Tropical Fish Aquariums

tropical fish aquariumTropical fish keeping is a fascinating and rewarding hobby. However, there is a lot to learn in order to do it successfully. I put together this guide to help beginners get into the hobby and learn the basic care and maintenance needed to have a successful tropical fish aquarium. Once it is up and running well, I suggest checking out a good aquarium forum to learn the more advanced information. A good starting point, is to decide if you want a saltwater or freshwater aquarium. While saltwater aquariums offer more colorful options, they are also a lot more expensive and difficult to setup and maintain – something that should be considered when making your decision. A typical saltwater setup can cost between 5 and 10 times a freshwater aquarium of the same size.

aquarium live rockFor starters, live rock is very expensive. Live rock is dead coral that is home to tons of beneficial bacteria that clean the water, and is an essential part of a saltwater aquarium. Live rock varies in price, and be anywhere from $4 to $8 a pound. At a minimum, you need 1 pound per gallon in tank size, but 2 pounds per gallon is much better and will keep the water very clean. For a 55 gallon tank, that could be anywhere from $220 to $880, depending on how much and what type of live rock you use. You also need about 1.5 pounds of live sand per gallon, at a little over $1 / gallon. On a 55 gallon aquarium, that’s 82.5 pounds, which would probably cost just under $100.

used 55 gallon aquarium

Pick up a used 55 gallon aquarium cheap on Craigslist to save money! There very common and sometimes go for $50 – 75 with a stand!

Add on the cost of the aquarium itself, a stand, filter, protein skimmer and lights, and it’s very easy to go over $1,000. If you are doing a reef tank with live corals, you need high powered lights that can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to well over a thousand. On the other hand, a 55 gallon freshwater aquarium can generally be setup for just a few hundred dollars. On the low end for saltwater aquariums, with regular maintenance, a FOWLR ( fish only with live rock ) aquarium can be setup for not too much money. Start by searching Craigslist or local classifieds for a used aquarium. 55 gallon tanks are very common, and you can usually find a full setup – tank, stand, heater & light hood – for around $75. With a good protein skimmer, live rock and powerheads to keep detritus suspended, you won’t even need a filter. That means less maintenance time and no filter cartridges to replace.

Cheap 55 Gallon FOWLR Saltwater Aquarium Setup:

  • Used 55 Gallon Aquarium, Stand, Heater & Lights $ 75
  • Protein Skimmer $100
  • 55 pounds live rock @ $4 / lb. $220
  • 80 pounds of live sand $ 85
  • 160 gal bucket of Instant Ocean sea salt $ 44Total $524

With a setup like this, it’s important to not stock the tank too heavily, and also make sure you do regular water changes and test the water religiously to make sure the water stays clean enough at all times. Generally speaking, the more you spend to setup the tank, the less time you spend to maintain it.

For example, we take the cheap 55 gallon setup, and change a few things, to get:

Low Maintenance 55 Gallon FOWLR Saltwater Aquarium Setup:

  • Used 55 Gallon Aquarium, Stand, Heater & Lights $ 75
  • High Quality Protein Skimmer $300
  • 168 pounds live rock @ $4 / lb. $672
  • 80 pounds of live sand $130
  • 160 gal bucket of Instant Ocean sea salt $ 44
  • Overflow box $100
  • Used 29 gallon aquarium $ 50
  • Return pump $75
  • Various hardware $ 50Total $1451
overflow box

Overflow box for a saltwater aquarium

As you can see, the cost can rise quickly. You may have noticed a second aquarium added to the setup. The overflow box would be used to skim surface water from the 55 gallon aquarium, and drop it down through filter media into the 29 gallon, which would hold 58 pounds of live rock (2 pounds / gallon) for extra filtration and nitrate removal, plus the rest of the live sand. The return pump would then send the water back up to the 55 gallon, which would hold 110 pounds of live rock of its own, for a grand total of a whopping 168 pounds of live rock and 80 pounds of live sand. The filter media would include mechanical and chemical filtration when needed, and the protein skimmer would handle the rest. While the initial cost is much greater, the level of maintenance needed would be reduced greatly. A setup like this, once well-established, could easily go 6 months between water changes with no harmful effecets.

In addition to the higher startup cost, saltwater aquariums are more costly to operate as well. Regular water changes in a freshwater aquarium cost next to nothing. But in a saltwater aquarium, you have to add expensive sea salt to create the environment, adding a big expense to your most basic of maintenance tasks. On a reef tank, the bulbs in your lights need to be replaced every 6 months, which can cost $50 – $300+ depending on your setup. The amount of electricity used by a saltwater aquarium is much higher than a freshwater tank, especially with high powered reef lighting. This can make a big difference on your monthly electric bill – something else that should be considered.

It is important to weigh all of these factors when making your decision. The last thing you want to do, is setup an aquarium you can’t afford to maintain, either time wise or financially.


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