Acrylic aquariums have become increasingly popular due to their lightweight yet durable construction. Unlike traditional glass tanks, acrylic allows for more versatility in shape and design. From rimless tanks to massive custom builds, acrylic opens up exciting possibilities for dedicated aquarists.
However, working with acrylic also comes with unique considerations. To help you determine if an acrylic aquarium is right for your needs, this guide will cover everything you need to know about custom acrylic fish tanks.
Overview of Acrylic as an Aquarium Material
Acrylic, or Plexiglas, is a transparent plastic material made from acrylic polymer. It offers several advantages over glass:
- Lightweight – Acrylic weighs about half as much as glass. This makes acrylic tanks easier to move and place without requiring a heavy-duty stand.
- Impact resistant – Acrylic is less prone to shattering and cracking than glass. It can better withstand bumps and jolts.
- Thermoforming capabilities – Acrylic can be heated and molded into curved shapes impossible with glass. This allows for more unique aquarium designs.
- Optical clarity – Acrylic transmits light better than glass, lessening edge distortion. This creates a crystal clear viewing experience.
However, acrylic also has some downsides:
- Scratch prone – Acrylic easily scratches from abrasive cleaners, decorations, and aquarium maintenance. These scratches can be buffed out through polishing.
- UV light damage – Prolonged exposure to UV rays from sunlight or aquarium lights can cause acrylic to become brittle and yellow over time.
- Higher cost – Generally, acrylic tanks are more expensive than comparable glass aquariums. But the ability to customize can offset the higher initial investment.
Overcoming these drawbacks takes proper care and maintenance. When handled with care, acrylic can last for many years as a stunning showpiece tank.
Cost of Custom Acrylic Aquariums
One of the most common questions about acrylic aquariums is how much it costs to build one? Unfortunately, there is no single answer, as many factors impact the overall price.
Acrylic Sheet Cost
The acrylic sheets themselves represent a significant portion of the expense. Acrylic costs more per square foot compared to glass. Expect to pay $50-100 or more for a single 4×8 sheet of 1⁄2” thick acrylic, with prices increasing for thicker acrylic.
The overall size and dimensions of the acrylic tank dramatically affect price. Larger tanks require more raw materials, engineering, and equipment to manufacture. A small 20 gallon acrylic cube may cost a few hundred dollars, while a massive 400 gallon acrylic tank can cost $5,000-10,000 or more.
Thickness & Strength
The thickness of the acrylic is determined by the size and weight the tank must support. Typical acrylic thicknesses are 1/4” up to 3/4” or more. Thicker acrylic is exponentially stronger but also pricier.
Elements like integrated filtration systems, overflows, lids, and stands can enhance functionality and raise costs. Complex designs require more custom fabrication expertise. Unique shapes can increase material waste as well.
DIY vs Professional Build
You can save substantially by building your acrylic tank using kits and plans compared to hiring a professional fabricator. But DIY builds result in more risks and uncertainties with quality.
Popular Brands of Custom Acrylic Tanks
Several manufacturers have become well respected in the aquarium industry for their expertise working with acrylic. While no brand is cheap, paying more for quality is wise investment to ensure safety and longevity. Some top brands for custom acrylic tanks include:
Clear for Life
This California-based company has been fabricating custom aquariums for over 16 years. Their specialty is acrylic tanks ranging from 30 – 10,000+ gallons. Clear for Life offers uncommon shapes like cylinders and bowfront designs. They are known for flawless welds and clarity.
Operating out of Indiana, Tenecor has built acrylic aquariums for over 50 years. Their focus is on super large tanks from 500 up to 40,000+ gallons. Tenecor supplies many public aquariums and high end clients. They are masters at engineering the acrylic support needed for massive tanks.
Acrylic Tank Manufacturing (ATM)
Located in Florida, ATM is family owned and operated. They offer smaller custom acrylic tanks from 10 – 250 gallons. Their specialty is rimless cube designs with beveled edges and seamless silicone. ATM tanks are known for crystal clarity and precision craftsmanship.
This company based in Canada builds custom tanks from 30 – 10,000+ gallons. They work with acrylic and glass to accommodate client needs and offer cube, recto, and bowfront shaped designs. Their portfolio includes tanks for celebrities and luxury hotels.
When reviewing brands, request examples of previous client tanks and read up on their construction techniques. An experienced, established fabricator is worth investing in a flawlessly built custom acrylic aquarium.
