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How to Setup a Cheap $220 Saltwater Aquarium
-Budget Build Guide

Updated September 2020

By Maxim B.

This $220 super cheap Saltwater Aquarium Budget Build guide is all about showing you how to setup up an easy and inexpensive aquarium! In this guide we strictly focus on the best prices for the cheapest (but functional) saltwater aquarium. This is a good build for someone who is new to the saltwater aquarium hobby, and wants to learn from experience! As well, anyone who is on a tight budget can use this cheap build guide to start an aquarium. We hope you find this guide useful! If you are looking for something fancier, or to just upgrade from this build, check out our other build guides here

Table of Contents

(click on a topic to head directly to that section)

We ordered the list in importance and in the order in which we believe it is best to buy gear.

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Budget Build Stats:

Size: 10 Gallon (38 Liters)

Approximate Price: $220

(Total with all optional items: $300)

Dimensions: 20.25 x 12.625 x 10.5 inch (51.4 x 32.1 x 26.7 cm)

Care Level: Easy

Style: Rectangle

Placement: Office, kitchen, living room, bedroom

Aquarium

The first and most important piece of gear in this build guide is the saltwater aquarium itself! We are going for a simple 10 gallon rimmed tank from Petco. These are the most common aquariums available, and a lot of hobbyists begin with one of these! They only cost $15, and can be bought for $10 if you get it during Petco’s “Dollar-Per-Gallon” sale! You could also just buy it online at Amazon for about $25, and we provided the link at the end of this section. 

 A 10 gallon saltwater aquarium is big enough to support a lot of beginner corals, fish, and invertebrates. At the same time, it is not so big that you need to spend a lot of time maintaining it, nor do you need to buy a dedicated stand for it. This aquarium could easily fit on a strong desk, table, or even kitchen counter! 

The aquarium is big enough that you can be creative with your aquascape (AKA, rock structure)! If you want to learn more about aquascaping, check out this article by Reefbum. The rock structure of your saltwater aquarium is very important because it is where you will attach your corals and provides shelter to your fish!

Finally, once you buy and receive the tank, make sure to put it somewhere flat and waterproof (outdoors, balcony, flat bathtub, etc.) and fill it up with tap water. There is always a chance they will be damaged and you might not even see it. Let the aquarium sit somewhere safe for about 24 hours filled with water, and if it is damaged or leaking, get a replacement! 

10 gallon cheap glass aquarium
Rimmed 10g Aquarium

Light

The second thing every saltwater aquarium needs is a source of light! Without it, you wont be able to grow anything in your tank, however if you are interested in keeping fish alone, something called a FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock) then, you do not technically need a light. For those interested in more than fish, we found a cheap but effective light that fits on the small aquarium and will be able to keep your beginner corals happy!

We suggest getting the Wave Point HO LED for this saltwater aquarium budget build. It is the perfect light for a beginner or someone looking for an inexpensive option that still provides usable light to corals. You might have to cut the rim a bit to make this light fit snug, but it is a simple DIY solution! There are a lot of cheap LED lights out there, but a good chunk of them are useless for growing anything, and that is why they are so cheap!

You will not need to mess with any light settings, but you would benefit from a mechanical timer so that you do not need to turn it on and off daily. A consistent light schedule is very important, as it helps the animals in your saltwater aquarium stay happy and healthy! 

Saltwater Aquarium Light
Saltwater Aquarium Light Wave-Point-Blade-HO-LED-Aquarium-Light-Super-Blue-10k

Filtration and Filter Media

Saltwater aquarium filtration can be the most complicated and confusing part of the aquarium hobby. How to filter an aquarium and what filter media to use is usually the last thing we fully understand as hobbyists. However, an experienced hobbyist will tell you that filtration really can be easy and simple.

And so, without getting scientific, there are three types of filtration that work together to complete the total filtration of your saltwater aquarium. These types of filtration are:

  • Mechanical filtration
  • Biological filtration
  • Chemical filtration

I HIGHLY suggest that you watch the following video for an in-depth explanation on how filtration works, as it would require a whole separate article for me to explain it here. 

