Has the hobby gotten too expensive and how does it compare to the past?

Has the hobby gotten too expensive and how does it compare to the past?

I have been in this hobby for a long time, but I am not going to act like an old codger and say I remember when Flame Angels were a quarter and corals were a dollar. Nor am I going to get into a discussion of how a frag costing more than a major appliance is good for the hobby or even what it means. I have difficulty comprehending this as well as how so much money and so many new hobbyists have come into the hobby. The latter at east in part driving the former. Also it is not my job to tell anyone how to spend their money, as I have gotten caught up at times and bought expensive frags, equipment and fish. My only comment about this is if you are willing to spend $200+ on a frag without batting an eye, you should be just as willing to spend $200 on clothes for your wife and kids, but that is just my opinion. In some of my past articles I have been criticized for focusing too much on how much things cost or how expensive the hobby is. So before I continue I want to let it be known that when I put together this article and worked out my comparison of costs I did so as blindly as I could in determining the prices. So when I was finished doing my analysis I could have found out that compared to 20 years ago the hobby could cost the same or even be less and if I found this I would admit that I was wrong. Also I did not take into account for the most part how much the price of things now is accounted for by the advancements we have made or in how much more successful we generally we are now. As it is still the case, that the most expensive thing in the hobby is something you have to replace.

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The issue of FAMA from 1998 from which I got the prices for things.

So as I mentioned the basis for this article is to focus and discuss how much the hobby costs now compared to how much it cost 20 years ago. Specifically, how much it costs to start a tank from scratch. While I have been keeping reefs since 1986, it is my opinion that we only achieved a high level of repeatable success approximately 20 years ago. Since I save things, I still have lots of magazines from then, so I thought it might be interesting to compare the costs of things then versus now. However, I also know that a significant amount of inflation has occurred since then, and in estimating things this need to be taken into account. So for the sake of argument I am going to say that over that time span inflation has been approximately 40% That is, what you could buy for $100 then would now cost you at least $140. This may not be precise, but from looking at the inflation numbers over the years that is the best I could come up with.

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A small section of John Burleson's 120-gallon tank in 1998, which at the time was the state of the art.

So to do my comparison I thought it would be interesting to compare the total cost of setting up a complete reef tank in 1998 and now. Twenty years ago I set up a 120-gallon reef tank, so I thought this would be a good tank to set up for comparison purposes, even though back then it was considered a “large” tank. For this comparison I took the cost of each piece of equipment I used and compared it with something comparable now. I tried to be fair in that back then I tried to use the best piece of equipment I could find and that is what I tried to do now. Some may have a difference of opinion from mine as to what is the “best” but I tried to be fair in both evaluations. To try and be fair in this comparison I got the prices from the advertisements in the magazines that I had from then while now the best prices were obtained from online stores. Again there may be some dispute, but I tried to be as equitable as possible in terms of the quality and equivalence of products as I could.

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A section of what a modern 120-gallon tank can look like today.

So let’s get started on the comparison of what things cost now versus twenty years ago. To start with let’s begin with the basics: tank, stand and canopy. In 1998 I actually purchased a complete set of these items at what I thought of then as a good price of $149 for the tank, $229 for the stand and $129 for the canopy for a total of $507. Today when I got the prices for these items, $480 was the price for a tank, $500 for a comparable stand and $440 for the canopy for a total of $1420. When getting these prices I tried to have the tank, stand and canopy be comparable to what I got in 1998 so I’m sure there can be differences in what some may find for these basic items, or one could even save money by getting these items used. But this is not an exercise to compare the lowest prices on things but rather an attempt to see how the cost of getting into the hobby has changed in twenty years.

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A picture of my current 120-gallon tank.

The next group of items and which in my opinion are essential for a reef tank are lights, protein skimmer, sump, overflow, powerheads, return pump, RO/DI unit and heater. Again there can be a marked difference in the cost of things depending on what is chosen, but I tried to select what I either used then to what I felt was comparable now. For lighting I used a Coralife metal halide fixture with Actinic fluorescent lights included, as to me this was the light I used then as I thought it was a great light back then. The cost for this unit was $450, bulbs included. One thing that needs to be considered though in my choosing metal halide lights is that I when I used these lights on my tank, then I also needed to use a chiller, otherwise the tank would overheat. For this size of tank, the recommended chiller cost $399 in 1998. Today I would use two Radion G4 LED light units. I chose these, as like the Hamilton metal halide unit of its day, it is my opinion that these are the best lights available. I’m sure this will stir up some arguments, but that is for another time, here I am just trying to compare costs and the cost for two of these fixtures is around $1600.

