The austere aquarist

Life does make it hard to be a fishkeeper, as there are many hurdles that get in the way. What I’m focussing on here is the cost of the hobby. It’s spiralling, and it is in no way the fault of the aquatic stores or their suppliers. The reason for spiralling costs are actually down to much larger economic factors that, short of voting, there is very little that you or I can do anything about. And that is what is wrong with the world, as what should be one of the most pleasurable, constructive and approachable of hobbies is being strangled to death.

I work in the aquatic trade (which makes it even more tragic,) but it does also offer me some insider perspective that I would like to share. Other than that I consider myself an average fishkeeper – average age, average size family, and earning an average wage, but when I’m at the stage that I’m considering packing it all in because the system beat me, when actually it’s my job to inspire, educate and recruit new hobbyists, that’s a sure sign that things are bad and need remedying.

So this is a last ditch attempt at inspiring and educating other fishkeepers, and hopefully myself, into being able to beat the system and keep the hobby going both for themselves, and others.

Public enemy number one

The biggest hobby killer for me, and the one that I feel on a monthly or quarterly basis, is the cost of electricity. Electricity has doubled in price since 2004, so as far as my wallet is concerned, I’m running twice the tanks and ponds I was back then. I shudder to think how relatively cheap electric was back in the 80s when I kept fish, and the years and decades before that, when working men in flat caps could afford it, before the days of interest free credit.

So short of tapping into someone else’s electricity (cannabis growers do this apparently,) my advice is to do what I’m doing now, and review absolutely everything.

Energy use into hundreds of watts only tends to come from two things these days, lighting and heating. Fit polystyrene sheets to the outside back of your aquarium, and if you can, the sides too. If you’re wanting something more tasteful to insulate against heat loss purchase some structured, 3D aquarium backgrounds that you stick inside the aquarium before filling with water, and again if you can, apply it to the tank sides too.


If you’re aquarium has facility for it, fit tight-fitting coverglasses, and on top of that, a hood. If I’m ever off work for long enough I intend to experiment with DIY double glazing cover glasses. Two sheets of glass with air sealed in between is double glazing. Three sheets with two air layers is triple glazing and so-on. Clear polycarbonate “double glazing” sheets are available for greenhouses so this should make a good insulator on top of a fish tank. Aquariums built from double or triple glazing for better heat conservation – now there’s an idea…

For the ultimate in budget fishkeeping I have even seen polystyrene boxes used in fish transportation converted into cheap tanks, buy placing a glass viewing window in one of the sides. They’ll keep the heat in and the cold out alright. There isn’t much you can do to find an energy efficient heater at this stage, as a watt of heat is a watt of heat no matter how you generate it. Interestingly the now lack of heat that metal halide lights and power compact T5’s once generated as a bi-product means that heater/thermostats are coming on more now they’ve been replaced by LED. More about them later.

If every penny counts, and it does for me, even review the sorts of tropical fish you keep and their heat requirements. Even tropical waters experience seasonal change with cooler temperatures in the wet, rainy season and warmer temperatures in the dry season. That should mean that you can drop the temperature on your Cardinal tetras by a few degrees for extended periods from 28C to say 25C. If you’re average room temperature is in the low twenties even that will make a difference to your bill. Be smart with your settings too. If you’re fish can take it, go slightly cooler in the winter months when our climate is cooler, and if you need a blast of say 28C or even 30C, do it in the height of summer in a heatwave. With a bit of luck mother nature might even reach that water temperature for you, even in the Uk.

Temperate fish come in many shapes and sizes.

Temperate fish

The ultimate energy savers in terms of heating have to be temperate fish. They are much more widely available than you think, and if you put a gun to my head I think I could reel off the names of 100 species that I could pick up right now from shops in a 20 mile radius of me, anywhere in the country. It’s no longer just about Zebra danios and White Cloud Mountain minnows – think Denisoni barbs, some Corydoras and all Scleromystax, dwarf snakeheads, Gymnogeophagus, or Crystal red shrimp, and lots, lots more.

