Checklist - Part 1: Tanks and Stands

Now that you have worked on your game plan, it is time to begin working the first part of our checklist. In this month's article we are going to discuss the aquarium, the aquarium stand and its location. While you would think that it would be a simple to choose an aquarium and stand, there are many things to consider before doing so.

The Aquarium

While choosing an aquarium sounds simple, there are many different choices available to the reef hobbyist today. Aquariums which come in all shapes and sizes, that can fit into almost any space, and fit the needs of the most demanding hobbyist, are only a short drive or a phone call away. Because of this, we need to ensure that the aquarium will not only fit our needs but also the needs of the animals that we wish to keep.

Aquarium Size

The most common suggestion is to start with the largest aquarium that you can afford which will fit in the available space. I agree, and I have found that no matter how much I upgrade, I still always wish for a larger aquarium. Once I have a larger aquarium, I soon wish for a larger house and then the vicious cycle starts again.

While there are many successful small reef aquarium keepers, it is easier to start with a larger aquarium for the following reasons:

Stability - A larger aquarium will be more stable than a smaller aquarium. The salt content or specific gravity will not deviate as much in a larger aquarium, due to evaporation, as it will in a smaller aquarium. For example, a gallon of evaporation on a 10-gallon aquarium will have a much larger impact on the specific gravity when compared to 5 gallons of evaporation on a 100-gallon aquarium. Another area where stability is important is related to aquarium temperature. In a larger aquarium the amount of overheating or heat loss will be less than the amount in a smaller aquarium. Larger volumes of water are much better at holding aquarium temperatures constant than a smaller volume of water.

Dilution - A larger aquarium will absorb mistakes or fish losses easier than a smaller aquarium. If a smaller aquarium is overfed or an animal is lost, the impact on the aquarium will be greater than that on a larger aquarium. If an animal dies in a smaller aquarium it will have a larger impact on the filtration and overall water quality than an animal dying in a larger aquarium. Because of its ability to dilute waste or other water quality issues, the larger volume of water allows some margin for error. For example, if a two-inch fish dies in a 20-gallon aquarium, it will impact the water quality much more than if the same size fish dies in a 50-gallon aquarium.

A larger aquarium provides you with more choices for aquarium inhabitants - I have witnessed more mistakes in this particular area than almost any area of the hobby. Many new reef keepers, including myself, have a tendency to overload smaller aquariums with fish. Many of us start out with the intention of having only a few fish in a small aquarium, but end up adding too many fish and overloading the filtration system. Another added benefit of a larger aquarium, as long as the proper fish are chosen, is the fish have more room to define a territory and less of a chance of aggression against each other. For those that are new to the hobby, territoriality relates to the amount of space that a certain fish requires to remain healthy. Fish such as tangs, damsels or even clownfish require a certain amount of space where no other animals of the same species reside. The most common mistake is keeping two or more of the same species of territorial fish together, where these fish will often fight until the weakest animal dies. This is not to say that all same species of fish cannot be kept together in the same tank, but choose fish carefully when considering doing so.

Aquarium Dimensions

Aquarium Height:
Aquariums that are tall, while visually appealing to some, have issues as far as lighting and swimming space is concerned. Depending upon the types of light-loving corals that you wish to keep, you need to take into consideration the amount of light needed to keep them healthy and thriving. As an example, a reef keeper that wishes to keep SPS type corals and clams near the bottom will need an intense, high-powered lighting system for a taller aquarium, whereas less would be required over a shorter aquarium. An aquarium that is larger than 24 to 30 inches will require very strong lighting if high light-loving animals are going to be kept in the bottom half of the aquarium. One other thing to take in to account if you are going to use a deep sand bed for substrate, is that you can purchase a taller aquarium because the sand bed will allow the animals to be closer to the light. In simple terms, a 30-inch tall aquarium is only 24 inches tall with a 6 inch deep sand bed in place. A deep sand bed creates a shorter distance from bottom to top. The other height issue to bear in mind when purchasing and aquarium is that fish normally swim back and forth, not up and down. Finally, you need to consider the depth of the aquarium versus the length of your arms. If the aquarium is too tall, when placed on a stand, it can be very difficult to reach to the bottom for maintenance, or to clean the walls.

Aquarium Length:
The length of the aquarium will impact the amount of swimming space available for fish and will limit the types of larger reef fish that can be kept. A two-foot long aquarium will not keep active swimmers very happy which can lead to aggressiveness or other issues with aquarium inhabitants. While there are fish that will be fine in a narrow aquarium, make sure that you research their needs first before purchasing the wrong aquarium length.

