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Related Articles: Size Doesn't Always
Matter! Thoughts on the Desire to Create Bigger Marine
Aquariums By Scott Fellman, Marine System
Components, Aquarium Stands, Canopies, Covers & Lighting
Fixtures, Used Gear, Canopies
The Conscientious Reef
Tanks, Stands & Covers for
Marine Aquarium Systems
Flexibility is the hallmark of a successful species…
and reef aquarists. From the get-go, in selecting the principal
components of your captive sea you set the stage for all possibilities.
Make no mistakes; the picking of your tank, cover and stand for your
system is crucially important. Here is a detailing of key questions and
my input in putting together your basic physical system.
Aquariums: Size: Imitating Conditions of the
"How big is the sea?" So the song goes. It's
huge! The oceans vastness implies features that sustain its life. Some
of these you probably know very well; they are of importance to all
Stability: Chemically and physically ocean water is
quite homogeneous worldwide; about the same mix of salts, specific
gravity, even temperature over the enormous span of the tropics. It
makes sense that the biota there, in particularly the attached and
slow-moving forms exhibit narrow (compared to unstable, puny freshwater
environments) tolerance to adverse or varying conditions.
Cleanliness: Here is that "ideal"- high
water quality; naturally. As with stability, the largeness of the seas
and their currents and wave action continuously washing the reefs,
conveying sex cells, wastes, oxygen, carbon dioxide, chemical
nutrients, food and plankton, preserves consistent but dynamic
homeostatic conditions. Another paradox. Water is rarely stagnant in
Dilution of Chemical and Biological Contamination: To
the neophyte a less well known challenge of keeping captive reef life
is the chemical and "other biological" interaction between
species and specimens that is intensified by our smaller volumes, weak
circulation and crowding. How many groups of marine organisms can you
cite as releasers or sources of toxic substances? Species of soft
corals, puffers, sea cucumbers and more are capable of selectively and
generally wiping out a system.
Of consequence to the reef hobbyist is how to approach the
stable, clean and toxin-diluted conditions of the real seas. Other than
sparse stocking and feeding, two means of maintaining consistent high
water quality in a small volume of seawater exist; maximum volume (for stability) and
appropriate filtration and circulation.
How large a system is ideal? Is there an upper limit? How
about lower? In my opinion, forty gallons is an absolute minimum for a
reef system. Smaller volumes are too restrictive in what they can
support to interest me; and given to "crashing" much too
easily. An unnoticed death, loss of power, a "little helper"
overfeeding can mean bouillabaisse in a few hours in smaller
Yes, there are stores, hobbyists, even other writers on reef
topics who go so far as to endorse small (i.e. less than 40 gallons)
systems. I think they're remiss for doing so. Take a look at the
real cost per gallon of maintaining such necessarily depauperate
communities. Relatively VERY high costs for lighting, filtration,
livestock replacement, and labor compared with realistic size
The "tank" part of a reef system is decidedly cheap
in the long haul, compared with the costs to acquire other components,
livestock and especially operation. Don't limit or handicap
yourself; get as big a system as you think you'll ever want and
There are two elements in considering desired reef tank
shape; aesthetic and functional. The first, what "looks good"
should take a far second place to what "works". Functionally,
reef tanks should be more flat and wide versus tall and narrow, so
called "show" designated formats in the trade.
"Standard" gauge systems have outstanding advantages over
Set-up & Manipulation: How long are your arms? Or
alternatively, is the system so gigantic that you intend to go diving
in it? Some folks practically have to due to tank depth. Putting in
equipment, rock and sand can be just the beginning of your
body-dunking. Routine cleaning, adjustments, the at-times nightmare of
attempted livestock removal… You want your system to be the
epitome of "user-friendly"; shallower is better. Eighteen
inches of depth is preferable to twenty-four, which beats out the
practical maximum of thirty.
Likewise, wider tanks are preferable over narrower. In
general I'd avoid aquariums of less than fourteen inch width;
twenty if the system is to be viewed/aquascaped from both front and
back. The logic of this wide-body preference is obvious to anyone who
has set-up and maintained a reef tank. Rock can't be stacked,
adequate space around the perimeter made for circulation and animal
movement, or your cleaning otherwise.
