Part 2 and the conclusion of Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.
(You can read the first article in this series here: Part 1)


So just how much do you think a saltwater aquarium is going to cost? When I first started I bought a used 30g tank and stand for $35 at a garage sale in my neighborhood and in a few months had invested over $1500 just getting hardware and sand and rocks! Hang on now, don’t jump ship yet. Read on and find out why I spent so much on relatively small tank.

First, I bought the tank and metal stand used at a garage sale for $35! After that I bought everything new and from various LFS (Local Fish Stores). Also, I’m in SW Florida and we let the air in our house get up to around 80-82 degrees before we turn on the A/C, so I needed a chiller to keep the water in my aquarium at 80 degrees. BTW, this was back when return pumps and powerheads (before there were wavemakers) were all AC and ran warmer than today’s DC pumps. And the fluorescent light fixture ran warmer than today’s LED fixtures. Many reefers can run without a chiller and they are one of the major up-front expenses and a healthy addition to your monthly electric bill. Here is a list of what I spent:

Tank & stand $35.00 used

RO/DI water maker 130.00 new

Salt 25.00 new

Live Sand 60.00 new

Live Rock (LR) 175.00 new

HOB Filter 50.00 new

HOB Skimmer 200.00 new

Power compact light 160.00 new

Chiller 450.00 new

2 Powerheads 100.00 new

Power strip 25.00 new

Timers 30.00 new

Test kits 60.00 new

Total: $1500.00*

*just in case you didn’t notice there isn’t a single fish, coral, snail or any other living thing included in that $1500 cost!

For inspiration: a beautiful reef tank with custom skull wall created by the owner.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @cromag27 ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

If you do some reading and ask some questions on almost any local club website forums or on R2R (Reef2Reef) before you buy, you’ll be far, far smarter and better off than I was. Also, if you join your local club and get to a meeting and make a couple of new friends with tanks, you’ll be even further ahead of the game. With a month or two of reading, asking questions and seeing other people’s tanks, you’ll have a far better idea of what’s out there, what it costs and what you want to set as your goals.

Also you’ll find there’s a wide variety of used equipment you can buy for far below the cost of new equipment at retail prices. If you work at it, you can set up a system for 30-60% of what it would cost new, maybe even less if you find the right seller who wants out of the hobby. A friend of mine just bought an almost complete 125g system for only $500. It included water, fish, corals, a nice stand and canopy, led lights, pumps, a sump and a refugium! The only thing extra he really needed to buy was a skimmer.

Buying Used: Four years later I had my 75g system up and running when I decided I wanted to go even bigger. I started by buying the 180g tank and then spent over 18 months buying all the other equipment I needed before I built the stand, did the plumbing and set the system up. The build was in my mind all the time, but I knew I wanted to do it right, not just ‘do it’. And even then, I didn’t get it all right. Marine aquarium keeping is a process and an evolution. The hobby is still learning better and better ways to keep a small section of reef in a glass box in your home. New techniques, new equipment and new science just keep making it easier and better… and as often than not, more expensive!

For inspiration: a mature reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @Rick.45cal ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

So my third system was a 180g mixed reef full of corals, fish and invertebrates, plus a 70g hexagon tank with many anemones, a few fish and a few inverts that I can’t keep in the mixed reef due to incompatibility between certain critters. The 2 tanks were tied together thru a 180g sump/refugium with lots of extra features. I got most of it used and a few items new at big discounts due to raffle winnings at local club events and an LFS ‘going out of business’ sale. I did buy a couple of special pieces of equipment new because I never found any used that were worth buying. Here is what I got and what I paid (as best I can remember):

180g Tank $200.00 used

70g hex tank 50.00 used

Stand 300.00 home made DIY and extremely heavy duty

RO/DI (for making water) 75.00 store close out

Filter socks 20.00 new

Skimmer 275.00 used

Sand 0.00 free from other reefers

Live Rock (LR) 50.00 my old rock plus 100 pounds used from other reefers

MH lights 500.00 1 store close out and 1 used

Chiller 1000.00 new

In tank pumps 100.00 new

Main circulation pump 30.00 new (won at a club raffle using 30 raffle tickets at $1 each)

Timers and on/off switches 150.00 new

2 breakers and new outlets 80.00 new parts DIY install

160g Sump tank 175.00 for used tank, baffles & installation

Plumbing parts 300.00 new

45g water mixing tank 50.00 new

Wiring 100.00 new

Power strip 25.00 new

Total: $3500.00

So that’s almost 15 times the water volume of my first system (435g vs 30g) at a little more than double (2.3 times) the cost! But we haven’t even touched on the cost of fish, corals, inverts, chemicals and food.

So consider how much money you want to spend up front on hardware. Then remember that fish, inverts, corals, sand, live rock, saltwater and food all cost money too. And then there is the regular maintenance like testing water parameters, water changes, eventually adding chemicals like calcium, alkalinity (sodium bicarbonate) and magnesium, paying for some extra electricity, new filters, new light bulbs, replacement pumps… sometimes it feels like it’s never going to end… oh, that’s right, it doesn’t!

For inspiration: a cube reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @leonel619 ©2019, All Rights Reserved.
Then there’s the time. Setting up and getting started take far more time than the downstream care, but don’t underestimate what a daily, weekly and monthly toll you will have to commit to with an aquarium. Almost daily you’ll be feeding fish (and maybe corals too), adding ‘top off water’ to replace what has evaporated and looking things over just to be sure everything is working properly. Weekly you’ll be doing water parameter tests, cleaning the glass, doing a water change (which involves making clean RO/DI water and mixing in salt), cleaning or changing filters, and cleaning the skimmer. Monthly you’ll be finding other things to do like cleaning pumps, overflows and other pieces of equipment. It all adds up to a real commitment of time. And as so many have told you before, time is money!

As I stated earlier, this isn’t a cat or a dog. This is an ecosystem that allows you to keep tropical fish, live coral, sea stars, shrimp, snails, feather dusters, anemones, sea cucumbers and more. But to that ecosystem, you are god. And if you don’t keep a close eye on it, and you let it get out of hand, something will die. And it could easily daisy chain into everything in the tank dying. A few years ago I had a chiller go crazy and turn on one night and then not turn off when the water was the right temperature (79 degrees). As a result, at 6am the next morning the tank temperature was 58 degrees and 70% of my coral (100% of my stony coral) and 95% of my fish (all but one) died! So even at 12+ years of experience, bad stuff can still happen. There are safeguards that will prevent what happened to me, but like almost every solution, it costs more money, and it takes time!

In the next article, I’ll cover the other topics of goals, expectations, experiences and the wide variety of paths you can (and should) choose before you start.

If you have questions, feel free to ask me here on the website or send me a private message.

(You can read the next article in this series here: Part 3)


Note From the Editor:

This article and several future ones by the same author were originally part of several presentations made to a local aquarium club. The article is reprinted with permission from the author. Reef2Reef is grateful to the author for sharing these articles with us.


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Author Profile: @Ron Reefman

@Ron Reefman has been keeping saltwater aquariums for almost 20 years. Some time ago, there was a profile of him. He lives in Florida and is happy to share his ocean and aquarium adventures with us all.