Unpopular opinion: smaller tanks are better for beginners

Konigstiger

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TL;DR: yes, a smaller tank requires more oversight and closer monitoring than a bigger tank does. But that does not mean that it requires more effort than a larger tank does. In fact, it's the opposite.

I am by no means an expert on reef tanks, but as of now, it has been about a year since I set up my ~50 gallon tank, and although it has experienced several issues, I have been able to keep your average beginner/intermediate fish and coral with moderate success. I remember doing research back when I was a beginner and basically every guide said 'the bigger the better' to start out with, but after one year, I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of the problems I have had with reef keeping has been due to the larger size of the tank and the hassle associated with that, and my tank wasn't even that big. My reasoning for this basically comes down to one thing: effort (and cost but that's obvious).

Firstly, a bigger tank is just much harder to set up and requires more space in your house, and this becomes even worse if your tank comes with a sump and a stand (the latter of which is absolutely necessary with bigger tanks). For a big tank or even just a tank of the size I had, you will need copious amounts of time and the help of multiple people for just the set up alone. As a complete beginner, I had zero clue on how to set up a sump, and my tank came with barely any instructions. This was the largest hurdle to setting up my tank, and I struggled with figuring out how to make everything work while minimizing noise and leakage until I finally got it to run smoothly. On top of that, I also had to build the stand, which was less vexing than the sump, but was still annoying and took the better part of a day even with the help of multiple other people. You also need other people to even help you move all this heavy equipment around the house. Furthermore, there is the aspect of filling the tank with saltwater. For bigger tanks, you will almost certainly need to set up your own RODI system and reservoir for mixing and storing clean saltwater, which is an entire process in and of itself. I opted to not do this and to just buy saltwater, which again is still fairly labor-intensive as now you're lugging 50 gallons of saltwater to the tank in order to fill it up, but it was still less effort than making my own saltwater.

Now compare this to a 5 or 10 gallon that you can just pick up yourself and set on a piece of furniture. Buy a couple boxes of saltwater and that's it; you're done. No hassle and no one else needed but you.

And that's not even getting into maintenance... With a big tank, a water change becomes a big undertaking, requiring the use of one or more big buckets, a siphon, and more saltwater that you have to transport to your tank again either from your reservoir that you made or from the store. You will need to dedicate a decent chunk of time to this, and you will probably get yourself and the entire surrounding area of the tank wet with dirty water. The hassle associated with doing a water change just made me not want to do it at all, and this probably led to a lot of the problems I experienced since I was doing way fewer water changes than I should have been. Other aspects of maintenance are just as bad. Need to clean the rocks or sand or glass? You will have much more to clean in a bigger tank. Need to replace the evaporated water? Even in a tank with an ATO like mine has, I was still manually replacing like a gallon of distilled freshwater every day because of how little water the ATO reservoir held, which became incredibly annoying over time.

Compare this to the maintenance on a smaller tank: just put an empty gallon carton in there and fill it up and throw out the water, then replace with another gallon of saltwater and your 10-20% water change is done instantly.

And the cost aspect of all of this speaks for itself. Everything you will need for a bigger tank will be bigger, and therefore more expensive than the items required for a smaller tank. Given how much equipment you need to merely start a reef tank, this adds up. Even if you completely fail on your small tank and have to start over, replacing all the livestock and water even multiple times in a small tank is still probably less expensive than just simply maintaining a healthy bigger tank.

In conclusion, I will agree that logically, smaller tanks will require more maintenance and more closer monitoring of parameters, but I would say that doing this extra maintenance on a small tank is less work than just doing your standard or even below-standard maintenance on a big tank. Most beginners are not willing to put in immense amounts of money, time, and manual labor into maintaining a big tank. Instead, they should start on a small tank and really get good at understanding parameters and water chemistry before upgrading to a bigger tank. And if you mess up on your small tank, it will be no big deal; your wallet will take less of a hit, and the number of fish you harm or kill will also be fewer than you would have had you messed up on a big tank.

As I said in the title, I'm sure this is a rather unpopular view, and it's just my opinion in the end. But I am curious if there are other likeminded people out there who believe smaller tanks are actually better choices for beginners. Or, if you still believe bigger is better for beginners, feel free to share your counterpoints. I know that personally, if I ever start another reef tank or even a freshwater tank, I'm going 10 gallons or smaller.
 

Troylee

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TL;DR: yes, a smaller tank requires more oversight and closer monitoring than a bigger tank does. But that does not mean that it requires more effort than a larger tank does. In fact, it's the opposite.