Aquarium Width:
The width of the aquarium is another issue that should be taken into consideration. The front- to- back dimensions will impact the amount of room for aquascaping and visual viewing depth. While an aquarium that is 12 inches wide will accommodate a nice aqauscaping scheme, an aquarium that is 18 inches wide will give a deeper visual impact. While an extra six inches of space does not seem like a large amount of space, it will allow for a more realistic rock structure and more space for corals. For example, complaints are often heard from owners of 55 gallon aquariums because the available width does not allow for the aquascaping plan they had intended to use. I have found that a wider aquarium offers more stability when placed on carpeting. The larger footprint helps ensure that the aquarium will be less susceptible to tipping.

The overall length, width and height of the aquarium will also affect the amount of oxygen available to the aquarium inhabitants. The surface area of a longer, wider aquarium will allow more oxygen to be available to the aquarium inhabitants than an aquarium which is shorter and narrower. The larger air/surface interface will allow for more available oxygen in the water in a longer, wider aquarium.

I am not suggesting that you run out and purchase a 200-gallon aquarium. However, I do suggest that you use the game plan that you created last month, to help you choose the best aquarium for the animals that you wish to keep. A nice starter size aquarium that will allow for a good combination of fish, equipment, oxygenation and visual appeal is the standard 40-gallon breeder aquarium. The aquarium dimensions are 3 feet in length, by 18 inches in width and 20 inches in height. The next size that I would recommend for a larger starter aquarium is the 75-gallon, which has dimensions of 4 feet in length, by 18 inches in width and 20 inches in height. A taller aquarium can be used if you are going to utilize a deep sand bed for your substrate.

Included below is a chart of common aquarium sizes and dimensions:

Size in gallons

Available in Acrylic or Glass

L" x W" x H"
Acrylic or Glass
36 x 12 x 16
Glass - breeder tank
36 x 18 x 12
36 x 15 x 16
Glass - breeder tank
36 x 18x 16
Acrylic or Glass
48 x 13 x 20
Acrylic or Glass
48 x 18 x 20
Acrylic or Glass
48 x 24 x 24
72 x 18 x 20
72 x 18 x 22
72 x 18 x 24
72 x 24 x 24
96 x 24 x 20

*(Above information provided by All-Glass Aquarium and Tenecor Intovative solutions)

Aquarium Materials

Glass or acrylic? The most commonly available aquariums are normally made of glass or acrylic. The advantages and disadvantages of both types of aquariums are as follows.

Advantages of a Glass Aquarium:

Glass aquariums cost less than acrylic aquariums. Because glass aquariums are so common and widely available they normally cost much less than their acrylic counterparts. An All Glass Aquarium 40 gallon breeder aquarium has a cost of approximately $80.00(US) whereas the same size aquarium in acrylic has a cost of approximately $250.00(US).

Glass aquariums are available in many common sizes. In almost any local fish store or pet shop you will find a very large selection of different sized glass aquariums.

Glass aquariums are more resistant to scratches than acrylic. While a glass aquarium can be scratched, it is much harder to scratch a glass aquarium than an acrylic aquarium. You can use a razor blade or abrasive scrapers to clean a glass aquarium whereas the same tools used on an acrylic aquarium would be disastrous.

Disadvantages of a Glass Aquarium:

Glass aquariums are heavy. A 90-gallon glass aquarium has an empty weight of 160 pounds where an acrylic aquarium will weight of approximately 80 pounds. The weights can vary depending upon the thickness of the glass or acrylic used to manufacture the aquarium.

Glass aquariums are more susceptible to leaks and breakage. The seams are more susceptible to leaks because they are bound together with silicone whereas acrylic has a molecular bond, which is said to be five times stronger. An accidental bump with a blunt object or an object thrown into a glass aquarium could be disastrous. Many of the larger, thicker glass aquariums can handle these accidents but can still be broken.

Glass aquariums seams are more visible and susceptible to failure. The seams, where the glass is joined, are more visible and normally have an annoying green tint. Many used aquariums are also susceptible to silicone dry rot. If a used glass aquarium is left empty for a long period of time the silicone which bonds the seams together can dry out and become brittle. Also, if any medication is used, there is a strong chance that the silicone will discolor and take on a blue tint.

Advantages of Acrylic Aquariums:

Acrylic aquariums are available in almost any shape and size. Unlike glass, acrylic aquariums can be made into circular shapes, tube shapes and all of the other common shapes that are not offered in glass.

