Average Cost To Maintain a Saltwater Aquarium
Any fish enthusiast dreams of adding a saltwater aquarium to their home. Sure, freshwater aquariums are nice too, but saltwater fish bring an entirely new concept to the word “beautiful”. In general, saltwater fish are brighter, bolder, and more eye-catching than their freshwater counterparts. With that being said, they are also more work. With a saltwater tank, you can generally expect to spend more time and money to keep up on the maintenance of the fish and the tank. But exactly how much more should you expect to spend? Today we’ll take a look at the average cost to maintain a saltwater aquarium.
The Initial Setup:
Before you can consider the maintenance costs of setting up a saltwater aquarium, you must first have an aquarium to maintain. Start-up costs for a new saltwater aquarium can vary greatly depending on the size of tank you buy, the types of fish you buy, and what you add to the tank, but here are some costs that you need to consider:
- The Tank
Quite obviously, the first thing you will need to buy if you are considering a saltwater aquarium is the tank. Depending on the size of the tank you wish to buy, tanks can range anywhere from $100-$3000. Smaller tanks (2.5-20 gallons) are cheaper and beginners tend to start out small because of the cost, but honestly can be less forgiving leading to a less stable environment which can cause more fish fatalities. Mid-sized tanks (20-40 gallons) and large tanks (40 gallons plus), on the other hand, are more forgiving, leave more room for error, and generally are easier to maintain.
- Acrylic or glass? Acrylic tanks are usually lighter and easier to move than glass tanks, and will usually cost more.
Some people tend to start with an all in one system, which has built-in filtration and lighting. Basically a plug and play system which is great for beginners and will save you money. The Coralife Biocube is a perfect example. I am currently running the 32-gallon version and love it. They are also available in a 16-gallon size.
- The Stand
If you don’t already have a place to put your saltwater aquarium, you will also need to purchase a stand. Again, these can vary greatly in price depending on where you buy them and the quality which you buy. By purchasing stands secondhand you can save a significant amount of money. Depending on the size of your tank and where you purchase the stand, you should expect to pay anywhere between $100-$500 for a good stand.
An example of an aquarium stand suitable for a small-medium size tank. Stands that are made out of pressboard or MDF won’t be as solid and long-lasting as solid wood but will be much cheaper.
- Substrate, Rock, Decor
Substrate is what you use to cover the bottom of your tank. The type of substrate you choose will enhance the aesthetic look of your aquarium, but will also help to keep a healthy, natural habitat for your fish. To make the aquarium more natural for your fish, you will also want to add some rock, and then you can add your own décor to create an underwater environment to match your space. For these three things, you should expect to pay at least $250 (for a small aquarium).
My favorite substrate is the Fiji Pink sand from Caribsea. I love the natural look of it and it’s affordable. There are many options available for substrate, but Fiji Pink works great for me. For rocks, you could start with Nature’s Ocean base rock or my personal favorite Caribsea Life Rock.
- Salt Water kit, Light, Heater, Water testing kit
In order to ensure that your saltwater fish stay healthy, you will need to make sure that they have an appropriate amount of light and heat, as well as the appropriate amount of salinity in the water. For a light, heater, and salt, you should expect to pay between $150-$200.
For a fish only or FOWLR tank, basic lighting is all that’s required. You can get away with a nice LED strip like this one, or a standard T5 or T8 light strip works fine.
Of course, if you have corals in your tank, lighting is very important. That’s a whole other topic for another day!
Example of a nice reef tank under proper lights!
A powerhead is a type of water pump that is used to move water around the tank. These are primarily used to replicate the flow of water in the oceans. The cost of a powerhead will depend on the brand and quality of which you buy, but you should expect to pay between $40-$80 for a good one. The Hydor Korallia is an affordable powerhead that is reliable and works well. Like I mentioned above, if you have corals in your tank, it’s important to have the proper flow in your tank. A good quality powerhead is required.
The cost of fish will vary greatly depending on which type of fish you buy. Some popular saltwater fish choices include:
- Angelfish ($40-$80)
- Butterfly fish ($50-$150)
- Clownfish ($30-$150)
- Gobies ($15-$70)
- Puffers ($60-$80)
Please note that all of the costs listed above are just a rough estimate, and may vary from store to store.
