Living Reef Vs. Artificial Reef Aquariums: 5 Things to Consider Before Buying Your Dream Aquarium

5 Things to Consider Before Buying Your Dream Aquarium - Creative Coral Design Blog Image

When deciding to buy an aquarium you are faced with the very important choice of Living Reef or Artificial Reef? There is a tremendous amount of misinformation, misconception, and a general lack of understanding about the differences between the two scenarios. It’s important to find someone you trust to offer you the correct information so you can make the right decision. At Creative Coral Design, we can offer you the guidance to help you make the choices that best suit your lifestyle for your custom-made aquarium


A Living Reef aquarium is a virtually complete ecosystem. The live rock used to build the base of the reef brings with it the bacteria necessary for biological filtration. The fish feed on both prepared foods from you, and living organisms on the reef. The fish waste products are then broken down by the “clean-up crew” (various crabs, shrimp, snails, sea cucumbers, etc.), and filtered out by various clams, sponges, anemones, and corals.

In an Artificial Reef aquarium, there is not a “complete” ecosystem.  There is no live rock, therefore the surface area for the aerobic bacteria must be created.  Utilizing a “wet-dry” or “trickle” filter, where water from the aquarium is trickled over high surface area media, such as the well-known “bio-balls,” and returned to the aquarium, does this.  The bacteria are usually purchased in a concentrated form, and introduced into the aquarium to “seed” the biological filtration.  There are no invertebrates in a synthetic reef aquarium; therefore, medications can be used to treat sick fish.


While Living Reef aquariums can include a higher overall biodiversity because it contains many species of invertebrates, the fish selection is limited due to their feeding habits. In a custom-made living reef aquarium, a poorly chosen fish may constantly nibble on your ornamental (and expensive) clam(s) until they are eaten entirely, or the clam will stay closed to protect itself and end up starving to death. There are many beautiful fish that are “reef-safe.” The options depend greatly on the other fish and invertebrates you have or would like to obtain.

An Artificial Reef aquarium allows for a slightly larger selection of possible fish choices.  There are some fish that primarily feed on live foods found in the live rock that will not survive long-term in a faux reef aquarium.  While these fish should be avoided, there are many fish that would feed only occasionally on coral polyps or clam mantles, and they will do very well on prepared and frozen foods and not damage the synthetic corals.  These can include many species of angelfish, triggerfish, basses, eels, lionfish, and many more. 


There is a uniqueness to the hustle and bustle of a healthy, well-established Living Reef aquarium.  The movement of fish, corals and other invertebrates seems to take on an almost rhythmic flow.  It takes time to establish the aquarium to get the full effect of all the diversity. 

An Artificial Reef has a beauty all its own. The faux coral decor is cast in a multitude of realistic, beautiful colors from real coral skeletons.  One of the best features of our artificial reefs and fake corals is that the base structure can be custom-made to bring your wildest vision into reality.  If you’d like to see a simulated deep-water pillar or patch reef, we can do that; there are many possibilities.


In a Living Reef aquarium, precise water chemistry control is crucial, because the invertebrates are sensitive to a multitude of parameters.  Water testing should be performed weekly. There are a few more chemicals to add than in a fish-only scenario.  Due to the addition of calcium for the corals, a purple-encrusting alga grows on everything and it’s fairly difficult to scrape off some equipment and certain areas of the aquarium.  A more expensive, higher quality salt that is a true representation of the chemical percentages of true sea salt is generally recommended for the longevity of the invertebrates.  More regular water changes are a must.  If there is a power outage water flow needs to be restored or an air stone added within two hours and maintained for the duration of the outage.

In an Artificial Reef aquarium, water chemistry is extremely important, but fish are much more tolerant of small variations than invertebrates are, and certain chemicals do not need to be kept at such precise levels. Supplemental chemical additions are fewer and farther between in a synthetic reef aquarium. Water flow in a synthetic reef aquarium is very important but does not need to be as high. Since there are no invertebrates to filter feed, sponges, filter pads and canisters should be employed to help clarify the water. These will need to be inspected, cleaned, and/or replaced regularly. If there is a power outage, water flow must be restored or an air stone must be added within six hours. 


A custom-made Living Reef aquarium will typically cost more to operate simply in your power bill due to the intense lighting required.  The cost increases due to the higher quality of salt required are relatively minimal.  The cost for additional chemicals is relatively minimal, especially if a calcium reactor is employed.  If you require maintenance by a maintenance company, weekly service is highly recommended.  This will also add to your operating costs over a synthetic reef aquarium.

An Artificial Reef custom-made aquarium will cost slightly less to operate given that there are typically fewer lights.  If a maintenance company is employed, a monthly or bi-monthly service is generally recommended.  The overall initial costs are about the same for a custom artificial reef and a living reef aquarium of comparable size. The long-term cost is higher with a living reef aquarium. 

Whether you choose a live or artificial reef, adding an aquarium to your home will bring the ocean’s beauty inside adding a unique element that is enjoyable and proven to relieve stress.  

Here at Creative Coral Design, we make sure to provide the finest coral replicas, reef inserts, and custom aquarium design services for residential, commercial, and public aquariums. Tap the button below so we can address your aquarium concerns today. Whether you talk to us or give us feedback, Creative Coral Design is always willing to listen.

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