First, you will need to filter itself, which will hang on the side of your aquarium. These are called Hang-on-Backs (HOB) filters, the most common, cheap, and easy filter. For the filtration media, we have listed what we think are the best options for the three types of filtration! Also, you will need a filter media bag to put it in, you can buy that here.

You can also get a second one of the filters to help the flow in your tank and double up on the filtration capability! 

Hang On Back aquarium filter for saltwater aquarium
Aquaclear HOB Filter
Prefilter Pad for mechanical aquarium filtration
LifeGard Prefilter Replaceable Pad for mechanical filtration
AquaForest Life Bio Fil Aquarium Biological media
AquaForest Life Bio Fil Aquarium Biological media for filtration
Chemi-Pure Blue chemical filtration in nano packets for saltwater aquarium
Chemi-Pure Blue nano 5-pack for chemical filtration of aquarium

Gravel Vacuum / Siphon

There is another part to aquarium filtration that does not include filters and filtration media, and that is literally changing the water in your tank! Water changes are as simple as removing some saltwater and adding fresh saltwater to your aquarium. During this process, you can also use the siphon to “vacuum” by sucking up any detritus, which consists of fish waste, leftover food, or other nastiness in your saltwater aquarium. 

If you are wondering where to get salt water, go to your local fish store and directly buy it from them! You may also want to buy distilled water from them or a grocery store. We use distilled water for topping off the aquarium because when water naturally evaporates, you want to add pure, fresh-water to maintain the salinity in the saltwater aquarium. If you want to make your own saltwater, we have a section later on about that!

For this saltwater aquarium, I suggest buying the 5″ medium size.  If you get the mini it will drain water too slowly while the large will drain the tank too quickly! 

Gravel Vacuum
Aqueon Gravel Vacuum/Siphon for aquarium cleaning

Heater

 A simple but very important piece of equipment is your heater! As was mentioned before, you saltwater aquarium prefers stability to be happy, so you should not have to mess around with your heaters often.

Most saltwater aquariums house tropical organisms that need a stable temperature between 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless your house is constantly in that temperature range, you will need a heater to keep you aquarium inhabitants healthy and happy. In the case you do live in a really hot climate, you may need to get a fan to actually cool your aquarium instead! 

Based on personal experience, reputation, and cost we recommend the Eheim Jager TruTemp 50 Watt aquarium heater. It is a favorite of many saltwater aquarium hobbyists, and has always remained affordable!

The thing about aquarium heaters is that they all fail eventually, so keep that in mind. It would be a good idea to eventually have two heaters, with the second being a spare for emergencies. The one thing all saltwater aquarium hobbyists realize, is that it always good to have back up gear!

Aquarium Heater Eheim Jager
Eheim Jager 25 Watt Heater

Thermometer

The thermometers are very important in a saltwater aquarium, because you need to confirm that your heater keeping your aquarium at the temperature you chose! It is normal for heaters to not be properly calibrated upon delivery, so you need to have a thermometer to re-calibrate and make sure you have the correct temperature. 

We have owned about 10 of these thermometers in the past several years, and they work well for how inexpensive they are. Crucial equipment in even the cheapest of budget builds. We tested three of these at a time in the same tank, and they were off by no more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit!

This is a 2-pack because we found it is never a bad idea to have an extra thermometer on hand! If you are mixing your own saltwater, you will need an extra thermometer to make sure the temperatures are consistent. 

two small waterproof digital aquarium thermometers on white background
Digital Thermometer Two Pack

Hydrometer

A hydrometer is a tool that saltwater aquarium hobbyists use to measure how “salty” the water in their aquarium is. It is worth noting that hydrometers have fallen in popularity because for a reasonable price you can purchase a refractometer, which gives much more accurate readings. 

