Aquarium: Everything You Need To Know

Aquariums are one of the most interesting ways to keep a vivarium. The idea of capturing a piece of the aquatic world will forever amaze me. Aquaria give us a front-row seat to the lifestyle of inhabitants far from our reach. Rather than venturing far from our comfortable, dry realm, simply take a stroll through your living or bedroom. Because of this, aquarium upkeep is one of the most popular hobbies to spawn in the last 200 years. Today we will explore the very topic: aquariums! Keep reading to learn what they are, when they were first created and how to set up a few basic types of aquaria.

What Is an Aquarium?

An aquarium, also commonly referred to as “aquaria”, is a clear enclosure that houses aquatic animals and plants.

The prefix aqua is Latin for “water.” So, the word in itself translates to “a water within a container”. The plural substitute for the word aquarium would be aquaria.

These types of vivaria are widely popular among enthusiasts of all ages. They are used for everything from home decor to educational observation. The word “aquarium” can also be used to refer to a building that is set up with exhibits focused on aquatic plants and animals.

The Origins Of Aquaria

It is said that the very first aquariums were built by the Ancient Romans, around 100 BC. They would use marble boxes to keep fish like sea barbel. In 50 AD, the Romans began using glass panes on one side of these marble boxes to have a better view of the aquatic inhabitants.

Fast forward to the 19th century. Shortly after inventing the terrarium, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward proposed a similar concept with the exception of using only aquatic plants and animals. The popularity of fish keeping became mainstream throughout the 1850’s, and the hobby spread throughout the UK soon after. By 1853, the first official public aquarium opened for viewing at the London Zoo.

It wasn’t until 1854 when the official term for these enclosures was established. They were often referred to as aqua-vivarium or aquatic vivarium. The word “Aquarium” was first used by an author named, Philip Henry Gosse, who coined the word in his book called The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea.

Aquarium vs. Oceanarium: What’s the Difference?

When the term aquarium is used to describe a building and not an enclosure, the word oceanarium could be used to describe a particular type of aquarium. Oceanarium is a large, park like establishment that usually houses bigger marine mammals from the ocean. Aquaria are usually indoors and oceanaria are usually outdoors. Seaquarium is another name you might see commonly used to describe these types of parks.

Making An Aquarium

Putting an aquarium together is a pretty simple process. Filtration, lighting & temperature are important factors that should be catered to during the initial setup. Nailing these key features will be crucial to the survival of your enclosure regardless what type of aquarium it is.

The Essentials

The Filtration System

The filtration system is the part of your vivarium that cleans the water. Ordinarily, it consist of a water pump, a reservoir tank (or sump) and a barrier of some type to strain the water through. There are two important properties that combine to make a proper aquatic filtration, the mechanical piece and the biological.

The mechanical characteristic is usually the sponge part of the barrier that collects large debris and waste, helping to keep the tank visually clean. The Biological part of the filtration process is a blend of absorbing minerals like the activated carbon found in the mechanical part of the filter and bacteria that lives in the aquarium. Bacteria help break down waste and keep nitrogen levels regulated. Live plants can also count towards the filtration system. They, like bacteria, help mediate nitrification by consuming harmful nitrates and ammonia.

The Lighting System

The lighting system is made up of the artificial lights used to visually light the aquarium. I prefer LED lighting to other artificial alternatives, but fluorescent lighting will work as well. Lighting is important because it aids in the growth of plants by providing a source of energy for the plants to use when mediating nitrification. In saltwater setups, coral depend on UV lighting to provide energy to the algae that live on it.

The Temperature Control

Temperature regulation is another important necessity to aquaria. Depending on where the tank is located, you will need to have the ability to moderate and keep the water temperatures consistent in the vivarium. Heaters work well for keeping the water warm and Chillers work well with keeping the water cool.

Water Circulation

Water circulation is more or less vital to some types of aquaria. The existing water pump, air stones or circulation pumps are all simple ways to keep the water moving within the tank. Some inhabitants may require a certain level of flow within the enclosure so take note of that when shopping for tank mates. Even though stagnant water may benefit some plants like Lotuses or animals like the walking catfish, having pockets of non flowing water can create dangerous areas of bad bacteria and algae.

