• What does it cost to set up a saltwater reef tank?

    For more than 10 years, Iíve been told that it costs $25 per gallon to set up a saltwater tank, and for that entire duration I've always wondered how Ďtheyí came up with that number and if it was even true. Taking into consideration that inflation never ceases and that equipment continues to evolve, it is high time to determine what that cost might be in 2010.



    To be fair, equipment needs to be neither high end nor rock bottom clearance pricing. There are a number of ways to save money when making a big purchase. Group buys are popular, as well as buying used equipment from others that are upgrading or getting out of the hobby. What about the guy or gal that gets the itch to set up a saltwater system and just wants to get a realistic idea of what this may cost? Thatís what this article will endeavor to answer.

    Prices vary from store to store, and customized choices affect the sales ticket significantly. While there are a variety of sizes of tanks to pick from, for the purpose of this write up Iím going to recommend a good tank size for a person that is seriously interested in setting up a reef tank in their home: 120-gallons. The footprint of a 120-gallon tank is 4í long x 2í wide x 2í tall. This body of water provides swimming space for fish and a nice front-to-back depth for creative aquascaping. Corals have room to grow into colonies, and an open area of sand is possible for invertebrates to traverse. This tank usually comes with a single internal corner overflow with two holes drilled for the drain line and the return plumbing. The tank, stand and canopy will likely ring up for $1100.00 plus tax. That is just the beginning...

    The shopping list
    Now itís time to make the list of necessary equipment and what it could cost to get started:
    Protein skimmer $200 - $1500
    Sump & refugium $100 - $400
    Return pump $60 - $160
    Thermometer - $3
    Test kits - 7 total: Alkalinity, Calcium, Magnesium, Nitrate, Phosphate, Nitrite, Ammonia $120 - $150
    Lighting - ballasts, reflectors, bulbs $450 - $650
    In-tank flow - power heads/pumps $100 - $900
    Timers $30 - $50
    Heaters $20 - $40
    Fans $10 - $75
    Power strips $5 - $25
    RO/DI system $100 - $300
    PVC pipe and fittings $100
    PH meter - kits are worthless $80
    And a list of optional gear, which actually is necessary for responsible husbandry:
    Calcium reactor $450 - $600
    Phosban reactor $35 - $80
    Quarantine tank $50 - $100
    Aquarium controller $100 - $1500
    Chiller $350 - $900
    Additionally:
    Sand / Substrate $100 - $200
    Rock $200 - $800
    Salt $35 - $80
    Mixing barrel $7 - $25
    Hoses & pumps $15 - $50
    Carbon / GFO / 2-part additives or ARM $40 - $80
    With this list, livestock wasnít even considered yet and thatís completely normal. Just like your own home, a lot of preparation was made before you could ever move in. Itís the same for the fish and corals we hope to keep - the tank needs to be set up correctly so your future reef can thrive. When it comes to choosing what gear to purchase, options abound and quality varies greatly. My recommendation is to purchase solid equipment with good warranties instead of cheaper products that will have to be replaced more quickly. Quality costs more, but lasts longer and often tends to do a better job long term.

    Examples of quality are a judgment call, but it doesn't take much research online to get a sense of what has a decent reputation and what is complained about excessively. With aquariums, investigate how the tank looks overall, how long the warranty period is and what the manufacturer demands when honoring a claim. Is the glass cut and polished cleanly, and does the silicone look tidy or sloppy? With skimmers, is it made with cast or extruded material and what type of pump(s) does it use? With lighting, the choices in ballasts can be confusing, but essentially you need to know what type of bulb it will light, how big it is, does it make noise / hum, and how hot does it get? A variety of reflectors are available, some being better than others. Even bulb choices are key to reaping success.

