Don’t Be a Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish Marine Aquarist!

penny wise pound foolish marine aquaristOkay, class, please put away your notes and calculators, take out your number-two pencils (clear-a-vous but for a number-two!), and complete this easy multiple-choice quiz:

Which of the following reef-lighting options costs the least?

  • A) Zany Caribbean Chris’s Homemade Reef-Suitable Coral-Blaster® LEDs for $250.00
  • B) “Gently used,” trusted-name-brand LEDs for $800.00
  • C) The same reputable LEDs from answer B—only brand-spankin’ new this time—for $1,200.
  • D) A recently discontinued, but once quite popular, LED fixture from now-defunct Company X for $475.00

So what’s the right answer? Which option is cheapest? As anyone with any experience in this hobby will be quick to point out, the only possible correct answer is actually Secret Option E: “Not enough information.”

Shopping by price alone in this hobby can lead to madness—or, at the very least, end up costing you a heck of a lot more in the long run if you have to shell out again and again to replace inadequate or downright lousy equipment. Let’s take a closer look at each of the quiz answers and examine why they may or may not represent the best price. And keep in mind that this same thought process can be applied to any type of aquarium gear.

Answer A: The Less Reputable Route

If a company sounds fly-by-night (and I don’t mean in the awesome Rush sort of way) and its offerings too good to be true, such is usually the case. And if/when the product doesn’t live up to the company’s hype—as the suspiciously low, low price suggests it won’t—you’ll likely find that Zany Caribbean Chris is not big on responding to customer complaints and standing behind his product. Besides, there’s just something deeply disturbing about that name…I can’t put my finger on it.

Answer B: The Gently Used Route

Gently used name-brand equipment can be an excellent value, and I’ve turned to this option more than once myself. The challenge lies in vetting the source to ensure the term “gently” actually applies to the degree of wear, so the old adage caveat emptor definitely applies here! Naturally, buying used gear from a friend, fellow aquarium club member, or trusted local dealer is a much safer bet than buying it online from a stranger sight unseen.

Answer C: The Brand New, Big Name Route

Though this option is the most expensive upfront, it can actually be the most cost-effective in the long run. That certainly doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive lights (or other equipment) on the market. However, if the product is highly rated by fellow hobbyists (who have used it in applications similar to yours), manufactured by a reputable company, and priced at a level relatively consistent with similar product lines, odds are it’s a fairly decent buy. Purchasing the product new also means it will have the protection of a manufacturer’s warranty and, assuming you buy it from a respected retailer, solid customer-service support.

Answer D: The Close-Out Route

Close-out products can be great bargains, but if you buy them, keep in mind that you may be out of luck if you need to get replacement parts or accessories for them in the future. I ran into this problem in the early 2000s when I bought a metal halide/fluorescent combo fixture that had been phased out by the manufacturer. Actually, at the time of the purchase, I had no idea it had been discontinued, as nothing in the online vendor’s product description indicated such.

The fixture worked just fine for many years, and it was easy enough to replace the MH bulbs and fluorescent tubes, which were standard items. However, I ran into trouble when the ballast for the fluorescent lamps died and I went back to the same vendor for a new one. When the replacement arrived, it looked exactly the same but with one very noteworthy exception: the wiring was reversed from the original so none of the connections matched up.

It was only after I emailed the vendor to discuss this dilemma that I learned I had purchased a discontinued fixture. I was further advised I would need to rewire the ballast myself so the connections lined up—a solution that struck me as most odd given the potential liability and warranty-voiding issues usually attendant upon such modifications. Anyhow, after a lot of uncharacteristic griping on my part, the sales rep ultimately—and none too enthusiastically, I might add—agreed to modify another ballast and ship it to me.

So, the problem was ultimately solved, though not in ideal fashion, and one can easily see how a similar situation involving discontinued equipment might conclude less favorably, leaving the customer “high and dry.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. I buy most of my equipment secondhand for 3 reasons as follows.
    1/ The must have the latest gizmo guy selling his 1 year old item at less than half what he paid for it so I get a bargain.
    2/ I buy off forums off members I can trust and have a good reputation.
    3/ I also buy off eBay with some assurance in case there is an issue. Be sure to check the sellers feedback and ask questions if unsure about something.

    I always pay via PayPal if the item is being posted to give me some insurance.

    I paid about 1/3rd of the new price of my new AI hydra 26s in excellent condition from people trading up. My corals are growing and with lovely colour under them. No way could I have bought the 4 for the new price along with controller.

    You do have to be careful,however, and do as much checking as you can and always see the item working if collecting or get some insurance like paying via PayPal.

    However, it does pay to know your equipment and have experience of it or asking others who may know more about it than you. .

    I have not only saved a small fortune but have a reef tank I could not possibly afford if I had to buy new. Also, when it comes to selling secondhand stuff on I usually break even and even sometimes make money on the deal. Win win situation for me.

  2. I would have to go with option “F” which is my very cool, home made water cooled, copper LED system. The coolness factor alone is enough to give me tingles and add the fact that it is so steam punk brings me over the top. The fact that no one else has one is the best part. Now of course I realize everyone will get one just to be with the In crowd. Oh my.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Yours truly is a unique system in just about every way, Paul! Gotta love it! (Especially the steampunk factor!)

  3. Jeff,

    This is good advice. One time I bought a lower-end powerhead–because I wanted to save a few dollars–the kind with the suction cup mounts (which don’t work). I was enjoying those extra few dollars, counting my pile of money one day, when the pump detached from the side wall and obliterated my LPS coral.

    There went my paltry ‘cost savings’. This is an expensive hobby, but it totally makes sense to do some research and spend a little more to get a little more.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Ah, yes, the old suction-cup powerhead mounts. I’m definitely grateful for the advent of magnetic mounts! Thanks Al!

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