Choosing the right tank size for your first aquarium

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “Go big or go home.” Well, in saltwater aquarium circles, it seems to be one of the more common pieces of advice given to newbies just starting out in the hobby. And perhaps for good reason…

A thorough search of popular saltwater aquarium forums and how-to websites will reveal that experienced aquarists often suggest someone new start out with a tank that is at least 50 gallons or, better yet, bigger.  The reason:  increased stability.

A reef is a very complex ecosystem.  A reef in a box even more so. After all, there is a LOT of chemistry and balance continually taking place. Salinity, ammonia, phosphates, nitrates, nitrites, calcium, magnesium, iron, iodine, strontium — many different chemicals and minerals are present. And if even just one gets too far out of balance — either in excess or lack — it can cause anything from unhappy fish and corals to a complete tank crash.

That said, the more water there is in the system the longer it will take for an imbalance to reach critical levels. And that means the more time you will have to (hopefully) detect it.

Bottom line: a small set up — e.g. a nano or pico aquarium — will require much more vigilance and diligence in its care whereas a larger one will give a little more room for error. Hence the suggestion of going with a larger water volume for your first aquarium.

Of course there is a catch with selecting a 50g (or bigger) tank for your first reef aquarium: cost.

Let’s say you’re going with good, new equipment — not top of the line, but good enough that you won’t necessarily have to replace it if you decide to upgrade to a larger tank in the future. For a 50 gallon tank you could easily be looking at $3000+. Bump up to a 100g or 120g set-up you can quickly reach $6,000-$8,000.

And keep in mind, this is just for mid-tier equipment. If you get caught up in the excitement of shiny, new, top-of-the-line equipment you could easily be looking at close to $10,000 by the time your done.

In fact, because the price of a 120g tank was only tiny bit more than the cost of a 100g tank — and would provide much more room for fish and coral — I initial settled on going with a 120g display tank for my first aquarium.  However that was just for the tank itself. By the time I added in a nice stand and hood, the latest and greatest lights, powerheads, pumps, sump, live sand and rock, etc., etc. I was looking at over $8,000 just to dip my toe in the hobby and see if I liked it.

Of course, this was for a dream set-up. I could’ve also gone the route of used equipment instead of new. Lower quality gear instead of high-end gear. Not allowed myself to be seduced by the desire to have fancy tech stuff like a reef controller and modules when old-fashioned test kits would make do. And so on…

The trade-off would have been time, and uncertainty.  It could take many months for used pieces of the equipment I wanted to come for sale on forums or craigslist. And there would be no guarantee it wasn’t abused, damaged, or just so old might it might soon fail.

It was a tough choice: risk a TON of money on a hobby I may not even like… or pay more in the form of time and a higher risk that some of the equipment might fail.

But then I realized there was another option: go small.

Yes, I will have to be more vigilant in monitoring the reef tank. Yes, I will have to be diligent in my care in maintenance of it. And yes, it will be more of a challenge.

But it will also allow me to BOTH have the clean, sleek type of ‘dream setup’ I imagined and do find out if I’ll actually enjoy the hobby for less than $2,000.

And besides, isn’t the whole point of taking on a hobby to embrace the challenge rather than trying to hide from it?

So, when you’re trying to decide what size aquarium to choose for your first reef in a box, ask yourself this…

“What is driving your choice — joy, honesty, and certainty…or a mix of fear, uncertainty, and greed?”