I am by no means an expert on reef tanks, but as of now, it has been about a year since I set up my ~50 gallon tank, and although it has experienced several issues, I have been able to keep your average beginner/intermediate fish and coral with moderate success. I remember doing research back when I was a beginner and basically every guide said 'the bigger the better' to start out with, but after one year, I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of the problems I have had with reef keeping has been due to the larger size of the tank and the hassle associated with that, and my tank wasn't even that big. My reasoning for this basically comes down to one thing: effort (and cost but that's obvious).

Firstly, a bigger tank is just much harder to set up and requires more space in your house, and this becomes even worse if your tank comes with a sump and a stand (the latter of which is absolutely necessary with bigger tanks). For a big tank or even just a tank of the size I had, you will need copious amounts of time and the help of multiple people for just the set up alone. As a complete beginner, I had zero clue on how to set up a sump, and my tank came with barely any instructions. This was the largest hurdle to setting up my tank, and I struggled with figuring out how to make everything work while minimizing noise and leakage until I finally got it to run smoothly. On top of that, I also had to build the stand, which was less vexing than the sump, but was still annoying and took the better part of a day even with the help of multiple other people. You also need other people to even help you move all this heavy equipment around the house. Furthermore, there is the aspect of filling the tank with saltwater. For bigger tanks, you will almost certainly need to set up your own RODI system and reservoir for mixing and storing clean saltwater, which is an entire process in and of itself. I opted to not do this and to just buy saltwater, which again is still fairly labor-intensive as now you're lugging 50 gallons of saltwater to the tank in order to fill it up, but it was still less effort than making my own saltwater.

Now compare this to a 5 or 10 gallon that you can just pick up yourself and set on a piece of furniture. Buy a couple boxes of saltwater and that's it; you're done. No hassle and no one else needed but you.

And that's not even getting into maintenance... With a big tank, a water change becomes a big undertaking, requiring the use of one or more big buckets, a siphon, and more saltwater that you have to transport to your tank again either from your reservoir that you made or from the store. You will need to dedicate a decent chunk of time to this, and you will probably get yourself and the entire surrounding area of the tank wet with dirty water. The hassle associated with doing a water change just made me not want to do it at all, and this probably led to a lot of the problems I experienced since I was doing way fewer water changes than I should have been. Other aspects of maintenance are just as bad. Need to clean the rocks or sand or glass? You will have much more to clean in a bigger tank. Need to replace the evaporated water? Even in a tank with an ATO like mine has, I was still manually replacing like a gallon of distilled freshwater every day because of how little water the ATO reservoir held, which became incredibly annoying over time.

Compare this to the maintenance on a smaller tank: just put an empty gallon carton in there and fill it up and throw out the water, then replace with another gallon of saltwater and your 10-20% water change is done instantly.

And the cost aspect of all of this speaks for itself. Everything you will need for a bigger tank will be bigger, and therefore more expensive than the items required for a smaller tank. Given how much equipment you need to merely start a reef tank, this adds up. Even if you completely fail on your small tank and have to start over, replacing all the livestock and water even multiple times in a small tank is still probably less expensive than just simply maintaining a healthy bigger tank.

In conclusion, I will agree that logically, smaller tanks will require more maintenance and more closer monitoring of parameters, but I would say that doing this extra maintenance on a small tank is less work than just doing your standard or even below-standard maintenance on a big tank. Most beginners are not willing to put in immense amounts of money, time, and manual labor into maintaining a big tank. Instead, they should start on a small tank and really get good at understanding parameters and water chemistry before upgrading to a bigger tank. And if you mess up on your small tank, it will be no big deal; your wallet will take less of a hit, and the number of fish you harm or kill will also be fewer than you would have had you messed up on a big tank.

As I said in the title, I'm sure this is a rather unpopular view, and it's just my opinion in the end. But I am curious if there are other likeminded people out there who believe smaller tanks are actually better choices for beginners. Or, if you still believe bigger is better for beginners, feel free to share your counterpoints. I know that personally, if I ever start another reef tank or even a freshwater tank, I'm going 10 gallons or smaller.
You have a mid size tank and that’s about perfect for a beginner… a small 5-10 gallon is truly a pain to keep stable with sps corals and some LPs.. it’s just not as forgiving honestly. It’s a ton of more work to get a big tank up and going there’s no doubt about that but once these big beasts are settled in they pretty much roll on auto pilot very quick.. the other issue I have with recommending smaller 5-20 gallons tanks is once a newb has been bitten by the bug they want a bigger tank the next week cause they can’t have this fish or that fish etc etc.. I personally reccomend a standard 120 as your first tank if you can afford it cause it will last you a long time before you outgrow it and you can house a ton of fish compared to the little guys.
 

