A New Marine Aquarium Doesn’t Necessarily Cost A Fortune

We all know that a ‘small fortune’ means a different amount to different people – it all depends on the size of the wallet. Nevertheless, for someone considering starting a marine aquarium for the very first time the price of the set-up can be daunting.

Television doesn’t usually help. There have been programmes that have shown new aquarium installations as they proceed. These programmes, to attract any interest, have to show unusual installations and these are often huge aquariums and their relevant equipment into obviously very affluent homes. The logical thought of someone watching the programme is that ok that is expensive but smaller ones will also be very expensive on a lower scale. This isn’t necessarily so, aquarium equipment varies and so does the price. Unfortunately some general enquiries at marine shops also put the potential aquarist off because they are advised that they must have this and that, all sophisticated equipment with the expected price tag. The shop owner wants to make a living so fair enough. Not all advice is like this of course, some get to basics about experience and affordability.

The major advice that needs to be given is based on an amount that can be afforded by the potential purchaser. This could include the entire cash price or a payment plan. If the potential aquarist takes on more than can reasonably be afforded then that nasty word failure looms – there is maintenance to be done in the future and if pushed for money routine maintenance could be downgraded or ignored. The marine hobby should be about on-going enjoyment and to achieve this there is no room for excessive skimping. Most potential aquarists are ordinary folk with ordinary wallets which will only stretch so far.

First, the necessary equipment should be adequate for the gallonage of the aquarium. The purchase of undersized equipment in relation to the gallons of seawater in the aquarium (and sump if there is one) is not going to prove financially sound in the longer term as eventually more money will be required to obtain an adequate item, which is obviously going to be more expensive than having the correct one in the first place.

Controlling the set-up cost is not difficult. First of all, decide on the aquarium size that is desired. The aquarium cost is now known. The gross gallonage will be known for this, take off 10% to allow for displacement by sand and/or rocks and equipment. This will not give an accurate figure but is sufficient for the purchase calculations.

As already said for a marine aquarium there isn’t a need for highly sophisticated equipment based on amazing electronics and wizardry. For many beginners simplicity means success. The basic equipment required is a thermostatic heater (two smaller ones are better) plus a stick on thermometer, lighting which can be achieved by using fluorescent tubes (except if the aquarium is deep with some corals), timers to control the lights, at least two seawater circulating pumps for seawater movement (powerheads are fine, more could be needed in a large aquarium – or perhaps more powerful ones), a protein skimmer (this is an item that is often undersized), and very importantly a home for the bacteria that activate the biological filter. The basic biological filter could be a power filter, the better being the cylinder type (two smaller ones are better). Two items are suggested as being better for some equipment for security; if there were only one and it failed it might not be noticed by the aquarist in sufficient time whereas two smaller ones will slow down the problem as one will still be functioning.

So now the very basic price can easily be calculated. If ok, then the next stage is reached, and this is adding the cost of other lesser requirements though they are required to make the aquarium attractive and an adequate home for fish etc.

First of all, seawater needs to be made which means there is the cost of the initial mix based on the estimated net gallonage mentioned earlier. Then there is the decoration required such as rocks. Live rock need not be used as the initial estimate is based on other adequate biological filtration. The amount of rock depends on whether the system is to be fish only or a reef. Is decorative sand required – if so the amount needed to give an inch of coarse sand around the rocks can be added (rocks should not be stood on sand because of instability, and sand should be up to one inch deep for easier cleaning). To enable the aquarist to know the seawater condition, there needs to be test kits – the basic ones are pH, nitrite and nitrate. There also needs to be a hydrometer. Also fish food.

At this stage the overall cost for the equipment will be generally known. There’s something else though, really the point of it all, the livestock.

If the system is to be fish only, then the inches of fish that can be accommodated can be calculated (once the aquarium is decorated the seawater gallons going in can be measured to give a more accurate answer for eventual fish load). These fish should be hardy so they can more easily resist the common mistakes of a beginner.

If the system is to be a reef, then straight away the fish load should be halved or more. This is to give more protection to seawater quality. Again for a beginner the fish should be hardy; there are plenty of small colourful ones available. Corals have much less impact on seawater quality than fish but their numbers need care as once corals are settled they expand and grow. The corals too should be hardy varieties; again there are plenty of soft coral types available (not all soft corals are hardy).

Once the above have been added to the cost of the system the estimated (but clearly not accurate) total price will be known. If this is ok then great. If not, then great care needs to be taken if anything is to be downsized. If the aquarium selected initially was large then downsizing could be the answer as everything will cost less. If the total cost is well within limits then perhaps some equipment could be upgraded – the obvious one is to leave out the biological power filter(s) and perhaps use live rock. Or perhaps add a sump to increase the seawater net gallonage.

Oh, it goes on and on doesn’t it! One more stage and that is the future costs. Not so much replacement equipment needs, though this can happen, but more routine costs starting with electricity. Add up the wattage of the electrical equipment. The cost of a kilowatt (1000 watts) will be known per hour. To get the electrical running cost of the aquarium use the aquarium total wattage (all electricals). Assume the lights and heater(s) will be active 50% of the time (this isn’t accurate but fine for estimate purposes). Next, routine weekly seawater changes are required (the guideline indicates 10% of the net system gallonage). The amount of future sea salt can be estimated.

It could seem a long bothersome road following such a guideline, but if costs are known, equipment adequate and stocking correct then basic problems are generally avoided. All that is then required is research and patience. It really is worth it.

  1. I think there is a common misconception about how much aquariums tend to cost. They are absolutely beautiful and can be purchased/maintained in very cost effective ways. This is a fantastic post… definitely need to show it to my wife as I’ve been trying to convince her to let us have a custom setup built! Thanks. I enjoyed the read.

  2. Hello Philip. Glad you enjoyed the read and I hope you soon become a proud marine aquarium owner.

  3. I’ve been keeping a tank for years and the electrical cost really hasn’t been that bad. Sure I have a ton of things plugged in but most of them are only on intermittently and many of them don’t draw hardly any power. I think salt and other additives are the biggest recurring cost.

  4. Hi Kevin. Electrical costs do vary quite a lot depending (obviously!) on what equipment is in use. For example, I use fluorescents, the running cost would go up quite a lot if they were metal halide. Similarly it also depends on whether the aquarium is in a cold or hot environment – heaters and chillers are fairly electricity hungry. At the beginning of things I reckon it’s best to know what is what generally.

  5. This is a topic that is near to my heart… Many thanks!

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