Soothing watery habitats and style pair swimmingly in home aquariums. Forget the stereotypical box tank on a metal stand; some homeowners are fishing for custom built-in displays that are living works of art, says Jose Blanco, Director of Operations for Living Color Aquariums in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and star of "Fish Tank Kings" on the National Geographic Wild channel.
"When we talk about aquariums that have a 'wow' factor, it's usually a saltwater environment, with the vibrant colors of corals and variety of unique fish and sea life," Blanco says. "A freshwater tank features grasses and rocks instead of coral, but can be easier to maintain, because the salinity of the water is one less thing to worry about."
Before going financially underwater on a stylish seascape, Blanco says to start small, especially if a homeowner is going to be responsible for the regular maintenance of an aquarium. "Kids are especially excited to find Nemo and bring him home," he says. "But after the novelty has worn off, an aquarium remains a living habitat that needs to be maintained regularly."
Blanco says the average tank his company installs is between 300 and 1,000 gallons. But a starter, stand-alone tank size of 50 gallons might be the first step before taking the plunge into the built-in variety with custom cabinetry, with a tank commonly designed using acrylic, a clear, glasslike plastic that is half as heavy as glass.
"We primarily fabricate acrylic aquariums, because they can be made in different sizes and shapes, featuring curved fronts -- all without visible seams," Blanco says. "You can join pieces of glass together, but you will always see the joint with a line of silicone adhesive. Tanks can also become scratched, but those can be buffed out of acrylic, not glass."
Diving into the purchase of a tank without considering its placement in the home can have disastrous consequences. "Water always travels the path of least resistance, so you have to make sure it stays in the tank and have an equipment pan underneath it, in case it springs a leak," Blanco says. "Aquariums are also heavy, and depending on where it is placed in a home, you might need to reinforce floor joists to accommodate the weight."
Ideally, it is best to place an aquarium along an inner wall of a home, away from heating/cooling vents or a fireplace. It should not be placed under windows or near an exterior door, where exposure to the sun or a cold breeze can cause the water temperature to fluctuate. For a saltwater tank, the temperature should remain constant, between 76 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Living Color Aquariums' high-end aquatic habitats, the filtration and pump systems in the water are most often hidden within faux coral reefs. Exotic livestock, such as eels, manta rays and puffer fish can be at home in an aquarium, as long as you consult with a professional who knows the compatibility of the sea species.
"You can have a predatory eel in a tank, but don't stock it with fish that will easily fit within its jaws," Blanco says. "Also, it's important to build the strata of a tank with different fish: You want bottom dwellers, along with active swimmers that occupy the middle and upper parts of the tank. You don't want fish competing for food or space."
For a custom-made aquarium, be prepared to shell out a lot of clams. Blanco says a smaller 300-gallon tank installed can cost around $30,000 and go up from there. It's important to do business with reputable aquatic companies, so be sure to check references and view other residential projects, before being sold a fish story.
"We take care to install a customized container, with lights and a habitat, but once the fish are introduced, the aquarium comes to life," Blanco says. "With that comes the responsibility of maintaining this comparatively little box of the ocean, when we're talking about a saltwater tank."
Blanco says a majority of the saltwater species used in the aquariums they install have been "farm" raised to stock aquariums, as opposed to collecting "wild" fish populations from the ocean. Also, to ensure the health of the sea creatures in an aquarium, regular maintenance is required:
-- Feeding fish according to a schedule.
-- Cleaning skimmer and aquarium.
-- Monitoring water quality -- checking that the temperature, nitrites, pH level and salinity of the water are within set tolerances for your tank.
-- Changing water as suggested and checking that aquarium systems such as lighting, filtration and aeration are in good working order.
-- Observing fish for signs of stress or sickness.
Blanco says regular maintenance service is often available through reputable businesses that install aquariums, and can start at around $2 per gallon, per month.
"When we build these aquariums, we can't compete with God in terms of the natural beauty, but we do what we can to ensure the health and longevity of this biological aquatic environment," Blanco says. "It's wonderful to experience the calm of 'fish drift,' which happens when daily difficulties seem to melt away while observing the environment inside a home aquarium."
-- Living Color Aquariums, 888-659-7583, LivingColor.com
-- Check local listings or online at http://Channel.NationalGeographic.com/wild/fish-tank-kings/ for episode information on "Fish Tank Kings."
(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at firstname.lastname@example.org.)