Considerations to Help You Determine which Type of Aquarium is Best for You

Beta Fish

The most important decision you’ll make about your aquarium is what type of ecosystem you want: saltwater or freshwater. Both types of aquariums can be equally fulfilling. Each have their rewards and challenges. By making the right choice and adhering to a regular maintenance plan, there’s no reason why your aquarium can’t be a truly great adventure.

Here’s what you need to know when comparing saltwater vs. freshwater aquariums:



Saltwater Ecosystem

Saltwater Ecosystem

Oceanic conditions are naturally more stable. The chemistry levels (PH, salinity, etc.) generally remain the same day to day, provided you have a proper setup and adhere to a regular maintenance schedule. Like the natural environment, saltwater aquariums need the same level of consistency to maintain good health. Livestock, corals, and crustaceans are less-tolerant of fluctuations in chemistry and temperature and, thus, saltwater ecosystems require more-stringent maintenance.

Freshwater Fish

Freshwater Ecosystem

If you’re just beginning your venture into aquatics, you should consider starting with a freshwater system. Not only are freshwater tanks less expensive than a saltwater environment, the livestock is naturally more tolerant of fluctuations in chemistry and temperature. A freshwater tank still requires regular maintenance, but not as much as saltwater and, therefore, presents fewer risks.


Saltwater Reef Aquarium

Saltwater Cost & Maintenance

Generally, a saltwater aquarium could cost twice as much as a freshwater system and requires a greater commitment. The livestock costs more and the water will require more maintenance. It is also typically recommended that you begin with a larger tank. To keep the system in good order, you’ll need to more closely maintain the correct levels of salinity, temperature, and general water quality, which are essential to a healthy environment.

Freshwater Aquarium

Freshwater Cost & Maintenance

A tropical or cold water setup will cost you significantly less than a saltwater aquarium. However, it can be just as rewarding. The fish will be less expensive to buy and you can typically begin with a smaller tank. While sticking to a strict maintenance plan is still essential to any good ecosystem, maintenance is fairly basic, requiring weekly water changes, regular cleaning, and monthly filter maintenance.


Clown Fish

Saltwater Livestock

Saltwater fish are certainly more expensive than freshwater species. You might determine that the variety of color and beauty available is well worth the investment. However, with the variety also comes dietary demands. Some saltwater species are more demanding when it comes to feeding and may require more time and investment in preparation and sourcing. Compatibility of different species is also a major consideration. Not all saltwater fish are meant to be together. Popular species include clownfish, damselfish varieties, and dwarf angelfish.


Freshwater Livestock

Generally, freshwater fish require less maintenance and are often considered a better option for those who are just beginning or plan to have their children involved in their care. While freshwater fish might not be as brightly colored as saltwater fish, they still have their own beauty and tend to be more hardy and tolerant of fluctuations in water quality and temperature. Popular freshwater species include, neon tetras, guppies, betta fish, and angelfish.


Saltwater Plant

Saltwater Plants

Aside from species of algae, living plants will not survive in a saltwater environment. Saltwater tanks tend to grow algae quicker than freshwater tanks because there are no live plants to consume the water nutrients that algae feeds on. Instead of plants, saltwater tanks can include corals, anemones, sponges, and more, which all bring their own unique beauty and fascination to the environment. Be advised that corals and other living organisms will require special lighting, which can increase the cost of maintaining your aquarium.

Freshwater Plants

Freshwater Plants

Adding freshwater plants to your tank can provide a wonderful display of natural color. But doing so will also make managing your ecosystem a bit more complicated. You’ll also have less fish species to choose from due to incompatibilities. However, plants contribute to a healthy environment by producing oxygen and absorbing CO2 through photosynthesis. If you choose to include a lot of plants, you’ll need to add special lighting and fertilizers; and carbon dioxide may be needed to keep them thriving, which will impact the cost of setup and maintenance.


Saltwater Reef

Saltwater Aquascaping & Decor

In lieu of adding plants to your saltwater aquarium, including corals and other live rocks can add a whole new level of beauty to your environment. By installing a reef system, you’ll need to meet specific lighting requirements and put in some extra effort to maintain a viable ecosystem. Using crushed coral (which is porous) or sand as a substrate will promote the growth of micro-organisms and other bacteria that contribute to a healthy aquarium.

Sunken Ship and Gravel

Freshwater Aquascaping & Decor

The type of fish you have will determine whether sand or gravel is the best substrate for your tank. Gravel is easier to clean, but sand provides a resting place for certain species. There is a wide array of decorations available for your freshwater tank, including fake corals, rocks, and sunken ships, that have been specifically designed to be used in fish tanks and won’t deteriorate when submerged in water. A creative mix of rocks, plants, woods, and sand can be brought together to create a setting that perfectly suits your taste.


There are generally three types of filtration available for all tanks: biological, chemical, and mechanical, with each having their own function in an aquarium. All fish tanks must have biological filtration.

Saltwater Aquarium

Saltwater Tank Size, Filtration & Lighting

The bigger saltwater aquarium you can afford, the better off you’ll be, since fluctuations in water conditions will be greater in smaller tanks, which will make it more difficult for your fish to thrive. Saltwater tanks require more filtration, which is essential to a healthy environment. Since saltwater holds about 20% less oxygen than freshwater, you’ll need a larger tank for your fish to breathe than you would with a freshwater system. Saltwater ecosystems generally require more equipment, more work during water changes, and special lighting.

Freshwater Tank

Freshwater Tank Size, Filtration & Lighting

If you’re considering a freshwater tank, you can begin smaller and then migrate to a larger system. If you prefer smaller fish (nano fish), you can keep a number of species in a smaller tank. But, like any other aquarium, you need to be careful to avoid overstocking it. Lighting not only helps show off your fish, it also provides energy for your plants. However, you need the correct light spectrum for both, so you don’t create conflicts.


Saltwater Aquarium Resources

From Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, the world’s most trusted source of information about the fascinating world of fishkeeping since 1952. LEARN MORE

Helpful advice about building a better saltwater aquarium by sharing knowledge to get you started on the path to a happy, gorgeous saltwater aquarium. LEARN MORE

Freshwater Aquarium Resources

Fishkeeping world was created by a school of fish fanatics to help educate anyone who wants to know about keeping fish and aquarium maintenance. LEARN MORE

Freshwater aquarium fish guide for freshwater fish hobbyists, where you can learn how to set up, keep, and maintain freshwater aquarium fish. LEARN MORE

YouTube Videos


A place for no-nonsense information about the hobby delivered in a way that even the most inexperienced fish-keeper could understand.

MD Fish Tanks

Aquascaping tutorials, maintenance tips, and advice for fish hobbyists.

Aquarium Co-Op

Focusing on your aquariums. We specialize in aquatic plants, freshwater tropical fish, and the overall betterment of the  freshwater fish-keeping hobby.


Everything Freshwater Planted Aquariums – DIY aquarium projects, aquarium science, planted tanks, aquascaping, and much more. All in one place!

Need Help Determining Which Ecosystem is Best for You?

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