5 Steps to Consider When Selecting A Saltwater Tank

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Owning a successful aquarium depends greatly on the time of time spent planning and researching the setup for the fish and/or corals you choose to have.  There are a large number of choices when it comes to tank selection.  This article breaks down the selection process in easy to understand steps.

Step 1 – Budget

I’m not going to sugar coat it.  A fish tank in general is expensive and a saltwater tank is even more expensive.  If you put me on the spot without any research whatsoever and ask me “how much a saltwater tank setup will cost” my answer is “At least $1,000.”  Keep in mind, however, that a lot of the costs will be upfront investments in the tank, equipment, rock, stand, substrates, etc.  You can certainty spend less on a smaller setup and can cut cut with DIY work or used equipment, but I am going to assume that you are not a big DIYer.  Over time, as you get more advanced in this hobby, it is natural to begin DIY solutions, but beginners should generally stay away from DIY. Set your budget and continue your research from there.

Step 2 – Determine How Big of a Tank You Can Keep/Afford

After you determined your budget, it’s time to determine how big of a tank you can keep. Tanks come in a variety of size, but there are four rules to keep in mind that will help with your selection:

  1. The more gallons, the more stability – bigger is better
  2. The longer the tank, the more room for fish to swim
  3. The wider the tank, the easier to aquascape
  4. The taller the tank, the harder for maintenance

With these rules explained, tanks are usually divided by lengths.  The key lengths are 2, 3, 4, and 6 feet.  Most tank manufacturers do not produce 5 foot length tanks and if you find one, you may have a hard time getting a stand.  I recommend 3, 4, or 6 foot length tanks. 3 feet I feel is the best length for those on a budget or a beginner.  4 feet allows for a complete mixed reef setup and most lighting systems are designed for 4 foot aquariums.  6 feet in length is when you get to the territory of being able to house larger fish like tangs.

Tank height is another consideration.  When you go over two feet in height, you will have additional room for fish to swim up and down instead of just side to side, but you will sacrifice ease of maintenance.  Saltwater tanks more than 2 feet in height will be out of reach for most hobbyist’s hands so you will have trouble cleaning algae.

Step 3 – Where to Put your Tank

Your aquarium is going to be a sizable investment and will easily become the showcase and talk of your home.  When friends and family visit your home, everyone is going to want to see your tank.  Because of this, you really want your aquarium in a place where you can enjoy it on a daily basis.  That being said, there are a few rules to follow when it comes to placement:

  1. Keep your tank out of direct sunlight – this will lead to spikes in temperature and algae outbreaks
  2. Think of the first floor of your home or basement before upstairs – any tank over 40 gallons in size is going to weigh a sizable amount.  Tank water is about 8 pounds per gallon and then you will have sand and rock as part of the mix.  If your tank will be directly placed on a floor that is part of the foundation, there are virtually no concerns with placement.
  3. Place your tank near an outlet – or get one installed by an electrician.  Your tank is going to be using power to run and so the closer the better.  Make sure it is on its own circuit if you plan on having a tank more than 40 gallons as a fully setup aquarium will draw a lot of power.
  4. Do not place your tank directly below a vent –  heating and A/C vents can drastically change the temperature of your aquarium.  Having a stable water temperature is critical to a healthy aquarium.  Placing your tank away from a vent will prevent this issue.
  5. If you are dead set on having an aquarium upstairs – hire a structural contractor to get advice if you are going to place a 40+ gallon tank upstairs. Better safe than sorry.  A couple hundred dollars could be worth tens and thousands of dollars of prevented repairs.
  6. Level the area – if your placement is a slightly off-level, get some shims to adjust.  If the location is way off level – consider another spot

Flooring is another consideration to keep in mind.  The most ideal floor for a tank would be directly on a foundation or on top of tile.  Carpet can be risky because water spills will eventually build mold in the padding. Laminate can also be hit or miss, with only the higher quality laminates been ideal and sealing being key.  Hardwood floors are not ideal because the saltwater from your tank can eventually wrap the hardwood.   You can seal your hardwood, but it is at your risk.  If you have a spill, you will need to clean it up right away.  Having a wet/dry vacuum can be a lifesaver for such times.

