Owning a saltwater tank is definitely a huge step up in the aquarium hobby. There’s no denying it demands a lot more experience, time, and investment than your regular freshwater tank. But how much work is a saltwater tank really?
In this blog, I’ll walk you through all the do’s and don’ts of owning a saltwater tank, give you a ballpark figure of how much it costs to run, and let you in on so much more.
I think it is going to be a long ride! Buckle up!
How Much Work Is A Saltwater Tank?
Owning a saltwater tank is not very hard, but it is far more demanding and expensive than keeping coldwater or tropical fish. If you don’t have previous experience raising fish, I’d recommend first starting with a moderately-sized freshwater tropical tank.
Once you have garnered enough experience, knowledge, and confidence, there’s always room to level up.
Saltwater Tanks Are More Expensive To Run
Undoubtedly, marine creatures are far more costly than their freshwater or coldwater counterparts. But actually, the added expense is because of the fact that all the equipment you’ll be using in the saltwater tank has to be designed to work reliably in saltwater.
For instance, the equipment that goes inside a saltwater tank has to be pure, chemically stable, and quite advanced. So, they naturally fetch higher prices.
Investing in robust equipment up front will go a long way in keeping you and your fish happy. If you cut corners, it will only compromise the welfare of your livestock, and you will end up squandering more on maintenance later.
Once everything is set up and cycled, the rough estimate to run a saltwater tank would be $15 per month for a 15-gallon tank, $25 per month for a 25-gallon tank, $35 per month for a 50-gallon tank, and $65 per month for a 100-gallon tank.
Besides the obvious expenses for amenities like food and electricity, you will also regularly spend on RO/DI filters, aquarium salt, activated carbon, and granular ferric oxide.
There Are More Parameters To Look After
With freshwater and coldwater tanks, you only have to maintain a handful of parameters like temperature, pH, ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, alkalinity, and general hardness.
However, the number of parameters to get right increases quite dramatically in saltwater tanks. You’ll also have to worry about the specific gravity, phosphate, calcium, magnesium, strontium, and iodine levels.
And as it goes without saying, regularity and diligence are the true measures of getting these parameters right. Therefore, if you work strange hours or are away from home for long periods, you will have difficulty balancing the parameters.
Here’s what the parameters should look like for different kinds of saltwater tanks:
|Parameter||Reef Tanks||Coral Reefs Tanks||FOWLR Tanks|
|Alkalinity||8-12 dKH||6-8 dKH||8-12 dKH|
|Nitrate||<1.0 PPM||0.25 PPM||<30 PPM|
|Calcium||350-450 PPM||380-420 PPM||250-450 PPM|
|Magnesium||1250-1350 PPM||1300 PPM||1150-1350 PPM|
|Phosphate||<0.2 PPM||0.13 PPM||<1.0 PPM|
|Strontium||8-14 PPM||8-10 PPM||4-10 PPM|
The Size Of Your Tank Comes Into Play
The size of your tank is crucial in dictating what fish and how many of them can go inside it, what corals, sponges, and anemones you can add, and most importantly, how expensive the equipment will be and how often you’ll need to carry out maintenance.
For instance, on the cost front, the size of the tank determines the overall cost of filtration, which includes pumps, filters, bioreactors, protein skimmers, and powerheads.
The size of the tank also determines the required frequency of water changes and the amount of products like salt, activated carbon, and test kits that will be used routinely.
There are no brassbound rules on raising saltwater fish the ‘right’ way. There are a hundred different ways of keeping saltwater fish successfully. But if you are on a tight budget, I’d recommend rethinking your decision once again.
All in all, there’s no denying the demanding nature of the saltwater fishkeeping hobby, but it’s not rocket science either. You won’t need a degree in biology to succeed, but you should be willing to put in some effort every day to carry out necessary checks and maintenance.
How Much Work Is A Saltwater Tank? Real Answers By Real People!
I scoured through a few forums to find out what real peeps like you and I have to say about maintaining a saltwater tank. I came across some humorous and some helpful answers.
This segment right here is my attempt to help you comb through the honest opinions shared by different hobbyists on a single platform. So let’s see what they have to say.
Note: All the answers shared below belong purely to the respective authors.
“A wise man once said that if you can light a $100 bill on fire without batting an eye, you’re ready to own a reef tank.”
“The first weeks and months can be both labor and time-intensive – especially if you’re new to the marine fishkeeping hobby. I estimate I shell out around $3000 yearly for my 75-gallon reef tank.”
“It’s quite expensive to set up. At our store, we estimate reef tanks ran on $35-50 per gallon by the time you had everything set up.”
“If you set up a saltwater tank properly, it’s a lot less work than a freshwater tank. And that’s mainly because the water changes are 10% weekly instead of 50%.”
“It’s not any tougher than a freshwater tank unless you plan to keep demanding fish. If you stick with basslets, gobies, clowns, and cleaner shrimps, you only have to worry about feeding and water changes.”
