Frugal Saltwater Aquarium Reefkeeping

By glblguy


A few pictures from my reef tank

One of my hobbies is maintaining a 75 gallon saltwater reef aquarium. I’ve mentioned this a few times before in some other articles I’ve written. A number of you have written asking me about my aquarium and saying you’re in the hobby as well. So I thought I’d share a money saving article that applies to saltwater aquariums.

When I first started my saltwater aquarium journey in 2007 I prepared myself upfront for the initial cost of the tank, equipment and livestock. What I didn’t prepare myself for financially was the ongoing costs of salt, necessary additives and buffers. Additives and chemicals are used in saltwater tanks for a number of purposes. Purchasing these products from your local or online pet store can quickly add up, especially for a large aquarium.¬† I decided to apply some of my frugality tips to my saltwater hobby. If you’re looking to save a little money in your own saltwater adventure, give the following frugal saltwater tips a try.

Buy used equipment

I’m a huge advocate of buying things used:¬† from cars to computers to electronics and yes even aquariums and supplies. My current 75 gallon tank, stand and light fixture were purchased on Craig’s List for $150.00. The tank has a few scratches, but since I was just starting out I didn’t want to invest a great deal of money. My plan is to find a gently used 125 – 150 gallon soon and sell my 75g to someone else just starting out.

What happens is that many people watch discovery channel or visit the local hobby shop and fall in love with saltwater and reef livestock. They in turn chunk down $500.00 or more to get started. After a few months they realize how difficult and time consuming the hobby can be and quickly give up. Trying to recoup some of their investment, they put the equipment up for sale or sometimes even give it away! Another reason used equipment is prevalent is due to hobbyists constantly upgrading their equipment. We get larger tanks or the new whiz-bang filter and then sell or giveaway our prior equipment that still works just fine.

Low cost water additives and supplements

One of the more expensive ongoing maintenance items are supplements. Reef aquariums require two main supplements: Calcium and Magnesium.


Calcium is required for a number of the “critters” in your tank: snails, hermit crabs, shrimp, and most importantly corals. Maintaining a Calcium level of 450 – 500 is critical for proper water conditions and coral growth. The least expensive way to add Calcium to your tank is to use Calcium Chloride. If you know anyone in the concrete business, they generally will be able to get it for you. I got mine from a fellow reefer on the forums. If you are unable to find someone that can get it for you, you can purchase it from Bulk Reef Supply online. Calcium Chloride is dirt cheap and very pure thus only requires a small amount to significantly increase your calcium levels.


Magnesium should be in the range of 1200 – 1300 ppm (parts per million). Maintaining¬† a level within this range is critically important because magnesium helps maintain higher levels of alkalinity and Calcium. When Magnesium levels drop below 1200 ppm, so will your Calcium and alkalinity. Common Epsom salt found at your local drug or grocery store can be used to raise magnesium levels in your tank. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfide and hobbyists have been using to successfully raise magnesium levels in their tanks for years. Mix the Epsom salt in a small bowl with some RO/DI water and stir until fully dissolved, then poor it into a high flow area of your tank. A small box of Epsom salts shouldn’t cost you more than a few dollars and depending on your tank size will last for a few months or even longer

Low cost PH and dKH buffers

Many different commercial products are available to increase and buffer PH in your saltwater system. As with the supplements we discussed earlier, these products can become fairly expensive. A really excellent and inexpensive alternative is to take baking soda and mix it with 20 mule team laundry booster. The mix ratio should be 4 parts baking soda to 1 parts laundry booster. This mix will raise your PH without having a significant impact of your dKH (Carbonate Hardness). Another option is to use Arm and Hammer washing soda to increase your PH. This is also a good solution, but tends to raise your dKH more than using the 4:1 mixture of baking soda and 20 mule laundry booster. Many hobbyists use just baking soda. While this will raise the PH, it will also raise your dKH at the same time. Pure baking soda should only be used in emergencies.


I love my corals almost as much as my fish, but corals can be really expensive depending on the type. An often free or very low cost alternative is to join a local aquarium club where they have club frag swaps. Frags are small portions of larger corals that have been properly “cut-off” from larger corals. Frag swaps are where the various club members bring frags of their various corals and exchange or sell them. Not only does this give you a chance to cut back those corals that are overtaking your tank, but it gives you a chance to exchange them for some new corals.

How about you? Do you have a saltwater tank? What tips and/or suggestions do you have for homemade additives, ways to find discount or low-cost equipment, or any other part of the hobby. Share your money saving tip by adding a comment!

6 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Frugal Saltwater Aquarium Reefkeeping”

  1. MyJourney Says:

    Growing up my father and I had 2 175gallon, 1 90 gallon and 2 55 gallons. When asked why they were all fresh, pops always responded that salt was wayyyyy too much money.

    When I moved into my own place 2 years ago, I got a tank from a store going out of business 90 gallons with wood hood and stand for 125 cash! I looked into salt water for about 2.5 seconds. I couldn’t even imagine paying 50 bucks for a fish!

    Have you had a meltdown yet where you lost the fish to disease or similar problem? If you did would you continue the salt?

    I Love this stuff

    btw, I have about 10 or 12 african cichlads (colorful but nothing compared to salt).

  2. J. Money Says:

    wow, that tank look hot man – good work! i used to think i could just throw some fish together in a tank and all would work out nicely and be cheap. hah!

  3. DDFD at Says:

    I have always been fascinated by people with this hobby– we never had much luck with the 5 1/2 gallon tank that now sits in the garage. You are a better and more patient man than I.

    As for the on-going costs being surprising– that is true of anything, but it sounds like you have found a way to manage and minimize costs.

  4. susan Says:

    Thank you for all that info, very useful!!
    Also can we use eather baby vitamins like tri-vi-sol with iron, also finest natural calcium 500+D? I have both vitamins at home and was wondering if I could use them in my 120 gal reef tank, I heard of some people using baby vitamins?
    Thank you

  5. Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Says:

    You might also want to check out bulk reef supply. They have a lot of homemade cost saving products for saltwater aquariums.

  6. a_rat Says:

    Calcium Chloride can be found very inexpensively from most supermarkets as Water Hardener for swimming pools. (just be sure to see either Calcium Chloride or CaCl2 on the label before you buy)