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How to Setup a $520 Saltwater Aquarium
-Budget Build Guide

Updated 2023

This Saltwater Aquarium Budget Build list, priced at $520, is designed to assist you in creating a stunning saltwater aquarium without breaking the bank. While we prioritize affordability, we also acknowledge the importance of aesthetics in your setup. Our goal is to strike a balance between cost and appearance, ensuring you get the best of both worlds.

Additionally, we’ve crafted this budget build to be as close to plug-and-play as possible, simplifying the setup and maintenance processes for your convenience. With this budget-friendly list, you can easily create and maintain a beautiful saltwater aquarium without the need for excessive investment or expertise. Happy aquarium building!

A stunning 14 gallon tank I built for a Bulk Reef Supply video.

Size: 14 Gallon

Dimensions:11.8″L x 20″ W x 13″ H

Care Level: Easy

Style: Peninsula

Placement: Office, kitchen, living room, bedroom

Innovative Marine 14 gallon AIO peninsula tank

Aquarium

I actually own this tank and it is such a great size and value.

Create a welcoming environment for yourself with the Fusion Pro 2 Series, an advanced All-In-One (AIO) aquarium that stands out in its class. Inspired by the success of its award-winning predecessors, this aquarium comes packed with convenient features, including a built-in emergency overflow, adjustable water level risers, leveling mat, and a secure screen lid. Whether you’re into saltwater or freshwater setups, these nano-sized desktop aquariums make the hobby a breeze.

Designed for ease of use, the Fusion Pro 2 Series boasts customizable dual return nozzles and a controllable DC return pump. Essential filter media is neatly organized in a custom caddy concealed behind the filter wall, ensuring a clean and tidy look. By elevating the standard features, this AIO allows you to create a spacious and functional setup even in limited space.

This all in one kit includes a ton of stuff!

– 14 Gallon Nuvo Fusion Peninsula PRO 2 Aquarium
– MightyJet 326 GPH Return Pump with Controller
– Removable 200 Micron Filter Sock
– Desktop CustomCaddy Media Basket with PurityPack Filter Media, including:
– Mechanical Fiber Ball
– Premium 0.8 ROX Carbon Pack
– High Capacity Coarse GFO Pack
– Preinstalled Rubber Leveling Mat
– Pre-Assembled SafeScreen Mesh Screen Lid
– MicroMag Glass Cleaner
– Nuvo Return Nozzle
– High Tide Water Riser

Innovative Marine 14 Nuvo Fusion Peninsula Pro AIO Aquarium Bundle

Light

After almost a decade in the hobby, this is still my go-to beginner light for small tanks.

The Prime 16 HD Series from AquaIllumination, the latest innovation in reef LEDs. This series offers more power and vibrant colors, while also giving you the flexibility to control it right from your smartphone. Unlike fixed power channels, the Prime 16 HD dynamically adjusts power to each color, providing your tank with the most vivid spectrum it has ever seen. With limitless spectral combinations, you can customize the lighting to perfectly suit your tank’s specific requirements.

The built-in control feature makes managing your AI devices a breeze. Using the myAI app on your iOS or Android device, you can easily set up and control your lighting. Whether you prefer a simple pre-defined cycle or want to create multi-point programming, the app allows you to customize the intensity and spectrum throughout the day. Even if you have multiple lights, the master/slave programming simplifies the process, and you only need to program a single light. Enjoy the convenience and precision of AI’s smart control standards with the Prime 16 HD Series.

It doesn’t come with a mounting arm, so be sure to pick up either the FLEX ARM along with the light. I know, it’s annoying that it doesn’t come with the light!

Filtration and Filter Media

Filtering a saltwater aquarium can indeed be a complex and perplexing aspect of the hobby, often leaving us unsure of how to proceed. However, experienced hobbyists will assure you that filtration can be simplified and made easy.

In basic terms, there are three types of filtration that work together to ensure the overall health of your saltwater aquarium:

1. Mechanical filtration
2. Biological filtration
3. Chemical filtration

The good news is that this saltwater aquarium comes with a starter kit of filter media, and it features a built-in filtration compartment seamlessly integrated into the aquarium.

