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/Go Rin No Sho of Business

Selling Aquariums As Furniture

Bob Fenner  

With the advent of novel shapes and sizes of custom acrylic aquaria, many possibilities have been opened in their application and sales as furniture. Dealers in the know are cashing in with large sales in this upper-market phenomenon.

State of the Art:

Clearer, stronger, lighter, more scratch-resistant Plexiglas (acrylic) is in part the explanation for the tremendous growth in designer aquatics. This material can be easily molded and heat-bent into bubbles, tubes, hemispheres, smooth multi-sided corners; almost any shape imaginable. Additionally, plexi-aquaria are easily drilled and fitted with efficient, hidden support equipment. 

However, as there are strong proponents of the acrylic school, there are equally adamant folks who promote the use of new types of glass tanks. Though not as sturdy under earthquakes, these are startlingly beautiful, some with cast/bent surfaces.

Better lighting & filter systems, beautiful livestock and an awakened interest in and appreciation for nature are also responsible for this boom.

How can you enhance your sales and consumer market with these calming, soothing systems? Learn and disseminate the following information through display, advertising and word of mouth.

Room Dividers:

Custom aquaria make super-natural divisions between human spaces. They allow clear views where and when desired; presenting a sensation of openness, enlarging the room. A custom aquarium also softens and blocks noise.

Custom Corner Groups:

Make interesting backdrops. They also function well to direct and guide traffic comfortably through living and working spaces.

In-Wall Cabinets and Frames:

Are indeed "living art". Fit one with a matching border and enjoy an ever-changing panorama of an aquatic world.

See through Walls:

Are ever-larger water effects, granting the illusion of a personal underwater experience.

Free-Standing Custom Aquaria:

Are living sculpture; serving as tasteful focal points for contemplation and conversation.

Other Considerations

The recent development and perfection of two techniques, remote filtration and miniature reef technology should also receive credit for the popularization of custom aquaria. With appropriate engineering and installation, these modern systems have minimized maintenance and enhanced enjoyment of aquatic environments. Your customers can have a reef community in your home and/or office.

Check out the bookshelves of your local supplier or large library; there has been a plethora of "reef-system" written works in bound form and periodic literature the last few years. 

Optimized lighting and filtration have greatly expanded the selection of species of fishes, invertebrates, plants and algae that now thrive under captive conditions. Other facets of  aquariculture: better foods, improved techniques for capturing and transporting livestock among others have likewise boosted the popularity of custom aquaria.

Provision should be made for the possible and probable likelihood of water damage from spillage and moisture. Some ventilation with or without a fan and consideration should be given to the choice and construction of the water-resistant cabinet materials.


The traditional "pressurized canister filtration systems" and under-gravel and outside power filter systems have been largely supplanted by the many wet-dry, "trickle", "reef" filter systems available now. For both freshwater and marine, wet-dry filters allow greater water quality and flexibility in loading rates and safety margins. For some idea of what's available,  through hobby and trade magazines.

Filter size, flow-rate and media selection must be matched to the "bio-load" of the system. Filtration should be over-sized by twenty or more percent to prevent accidents. Check with the manufacturers' specifications regarding your particular set-up.

Appropriate magnet-driven, submersible and emersed pumps by Eheim, Iwaki, Little Giant, March among others are more and more energy efficient, quiet and long-lasting, with little or no maintenance.


Consideration should be given to provide sufficient electrical service to your watery eco-system. If possible a separate circuit breaker of adequate amperage with either an in-line Ground-Fault-Interrupter or better still, a service outlet equipped with it's own G.F.I. should be provided. This will prevent shock or fire should a short occur and allow you easier control over all the power to the system.

For the uninitiated, a G.F.I. is an electronic "electron counter". When the number of electrons going and coming through it differs, the G.F.I. shuts off the circuit. These devices can be cut in as an outlet, wired in-line, or fitted as a circuit breaker. Costs run anywhere from ten to forty dollars. Remember, water and electricity do not mix! A regular circuit breaker or service outlet may not trip before starting a fire. G.F.I.'s are relatively cheap insurance against electrical fire or electrical shock or electrocution.

Other Construction Materials:

Glass of several types and other plastics may be used for viewing portals. These are generally less appropriate given aging, costs, weight, ease of scratching, thermal insulation values and relative strength. There are situations in which Plexiglas is not the best choice, but they are few.

The "shells" that make up a non-viewing portion of the system may be fabricated of wood, with or without resin and fiberglass, polyethylene, chopped or layered fiberglass, depending on appearance, strength and costs.

Remember, water weighs about seven and a half pounds per gallon (eight for seawater) and there are about eight and a half gallons per cubic foot. Test your system outside first for leakage or breakage. Get some help from folks who've designed and built systems before. Plan for and over-build for safety's sake. One last warning; secure narrow-relief systems to prevent them being "rocked" or pushed over. Smaller "bubble-tanks" on thick carpets can be particularly treacherous.