Acrylic aquariums are visibly clearer than glass aquariums. Glass aquariums, especially thick glass, have a tendency to distort the view of the inhabitants. Most acrylic does not have the common green tint that is normally associated with standard glass aquariums. Acrylic may still have color, and this should be taken in to consideration when purchasing your tank.

Acrylic aquariums are much lighter than glass aquariums. As specified under glass aquarium disadvantages, the weight of an acrylic aquarium is half that of an aquarium made of glass.

Acrylic aquariums are stronger than glass aquariums. Even though an acrylic
aquarium can be broken, they can withstand accidents and mistakes better than glass.

Acrylic aquariums are better insulators than glass. An acrylic aquarium will hold the water temperature easier than a glass aquarium. The ambient room temperature will not have as large of an impact on an acrylic aquarium as it will on a glass aquarium.

Acrylic can be refinished. Unlike glass, if acrylic is scratched, it can be repaired. Kits are available that will allow scratches to be polished out of acrylic. With glass aquariums, once they are scratched, they are scratched for life.

Acrylic aquariums are easier to drill than glass aquariums. While you can purchase drilled glass aquariums, there is always a greater risk of breakage during drilling compared to an acrylic aquarium.

Disadvantages of Acrylic Aquariums:

Acrylic aquariums cost much more than glass aquariums. While the cost of acrylic aquariums have come down one can expect to pay almost double the cost for an acrylic aquarium when compared to glass. Because of manufacturing costs and limited availability the cost is more than glass aquariums.

Acrylic aquariums are less commonly available. Many local fish stores stock only a few sizes of acrylic aquariums, if any. As an example, the LFS near my house has four different sized acrylic aquariums in stock and nearly 30 different sized glass aquariums.

Acrylic aquariums may significantly deform when full of water, causing bowing of the edges and deformation of the sides. Additionally acrylic aquariums need to be supported completely across the bottom; metal stands which support aquariums only on the edges need to have a piece of plywood or other support completely across the bottom of the tank.


Whether you choose glass or acrylic, as long as you stick to high quality brands with good warranties, you should have many years of enjoyment from your aquarium. I have used glass aquariums since I started in this hobby and have been happy with the results but since I am going to be setting up a 200 plus gallon aquarium, this time, I am going to use acrylic because of the reduced weight and better visual clarity.

Drilled or UN-drilled Aquariums

Most aquariums, both acrylic and glass, can be ordered with drilled holes for overflows and water returns. While a hang-on type overflow can be used on un-drilled aquariums, many hobbyists opt for the drilled overflows. One thing to remember if you plan on drilling your glass aquarium on a later date is to make sure that it does not have tempered glass panels. Tempered glass is not drillable. While acrylic is easier to drill, you should only drill it yourself if you are certain that you can do it, otherwise give that task to someone with experience. We will discuss overflows in a future article.

Aquarium Stands

There are many different types of commercial stands and other stand options available to the reef hobbyist. For most of the common size aquariums there is a stand available from the same manufacturer of the aquarium. There is also the option of using a good, sturdy piece of furniture or building your own stand, but the aquarium manufacturer may have certain stand requirements when it comes to honoring warranties.

Most, if not all, of the aquarium manufacturers offer stands that are made to specifically fit the aquariums that they manufacture. Many of these stands also come in a variety of colors and materials to match everyone's taste and décor. Oak, walnut, pine, and acrylic are just some of the materials that are offered by certain aquarium manufacturers.

Another consideration when purchasing a stand is the amount of room available for equipment beneath the aquarium. Large door openings and plentiful space go a long way in helping to hide the amount of equipment associated with some reef aquariums. If you plan on keeping your filtration, skimmer, sump, refugium and lighting ballast's under the aquarium you need to have enough room not only to hold all of the equipment but also room to work on and maintain it.

The height of the stand will also impact your viewing enjoyment. Ask yourself if you are going to be spending most of your viewing time while standing or sitting, and choose your stand based on your answer to that question. Most standard sized stands are built for viewing while sitting down. Viewing the aquarium while standing is possible, but it will be much less enjoyable if you need to lean over every time you want to look at your aquarium.

There are custom and Do It Yourself options available to the reef keeper. If you are handy with woodworking or cabinet making you have the option of building your own stand. Reef Central has a large section dedicated to DIY projects that might be helpful. You can also inquire around your neighborhood for carpenters or cabinetmakers that build stands specifically for aquariums. Take in to consideration that that using a stand not manufactured by the aquarium manufacturer can shorten or void the warranty of the aquarium against breakage. Make certain that you research and follow the aquarium manufacturers recommendations when using or building your own custom stand.

