Glass vs. Acrylic Aquariums

The Disadvantages of Glass Can be Engineered around — Acrylic’s Fatal Flaws Cannot

Acrylic is often most popular for manufacturers and hobbyists because it’s lightweight and easy to fabricate. It takes a large investment in tooling, equipment, and engineering to cut and manipulate heavy sheets of glass. This is the main reason most aquarium manufacturers use acrylic, not because of the benefits the material itself lends to the final product.

Many hobbyists and small manufacturers can create custom aquariums with very simple and inexpensive equipment. However, the end product is not so durable, and the material is very expensive. Below is a series of fatal flaws relating to acrylic aquariums that cannot be easily mitigated as they are inherent in the properties of the material.

Glass Aquariums Acrylic Aquariums
Ridged Panels
Free of Fabrication Flaws
Resists Absorption of Chemicals
UV Safe/Won’t turn yellow
No Visual Distortion
Curved Panels

Why We Prefer Glass to Acrylic

There are pros and cons to both acrylic and glass. In the infancy of our aquarium service division, we spent a great deal of time researching what type of material is best.

When it comes down to glass or acrylic, we prefer glass. You will often sacrifice the long-term benefit of glass in exchange for the short-term benefit of acrylic.

Our goal at Custom Aquariums is to mitigate the disadvantages of glass aquariums through our engineered fabrication, moving techniques, and ultra-clear material options.

Regular clarity vs ultra-clear glass

Acrylic Aquariums Scratch Easily

At the end of the day, acrylic is a type of plastic. Take as many precautions as you want using so-called, “acrylic friendly” scrapers and scrubbers, but all it takes is one mishap and you’ll have scratches all over. Glass aquariums can scratch as well, but they have a much higher resistance.

Over the long haul, acrylic aquariums will look old and beat up at a much higher rate than glass aquariums. Unlike a reptile cage where you can swap out the scratched acrylic panels, there is no practical way to fix a severely scratched acrylic aquarium.

You can buff acrylic scratches, but how practical is it to drain a fully established tank? Or to introduce a series of chemicals/buffing compounds that can be dangerous to your fish? It is also extremely difficult to buff scratches out scratches and bring it back to its original clarity, particularly on the inside of a large, custom-built tank.

Acrylic Aquariums Are Prone to Fabrication Flaws

Since acrylic is a flexible, non-rigid material, the design of the aquarium and the quality of the welding are critical to the integrity of the tank. Much more so than fabricating a glass aquarium that has rigid panels.

When welding the joints of an acrylic tank, even the slightest oversight can lead to air bubbles in one of the joints, compromising the integrity of the entire tank.

Since glass panels are much more rigid, it isn’t necessary for the joints to be quite as perfect as an acrylic tank. In the long run, it is far less probable that a glass aquarium fails compared to an acrylic one.

Acrylic Aquariums Become Yellow and Brittle Over Time

Another inherent flaw of acrylic is it can’t stand up to UV light, turning yellow over time. There are many plastic materials that claim to be “UV Resistant”, but no acrylic is UV-proof.

Over the long run, there is no additive that can make plastic/acrylic stand up to UV light as long as glass. Eventually, the elements will get to it. Think of an old faded billboard…

It’s likely that the billboard was printed on UV-resistant vinyl. It may have held up for 5 years instead of 6 months, but eventually, it will fade and become brittle.

When an acrylic aquarium starts to break down because of UV light, either from the sun or aquarium lights, it will turn yellow, become brittle, and can even crack and fail. The more UV lights you have on your tank, or the closer it is to a window, the more accelerated this process will be.

Acrylic Aquariums Have Porous Material

Many people don’t consider acrylic to be a porous material because containers that hold water are made of it, right? This is true, but although water does not visibly pass through acrylic, it is still absorbed by it and slowly leaches out the other side.

What that also means is the various chemicals and bacteria found in the tank or the outside air, may deteriorate the acrylic as well as fester at the microscopic level.

Think about a plastic container that has sat outside for years. UV light has taken its toll, and the chemical elements are impregnated in the material, changing its composition forever. A pane of glass, however, can endure the elements for generations. After a good cleaning, it will come back to nearly its original condition.

Acrylic Aquariums Have Greater Visible Distortion than Glass Aquariums

Clarity can vary significantly depending on the grade and brand used by the manufacturer, so it’s important to know the exact clarity you’re getting.

Second, because acrylic panels are so flexible, the acrylic can bow significantly in the middle, which creates visible distortions. Larger acrylic aquariums have to be made of very thick and expensive panels to prevent this. Oftentimes acrylic this thick is prone to impurities, making it less clear.

The third reason is the general quality of the fabrication. Because the strength of an acrylic aquarium relies heavily on the weld rather than the rigidity of the panel, a great deal of the strength and potential distortion is placed on the weld. This makes human error a much more significant factor.

Glass aquariums, on the other hand, are very rigid and come from the factory perfectly flat with extremely tight manufacturing tolerances.

Distortion has more to do with the refractive light coming off the water in the tank (which you will get regardless of the material you use). And if ultra-clear is what you are looking for, we do offer ultra-clear glass for any panel for an extra charge.

This has more to do with clarity than distortion. Ultra-clear glass aquariums are made with less iron and therefore are slightly more transparent and clear than standard glass aquariums.

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