Okay, now that we know how much it costs to set up a tank, what can you expect to pay for the maintenance? In order to calculate the costs, let’s break down maintenance tasks into things that need to be done daily, weekly, bi-weekly, and bi-monthly, and yearly chores:
Daily Maintenance Tasks for a Saltwater Aquarium:
- Feeding the fish ($50-$250/year)
Obviously feeding your saltwater fish will be of utmost importance in maintaining their health and happiness. The amount of food you will need will depend on the size of your fish, the type of fish you own, and how many fish you have in your aquarium. In general, you should expect to spend about $50 a year on regular fish food. Having said that, some fish require specialty food which can increase the costs immensely. Expect to pay anywhere between $50-$250 a year on fish food. A great quality fish food that is affordable is New Life Spectrum (NLS)
- Examining the overall health of your fish (free)
Each day you should do a quick visual check to make sure that all fish accounted for and that all fish look healthy, uninjured, and disease-free.
- Checking water temperature and gravity ($150-$180/year)
In order to avoid having to make huge corrections down the road, you should check the temperature, salinity, and gravity of your water on a daily basis. To maintain the health of your water, you will need to purchase good quality salt, as well as supplements and testing kits. You should expect to spend between $150-$180 per year on items like this.
- Daily water top-ups ($100 initial purchase)
I recommend investing in an auto top off device or ATO from the beginning. Every day your water will evaporate from the tank. Rates of evaporation will depend on many factors including temperature, humidity, whether or not your tank has a lid etc..
In order to keep your water salinity levels constant, the water that evaporates needs to be replaced. You could do it manually by just adding RODI water to top up your tank, but the amount added won’t be consistent all the time. An ATO will keep things constant and stable without much salinity change.
The good thing about ATO systems, is they are not expensive. I use the Tunze Osmolator 3152 for tanks under 55 gallons. Fantastic device!
Weekly Maintenance tasks for Saltwater Aquariums:
- Test Water Levels ($150-$180/year – included in costs above)
Once a week you should check your nitrate, ammonia, and phosphate levels with high-quality test kits. As mentioned above, you should expect to spend anywhere between $150 to $180 per year on test kits and supplements and chemicals. The Red Sea test kits are very reliable and accurate.
- Cleaning the glass panes of algae (free)
- Wiping down the neck of the skimmer to keep efficiency levels high (free)
- Rinsing and changing pre-filter sponges (free)
- Any other regular weekly tank maintenance (free)
Bi-weekly Maintenance Tasks for Saltwater Aquariums:
- Water Change ($100/year)
When changing the water, you will need to purchase a salt mix or purchase salt water directly from the store. You should expect to spend about $100 per year on water for your saltwater aquarium. If you decide to make your own RODI water, then an initial cost for a RODI filter will be around $150.
- Change Filter cartridge ($50/year)
A few days before or after you change your water is also a good time to check your filters. Because filtration is so important to water quality, this is an important step that you don’t want to miss. How often you need to change the filter will depend on the type of filter you are using. In general, however, you should expect to spend about $50 per year on filters or filter cartridges. Pre-filter pads, filter floss are needed to be replaced on a regular basis.
- Clean buildups of calcium deposits (free)
- Check for clogged skimmer valves (free)
Bi-Monthly Maintenance Tasks for a Saltwater Tank:
- Clean all aspects of the aquarium (skimmer, pump, powerhead, heater, hoses, thermometer, etc.) (Free)
Yearly Maintenance Tasks for a Saltwater Tank:
- Replace T5 Light Bulbs ($20-100/year)
T5 Lighting, including both color and intensity, is important to the survival of many corals and saltwater invertebrates. But as your lamps age, their color and intensity start to dull. As a result, even if they aren’t “dead”, light bulbs should be replaced every 6 months to 1 year. Depending on how many bulbs you need to replace, your cost will vary. Most bulbs are around $20 each. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
When considering all of these tasks that need to be completed within a year, you should expect to pay between $370-$450 per year on the maintenance of your tank. Having said that, you also need to consider electricity costs.
The electricity costs of your aquarium will depend on the wattage of each piece of equipment. Equipment within the tank that will use electricity include filters, heaters, lights, skinners, reactors, pumps, and on and so forth. Electricity costs will also depend on your location and energy provider. Having said that, you should expect to spend an approximation of:
- $168/year on a 40-gallon tank
- $225/year on a 60-gallon tank
- $450/year on a 120-gallon tank
- $1000 on a 265-gallon tank
As you can see, the costs of running a saltwater tank are not cheap. In addition to the large startup fees, it also costs quite a bit to maintain the tank. If you are struggling with the costs of a saltwater tank, but are insistent on getting one, you can always start out with a smaller tank. Smaller tanks will be less money, and will also be easier to maintain.
Thanks for reading!
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