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A page showing one of the many mail order pet shops that were the just starting to supply the hobby.

1998 was an interesting time in that it was during that time that reef keepers were in the midst of switching over from trickle filters to using protein skimming to control nutrients in their tanks. So to be honest at this time it was hard to find any that I would consider really good commercially available protein skimmers. But if you looked around you could find some, so for me it was the MTC skimmer which cost $170. While this seemed expensive at the time it was considerably less than what a trickle filter cost which was $400. Today I would use a Vertex Omega 800 which cost $49.

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Unlike today where much of the hobby is fueled by frags back in 1998 full colonies were how we filled our tanks.

As long as I have had tanks, all of my tanks have had a sump and an overflow to get the water from the tank to it of some kind. Back then I used a 40-gallon tank for $40, which I modified as the sump along with an overflow, which cost $129 and I used an Iwaki 55 for the return and this cost $259. Today I could go a little crazy and get a custom built sump for $500, but to keep things under control, like on my current 120-gallon tank I use a modified 40-gallon tank, which cost me $70, along with a CPR overflow for $135 and a Vectra M return pump for $$325. Again these are my choices of what I had and what I feel now are comparable in terms of quality.

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Better more efficient equipment is one of the reasons for the increase in the hobby, but in my opinion it is worth it.

Back then we were just starting to add more water movement to our tanks beyond simply relying on our return pumps so on my 120 I used a powerhead and a wavemaker. I used a Hagen 800 powerhead that cost $26 along with a wavemaker that cost an additional $199. Today I would employ either a Tunze Stream that costs $299 or a Vortech MP 40 which costs $339, so let’s split the difference and say it costs $319 to provide good flow in this tank. While flow is important so too is having clean water to start with so I have employed RO/DI units for my tank since I pretty much began keeping saltwater tank. In 1998 a good RO/DI unit ran $199. Today a comparable Spectrapure 4-stage RO/DI unit will run $350.

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A 120-gallon tank can be set up as simply as this.

The last item in this group while necessary, has caused more problems in my tanks over the years due to its unreliability than just about any other item. If you have been in the hobby for any length of time, then of course you know I am talking about a heater. Back then my favorite heater was an Ebo-Jager and for this size of tank I would have used a 150-watt heater and the price would have been $10. Today I would use Eheim jager heaters and this unit costs $27. When adding up the prices for all of these items in this grouping the cost in 1998 would have been $1881, while the price for comparable items today is $3010.

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One of the trace elements and additives used in 1998.

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A picture of the light I used in 1998.

While all of the above items are the backbone of a reef tank, you really can’t have a successful reef tank without the next two: salt and a means for measuring salinity. In 1998 I was already using Instant Ocean salt which cost $19 for a 200-gallon bucket. Today I still use Instant Ocean salt but it now costs $49 for a 200-gallon box. I do miss the big buckets I must admit, but the bucket adds to the price. Back then most of us used the inexpensive and inaccurate box hydrometer that cost $3, while today many of us now use a much more accurate refractometer that costs $35. So the difference in salt and being able to measure it from then to today would be $22 versus $84, to me.

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The trace elements I am using today.

If salt is the most essential component of a reef tank, then live rock and substrate are probably the components of a reef tank right behind it. Back then live rock was usually used at the rate of 2 pounds per gallon. It was relatively inexpensive, at $4 per pound, which helped, but I still would have only have used 200 pounds so this would have cost $800. Today I only use 1 pound per gallon and let the corals fill in the space, but it is more expensive so the cost would be comparable at $800. Back then bare bottom tanks were not quite as prominent as they are today and live sand was just starting to be the substrate of choice. So to fill the bottom of this tank I would have spent around $100. Today I prefer keeping a bare bottom tank, but to keep things comparable, I would use Carib Sea Ocean Direct Original live sand and it would cost $150 for this size of tank.

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In 1998 most mushrooms cost about $5, today mushrooms like these can cost significantly more.

