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/The Conscientious Reef Aquarist

Living Art: Design Ideas Using Custom Aquaria

By Bob Fenner

An old ALS install

With the advent of novel shapes and sizes of custom acrylic aquaria, many possibilities have been opened in their application for living aquatic art.

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.

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

How would you enhance your work and life habitats with these calming, soothing systems?

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. You can have a reef community in your home and/or office. Check out the bookshelves of your local expert fish store 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, leaf  through this magazine.

Filter size, flow-rate and media selection must be matched to the "bio-load" of your 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 emerged 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 GFI. 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 un-initiated, a GFI. is an electronic "electron counter". When the number of electrons going and coming through it differs, the GFI. 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, freshwater weighs about 7.8 pounds per gallon, saltwater about 8.2 and there are about seven 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 do it yourself or hire out with a contractor 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 fish stores, Fish Societies and the "Yellow Pages" under various headings.

All the standard suggestions apply when deciding on a contractor: Get a written estimate, check out a few of their recent triumphs personally, make sure they are licensed contractors (with insurance and worker's compensation for their staff). Be careful in your selection; this is a very permanent addition to your living space.

Neglecting the cost of your time, doing it yourself can save you easily half the costs of a system. Depending on the size and complexity, a home-made low-budget unit can come in under a dollar a gallon. Some fancy store bought units can be easily ten times that amount. Contractor design, built and installed system 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 designs and builds require 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 habitat can benefit from the effects of living aquatic art. How would you improve yours with a custom aquarium?

Bibliography/Further Reading:

www.hydrosight.com (Acrylic Sheet)


Re: Aquariums: Creative Design Elements for Home or Business      12/2/14
I have attached an article for your review. Let me know if you have any feedback and if you would like to publish the article.
<... this is less than four hundred words w/o the promo... and no graphics? No thanks.
Bob Fenner>

Title: Keep Calm, Swim On | The Calming Aquarium       12/2/14
Client: Fintastic Aquarium
Host Site:

Author: Greg Sowers, Owner of Fintastic Aquariums

Bio: Fintastic opened in 1992 as the Carolina’s first full-service aquarium retailer, specializing in freshwater and marine fish. Our new high-tech store showcases over 10,000 square feet of aquariums, fish, plants and corals. We have 425 aquariums displaying over 18,000 gallons of unique living nature. The store is filled with new products, including a custom design center where you can create the system of your dreams.

Site: http://www.fintastic.us/

There is nothing quite like water. Being around it transports us to a calmer, more peaceful state of mind. The way water looks; the way it sounds; even the way it feels has a profound effect on our mindset.

In his book, Blue Mind, Marine Biologist and Ocean Conservationist, Wallace J. Nichols highlights the healing power of water. "[Water has] a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment."

For those of us who don’t live beside an ocean or lake, an aquarium provides many of the same soothing qualities of a water feature. The calming sounds of water and the hypnotic motion of swimming fish is instantly uplifting.

In an office or lobby setting, an aquarium can help guests unwind and get their mind off daily worries. This is especially useful in places where people may be feeling anxious or stressed, such as a dentist office, a doctor office or a law firm. Of course, it’s in a business’ best interest to keep its customer base calm and comfortable. This is the same reason you may have seen aquariums in retirement communities or hospitals.

If you’re considering buying a tank for an office or lobby you should consider your options. An aquarium is a commitment. You’ll need to choose a tank-size that fits your location. If you’re new to keeping fish or just don’t have the time to establish a new aquarium it may be useful to hire a professional aquarium builder and maintenance crew.

Aquatic professionals can help you customize and set up an aquarium that is safe, accessible and attractive. An aquarium is a delicate ecosystem. You need to think about temperature control (even in a power outage), tank safety, electrical hook-ups and your water source. Nobody wants to open up on Monday to a tank-disaster.

An experienced team can help you choose your aquarium size, set you up with proper equipment and choose the best fish, plants and coral to match your vision.

Whether you decide to install a freshwater tank or collect exotic fish, an aquarium is a soothing aesthetic compliment and living conversation piece for any space.

* Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, Wallace J Nichols

Re: Aquariums: Creative Design Elements for Home or Business      12/2/14
Hi Bob,
I had no idea you wanted a particular amount of words. I wanted to get feedback on the content and then we can talk more about what type of graphics would fit best for your site.
<Real good... 800-1200 or so words, and whatever images serve best to promote your client's aims. BobF>


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