How Much Does It Cost to Start a Saltwater Aquarium?

How Much Does It Cost to Start a Saltwater Aquarium?

The cost of starting a saltwater aquarium is one of the top concerns for a beginner hobbyist that is thinking about taking the plunge.  The best way to plan this is by first setting a budget.  There are many options and price ranges for equipment needed to run a saltwater aquarium.  In this article, we will go over the primary components you’ll need and what you should expect to pay to set-up a common 40 gallon starter tank.


Reef Tank

When choosing an aquarium the first thing you will need to decide is what type of tank you would like to buy.  We are going to focus on a reef ready aquarium.  This means the tank will be drilled for a drain and return line and will have an overflow box built in. The choice comes down to glass vs acrylic. Here are the pro’s and con’s of each.

Glass Aquarium

The quality of a glass aquarium can vary greatly depending on the type of glass and quality of the manufacturing.

Pros of a Glass Tank:

  • Generally costs less.
  • Less prone to scratching.
  • Easier to clean.
  • Glass is more rigid. As a result it can support itself much better and can be placed in stands with an open top with much less risk.
  • Mass produced and more readily available.
  • Will keep it’s clarity over time.

Cons of a Glass Tank:

  • 4-10 times heavier than acrylic.  The larger the tank, the thicker the glass and thereby the heavier the tank.
  • Can crack or shatter upon impact or from pressure.
  • Increased distortion especially as it gets thicker.  This becomes less of an issue with low-iron glass, but the cost is more.

Typical Cost: Starts around $135 and can run over $300

Acrylic Aquarium

Pros of an Acrylic Tank:

  • Weighs less than glass making it easier to move.
  • Much more impact resistant than glass.
  • Much clearer than glass, even when compared to low-iron glass
  • Easier to repair minor scratches

Cons of an Acrylic Tank:

  • Both the inside and the outside of the aquarium are prone to scratching. This makes cleaning both the inside and outside of the tank much trickier. Sharp objects such as jewelry can scratch the outside. Fish with strong jaws can also scratch the inside.
  • Must be supported throughout the entire length of the tank. Stand will need to have a flat top.  Any unsupported areas have the tendency to bow.
  • Will yellow as it ages reducing clarity.

Typical Cost: Starts around $200 and can run over $400


Aquarium Stands

The cost of a manufactured stand is primarily dependent upon the type of material it is made of and its style and finishes. Most stands are typically made of MDF (ie particle board), plywood

or metal. If you are handy, think about building your own as it can save you a good chunk of change.

Typical Cost: $75 and can run over $300



The sump is a very important component to any saltwater tank.  It will be the home of your protein skimmer, return pump and any additional filtration equipment, like a media reactor. The sump should be large enough to hold the water that drains from the tank into the sump during a power outage.  The cost can vary greatly from using a simple glass aquarium to a custom built sump.

Typical Cost: $40 – $200

Return Pump

Return Pump

Water goes into the overflow and down the drain pipe leading into the sump. The water will then go through different sections of the sump. The return pump is almost always located at the end of the sump to push the filtered water back up into the aquarium. The water in a saltwater aquarium or reef tank needs to be turned over a minimum of 4-6 times the tank volume.

Learn more about how to choose the right size return pump for your aquarium:

Learn more about how to calculate head pressure:

Typical Cost: $60-300

Protein Skimmer

Simplicity Protein Skimmer

In a reef tank, the protein skimmer is the most important part of your filtration system. A protein skimmer removes organic waste using air bubbles. Organic waste sticks to the air bubbles and is removed when these bubbles break into the collection cup. A protein skimmer also helps add oxygen back to the water.

Purchasing a protein skimmer that is properly rated for your size of aquarium is crucial.

Top 5 Tips for Choosing the Right Protein Skimmer:

Typical Cost: $200-500

Wave Pump/Circulation Pump

Rossmont Mover Circulation Pump

A wave pump, also known as a circulation pump, should have a flow rate of at least 5x the size of the tank. For a 40 gallon reef aquarium this translates to a flow rate of at least 200 gph however many hobbyists choose to go even bigger.

As a general rule of thumb, 1 circulation pump is recommended for every 3 feet of tank length. There are lots of options to choose from the budget friendly to the feature rich.

Typical Cost: $30-300


ATI Straton LED Light

The amount of lighting options can be overwhelming. As a general rule we recommend purchasing a light at the top end of your budget as this is generally not something you want to skimp on. The two most popular lighting options are LED and T5.

Typical Cost:

  • T5 Light w/ Bulbs: $100 – $560 
  • LED Light: $60 – $420



Generally to achieve a 1” sandbed you will want to add the number of pounds equal to the size of the tank. For a 40 gallon tank that would be 40 pounds. Double this amount for a 2” sandbed, triple it for a deep 3” sandbed and so on. 

Typical Cost:

  • For 1” sand bed: $65 – $80
  • For 2” sand bed: $130 – $140

Live or Dry Rock

Live or Dry Rock

For aquascaping, live rock or dry rock is used to create caves, arches and mountains for fish to swim through or seek shelter in.  Creating ledges helps to make places for coral placement if a reef tank is what you are going for.  Believe it or not it is also the 2nd most important filter in your aquarium.  The home to trillions of bacteria which convert fish waste into nitrogen.  We recommend adding ½ – 1 lb of rock per gallon of water.  In a 40 gallon tank that would equal 20 – 40 lbs of live rock.

Typical Cost:

  • New Live Rock: $5 – $12 per pound
  • Used Live Rock: $2 – $4 per pound
  • Dry Rock: $3 – $6 per pound

Starting a new saltwater aquarium can be a bit pricey. Making sure to set a budget and to try your best to stick to it will help keep the cost down. For a 40 gallon, plan to spend at least $1000 and likely significantly more depending on your equipment and stocking choices.

Simplicity Aquatics offers aquarium supplies that are simple, effective and affordable so you don’t have to break the bank for quality and reliable equipment.

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