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Tips for Choosing an Aquarium: How to Pick the Right Fish Tank

Updated on March 11, 2014
The home aquarium can host an amazing variety of life if you know how to set up an environment that best suits your choice of fish
The home aquarium can host an amazing variety of life if you know how to set up an environment that best suits your choice of fish | Source

Fish keeping is one of the fastest-growing hobbies throughout the world. As biological knowledge increases on a wide range of fish, the selection and ready availability of tropical fish for your aquarium gets ever more amazing. Commercial fish farms work to produce the most popular fish, while individual breeders might try to perfect color strains, fin types, or other aspects that make your fish even more eye-catching.

If you don't have fish yet, then now is the perfect time to plan out your aquatic display. Failure in fish keeping is almost always due to inadequate research and planning before you buy your fish. Do yourself and your future underwater pets a favor, and sit down with a piece of paper to plan now.

I have published other hubs that will help you figure out stocking levels, adult sizes of fish, aquarium setup and other crucial aspects of fish keeping. Here, we'll discuss the types of aquariums available, including sizes and materials, and go over the ins and outs of why you might decide on each type of aquarium. Please note that I have spent almost 20 years raising fish, but they've been almost exclusively freshwater with a few brackish. I love to answer questions in the comment section, but I'm afraid I'm not the best person to ask about saltwater fish.

Remember that an aquarium automatically becomes the centerpiece of virtually any room

Small community fish make dazzling aquarium displays with hardy fish that are great for first-time aquarium owners.
Small community fish make dazzling aquarium displays with hardy fish that are great for first-time aquarium owners. | Source
Fluval Edge 12-Gallon Aquarium with 42-LED Light, Black
Fluval Edge 12-Gallon Aquarium with 42-LED Light, Black

A high-quality Fluval tank with its modern design is a great choice for first-time aquarium owners, or for small spaces in your apartment or office.


Let's start with the basics

The first decision you will make when beginning your fish keeping career is which aquarium you'd like to buy. Sure, it sounds easy, but this "simple" decision requires many other decisions to be made. It has to be an aquarium that will suit you and your fish for the duration of their lives. The exact tank you choose goes a long way toward facilitating your aquarium goals, and will be the primary factor in the types of fish and invertebrates you can keep.

How much do you want to spend?

Budget is obviously a big consideration for a lot of people. Some simple internet research or a quick perusal of local aquarium offerings should give you a basic idea of how much aquariums of various sizes will cost. Expect to pay anywhere from about $30 for a very small, basic setup to thousands of dollars for state-of-the-art wall aquariums. Obviously, you don't want to break the bank at any time, but especially not for the very first aquarium.

Corydoras are among the most popular bottom-dwelling fish with dozens of readily-available varieties on the market
Corydoras are among the most popular bottom-dwelling fish with dozens of readily-available varieties on the market | Source

What kind of fish do you want?

We'll start with this simplistic approach to this question, and worry about specifics later. Exact species will vary, but an overview of characteristics will help you narrow down your choices. Do you want big fish? Small fish? Schooling? A single gorgeous specimen that steals the show? Once you have a basic idea of what fish you like, you can research their compatibility and space requirements. That should give you a basic idea of the size of aquarium you need for the fish you want.

Bear in mind that stocking rules don't always apply. That is, one of the most oft-repeated rule is that you can put one inch of fish per gallon of water in your aquarium. This is true in some cases, but it does mean the adult size of the fish, and most fish in pet stores are not adults. It also doesn't hold true for larger fish, namely ones over 6", because it doesn't factor in length or width requirements for them to move around. In addition, plants and decorations will displace some of the water, so you can't just stock according to the total size of your aquarium.

Want a little more help choosing your fish?

500 Freshwater Aquarium Fish: A Visual Reference to the Most Popular Species (Firefly Visual Reference)
500 Freshwater Aquarium Fish: A Visual Reference to the Most Popular Species (Firefly Visual Reference)

Want a handy reference you can take with you, or just prefer a book to online research? This guide offers basic information on most of the fish you're likely to find in stores or among breeders


How much space will you devote to an aquarium?

