When entering the fish keeping hobby, the question of saltwater vs. freshwater fish tanks is the first one you need to ask yourself. Which one is the right fish tank for you depends on what budget you have, how much time you have to dedicate to the hobby, and what fish or critter you want to keep? There is no point in buying a soccer ball if you’re going to play football.
In the distant past, the rule of thumb was newbies started with a freshwater aquarium, and experienced aquarists have saltwater fish tanks, which were complicated and more colorful. Controversial as it may be, this idea is no longer accurate. The maintenance of a saltwater fish tank is easy with the tools and supplies we have today. On the other hand, with the diverse freshwater plants, you can create a spectacular freshwater aquarium. When it comes to the debate of saltwater vs. freshwater aquarium, both those points are mute.
What is the difference between freshwater vs. saltwater fish tanks?
- The startup costs
- The type of fish food you provide
- The environmental impact between the two types of aquariums
Other factors that used to be a concern largely depend on the fish you are keeping. There are fish for saltwater and freshwater fish tanks that are perfect for beginners and those that need a more experienced hand.
Are Freshwater Aquariums Easier Than Saltwater Aquariums?
Types of Fish Tanks
The actual time and cost of your hobby depend on what type of fish tank you want to create. The more tolerant your fish is to changes, and the closer the fish tank parameters are to the water coming from your faucet, the easier and cheaper it is to keep. As for temperature, this will depend on the area where you reside.
- Fish only aquariums either house one species (species-specific) or several species together in community fish tanks. This type of aquarium is the easiest and cheapest to start up. However, the artificial maintenance of the nitrogen cycle is labor-intensive. Frequent water changes and testing kits are essential. Good filters will help keep a stable environment.
- FOWLR fish tanks are aquariums stocked with only fish and live rock. The rock is pricey and have to be replaced but stabilize the nitrogen cycle. These fish tanks need high-quality filtration, protein skimmer, and specialized lighting to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria and algae.
- Reef tank filled with corals, anemones, and invertebrates. A delicate system requires RODI water, excellent filtration systems, and daily monitoring. The costs of running this aquarium will add up over time. This type of fish tank is time-consuming, and blunders are unforgiving, and mistakes could lead to the loss of thousands of dollars.
- Nano Tanks are tiny saltwater fish tanks. Any mistakes in chemistry can have devastating consequences. An error in a 30-gallon aquarium will not give the chemicals enough water dilution to minimize its effect.
- Betta Fish Tanks are small freshwater aquariums (no less than 5-gallons) housing one betta fish (or Siamese fighting fish) and other tank inhabitants like snails, ghost shrimps and other fish that won’t bother the betta.
- Brackish Aquariums are fish tanks that need higher salinity levels than freshwater and lower than saltwater fish tanks, home for fish that live in brackish water streams and rivers.
- Biotope tank is a community tank that mimics the environment of the fish’s natural habitat. Including tank mates, plants, substrate, and water parameters. This type of aquarium has subcategories as numerous as the different types of freshwater systems around the world.
- Tropical fish tanks are warm water aquariums with the temperature range between 75 and 80 °F and can be either saltwater or freshwater fish
- Coldwater fish tanks have cooler temperatures 60 – 68 °F. Depending on the environmental temperatures of the area you live in, this fish tank is the hardest to keep. Cool the water before entering the fish tank.
For beginners who want to have a reef tank, I suggest starting with a fish only tank or a fish only tank with a live rock before progressing to the sophisticated reef aquariums. Freshwater fish tank hobbyists looking for a challenge, the biotope tank will give the added complexity of the reef tanks. Start with the largest tank you can accommodate and a small amount of fish and build up.
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The Real Differences Between Saltwater vs. Freshwater Fish Tanks
Modern technology and improvements to the hobby mean that the old notion of saltwater fish tanks being impossible for beginners to manage is over. The availability and color of the freshwater fish tanks are spectacular. The idea that real fish keepers have saltwater aquariums, an archaic relic of the past.
How do you make your decision? There are three material differences between the two types of fish tanks to help you decide between the two.
Saltwater vs. Freshwater Fish Equipment
Equipment needed for a Freshwater fish tank:
Equipment needed for a Saltwater fish tank:
- Aquarium air pump
- Sponge filter
- Testing kit
- pH meter
- Protein skimmers
- Powerhead Pump
The startup cost of saltwater vs. freshwater fish tank is noticeably different. A saltwater aquarium costs almost double that of the freshwater alternative. With a fish only tank, or fish and live rockfish tank compared to a planted freshwater aquarium (that requires more equipment like growing lights and a cooling fan), the costs could balance out.
The monthly operating costs of saltwater vs. freshwater fish tanks. Electricity, water, and consumables for testing are only marginally higher in a saltwater fish tank. These costs will add up over time. The running costs for gentle fish tanks that have corals and delicate critters where daily tests for calcium, magnesium, and strontium are conducted the costs will be elevated.
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Saltwater vs. Freshwater Fish Feeding
Feeding disparities between saltwater vs. freshwater fish depends on what you are stocking. Still, saltwater fish, in general, are pickier eaters, and for those caught in the wild, converting fish to commercial fish food can be difficult. Live rocks and fresh food are readily available and can be grown at home to reduce the overall costs. Popular angelfish need 90% of sponge in their diet, and replacing them in your fish tank is expensive, but commercial food enriched with a sponge is pricey too.
The Environmental Impact
The cost of equipment and feeding depends on what you are keeping in your aquarium. The main difference between the two is the environmental impact of saltwater vs. freshwater fish tanks. Saltwater aquariums impact the environment in 2 ways with stocking and water consumption.