    Setting up a tank allows the hobbyist to choose a number of different products, but what I'd like to do here is put together a list of what I would use myself to set up a tank that I would want to maintain long term. When I was growing up, I was taught to save up for what I wanted to purchase, and that usually resulted in my waiting longer than necessary because I preferred to buy quality equipment rather than something cheaper to get by for now. That same mentality has served me well in this hobby, and has helped me avoid double purchasing to get the gear I really wanted. It may take a little longer, but in the long run I'm saving money. One more point that I never overlook: what will that item cost me in electricity consumption? Electricity never comes cheap, so every watt is considered and accounted for.
    120-gallon reef-ready system:
    • Full tank / stand / tall canopy - $1200

    Lighting:
    A four foot tank would need two metal halide bulbs and I would supplement with two 4' VHO bulbs.
    • Reflectors (Lumenbrights) - $129 x 2
    • Metal Halide bulbs - $75 x 2
    • 4' VHO bulbs - $25 x 2
    • Icecap 660 ballast (VHO or T5) - $129
    • Icecap e-ballasts (MH) - $135 x 2
    • Timers - $15 x 3

    Sump & Equipment:
    • Sump / refugium -$325
    • Reef Dynamics Protein skimmer - $400
    • Heater (3w per gallon) 175 watts - $40 x 2
    • External Sequence Dart return pump (dialed back) - $225 -or- Internal Maxijet Utility Pump - $160
    • Icecap 120mm fans $45 x 2

    In-tank:
    • Sand 200 lbs - $140
    • Live rock 120 lbs at $8/lb - $600 - $960
    • EcoSmart MP40w Vortech pumps - $450 x 2

    Other:
    • 100gpd RO/DI - $175
    • Red Sea Pro Reef salt - $60 per bucket
    • Test kits - $120
    • Thermometer - $5
    • Refractometer - $55

    Adding up the above items totals $5277
    • $500 in miscellaneous - plumbing, electrical, etc
    • $500 for a controller, like Neptune System's APEX or Digital Aquatics Reefkeeper Elite Net.
    That adds up to $6277, plus tax. Purchasing some of this equipment online will help avoid tax and shipping may even be free when the minimum order is reached. Planning ahead allows for savings, but buying locally supports the local economy and your fish store. I try to balance out my purchases accordingly.

    The price per gallon for this 120-gallon setup would average $52 per gallon in today's economy.

    That seems like a lot of money

    Could any money be saved? Yes, there are alternatives. You could skip the controller entirely. A smaller return pump could knock off $100, and using different powerheads could save another $500 or more. Cheaper inefficient reflectors will save another $200, but the wasted light won't benefit the corals and the need for a chiller to offset the heat from those bulbs will easily burn up that savings - not to mention the electricity consumed by the chiller day after day after day. I don't recommend skimping on the reflectors as they make a world of difference. With a few downgrades, it could take about $1000 off the total above, but over time that decision will result in additional purchases. The products & companies I selected I have complete faith in, and are used for my 280-gallon reef.

    Don't overlook the fact that I didn't include the Calcium Reactor setup with pH controller, the Quarantine tank setup, the chiller (or window a/c needed to keep the room cool), saltwater mixing vats, and smaller items. Phosban reactors, cleaning magnets, long handled scrapers, tubing for water changes, tongs to move corals, nets to move fish, additives... they aren't free by any means.

    Size affects pricing
    What about a smaller tank, like a 75-gallon or 90-gallon tank? The lighting wouldn't change much, but the return pump would be too big and would have to be replaced. Less sand and rock would be required, and a smaller protein skimmer as well. Take off about $600 - $700. That would $55 - $66 per gallon.

    And if the tank was larger, like a 180-gallon? Now you need more lighting, as the additional two feet of length will need to be lit. That means another reflector, ballast and bulb, and the VHO bulbs would have to be 6' instead of 4'. The skimmer should be be up-sized to match, but everything else would be the same. Tack on about $900 more. $37 per gallon

    While I was at the local fish store, I asked about their 55-gallon Elos tank. It's a beautiful piece of art, and it comes with everything - all you have to do is add livestock. That 55-gallon tank cost $5000, and I don't believe that included the $500 in shipping (it arrives in giant crate). That comes to $90 per gallon.