JayM

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It seems the biggest reason people get out of reefkeeping after they get in is because something goes horribly wrong. Fish disease aside, preventing things from going sideways is much easier with a larger volume of water. Temp is more stable, parameters don’t swing as fast, etc.

Initial setup with a big tank can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s a one and done.

IMO, bigger is better.
 

Reefing_addiction

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It seems the biggest reason people get out of reefkeeping after they get in is because something goes horribly wrong. Fish disease aside, preventing things from going sideways is much easier with a larger volume of water. Temp is more stable, parameters don’t swing as fast, etc.

Initial setup with a big tank can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s a one and done.

IMO, bigger is better.
Where were you 4.5 years ago lol
 

BeanAnimal

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I am by no means an expert...
...it has been about a year...
..it has experienced several issues...
...moderate success...

...but after one year, I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of the problems I have had with reef keeping has been due to the larger size of the tank and the hassle associated with that
Not sure how you can draw that conclusion without experience with the smaller system. Most of your reasoning is based on disdain for just about every aspect of the hobby from setup, to maintenance to the space the aquarium take up.

So maybe this is not the hobby for you, but if you enjoy the finished product you can hire out the maintenance and just enjoy the aquarium or maybe a 5 gallon system is what will make you happy.

And yes, your disdain for maintenance likely caused you problems. However you are underestimating the maintenance on a small 5 or 10 gallon system. You can let your 50 gallon system go for weeks on end without touching it. Your 10 gallon system will need DAILY attention. When (not if) things go just a little wrong, you will crash the entire thing. Tiny changes in anything have large effect. The advice for modest size systems (30 to 90 gallons) is based mostly on stability and plenty of room for error.
 

Ben's Pico Reefing

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Had a 90 gallon and a 60 gallon. My picos were way easier to setup and maintain. Been keeping tanks as small as half gallons. Only time I had issues was when I neglected and that was after 3 weeks. Or had an issue with salt getting mixed up with fresh. I kept them mostly sealed with air pump so no evaporation issues. Picos are way easier. The problem is you do have to understand things will oit grow and you cant have every fish or invert you may want. My current setup I havent tested water at all. The exception is testing salinity to verify its salt. Other than that not one bit since day one. Spent about 20 to 30 minutes total for maintenance once a week. I can shorten if I start preheating the water.
 

_cpate3_

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TL;DR: yes, a smaller tank requires more oversight and closer monitoring than a bigger tank does. But that does not mean that it requires more effort than a larger tank does. In fact, it's the opposite.

I am by no means an expert on reef tanks, but as of now, it has been about a year since I set up my ~50 gallon tank, and although it has experienced several issues, I have been able to keep your average beginner/intermediate fish and coral with moderate success. I remember doing research back when I was a beginner and basically every guide said 'the bigger the better' to start out with, but after one year, I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of the problems I have had with reef keeping has been due to the larger size of the tank and the hassle associated with that, and my tank wasn't even that big. My reasoning for this basically comes down to one thing: effort (and cost but that's obvious).

Firstly, a bigger tank is just much harder to set up and requires more space in your house, and this becomes even worse if your tank comes with a sump and a stand (the latter of which is absolutely necessary with bigger tanks). For a big tank or even just a tank of the size I had, you will need copious amounts of time and the help of multiple people for just the set up alone. As a complete beginner, I had zero clue on how to set up a sump, and my tank came with barely any instructions. This was the largest hurdle to setting up my tank, and I struggled with figuring out how to make everything work while minimizing noise and leakage until I finally got it to run smoothly. On top of that, I also had to build the stand, which was less vexing than the sump, but was still annoying and took the better part of a day even with the help of multiple other people. You also need other people to even help you move all this heavy equipment around the house. Furthermore, there is the aspect of filling the tank with saltwater. For bigger tanks, you will almost certainly need to set up your own RODI system and reservoir for mixing and storing clean saltwater, which is an entire process in and of itself. I opted to not do this and to just buy saltwater, which again is still fairly labor-intensive as now you're lugging 50 gallons of saltwater to the tank in order to fill it up, but it was still less effort than making my own saltwater.

Now compare this to a 5 or 10 gallon that you can just pick up yourself and set on a piece of furniture. Buy a couple boxes of saltwater and that's it; you're done. No hassle and no one else needed but you.

