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Size Doesn't Always Matter!

Thoughts on the Desire to Create Bigger Marine Aquariums


By Scott Fellman


In the marine aquarium hobby, much like in life, we're often led to believe that "bigger is better." A large house is better for your growing family! The large bottle of pasta sauce will make 3 nights of lasagna! And of course, the large can of paint is a better buy, right? Well, more often than not, the reality soon sets in'¦The larger house means a larger property tax bill, the large bottle of pasta sauce goes bad after a week, and that large can of paint hardens to uselessness before you ever get halfway through it!

Okay, our aquariums are not bottles of pasta sauce or cans of paint, yet there are some useful analogies we can draw from the comparisons. Much has been written abut how larger aquariums are a better way to go for most hobbyists. But are they really the best for everyone?

Let me start of by stating that I have nothing against large aquariums. In fact, the smallest aquarium I've kept in the past five years is 150 gallons. Before I blast the whole institution of "Bigger Aquariums Are Better", and anger everyone who owns a deluxe aquarium, let's look at the true advantages of larger aquariums.

Let's define what I call a "large aquarium". As far as this "fish geek" is concerned, a large aquarium is anything over 100 gallons. Or you could look at it from a more practical standpoint: "large" is any size of aquarium that will result in chiropractic bills if less than three people attempt to lift it. "Large" is any aquarium that will result in weather patterns forming in your living room as a result of the moisture. "Large" is'¦well- you get the picture.

Just what are the advantages of keeping larger aquariums? To begin with, larger aquariums aquariums do offer a more stable environment. Larger water volumes retain temperature better (acting as heat sinks), hold more oxygen, maintain chemical balance longer, and dilute metabolic waste easier, by virtue of volume (provided the aquarium is not overcrowded, and that common-sense husbandry techniques are employed).

Within reason, larger volumes of water (especially pf greater surface area dimensions) allow you to keep greater numbers of fishes, or larger specimens. Again, common sense must prevail. If your fishy "career" includes a legacy of overcrowded 50 gallon tanks, there's a really good chance that you'll repeat the same thing with your 200 gallon aquarium. It may take a little longer (and cost a lot more), but it happens.

Of course, larger aquariums provide more space to develop dramatic aquascaping schemes. You can utilize those huge pieces of live rock that look absurd in smaller aquariums. You could actually build up a 6 inch sandbed (sorry, bare-bottom fans) and still have room for rocks, water, and livestock.

Finally, there is the topic of aesthetics. A large aquarium can become a dramatic focal point in the room in which it is situated. Relaxing on your comfortable couch in front of that enormous tank stocked with colorful fishes and corals is an activity that never gets old.


Is A Big Aquarium All That It's Cracked Up To Be?

Yep- big tanks are pretty cool. They're also expensive to purchase. And they're a bit tougher to work with. And they cost more to operate. And they take longer to stock. Wait'¦where am I going with this? Let's take a look at a few of the "cons" of purchasing and managing a large aquarium.

Wow, the darned things are expensive! It sure takes a lot of glass or acrylic, of proper thickness, to construct a large aquarium. It also takes experience and craftsmanship to construct one safely. That experience and quality comes at price. You don't want to skimp and try to save a few bucks by using thinner materials or lower quality workmanship. Imagine 200 gallons of saltwater spilling onto your new hardwood floor in the middle of the night when your "bargain" tank splits its seams. That's not a fun experience.

If you're purchasing an acrylic aquarium, remember that acrylic is a petroleum-derived product, and as such, is subject to the price fluctuations of the global petroleum market. Thus, acrylic prices tend to soar in "bear" markets.

Glass, too, is subject to price fluctuations and availability. Have you priced a 250 gallon aquarium constructed of "low iron glass" lately? Sit down before you do, because we're talking about some serious money.

Of course, large aquariums require large stands, or more precisely, stronger stands, capable of bearing the tremendous weight. If you want nice, decorative hardwoods or other "designer" materials, the price escalates. Sure, you can save some cash and make one yourself it you've got the DIY gene and a sharp mind for calculating loads. Unfortunately, most of us don't, and our wallets are a bit thinner as a result.

When placing a large aquarium in your home, you want to make darned sure that that your floor can support the immense weight. If your home is built over a crawl space, or if you're locating the aquarium upstairs, you'll definitely want to consult a structural engineer before settling on a resting place for your new aquarium.

Once you have your tank in place, you're probably going to want to fill it with water at some point, huh? I thought so. Wait a second. Did you think about the equipment that you'll need to properly outfit this monster aquarium?

Large aquariums generally require large water pumps to move significant volumes of water. They also need properly-sized sumps and filters to handle the system, not to mention, appropriate protein skimmers, calcium reactors, and lighting systems. You simply can't run a large tank with a small sump or an under-sized filter. Any protein skimmer is better than none, but why would you deliberately purchase an undersized one? Large protein skimmers are pricy items, as are large calcium reactors and chillers. Unfortunately, they are generally indispensable to your system, so you wouldn't want to exclude them.

