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How to Set Up a Cheap Saltwater Aquarium

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Last updated on November 17th, 2023


How to Set Up a Cheap Saltwater Aquarium

How to Set Up a Cheap Saltwater Aquarium

One of the most notable things about saltwater aquariums it the cost. It's no secret that saltwater aquariums may not be cheap to set up. That being said, what if I told you there are ways to set up a cheap saltwater aquarium, yet grow coral like the pros? It may sound too good to be true, and to some degree, maybe it is, but there are definitely low cost alternatives to most equipment when setting up a saltwater fish tank.

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Cheap Saltwater Aquarium Equipment

If you are just now looking to set up a cheap saltwater aquarium, here is some equipment for you to start. Keep in mind, the most successful reef tanks tend to have sumps, overflows, high end equipment, etc. This is not going to replace all of that and likely won't grow coral as quickly. However, if you're just staring out with your first reef tank, we all need to start somewhere.

Cheap Aquarium / Tank

To start, you will need a cheap tank. The most common advice is to get the largest tank you can afford. While this does help simplify solving problems, for your first cheap tank, this may not be practical. I encourage watching for the $1/Gallon sale at Petco. This will help you get your first tank at a low cost. For the best success, try to get a "long", "breeder", or "frag" tank, and avoid "high" and "tall" tanks all together.

Cheap Saltwater Aquarium Wavemaker Pumps

Wavemaker or flow pumps are one of the most important components of the reef tank. Flow is what moves oxygen, removes CO2, regulates pH, removes waste, and contributes to reduced ability for algae to grow! Though I personally encourage high end flow pumps such as the EcoTech Vortech, I understand the problem behind the cost. While these pumps are durable and last a long time, the Jebao SW8 is a much lower cost solution that will likely work for multiple years!

Another cheap alternative are the Sicce Flow Pumps, and Sicce Return Pumps if you have a sump. These pumps are very well made, but tend to lack features such as wave patterns.

Cheap Saltwater Aquarium Reef Tank Lighting

Reef tank lighting is likely to be the most expensive piece saltwater aquarium equipment you will buy! The lowest cost option, Chinese Black Box lights, are not recommended because of the possibility of them starting on fire... So to look at reef tank lighting that can be used after you upgrade tanks, but keeps costs low, there are a couple options. The first is to use one or two AI Prime HD at roughly $231.00 each or a properly sized Reefbreeders Photon V2 Pro for roughly $500.00.

Both of these are good options, though the Reefbreeders light will work for larger, deeper tanks. When compared to $800+ lighting options, the Reefbreeders are a very good budget solution, though the AI Primes are great for beginners.

Saltwater Aquarium Sand

Finally, I just want to mention that when it comes to live sand for your reef tank, CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Aquariam Sand at Petco is the cheapest you I can find it anywhere! If you decide not to order online, you can price match in store too! It MUST be the exact same sand, color, and weight though. At $15 for 20 lbs, you should only need a bag or two for your cheap saltwater aquarium setup.

How to Maintain your Saltwater Aquarium Cheap!

After your saltwater aquarium is set up and fully cycled, or running for a while, you may be looking to maintain your reef tank cheap! There is little that needs to be done outside of water changes, and dosing for most simple reef tanks keeping coral. These are the key elements I will focus on in this section.

Cheap Salt Mix for Saltwater Aquariums

For reef tank salt mix, it is usually best to pick the salt with the closest parameters to your saltwater aquarium. To find which one is closest, refer to the article, Reef Salt Mix - Aquarium Salt Mix Parameters. That being said, if you are only doing small, 10% water changes, you likely won't be affected much, if at all by using any specific salt mix.

With that in mind, the Instant Ocean Salt Mix is the cheapest option for aquarium salt mix. Though, to be honest, most aquarium salt mixes are fairly close in price!

Cheap 2 Part Dosing

If you are maintaining stable saltwater aquarium parameters, and need a cheap solution for maintaining alkalinity and calcium, Bulk Reef Supply's 2 Part offers an easy to mix solution for dosing at roughly $16.50 for a gallon of each alkalinity and calcium supplements! Now that's how you keep maintenance costs down!

Cheap Saltwater Fish and Coral

Cheap Saltwater Fish

Unfortunately, there is not much in terms of cheap saltwater fish. What you could do, however, is check your local fish store. If they don't have the fish you are looking for, you may be able to ask them to order it for you, and what the price would be. They may be willing to get you a deal, losing part of the profits, because they know you are buying it. Keep in mind, you may need to pay ahead of time for the local fish store (LFS) to be willing to do this.

Cheap Saltwater Coral

If you are looking for low cost coral, you should again check with your local fish store. However, most of the best deals come from YouTube and Bloggers like Reef Stable. This is because we use it to support and grow the hobby! Here is a list of influencer or local shops where you can get great coral at person-to-person prices.

  • Fish of Hex
    • Fish of Hex is a YouTube influencer that cuts coral from his personal collection and frag tank to share with the reefing community at prices that are more than reasonable.
  • Reef Stable
    • Part of the mission here at Reef Stable is to help make reef keeping obtainable by everyone. As such, we keep the prices of coral low to help share the hobby with everybody!

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Though this hobby is expensive overall, there are ways to get into the hobby cheap. After some time, you will almost surly upgrade, but everyone starts somewhere! I hope this article helped you find the deals you need to set up your reef tank and maintain it on a budget!

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About the Author

Reef Stable Founder John Krenzer

John is a Software Engineer with a passion for saltwater aquariums, as well as the founder and president of Reef Stable. He started in the aquarium hobby as a child with a 20 gallon freshwater aquarium. His interest in aquarium life grew and in 2008, John set up his first saltwater aquarium.

Today, John maintains an over 300 gallon reef tank system, consisting of a 120g reef and a 210g reef. These large tanks are contained within the same system, sharing a sump as a means to reduce total maintenance and increase total water volume.

John writes articles for the blog as a means to learn about more reef aquarium topics. These articles act as a reference for the readers as well as himself. John updates these articles frequently to provide additional information or make corrections as new information becomes available.

If you would like to request an article, tank tour article, or to collaborate, let me know via the Contact Me Page!

About Reef Stable

Reef Stable was initially founded in 2019 as a reef tank parameter log to fill a need. Reef Stable quickly grew, becoming a location to solve all of your reef tank problems as well as a place to learn.

Reef Stable now provides a Reef Blog, Reef Aquarium Guides, Coral Care Guides, Identification and Solutions for Pests and Algae, and Reef Dosing Calculators, in addition to the original Reef Parameter Log.

Reef Stable continues to grow, striving to provide a single location for all your reef tank needs!

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