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Saltwater Ambitions: Display Tank Decisions

By Saltwater Ambitions on

Brian Howell: Hello, everybody. This is Brian Howell, Saltwater Ambitions, a project sponsored in part by Custom Aquariums. Today, I want to talk to you a little bit about display tanks. There are so many factors and important items to consider when establishing a new aquarium.

For most people, the dream starts with the display tank. Regardless if you're a reef keeper or a fan of small freshwater community fish, the one common need is a display tank. It allows you to create the most beneficial environment for the aquarium residents and the people who are going to enjoy it for years to come.

Today, there are virtually hundreds of options for people in this hobby to choose from. Display tanks are available for purchase off the shelf at every pet store, big and small, along with other retailers that don't even specialize in pets such as Meyer, Walmart, and so many others. You can run out and purchase anything from a small desktop tank to a larger aquarium package from those places.

There are even options available through online retailers and factory-direct companies. Using the internet and apps you can get just about anything your heart desires delivered directly to your house or your business. Because there are so many options available, the serious hobbyist has to put in a significant amount of time researching and making the decision that best fits their needs and budget.

Today, I want to share some of my research findings with you, and ultimately reveal the display tank option I chose for my custom build. Hopefully, what I share helps you gain a better understanding of the market options and gives you an idea of what to consider when making your choice in the future. Today, I want to talk a little bit about tank size, materials that are used in the manufacturing.

Let's go ahead and get started. I'm going to start today with size. When it comes to display tank size, it's largely up to personal preference, of course, your budget and the available space that you have. When deciding on your display, keep in mind that the tank's going to be really heavy. Just for reference, saltwater weighs approximately 8.5 pounds per gallon, so the ultimate weight of your tank is going to be pretty great, it'll be a heavy item.

You definitely wouldn't want to place it on something like a dresser or another piece of furniture that wasn't intended to hold that weight and needs to be kept in a structurally sound location on a stand that's equal to the task. For the most part, you also want to keep it away from windows where the sunlight can cause temperature and algae issues. The size of the tank is also going to change the dynamic when it comes to your water conditions.

Some hobbyists will go with a larger water volume, the largest water volume they could handle just for that reason. Some people think it's easier to manage a higher volume because it takes longer for negative conditions to impact the environment. You've probably heard the old saying, "A drop in the bucket or a drop in the ocean." That holds true here.

For me, I chose my location first and then went with the largest display I could fit into that space. I did that for two primary reasons. First, I knew that I was committed to this build for the long haul. I wanted to make sure that I was never going to be in a position where I felt the need to upgrade. I wanted this to be the last aquarium that I would ever buy.

Secondly, the larger display provides more opportunity for the aquarium inhabitants. I didn't want to be restricted in terms of the fish, the corals or the inverts I could add.

The larger display gave me the most options. I ended up choosing 240-gallon display for the build. It's got a height of 30 inches, depth of 24 inches, and a length of 72 inches.

My display is being built into the wall behind my bar and that actually ended up being the perfect size to fit the length of the bar. It'll look great between the top of the bar and the ceiling where it's going to be located. When comparison shopping and making the decision on size, it's important to know that each manufacturer communicates their own version of model rating.

It's really an unfortunate circumstance but often times the disclosed model rating isn't an accurate representation of how many gallons the aquarium will actually hold, sometimes it isn't even close. The actual gallons held by the aquarium should be the amount of water that the tank holds when filled all the way up to the top without anything inside it to displace the water.

That number should be calculated using the length, width, and height that the aquarium from the inside of the glass. Some manufacturers calculate their model rating by measuring from the outside of the frame or even the outside of the glass which, of course, is inaccurate.

It's important to keep that in mind to make sure that you're getting an apples-to-apples comparison. Maybe, even more importantly it's critical to know your actual gallon rating because you're going to need that to dose medications and figure out if your water volume is enough to house certain aquarium residents. Some people also forget that water is displaced by equipment and decor and other things that you put inside your tank.

To learn more about how I chose the location for the aquarium and some other things to consider when looking for the best spot, you can take a look at my article on Build Location. I'll put a link to it here.

Next, I want to talk a little bit about materials. They're not all created equal. Once you decide on the size of the display the next thing you need to consider are the actual materials themselves. There are some smaller plastic tanks out there, of course, but a majority of the display tanks you'll see you're going to be choosing between either glass or acrylic, just like everything else both materials have their advantages and disadvantages.

Of course, the quality of the manufacturing makes a big difference too but the raw materials themselves have their pros and cons. I want to start with that. Acrylic is generally a much lighter material and can be made into just about any shape you can think of. You aren't limited by design or-- The manufacturing process is generally much easier than it is with glass as well.

For the most part, an acrylic tank is going to be easier to move around and maneuver whereas glass can be really heavy, it can be rigid and difficult to deal with. With those benefits come several downsides. Although it can be buffed out, acrylic scratches very easily, something as simple as a grain of sand caught underneath your algae cleaning pad can wreak havoc to the display and leave all kinds of scratches.

