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Diary of a Shopkeeper – Tank Buying Tips from a Pro

When someone new to the hobby comes in to my shop asking about setting up their first tank, one of the first questions I receive is, “What size do I need?”.  This is a very loaded question that considers weighing many a large reef aquariumvariables.  My response is always “As big as you can go”.  This is because most of the time, people will decide to start a smaller tank and work their way up to a big one to see if they can handle it.  This is not a bad option, however, most of the time those same people are back in my store within 6 months ready to get a much larger tank.

The issue with starting small all depends on what you consider a small aquarium.  Some people will think of a 5 gallon as small, while others consider a 40 gallon as small.  I always mention that the smaller the tank is, the harder it is.  A lot of beginners will think the exact opposite, viewing a much larger tank as a much larger responsibility.  They aren’t wrong, a larger marine aquarium tank can appear like a massive responsibility, however, with a larger body of water the tank can withstand parameter swings a lot smoother.  A larger tank has higher stability and does not require as much maintenance.  I typically recommend a minimum of a 30 gallon aquarium to start with.  This gives you a decent amount of fish available to stock the tank with.

This brings us to the next variable, what fish are you wanting to keep in the aquarium?  I always tell my customers to go home and do some research to see what fish they would like to stock their tank with.  I usually have them create a list and then come back to me so we can discuss it.  This is an important discussion to have so we can plan out what size tank to get based on their list, and to discuss compatibility.  If I notice their list mainly consists of smaller fish such as fire fish, clown fish, pseudochromis, we can talk about setting up a small tank such as a 30 gallon.  However, if I notice their list is full of Tangs, Angels, and wrasses, we can talk about setting up a minimum of a 75 gallon tank.  It is important to make your fish list, picture what you would enjoy seeing in your tank, envision the whole process.  If you just buy a tank and then make your list, you may find yourself disappointed if you picked out too small of a tank to fit your vision.  This is usually the main issue with beginners that come in to my shop.  They buy a tank, see all of the beautiful fish they want in the tank, then I have to break the news that some of those fish will get either too big for the tank, or aren’t compatible with some of their other fish choices.

If what you desire to keep in your marine aquarium doesn’t match your budget, save up, take your time, this hobby is all about patience and it is crucial to make sure that the tank you set up is a tank you will be happy with.  There is nothing wrong with setting up a smaller tank and deciding that you want to go bigger, it happens to all of us, but creating a plan can help with any bumps along the way.  The next thing to do is to pick a spot in your home, where are you planning on keeping the tank?  Wherever that spot is, clear it out and prepare it for the tank.  If you plan on having a small tank on your desk, clear that spot on your desk.  Tank placement is another important factor to help you decide what size tank is suitable for you.  This may seem obvious, but some of us like to impulse purchase tanks, myself included.  So don’t be like me, the girl who has two tanks in her garage because she had nowhere else to place them.

a Cade 900 AquariumOverall, creating a plan is going to be the key to success when purchasing your first tank.  Figuring out the size you want, the fish you want, and where you plan on placing it are all factors that will help you determine the perfect size tank that will work for you.  Looking in to fish care sheets will be important when deciding the length and depth of your aquarium.  Tangs, Wrasses, and Anthias all appreciate having plenty of swim space.  So with those fish, the height is not the important factor, length and depth will be the key.  However, if you are also looking in to keeping coral height will come in to play when deciding what lights to add to your tank.  You will want to insure that the lights you purchase can penetrate to the bottom of the tank, making sure every inch is illuminated for prime coral growth.  This may seem like a lot of information to remember, but taking it one step at a time will help make the process much simpler.

The last thing I want to discuss is reef safe, not all fish or invertebrates can be housed with coral.  You will usually see the words reef safe followed by yes, no, or with caution on most fish care sheets.  If a fish is reef safe, that means it will not pick on any of your corals or invertebrates.  If you plan on keeping coral it is crucial to make sure that you are only adding reef safe fish to your tank.  If it says with caution, that means the fish may pick on coral or invertebrates on occasion, sometimes getting the fish well-fed can help deter this issue, however, it is not a cure.  It depends on the individual fish.  You just have to stay aware of how everything is behaving in your tank.  If you notice a change, don’t immediately react, find the source of the change and act accordingly.  Like I said before, this hobby is all about patience, take your time and things will fall together perfectly in your new marine ecosystem.

461 thoughts on “Diary of a Shopkeeper – Tank Buying Tips from a Pro”

  1. Research as much as you can! Also, don’t go cheap in things that are important for your tank! It will be better in the long run.