These aquariums are known as AIO (all-in-one), with the filtration compartment incorporated within the tank itself, eliminating the need for additional filters. Moreover, if you decide to add any gear, such as a heater, you can discreetly hide it within this compartment, ensuring a clutter-free display in your saltwater aquarium.

If you prefer to opt for the highest quality filter media instead of the supplied items, we’ve listed what we believe to be the best options for the three types of filtration. Additionally, you’ll need a filter media bag, which you can easily find here.

Gravel Vacuum / Siphon

Apart from using filters and filtration media, another essential part of aquarium maintenance is water changes. It’s a straightforward process of removing some saltwater from your tank and replacing it with fresh saltwater. During this procedure, you can also use a siphon to “vacuum” and remove any detritus, such as fish waste and leftover food, from the tank.

To obtain saltwater, you can visit your local fish store and purchase it directly from them. Alternatively, you may find distilled water available at the fish store or your nearby grocery store. Distilled water is useful for topping off the aquarium because it helps maintain the salinity when water naturally evaporates. If you’re interested in making your own saltwater, we’ll cover that later on!

For this specific saltwater aquarium, I recommend getting the 9″ medium size siphon. The mini size drains water too slowly, while the large size drains the tank too quickly, making the medium size the ideal choice.

Siphon gravel vacuum in original packaging
Aqueon Gravel Vacuum/Siphon for aquarium cleaning

Heater

An essential piece of equipment for your saltwater aquarium is the heater. As mentioned earlier, stability is key to keeping your aquarium inhabitants happy, so a reliable heater is crucial.

Most saltwater aquariums house tropical organisms that thrive in a stable temperature range between 77-78 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless your house maintains that temperature consistently, you’ll need a heater to ensure the well-being of your aquatic friends. On the other hand, if you live in a very hot climate, you might require a fan to cool your aquarium instead.

Based on personal experience, reputation, and cost, we highly recommend the Eheim Jager TruTemp 50 Watt aquarium heater. It’s a favorite among many saltwater aquarium hobbyists and remains budget-friendly.

Keep in mind that all aquarium heaters will eventually fail, so it’s wise to have a backup plan. Consider getting a second heater as a spare for emergencies. One thing experienced saltwater aquarium hobbyists know is the value of having backup gear!

Aquarium Heater Eheim Jager
Eheim Jager 25 Watt Heater

Thermometer

Thermometers play a vital role in a saltwater aquarium, as they help you ensure that your heater is maintaining the desired temperature. Often, heaters are not perfectly calibrated upon delivery, so having a thermometer allows you to re-calibrate and achieve the correct temperature.

Over the years, we’ve used about 10 of these thermometers, and they have proven to be effective despite their low cost. Even in the most budget-friendly builds, they are crucial equipment. In our tests, when using three of these thermometers simultaneously in the same tank, their readings differed by no more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

This product comes in a 2-pack because we’ve found it’s always a good idea to have an extra thermometer on hand. If you’re mixing your own saltwater, having an additional thermometer ensures consistent temperatures during the process.

two small waterproof digital aquarium thermometers on white background
2-pack aquarium digital thermometer

Refractometer

A refractometer is an essential tool for every saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It offers superior accuracy compared to a hydrometer, making it a worthwhile investment even for those on a budget.

Maintaining stable and constant salinity levels is crucial for the well-being of corals and invertebrates like shrimp and crab. Unlike fish, these creatures are highly sensitive to sudden changes in water parameters, particularly salinity.

Keep in mind that a refractometer requires calibration for accurate readings. However, there’s no need to purchase an entire bottle of calibration fluid. Your Local Fish Store (LFS) will often be willing to lend you a few drops of theirs, making it a cost-effective and practical solution. Ensure the best environment for your saltwater inhabitants with the help of a reliable refractometer.

new refractometer out of package sitting on white background

Water Test Kit

Having a basic test kit is essential for any saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It proves most useful at the beginning of your aquarium journey, allowing you to test for the completion of the nitrogen cycle.

