How to build a low cost saltwater aquarium

Cheap Saltwater Aquariums

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Cheap Saltwater Aquariums?

I really want to own a saltwater aquarium. I have had different aquariums since childhood and love it. Having a saltwater aquarium has always been a dream for me. However, I am shocked by the cost of setting up and maintaining one. I wondered if other readers have found any ways to cut the costs. We did find a used setup on eBay, so we are starting out right.

Saltwater Fish Only

Look for a used aquarium and equipment in your local classified ads. Also, avoid coral. Making it a "fish-only" aquarium saves on maintenance. These are tips from my husband, who has maintained his own set-up and also worked providing maintenance service through a store.

Join Online Fish Forum

To save money, join a few online fish forums. On these forums, inquire about which equipment is really right for your needs. This equipment is too expensive to buy the wrong things. Buy new from online stores, saving about 50% per item after shipping. If you buy several things, the shipping costs become insignificant. Or buy used. You may be able to buy things used from members as they upgrade or leave the hobby. You can also get advice on problems as they occur. One more suggestion is to find a local fish club. Many have auctions of used equipment or maintain online sites where members offer used equipment or even fish.

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Try to Buy Used

Search yard sales, garage sales, etc. for specific items you need. I've seen a great deal of these selling for low, low prices. Also, post a wanted ad on This is a site that offers things to people within the community for free (no selling or trading allowed).
Shannon in Wilmington, NC

From One Enthusiast to Another

I own three saltwater aquariums and am working on a fourth one with a refuge. Believe me, I know it can be an expensive hobby, but it doesn't have to be. I have saved thousands of dollars by trading or by buying at cents on the dollar on or on fish on ebay.

Buy the book The Conscientious Marine Aquarist: A Commonsense Handbook for Successful Saltwater Hobbyists by Robert M. Fenner. This is considered the "bible" by saltwater hobbyists and will explain to you anything and everything about the hobby. Read it several times before you start buying anything more as you want to make wise investments on products.

Secondly, buy the biggest aquarium you can afford. As the saying in the saltwater world goes, "dilution is the solution to pollution." This is going to save you a ton on money in the end and your finned friends will love you for thinking ahead and buying big. The bigger the tank, the more types of fish you can keep, and the less pollution problems you will have.

Tips: Reducing the Cost of Pet Care

Read a lot before you start to buy. Before you buy anything, visit and go to the message boards and read the posts. You can also register for free and ask any questions you have. Knowledgeable people post at as beginners to experts hang out there more than any other site and compare notes about fish, corals and various products used to care for them and inverts. You can buy your fish and other products at this site as well. This site will tell you about your fish selections you will make after your tank cycles. I have no professional affiliation with this site, and have been on most every site for aquarium enthusiasts. By far, this site is the most helpful and friendly one to go to with questions and emergency care. Everyone has an emergency at one time or another. The cheapest place to buy your fish, corals and inverts I have found is or your local fish store (otherwise known as your LFS).

On, there is a do-it-yourself section to build your own protein skimmer (and other products such as the refuge I am creating). A protein skimmer is mandatory in a saltwater aquarium. Skimmers help skim out the fecal and urine matter in a saltwater tank. Believe me, you want a skimmer as it will save you time and money in the long run. eBay sells protein skimmers at bargain prices. Look for Remora, Coralife and Bak-Pack brands. Those are the ones that are not going to frustrate the beginning hobbyist. Some of the DIY skimmers work every bit as good as the name brands as they use Venturi action. Venturi action is what you are looking for when shopping for a protein skimmer.

Never use a hydrometer and invest in a refractometer. They are far more accurate for salt levels. The swing arms have proven to be inaccurate. They may be cheaper, but they are going to cost you in fish or invert deaths. Sales for refracts are generally about $50 on the fish sites, and you can find them on eBay for less. The Koi Lagoon has an eBay store and sells test kits at fair prices. They may have refractometers as well.

Start with beginner fish to save money. You will lose money buying something like a Mandarin who will die if he is not housed in a well-established tank. Beginner fish are also highly recommended for those that have limited experience with saltwater tanks. Damsels of all types, clown fish (fun to watch), and fijis are good beginner choices. After you obtain experience and your tank matures, you can always ask your local fish store to trade the damsels or beginner fish you have to get something more exotic. Most pet stores will allow you to do it. You may not get all the money you paid initially for the fish, but you will get valuable experience that you need to graduate onto more difficult fish to keep. On the message board at, you can always ask before you decide to buy a certain fish and the people with experience are always glad to give you an informed opinion.

With the two sites mentioned to buy fish and inverts, you can have them shipped overnight. I have had successful shipment. The key is to know when your fish will be shipped and do not have a lot shipped at once. Otherwise, your bio load will be too much for your tank, and more than likely, you will recycle your tank. It is recommended you introduce one or two fish at a time, so you don't end up with dead fish or diseased fish from stress. I prefer to "eye it before I buy it." I do buy from my local fish store more often and ask my fish store owner to feed the fish in front of me. This way, I get an idea of the overall health of the fish. From the front, if I see a good shape (not too thin) and they are eating more than a diet of brine shrimp (brine shrimp is like candy to fish and of no nutritional value), I know the potential for re-acclimation to my tank is good.

Don't skimp on the substrate. Good substrate is going to save you money in the end. This is another place where you can pay now or pay dearly later. Use live sand and not crushed coral. Crushed coral is a nitrate deathbed, so you want to use a deep sand base. Your fish and inverts will love you for it. Add the rock to your tank before you add the fish in case your tank starts to cycle, as you will have some dead dietrus on the rock no matter how quickly you get the rock.
Denise M. in Fort Dodge, IA

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