  2. Brent McCloskey

    Always research advice given. Keep in mind that every aquarium is different and has its own unique needs. What works for me may not work for you.

  3. I’m glad I didn’t buy the first tank I liked. I said to myself how could this be better and did even more research.

  4. Best to invest upfront for the biggest you can get – you’ll just pay more later 🙂 I’ve had my 100 gallon waterbox less than a year and already wish I went bigger.

  5. Go with best quality you can afford – one less thing on your list of things to worry about when getting started

  6. Bought most of my setup used, it’s great but I’ve probably spent the same by now that I would have on all new

  7. Good article. I’ve been researching for over 10 years and still don’t have my first reef! Maybe that’s too slow? Anyways, I’m finally about to commit and have decided that bigger is better. For me will either be a 5′ or 6′ tank.

    1. Go as big as you comfortably can. Once you start, you will find yourself wanting to upgrade. It’s happened to almost all of us.

  8. Research, research, research. Dont just jump into buying something. DO the research first, then purchase what you need

  9. You’ll learn quickly in this hobby that you need to be patient and take your time. Nothing good comes from rushing so do your homework, plan everything out, and avoid having to correct a lot of mistakes that were preventable.

  10. Buying new is always nice but buying used can save you money if you are careful and allows you to try things out before committing fully

  11. Wow! These are great tips! I will definitely try to remember this when I am ready to buy my first saltwater tank.

  12. Thomas A Jordan

    I ‘m a big believer in doing as much research as possible and spend the money to buy the best to avoid buying the same thing multiple times. I understand building on a budget, but buying twice is a huge mistake if your trying to budget!

  13. Do a lot of research and take into consideration the additional initial costs for the hobby. After all is accounted for, get the biggest size you can afford unless you are looking for a specific application (e.g. nano zona garden, Nem system)

  14. Michael Pimental

    I agree with everything in the article. The life of whatever species you put in this environment are priority #1. It’s a commitment that lasts for years and I know the rest of my life.

  15. When thinking of size, yes it’s good to get something to grow into. But don’t forget that as you go bigger, the equipment costs more, maintenance is harder (e.g. bigger water change volume), and the running costs are higher. So don’t think just in terms of what you want today, consider what you’ll be able to afford and manage tomorrow – kind of like shopping for an apartment! Will you be able to continue paying that rent over time? 🙂

  16. Juan Carlos Perez

    Great article. Only think i got correct was picking the fish i wanted fish. Didn’t know I’d end up filling the tank with a bunch of corals

  17. I made the mistake of not making a list before buying my first tank. All of mu fish quickly outgrew it. Now I am saving for v2.

  18. Definitely look for second hand tanks on facebook craiglsist or at your LFS, there are definitely great deals to be had if you get a used setup!

  19. John Worthington

    Everybody says do your research I say do your research on the companies themselves that’s where you’ll find if you’re getting quality products or not

  20. Plan your tank build. Do alot of research prior to your initial purchase and be cognizant of the type of fish, corals, inverts and other livestock you want. Then make sure your budget can accomodate everything you need for a sustainable living reef in your living space.

  21. Research is key, dont skimp on components starting out and dont cut corners. You’ll pay for it sooner or later.

  22. David Sheffield

    I really feel the small is subjective point. I am doing my first reef and I decided to start small with a 65 and 20 gallon sump.

  23. Those tips are great advice for everyone who is considering buying a new tank. If back in the days I knew some of them I would safe up a lot on upgrading and sizing as time passes.

  24. Great tips. I know it must be hard to send someone home to do more research without buying an aquarium. Teaching is an important part of this hobby.

  25. Research. Research. Research. Have a plan just don’t make impulse buys. Don’t buy cheap products from overseas as their quality control is lacking and you will spend more money in the long run.

  26. An hour of research is $1000 saved every time. I see people tear down and hope to get half of what they originally paid. Also think of daily task. Will you test the water every day? No, that’s fine. But will you feed 2-3 times a day? Auto feeders exist. Weekly water changes that could impact vacation time?

  27. Buying a tank as a set-up is sometimes the way to go when you are new to the hobby. If you already know/have the equipment you need it’s not as important. Expense doesn’t always mean better. Lower cost options can often meet your needs.

  28. The tip should be adhered to. Impulse buying should not negate the fact of the size you actually want instead of spending money for a smaller than upgrading and that tank costing you twice as much.

  29. These comments are worth considering as I learned the hard way by making mistakes and not researching enough before buying.