You don’t need a heater at all for temperates, as long as room temperatures are maintained above 18C year round.


The other electric stinger is aquarium lighting. I’ve been using LED lighting for 12 years now. I sell it too. But if you want near sunlight conditions for the most demanding of corals or aquatic plants you will still end-up using close to pre-led amounts of energy achieving that. 150 watt metal halides have moved over for, well, 150 watt LED lights, and twin 39 watt T5s have been replaced by twin 40 watt LED lamps. LED doesn’t produce so much heat though so you are far less likely to need to employ a refrigerant cooler in summer time, and if you do need to, it should definitely be on less often.

What you can do with LED however is control it. Whereas we used to go full power with metal halide and T5 for 10 to 12 hours, with LEDs you can ramp up and ramp down from 0-100%, meaning you can also ramp up and down your power consumption, at the swipe of a smartphone. Ramp up to full power for six hours or less and see what you can get away with. On my 5x2x2 reef tank I have up to 370 watts of LED at my fingertips, yet I arc my power and brightness up and then down throughout the day, and have found that my corals will still grow under a midday “blast” of just 75% power for four hours. The other two and half hours each side of that, on what is now a nine hour photoperiod, are actually lit on a fraction of that. And knock the color channels down and you save energy too as the lamp is running on less power. Only all channels on 100%  power means one 100% of its energy rating.

I’d like to say that if things are really tight then don’t have plants or live corals at all. Then you can use very low wattage lighting and only have it on while you are viewing the fish. If you go out – turn it off. Ambient lighting is fine for fish, even better for them in some cases. And you’ll get less algae.

But on the positive side there are some really cool low light species for both freshwater and marine. Join the super cool marine club and keep non-photosynthetic (NPS,) corals, which can be some of the most colourful and beautiful invertebrates you can buy and keep. You’ll be talking just tens of watts for those.

And for plants, Anubias, ferns, mosses, Crypts, and the newly popular Bucephalandra are all low light tolerant. I grow all of those in another five foot tank with 2 x 90 watt LEDs on just 10% power. That’s a five foot planted tank lit and growing for just 18 watts.   

Exchange rates

Worth considering too is what goes on behind the scenes with the strength of our currency against others worldwide. Over a ten year period the strength of the pound against the US dollar, Euro and Chinese Yuan has dropped considerably. A lot of the tropical fish industry comes from abroad, be it fish, plants, corals, filters or electrical components. This means that a fish which may have cost $2 would have converted to £1 for example in 2007 when there were two US dollars to every £1. As I write this the US dollar exchange rate is 1.29, so that $2 fish now costs us £1.55. There are other costs to be built in but if say that fish would have been on sale over here for £3-5 in 2007, in 2017 it would now be £4.65-£7.75. The retailers can’t charge any less because they would be making less profit margin, and they are already making less margin because they are paying more for electricity and water than they used to be. Factor in those other increases and they actually have to be charging more still to maintain the same profit margin they were making in 2007. See the problem? The cost of getting into the hobby goes up because tanks and equipment cost more. The livestock costs more and the cost of powering the tank costs more too.

I look in horror now at common tetras which are now two or three pounds each, when they used to cost a pound. Large fish absorb the full air freight charges as you can only fit a few into a polystyrene box. Even medium to large angelfish can be £20 or more. But shop around.

Pound shop

I was pleasantly surprised to see one store publish a list of fish they were selling for just £1, only for the regional competitor to follow suit and do the same. And as I age I take greater pleasure in re-keeping common aquarium favourites, which earned their place as favourites for many reasons including pattern, hardiness and a peaceful disposition. Save money and you can still keep fish. Spend wisely and you can continue to enjoy your hobby, in an ever more expensive world.

Jeremy Gay

Author of three fishkeeping books and lifelong fishkeeper. Experience includes editor of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, editor of Pet Product Marketing magazine, multi award- winning livestock manager and aquatic store manager.