However, in the spirit of a cheap budget build, this hydrometer will measure the specific gravity (salinity) of your water accurately enough for now!

plastic saltwater aquarium hydrometer in original packaging
fluval Sea Hydrometer

Rock is very important in any saltwater aquarium as it provides: 

  • A place for beneficial bacteria to live
  • Hiding spots for your aquarium inhabitants
  • A place to attach coral.

To understand the importance of rock in a saltwater aquarium, watch this video. There are many types of rock, but this rock is cheap, looks great, and is perfect for a cheap saltwater aquarium budget build. 

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

Algae Scraper

An algae scraper is a simple and self-explanatory piece of equipment. Even with a perfect maintenance routine for your saltwater aquarium, algae will grow on your aquarium glass. The cheap scraper is the easiest way to remove the algae without getting your arms wet and messy! As well, when you siphon out the algae you scrape off, you are aiding the filtration of your saltwater aquarium.

We went for a simple hand-held option in this saltwater budget build, but you may eventually want to also get the Flipper magnetic algae scraper to make your life even easier!

Green Algae Scraper Sponge with handle

Fish Net

Every saltwater aquarium hobbyist needs a net, and they cost almost nothing! A net is just one of those tools that you always want to have.

Along with being good for catching and transferring fish, you can also use it when thawing frozen food to help get rid of any fillers or phosphates!

black fish net with long handle on white background
Fish Net

Optional Items

Water Test Kit

A basic test kit is a very useful have tool for a saltwater aquarium hobbyist. It is most useful at the start of your aquarium, so you can test for when the nitrogen cycle is complete. However, you do not really need it, provided you set up the aquarium correctly. Set up the saltwater aquarium, add your rock and sand, and fill it up. Turn on all your gear, except your lights. Throw in a big piece of shrimp from the grocery store to decompose and wait a month or two while the cycle completes! 

Still, it would not be a bad idea to get a test kit! This test kit is not the best available, but it is affordable and will give a ballpark reading, which will be good enough for most hobbyists. You can also use this to keep track of your aquarium’s health and to find out the cause of some issues before they manifest in the aquarium itself as algae or bacteria blooms. 

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

Sand

Sand is not essential by any means. There is even a trend in the saltwater aquarium hobby being a bare bottom tank. That being said, sand makes your aquarium really feel like its a slice of the Ocean. As well, sand aids in biological filtration while providing a refuge and food source for certain creatures. This video is good to watch if you want to learn more before you make a decision!

You only need a 10 lb bag for this aquarium. There are many types of sand to choose from but we would stick with the CaribSea brand.

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

Salt Mix

Most saltwater aquarium hobbyists start out by buying saltwater at our LFS (local fish store), because purchasing distilled water from the grocery store is expensive, and setting up the necessary RO/DI filter can be complicated

But, you can save a bit of money and hassle in the long run by mixing your saltwater at home. For this aquarium budget build we recommend this salt mix, as it is good for FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock) systems, or aquariums with low-demanding corals. It is probably the most trusted and wildly used salt mix out there, as its been available for quite some time. 

10 gallon size of salt mix "Reef Crystals"

Power Strips

This is a piece of gear that you potentially already own, but if you have not realized it already, you will need a power strip to accommodate all the gear of your saltwater aquarium. This is not somewhere you want to be cheap, as the dangers of electrical accidents or fires should not be taken lightly. At best, your gear will turn off and your animals may get harmed. At worst, your gear will be destroyed and a fire might start!

We suggest getting this surge protector/power strip because it also has the ability to turn off individual pieces of gear without having to unplug them. This is very useful for saltwater changes, when it is recommended to turn off the heater so it does not get exposed to air while on and damaged.

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

Conclusion

This is the end of the How to Build a $220 Saltwater Aquarium Budget Build Guide! We provided you all the necessary items in order of importance, and even some optional items that would improve your saltwater hobby experience. We hope that you found this article helpful and informative, and if you decide to buy anything, please use our provided links! This costs you nothing extra, but helps us keep working, supporting you, and making great content. Feel free to look around the website or YouTube channel  if you have any questions about the hobby!

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