Material of Tank Construction:
What characteristics should the "stuff" of your
tanks walls have? Strong, chemically-inert, attractive certainly,
allowing flexibility, and reasonably inexpensive are qualities that
come to mind in choosing the material of construction for reef
Strength to resist breakage. Especially when moving
reef systems are prone to splitting a seam, cracking, and breaking
Chemical Non-reactivity is absolutely necessary. Metal
contamination is particularly troublesome. Any resin or epoxy must be
thoroughly cured before near or underwater use.
Attractiveness: Is everyone happy with the appearance
of the tank itself? This is almost never an issue once the system's
up and going. With beautiful set-ups no one can even remember what
"the box" looks like.
By flexibility, I'm referring to something more
than whether the container will hold water. How easily can it be
modified; cut, drilled to accommodate plumbing, other gear? How big is
the opening to the top, or to what degree can it be modified to allow
adding/removing large objects, or permit maximum light
Real World Choices: All-glass (with or without plastic
"frames) aquariums should be drilled for all through-the-tank
fittings before silicone assembly; cutting them later is a hassle or
worse. Overflow towers of whatever material are easily affixed to their
structural walls at any time.
Fiberglass and resin, epoxies and wood, polyethylene, PVC
sheet… there are a number (but I don't know what it is) of
variations of aquarium construction just using glass or acrylic as
viewing panels, and 'other' material as the rest of the tank.
Unless you have a real deal on these novel construction materials and
the tools to work them, I'd still with all-glass
Acrylic or Plexiglas aquariums which I prefer over glass and
all other materials for home-size systems for a few
Acrylic tanks are tough; some six times stronger than the
equivalent thickness of glass. Far more forgiving on
less-than-perfect stands or during earthquakes or bumps.
Acrylic is a better thermal insulator. Remember you have to
pay to keep the system heated/cooled higher/lower than
Acrylic is easy to "customize"; it can be
drilled, cut, added to with ease. This minimizes salt creep and messy
Acrylic tanks are clearer than glass, which weathers
Acrylic tanks are beautiful with their corners either
end-butted or heat bent; they're gorgeous.
Acrylic tanks are lightweight; much lighter than glass or
composites. Moving them is a breeze comparatively.
For all these reasons acrylic tanks hold their resale worth
high. Other tanks lose half their value when they leave the store. I
have seen acrylics sell for more than they were purchased for, years
Yes, acrylic tanks do bow more and will scratch if rubbed
or struck with something hard; but so does
glass. And acrylic can be fixed for scratches relatively
easily. My advice should be obvious; buy acrylic. My number two choice,
a good quality all-glass tank pre-drilled (if wanted) for water
Tank tops of several sorts are functionally useful for
keeping livestock in, hands and dust out, and reducing heat and water
loss by evaporation. For canopy types, lighting and more might be
affixed therein. What about looks? They can be attractive as hoods and
as such block the glare of overhead lighting.
Other than cost and cleaning, there are a few other problems
with tops, especially covers. Unfortunately, even the best in-between
water covers also block, reflect and shift the wavelength of artificial
light sources. Hence, many 'reefers' eschew cover use. If you
do employ them, get ones that are easy to keep clean and be religious
concerning their maintenance. If you're doing away with covering
your system be sure to otherwise provide for "jumpers" by
lowering water level, maybe employing a rim around the edge of the
tanks top, and/or lay a grid over the tanks opening. Watch specific
gravity "drift". In a low humidity setting, the amount of
water (and heat) lost (or gained with a chilled system) can be
surprising. Get in the habit of checking and adjusting your specific
gravity daily in open-top systems; or adopt an automated system to do
it for you.
The biggest gripe aquarists have with covers is
access. Particularly with large systems having lighting,
ultraviolet shields, and air-cooling fans built in, tops can be
heavy and cumbersome. If you build or buy one
of these hefty beauties do arrange a mechanism (pulleys, or split the
top in 1/2s, 1/3s…) for getting it up and out of the way so you
can get into the system without getting burned or bruised. Oh, and do
include a small access port for minor work, like feeding.