In order to fix it, you have to drain the tank, and that process is a nightmare for anyone that's had to do it. Acrylic can also have issues with yellowing over time. It's prone to both disastrous fabrication flaws and the absorption of chemicals and other outside elements. Over time acrylic can dry out from the heat and UV rays brought on by aquarium lights.

That can actually cause the material to become brittle it can crack, and ultimately lead to a failure. Those things aren't things you want to have to worry about, and you don't really have to worry about them as much with glass. Another thing to consider when thinking about glass versus acrylic is the clarity.

Depending on the raw materials being used by the manufacturer, the differences can be pretty drastic. For a few different reasons, cheaper acrylic can often cause more visible distortion than what you would find in glass. First, acrylic is generally made thicker than glass in order to prevent bowing especially in larger panels. The higher the panels the worse that generally gets. This thicker material is prone to impurities that cause distortion, and the welds between each acrylic panel can cause distortion as well.

The quality of your view is really only as good as the person making the tank. There are better quality, higher clarity acrylics out there but those are generally much more expensive options as well. There typically aren't as many factors impacting clarity with glass but you do have the option of purchasing ultra clear, low iron glass that does provide better viewing than standard glass. One benefit to glass is that each panel of the tank can be made with a different thickness and clarity, you can even have individual panels tempered for extra strength.

For instance, the custom display that I chose the front viewing panel is made from ultra-clear glass but the others are standard. This allowed me to get the best quality view from the front of the display without paying for unnecessary higher cost materials and the rest of the tank when people aren't going to be viewing the tank from the sides and whatnot or even the bottom of the tank. It would be a waste of money to use ultra clear glass on the bottom panel of the tank when it's going to be covered in sand and no one's ever going to see it.

The manufacturing process in an end to itself, all Custom Aquarium builders aren't created equal either. I personally trusted the folks at to make my lifetime aquarium display. That's what they refer to their displays as the lifetime aquarium. I found that they go above and beyond in several areas that made a big difference to me. First of all, they made a huge effort to take all of the issues that hobbyists have been dealing with for years and actually do something about them.

I appreciate the strides they made, and it really sets them apart from the competition. Starting with the raw materials it's truly built to order. You can design an aquarium with panels of different thicknesses like I did, thicknesses from 1/2 inch to 5/8 inch or 3/4 inch tempered or non-tempered, ultra clear or standard clarity glass. They do builds

up to and over 2,000 gallons. You can get just about anything you want. To get something that specific elsewhere, you'd have to spend a significant amount of time looking, and even then, you probably wouldn't be able to beat the quality and the price that these guys at Custom Aquariums offer.

From there, I've learned that they fully polish and bevel every single edge. Even the edges that you don't see in their process in order to make sure that the silicone forms the strongest bond and there aren't any micro fractures in the glass that could cause future cracks or failures in the tank. Even the silicone used by this company stands apart from the competition.

They use a silicone that's five times stronger than the industry standard. The difference is unreal. In researching the competition, I learned that some of that clear silicone you see in less expensive builds isn't even rated for underwater application. Imagine that the silicone being used in aquarium to hold water isn't rated for underwater application.

Risking a failed seal for something as nominal as poor silicone isn't really a risk any aquarium owner should accept. I was really pleased to see that they go the extra mile to use the best materials possible.

Another huge design change that sets this company apart from the competition is the use of an anodized aluminum frame. Plastic frames can become brittle and crack over time, especially under the heat, light, and pressure of being in the aquarium environment. When the frame cracks and fails, there's nothing to support the immense weight of water pressure from causing the tank to just have a catastrophic blowout.

Using this aluminum frame eliminates that problem completely. It really offers the peace of mind that years down the road, I'm not going to have to worry about the tank blowing apart. As I mentioned, this tank is something that's going to be built into the wall and it's going to be the last aquarium I ever buy.

I don't want to have to worry about a catastrophic event 10 years, 15 years down the road. I fully admit that I'm a picky consumer, and I was looking to incorporate the best of the best into this build. I know that won't fit everyone's needs or budget, but I would strongly recommend that you consider these manufacturing concepts when you're looking to purchase.

Don't be afraid to ask the questions about the materials that are used, and make sure that you're actually getting what you're paying for. A lot of manufacturers sell quantity over quality. If you aren't careful, it can really mean the difference between a beautiful display full of water and a floor full of water.

You really want to, regardless of your budget, take the time to make sure that you're getting the best possible display tank to fit your needs. If you guys have any questions, feel free to contact me. All the contact information is below. Also, I know the folks at would be happy to answer any questions you have about their process. Thanks for taking the time today, guys. I will talk to you soon.

About Saltwater Ambitions

Brian installed a custom 240-gallon reef aquarium as the centerpiece of a remodel in his home, complete with filter system and welded iron stand.

Started in May of 2017, the Saltwater Ambitions project was created to document the journey from concept to reality and beyond of a 240 gallon in-wall Lifetime Aquarium build. Owner Brian Howell has partnered with to showcase some of the features and functionality of the Lifetime Aquarium display tank, Seamless Sump, H2Overflow, Siphon Stopper, and more.

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