Lighting a large aquarium can be another very expensive proposition (are you sensing a pattern here?). I know marine aquariums hobbyists who run thousands of watts of metal halide lighting over their tanks. Have you priced metal halide systems lately? It's a whole new ball game when you require 6 to 8 pendants over your tank. And don't forget the light bulbs. Those trendy "designer" double-ended metal halide bulbs can exceed $100.00 a piece.

Of course, with all of these fancy (yet necessary) gadgets, there's that other ongoing expense- electricity. Running a large system can literally cost hundreds of dollars every month in some areas. I know more than one hobbyist who spends over $1,000 per month on electricity for their large systems, and I'll bet you could find a few without too much effort.

Electrical costs are a very serious consideration when running any tank, but they can be "deal breakers" (and they can trip circuit breakers) with large aquariums. Speaking of circuit breakers- you'll probably have to do some modifications to your home's electrical system, such as adding a new sub panel, to accommodate all of the gadgets in your new tank. Consult an electrician familiar with local codes and safety requirements during your planning phase. Your life- and your family's lives depend on it.

Stocking Up

Be sure to purchase the larger sizes of your favorite salt mix- you'll need 'em! How much saltwater do you go through in a 200 gallon tank every month? Well, if you change 10% per week, that's 80 gallons. A 200 gallon bucket of salt mix costs anywhere from $40.00 to $80.00, and is an ongoing expense.

Deep sand beds are pretty cool. "Conventional reef wisdom" (I love saying that-as if there is such a thing.) suggests a 4" plus sandbed in a 72" X 30" tank would require a minimum of 450 pounds of substrate material. How much that will cost depends upon the material you choose.

Those of you who love those "special" additives and trace elements (you know who you are) will find that the costs are commensurate with the size of your system. 5 drops per gallon is quite a bit in a large system, isn't it? The mail-order companies will love you.


Yeah-But What About The Fish?

The best part of a large system is that you can keep more fish in it. Usually, that is. Think about it. If you really like Triggerfish, you can finally get that Odonus niger that can reach 18 inches long. The problem is that, in a large aquarium, this guy will reach this length! And, in the process, he'll give off a lot of metabolic waste. By the way, he's unlikely to be any friendlier at 18" than he was at 3", so think about that when contemplating keeping some of these big guys.

Ah, you like smaller fish, right? You're in a better position. Of course, if you like really small fishes, like I do, you'll spend a whole lot of time just trying to find them in a large aquarium. Trust me- I do. This is actually kind of fun, but to the casual observer, it's kind of weird (Well, so are a lot of the things that we do in this hobby.). So, you'll probably want to put more fishes in the aquarium to help "fill" the space. You'll be surprised how many Yellow Assessors (Assessor flavissimus) at $35.00 a pop it takes to accomplish this.

Live rock is an integral part of most marine systems. Depending upon your goals, you'll probably use around 1-2 pounds per gallon (another "conventional" reef- keeping rule). Of course, you may need more to achieve the look that you want in a 96"x30"x24" aquarium. You could purchase a small car for the price of the rock it would take to fill this sized aquarium.

If you're a coral geek, particularly the SPS (Small Polyp Scleractinan) type, you'll spend a lot of time and money stocking your new system. Patience can help, because those small "frags" that you get from your friends can and will grow into large, impressive colonies given time and space. Of course, this is true with any sized system, but it is a key to keeping this aspect of large aquarium keeping more affordable.

It's Your Call'¦

All of this seemingly negative talk about the challenges of setting up a large aquarium is not presented to discourage you from setting one up. However, it is presented to give you a sort of "reality check" as you contemplate a large system. It's easy to fantasize about the huge aquarium that you're going to build when you win the lottery. It's quite another to actually set it up if you're of more modest means. In reality, it's usually necessary to compromise somewhat based on budget, space, time, etc.

Remember, despite what you might see and hear, having a large aquarium does not brand you as a "success" in our hobby, any more than maintaining a smaller system brands you as a novice. It's not like you crossed over some imaginary barrier and arrived as a "serious" hobbyist. Success in the hobby is about creating and maintaining a vibrant, healthy aquarium, regardless of size, for the long term growth and prosperity of its inhabitants.


Yes, large aquariums are impressive. But I've seen plenty of large aquariums that were downright unremarkable (in fact, I've set up a few, myself). Many hobbyists set up huge systems as the "next phase" in their aquarium career, and some end in disappointment- or even disaster. If you're not able to master the art and science of aquarium keeping with a small system, a large tank will likely not be any different for you. Think before you leap.

