Reef Tanks on a Budget

Reef Tanks on a Budget (Part 1): The Tank and Stand

Starting a reef tank can be costly, however it doesn’t have to break the bank. In this multi-part series, we will explore what you will need and what you can do to get there without breaking the bank starting with the tank and the stand.

The Tank

Reef Tank on a Budget

The size, shape and material of the tank all play a large role in the overall cost of the tank itself.

Tank Size

Aquarium size not only impacts the cost of the tank itself, but it also impacts the cost of the stand and virtually all other equipment. A nano reef tank, generally 20 gallons or less, is typically the most inexpensive option as it typically does not need a stand and the filtration is generally built into the back of the tank. The drawback of a nano tank is the small size which makes maintaining stable water parameters like salinity, alkalinity, calcium and others difficult. The small dimensions of a nano tank also limit what can be kept in the tank. As a result of these drawbacks, we only recommend nano tanks for experienced hobbyists. For those starting their first reef tank, we generally recommend a tank that is 40 gallons or more.

Budget Recommendation: Approximately 40 gallons

Material – Glass vs Acrylic

For tanks less than 150 gallons, the cost of a glass tank is usually cheaper than the cost of an acrylic tank. Glass tanks are generally cheaper because the material is cheaper and the manufacturing process is easier compared to an acrylic tank. Glass tanks are also produced in a higher volume than acrylic tanks, further reducing costs and making them readily available. Acrylic tanks tend to yellow / get hazy after time while glass tanks generally stay clearer. On the flip side, acrylic weighs less than glass and is more impact resistant.

Budget Recommendation: Glass

Tank Shape

Aquariums come in many shapes from rectangular to round and everything in between. Some of the options include pentagon, bowfront, corner bowfront, cylinder, half cylinder and flat-back hexagon. An aquarium with a bent or round surface is generally going to cost more than one with straight edges and square corners. Objects viewed through a rounded, curved or bent surface will be distorted from their actual form. For these two reasons, most reef hobbyists choose a rectangular tank.

Budget Recommendation: Rectangular

Tank Extras – Pre-drilled / Reef Ready

When a tank comes pre-drilled it is considered a “reef ready” tank. This generally means the tank has a built-in overflow with holes drilled for both the drain and the return lines. The drain hole allows water to drain into the sump or refugium to be filtered. It is then pumped back into the main tank through the return lines. 

A tank that does not come with a built-in overflow is going to be cheaper than a pre-drilled. It is also possible to keep a healthy reef tank by simply relying on large, very frequent water changes or using hang-on filtration. This is without question the cheaper way to go, however most successful reef tanks are pre-drilled as it is a much more effective way to set-up a reef tank.

We also do not recommend drilling your own aquarium as it can be both difficult and costly.  If the tank is glass it needs to be tempered glass so it does not crack during the process of drilling.  It will need to be done with a diamond blade which many hobbyists do not have on hand so this will need to be purchased separately along with an overflow to house the stand pipes for the drain and the return.

Our advice is to spend a little extra on a pre-drilled aquarium and look to reduce costs in other areas.

Budget Recommendation: Pre-drilled

The Stand

Reef Tank Stand on a Budget
Photo courtesy of Chris Benner / Benner’s Woodworking

If a tank is small enough it can simply be placed on a counter, desk or other piece of furniture. However, as the size of the tank increases, a stand becomes necessary. Just like the tank, the size, shape and material of the tank, all play a large role in the overall cost of the stand itself.

Stand Size and Shape

Except for height, the size and shape of the stand are all dependent on the size and shape of the tank. As for the height, the taller the stand the more expensive it becomes. For most hobbyists, a standard 30” tank stand is sufficient.

Budget Recommendation: Standard 30” tall

Stand Material

The most common materials used for an aquarium stand are mdf, wood and metal.

MDF (Medium-density fibreboard): Is an engineered wood product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres and combining it with wax and a resin binder and then forming it into panels. It is inexpensive and generally stronger than plywood, however generally not as strong as real wood. The MDF material used for aquarium stands is almost always covered with a laminate finish to give it a uniform and clean appearance. MDF is more susceptible to water damage than real wood and other materials.

Wood: Commonly made from pine, oak, cherry and others, wood stands are readily available and also fairly inexpensive. Full wood stands are generally stronger than mdf stands and can be stained or painted to match a wide variety of aesthetics.

Metal: Commonly made from powder coated steel or aluminum, metal stands are extremely strong and durable. Generally the most expensive choice for an aquarium stand.

Budget Recommendation: MDF or wood

Stand Design / Style

Depending on where and how it is installed, a living area for example, will determine how important the design will be. Choosing a style can be a very important decision because it can impact the aesthetic of the room. For many hobbyists, a reef tank is considered a living piece of art right, so skimping on a stand is not always a good idea.

Budget Recommendation: No recommendation. You need to live with it, so pick something that you are going to like.


If you are capable, building your own stand is certainly doable and will save you a good chunk of change. You’ll just want to make sure the stand can easily support the filled weight of the tank. As a general rule of thumb, multiply the tank size by 10x to get the weight of the tank when filled.

When trying to stick to a budget for starting a reef tank, there are many ways to help keep the costs down.  Making smart choices on the items you purchase and taking on the occasional D.I.Y. project can help save quite a few dollars.  Happy reefing!

Like this article? Share it here.