Another option is to have your aquarium built into a wall. Many reef keepers build their aquariums into the walls of their homes or even use them as room dividers. While this installation has an excellent visual effect, it will impact the work that needs to be done when selling your home unless you intend to sell your aquarium with the home.

Aquarium Location

Aquarium location is another very important aspect that should be taken into consideration when choosing the size and dimensions of the aquarium. Some of the main considerations in aquarium placement are the following:

The aquarium should be located in an area where maintenance can be performed. If you own an expensive rug or hard wood floor you need to expect water to be spilled on to it, no matter how careful you might be. Simple things like water changes or skimmer cleaning can easily cause a big stain on a carpet. Also, unforeseen problems such as a plugged overflow, cracked aquarium or spilling your water change bucket can ruin a rug or hardwood floor very easily. This is one area where a good shopvac and a supply of clean towels will come in handy.

The aquarium should also be located in an area where you can view it easily. If you go through all the work of setting up an aquarium but you have to view it through an obstruction or keep it in a room where you do not have space for a comfortable chair I would not even consider setting it up. As an example, I have my two largest aquariums in my family room where I spend 95% of my time at home. As I am typing this article, I am sitting on my couch with my 90 gallon aquarium only five feet away from me in full view and my 75 gallon aquarium another 12 feet away from me on the other side of the room. I have found that I have a tendency to neglect my other three aquariums because they are in different rooms of the house. While the 20 gallon reef aquarium in my home office does get a fair share of attention, my 55 gallon reef and 38 gallon freshwater aquarium only get attention for feeding and normal maintenance. While having a dedicated space for your aquarium can be enjoyable make sure that you will want to be in that area more often than not.

Make certain that you have a sturdy structure that will support the weight of your aquarium. Since saltwater weighs approximately 8 pounds per gallon, you need to ensure that your floor will hold the weight of the aquarium and related items. A 75-gallon aquarium with water, live rock, substrate, equipment, aquarium and stand can easily weigh over 900 pounds. While this is normally not a huge consideration in newer, well built homes or older, solid homes you need to ensure that that aquarium will not come crashing through the floor into the area below. One thing to take into consideration is the type of carpet that the aquarium might sit upon. I have found that thick carpet can make an aquarium unstable and increase the possibility of it tipping over.

Another consideration for location is, will there be small children or pets near the aquarium. A small child can drown in a small amount of water and you need to ensure that there is not chance of them being hurt or killed by falling into the aquarium or tipping it over. Small children can unintentionally poison the aquarium by putting common household chemicals or certain foods into the aquarium. Pets can also cause problems if the aquarium is located in an area where they have access. Cats like to climb on the aquarium top and have the chance of falling in to the aquarium. Dogs can also drink aquarium water or other chemicals around the aquarium that can be hazardous to their health.

Make certain that the aquarium will not be subjected to noxious odors from chemicals or auto exhaust fumes if your aquarium is near the garage. Some hobbyists keep aquariums in the kitchen, utility room or even built in to the garage. Certain fumes and odors can degrade water quality and even kill animals if the concentration is too large.

Aquarium placement around windows should also be done with caution. The sunlight from a window can add to the amount of unwanted algae growth in the aquarium. While many people use shades or blinds on their windows this may not be a problem but it is something that should be taken in to account when placing the aquarium. . As an example, a fellow aquarist has a 300 gallon fish only aquarium placed in an area of his home where the windows span floor to ceiling. He asked why he was having so many problems with algae and then realized that his aquarium was getting direct sunlight for four to six hours each day. Another issue with placing the aquarium near a window, is the amount of heat created by the sun beating down on the aquarium for hours each day.

Lastly, an aquarium should not be placed in an area where the foot traffic is high. An area where people are often moving back and forth can stress certain fish and cause them to hide. As you notice at most local fish stores many fish will hide when people walk past or get close to the aquariums. Fast movements or vibrations from people walking past the aquarium can cause many fish to seek shelter in the rockwork.

A little common sense will go a long way in deciding the location for your reef aquarium.


Try to purchase the largest aquarium possible, based on your ability to maintain it and your budget. Choose the proper aquarium dimensions based on the animals and type of ecosystem that you are trying to create. Pick the best choice of aquarium materials, glass or acrylic, based on your needs and the environment that it is going to be placed in. Lastly, choose a location that will allow you the most enjoyable view, but also allow the best environment for the animals that you wish to to keep.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

Checklist - Part 1: Tanks and Stands by Doug Wojtczak -