Zoanthid close-up.

Photo is from the Reef2Reef archives.

We think there are plenty of readers out there who are considering starting a reef tank but who hesitate to move forward for a number of reasons. So, this article is intended for those who have never had any kind of aquarium, or those who have freshwater aquarium experience but no saltwater experience. I’m going to try to address some of the most common concerns to help you move ahead.

I’m scared. I don’t know anything about it. It sounds so complicated.

You can learn. Nobody is born knowing how to maintain a saltwater tank. It’s a learned skill.

Join our forum and start asking questions. Read books. Read online articles. Watch YouTube videos. At the beginning you may feel like you walked into the middle of a movie, but you’ll catch on. Ask your friends if they know anyone with a reef tank, and go visit them. Join a local aquarium club. Understanding enough to take care of a small tank is within your grasp. You don’t have to be an analytical chemist in order to succeed.

Money money money.

Photo is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

Is it going to cost a fortune?

It doesn’t have to. This hobby can be as expensive as you want it to be. You can put unlimited money into it. You can put all of your money into it. You can have custom Y-shaped thousand-gallon tanks. You can have every gadget known in the aquarium trade.

But you don’t have to. You can also buy equipment used and on sale. You can do lots of DIY things. And if you have a smaller tank, you can get by without a lot of equipment, gadgets, and gizmos. You don’t need rare fish specimens that cost thousands of dollars—and we wouldn’t recommend it anyway for a beginner.

If you plan way ahead, it’s much easier to buy your equipment when it’s on sale. There are tons of sales right now, before and shortly after the holidays. Also, aquarium clubs regularly have equipment sales and often offer discounts at nearby stores.

There’s definitely going to be an initial financial outlay for equipment, meds, rock, and eventually livestock, but after that, depending on the size of your tank, extra dosing can be a minimum, and your main expense will be RO/DI water (unless you buy an RO/DI unit at the outset for home which is a good idea) and salt.

I just checked online, and one brand of salt is $45 for a bucket that will make 160 gallons of saltwater. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, you have a 30 gallon tank, and you change 15% of the water, twice a week. (Which is a lot.) That’s nine (9) gallons per week or about 40 gallons per month. (Insurers calculate 4.3 weeks in a month.) That means that bucket of salt will last four months or it will cost about $11 per month.

You will have to change cartridges in your RO/DI unit occasionally depending on how hard your tap water is, but over the year, this will not be an enormous expense. You will definitely be using some electricity. However, a smaller tank, like under 50 gallons, is unlikely to require more power than you would have on one circuit, and the lights are only on during half of a 24-hour day.

How much of a time commitment is it?

That’s like asking, how long is a piece of string? The answer depends on how big and complex a system you have. How much sophisticated equipment do you have? Also, if you move too fast, you may make mistakes that take time to correct. There’s definitely more time involved than with a freshwater tank. But most reefers do it because they love it. The time spent is not a burden. I would hazard to guess that if the tank isn’t too big, and you’re not overloaded with equipment, you should figure on a couple of hours per week in the beginning and less as time goes by.

What happens if I need to go away?

That depends on the size and complexity of the system, see above. If it’s more than a day or two, someone will have to check your tank. It’s possible to automate several things as you gain experience, but that does not take the place of checking the tank manually. You’ll have to teach someone how to assess the tank, and this is where a local aquarium club is extremely useful because it’s much easier to find someone through that entity if you don’t have a partner at home. However, it’s important to keep a log or notebook of what you’re doing and why and how, so that at any time, in an emergency, someone can figure out what’s going on and pick up where you left off.

Is keeping a reef tank easier if I’ve had freshwater experience?

Not necessarily. Personally, I think it helps to have some FW experience, but I think I’m in the minority to feel that way. Most reef aquarists seem to feel like saltwater is so different from freshwater that FW experience doesn’t really help. SW requires more care and attention than FW, especially in the beginning. You have to do more testing because the water quality has to be kept within narrow limits. You have a smaller margin of error. But you can do it. People have been keeping saltwater aquariums for hundreds of years—including the Aztecs.

There’s no denying that aquariums deliver significant health benefits. I’m not kidding. Serious benefits. We encourage you to take the plunge, so to speak, and let us help you.

A reef-safe porcelain crab (which is not a true crab, but a decapod crustacean).

Photo is from the Reef2Reef archives.


We encourage all our readers to join the Reef2Reef forum. It’s easy to register, free, and reefkeeping is much easier and more fun in a community of fellow aquarists. We pride ourselves on a warm and family-friendly forum where everyone is welcome. You will also find lots of contests and giveaways with our sponsors.

Reef2Reef welcomes guest writers for this section. If any is interested in writing for us, please register on the forum and contact me (Seawitch) through private messaging.


A special thanks is due today to the following individuals:

From the R2R forum, hdsoftail1065, who is always available to answer my relentless questions.


Author Profile: Cynthia White

Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU during the Paleozoic Era. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years. She has written for newspapers and magazines, both in print and online and was formerly a marketing manager for a small oil company. Now she is a writer and editor on staff at R2R, where her forum nickname is Seawitch.

For 15 years, she kept a dozen freshwater tanks, bred cichlids--Cyphotilapia frontosa--and sold them to pet stores in Calgary. Finally, after years of study, she has come to saltwater side. She lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three special-needs dogs, a five-minute walk from the Georgia Strait.