  30. Robert Schwencke

    I like nano tanks personally. Bank t me is anything between 20 and 50, anything under 20 I consider pico which is really tough

  31. Researching and learning details about the hobby are so important. But also, so is knowning yourself. If you won’t take the time to do the maintenance that is required, you will have a hard time keeping up on the tank, and as it starts to slide it gets harder to do the upkeep to get it back.

  32. kchristensen8064

    Research and plan out everything. Take the time to get it right and take everything into account, so that you don’t regret it later.

  33. Wish I had gone through a manufacture for my current tank. Went through the LFS for a custom build. It’s been the worst experience in the hobby ever.

  34. Figure out why you’re buying something before you buy it. Don’t overcorrect for a problem you don’t have like putting in a ton of nutrient export with only a couple fish. You’ll end up with low nutrient issues like Dino

  35. This pro gave some great advice, I used to be into this hobby but as kids and their sports grew my time was spent with them. Now grandkids wanted me back into as 1 wanted a shark, so I bought a 56 gallon tank and a baby shark still in the egg. Knowing full well that I will need a much larger tank if all goes well with the shark. I am now waiting on a 75 gallon for some invertebrate. Also ste up 2 20 gallon tanks 1 for seahorses once Algae barn gets some tank raised, the other as a tank for new arrivals. The 2 small tanks take much more time and effort then the larger tank.

  36. I started with a 65 gallon. Now…2 years later I have decided…bigger is definitely the way to go. I have been going over specs for months deciding what exactly I want in my much bigger tank. Great article! Thanks for the insight!

  37. Have your design and scape ideas ready , read read read ask questions there is no such thing as a stupid question and watch every video that you can . Nothing in this hobby is cheap so don’t skimp on anything especially lights .

  38. jeffanddeannawilliams

    Great tips! I have a 20gallon and wish I started with a bigger tank. I’ve had no problems but I’m now addicted!

  39. Good points here. Research, but understand that what you think you want may change. My first was a 65G and it was a great size for me. No overflow so had to have more manual processes. After that, I would only buy a drilled tank with an overflow.

  40. I just found a killer deal on fb marketplace for a 75 gal overflow tank, stand, sump refugium, light, and skimmer for $150
    Keep an eye out for deals like that if you are interested in upgrading it could be a cheaper route!

  41. I started with a used 55 gallon. Came with everything even fish for $200. That is now a reef tank and got a 125 fish only so we can have some beautiful coral eaters lol. Good article, research is key

  42. Like anything hobby related you need to have a plan or you’ll end up with something you aren’t happy with. Find your end goal first and move in a straight line towards it and you’ll save yourself frustration and cost.

  43. Picking the right live stock is key. In the long run, picking fish that help keep algae and pest in check is the way to go!

  44. Some stuff like heaters should be bought new. But I’d try to go for used stuff, and also try to buy livestock off fellow reefers.

  45. Always get the biggest tank that you can. When you set up a tank thinking it is big enough it wont be long before you want a bigger one.

  46. Jennifer Reichardt

    I’ve always heard that you start with 75 gallon minimum…bigger the better. The article is so correct in what I’ve seen firsthand from my 125. It costs more to start up (larger skimmers, uv sterilizers, etc) but in the long run, much more stable and easier to maintain.

  47. Make sure your system will be appropriate for the animals you keep. Quarantine always and choose a great setup like cade reef!

  48. I agree the bigger the better. If the person is able to keep the tank healthy. If you have a larger tank you can add to it. But if it’s smaller and you enjoy it and want add you’re going have to move everything .

  49. Rebecca Whitley

    Now i dont feel so bad, i have been researching for oh, 6 years now… and finally willing to take the plunge
    !

  50. When choosing your tank, the best approach is to understand that costs are directly proportional to the size of the tank. Lighting, Filtration, Pumps, Water Changes, additives, etc….all are vital and need to be costed in the decision of what can you honestly be comfortable with monthly expenditures for that size aquarium. I do agree with all the post that state you will wish you went bigger, but when reality sets in, realize that any size aquarium will provide the challenges and enjoyments that have capture the minds of all aquariast. I have personally seen amazing smaller sized to room size aquariums and each was spectacular in their own right. Choose wisely and enjoy the adventure.

  51. Pick the perfect spot for your tank, because it is not easy to tear down an move. Measure a few time, then decide on how big or small you want to impact on your living space. One day I hope to upgrade to at least a 450.

  52. Pick the perfect spot for your tank, because it is not easy to tear down an move. Measure a few time, then decide on how big or small you want to impact on your living space. One day I hope to upgrade to at least a 450.

