Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Fishkeeping is awesome. There's always something new to learn, to do, or to experiment with, and when you think you've got the hang of something, you can switch species or water types and start all over again. While buying that 20 gallon fish tank, heater and Aquaclear filter might have only cost you about $100, things start to add up quickly when you get into multiple aquariums. Here are a few tips to help you save money when you're trying to build a fish room.
When you first start out, 'used' is the keyword
There are just as many people bailing on the hobby as there are getting into it. I once read somewhere the 80% of people who get into fishkeeping ditch the hobby in the first year (will update with a link to the stat when I find it). While this is sad for the hobby, it's a benefit to you. Make second-hand sites like Kijiji and Craiglist your friend, check out auction sites like Aquabid for fish and equipment. At the end of each month, you'll see a whole bunch of postings from people trying to ditch their fish tanks and equipment because they are moving, and this is your chance to snag some dirt-cheap stuff. Our whole fish room started as a $300 mission where I bought and sold used equipment and tanks with the intention of building a breeding room. From there it grew into 50+ tanks, racking, RO systems, whole house water filters, 180 gallon aquariums, etc. and I'm proud to say it literally didn't cost a thing (or my wife would have murdered me). For a period of time, my life seemed like an episode of Storage Wars but with fish tanks.
Buying used aquariums and equipment
Nervous about buying used equipment? Follow these tips:
Should have manufacture dates in the top trim, you should be able to see it. Stay under 10 years. Smaller tanks can go longer, as I have some 10 gallons that are over 20 years old, but I wouldn't trust a large tank of the same age. If there is no date, this potentially a REALLY old tank.
If the manufacturer didn't put a date on a sticker, check the silicone. If should be rubbery and slightly malleable when you push on it. You shouldn't separation in between the silicone and the glass when looking from the exterior (air bubbles). The silicone should not be significantly damaged or lifting on the interior.
No cracks, chips or bullseyes in the glass. You cannot fix this with silicone, they will bust. It's not "if" but "when."
Trim doesn't really matter. It can be cracked (check the glass underneath though), but this can help to show the age of the aquarium and how it's been treated. Trim is cosmetic in smaller aquariums. Larger aquariums that require braces have them built-in with glass partitions.
Check wooden stands for water damage. They were meant to hold aquariums, not get soaked by them. Wooden stands are typically pressboard and lose structural integrity when constantly soaked and dried. If you see bubbling or rot, walk away.
Check steel stands for rust, bowing or impact damage. If there's a dent in a leg, the whole stand is compromised.
Filters (any model)
Check the impeller for chipped blades.
Put your finger in the impeller shaft and check for scoring.
If it's been sitting dry, find out how long it's been that way. The seals may need to be replaced if dry for longer than a few months, and you can pick up o-ring kits at your local fish store or on Amazon for cheap.
Do they turn on? That's half the battle.
Is there moisture in the tube? If so, the seal has let go and the heater is garbage.
Does it shock you when submerged? This is a crappy way to check, but hey, it happens :)
Look outside of the hobby
There are many ways to save money and get what you need without buying "official aquarium stuff." Want sand in your aquariums? Buy bulk silica sand at 1/4 of the price of aquarium substrate. Need stands for multiple aquariums? Buy industrial or retail racks at auction or from close-out sales. All of our aquariums are on industrial racking...do the math here, it's about $89 for a 20 gallon aquarium stand, and about $150 for a used industrial rack. One industrial rack can support 2000lbs per shelf (depending on the model) and hold 18 of our fish tanks, nice and organized. That's a lot of money saved with just buying a rack. It breaks my brain when I walk into a breeder's fish room to see aquariums on stands placed all over their basement. Rocks and wood for decoration are easy to source as well.
One filter system for all of your fish
Simply put, get an air system. For $100 you can get a great air pump that can power a small fish room. Sure, you can put HOB or canister filters on every tank, this is your fish room! Since this is about saving money, remember that you need electricity and hydro costs can sink you. Pay attention to the wattage being used by the filters you're selecting. Two good sized canister filters can consume the same amount of electricity that this air pump uses, but this pump will filter ~25 more tanks. Go buy a bunch of foam filters, 500' of airline tubing, and you're operational in no time. You should be able to get 35 tanks running with filters for about $550CAD. That's less than the cost of a Fluval FX6.
Heat the room
Hydro costs really do start to add up, and another way to save money is to heat the room, rather than the individual fish tanks. If you have 20 tanks, and each has a 100w heater in it, you're pulling 2000w of electricity (maths!). A space heater typically draws 1500w of electricity, so if you're running more than 15 tanks, it pays to get a good space heater. A super special trick is to go buy a dehumidifier instead of a space heater. The dehumidifier will add heat to the room due to its process, and also remove extra moisture to keep mold issues at bay. This is really helpful if your set-up is in a house. While the temperature is not controllable, our small dehumidifier kept a medium-sized basement at a lovely 83F. Great for the fish!
Ditch the chemicals
The problem is that it's not just hydro that starts to add up...everything does. Anything you consume repetitively starts to become a drain on your resources. If you live in an area where chlorine is added to your tap water, well, you're in luck (sorry chloramine people!). Go pick up a large polypropylene tank and use it to age your water. I have a six-foot 125 gallon poly tank that has a bubbler in it to dissipate the chlorine (hooked up to our air system), and it's great having a reservoir of water. The tank cost me $150CAD, and it's paid for itself 5x over easily by saving me from using chlorine remover. These tanks come in all shapes and sizes depending on your needs and the space you have available.
This feels like it should go without saying, but jump on every opportunity to buy bulk. If you have a fish room, you'll never again "just need one" of something. You'll always need a few, and then a back-up. Things like air line tubing, filters, fish food, or even aquariums. You'll be surprised at what can randomly break outside of normal business hours. Don't miss out on bulk deals, and make sure you've got a nice, large storage space in your house.
If you're starting a fish room, you've obviously got a knack for the hobby and a specialty. Pick an aquatic animal, breed it, and trade it to your local fish stores for credit. Fish stores prefer locally bred fish and animals and there are so many benefits for the store when they buy local fish, most importantly they can immediately post it for sale. While no fish store appreciates someone showing up unannounced with 500 guppies or 200 angelfish, you should start building relationships with local store managers so that you can trade some of what you grow for stuff you need.
Save money, now save time!
Hopefully, these tips sparked a few ideas on how to save money in your fish room, and we'd love to hear what you as well. In your fish room it's just as important to save time as well, and setting up things like a drip system can really help you get your life back unless, of course, you like spending all day doing water changes. :)
Leave a comment, a question, or even a contradiction down below and we can learn together.
Andrei Vexler is an aquarist with over 20 years in the fish hobby. Having run a fish room with over 700 freshwater and saltwater aquariums, Andrei found his passion in South American cichlids, particularly Altum angelfish. Growing and wholesaling angels to the GTA and the surrounding area, he shares his years of experience in his blog for advanced aquarists.