How Much Time Will You Invest in a Saltwater Aquarium?

time-spentWhen a non-hobbyist visitor is observing one of my marine aquariums for the first time, among the questions he or she almost invariably asks—along with inquiring about the expense and the level of difficulty relative to a freshwater tank—is something along the lines of, “How much time does it take to maintain that?”

My usual answer to that question is, “Not as much as you might think.” For some reason, there’s a pervasive misconception out there that in order to maintain a marine aquarium successfully, the hobbyist must spend every waking moment feeding, cleaning, adjusting, testing, tweaking, jiggering, and kneeling before a statue of Neptune.

All hobbies are time-consuming

Don’t get me wrong; a successful marine aquarium does demand a certain time commitment—but then so does any other hobby or avocation worth pursuing. Whether you’re into golf, bowling, scuba diving, model ship building, or stamp collecting, you’re going to spend just as much time, if not more, developing and honing the necessary skills or simply participating.

Modest daily time commitment

So what sort of time commitment are we talking here? An hour a day? Two hours? Once a marine aquarium is established, the actual day-to-day commitment can be fairly modest. Between my 125-gallon FOWLR tank and 75-gallon reef tank, I probably spend no more than 20 minutes to a half hour on most days attending to care and maintenance chores (feeding livestock, scraping algae, topping off for evaporation, emptying protein skimmer collection cups, checking temperatures, etc.)

What’s more, certain aquarium chores, such as freshwater top-offs, calcium/alkalinity supplementation, and pH monitoring, can be automated easily enough if you’re somewhat technologically savvy (I’m not, so I don’t), freeing up even more time for simply enjoying the salty fruits of your labor.

Different livestock, different time demands

Of course, if you have multiple tanks or a large, technologically complex system, your daily time commitment is likely to be greater. Also, the particular livestock you keep plays a part. For instance, reef tanks generally (though not always) demand more daily upkeep than fish-only systems. Plus, if you have a reef tank featuring calcium-hungry stony corals and tridacnid clams, you can expect to invest more time on the chore of supplementing calcium and alkalinity. If your livestock includes fish or coral species that require target feeding, mealtimes might be more time-consuming, as well.

The new tank time sink

I mentioned above that the day-to-day time commitment can be fairly modest once a marine aquarium is established. This point bears repeating because you can expect to invest a lot more time in your marine aquarium during the initial setup and stocking phase—potentially upwards of an hour or two on some days. Here are just some of the reasons:

  • You’re just getting the hang of the equipment and still “dialing things in.”
  • You are (or should be) operating a separate quarantine system, which demands its own maintenance and very frequent
  • You’ll need to acclimate all specimens to your quarantine tank and again to your display tank after quarantine.
  • Specimens in quarantine may require extra coaxing to encourage feeding or some form of treatment if they exhibit signs of disease.
  • More-frequent-than-usual testing of water parameters is necessary while cycling and stocking the system.

No question, water changes take time!

I would be remiss if I were to downplay the time involved in performing routine partial water changes—especially in larger systems. In fact, just this past weekend, I managed to burn well over two hours doing a 20% water change in my 125-gallon.

But this critical chore doesn’t always have to be such a major time waster. The key is to spread many of the little jobs we tend to save for water-change day—such as mixing clean salt water (which really should be done at least a day ahead of time anyway), scraping algae, rinsing prefilters, and cleaning your protein skimmer—over several preceding days. That way, your time expenditure may be a bit greater on the days leading up to your water change, but then the water change itself isn’t such an onerous project.

What’s your time-saving secret?
So, fellow salties, how much time would you estimate that you spend on your aquarium each day and what are your time-saving secrets? Let us know in the comment section below!


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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. Paul Baldassano says

    Very good discussion. A tank could take as much time as you like as it is a hobby, and not supposed to be a job. If you think about any of this as work, get another hobby because the definition of hobby is something that you do for fun. I sometimes spend all day doing something like re-arranging rocks or changing water or go for a week and do nothing but feed and sometimes I don’t have time for that. It is not like brain surgery where everything has to be perfect. A salt water aquarium doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be fun. Perfect is for someone who needs to be published in a magazine or someone who needs to win a contest. If you don’t have time to change water this week or month, don’t worry about it, you will get to it eventually. If you can’t clean the glass today, who cares? You will get to it when you want to see your fish and the fish don’t care.
    Of course you want to keep it clean and healthy or why bother, but you don’t have to be crazy about it. Just have fun while you learn as this is one of the most rewarding endeavors you can have. To be able to keep and maybe propagate some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures on the planet.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      So true, Paul! It’s all too easy to forget this is supposed to be a fun hobby, not another tiresome obligation.

      • I found a very simple but very effective way to isolate a newcomer to my tank in order to prevent it being mutilated by old timers in the tank. Setting: 90 gal, with blue powder,, purple tang and one medium size fox face, all very pugnacious to the new commer yellow tang. Isolation solution: measure height width and lenght of tank you want for the isolated area. Get a piece of plastic window screen from Home Depot, cut same as your previous measurements. On each end of the screen, secure same with the smallest dowel you can find using a 10lbs test monofilament line. Viola! You now have a screen that you can insert in your tank, meandering the same between the corals and rocks forming an isolation area. Now you have a newcomer very secure and will consider that area its home. Yellow tank I introcued now a playmate among the old timers.

  2. Alex Stamb says

    I spend almost two hours weekly to keep my tank clean and do a water change.Together with some classic music and good iced Frappé coffee.
    The hobbyist in my opinion has to keep a program for any work that has to be done.Water change,equipment cleaning,or just to cut some overgrowing corals.I try to do every task together on water change day.Time is precious for our lives and our tanks.This is where the secret is in my opinion to balance both.If you are tired its better to not start any heavy task in your tank.
    Of course the size of a tank does mater.The smaller the tank less time for maintenance.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Good points, Alex! I should probably also have mentioned in the post that it’s important to estimate how much time and effort one can realistically dedicate to maintenance and husbandry when choosing what size tank to set up initially or when deciding whether or not it’s a good idea to set up multiple tanks.

  3. Ben vanderNoort says

    I always say ” the easier you make it yourself to do so, the more likely and often you will do it”
    That counts for WC and testing, two major habits that you have to do in this hobby.
    You got that on a speed date with yourself than more than 70% is in control.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      That’s so true, Ben! The best maintenance protocol is the one you’ll actually stick with–so the easier you make it on yourself, the better.

  4. Gus Gutierrez says

    Filefish are advertised to be very effective in controlling aphasia by eating them. Will this type of fish eat large aptasia or just the small ones?

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Hi Gus! I assume you’re referring to Acreichthys tomentosus, the so-called Aiptasia-eating filefish. I’ve never kept this species personally, but it has a generally solid reputation for consuming Aiptasia, which, as far as I know, includes larger ones (any other salties out there know otherwise?). But as with so many biological controls for pest organisms, it can be hit or miss depending on the individual. According to some anecdotes I’ve heard/read, they’re fantastic at it, while others report no success at all. Also, keep in mind that some specimens may nip at other polyps in a reef system.
      The good news is, A. tomentosus generally does well in aquaria with peaceful tankmates and usually adapts to a captive diet without too much fuss. Not to mention, it’s a pretty neat looking fish. So, if you have a suitable tank and compatible livestock, you won’t regret trying one even if it doesn’t take a shine to Aiptasia.

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