How To Setup A Cheap Saltwater Aquarium Build Guide

Updated 2024

Discover the ultimate $300 budget-friendly Saltwater Aquarium Setup guide, designed to make aquarium ownership easy and affordable! Our focus is on providing you with the best prices for a functional yet inexpensive saltwater aquarium. Perfect for newcomers to the hobby, this guide offers valuable insights and hands-on learning experiences. Even those on a tight budget can dive into the world of aquarium keeping with this economical setup. We’re excited to share this useful guide with you! For those seeking more advanced options or looking to upgrade in the future, be sure to explore our other build guides available. Happy aquarium building!

Budget Build Stats:

Size: 4.8 Gallon (18 Liters)

Approximate Price: $300

Dimensions: 11 x 12 x 10 inch (28 x 30.5 x 25 cm)


Looking to dive into the mesmerizing world of nano reef tanks without the hassle? The Eshopps DeskMate AIO Nano Tank Bundle is the ultimate solution, providing a stress-free introduction to the hobby. Crafted with simplicity in mind, this kit is designed for quick and easy setup, eliminating the guesswork for beginners and seasoned reefkeepers alike.

A Seamless Start-Up Experience

The carefully curated bundle includes the Eshopps DeskMate 4.8g Pico Aquarium, a modern and sleek acrylic tank with dimensions perfect for office desks, nightstands, and kitchen counters. The built-in filtration chamber streamlines the process, offering a plug-and-play setup that saves you time and effort.

Bundle Highlights and Savings

What sets this bundle apart? Hand-selected items, from the adjustable nozzle to the powerful Curve Lite LED, all tailored to fit the DeskMate Pico Aquarium seamlessly. You’ll find a Nano Filter Sock, CaribSea LifeRock Nano Reef Kit, Seaside Aquatics Ceramic Bio-Spheres, and more. This all-inclusive package not only ensures a fantastic reefkeeping experience but also saves you over $75 compared to buying each component separately.

Tank Specifications and Contents

  • 1-gallon AIO chamber volume
  • A total water volume of 4.8 gallons
  • 6mm acrylic thickness
  • up to 100 GPH tank flow ensure durability and efficient water circulation
  • Eheim Jager Aquarium Heater
  • Aquaforest Sea Salt
  • 125mL MicroBacter7 Beneficial Bacteria
  • CaribSea Fiji Pink Arag-Alive Reef Sand and LifeRock Nano Arches

I used this bundle to make a cool tank for Bulk Reef Supply.  To see it click the video link above.


No need to purchase a light because it comes with the kit.  Nothing fancy, that’s for sure, but it is good enough to grow soft and lps (large polyp stony) corals.  I personally like that is is a daylight color, and not blue.  Gives your reef a more natural appearance with some blue highlights.  You could always upgrade your light to something like a AI Prime, but not at all necessary.


Filtration and Filter Media

Not a whole lot you’ll need regarding filtration.  The kit does come with a single filter sock and some ceramic media.  But you will definitely want additional filter socks so you don’t have to clean your single sock twice a week.

Bulk Reef Supply did some testing a while back, and found that filter socks work well if you change them out every 3-4 days.  That means if you only want to wash your socks every 2 week, you’ll need at least four.  

These are small filter socks meant for a small tank, but luckily Eshopps sells extras so I would definitely pick up at least three more.


Nano Filter Sock

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.

For this small tank, the Python 1″ Gravel Vacuum is probably best, but I find I also like the larger 2″ size.  Totally up to you.  There are cheaper brands out there, but the build quality of the Python will last longer.

Python 1" Gravel Vacuum
Python 2" Gravel Vacuum on a white background
Python 2" Gravel Vacuum


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.

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!

This kit comes with 1 Eheim Jager heater already, so if you want to pick up a backup, the link is below.  Just be sure to get the 25 W size, as the 50 W is too big for this system.

Aquarium Heater Eheim Jager attached to suction cup base on a white background
Eheim Jager 25 Watt Heater


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.

I’ve used a ton of thermometers, and definitely recommend getting a temperature controller in the future.  But these simple stick on thermometers get the job done.  You can just hide it in the back portion of your tank out of sight, but still easy enough to glance at everyday.

A small stick on aquarium heater in cardboard packaging.
BRS Stick On Thermometer


A refractometer is a handy tool used by saltwater aquarium hobbyists to gauge the salinity of their aquarium water. They are highly accurate and over the years, instead of going up, the price just keeps coming down.

Easy to use, and probably the most accurate way to test your salinity!

BRS Refractometer


In a saltwater aquarium, rock plays a crucial role as it provides:

1. A habitat for beneficial bacteria to thrive.
2. Hiding spots and shelters for the aquarium inhabitants.
3. A surface to attach coral.