Freshwater fish are likely to breed in captivity, and saltwater fish are wild-caught. This dynamic is changing, but it is not done changing yet. Seasonal changes stimulate saltwater fish breeding. The techniques used to catch wild fish impact other fish species with the mortality rate of pet fish during transit and adaptability of the fish to live in captivity. Some freshwater fish are wild-caught, saltwater fish bred in captivity are few and far between.
Comparing saltwater vs. freshwater, the water, and energy consumption of both is high. Decrease water consumption with aquaponics and hydroponics systems. It is easy to convert a freshwater fish tank into an aquaponics system. A marine aquaponics system is possible in theory; it is practiced for consumption or commercial farmers and not practical for home users.
Check out – How to Choose the Best Automatic Fish Feeder
The Dreaded Answer ‘It Depends on What You Get’
As you begin your hobby, the words: ‘It depends on what you get’ will drive you crazy. Still, it dictates many variables of your fish tank, including the commonly perceived differences between saltwater vs. freshwater fish tanks.
It is cheaper to buy freshwater fish vs. saltwater fish. The price depends on the fish. There are more economical and expensive fish either way. The current value of the Polka Dot Stingray for a freshwater aquarium is $4500 in comparison to the saltwater Bluespotted Ribbontail Stingray which is only $269.99.
It is easier to care for freshwater fish vs. saltwater fish. Do you know the typical variety of goldfish need 20 gallons of water per fish, and they need schools of at least 2, but preferably more, you could end up with an enormous fish tank that is going to be hard to maintain? On the other hand, saltwater Damsels need 10 gallons of water per fish. It is an easy beginner saltwater fish. There are tolerant fish in both saltwater vs. freshwater aquariums.
You need larger fish tanks if you keep a saltwater aquarium is a misbelieve stated in the debate between saltwater vs. freshwater tanks. As saltwater holds about 20% less oxygen than a freshwater fish tank, all you need to do is stock it with 20% less fish.
Saltwater fish are more colorful than freshwater fish. Discus, Killifish, and Cherry Barb are stunning freshwater fish vs. saltwater fish like the Flame Angel, Fairy Wrasse, and Flame Hawkfish, which are similar in appearance and color.
The leading choice between freshwater fish vs. saltwater fish is what do you want to keep. You can’t keep a stunning betta fish in a saltwater aquarium and a clownfish in a freshwater fish tank. Decide what fish you want to keep and match it to your fish tank and budget to that choice. As you move through your fish keeping hobby, the words, ‘it depends on what you get’ transform into ‘it depends on what you have.’
Saltwater vs. Freshwater Fish and Time Consumption
Principally saltwater fish tanks have more algae, but with the available filtration systems of today, that isn’t a problem. The difference between the time it will take to manage saltwater vs. freshwater fish tank differs depending on the number and type of fish in the fish tank rather than if the fish are saltwater or freshwater fish.
The amount of waste production is species-specific and differs on both sides. Freshwater fish tanks have the benefits of plants that support a stable environment. With the correct balance of fish, cleanup crew, and a powerful filtration system, a saltwater aquarium can achieve that too.
Two goldfish in a 5-gallon tank is going to make the environment toxic faster than three angelfish in a 20-gallon fish tank. The time to care for your fish tank differs between the saltwater vs. freshwater aquarium and depends entirely on the type of fish you are keeping and tolerance to changes to the chemical and physical property of the water.
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FAQ’s on Saltwater vs. Freshwater
Why Is There Such a Difference in Price when Stocking a Freshwater vs. Saltwater Aquarium? The price difference between saltwater vs. freshwater fish is the cost involved in obtaining the fish and bringing it to the market.
Freshwater fish are bred in captivity, and wild-caught options are easier to access. It is harder to reach and catch saltwater fish. The deaths during capture and transportation add to the costs of obtaining these fish too.
Why Is There Such a Difference when Stocking a Freshwater vs. Saltwater Aquarium? You can keep 80% less fish in saltwater vs. freshwater aquariums because saltwater can hold 20% less oxygen than freshwater.
How to Identify Freshwater vs. Saltwater fish? Externally you can’t see any differences between the two. The bone structure of saltwater fish is thicker than their freshwater counterparts. Check what type of fish you are buying before purchase.
Fish Keeping in a Nutshell
Fishkeeping is only as complicated as the choices you make. The closer the parameters are to the water naturally found in your faucet and the environment you are in, the easier fish keeping becomes. Select peaceful fish, plants, and creatures with similar parameters and don’t overstock your tank with more than the aquarium can sustain. Right filtering equipment and the correct cleanup crews and plants take care of the work for you.
Choosing between saltwater vs. freshwater fish tanks depends on what you want to keep and your startup budget. No matter what you decide, you can create a beautiful aquarium to enjoy.
You may not have enough experience for a reef or nano tank as long as you start with hardy beginner saltwater fish and understand the nitrogen cycle, you’ll be fine. With a bit of experience, you will be reefing in no time at all.
Hi there! I’m Richy, the founder of AquariumStuffs. Since I was young, and had my very tiny plastic fish bowl, I’ve been passionate about fish and aquariums. I went to school to earn a Bachelor’s of Science in Marine Biology, and have continued to educate myself and share my knowledge in this field. For almost 20 years, I’ve been obsessed with collecting and learning about everything to do with fish keeping and aquascaping. My goal with this site is to bring all that I’ve learned – the principles, how-to guides, and more – to you. Learn about the art and science behind aquariums, and let me simplify each process around building a sustainable home for your fish through this blog.