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A Coral Reef Tank Setup

This article will focus more on finding cheap coral, saltwater fish, inverts and other reef-keeping essentials for inside your new saltwater aquarium rather than on how to set up a saltwater aquarium to take care of the inhabitants. However, let's touch base on some of the equipment you need before we dive in.

The Equipment

When it comes to equipment, you'll want to think simple. While there are plenty of saltwater aquarium products out there that can enhance your reef setup, you'll want to focus on just five major components of a budget reef aquarium:

  • Tank
  • Lighting Fixtures
  • Pumps & Powerheads (For Water Movement)
  • Filtration
  • Supplementation (Calcium & Trace Elements)

When you look for the best budget aquarium light, a big enough tank and more, it's always good to start with used equipment. It's easier than you may think to find budget reef lighting, tanks, protein skimmers and pumps on websites like Craigslist or community sources such as Reef2Reef. Thankfully, supplementation is easy with a small reef tank. Small regular water changes will keep all water parameters at proper levels. With the right deals, you may only have to spend as little as $150.

Cheap Saltwater Fish

Finding cheap saltwater fish is often a must for beginner saltwater aquarium enthusiasts. Caring for saltwater fish is an easy way to add movement, life and even more color to any tank – not to mention, they can be pretty affordable. But it's all about knowing which cheap saltwater fish will add beauty without disrupting the ecosystem of your reef. At Pacific East Aquaculture, we recommend starting with two breeds of our captive-raised fish: Orchid Dottyback and Ocellaris Clownfish.

The Orchid Dottyback: $45

The Orchid Dottyback is known as an easy-to-care-for, reef-safe saltwater fish perfect for a beginner saltwater aquarium. With their brilliant purple color, they easily make an impact in any reef tank. They're hardy fish that can easily acclimate to reef tanks (especially if purchased from a captive-raised facility) and are not picky-eaters. Though, keep in mind, they are carnivores. While they are sometimes considered semi-aggressive, as most Dottyback species are, they are still the least aggressive type out there.

The Orchid Dottyback

The Orchid Dottyback

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The Ocellaris Clownfish: $70 (Pair of Two)

If you want to add even more movement to your coral reef tank setup, your best bet is to pick up a pair of Ocellaris Clownfish – another type of excellent (and cheap) saltwater fish that are reef-safe and simple to care for. They're among the most well-known and popular cheap saltwater fish out there with their signature orange and white color, making them perfect for anyone. They are also some of the most compatible saltwater fish around, only having issues with other types of Clownfish species like Tomatos, Maroons or Picasso Clowns. At Pacific East Aquaculture, we only stock captive-bred, tank-raised fish because they are hardy and disease-free.

The Best Starter Inverts

Any saltwater aquarium, even a budget aquarium, will need a few inverts to help act as a tank cleanup crew. If you're looking for the best bang for your buck, we recommend starting with one of our invert kits.

Problem Algae Invert Kit: $55

With the problem algae invert kit, you'll receive a pack full of Red Leg Hermits, Turbo Snails, Cerith Snails, Nassarius Snails and Cyano Grazer Snails, all perfect for eating up annoying algae blooms that can form in reef aquariums. Not only will you be adding more life to your coral reef tank setup, but you'll also be helping keep it a cleaner, better place for the rest of your inhabitants to live. These inverts aren't appealing to your cheap saltwater fish either, so you won't have to worry about returning to your tank and finding them all mysteriously gone.

Problem Algae Invert Kit

Problem Algae Invert Kit

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Reef Aquascaping

One of the best things you can do for any coral reef tank setup is to add reef aquascaping elements. Reef aquascaping is like adding the finishing touches to your budget tank. It adds an entirely new dimension of authenticity that helps it stand out in your home. Not to mention, many reef aquascaping elements will benefit your inhabitants and the ecosystem in your saltwater aquarium in many ways.

Live Sand: $5

While live sand isn't a necessity for most saltwater aquariums, it's still quite beneficial to add. Live sand is also incredibly inexpensive, making it perfect for creating a coral reef tank setup on a budget. It is natural reef coral sand, populated with millions of beneficial bacteria and micro-fauna that can aid in dissolving organic waste like ammonia, nitrates and nitrites produced by your larger inhabitants.

Live Rock: $9

Adding live rock for your saltwater aquarium is one of the best things you can do for your inhabitants. Live rock will become your budget tank's main biological nitrification base (biological filtration through the nitrogen cycle). At the same time, live rock can enhance the look of your aquarium and provide excellent shelter for fish and inverts.