Step 4 – Standard, All in One, Reef Ready, or Custom Tank

In the industry there are four types of tanks you find available for purchase:

  • Standard Aquariums – Usually found at general pet stores
  • Reef Ready Aquariums – Pre-drilled and ready for a sump
  • All-In-One Aquariums – Pre-designed for ease of use
  • Custom Built Aquariums – Very expensive, but showcase quality

Standard aquariums are mass produced aquariums made with glass. They are of good quality and will come with black trim and rims to provide structural support.  The vast majority of these tanks will have tempered glass on the bottom of the tank, which will limit your drilling of tank if you chose to do so to the back of the aquarium.  Many hobbyists will purchase these tanks and customize them by drilling them and even painting the back of the tank.  Standard aquariums are the best choice for a budget conscious build.

Reef Ready Aquariums are aquariums that are pre-drilled and will come with an overflow system.  An overflow system is designed to skim the water surface of your aquarium to pull dissolved organics and waste out of your tank.  These tanks are designed to work with a sump setup.  A reef ready aquarium is the best choice for flexibility and long-term investment.  They provide the best starting point for a hobbyist looking to build a complete system.  The main advantage from a reef ready system over a drilled standard tank is that the reef ready tanks are drilled at the bottom.  This allows you to setup a very clean and seamless look in the back of the tank without pipes sticking out.  Many of the new reef ready tanks coming out these days are coming equipped with innovative overflow systems as well.  If you want to start out on the best foot possible, a reef ready tank is the way to go.

All-In-One Aquariums are a recent development in the industry.  They are tanks complete with overflows and even sumps to provide either a fully integrated system or as close to a plug and play solution as possible.  Some All-In-One will have a Sump in the back of the tank, which will eliminate plumbing that would be required in a sump setup.  All-In-One Aquariums can be more expensive then a fully setup Reef Ready Aquarium and can have limitations over a customized setup.  One of the biggest limitations is the equipment you can place in it.  For example, sometimes the protein skimmer chamber may be very small so you will be limited on the type of skimmer you can place or the sump that comes with the all-in-one may not have room for a refugium. If you are looking for ease of use and seamless look (as many of these tanks have wonderful aesthetics), an All-In-One Aquarium would be the choice for you.

Jimmy Butler’s Custom Boom Box Aquarium as seen on “Tanked”

Custom Built Aquariums are the most expensive setups.  You can obtain an extremely unique and world class look.  Custom tank makers are usually found locally as custom aquarium makers are very seasoned hobbyists or companies that create custom aquariums.  If you want the “Tanked” look, a custom built aquarium is where to look to.

Step 5 – Glass vs. Acrylic

Glass vs. acrylic is a common debate when it comes to tank selection.  Below is a table to show the strengths and weaknesses of glass and acrylic:

CharacteristicGlass Acrylic
WeightGlass is usually about 4 times heavier than acrylic and up to 10 times heavier on larger aquariumsLightweight and easier to move
Breaking and CrackingWith a strong enough force – Glass will crack and leakVery impact resistant
SupportGlass can support itself over distances so they can be placed in stands with an open top with little to no riskNeeds support throughout the length of the tank.  Stands are limited due to this.
ClarityThe thicker the glass, the more noticeable the distortion.  Distortion can be mitigated in thicker glass by the use of low-iron glass.No distortion in clarity – superior to glass even against low-iron glass.
ScratchingVery difficult to scratch.  You can even clean algae with a razor blade and be fine with glassProne to scratching.  Fish with strong jaws can directly scratch acrylic and you can even scratch the outside accidentally with jewelry.  The outside scratches, however, can be repaired with a repair kit.
CostGenerally cheaper and mass-producedGenerally more expensive due to shipping

Overall, I would recommend going with a glass aquarium as the pros outweigh the cons.  You might want to consider acrylic or even plywood though if you are considering a tank over 500 gallons due to the weight and clarity issues of glass.

Closing Remarks

I hope this guide was very useful to you.  Here at AquariumStoreDepot, we like to pass down knowledge to our customers.  A well informed customer is a successful hobbyist and will enjoy this hobby for years to come.  We would be happy to guide you on your journey to saltwater reefing!


  1. Great info. Gathering knowledge as your providing right now. Would love to have a setup and your site is making me think on setup location and tank style etc.. will come down to budget and work required. Thanks again! Jay


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