The last group of items necessary for doing a reef tank are things we often don’t think about as they are relatively inexpensive, but when you add them all up they add to the cost of the hobby. They include food, autofeeder, carbon, additives, and test kits. When looking at food I chose a mix of dry and frozen as that is what I have always used. In 1998 the mix I chose to start the tank would have run $40, today it would cost $60. I have also always used an autofeeder to feed my tank during the day when I am working as I have found it cuts down on aggression as well as reduces the likelihood that my fish will get so hungry that they will start eating the corals. Then I used a fish sitter which cost $30 while today I use a Current which costs $25. Carbon, something I only run for a week a month, for a pound cost $5 while today it is $10. Test kits, which often don’t get the attention they should are in my opinion crucial when setting up a tank just to know where the tank is in the cycling process and in order to see how good we are at keeping a tank stable. So just getting kits for Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, Calcium, Alkalinity would have cost $50. Today I would get those and also Magnesium and Phosphate and the cost would be $116. Lastly, I have always over skimmed my tanks and then used additives to make up for the good things that had been taken out. The Coralife additives that I added back then cost $60. Today I still overskim and use additives as I always have. Now I use Brightwell’s additives, and the ones I add cost $65. The total for all of these items is not as high as many of the earlier items, but they do add to the total cost of starting a tank. In 1998 the total for these items was $185, while today the cost is $276.

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A 120-gallon tank today can still be quite beautiful when set up correctly even when it is not stocked with the most expensive corals.

As I said at the beginning I was not going to get into the cost of coral in this article as that is a topic in itself possibly for a later article. However, I thought it would be interesting to look at the cost of fish from 1998 to now when considering the cost of setting up a tank. For this I decided on just adding 10 fish to this tank, yeah I know well below what I usually have in my tanks, but I thought it would be a good place to start. Also I did not go with anything too esoteric to add, so I decided on adding 5 green chromis, a flame angel, a pair of clownfish none designer, and Yellow tang and a blue hippo tang. In 1998 the cost for these fish would be $10 for the chromis, $20 for the pair of clownfish, $30 for the flame angel, $10 for the yellow tang and $15 for the blue hippo for a total of $85. Today the cost would be $25 for the damsels, $34 for a pair of clownfish, $55 for the Flame angel, $49 for the yellow tang, and $48 for the hippo tang for a total of $211.

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Back in 1998 the hobby was just switching from trickle filters to protein skimmers.

When quickly looking at the price difference of twenty years to today it is clear that things are indeed more expensive today, but it is also clear that the hobby has never been inexpensive. In 1998 to start a 120-gallon tank it is my estimate that it would have cost around $3580, while today for something comparable it would cost $5951. However, as I stated at the beginning inflation needs to be taken into account when making this comparison. So to compare the costs in an equitable manner the cost for everything in 1998 needs to be multiplied by 1.4 to see how it compares. When this is done the cost for a tank in 1998 at today’s dollars is $5,012 or a $939 difference from today’s price, which is 15%. So That means that setting up a tank today will cost approximately 15% more than it did twenty years ago even when accounting for inflation. Some may disagree with my choices of products or how I came up with the numbers, but I was just trying to see how costs compare and tried to be a s equitable as I could and I thought seeing how the expense compared when setting up a tank from scratch.

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An interesting picture showing the cost of fish in 1998.

To some, the cost of the hobby or this 15% increase may seem like a lot but to me at least the price of the hobby and this increased cost has been more than offset by the improvements in the hobby and the increased success that we are now enjoying. Also to be honest I thought that the cost of setting up a tank today versus twenty years ago would be significantly more than I found. So in this regard I must admit that I have been wrong in saying that the hobby is more expensive now than in was twenty years ago. Also it is my opinion that the hobby is significantly better and we all have a much higher chance of success, far more than 15% better, that more than offsets this 15% price difference. Now that I have done this estimation I am happy to see that the hobby really hasn’t gotten that much more expensive, at least in terms of setting up a tank. No of course we can go crazy and get far more expensive equipment and get pricey fish and corals to stock it with, but that was not the intent of this article. Instead I hope I showed that you can set up a nice tank for a reasonable amount of money and even if you don’t go nuts on pricey fish and corals you can still have a beautiful tank to enjoy. And having a tan to sit back and enjoy really is the point of the hobby, at least it is for me.
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Mike Paletta
Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.

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