters frequently.

            You do also have to purchase chemical reagents for each test, but once again, the precision and convenience of these tests makes the extra expense worthwhile.

            Hanna Checkers are frequently used by professional aquarium maintenance services for both fresh and marine tanks.

            There are a few downsides. 

            They don’t offer testers for all of the parameters that you need for a freshwater tank. So you would still need test kits for things like ammonia, nitrite and nitrate.

            Some of the checkers come with a powdered reagent, instead of a liquid one. Trying to get that entire packet of powder into a little test tube can be a real pain. And if you don’t get the whole packet in there, this will throw off your test results. 

            Many checkers need to be calibrated. Basically, you have to run it using a solution that has a known value so the device can make sure its measurements are accurate. You have to buy test solutions so that you can calibrate the device on top of the reagents.

            And you also have to take the time to calibrate the meter or you risk getting inaccurate results.

            Pros: 

            • Absolutely precise measurements
            • Takes less time than running chemical tests
            • Choice of the pros

            Cons: 

            • Doesn’t cover all of your parameters
            • Large initial investment
            • Ongoing costs from reagent and calibration chemicals
            • It can be a pain to use powdered reagents
            Sale
            Hanna Instruments HI98103 Checker pH Tester with Ph Electrode and Batteries, 0.00 to 14.00 pH, +/-0.2 pH Accuracy, 0.1 pH Resolution
            Hanna Instruments HI98103 Checker pH Tester with Ph Electrode and Batteries, 0.00 to 14.00 pH, +/-0.2 pH Accuracy, 0.1 pH Resolution
              Hanna Instrument HI775 Freshwater Alkalinity Checker Test Kit - Freshwater Aquariums
              Hanna Instrument HI775 Freshwater Alkalinity Checker Test Kit - Freshwater Aquariums
                Hanna Instruments HI721 Iron Checker HC Handheld Colorimeter 0.00 to 5.00 ppm Range
                Hanna Instruments HI721 Iron Checker HC Handheld Colorimeter 0.00 to 5.00 ppm Range

                  Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

                  Which Test Kit is Best?

                  Which test kit you think is best really depends on what’s more important to you. Every company and even every kind of test has its own strengths and weaknesses.

                  If it’s straight out precision, Hanna Checkers can’t be beat. But they’re expensive and don’t cover everything.

                  If it’s time and ease of use, then I’d have to say that the Life2O strips are probably best. But they may not be as accurate as other tests.

                  Or, if you’re looking for a balance of economy and accuracy, something like the API Freshwater Master Kit is best. But these tests take more time and still won’t be as accurate as an electronic meter.

                  I personally recommend the API Freshwater Master Kit and adding on the GH & KH Kit as well. That covers all the basics and lets you keep track of all the key factors for your aquarium’s health. 

                  You could also pick up a separate phosphate kit if you’re trying to dial in on that parameter for a planted tank or as part of algae control.

                  Testing is important, and the ultimate decision on which one to go with is up to you. I would urge you to weigh the pros and cons when you’re considering how to spend your hard earned cash. And worst case scenario, you can try another kind once you’ve used up your latest batch.

                  PreviewProductPrice
                  Tetra 19544 EasyStrips Complete Kit, 25-Count Tetra 19544 EasyStrips Complete Kit, 25-Count $16.99
                  API 5-in-1 Test Strips Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box API 5-in-1 Test Strips Freshwater and Saltwater Aquarium Test Strips 25-Count Box $14.99 $12.74
                  ULTIMATE 14-in-1 Aquarium Test Kit with Trace Heavy Metals | 50 Water Testing Strips for Fresh-Water or Salt-Water Aquarium, Fish-Tank, Reef & Pond | Alkalinity, pH, Nitrate, Carbonate Hardness & More ULTIMATE 14-in-1 Aquarium Test Kit with Trace Heavy Metals | 50 Water Testing Strips for Fresh-Water... $14.95
                  API FRESHWATER MASTER TEST KIT 800-Test Freshwater Aquarium Water Master Test Kit API FRESHWATER MASTER TEST KIT 800-Test Freshwater Aquarium Water Master Test Kit $35.79 $33.04
                  GH & KH Liquid Test for Freshwater Test Kit by API GH & KH Liquid Test for Freshwater Test Kit by API $15.94
                  Sera Aqua-Test Box (+ Cl) Aquarium Test Kits Sera Aqua-Test Box (+ Cl) Aquarium Test Kits $89.95
                  Hanna Instruments HI98103 Checker pH Tester with Ph Electrode and Batteries, 0.00 to 14.00 pH, +/-0.2 pH Accuracy, 0.1 pH Resolution Hanna Instruments HI98103 Checker pH Tester with Ph Electrode and Batteries, 0.00 to 14.00 pH,... $44.49 $29.95
                  Hanna Instrument HI775 Freshwater Alkalinity Checker Test Kit - Freshwater Aquariums Hanna Instrument HI775 Freshwater Alkalinity Checker Test Kit - Freshwater Aquariums $89.57
                  Hanna Instruments HI721 Iron Checker HC Handheld Colorimeter 0.00 to 5.00 ppm Range Hanna Instruments HI721 Iron Checker HC Handheld Colorimeter 0.00 to 5.00 ppm Range $66.00

                  Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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