    What about an Oceanic 29-gallon Biocube? These are called All-In-One tanks, because everything is built in, negating the need for a sump. The equipment hides in the back, under the form-fitting cover. That system was $680, or $23 per gallon. The Red Sea Max 34-gallon system retails for $950, or $28 per gallon.

    If you aren't an avid Do-It-Yourself'er, know that you'll probably be paying around $47 per gallon to set up an nice reef tank that will function efficiently for many years. If you set it up properly, it will settle down in a few weeks to the point that it can begin to support life. Gradually over the next 11 months, you'll purchase livestock that will fill your reefscape nicely - and that too will cost money. Weekly and monthly maintenance is essential for the reef to prosper, which requires using those test kits, mixing up new saltwater for water changes, and replacing used media with new. Lastly, making your own RO/DI water at home will save money on a continual basis.

    Now that you've got the full picture, are you ready to proceed? I hope so, because this hobby is amazing, and addictive.

    Happy reefing!
    Comments 18 Comments
    1. Fat starfish's Avatar
      Fat starfish -
      WOW... I wish we had those prices in Australia. We pay almost twice the price, you lucky yanks
    1. cdmorrison01's Avatar
      cdmorrison01 -
      If my wife happens to come across this article, I'm a dead man.
    1. Tumbleweed's Avatar
      Tumbleweed -
      Sounds about right. Nice job Mark.
    1. Murfman's Avatar
      Murfman -
      Very nice article, Mark, for a newbie who knows nothing about the hobby. You mentioned in the 2nd paragraph on to save money. IMO, that is the way to go! There are always people who are in the 1st group who jump in to the hobby and 3 months down the road, have killed off everything in their tank and get disillusioned with the hobby and quit. There are many good deals to be had out there. Like Mark said, research is your friend! You can also end up getting a lot of things for free and in trade, so explore the options!
    1. agsansoo's Avatar
      agsansoo -
      Great article ...But did you have to remind me how much I've spent on this hobby already! Also the cost of continual up keep and upgrades.
    1. austin93's Avatar
      austin93 -
      This could be my least favorite article of all time.
    1. melev's Avatar
      melev -
      Quote Originally Posted by austin93 View Post
      This could be my least favorite article of all time.
      Hehe. It's really best to let people know up front what they are getting themselves into, so they can make better decisions. We are talking about living animals, after all.
    1. Spurredon's Avatar
      Spurredon -
      Great article Marc!

      as someone who is in the (long-drawn out) process of planning their first tank, the information provided is very useful and helps dissuade anyone from leaping in with their eyes closed. Like yourself, I'm a firm believer in buying quality rather than "settling" for the cheaper option. That's why I'm willing to wait however long it takes to set up my 180-gallon tank, with 2 vortech MP40w, a bubble king skimmer (or equivalent), and hopefully a sweet LED setup, such as the new AquaIllumination Modular LED system - though hopefully it will have come down from its $3000 price tag by then.

      In the meantime, it just gives me more time to study, learn and prepare before I do take the plunge!
    1. austin93's Avatar
      austin93 -
      Quote Originally Posted by melev View Post
      Hehe. It's really best to let people know up front what they are getting themselves into, so they can make better decisions. We are talking about living animals, after all.
      I hope my comment wasn't taken the wrong way, its a great guide for people who are just getting into reefs. I just think a lot of the people in this hobby try their best not to add up the costs of everything we have invested in our mini reef. It just makes us sad to know how much we have still got to spend to make it the system of our dreams. This should be posted on the aquariums at the LFS where they keep those cute little clownfish.
    1. melev's Avatar
      melev -
      No, it wasn't taken the wrong way. It's always about perspective.
    1. Turbosek's Avatar
      Turbosek -
      If LFS (Saltwater dedicated ones) posted this article, they would go out of business. Newbies never seem to know what they are getting into when they buy their first tank. Unfortunately, LSF sell them a few hundred bucks worth of stuff, then send them home to fail.