Look at your home or office and think of the exact future location of your aquarium. Select a place away from direct sunlight, heaters and contaminants such as grease splattering in the kitchen or that deodorizer spray you use in the bathroom. Measure the space you have available. This determines the width and length of your tank, but remember that the strength of your aquarium stand is what determines its height, and therefore overall weight. You can fit a wide range of sizes and shapes of aquariums into surprisingly restricted nooks and crannies, so don't be afraid to experiment with size options.

Not sure where to put your aquarium? Here's a very quick overview of where not to put your aquarium

Glass or acrylic?

The material of your aquarium depends largely on your personal preferences. There is no general consensus among experienced fish keepers stating that one is better than another. Glass tends to be more scratch-resistant than most types of acrylic, and does not discolor with age (some acrylic aquariums of mine have discolored when stored empty for some time). That said, some types of high-quality acrylic are tougher and clearer than the average glass tank, and you may be able to buff out scratches on these that you can't on glass.

Do you move a lot or foresee a move in your future? Acrylic is lightweight and less likely to crack due to the stresses of moving, so it is much easier to move than glass. Acrylic tanks generally do not have seams. Glass tanks have silicone seams that can spring leaks and become brittle with age, so they may need repaired at some point.

Cost comes into consideration, as many types of run-of-the-mill acrylic is cheaper than glass. Because the glass tanks are heavier, they cost more to ship and consequently carry a higher price tank. Glass is also assembled by hand or with mechanical aids, but acrylic can be entirely molded. State-of-the-art acrylic types can be considerably more expensive than any others, but it's as close to indestructible as it's possible to get.

Lighting is everything in achieving the right look. Research the effects of these popular light options

  • LED top lighting
  • Incandescent lights
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Underwater lighting
  • Blue lights
  • Full-spectrum "grow" lamps
  • Multicolored lights
  • "Bioluminescent" aquarium decorations

Choosing your aquarium lighting

Lights are an essential part of your aquarium setup; they are what determines how your aquarium will truly look. You can have the most breathtaking display of plants and ornaments and truly gorgeous fish, but it won't matter if no one can see them.

This is one case in which a light bulb isn't simply a light bulb. Make sure you know the effect you want to achieve and, whenever possible, find out ahead of time what type of lighting you need. If you have live plants, you may need to consider some form of full-spectrum lighting to help them thrive. Various colors, intensities and shades of colors will also greatly influence how your fish are displayed.

What difference does lighting make? Compare this blue light setup to your average home aquarium lighting

GloFish 29045 Aquarium Kit with Blue LED light, 5-Gallon
GloFish 29045 Aquarium Kit with Blue LED light, 5-Gallon

"Glow fish" are hugely popular for their bright colors created by blue light reactive dye. This means that the fish, as well as blue light reactive plants and decorations, will have a striking glow that you just can't miss


What shape of aquarium do you want?

If you've done any research around buying an aquarium, you will have noticed there are a lot of different shapes. Each has different applications in terms of versatility and aesthetics. While rectangles are probably the most widely available and cost-effective tanks on the market, they are also a tiny fraction of what is available. Bow-fronts are often fairly expensive, but hugely popular. These attractive tanks can make the tank and its inhabitants look larger and throw more light into a room, making them ideal for waiting rooms, dark corners or smaller rooms. Hexagons, globes, cubes -- these are but a few available aquarium shapes, so you have the flexibility to find something that will fit perfectly with your personal tastes and decor.

Kind of low production values, but here's a great overview on the pros and cons of each popular tank shape

What else do you need to know?

So now you have the basic considerations for choosing your new aquarium. Bear in mind that this is just the beginning -- the empty house. Now it's time to research how to care for individual fish, how to "cycle" the tank for functioning biological filtration, and the equipment you'll need to create the aquarium setup you want. Check out the links below for in-depth hubs on each of these crucial subjects.

Please make sure that your research doesn't stop at asking a pet store employee how to take care of fish. Sometimes they'll be extremely knowledgeable, but many times they'll just be collecting a minimum wage paycheck and know nothing of value. Whenever possible, ask breeders of specific fish species about their care. Weigh the benefits of cheap pet store prices against superior breeding and care from small breeders. Finally, be ready to grow -- once you learn how to keep an aquarium healthy and beautiful, it's so hard to stop at just one.


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