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Freshwater vs Saltwater Aquarium

Which set-up is right for you?

Saltwater Tank Envy

We have all walked into an aquarium store and seen a beautiful reef tank with bright flowing corals and living creatures and had the thought, “how hard can it be?” The straight answer is, not very hard, BUT, and it’s a big BUT, it does take proper education and planning to achieve what looks like simple beauty.  For most enthusiasts the added cost, and work required to have a perfectly balanced ecosystem of live corals and amazing reef fish is not worth the effort.  However for those elect few who want to pursue the challenge of detailed planning and education, the reward is a tremendous payoff and a great satisfaction.

There is no doubt that a well maintained saltwater tank is more beautiful to most people, however a well designed and thoughtful freshwater tank also can be an amazing centerpiece to any home or office.  The question is which one is right for you?  We will lay out the requirements of each setup to help you make an informed decision. The wonderful news is which ever direction you decided to go Fluval has everything you need to make a perfect underwater ecosystem for years of enjoyment.

Aquarium Freshwater Vs Saltwater

What type of Fish do you want to keep?.

Both Freshwater and Saltwater have a huge variety of fish to chose from.  The main thing to keep in mind is both Fresh and Saltwater fish require clear, clean, well balanced water.

Generally speaking freshwater fish tend to not be quite as sensitive to small changes in water conditions, whereas saltwater fish will take great offense to increases in salinity or other factors.  Something as simple as evaporation from a light source can through salinity into the red zone for your saltwater tank and a more constant monitoring is required.

Do your homework and research different species of fish to see which ones you are most interested in keeping

How much do you want to spend?

A small freshwater tank can be set up for a very nominal amount and for less than $10 a month in maintenance can be enjoyed for years to come.

When it comes to saltwater tanks, the sky’s the limit.  If you can dream it it can be done. The problem is dreams cost money.  To have a robust saltwater tank with adequate filtration, protein skimming and maintenance you are quickly into the $100’s of dollars and can easily reach into the $1000’s of dollars for those with dreams of creating the Great Barrier Reef in their living room.

Tank Size

Depending on how much space you have might make your decision easy. Generally speaking the bigger the body of water the slower the changes occur in the tank in regards to important key levels like PH, Salinity, Nitrates, and Ammonia.

If you want to keep a small tank on your desktop without much fuss, a freshwater tank is the way to go and we highly recommend the Fluval Lifestyle Series tanks because they have everything you need to have a wonderful tank.  With filtration and lighting fulling incorporated into their designs.

For a new saltwater enthusiast a good size to start with is anything above 50 gallons as this will allow you time to make small mistakes and still have a viable ecosystem. (building your own from scratch certainly requires more education and Fluval has all the tools necessary to make incredible underwater worlds.

Smaller saltwater tanks are certainly possible and Fluval encourages smaller reef aquariums (nano reef). Advances in filtration and lighting have certainly made is easier than ever.  If this is the direction you are headed we highly recommend the fully integrated Fluval Reef Aquarium Set and Stand.

Aquarium Lighting Requirements

If you chose to go the build your own route and not chose one of Fluval’s fully integrated solutions, you will need to do some homework on what type of lighting system you need.

Great news is with the advancement in LED lighting, what in days past was a burden has become fairly straightforward. In simple terms, fish require less light than corals and reef tanks.

Freshwater lighting your goal is a big enough light to fully illuminate your creations. The size of your tank will determine the size of the light fixture. The bigger the tank, the more light and the more expense.  Check out our Fluval Freshwater Lighting page for more information.

Reef lighting depends again on the size of the tank and the type of environment you want to keep.  Corals require high output LED’s which are expensive but will create incredible beauty in your tank.  Check out our Fluval Saltwater Lighting page for more information.

Aquarium Filtration Requirements

Freshwater and Saltwater tanks both need filtration.  The best filtration is a three step process.  Mechanical, Chemical and Biological.

Mechanical filtration is a fancy word that means we use a foam pad to collect any large debris that flows out of the tank. (uneaten food, or other waste)

Chemical filtration is typically in the form of carbon which removes odors, and impurities from the water to keep fish healthy.

Biological filtration is extremely important in both fresh and salt but more so in saltwater.  Biological filtration is the system of creating beneficial bacteria that breaks down the excess levels of ammonia and other toxins from waste in the tank.

Basic rule of thumb, you get what you pay for.  If you are going to do a saltwater setup buy the best filter you can afford within your budget.

See our Fluval Filter page with help selecting the proper filter for your set  up.

For newer aquarist it’s recommended to consider buying a system that has filtration fully integrated like the Fluval Reef Aquarium for saltwater or the Lifestyle Series for freshwater.

Aquarium Heating

Both freshwater and saltwater aquariums require a heat source to create a steady environment for your fish or reef.

In large tanks multiple heaters might be required to achieve the proper temperature.

See Fluval Heater page to select the right heater for your requirements. To learn more see out blog post on heating.

** the rest of the list is saltwater only. Freshwater requirements all all met at this point.

Aquarium Protein Skimmer

Freshwater tanks, do not require this step as the above filtration meets the necessary requirements for almost all set ups.

Saltwater tanks with live rock, corals or invertebrates require protein skimming to remove dissolved proteins and organic waste from the water. We highly recommend the Fluval Sea PS1 Protein Skimmer for the task of cleaning aquariums in the 0-50 gallon range.

For larger tanks make sure to read manufacturers instructions.

Circulation Pumps.

Tanks with invertebrates, and corals require circulation to move food and to remove waste from the water.

See our Circulation Pump page for details on which pump is right for your tank.

Substrate and Marine Salt

Saltwater and Reef aquariums require proper substrate to help maintain proper PH and Alkalinity.  Using Aragonite substrate will help beneficial micro organism to thrive.

Marine salt is obviously how we create the underwater environment.  Using a high grade marine salt is critical to long term success. Fluval Sea Marine Salt is a perfect professional grade salt that leaves no residue as it dissolves.

Fluval Sea Hydrometer is a must have accessory to accurately measure salinity.


There are many choices to be made in determining which direction to take, by doing research and educating yourselves on the necessary tools you are sure to create incredibly beauty which ever direction you chose.  For the vast majority, just having a tranquil small aquarium in our office or bedroom brings tremendous peace, and taking on the maintenance and cost of a saltwater or reef tank potentially hinders that enjoyment, for others the challenge of keeping a perfectly balanced world is beyond rewarding.

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