      Another important aspect of "cost", is the time invested in setting up and maintaining the tank, and one cannot easily put a price on that. I'll bet I have spent the better part of the last 2 months (3-6 hours every day) researching, buying, building, and putting everything together with my inwall setup...and I consider myself pretty handy. I am just now beginning the cycle. Seriously, I am self employed and lucky to have a lot of free time. If I were working 9-5, it would take me at least 6-12 months to get everything built and set up.

      Funny, my wife told me at the beginning that I should just pay someone to set everything up...shows you how clueless she is:-) Ditto on being dead if my wife sees this thread:-)
    1. Nitro's Avatar
      Nitro -
      I have a 100 gal tank. Ten years ago when I bought it the cost was about $25 a gallon. That was just the tank, stand, canopy flourscent lights,salt, external pump that I didn't use. then I ordered all of the other things I needed online. That brought the cost up to around $40 a gal. That was just a fish only tank. Now I am in the process of converting my tank into a reef tank. The thing is I didn't go into dept for any of it. Cash for every thing.
    1. Alaska_Phil's Avatar
      Alaska_Phil -
      So a 150 gal tank upgrade would cost me about $10k (inflated for Alaskan prices). Sounds about right. But upgrading my plane from 2 place to 4 will cost me about $50k (something I'm considering now I'm married). So Reefing is still my cheap hobby.

      On the other hand just think of the fish room I could convert my hangar into.
    1. Fetch's Avatar
      Fetch -
      Quote Originally Posted by Alaska_Phil View Post
      So Reefing is still my cheap hobby.
      I agree with you. There are always cheaper hobbies (ant farms come to mind), but think of the guy who has a ski boat or a bass boat. That's $20,000 right out of the gate. Imagine what you could do to your tank for $20,000.
    1. Michael128's Avatar
      Michael128 -
      Just wanted to say HI because you and I are in the same boat!!!!

      I'm planning my first tank (a reef tank) too. It is a 180-gallon, just like yours. Yes, planning is long-drawn out, as you said. I absolutely agree with you - never sacrifice QUALITY.

      You mentioned "2 vortech MP40w" - I'm getting that too.

      I started reading and studying about reefkeeping in DEC 2009. Thanks to the incredible quality and quantity of information that Marc Levenson has provided online, I'm going to start making my first big $ purchases in about 2 weeks.

      I want to place the tank in my dining room (above my basement). I hired a structural engineer to inspect my floor and floor joists. He's coming to my house next week.

      Just as you said, "....study, learn and prepare...." I agree with you 100%.

      I wish you well with your first tank.

      Take care,

      Michael
      (Philadelphia, PA)

      Quote Originally Posted by Spurredon View Post
      Great article Marc!

      as someone who is in the (long-drawn out) process of planning their first tank, the information provided is very useful and helps dissuade anyone from leaping in with their eyes closed. Like yourself, I'm a firm believer in buying quality rather than "settling" for the cheaper option. That's why I'm willing to wait however long it takes to set up my 180-gallon tank, with 2 vortech MP40w, a bubble king skimmer (or equivalent), and hopefully a sweet LED setup, such as the new AquaIllumination Modular LED system - though hopefully it will have come down from its $3000 price tag by then.

      In the meantime, it just gives me more time to study, learn and prepare before I do take the plunge!
    1. NightShade's Avatar
      NightShade -
      I think one other thing that you could really cut cost on is the Live rock. Get 5 pounds at 8.00 per pound to seed and then get dry rock other at about 3.00 per pound, there is a place online that sells aquacultured live and dry rock online and the dry runs 1.85 per pound plus shipping.

      So that would be about 40.00 for the live rock and 345 for the dry. It would be a savings of about 575 and just require a little more patience in allowing it to seed.
    1. bazzinga13's Avatar
      bazzinga13 -
      Quote Originally Posted by cdmorrison01 View Post
      If my wife happens to come across this article, I'm a dead man.
      Loved this reply
    1. bazzinga13's Avatar
      bazzinga13 -
      Once massive outlay done does get cheaper and worth paying for the best at the begining to help with keeping the best conditions and less chance of losing livestock, money etc in long run patience and not cuting corners the best advice here