Gorgonians: $40

Photosynthetic gorgonians are soft, branching corals that grow in an upright pattern, giving them the look of underwater trees. They're purely for aesthetic purposes, but they do the job well. They can sway and flow in the current and give your budget tank a more authentic coral reef appearance. Their brilliant colors are also perfect for covering up some of the more barren areas of your saltwater aquarium.

Finding Cheap Coral

No perfect coral reef tank setup is complete without the main attraction: the coral. Finding cheap coral is easier than you'd think. Right here at Pacific East Aquaculture, you can build your own frag pack in a matter of minutes – when you buy two, you'll get two free! But there is more to buying cheap coral than you may think. You'll want to focus on care level requirements and compatibility with other coral. When it comes to beginner enthusiasts, your best bets will be either softies (leathers, mushrooms and zoanthids) or easy to keep hard corals. We've picked out our four favorite cheap corals that would make excellent starters for your budget aquarium.

Once you also take your unique corals into account, you’ll realize a coral reef tank system is impossible to keep without good lighting. As we have stressed, all corals are different regarding their lighting requirements. Some corals, like soft corals, only require a moderate amount of light to thrive. If you turn up the intensity too high, they’ll begin to bleach and could die. LPS corals are also much more at home in low to moderate lighting, making them good tank companions with softies. Contrasting that is SPS corals which require an intense amount of light. Keeping the light too low will result in color shifting.

Note: We cannot go over all of the care requirements for each coral, so be sure to do your own in-depth research before purchasing to guarantee you have the means to care for them adequately.

Mushrooms: $40

Mushroom-type corals are large softies that are often quite popular with collectors. Because they are highly undemanding and easy to care for, it makes them a perfect cheap coral to start with as a beginner. They tend to grow rather fast and are typically low in aggression, making them great tank mates for other corals.

Mushrooms will prefer low to moderate lighting. If it's too high, they could bleach. You'll also want to give them moderate water flow, as their soft polyps can become battered and irritated if it's too excessive.

Zoanthids: $50

Zoanthids are easily some of the most popular cheap corals you can buy as a beginner. They're fast-growing, extraordinarily hardy and available in every color. Zoanthids are also easy to care for and exhibit moderate to low aggressiveness with other coral types. Generally, they won't sting their neighbors, but many do put chemicals in the water that can irritate others. However, you can combat this by using carbon in your budget tank to keep a friendly mixed reef.

Zoanthids prefer low to moderate lighting and do well in moderate water flow, which prevents detritus from settling on their polyps.

Montipora: $40

Montipora is our SPS coral of choice for your budget tank, as they are a hardy species that comes in an extensive range of colors and growths. Montipora will require more care than the softies but are still an excellent beginner coral to choose from. However, they can be aggressive if they directly touch other corals, so your best bet is to give them lots of open space to grow.

They do well in moderate to higher lighting, but you can watch for color shifts and adjust the light levels as needed. Montipora also thrives with a moderate water flow.

Montipora

Montipora

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Leathers: $50

Our final recommended cheap coral are leather corals, named for their tough, almost leathery feel and the smell they give off when they produce chemicals. Leathers are generally considered easy to keep and have a very low level of aggressiveness. Like zoanthids, they aren't prone to stinging others – but they may put chemicals into the water that inhibit other coral growth, which again can be combatted with carbon.

Leather corals enjoy moderate to intense lighting but can adapt to various intensity levels if acclimated properly. They also prefer moderate to intense water flow, but too much can prevent them from opening up.

Let the Experts Assemble Your Budget Tank for You

If our calculations are correct, your total for cheap saltwater fish, inverts, live sand, live rock, gorgonians and a build-your-own frag pack of four corals should only total out to roughly $314! Factor in about $150 for some adequately used saltwater aquarium equipment, and you've got yourself a perfect coral reef tank setup for under $500. See? It's possible and more accessible than you'd think to get an ideal budget aquarium that hits all the bases here at Pacific East Aquaculture.

But if you'd rather sit back and let the experts take care of the hard work for you, check out our completed saltwater aquariums to get everything we just mentioned in one purchase (and for under $500). We offer a preconfigured 5-gallon or 13.5-gallon nano tank complete with everything you need for your first starter saltwater aquarium, including a tank, salt mix, coral glue, filter media, live sand, live rock, your choice of saltwater fish, corals and inverts and a tank heater. Check them out if you're still in the dark about what to purchase. They're perfect for anyone with a passion for reef aquariums.

When you choose Pacific East Aquaculture, you're selecting a state-certified and licensed coral aquaculture facility run by experts with a passion for supplying the healthiest coral, fish, inverts and other marine life since 2000. Get your ideal coral reef tank setup today.

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