And that's not even getting into maintenance... With a big tank, a water change becomes a big undertaking, requiring the use of one or more big buckets, a siphon, and more saltwater that you have to transport to your tank again either from your reservoir that you made or from the store. You will need to dedicate a decent chunk of time to this, and you will probably get yourself and the entire surrounding area of the tank wet with dirty water. The hassle associated with doing a water change just made me not want to do it at all, and this probably led to a lot of the problems I experienced since I was doing way fewer water changes than I should have been. Other aspects of maintenance are just as bad. Need to clean the rocks or sand or glass? You will have much more to clean in a bigger tank. Need to replace the evaporated water? Even in a tank with an ATO like mine has, I was still manually replacing like a gallon of distilled freshwater every day because of how little water the ATO reservoir held, which became incredibly annoying over time.

Compare this to the maintenance on a smaller tank: just put an empty gallon carton in there and fill it up and throw out the water, then replace with another gallon of saltwater and your 10-20% water change is done instantly.

And the cost aspect of all of this speaks for itself. Everything you will need for a bigger tank will be bigger, and therefore more expensive than the items required for a smaller tank. Given how much equipment you need to merely start a reef tank, this adds up. Even if you completely fail on your small tank and have to start over, replacing all the livestock and water even multiple times in a small tank is still probably less expensive than just simply maintaining a healthy bigger tank.

In conclusion, I will agree that logically, smaller tanks will require more maintenance and more closer monitoring of parameters, but I would say that doing this extra maintenance on a small tank is less work than just doing your standard or even below-standard maintenance on a big tank. Most beginners are not willing to put in immense amounts of money, time, and manual labor into maintaining a big tank. Instead, they should start on a small tank and really get good at understanding parameters and water chemistry before upgrading to a bigger tank. And if you mess up on your small tank, it will be no big deal; your wallet will take less of a hit, and the number of fish you harm or kill will also be fewer than you would have had you messed up on a big tank.

As I said in the title, I'm sure this is a rather unpopular view, and it's just my opinion in the end. But I am curious if there are other likeminded people out there who believe smaller tanks are actually better choices for beginners. Or, if you still believe bigger is better for beginners, feel free to share your counterpoints. I know that personally, if I ever start another reef tank or even a freshwater tank, I'm going 10 gallons or smaller.
I am 100% in agreement. I started my first ever fish tank fresh or saltwater with a Fluval 13.5 and had 0 issues because it was cheap, I could move it, it fit in my dorm, and I learned so much from it. Maintenance was ONLY water changes and replacing media. what I will disagree with though is the initial commitment. Small tanks have small initial commitments but long term get tedious with maintainance (reaching my 1 year of reefing mark!) and I was honestly scared to go bigger because of the initial commitment it takes for setup, but long term it would be easier. So in my opinion it is 100% up to the reefer and I think each tank has its challenges (but of course I’m bias to my nano reefs!!!)
 

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A biocube 29 is honestly the perfect beginner tank.

It’s can be easier to maintain larger tanks and keep them balanced and stable… however the biocube keeps everything simple and the inevitable mistakes are kept relatively small.. the larger the tank, the larger those mistakes are going to be.

Gives you time to learn about CaRX, nitrogen cycle, types of corals, lighting needs, beananimal vs durso drain types, “oh what are these fun green bubbles growing on my rocks? Let’s pop one!”, “oh cool, free brown anemones”, “let’s add this cool damselfish”, “six line wrasse are so cute”, the list goes on..

That first year you learn a lot, usually by making mistakes and that helps you think about how you can do things better… and bigger.
 

_cpate3_

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in addition, small tanks have more issues which makes learning better and happen faster. With my Fluval I made MANY mistakes, but now with my 30 gal I’m having little to none because I have already encountered everything I could have in a small tank. My professor who has had tanks for 30+ years didn’t know about copepods until I mentioned them when asking for his help with my mandarin! Probably because with his 300 gallon tank it’s hard to find just 1 pod amongst all that. Learning faster with a small tanks means that upgrading and going big leads to aspirations and hope that drive the hobby at least in my opinion
 

Reefing_addiction

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in addition, small tanks have more issues which makes learning better and happen faster. With my Fluval I made MANY mistakes, but now with my 30 gal I’m having little to none because I have already encountered everything I could have in a small tank. My professor who has had tanks for 30+ years didn’t know about copepods until I mentioned them when asking for his help with my mandarin! Probably because with his 300 gallon tank it’s hard to find just 1 pod amongst all that. Learning faster with a small tanks means that upgrading and going big leads to aspirations and hope that drive the hobby at least in my opinion
Never say you have encountered everything that’s like asking for it in sure
 

krollins

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Small tank
pros: less manual labor and cheaper
cons: Less stable, less fish, and more water changes

Bigger tank
pros: More stable and More fish
cons: More manual labor and more expensive

Also as a point if you keep aggressive corals, you can stop them from stinging other corals in a bigger tank
 
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