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Saltwater vs Freshwater Aquarium for Beginners

So, you’re interested in keeping fish, but you can’t decide if you should start with a saltwater or freshwater aquarium.

Well, you’re on the right track. After all, studies have shown the stress-relieving benefits of aquariums, and right now we could all stand to invest in something that’s going to bring a calming effect into our homes.

While saltwater fish might provide a bit more color and intrigue, they are also a bit more costly to set up and challenging to maintain.

We happen to think they’re worth the effort, but since you’re the one taking care of the fish, we’re sharing the information you need to help inform your decision and properly care for your fish. You can’t go wrong either way!

Saltwater vs Freshwater Aquarium for Beginners
Image by congerdesign and Image by dianakuehn30010 from Pixabay

Tank Care Essentials

Siphon

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Thermometer

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Test Kit

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Glass Cleaner

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The Best Fish for Beginners

Saltwater

Saltwater fish are pricier, but the level of beauty and color you can achieve might make your jaw drop. Some popular and inexpensive fish to include in your aquarium are:

  • Clownfish: Looking for Nemo? Search no further than this easy-to-care-for fish, particularly the False Percula Clownfish need at least a 20-gallon tank so they can have enough room to hide and explore. For each additional Clownfish allow a further 10 gallons.
  • Dwarf Angelfish: These mild-tempered fish adapt well to captivity and are compatible with many other species. Among the most colorful and popular of the marine angelfish species, they grow to about four inches in length and require a 30-gallon tank (for just one fish).
  • Damselfish: These beautiful, brightly-colored fish only require a 30-gallon tank, which makes them great for beginners. They can be a little aggressive, but as long as you give them plenty of hiding places, they tend to keep to themselves.
  • Tangs: These fish make a great choice for beginners because they’re hardy and resilient as well as extremely beautiful, including bright yellow and blue varieties. Tangs aren’t very aggressive with most fish but do tend to fight other tangs. They require a tank of at least 100 gallons.

Freshwater

Ideally, you want something hardy, budget-friendly, and colorful with an interesting personality. Most freshwater tanks include fish, such as:

  • Betta fish: With vivid coloration, small size, and simple care requirements, these fish are great for beginners. They can be kept by themselves in a 5-gallon aquarium with a gentle filter or with a community of other fish in a 10-gallon tank or larger. Just don’t keep them with other bettas because their nickname is “Siamese fighting fish” for a reason. Suitable tankmates include tetras, corydoras, and other peaceful creatures, but avoid any fish that may nip their beautiful fins.
  • Cichlids: These fish, which come in many varieties, including the convict cichlid, firemouth cichlid, and kribensis cichlid (the most stunning colored variety), are incredibly hardy. Unless a person has a very large aquarium (55 gallons and above), then it’s best to start with a single breeding pair.
  • Common goldfish: These resilient fish—they can live up to 25 years in the right environment—are a great beginner pet because they’re easy to care for. They tend to get large, growing to about 12-16 inches, so they require 30 gallons of water per fish.
  • Tetras: These small schooling fish come in many varieties like neon tetras, cardinal tetras, and black neon tetras. As with most schooling fish, keep them in groups of six or more because they enjoy safety in numbers.

Maintaining Your Fish: Saltwater vs. Freshwater

Both freshwater and saltwater aquariums require a tank, preferably with a hood, substrate for the bottom, and a filter that can process the water 5-10 times per hour.

Saltwater

Think of your saltwater aquarium as your very own slice of ocean. The condition of ocean water (pH, salinity, chloride) doesn’t change much as these bodies of water are known for their consistent and stable water chemistry. Your home tank requires the same consistent environment, which means you will need to change the water and clean the tank more often than you would a freshwater aquarium.

While saltwater tanks are roughly twice as expensive to set up as a freshwater tank, you will reap the rewards. Filtration is the key to a healthy saltwater aquarium, so they require more equipment, such as powerheads, protein skimmers, and live rock. For more tips on how to maintain a saltwater tank, read our guide to saltwater beginner setup.

Freshwater

Unlike oceans, most freshwater environments experience cyclical changes, such as flooding and drying, which impact the chemical composition and temperature of the water. The inconsistency of freshwater environments means that freshwater fish are a bit more hardy and able to survive in a variety of water conditions (5 to 9 pH).

