A Rich Person's Guide to Aquariums

by Philip Greenspun

Site Home : Aquariums

Digital photo titled crane-4 This guide is intended for people willing to devote at least a 4-foot-wide area and $1000 toward the goal of having pet fish in their home or office. The goals of this approach to fishkeeping are (in descending order of importance)
  1. optimum water chemistry and environment for the animals
  2. protecting the animals from disease and catastrophe
  3. quiet operation
  4. ease of maintenance

Essential Books

Most Inspiring Public Aquariums

The most interesting public aquarium in U.S. is the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. Designed by the same architects that did most of the other aquaria in the U.S., Cambridge Seven Associates, this one has a cathedral-like feeling. You're inside a 12-story-high tower of fish, walking down ramps from the top, watching exhibits that follow the course of the Tennessee River from mountain stream beginnings to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico. At all times you've got views up and down the dimly lit interior, which is crowned with a wavy fiber optic light sculpture. It cost $45 million to build, which is only a bit more than a lot of Fortune 500 executives are spending on their Greenwich, Connecticut manor houses. If we ever join the plutocracy this is how we want to live. We'll put a bed at the top of the first ramp and call that the master bedroom. We'll put a sofa at the bottom of the first ramp and call that a living room. A desk on the next landing down will turn it into an office. And there's already a big kitchen on the ground floor!

The runner-up is just a short drive away, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The architecture here is consciously derived from a shopping mall. The sheer scale of some of the exhibits is impressive, though, and this is one of the only places in the world to see Whale Sharks in captivity (as of 2008, two out of six of these magnificent animals had died in the Georgia Aquarium).

Product Ideas

Stuff that you can't buy right now, but that someone could make a lot of money producing...

Reader's Comments

Barcelona Aquarium

No pictures?

-- Owen Byrne, December 11, 2001
Rich Person's Guide? Phil, you're starting to sound like Eric Raymond; if you aren't careful, next you'll be obsessing about handguns, referring to sweeping groups of people as your 'tribe', and writing threatening email to people who disagree with you. Oh, and turning up to silly protests wearing Star Wars costumes.

Beware, Phil, beware...

-- Rodger Donaldson, December 12, 2001

Dr., There are no photos! I would really like to see a lot of photos of all your "rich man's" Aquarium super-system and fish. I would think that a big-shot Photographer and Webmaster like you would have included a lot of photos of your Aquarium System. --JR

-- JR Ebel, January 2, 2002
This is not a bad guide for starters, but "A Rich Person's Guide"? Either I'm getting richer or you're getting poorer, because I certainly don't feel your setup is particulary rich. Unless you happen to be keeping five or so of these tanks - nice for keeping species that don't get along with each other, particulary cichlids.

I do feel that you've left out one very important point, probably should be discussed under fish: The number of fish in your tank. You mention the 30 neons/tetras, which would be about right for a 55 gallon tank you think is the minimum 'good' size.

Perhaps 55 gallons for a rich man, but really I believe you can do much with 20 gallon tanks and up. The rule of thumb is: 1" fish length per gallon of water. Less if you insist on an odd shape that has less surface area than the standard rectangular designs. Thus, you can keep one 20" fish (you'd want something bigger for really big fish), or 20 1" fish in a 20 gal. tank. Oh yeah, many people forget that the fish they buy in the store are sometimes 1/10th or less their final size...

Also the weekly water change is a bit excessive unless you like to push the limit on inches of fish per gallon of water. Less fish = less maintenance, fewer diseases, happier fish. There are way too many people running around out there who give up after their 10 gallon tank went belly up after putting in 20 tetras of average 1 1/2" inch size. Think too many rats in a cage. Oh yeah, never do a 100% water change unless you want to start over establishing you biological system. 90% might be done in an emergency, 50% if you've neglected your water change, 25% if you're following a weekly (more fish) - monthly (less fish) schedule. See what I mean about fish density being important?

I own a 33 gallon tank with dwarf cichlids (see my comment under fish), a few tetras, and a Turquoise Rainbow. Have in the past had Gouramies, among others, which seemed to do fine for a 1/2 year or so then go belly up.

For the record, I use an Aqua Clear power filter and it's fine. You don't need air agitation if you have a filter disturbing the surface water sufficiently. Buy a unit rated for *slightly* more than your tank. I personally use carbon filtration. Carbon does remove some disolved minerals, but does remove a lot of harmful (to your fish) chemicals. Carbon also acts as a biological media - along with a sponge that filters, to provide lots of space for bacteria to establish a nice nitrogen cycle in your tank. I agree with you that the Tetra products, you get what you paid for.

Oh yeah, and put some pictures up man! Let's see what this setup of yours looks like.

-- Ralph Fuhrmann, January 6, 2002

Phil - interesting article on aquariums. Although you entitle this a "rich person't guide to aquariums" your setup doesn't sound that expensive (certainly above the average, but not ridiculous). I once visited a house where a yacht builder (=rich person) had built a tropical marine POND in his garden, complete with an actual live coral reef and fish. He also had several other large reef tanks scattered around his house the cost of which I would hate to have known. His personal yacht had fish holding facilities for when he went cruising into tropical waters to bring back fish he caught.

Your quest for a quiet aquarium is one many people try to find a solution for. Unfortunately quiet and aquaria are not particularly easy things to combine. The only way I have found for creating really quiet aquaria is to have a whole separate room (a corner of the garage works OK, although car fumes are an issue to think about) for all the noisy stuff (like filters and pumps). You then have pipework running between the tank and the room. This works best when the aquarium is right next to the wall behind which all your equipment sits - running pipework long distances through a house is a pain, not to mention potentially unsightly. Having it in another room means you have a lot more elbow room than working inside a cabinet - handy if you have complicated filter systems. Aside from that, you have probably mentioned the most quiet generally available systems, Eheim, which are generally also very high quality - reflected in the globally high prices of these units. The other thing you have to try to eliminate is water falling, as this creates a sound not unlike a small waterfall, which can get irritating. Having outlets and returns just under the surface of the water, but gently agitating it helps to minimise this noise. You can also put lots of noise absorbing foam inside your cabinet which helps to deaden it. When you're really rich you can design the house of your dreams very carefully with things like filters in separate rooms to aquaria quite easily.

In my currently unstable living situation my charges are a 3,500l tropical marine tank in the Foyer of the building I work/study in and a large tank I connected to this system containing some of the fish I am working on. Otherwise I'd probably have lots of (budget) tanks myself.

Anyway, if you ever have any questions about fish, fishkeeping or want to arbitrarily "talk fish" I have quite a few years of experience in the field (as well as having a huge fish library at work, including pretty much the entire TFH book catalog), or a crisis you need help with drop me a line. I'm an academic "fish geek". =)

-- James Stapley, July 19, 2002

With regard to a Rich Person's Aquarium - the solution to the noise problem should be very similar to that for a Rich Person's Home Theatre - a separate equipment room.

If none already exists, a partition can be built with sound-deadening materials in the walls and the proper cut-outs.

Not only is the equipment out of sight and out of ear-shot, the room can only serve as a supply depot of the aquarium and, on the outside, be covered in such a water as to frame and enhance the visual impact of the acquarium.

-- Robert Yuan, July 23, 2002

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