Updated: Jun 6
The short answer is it depends. But that isn't helpful. I've sold complete nano (~10 gallons) saltwater setups with fish and coral included, on sale, for $600. I've also seen $800,000 custom made, built-in, 1,000 gallon aquariums designed and installed.
My general rule is to expect to spend around $50 to $200 per gallon for non custom setups depending on the quality of the equipment, and the number of addons or extra equipment. Let's break it down a little further. I'll give you an example of a nice 30 gallon starter setup you can find online or at any local fish store,
30 gallons is a great size to start with for saltwater beginners. Anything smaller and the water chemistry would fluctuate to quickly to easily keep track of. For example the pH may dip and the trace elements would run out before your next water change. This would require supplementing extra chemicals the beginner may not want to mess with just yet. Anything bigger and the aquarium becomes cost prohibitive as you need that much more salt mix, rock, and larger capacity equipment. Also the tank becomes more difficult to clean.
So with 30 gallons as the goal, I recommend an all-in-one (AIO) system. This style of tank includes the filtration in the back of the tank and they come with the pump and stand. The other option is to buy a pre-drilled tank with a sump (second smaller tank underneath used as the filter). However, sump filtration doesn't really work on smaller aquariums, because the sump (the filter underneath) would be ineffectively small. This style is usually, but not always, cost prohibitive for the beginner.
Okay, our fist number is $700. For this amount we'll get a quality stand, glass tank with built in filtration, and a return pump (the pump that pulls water into the filter and pushes it back out). Lower end brands can run $300 and higher end can run $1,100. So we'll use the average.
The next expense you'll want to consider spending a little more on is the light. Do you want corals? If so, you'll want to invest in a good light. If you don't want corals, a more simple light that will show off fish colors is all you need. A light for corals is an investment not because the light appreciates in value, but because the corals do. Check out my article on fragging corals to see how.
Regardless of whether you want corals, there are a few basic truths for all saltwater lighting when it comes to a compact 30 gallon setup. First, you'll want an LED fixture. There are fluorescent and halide options as well, but these are usually used as supplemental fixtures on larger setups. LED offers compact, high quality, cost effective lighting in an efficient and usually controllable form. It's all you need for a setup of this size. The second truth is the color or temperature of the LED diodes. Actinic, blue, and 10,000K are all terms you'll hear when describing the iconic blue tinted lighting seen in saltwater setups. Most LED fixtures will allow you to adjust the color or temperature of the light from daylight or white, (7,000 K) to actinic, or blue (10,000 K). The daylight helps with photosynthesis and the actinic light will showcase the dazzling colors of your corals and fish. No saltwater setup is complete without an actinic setting.
Okay, our second number is $300. For this amount we'll get a high definition app-enabled LED fixture with full daylight to actinic control and mounting hardware to attach to the tank. The lower end lights run around $150 and the higher end are closer to $400 for a 30 gallon setup.
This brings our total so far to $1,000, that's only $33.33 per gallon, not bad, but we're not done yet. There is still a few more pieces of necessary equipment, and I'll include the cost of livestock and aquascaping so you'll have a complete picture.
Substrate and Rock
The next expense is live rock and live sand. I recommend buying seeded or living rock that has all the good bacteria in it already and acts as your main habitat for that beneficial bacteria. With all that good bacteria however you will also find hundreds of other species of microscopic life. Some are beneficial, some are neutral, and some are pests, such is the life of a saltwater aquarium owner. This shouldn't dissuade you from using live rock though. I recommend between 0.5 and 1.5 pounds of live rock per gallon depending on the amount of biological filtration and the minimalist or maximalist aesthetic your looking for.
Okay, our third number is $330. For this amount we'll get roughly 30lbs of live rock at $10.00 per pound, and 40lbs of live sand for the bottom substrate. Be sure to select some larger rocks for the base and more branching shapes as well. This brings our total to $1300.
The next expense is the protein skimmer. This device is installed in the filter and it's primary function is skim the top of the water and remove all the proteins, fats, and other biological films and molecules that are produced by the plethora of life in a saltwater tank. This process keeps your tank clear and prevents it from becoming overloaded with nutrients as these biological components degrade.
Okay, our fourth number is $130. For this amount we'll get a well performing nano protein skimmer that will fit nicely in the built-in filtration section of the all-in-one aquarium. This brings our total to $1430.
Saltwater Aquarium Equipment
Alright, two numbers left to add to our total. the first is the cost for your normal aquarium equipment like a good heater, thermometer, net, fish food, etc... This should be around $150.
Saltwater Aquarium Livestock
The second is the cost of livestock. Like with any aquarium, you'll want to stock the tank slowly. Saltwater species are more expensive than freshwater. A fish can run anywhere between $12 and $1500, with the average being much closer to $12. Smaller species are usually around $20 and medium species are usually around $50 to $80 with $40 to $60 being the average. Corals and invertebrates can run from $10 for small corals, snails and shrimp, to hundreds of dollars for large, well established coral colonies.
To fully stock a 30 gallon aquarium with fish, coral and invertebrates over several months, expect to spend at least $800 if you want to go all out on corals and at least $500 if you only want fish and inverts.
This brings our final total to an average of $2230. At $74.00 per gallon, its about average for a beginner setup. Don't forget to include around $50 bucks a month for saltwater, upgrades, and more fish and coral food. Also be sure to look for those holiday sales. All local fish stores will discount their bundles around 10% to 20% at some point during the year.
Start thinking about your ideal setup now, consider what type of fish and coral you want to enjoy and design your setup around them to ensure an appropriate habitat. Scroll down to contact me at Boodleshire Aquatics for more information on how to setup a saltwater aquarium, or which brands have served me best for my setups.
Once you've decided on your budget, click here to learn how to decide where to place your new setup in your home or office.
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