Updated: Jun 6
Freshwater aquariums run the gamut from small, ten gallon setups with a filter and a heater to massive tanks with reactors, sumps, dosing pumps, CO2 regulators, and controllable lights. For the purposes of this article, I will break down the cost of an average, beginner freshwater aquarium.
The range of cost for a freshwater aquarium is between $10 and $150 per gallon. The $10 range will get you a bare bones setup with basic equipment. The $150 range will allow for top-of-the-line equipment, superior filtration, controllable lights, specialty soils and substrates, and ultra-clear glass tanks.
The average freshwater aquarium I will breakdown in this article will be somewhere around $30 per gallon. This range will provide a beginner setup with quality equipment and room for some expansion.
A good starter size for a freshwater aquarium is a 30 gallon tank. Smaller aquariums are more difficult as they are less forgiving when mistakes are made. Smaller volumes of water also fluctuate more easily, causing problems when changes to water parameters are made drastically. Additionally, smaller tanks allow for less inhabitants; they are often overstocked by beginning hobbyists, which leads to excess nutrients and poor water quality.
Larger aquariums (above 100 gallons) become expensive to maintain as you need more chemicals and media. Larger tanks can also be physically demanding and time consuming to clean for beginners.
With 30 gallons as our average size, we’ll choose equipment that fits that tank volume. There are a couple options in regard to the type of tank. The first is an all-in-one tank. This type of tank has the filter built into it. They also usually have the light built into the lid or attachable to the tank. With this option you won’t have to purchase a separate filter or light.
The second type is a regular glass tank with 5 panes of glass siliconed together with a framed or rimless (frameless) design. This is the quintessential tank you probably picture in your head when someone says fish tank. In this article, we’ll use this option as they are more readily available, more customizable, and less expensive. With this option, you may want to purchase a glass top to prevent excessive evaporation and livestock from jumping out. A 30 gallon glass tank and glass top will run about $85.
The filter is a crucial piece of equipment if you don’t plan on a high tech planted setup, which for this article, we are not. If your setup is high tech planted, some would consider the light more important. The filter is responsible for maintaining clean water. The type of filter you choose will factor into how many fish you can have (bio load), and how much extra filter media and equipment you can add later on if necessary.
I always recommend a canister filter for freshwater aquariums, unless your tank is large enough to justify a sump filter, which 30 gallons is not. A hang-on-back (HOB) filter will also work perfectly well for a 30 gallon tank and is less expensive than a canister filter. I still prefer canisters because HOB filters are more conspicuous, noisy, less customizable, and less powerful than canister filters.
I always get a canister filter one size up from the recommended tank volume. If the filter is advertised as “up to 30 gallons” get the next model up. You can always adjust the flow and media as needed. A quality canister filter for up to 40 to 50 gallons will be around $140.
You may still be able to find a fluorescent aquarium lighting fixture out there, but today, the standard is an LED light. A quality, programmable LED light is surprisingly affordable, especially if you don’t need the highest output available for planted tanks.
I would still recommend an LED light capable of putting out medium brightness so you can have some low to medium light plants. A programmable light is useful as well. Being able to automatically control the brightness and duration prevents excess algae growth from too much light. Dimmable lights also create an environment in which nocturnal fish and inverts feel safe exploring the tank, allowing you to see and enjoy them.
A quality programmable LED light perfect for a low to medium light tank will run approximately $160.
A quality heater is second to none in importance. A tank can go sideways very quickly without a good heater. Another aspect some may not consider, is a low-quality heater can malfunction and overheat your tank water to lethal levels. So while getting a heater is important enough, getting a quality heater is just as essential.
The recommended watts per gallon is five. For a 30 gallon tank, that is 150 watts. I would recommend the next size up if your house gets colder, or if your tank is near a window. Heaters usually come in 50 watt increments.
A quality, controllable heater for a 30 gallon tank will cost about $35.
Unless you're planning on adding root heavy plants like Cryptocoryne or Amazon swords, your substrate doesn’t have to be as complicated as several layers of fertilized sand, soil, and clay-based plant substrate. Also, I wouldn’t recommend sand for beginners either. If you want bottom-dwelling fish, like Corydoras, they may inadvertently ingest sand. You also want a substrate that will be easy to clean.
For a safe, easy to clean substrate, choose your favorite color of pea-sized gravel. This type is inert (won’t react chemically or biologically), can’t be swallowed by most fish, and is easy to clean with a siphon.
If you're looking for a more natural look, and are willing to deal with the caveats of specialty substrates, there are dozens of varieties from soil and clay-based plant substrates to various sizes of sand and pebbles. Keep in mind the substrates made for plants are chemically and biologically reactive. This means they either contain living bacteria, or will change your water chemistry when exposed to the water column.
You can also combine substrates. An attractive look is to lay down several inches of a dark substrate with an accent path of lighter sand on top. This layout is susceptible to disruption from bottom dwellers and can’t be vacuumed very easily.
The average cost of an inert pea-sized gravel is about $1 per pound. For specialty substrates, $2 to $5 per pound is more appropriate. On average, you’ll want between one and two pounds per gallon of substrate. For a 30 gallon tank, regular aquarium gravel will cost about $30
The decorations you add to your tank varies widely. Some may choose a natural look with driftwood and large stones, while others may choose an underwater castle, or sunken ruins motif. Either way, you can expect to spend anywhere between $25 and $100 for décor in a 30 gallon tank, with $60 being about average.
Your miscellaneous supplies, like fish nets, food, thermometer, testing equipment, and cleaning tools should run around $100 for a 30 gallon. A list of some of the things you’ll need are:
5 gallon bucket
siphon & hose
pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate test kit
Finally, for a 30 gallon aquarium, your bioload, or the amount of fish you can house, will vary depending on their size, the aquarium's filtration, and how often you clean and do water changes. There is no hard rule on the number of fish, but this article on how many fish you can have in your aquarium will give you an idea. For a 30 gallon aquarium, you can expect to spend at least $100 to fully stock your tank, with $150 being about average. If you want a few guppies, you’ll spend much less than if you want several schools of tetras, bottom dwellers, algae eating species, and a pair of dwarf cichlids.
The average total for a beginner 30 gallon freshwater setup is $760. At $25.30 per gallon, you can definitely spend a lot more. I wouldn’t want to spend much less however, as you begin to sacrifice quality of equipment when you go below $20 per gallon. To lower the cost, make sure to check your local fish stores for deals around the holidays, and in the summer months.
Start planning your new aquarium on paper first. Going into the fish store and impulse buying can result in a setup that you later find to not be ideal, or not what you really wanted. You may be surprised to find out what your really interested in. I can’t tell you how many times I have started down the path of wanting one thing to come out the other end with a much cooler idea in mind. Regardless, make sure you buy from a trusted source. Local fish stores are a wealth of knowledge and will happily go out of their way to help good customers.
After you decide how much you want to spend, the next step is to figure out where you want to place your aquarium.
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