Freshwater vs. Saltwater Aquarium: Which is Best?

When choosing between freshwater and saltwater aquariums, factors to consider include budget, experience, space, and personal preference.

Aug 10, 2023By Natasha Elder
freshwater or saltwater aquarium

When you decide to become a fish keeper, the very first step you need to take is deciding whether your aquarium will be a freshwater or saltwater tank. It’s a simple enough first step, but it sure isn’t an easy one to take. Hopefully, today’s article will help you make this decision.

The decision to keep saltwater or freshwater fish is dependent on several factors, including your level of experience, available space, budget constraints, and personal preference. Ready to take the plunge?

What Is Your Fish-Keeping Budget?

money jar coins timber background
Image credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Like so many other decisions in life, the choice between freshwater and saltwater may not be up to you to decide at all, but rather up to your wallet. One of the biggest factors to consider when picking up a fishkeeping hobby is the financial one.

Even if you’re lucky enough to pick up most of your setup in garage sales or pet store clearances, starting an aquarium will always come with a price. It will cost you a lot less to start a freshwater aquarium than it will a saltwater aquarium. Both tank types will need filters, lighting, heaters, and thermometers, but these are normally much cheaper for freshwater setups. In turn, saltwater setups are a bit more complicated and need more equipment, which means more money.

All this needs to be considered, and you haven’t even got to the stars of the show: the fish! Plainly speaking, saltwater fish tend to be fancier and more difficult to come by, while freshwater fish are typically more affordable and easier to purchase. If you’re on a tight budget, a freshwater setup is the way to go.

What Is Your Fish-Keeping Experience?

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Image credit: Betta Source

Are you a beginner fishkeeper? Is visiting an aquarium your favorite pastime? Have you owned fish before, or will you be dipping your toes in the fishkeeping water for the first time? It takes a lot to maintain a balanced aquarium, and sometimes the sheer level of tank maintenance to-dos can be overwhelming for newbies. Your level of experience and history of fishkeeping plays a pretty big part in determining whether a freshwater or saltwater tank is suitable for you.

Freshwater aquariums are typically more forgiving and are easier to maintain. Freshwater fish are also generally hardy fish that are easy to care for and have a higher tolerance level to changes in diet and fluctuations in water quality – this is why they are considered to be such good pets for beginners.

On the other hand, saltwater aquariums have complex checkboxes that must be ticked, including pH, nutrient, and salinity levels. Likewise, saltwater fish – though they’re incredible additions to aquariums – are high maintenance. Unless you’re up for a challenge and have a basic working knowledge of biological filtration and the like, it may be best to gain experience with freshwater tanks before dipping your toes in the world of saltwater tanks.

How Much Space Do You Have?

saltwater fish tank aquarium set up blue tang fish
Image credit: Flickr

Another hugely important factor to consider is the amount of space you have available to dedicate to an aquarium. No matter which of the two routes you decide to take, you’re going to need to sacrifice a fair bit of space to make way for your newfound fish friends.

While saltwater and freshwater tanks alike are available in various sizes, saltwater tanks will almost always require a much larger setup due to the specific needs of the coral and fish that will be calling it home. This is generally because saltwater fish tend to be more active, and as such, they demand more swimming space compared to their freshwater counterparts.

Additionally, the coral life that is so important to a saltwater setup also needs enough room for sufficient water flow and adequate growth. Add on some bits of specialized equipment, such as sumps, and your available space will likely be filled to the point of overflow. In short, if space is a rare commodity in your home, a freshwater tank may be the more appropriate choice.

Which Is Your Personal Preference?

saltwater fish aquarium clownfish anemone
Image credit: David Clode on Unsplash

And, finally, let your wants steer your decision. Personal preference should play a significant role in the decision-making process. All the above is fine and dandy, but what you want – be that a specific fish you’re desperate to own or whether you’re after a distinct visual aesthetic - should be taken into account.

Some people are captivated by the vibrant colors and exotically diverse mesmerizing marine life found in saltwater aquariums. Others are drawn to simply set up versatile tanks that house fish that can be bonded with and are visually appealing without the added complexities of maintaining a very delicate ecosystem.

Your interests and what YOU find visually appealing and enjoyable should matter as much as your budget, your available space, and your level of experience. It’s also worth remembering this decision doesn’t have to be permanent; what’s stopping you from adding a whole other tank to your setup and enjoying the best of both worlds?

Natasha Elder
By Natasha Elder

Natasha is a mother, a wife, a writer, and a serial cat owner. Though she is currently in mourning, her heart not ready for another feline family member just yet, she has always lived life with four paws beside her. She loves – you guessed it – cats, as well as creatures of the fluffy, scaly, and finned variety. Natasha longs to meet Sir David Attenborough one day and is passionate about responsible pet ownership