Having been in the fishkeeping hobby for quite some time now, I have always been asked by fishkeepers, “How tall should the aquarium be?”

This question has always dumbfounded me because there really is no single answer. In fact, I have always approached this question by considering two things. First is the aquarium itself, and second, the total height of the tank with the stand. When designing the tank of your dreams—or even when just dreaming about your first tank—you might as well consider both. After all, once the tank is set and filled with water, you won’t want to tear it down just because you didn’t like it.

To start off, let us look at what the common Filipino fishkeeper is most familiar with: the standard Philippine-made aquarium. Anywhere you go in the country, aquarium makers will generally have the same dimensions for off-the-floor aquariums. I do not know if this is a Pinoy thing or what, but we have standardized the dimensions of aquariums regularly sold in pet shops.

I asked a good friend, Mark Odulio, owner of Fish Yard 43, a popular aquarium manufacturing facility in Quezon City, what the standard aquarium dimensions are, and he gave me the following dimensions in inches following the format L x W x H: 2.5 gallons 6 x 12 x 8 5 gallons: 16 x 8 x 10 10 gallons: 20 x 10 x 12 15 gallons: 24 x 12 x 12 20 gallons: 24 x 12 x 16 35 gallons: 30 x 16 x 18 50 gallons: 36 x 18 x 18 75 gallons: 48 x 18 x 20 90 gallons: 60 x 18 x 18 100 gallons: 72 x 18 x 18

Ever since the first all-glass aquariums appeared in the hobby back in the 1970s, these were the dimensions that we Filipino fishkeepers grew up with and got accustomed to. I personally believe these were perfect dimensions. The height of these tanks gave us symmetrical rectangular tanks in landscape orientation.

With a maximum height of 20 inches, fixing something in the tank is very easy. You can easily reach to the bottom of the tank and arrange the substrate, reposition a piece of stone, or pick up the net if you happen to drop it in the tank. Doing your aquarium chores at these heights proves to be a convenient task. Had these heights posed a problem to fishkeepers, I don’t think these dimensions would have lasted more than four decades.

As for the stand, Mark states that manufacturers really do not observe a strict height standard. A height of 32 to 34 inches seems to be the common height for tank stands. “Manufacturers have their own preferences [when it comes to] the height of the stand they make. But if I were to base my opinion on the majority, the most common height should be 32 inches,” affirms Mark. Since the smaller tanks between 2.5 to 15 gallons can be set on top of a desk or table, let us not include these in the discussion. Instead, let us focus our attention on tanks sized 20 to 100 gallons because these will require stands of their own. For the purposes of this column, we can say that the total height of an aquarium and stand should generally be between 48 inches (for a 20 gallon tank) to 52 inches (for a 75 gallon tank).

For a Pinoy of average stature like I am, a total height between 48 and 52 inches seems to be a comfortable height to view your fish. Whether you are sitting AQUA BASICSdown or standing up, you should have excellent view of the fish in their tank.

I may have to stand a few steps on a stepladder to be able to do maintenance work in and around the tank, but I don’t see this as a consequence but rather, a way of life with these standard tanks.

While the standard off-the-floor aquariums above have been accepted as the norm, customized aquariums throw any “standard” dimensions out the window. Technically, you may opt for any dimension you fancy but with consequences. Thus, in determining the aquarium height for customized aquariums, you might as well consider the following points.

Since “tall” is a relative term depending on one’s perspective, let us start by defining “tall” as a tank with a height that is 30 inches or more. Ten or twenty years ago, no one dared to have all-glass aquariums taller than 30 inches. Nowadays, advancements in materials, technology, design, and structure engineering has made very tall tanks possible.

The first consideration for tall tanks is strength. A tall tank should be able to withstand the tremendous amount of pressure brought about by the volume of water it needs to hold. In an all-glass aquarium, strength is correlated with the glass thickness. Years back, the thickest glass was only ½ inch thick.