While this test kit may not be the absolute best on the market, it remains affordable and provides a ballpark reading that is suitable for most hobbyists. It serves as a valuable tool for monitoring your aquarium’s health and identifying any potential issues before they manifest as algae or bacteria blooms within the aquarium. Being proactive with testing can help you maintain a healthy and thriving saltwater aquarium.

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging
API Saltrwater Aquarium Master Test Kit

Reef Rock

Rock plays a crucial role in every saltwater aquarium as it serves multiple purposes:

1. It provides a habitat for beneficial bacteria to thrive, aiding in the aquarium’s overall health.
2. The rock creates hiding spots for the aquarium inhabitants, giving them a sense of security.
3. It also acts as a surface for attaching coral, enhancing the beauty and diversity of your tank.

While there are various types of rock available, this particular option is both affordable and visually appealing, making it an excellent choice for a budget-friendly saltwater aquarium build. Embracing the importance of rock in your setup will contribute to the overall success and enjoyment of your aquatic world.

pile of dried out porous rock made from dead coral skeletons

Algae Scraper

An algae scraper is a straightforward and practical piece of equipment. Despite maintaining your saltwater aquarium diligently, algae will inevitably grow on the glass. Using a cheap scraper is the simplest way to remove the algae without getting your hands wet and messy. Moreover, when you siphon out the scraped-off algae, you’re contributing to the filtration process in your saltwater aquarium.

For this budget-friendly saltwater build, we’ve opted for the common hand-held option, which gets the job done effectively. However, if you prefer added convenience, you might consider upgrading to the Flipper magnetic algae scraper, making your aquarium maintenance even easier. Whichever tool you choose, keeping your tank free of algae is essential for a clean and healthy aquatic environment.

Fish Net

Having a net is a must for every saltwater aquarium hobbyist, and the best part is that they are incredibly affordable! It’s one of those tools that you’ll find indispensable.

Not only is it handy for catching and transferring fish, but you can also use it while thawing frozen food to remove any fillers or phosphates. The net’s versatility makes it a valuable and practical tool to have on hand for various tasks in your aquarium.

black fish net with long handle on white background
Aquarium Fish Net

Optional Items

Temperature Controller

Maintaining a stable temperature in your saltwater aquarium is crucial, as we previously discussed. Even the most reliable heating equipment can fail, leading to a complete aquarium crash. However, you can avoid such disasters with a simple and affordable solution priced at just $35. This device monitors your aquarium temperature, ensuring it stays within a precise 0.1° F range and prevents your heater from getting stuck in the “on” position, which could boil your saltwater.

The best part is that this controller can also handle cooling tasks! In my case, living in the desert, I use a fan during summers to keep my aquarium cool. I plug the fan into the “cooling” outlet and the heater into the “heating” outlet, maintaining a constant 78° F throughout the year. This impressive device also includes a built-in alarm, alerting me promptly if there’s a failure in the heater or fan. Remarkably, all these features come at an affordable price, making it an ideal addition to your budget-friendly aquarium build. With this controller, you can rest assured that your aquarium’s temperature remains stable, providing a safe and comfortable environment for your aquatic companions.

black and grey temperature controller with probe sitting on white surface
Temperature controller for aquariums

Sand

Sand might not be a must-have, and some hobbyists are opting for bare bottom tanks these days. But, adding sand can really transform your aquarium into an authentic slice of the ocean. It not only enhances the aesthetic but also plays a vital role in biological filtration. Plus, it becomes a cozy hideaway and a source of food for certain creatures.

When it comes to sand, we recommend sticking with the CaribSea brand for the best options. Happy decorating!

Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size
CaribSea-Arag-Alive-Fiji-Pink-Sand-10-lbs-99
wet live sand for saltwater aquariums
Caribsea-Arag-Alive-Special-Grade-Reef-Sand-10-lb-99
Caribsea-Arag-Alive-Bimini-Pink-Sand-10-lb-99

RO/DI Water Filter

The RO/DI filter is a water filtration unit that transforms tap water into nearly pure water through the process of Reverse Osmosis Deionization. To understand its workings in detail, you can read this article.