Whether to fabricate some or all of the job or just purchase finished products through a supplier is a matter of money, time, knowledge and skills, and desire. I would at least get the ideas and bids for what you might have in mind from two or three companies that have done such work. In small to large towns these folks can be sought out through wholesalers and the "Yellow Pages" under "plastic" and possibly other headings.

All the standard suggestions apply when deciding on a suppliers. Get a written estimate, check out a few of their recent triumphs personally, if not doing the install yourself, make sure and hire licensed contractors (with insurance and worker's compensation for their staff). Be careful in your selection; these are very permanent additions to your customers' living spaces; quite expensive and profitable I might add.

Neglecting the cost of your time, doing it yourself can save you easily half the costs of fabricating systems. Depending on the size and complexity, a self-made low-budget unit can come at a few dollars a gallon. Some fancy import models can be easily ten times that amount. Contractor designed, built and installed systems run around ten to thirty dollars per gallon complete.

Construction Considerations:

The system and it's attendant equipment is heavy; check thoroughly for adequate support. Count on about ten pounds per gallon. Where in doubt call in an engineer and/or double your supports. 

Arrange the site to reduce the effects of incident sunlight and room lighting. Keep it out of the aisles and windows as much as possible.

Take care to position the system at an appropriate height. The stand should be taller (about 30 inches plus) for systems to be viewed mainly by persons walking or standing and shorter (18-24 inches usually) for areas in which most people will be sitting.

Service Considerations:

Must be taken into account. If your system is designed and built well, maintenance will be a breeze; if not, not. Leave access to the top of at least 18 inches and lots of space for dealing with all mechanicals. Systems built into a wall should be strongly braced; most times with a "real" stand built out on one side of the wall or the other. Provide adequate floor support for non-slab foundations with four-by or large uprights and concrete pier blocks. Make a drawing first on quadrille paper, and modify your design as you go through the process of planning. This will pay handsome dividends in the long run.

The systems our corporation designed and built required very little up-keep/on-site time. The largest systems with the better available appropriate technology are virtually maintenance free.

Regular maintenance is the same as for stock size and shape aquaria. Frequent (once a week or two) wipe downs and chemical and physical checks and the ubiquitous partial water change. Be aware that custom systems may be more limited than rectangular aquaria. Surface area may be less per unit volume and can spell disaster if aeration/circulation/filtration is interrupted due to equipment or power failure. Go shy on stocking densities and over-feeding.


Every retailer is missing tremendous opportunities by not marketing aquaria as furniture. There is a whole segment of the market willing to pay top dollar for good quality and service in the designer aquaria field. Develop and exploit it. The concomitant enjoyment of creating a living piece of art/furniture is gratifying and very profitable.


Freshwater Livestock Sales. Saltwater Not the Only Way to Go -- 10/09/07 Hello WWM Crew, Thank you very much for an outstanding resource of information. You have been very helpful to me as a hobbyist and with my industry questions over the years! Quick question for you today. I manage an aquarium specialty store with a main focus of saltwater fish and corals with a small freshwater fish section. The idea has been tossed around to eliminate the freshwater fish system in favor of bringing in more saltwater livestock. My fear is that if we discontinue freshwater livestock that we will be cutting off a good amount of customers to include beginners that may enter the hobby by way of a freshwater aquarium. My feeling is that the freshwater livestock sales may not be impressive as a category, but that the dry goods sales that go with them would be a noticeable loss should the freshwater system be taken out. What are your thoughts on this? Looking for someone else's expert opinion on this as I might just be clouded by my own enjoyment of the freshwater end of the hobby! Thank you in advance for your help. Best Regards, Michael < I have personally seen stores do this here on the West Coast with mixed results. The bottom line to any business is to know your customers and know your competition. I know the idea is that since salt water organisms are usually more expensive than freshwater organisms, that you can make just as much money with fewer fish and usually less work. Stores that converted totally to fresh water did not see a significant increase in sales. The additional inventory was not as desirable as the initial items that they usually were getting. If you cannot get regular shipments of saltwater items that maybe it make sense to stock up with big orders to hold you over between shipments. Bigger orders sometimes translate into bigger discounts with the wholesaler too. I am a firm believer that freshwater has its place in any fish store. Look at the Amano style of planted tanks with the fancy lighting and the CO2 injection and I think your customers will find a place for a beautifully aquascaped aquarium that will rival many of the salt water setups in your store. Try it out by setting a tank up for display and see what kind of reaction you get from your customers. The cost of setting up a planted tank could come close to a saltwater setup. I think it is worth a try.-Chuck>

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