Aquarium Buying Guide


Buying your first aquarium can be scary. There are a lot of things that you have to consider before spending your hard-earned cash, and if you don’t plan carefully you may end up with a real disaster on your hands.

The good news is that if you make a few good key decisions beforehand you can avoid most of the really big issues.

So let’s go over the most important decisions that you have to make BEFORE you put down any money for an aquarium.

The Best Things In Life are Free…

Speaking of money, the very first thing you have to decide is what your total budget will be. An aquarium setup can cost anything from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands.

Your budget needs to be split between many different items, which include not only all the equipment such as the tank itself, filters, and heaters, but also the actual live animals that you will buy to populate the tank. You should also not forget about consumables such as chemical treatment substances and filter media.

Space Age

The other major consideration is how much space you actually have available for an aquarium. While it may be tempting to buy the biggest tank you can afford, you have to think about where you’ll put it, how hard it will be to access it from all sides, how you’ll move it, or how it will fit through the nearest door. Don’t just think about the footprint of the tank you are considering, but also the weight (which varies with material) and the height of it.

There are also many tank options that are not square or rectangular; now you can get round tanks or ones with one side curved. These complicate your space calculations and also make it important to ensure that you have the right type of stand for the tank’s shape.

Crystal Clear

The next thing you have to decide is what material your tank should be made of. There are really only two choices – glass or acrylic.

Glass has the advantage of being cheap and pretty scratch resistant. It’s also a lot heavier than acrylic, which is something to consider when your envisioned tank size is on the large side.

Glass is also pretty brittle, so a sharp impact will shatter it fairly easily. The final downside to glass is that you really can only get it in square and rectangular shapes.


Acrylic tanks have the advantage iin that they provide the most accurate view of the contents of your aquarium. Glass tends to noticeably distort the color, shape, and size of your fish.

Unfortunately, acrylic is extremely prone to scratching and yellowing with age. Even people brushing past accidentally can leave visible scratches, and shipping, moving, or otherwise handling acrylic is a pain.

Unless you are getting a professional installation or know exactly what you are doing, glass is probably the safest choice for the beginner.

Please remember that glass tanks and acrylic tanks have different stand requirements. Acrylic tanks need stands that support the entire bottom surface; otherwise you risk that the tank will bow out and break under the weight of the water.

Water World

I’ve written a separate article about it, but I just want to mention that there are four different water environments that you’ll want to choose from; these will impact your decisions when it comes to what equipment to buy.

The four choices are tropical freshwater, marine saltwater, cold freshwater, and brackish water.

For example, your choice may determine whether you need equipment such as a protein skimmer, a water heater, or a water chiller.

Topless Party

You also have to decide whether you want a tank with an open top or a closed one. Open top tanks use a suspended light or clip-on light with a gooseneck. They are very attractive and let you see your fish from another angle. On the downside it means that evaporation happens much more quickly and that all sorts of pollutants can get into the water. Mostly it’s just dust and other benign but unsightly stuff, but certain insecticides and other airborne chemicals can poison your tank and kill the animals within.

Cheaper aquariums often have a hood that lets you hide things like the light inside it. Personally, I don’t think this is very attractive and prefer the open tank with a suspended or clip on light. Now you can get the best of both worlds as well, if you are willing to pay for it. Some modern tanks have a sliding glass top or one with a hinge. This means you can still shine your LED lamp through the top, but still prevent most of the evaporation.

Remember to Accessorize


When choosing your various accessories such as the heaters, filters, and lights, you have to decide whether you want to be economical or elegant. Aquariums are not just a nice hobby, they are also a beautiful piece of decoration to admire. For a lot of aquarists the ultimate goal is to have an aquarium that looks like a slice straight from the river or ocean. So they will try to hide the artificial elements of the aquarium.

The cheaper submersible heaters and other gadgets are hard to hide, although if you are creative with the decor they can be made less obvious. There are also versions that hang over the lip of the tank and may not stick out as much. It’s also tough to deal with the wiring of submersible accessories, which have to go over the top as a matter of necessity.

The ultimate solution is to put all that stuff in a completely separate tank, called a sump, which is hidden inside the cabinet or through a wall. The heaters, protein skimmer, and filtration system can all be in the sump, which then circulates water in and out of the main tank. Obviously this is more expensive, but it looks great and has more than a few practical benefits for the fish’s health and water quality.

Lights! Camera! Action!

Lighting is a pretty important consideration. Fluorescent tube lights are basically obsolete now, making way for LED lighting systems. This means that we have way more options when it comes to lighting. Some LEDs can change color and can dim. This means that it is now possible to do things like program a day and night cycle into your lighting. You can approximate peak sunlight around noon and make moonlight at night.

Taking into account the lighting of the room your aquarium will be in, this is a fantastic way to create mood and really showcase the waterscape.

True Grit

I’m not going to lie to you, doing an aquarium right is something that takes patience, planning, and care. The rewards are, however, very much worth it, and with a little bit of guidance anyone can do it.