How Not to Cut Costs When Starting a Reef System

In some aspects of reef aquariums, saving money on the cheaper options can be detrimental to your success

In some aspects of reef aquariums, saving money on the cheaper options can be detrimental to your success

Recognizing that the question of affordability is top of mind for many aspiring marine aquarium hobbyists, one of our earliest posts here at Saltwater Smarts dealt with ways to reduce the expenses associated with aquarium setup and ongoing operation. Notwithstanding those recommendations, it’s important to note that in some cases, taking the seemingly cheaper route in the reefkeeping hobby can be highly counterproductive.

For example, purchasing the following essential equipment based on price alone—or avoiding the purchase altogether just to save money—could not only end up costing you much more in the long run but may also greatly limit your long-term reefkeeping success:

Reef lighting

I’m leading with this one because proper lighting is commonly the largest single expense hobbyists encounter when setting up a reef system. To those on a limited budget—and/or those who equate “aquarium lighting” with the inexpensive fluorescent hoods so popular on the freshwater side of the hobby—the price of a good reef lighting system can produce some serious “sticker shock.”

But I strongly urge you to resist the allure of cheapo lighting systems that claim they will support photosynthetic invertebrates for a fraction of the cost. Not only do such systems typically fall far short of expectation with respect to the inverts they can sustain, but as you might expect, they also tend to be built with low-quality components and, thus, have a notoriously limited functional lifespan.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t look for the best possible deal on a quality lighting fixture or that you shouldn’t explore the more budget-friendly option of buying a gently used fixture from a reputable source. Just keep in mind that if reef lighting sounds too good—and costs too little—to be true, there’s a good chance it is.

Protein skimmer

While proper lighting serves as the essential energy source for a reef system, a good protein skimmer plays an indispensable role in maintaining the best possible water quality. But not all skimmers are created equal. As they say, the proof of a protein skimmer is in the skimmate (okay, no one actually says that, but you get the idea!). That doesn’t mean you have to shell out for the most expensive skimmer on the market, but it is important to choose the best brand and model that 1) you can reasonably afford and 2) has an established reputation for good performance.

We use and recommend Coral Vue Octopus skimmers (such as the Super Reef and Needle Wheel), but there are several other quality skimmers out there to choose from. We also recommend purchasing a skimmer model rated for a tank one size larger than yours. This may cost you a little more, but it will also give you a much greater margin of error as your system matures and its bioload increases.


There’s no question that investing in a reverse-osmosis/deionization (RO/DI) system for purifying tap water can set you back a few bucks. Not only is there a relatively high initial cost for the system itself, but you also have to shell out on an ongoing basis for replacement cartridges and membranes. Weighing the expense against the benefits, you might be tempted to think, “I have really good tap water, so I think I can probably dispense with the RO/DI unit.”

The trouble with this thinking is, even if your tap water is of exceptional quality today, your municipality could make a change tomorrow in the way the water is treated or processed that makes it unsuitable for delicate invertebrates. Not to mention, even “exceptional” tap water can contain stuff that’s harmful to invertebrates. Why inject that degree of uncertainty into the equation when using a good RO/DI unit will eliminate virtually all the contaminants you want to exclude from your system along with any guesswork about the quality of your source water?

Water-testing tools

Precision and accuracy are of critical importance when it comes to the test kits used to monitor water parameters (pH, calcium, alkalinity, nitrate, phosphate, etc.) in a reef system, but you can’t necessarily expect to get both out of low-price test kits. For the health of your livestock—and your own sanity—it’s well worth it to invest in high-quality kits or, when possible (e.g., for pH), electronic testers.

The same logic applies to the device you use to measure your salinity/specific gravity. While an inexpensive swing-needle hydrometer may be suitable for a fish-only system, a reef system will benefit greatly from the more accurate, precise readings of a high-quality (and, yes, more pricey) refractometer.

Photo credit: Damian Gadal


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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

    Unfortunately many people leave this hobby after a couple of years and great bargains can be had by buying much of this stuff used. Protein skimmers, lights, rocks, dosers, test kits and even livestock can be had for a fraction of the original cost. I got my Ozonizer used for about half the price of a new unit. I also built my lighting system for about a third of what a new LED system cost and I custom built it to fit my needs. I used quality LEDs (if there is such a thing) and they only cost $3.00 each.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I wish I had a fraction of your DIY skills, Paul! Actually, I am pretty good at DIY. It’s just that, in my case, the “D” stands for “Destroy.”

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    Jeff, I live in a world of DIY and wouldn’t even know where to begin to order lights or many things we use in this hobby. I tried to build my own fish but ended up eating them before they matured.
    There are so many DIY things that you can do that require nothing but an idea and very little skill. My entire house is DIY so I feel sorry for the next guy that buys it. Of course you need to know how to use dangerous tools like a scissor (you can use those rounded end ones like 5 year old’s) And sometimes a knife is helpful (but have an adult around) Brine shrimp hatcheries, bristle worm traps, fish traps, ATOs, and glass cleaners can be built for practically nothing in a few minutes. Imagination is the key to this hobby, money is just there so we can go out and buy a nice bottle of merlot for when we sit in front of our tank and contemplate what those hermit crabs are thinking.

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