Large aquariums can be visually arresting, beneficial to their inhabitants, and just generally add a new dimension of fun to your hobby. However, the time, money and commitment to maintain them are a serious consideration. Keeping a large aquarium is not an endeavor that you enter into lightly.

In Praise of Smaller Aquariums

For most of us out there with modest means and good husbandry habits, smaller systems are the way to go. Some of the most amazing aquariums that I've visited over the years have been less than 100 gallons. In fact, the single most amazing aquarium that I've ever seen was a 29 gallon system!

One of the many benefits of running a smaller aquarium is the ability to enjoy all of those awesome little fishes and invertebrates that tend to disappear in large aquariums. For example, some of the most fascinating symbiotic relationships in nature occur between Prawn Gobies (Amblyeleotris and Stonogobiops sp.) and shrimps, such as Alpheus species. Many of these fishes and the shrimps that hey associate with are less than two inches (5 cm) in length. When you add into the equation the fact that these fishes rarely leave their burrows, you've got a group of creatures that are tailor-made for a smaller aquarium, where they can be true "stars". These "doinkers", as one of my fishy friends calls them, make fascinating, charming displays.

Other examples of fishes better suited to smaller aquariums because of their diminutive size or limited activity are Dwarf Seahorses, which need to be "closer" to their food sources, and Frogfishes (Antennarius sp.). Smaller aquariums serve a practical purpose in these instances, providing easier feeding opportunities for both the fish and the aquarist. In fact, these fishes lend themselves well to designing the entire system around their special needs. The end result will be a happier, healthier fish, and an amazing display that you can be proud of.

Simple reverse "economies of scale" come into play when considering the benefits of smaller aquariums. Ongoing maintenance expenses for consumable items, such as salt mix, filter media, light bulbs, and water are all considerably lower than they are in large systems. It is obvious that a 10% water change in a 50 gallon aquarium will require substantially less water (and effort!) than a 10% water change in a 180 gallon system. This will add up to significant savings over time, believe me.

Another positive aspect of keeping smaller, more manageable systems is the reduced amount of time that you'll spend on basic husbandry tasks, such as water changes, algae cleaning, etc., compared to the monster-sized systems. Sure, there are many hobbyists who spend as much time on their 40 gallon aquariums as other hobbyists do caring for their 120 gallon aquariums, but these are the exceptions in most cases. For the majority of hobbyists, it simply takes less time to accomplish many of the regular, repetitive tasks in a smaller aquarium than it does in a larger aquarium.

Generally, you'll spend less money fully stocking a smaller aquarium than you will stocking a larger one. Sure, if you like some of the rare, tiny fishes in your small aquarium, such as the half-inch long Flaming Prawn Goby, Discordipinna griessingeri, you'll still spend a small fortune. Of course, for the majority of us, a smaller aquarium is far less expensive to fully stock with fishes, invertebrates and live rock, if for no other reason than the limited physical space that a smaller aquarium presents. As mentioned above, smaller, more manageable systems provide unique opportunities to aquascape in a manner that highlight these small creatures in a spectacular manner.

For many hobbyists, a more modest-sized aquarium allows them to enjoy their hobby-as well as their life. Being forced to become a "tank slave" to your monster-sized aquarium may not lead to long-term hobby happiness. On the other hand, smaller aquariums do require discipline and self-control in order to keep them properly stocked and correctly maintained. The margins for error are proportionately smaller than in larger aquariums. Be aware of this, and enjoy your aquarium accordingly.

Regardless of the size of the system that you create, think "outside the box" when planning your system. So-called community tanks and mixed coral gardens of assorted fishes and invertebrates are lively, entertaining-and deservedly popular. However, for something a little different, try creating a biotope system- an aquarium that seeks to replicate a specific environmental niche, which showcases fishes and invertebrates that are found together in nature. You could model a reef flat, a rubble zone, lagoon, etc. Or, how about a monospecific system, featuring only one species of coral or fish- quite a departure from the usual aquarium?

Truly daring aquarists should not be afraid to replicate something completely different, such as a seagrass bed, a muck bottom, Gorgonian "forest", or a deep cave. The possibilities are truly limited only by your imagination, skill as an aquarist, and your courage to take the road less traveled. Remember, unique and unusual aquariums don't have to be huge to be captivating and successful. They just need to be well thought-out, properly equipped, and steadfastly maintained.

In the end- it's your call as to how you want to proceed in your hobby. Don't buy into the latest trends or fads. Just go with what will work for you. It's not the size that makes your aquarium special. It's the skill, dedication and imagination of the hobbyist that gets the job done. Creating and maintaining an aquarium that brings pleasure and enjoyment to you is the true measure of success in this hobby.

It's my sincere hope that you'll create a spectacular system that you can be proud of, be it 15 gallons or 500 gallons. Remember- in the aquarium hobby, size doesn't always matter!

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