A freshwater tank can be a glass or acrylic of any size. For beginners, start with a simple tank, a good filtration system, and a fish-only environment. Implementing live plants into a freshwater environment can make managing the tank a bit more complicated.

Fresh and Saltwater Conditioner

Hang-On Filter

Get the Biggest Tank Your Budget and Space Allows

The aquarium you choose will be your fishes’ whole world, so buy the biggest you can afford and have space for in your home. Some tips for choosing the right tank:

  • Let the Fish Decide: Find out the space requirements for any fish that you’ll be keeping and follow them. But remember, the minimum space requirements are just that—minimums. If you can buy a larger tank than the minimum, do so for the comfort and health of your fish. A saltwater tank should be at least 30 gallons for best results.
  • More Salt, Less Fish: Saltwater fish tend to need more room than their freshwater fish counterpart because saltwater cannot hold the same amount of oxygen as freshwater. This means that same-sized tanks can hold more freshwater fish than saltwater fish because the saltwater tank has 20% less oxygen in it.
  • Avoid Fisheye Shapes: As a general rule, choose the aquarium that provides the greater surface area. The greater the surface area of the tank, the better the gas exchange at the water surface. Long tanks have more surface area and aren’t as deep. High tanks are obviously quite deep but not much surface area. Fish-eye tanks provide a modern appearance but are generally unsuitable because of an extreme reduction in surface area and harder to clean surfaces.

50 Gallon Acrylic Aquarium

30″-36″ LED Light

Aquarium Plants for Beginners

Whether you’re starting a freshwater or saltwater aquarium, experts agree that fish-only environments are the easiest to maintain. However, plants can be a beautiful addition to your environment and have the ability to consume the toxic nitrogen compounds produced by fish waste. Here are a few we recommend for beginners:

Saltwater

Saltwater plants are harder to come by than freshwater plants, but worth the effort. Adding the right plants to saltwater creates an environment that more closely resembles one in nature.

  • Halimeda: Because they’re found in oceans across the world, this plant fits into just about any environment. Also known as the Money Plant, it has irregular oval-shaped leaves that resemble coins.
  • Green Finger Algae: This gorgeous plant with a vibrant green color is a welcome addition to any aquarium. It’s a lush, dense plant that’s easy to care for and adds a bit of softness to newly established tanks. Most herbivores aren’t interested in eating it, so it’s compatible with most tank inhabitants.
  • Red Gracilaria Algae: If you’re having a difficult time keeping the nutrients balanced in your tank, consider adding a red Gracilaria. This plant is extremely effective at keeping excess nutrients from building up and can help get rid of invasive algae growth.

Freshwater

Besides making the aquarium look more appealing, live plants can be a tasty meal for your fish. This is especially helpful when your tanks has plant-eating fish, as they require frequent feedings.

  • Marimo Moss Ball: This velvety green orb is actually a ball of cladophora algae and is known as the easiest “plant” to maintain. Lightly roll the ball in your hands every time you do a water change to maintain its round shape and to ensure all parts get access to light. They’re inexpensive, so people often buy many to fill their betta or goldfish tanks.
  • Bacopa Caroliniana: This is a good beginner stem plant option. Native to the American South, it has a straight, vertical stem with small, roundish leaves. While it can grow in low light, the leaf tips turn coppery-red in the presence of high light and iron dosing.
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii: This low-maintenance, slow-growing plant does well under almost any light and in almost any substrate. It comes in many varieties, including green, brown, tropica, and red.

Conclusion

No matter what you decide—saltwater or freshwater—having a fish tank in your home provides the healing benefits of nature. Perhaps the answer is one of each!

With saltwater fish, you may end up investing a bit more time and money to make sure you maintain the consistent temperature and pH they need to survive, but you will marvel at their beauty. A slightly less magnificent species, freshwater fish require a bit less effort and investment overall. Watching goldfish grow can be quite rewarding, and you may even decide to install a backyard pond for your new friends later on.

Just imagine the subtle water sounds bubbling up in your living room or the brightly colored fins swishing through your bedroom. Get ready to experience the calming influence and mood-boosting phenomenon of keeping fish.

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