“Both of my saltwater tanks did take some effort to get properly set up. But now that they are all decked up, I just carry out water changes once every week, and everything is good. It isn’t really that hard.”
“In my opinion, 99% of success with saltwater tanks is conducting the initial setup correctly, using plenty of live rocks, and having the patience to let the tank mature into a self-sustaining ecosystem before you stock it.”
“I usually spend about an hour a day on my 29-gallon tank to check everything out, feed, change the filter sock, scrape glass, inspect the skimmer, and top off with ro/di water.”
“On an average day, it takes 15 minutes to clean glass, feed, and top out ATO. On a weekly basis, the work on water change, skimmer cup, and filter sock take about 30 minutes.”
“I consciously try not to think about the time I spend on the tank. Once I start keeping tabs, it starts to feel like work. And if it feels like work, I lose my interest.”
That was quite a mixed bag, wasn’t it?
Now, let’s look at all the tasks you have to perform routinely to keep a saltwater tank up and running!
Tasks To Perform Daily In A Saltwater Tank
- Top off water level
- Perform a headcount
- Check the temperature
- Check all equipment
- Add calcium and buffering agent
- Empty and rinse collection cup
Top Off Water Level
Saltwater tanks, even when sealed with a tight-fitting lid, lose water to evaporation. And when this happens, the water’s salt concentration increases as the water leaves the tank, and salt stays behind. So to maintain the water’s salinity level, you should add heated freshwater daily.
This process is fairly easy and automated. Using a refractometer or a hydrometer, you can ensure the water’s salinity stays in the correct range.
Perform A HeadCount
This step may seem unnecessary at first glance, but it is pretty important to perform a headcount every day to ensure that all creatures are present and accounted for – nobody has perished under the rockwork, leaped from the tank, and everyone is looking healthy and injury-free.
To be honest, this never seems like much of a chore unless you have a fish missing. It gives one a chance to sit back, observe the tank, and relish in the fruits of their labor.
Check The Temperature
Next, you should check the water temperature to ensure this critical parameter hasn’t strayed off the course.
When you monitor the temperature daily, it becomes easier to detect and correct subtle deviations using minor adjustments instead of making huge and stressful corrections later after a disastrous change has occurred.
It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories of fish boiling to death or getting electrocuted. Therefore, it’s imperative to check the temperature and the heating equipment’s status daily.
Check All Equipment
Don’t forget to quickly inspect filtration, lighting, and protein skimming equipment to ensure everything is functioning smoothly.
Run your hand along the various tubes, lines, and connections to ensure everything is properly plugged in and there are no leakages.
This step is particularly important if you have the habit of leaving the equipment unplugged after/during water changes.
Add Calcium And Buffering Agent
If you don’t have corals, you can skip this step. Otherwise, the daily routine should include dosing calcium and buffering agent in the water to maintain desired levels.
Empty And Rinse Collection Cup
The final step to perform daily would be to empty and rinse out the collection cup of the protein skimmer to prevent an overflow. Also, wipe off any salt creep accumulating on the power cords and other surfaces.
Be cautious while removing salt creep from the power cords, as it can work its way down the cord and into the electrical outlet – causing a short!
I mentioned 6 tasks to perform daily. And on paper, yes, it does seem like a lot to do each day. But these are all super simple steps, and virtually all of them can be carried out within a few minutes.
Tasks To Perform Weekly
- Test the water parameters
- Scrub the glass panes
- Perform water changes
- Maintain filtration
- Clean different tank equipment
Test The Water Parameters
It’s best to check the tank’s ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and phosphate levels once a week using a reliable test kit. We recommend using the API Saltwater Master Kit.
You should also test the tank’s alkalinity and calcium levels to ensure they’re in the proper range.
Once your tank’s ecosystem has matured and you’ve garnered a certain level of experience and comfort in your maintenance techniques, you can test every other week.
Scrub The Glass Panes
Fish and water together is a foolproof recipe for algae. There’s no way around it. And if you have corals present in the tank, the algae problem will be even more severe due to the tank’s intense lighting.
Scrub the glass panes weekly using an algae magnet or an appropriate scrubber. If the algae problem is persistent, it’s high time you check the tank’s phosphate and nitrate levels, as these are the two most responsible factors for algae blooms.
Perform Water Changes
After setting up your saltwater aquarium, you need to maintain a strict water change schedule for the first couple of months. When you first set up a saltwater water tank – or any other tank – it will take some time to cycle and balance.
When carrying out a water change, use a gravel or sand siphon to get into the deeper layers of the substrate. Don’t worry – this won’t hurt the good bacteria living in the substrate.
A crucial part of your water change regimen should be the inspection of the filter media. Irrespective of what kind of filter media you use, you need to ensure it allows the free flow of water and does not get clogged by debris.
Remember, you should never replace all your filter media at the same time. If you do so, it will annihilate the good bacteria colony that makes up the biological filter.