Different Types Of Aquaria

Now that we have a better understanding with the how your tank will function, let’s figure out what type of aquarium you will want to build. In terms of “aquarium type”, I will basically break it down by the type of water you house in the enclosure. There’s three types of Aquatic tanks.. Freshwater, Saltwater and a mixture of the two making it Brackish. Knowing the type of water you plan to establish is essential to the plants and animals you plan to house later.

Saltwater Tanks

Also known as a Reef Aquarium, saltwater tanks are aquariums that consist of sea water and display marine animals. As the name would suggest, These types of setups contain high amounts of salinity and higher PH levels than the other two tanks. It’s not really common to see plants in this type of enclosure. Coral is the usual substitute for these kinds of reef aquaria.

Saltwater aquaria are one of the most expensive and hardest to maintain. They require a complex filtration system that is often complimented with live rocks. Lighting is important and usually ran in optimal amounts. Depending on the type of coral and fish inhabit this enclosure, the temperature may be warmer or cooler than room temperature.. Above all it MUST remain consistent. Water circulation will vary based on the marine life but will more than likely be high to moderate.

Freshwater Tanks

These types of enclosures are my personal favorite. Also known as a Planted Aquarium, freshwater tanks display plants and animals that thrive in more neutral water. You can find freshwater in ponds, creeks and rivers. Having a more neutral PH level allows a wide variety of plants to thrive in this type of enclosure.

Freshwater aquaria can be one of the easiest tanks to maintain. They don’t require a complex filtration system. They can thrive off of a variety of lighting setups. Depending on the inhabitants, the temperature can run at a wide range of options. Water circulation will vary here as well but some freshwater animals prefer the stillness of stagnant water.

Brackish Water Tanks

This type of water setup is extremely fascinating to me. So Brackish water is a mixture of fresh and salt water tanks. They have a bit more salinity than freshwater, but not as much as saltwater. You can find brackish water around swamps or water banks where seawater meets freshwater. These setups are ideal for freshwater fry that need a more salty environment as they mature.. Like Puffer fish!

Caring For An Aquarium

There is something REALLY important I need to point out now that we have a good understanding with the aquarium we want to build.. The water cycle process. When we run our tank for the first time or make any significant changes to the environment, like add too many new fish, We cause a bacteria bloom!

To put it more simply, you have a check system of good bacteria breaking down nitrogen (fish waste). The more nitrogen, the more bacteria.. visa versa! In a brand new tank, when you add fish and they begin to generate nitrogen, the new bacteria has to colonize and populate once the nitrogen is established. This process causes spikes in the nitrogen first and than the bacteria spike follows, causing a visible white cloud to form within the tank. That spike in nitrogen is dangerous and will kill many inhabitants right away. The safest way around that is to do a fish-less cycle on new tanks and never add more than one or two fish at once.

Monthly Checklist

Water Changes

Once or twice a month pour out and refill about 25%-35% of the tanks water. As the water evaporates, the concentration of minerals go up as they are left behind in the remaining water. The nitrates your good bacteria leaves behind also accumulate to unhealthy levels over time. Replacing as much as 50% of your water monthly with new, clean water will help keep the overall aquarium healthy. Be careful not to change more than 50% of the water at once or it may cause the nitrogen to spike (restarting the cycle process), potentially killing your livestock. Use a gravel vacuum to easily remove water and trapped waste from the enclosure.

Replace Filter

Mechanical filters should be cleaned out as well as biological filters replaced at least once a month or during water changes. This greatly decreases the amount of built up toxins like ammonia and nitrates resting within the reservoir areas. You can easily replenish buffers and maintain a healthy PH level by adding Easy Balance during this process. This will assure your aquatic inhabitants are comfortable within their healthy environment.

Water Conditioning

Whenever adding new water, animals or filtration parts to the established aquarium, it is always a good idea to be sure the water is conditioned properly for your inhabitants. I’d recommend something like Seachem Prime to rid the water of Chlorine that might be in the added water. It would also be to replace the healthy bacteria that is lost during water changes with API Quick Start.

Test Water Parameters

Once a week or biweekly, it is ideal to check water chemistry to make sure things like PH, ammonia and nitrites are in good condition and don’t exceed potentially fatal limits. If you see any signs of illness with animals or worse, someone dies, the first diagnosis should be to make sure the water parameters are good. API makes a master kit that is really affordable and pretty accurate with results when testing.


Aquaria can be a simple as a 5 gallon nano tank with a single Betta fish or a massive sea world with hundreds of species of invertebrates and coral. What comes to mind when you think of Aquarium?

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