To grasp the significance of rock in a saltwater aquarium, I recommend watching this video. Among various types of rock available, this particular one is not only cost-effective but also visually appealing, making it a perfect fit for a budget-friendly saltwater aquarium build.

You don’t need to buy rock  since this kit comes with it.  But if you want to browse the different options out there, click on the link below.  You may feel overwhelmed so be forewarned!

pile of dried out porous rock made from dead coral skeletons
Live Rock

Algae Scraper

An algae scraper is a straightforward and practical tool for your saltwater aquarium. Despite maintaining your tank diligently, algae will inevitably grow on the glass. This inexpensive scraper is the simplest way to remove the algae and it holds any regular sized credit or library card! Additionally, when you siphon out the scraped-off algae, you contribute to the filtration process in your saltwater aquarium.

For this budget-friendly saltwater build, we opted for a user-friendly hand-held option. However, as you progress, you might consider getting the Nano Flipper magnetic algae scraper for even greater convenience! Since this tank is acrylic, don’t use the stainless tell blade… use the acrylic blade or you will scratch the heck out of your glass.

10" Flipper Platinum Hand Scraper

Fish Net

A net is an essential tool for every saltwater aquarium hobbyist, and the best part is they are incredibly affordable! Having a net is a must-have in your arsenal.

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. A net’s versatility makes it even more valuable for your aquarium needs!

three different sized aquarium fish nets next to each other on a white background
Fish Net

Optional Items

Water Test Kit

A basic test kit is a highly useful tool for any saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It proves especially valuable at the beginning of your aquarium journey when you need to monitor the completion of the nitrogen cycle. Although it’s possible to set up the aquarium correctly without a test kit, having one will provide you with more accurate information.

Here’s a simple method to start your aquarium: set it up, add your rock and sand, and fill it with water. Turn on all your equipment, except for the lights. Drop in a sizable piece of shrimp from the grocery store, let it decompose, and wait for about a month or two for the cycle to complete.

Nevertheless, having a test kit on hand wouldn’t hurt! While this test kit may not be the absolute best available, it is affordable and will provide you with a ballpark reading, which should suffice for most hobbyists. It’s also a useful tool for monitoring your aquarium’s health and identifying any issues before they manifest as algae or bacteria blooms within the aquarium.

front view of api saltwater test kit in original packaging. it's a semi-clear plastic box with a blue plastic lid. A label sticker covers the front, it's blue and yellow, and says API Saltwater Master Test Kit on it
API Saltwater Master Test Kit


While sand is not a necessary component, it holds a special appeal in the saltwater aquarium hobby, with some enthusiasts opting for a bare bottom tank. However, incorporating sand into your setup adds a touch of authenticity, making your aquarium feel like a slice of the ocean. Besides its aesthetic benefits, sand plays a role in biological filtration and serves as a refuge and food source for certain creatures.

If you’re considering adding sand, watching this video will provide you with valuable insights to help you make an informed decision!

For this aquarium, you’ll only need a 10 lb bag of sand. While various types of sand are available, we recommend sticking with the CaribSea brand for its reliability and quality.

And by the way, don’t buy sand!  This kit comes with sand!  But here are a few options below just in case you want something different!

wet live sand for saltwater aquariums close up shot of 10 pound bag
Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size
clear bag of aquarium sand with CaribSea label and close up of grain size.
CaribSea Original Grade Ocean Direct

Salt Mix

Many saltwater aquarium hobbyists initially purchase saltwater from their Local Fish Store (LFS) because buying distilled water from the grocery store can be costly, and setting up an RO/DI filter can be complicated.

However, if you want to save money and avoid long-term hassle, mixing your own saltwater at home is a great option. For this budget-friendly aquarium build, we recommend using this salt mix, which works well for FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock) systems or aquariums with low-demanding corals. It’s one of the most trusted and widely used salt mixes available, having been in the market for quite some time.

This kit comes with enough salt to get you going, and if you want to stick with it, by all means do so.  But if you are trying to save every penny, The Instant Ocean Reef Crystals is the cheapest on the market, and it works just fine.

Power Strips

A crucial piece of equipment for your saltwater aquarium setup is a power strip, which you might already have. However, if you haven’t realized it yet, you’ll definitely need one to accommodate all the gear. It’s essential not to compromise on the quality of the power strip, as electrical accidents or fires are serious concerns. Cheaping out on this can lead to potential harm to your animals or even cause irreparable damage to your gear and spark a fire.

For safety and convenience, we recommend investing in this surge protector/power strip. It not only offers surge protection but also allows you to individually turn off pieces of equipment without unplugging them. This feature proves especially useful during saltwater changes, as you can safely turn off the heater to prevent damage while exposed to air.

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

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