Once you have collected water from the water change, use the same water to rinse the filter media. If you rinse it using freshwater, you will once again demolish the good bacteria colony.
Clean Different Tank Equipment
Your weekly housekeeping regime should also include wiping the neck of the protein skimmer to enhance its efficiency and rinsing the pre-filter sponges to remove any trapped debris from the system before it decomposes and deteriorates the water quality.
Tasks To Perform Monthly
Besides performing the tasks listed out in the biweekly list, there are a couple of things you should do, preferably once every month.
- Clean aquarium cover glass and acrylic shield
- Clean the intake hose and valves
Clean Aquarium Cover Glass And Acrylic Shield
For instance, once a month, clean the aquarium cover glass and the acrylic shield of the lighting fixture. Over time, these surfaces develop a crust of salt and calcium deposits, ultimately reducing the extent of light that reaches photosynthetic inverts present in the tank.
Salt can be removed easily with a damp cloth but removing calcium deposits requires vigorous wiping with a sponge.
Clean The Intake Hose And Valves
Once a month or so, use white vinegar to soak the air intake hose and valves of the protein skimmer to keep them from becoming clogged with calcium.
Clogged skimmer valves create a disbalance in the mixture of air and water, resulting in overly diluted skimmate and poor foam production. Once the valves are properly soaked, use a small aquarium brush to dislodge any remaining calcium buildup.
Tasks To Perform As Needed
- Make saltwater
- Conduct spring cleaning
- Replace or upgrade lighting system
I know it sounds so obvious, but if you keep a saltwater tank, you will eventually need a way to collect or make saltwater.
If you’re one of those lucky ones who live close to the beach, you can use the water from the sea/ocean as long as the local law permits. First, however, you need to sterilize the wild water for at least 24 hours or so using a UV sterilizer to reduce the chances of any unwanted hitchhiker making its way into the tank.
Depending on your tank’s setup, you can use different kinds of salt mixes. For instance, if your tank features corals, the salt mix should have a higher concentration of phosphate and carbonate.
Conduct Spring Cleaning
Every month or so, spend some extra time removing the accumulated gunk from the protein skimmer, biofilter overflow box, return pump, heater, hoses, powerhead, and thermometer.
To do so, use various types of brushes and a razor blade if needed. The buildup of algae that develops on submerged marine tank components can really hamper their performance over time. So, try to keep this growth from getting out of hand.
Replace Or Upgrade Lighting System
As saltwater tank keepers, we have yet another vital task to keep in mind. Luckily, it only rolls around every six months to a year. You should routinely replace the bulbs and/or tubes in their lighting system.
Installing lighting of proper intensity and color is imperative to the survival of photosynthetic invertebrates. As lamps age, they lose intensity and undergo a shift in spectral characteristics. Therefore, they should be replaced at regular intervals per the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is A Saltwater Fish Tank Hard To Maintain?
In the wrong hands, a saltwater tank can be a handful. However, as long as you get the water parameters right and are willing to put in some effort and time daily, saltwater tanks aren’t that harder to maintain than freshwater tanks.
How Much Does It Cost To Start A Saltwater Tank?
It takes anywhere between $500 to $1000 to start a new saltwater tank. However, the price can go up quite steeply depending on the animals you choose to raise and the equipment you buy for them.
What Are The Steps Of Saltwater Tank Setup For Beginners?
The steps of saltwater tank setup for beginners go something like this:
- Test the tank for any leaks or breakages
- Position the tank in a chosen area
- Level the tank
- Lay the substrate of your choice
- Add and arrange rock works
- Mix your saltwater
- Place the powerheads
- Place the heater
- Install LED lights
- Set up filters, protein skimmer, UV sterilizer, dosing pumps, etc.
- Cycle the tank
- Set up a quarantine tank
- Choose your first saltwater fish
Saltwater VS Freshwater Aquarium | What’s The Difference?
Freshwater tanks are definitely much easier to look after than saltwater tanks as there are fewer parameters to maintain. They’re also more economical. However, even with the most colorful fish, freshwater tanks simply lack the pop of color and vibrance saltwater fish bring along.
What Do You Need For A Saltwater Tank?
Here’s a list of things you need to establish a proper saltwater tank:
- Skimmers and filtration equipment
- Substrate and live rocks
- Sea salt mix and hydrometer
- Air pump and air stones
- Heater and thermometer
- Test kits, additives, and supplements
- Maintenance tool and supplies
Final Words: How Much Work Is A Saltwater Tank?
There’s no denying that saltwater tanks are more challenging to keep than freshwater tanks due to their complex parameters and expensive equipment needs.
However, the gratification they provide at the end of the day more than makes up for the hassle.
If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend against keeping a saltwater tank. If you’re really looking for colors and vibrance saltwater animals offer, you can keep the Mbuna cichlid tank. These freshwater fish come in an array of beautiful patterns and colors.
Once you have gained enough knowledge and experience, you can start dabbling in the saltwater hobby by raising beginner-friendly fish like gobies and clownfish.