Nowadays there are many options available to fishkeepers that are thicker and thereby stronger than the ½ inch thick glass panel. Glass panels ¾ inch to 1 inch thick are available in the market; the technology of fusing two or more sheets of ½ inch thick glass to make it thicker is possible locally; tempered ½ inch thick glass provides a stronger option; and lastly, thick acrylic sheets which are stronger than glass may be used.

While these options are available, they are far more expensive than the regular ½ inch glass. Thus, opting for tall tanks requires a huge budget. So before even thinking of having a tank with a height of 30 inches or more, ask yourself if you can afford it. I promise you it shall not be cheap.

The second thing to consider is, do you need it? A tall tank is indeed a very nice sight to behold. A tall tank gives you a much bigger view, and for a fishkeeper, the bigger the view, the better it is, because more fish can be put in the tank. But at the end of the day, do you really need your tank to be so tall? In my opinion, it is a ratio of 25:25:50.

25% of fish benefit from a shallow tank. Goldfish fanciers prefer shallow tanks for their Ranchus. Round fish with small tails are best kept in tanks 12 to 18 inches tall. Some exotic fishes like rays, lungfishes, and bichirs mostly stay at the bottom and practically do nothing but hang out there. So having a tall tank would not give any significant advantage to them.

In fact, lungfishes and bichirs need to swim up and gulp air; tall tanks seem to be a disadvantage when it comes to this. Planted tank keepers generally will opt for a shallower tank than a tall one because taller tanks require stronger lighting.

25% of fish benefit from a tall tank. Contrary to what most goldfish keepers believe, some keepers prefer keeping Ryukins with tall camel backs in tall tanks. They believe that tall tanks help improve this desired trait. Altum Angelfish, because of their long dorsal and anal fins, are best appreciated in tall tanks because they can show their wide fins in full splendor. For some cichlid keepers, they prefer keeping Frontosas in tall tanks, owing to the fact that Frontosas are deep-water fish. For monster fish keepers, a tall tank gives them bigger water volume, which benefits their monsters.

50% of fish really don’t care whether your tank is tall or short. Honestly, a tank with a depth of 30 inches isn’t much compared to their natural waters. I guess you really cannot have a home aquarium that is too deep for the fish you are keeping. They are fish after all and live in water; what is deep based on human experience is very shallow for a fish.

The third factor to remember is, tall tanks will be difficult to clean. Our arms can only reach so far; if tanks are tall, we won’t be able to reach the bottom of the tank even if we needed to. But then again, we can use some tools to help us in doing maintenance work. Aquarium tongs can be used to extend your reach. If you drop something in the tank, the tongs can be used to grab this. Magnetic glass cleaners can clean the sides of the tank from the outside where you have leverage and space. To reach the bottom of the tank when siphoning off water, you may connect a PVC pipe to one end of the hose. This nozzle extends the reach of the hose and you are able to control the tip better. Doing maintenance work may be more difficult with tall tanks, but these tools make it possible for you.

If you are having a tank custom made, then no rules apply as far as the height of the stand is concerned. Personally, I would say that the height of the stand really depends on whether you have to put a sump filter under the stand. If this is the case, you should provide ample space to fit a sump with enough room to move around, especially when cleaning. A stand height of 30 to 36 inches should work well for you.

As for the total tank height, I firmly believe that by having a customized tank, you have accepted living with the consequences imposed by tall tanks. If you have to bring up a ladder and climb up 5 or 6 rungs to reach the top of the tank just to toss in fish food, then so be it. A simple activity like feeding your fish could be a tedious process.

The key is anticipating potential problems that your tall design will impose and build facilities that will make activities in and around the tank easier. Building a platform on the sides of your tank enables you to have better footing than having to balance on the rungs of a ladder. With this, you are able to move more freely, and maintenance work will be easier. You may incorporate a drain system that makes water changes easier. You may even have to fabricate your own tools to help you in your chores.

While planning for your custom tank, determine the height of tank, draw out the filtration system, determine the height of the stand, and get the total height of the tank from the flooring. Envision how it shall look like when done and anticipate what provisions you might add to the design to make maintenance work and other activities easier. When well planned, your custom tank should provide you maximum viewing pleasure for a very long time.

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s March 2017 issue.