The physical structure supporting your reef system
must be level, planar, strong, and possibly roomy
Level relative to the center of gravity of the planet.
Use a good carpenter's level tool, or better still, the tank's
bottom with a thin layer of water to determine level and adjust with
shimming the legs/base of the stand.
By the word Planar, I mean flat on the bottom.
Use a single piece of something; plywood, plastic, closed-cell
foam… to support the entire underside of your aquarium evenly.
Unevenness and sudden jolts are your aquariums' twin nemeses. For
"floating bottom" types of frame construction, common with
commercial glass aquariums, and "no bottom" store-bought
stands utilize the same "great equalizer" under the tanks
bottom that does come in contact with the stand unless they are
perfectly planar (check for light between the tank and stand or
Strong means the stand can support the force of the
system on top of it as well as possible lateral forces (earthquakes,
child-rocking). As a structure it should be braced in three dimensions,
including attachment to walls, floor, wedging between furniture. As to
fasteners, bolts are better than screws, which far outshine nails. For
putting metal stand pieces together, welding is best.
Space Down Under: How much equipment (sumps, pumps,
protein skimmer…), plumbing, outright junk do you intend to
situate under your tank? What about the placement of electrical cords,
meters, chemical dosers…? Don't fool yourself; there's
never too much room underneath. Should you be designing, building your
own, double the space planned. Trust me here. Getting a factory-made
stand or paying someone to make you one? Pay attention to spaces,
cutouts for overflows, returns, conduits for power and other electric
items; You don't want to drill through your stand
Take the time to think out these important
elements to your reef system; this will save you tremendous headaches
and money. Having the best tank, cover and stand initially not only
sets the stage for your creation, but is the only way you can hope to
optimize your reef experience.
Agbayani, Nestor. 1995. Beam sizes for aquarium
stands. FAMA 8/95.
Bauman, Edward. 1990. Editor's Corner:
Mini-tanks, big problems. The popularity of tiny tanks maybe
unfortunate for the hobby. AFM 8/90.
Bickmeyer, Walter. 1975. Build a cabinet for your
fish tanks. TFH 6/75.
Birdsell, Ben. 1988. Over the counter (on DIY
glass tank construction). FAMA 11/88.
Brosseau, Richard. 1992. How to build a heavy duty
aquarium stand. FAMA 9/92.
Flood, A. Colin. 1987. Tini-Reef; A small tank
with all the right ingredients for marine filtration success for
beginners. FAMA 4/87.
Gannon, Robert. 1960. Sturdy stand for battery of
aquaria. TFH 4/60.
Jonklaas, Rodney. 1960. Concrete aquariums. TFH
Marsh, Robert. 1996. Making your own aquarium
covers. FAMA 5/96.
Mayland, Hans J. 1969. The fiberglass aquarium.
The Aquarium 8/69.
Miller, John P. 1995. How to protect your aquarium
against earthquakes. FAMA 5/95.
Schiff, Steven J. Aquarium set-up; the aquarium.
Simon, Robert D. 1988. From start to finish
(wood/glass tank construction). FAMA 4/88.
Stime, Jim. 1998. The reef tank; So, you want to
start a reef tank? Part Two, Stands and canopies. Odyssea (J. of the
Marine Aquarium Society of Los Angeles) v.4:2, Feb. 98.
Vecellio, Michael. 1988. How to build a stand for
the large aquarium. FAMA 4/88.
Stipendium peccati mors est, "the wages/price of sin
is death. Here's a "I coulda, shoulda" example of what
not to do in supporting even an acrylic tank. The blocks need to be
placed under all corners, and evenly support a network of doubled two
by fours or a substantial beam like a four by. A mistake at my
friends, Eric & Tammy Rood, Ocean Pacific Tropicals,
Here's how to do. An example of a show set-up in
Amberg, Germany. Here the metal stands are overbuilt and the tanks
cushioned with a foam sheet underneath.
A real nice cabinet style stand displaying, in my opinion,
the best quality commercial all glass tank manufactured on the planet
(Juwel). At Tis Tropicals, Fountain Valley, California.