While some online hobbyists might emphasize the necessity of an RO/DI filter for any saltwater aquarium, this claim isn’t entirely accurate. Although it offers long-term cost benefits and advantages, there are other simpler options for small and beginner saltwater aquariums.

One option is purchasing pre-made saltwater and purified water from your local fish store. Alternatively, you can use tap water conditioner along with tap water, but this approach carries some risks and may lead to issues with your saltwater.

However, if you’re ready to take the plunge, there is a small and affordable RO/DI filter option that works perfectly for this budget build and small saltwater aquarium. It offers a viable solution for those seeking an economical yet effective water purification system.

RODI filter from Aquatic Life with 4 cylinders for saltwater aquariums
AquaticLife RO Buddie Four Stage RODI system with DI included

Salt Mix

Many saltwater aquarium hobbyists initially opt to purchase ready-made saltwater from their Local Fish Store (LFS) due to the expense of buying distilled water from the grocery store and the complexities of setting up an RO/DI filter.

However, if you’re looking to save money and simplify your setup in the long run, mixing your saltwater at home is a viable option. With numerous salt mix varieties available on the market, I’ve personally tried many of them. While they all work well, their suitability depends on the specific inhabitants of your saltwater aquarium.

For this budget-friendly aquarium build, I recommend using this particular salt mix. It is ideal for Fish Only With Live Rock (FOWLR) systems or aquariums housing low-demanding corals. Embracing this salt mix will help you achieve a balanced and cost-effective saltwater solution for your aquarium needs.

two red sea salt mix buckets side to side new in packaging
Red Sea Salt Mix for Saltwater Aquariums

Calcium / Alkalinity Test Kit

If your saltwater aquarium is primarily intended for fish or soft corals, you can relax about monitoring calcium and alkalinity levels. In such cases, regular water changes should provide the necessary nutrients and parameters these corals require.

However, if you plan to keep SPS (small polyp stony) and LPS (large polyp stony) corals, it’s crucial to maintain sufficient calcium and alkalinity levels to support their skeletal growth. This kit allows you to determine the ballpark values of these parameters in your saltwater, enabling you to gauge when additional dosing is required or if you may have been overdosing.

Maintaining proper parameters is essential for the health of your aquarium, even if you are diligently managing other aspects. By ensuring the right calcium and alkalinity levels for SPS and LPS corals, you create a thriving and balanced environment for these sensitive organisms to flourish.

Reef Tank test kit new in packaging on white background
API Reef Master Test Kit for Reef Aquariums

Power Strips

One crucial piece of gear you might already have, or need to consider getting, is a power strip to accommodate all the equipment in your saltwater aquarium. While it may be tempting to cut corners here, it’s essential not to skimp on safety. Electrical accidents or fires are serious risks that should not be taken lightly.

Investing in a reliable surge protector/power strip is highly recommended. This particular option not only provides protection but also offers the convenience of turning off individual pieces of gear without having to unplug them. This feature is especially useful during saltwater changes, where it’s advisable to turn off the heater to prevent damage caused by exposure to air while still powered on. By choosing a quality power strip, you can safeguard your equipment, ensure the well-being of your aquatic animals, and create a secure and efficient setup for your saltwater aquarium.

7 outlet controllable surge protector and power strip
Tripp Lite 7 Outlet (controllable) surgeprotector powerstrip

Magnetic Algae Scraper

Among the items in this affordable budget build, the Flipper magnetic algae scraper stands out as an exception. While there are cheaper alternatives available, none can match the performance and durability that the Flipper offers. Personally, I have been using the same Flipper for several years, and it continues to work flawlessly.

One significant advantage of the Flipper is its versatility. It allows you to switch between the stainless steel blade and the soft felt side without getting your hands wet, a feature that any saltwater aquarium hobbyist will appreciate. This magnetic algae scraper not only ensures efficient cleaning but also provides convenience and ease of use, making it a valuable addition to your aquarium maintenance toolkit.

Flipper nano Algae Scraper out of packaging on white background
Flipper Nano 2-in-1 Magnetic Algae Scraper for Aquarium Glass or Acrylic