  53. Great advice on the fish list, I kind of bought a tank first when I first started then looked at what can fit into it. Now that I have a smaller tank I wish I could get a bigger one for a more variety of fish and bigger ecosystem.

  54. If you’re like me.. learning by doing and reading then I would give the advice to start with at least 80 gallons. I do not thin k that the total ivnestment is that much different, but the joy to play and do what you want with less limitations is great.

  55. Plan, plan, plan and plan some more. Depending on what type of fish and how much coral you want to keep plan ahead and get the size according to these plans.

  56. we are new to the hobby (we were given a 55 gal tank) this article is spot on when stating look to the future as to what you want. as we are already looking at getting another tank (wife wants fish, i am wanting corals) and yes some fish coral combos work however the fish she wants do not always correlate well with the corals. so we have to end up with a bigger tank or 2.

  57. These are great tips! The more informed you are about the ecosystem that lives in these tanks the better the experience!

  58. Do your research. Look at other tanks. Know what kind of corals you want to keep and the style aquascape you want. All that will help determine what size tank and dimensions are right for you.

  59. It’s the initial start up cost of a large tank. Ever component cost more. But if money’s not the issue and you have a firm grasp of what kind of obligation a tank is. Then no doubt the bigger the better.

  60. everyone loves a huge tank, but over buying now can cost you down the road. don’t just look at the cost of the tank now, look at what it will cost you to stock it as well as maintain it down the road.

  61. Invest in quality. Dont buy cheap hoping to save some money. Id rather wait a little longer and get quality than buy crap. It saves you money in the long run

  62. I always like to see a tank in person before I Buy it so I know what I am getting my self in to. I try to find a same sided tank in a store so I can be sure that that size is what I am looking for.

  63. Agreed mostly lol there are always reasons weather they be financial or learning that you may start smaller and just be patient.

  64. When I first started my first tank it took 2days ten years later it took me 6months to put water in. When you have patients things come out so much better.

  65. Failing to plan is planning to fail. 80% planning to 20% execution isn’t a problem free path, but a far more enjoyable one vs a reversal of those % ratios.

  66. Good information always research and decide on a tank by how much you’re going to be able to deal with as will as what your budget will allow. It’s a wonderful hobby so it shouldn’t stress you out.
    Have fun reefing!

  67. I was in the pet (mainly freshwater) pet business for years through high school, college, and even a couple years afterwards. Most people don’t buy aquariums because they want a box of water in their house – they’re into the fish (at least to start). You should select a habitat based on the animals you want to keep, rather than letting the habitat dictate what you can have.

  68. Have the limits in mind (size AND dollars) in mind and then buy a quality product from a vendor you know will be there to support you now and in the future.

  69. Take the time to decide what when where and how your going to go about taking on this hobby. Dont jump in not knowing how to swim.

  70. There are plenty of things you can purchase second hand from fellow reefers. No shame in recycling Rock, equipment and so on. Not everything has to be new. Just make sure you do your due diligence in cleaning and eliminating pests if possible if you do.

  71. Steven Schlosser

    It is always hard to do your homework but it pays off in the end. This is a never-ending learning activity and that is part of why I love it. the bigger you go the more room for mistakes. The small the less water for mistakes lol

  72. As with any hobby that isn’t cheap you gotta map out exactly what you expecting and look at all the options and finding the sweet spot! Great advice here!

  73. Thank you for taking the time to write this useful article. Lots of great information to those just starting into the hobby!

  74. don’t overwhelm yourself, start with the best tank for you and remember, it takes time. enjoy the hobby and want it is.

  75. Good write up….I have had all size tanks….Last one was 150, nice tank, lots of work and $$$$…so this time I went with a smaller AIO…it was actually designed around the one fish I wanted…. Blue Spotted Jawfish! …I had a plan and vision……3 years later, he is still happy and so am I. And actually, not too much work, once you have a schedule. But of course, now I’m thinking of OH NO…larger…

  76. Not only are these full of good information, but the writing style is plain English and with a good smartazz commentary that keeps readers engaged.

  77. Great Read I’ve owned tanks all the way from 5 Gallon to 500 Gallons and by far my favorite size is 4ft or 5ft with a total system water volume of 100 Gallons to 140 Gallons. Glad to see Cade offers just the perfect solution that I’m looking for.

  78. IM learning – after my smaller AIO I am using now – and am learning take our time on this hobby and the rewards are great.

  79. brocklehurstmatt

    There are things you can cheap out on and things to cut corners on but you’ll end up debating expensive things eventually

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