Unique Acrylic Aquarium Shapes & Styles
One of the biggest benefits of acrylic is the ability to mold the plastic into shapes not possible with glass. This allows for more creative tank designs. Some popular options include:
Acrylic Cube Aquariums
Cube tanks offer a modern, minimalist look with seamless viewing from all angles. They accommodate both freshwater and saltwater setups. Rimless acrylic cubes are especially stunning. Just beware of acrylic thickness needed to support a cube’s weight properly.
Acrylic Cylinder Fish Tanks
Circular cylindrical tanks make an eye-catching focal point. They can be positioned in a room’s center and viewed from all sides. Cylinders work well for small tropical fish like tetras or bettas. Proper filtration is essential to prevent deadly “dead spots”.
Acrylic Bowfront Aquariums
A gently curved bowfront tank adds depth and contours to a wall. The arched viewing windows create a panoramic aquatic experience compared to flat glass. Bowfronts work in more confined spaces where a full cylinder would be too bulky.
Acrylic Reef Ready Tanks
For marine reef setups, acrylic can be customized with pre-drilled overflows and holes for closed-loop circulation. This “reef ready” approach streamlines installing filtration and plumbing. Having holes professionally cut prevents cracking or leaks.
Extra Large Acrylic Tanks
Public aquariums often utilize massive custom acrylic tanks up to tens of thousands of gallons. These giants showcase larger aquatic life like sharks and whales. Engineering the internal support for all that water weight is an art.
Don’t limit yourself to just rectangles or cubes! Consult with acrylic specialists to design a unique tank that makes a bold artistic statement.
DIY Acrylic Aquarium Considerations
The high cost of custom acrylic tanks leads many hobbyists to consider DIY builds. With the right tools and skills, you can build your own. However, achieving professional grade results requires overcoming challenges.
DIY Acrylic Aquarium Kits
To simplify the DIY process, you can purchase acrylic tank kits including all the needed materials and plans. These kits allow you to assemble a custom tank without fabricating it from scratch. While easier, they can still result in beginner mistakes.
The most critical aspect of any acrylic tank is the seam where separate sheets are bonded. Imperfect seams lead to leaks or even catastrophic failures. DIYers rarely achieve flawless seam welds like a professional fabricator can.
Buffing & Polishing
After bonding the acrylic, the seams must be meticulously sanded and polished. The slightest ripples or scratches will be glaringly obvious once filled with water. Polishing acrylic to a flawless finish is difficult for amateurs.
Cutting and fabricating acrylic produces material waste and discarded scraps, especially for complex 3D shapes. This can become costly if you make sizing mistakes. Professionals utilize CAD to optimize cuts and minimize waste expenses.
For hobbyists with patience and DIY experience, building your acrylic aquarium can be deeply rewarding. But understand that getting professional results involves a steep learning curve and wasted materials.
Features to Enhance Acrylic Tanks
Beyond just the tank itself, additional functional features can enhance the usability and aesthetics of a custom acrylic aquarium.
Evaporation is accelerated in acrylic tanks due to the tighter seal compared to glass. Acrylic lids help retain humidity and prevent fish from jumping out. Hinged lids provide easy access while keeping most of the tank covered.
External Overflow Boxes
Overflow boxes simplify maintaining consistent water levels and provide space to conceal aquarium equipment. These are usually plumbed into sumps for additional filtration and water volume.
Backdrops create an illusion of depth while concealing unsightly equipment. Photographic tropical vistas are popular. For a modern look, opt for solid color backgrounds.
Weirs are interior walls used to create separate aquatic environments in one tank. You can raise coral and fish in divided sections mimicking biotopes.Weirs require planning for filtration and line of sight.
Perimeter LED Lighting
LED lighting strips running along the tank perimeter offer shimmer and shadow effects. Combined with acrylic’s clarity, the illuminated water seems to glow seamlessly from edge to edge.
Contoured Foam Backing
Colored foam can provide a contour background when mounted behind the tank. Match the foam to surround décor for a cohesive look. The foam also dampens vibrations.
For a contemporary, minimalist look, an open-top rimless design highlights the clarity of acrylic. It showcases the aquatic scenery within. Keeping water levels filled is crucial to reduce splashing.
Take time to think through which add-ons will maximize aesthetics and functionality before finalizing acrylic tank plans. The options are nearly endless.
Acrylic Aquarium Scratch Repair Options
One downside of acrylic tanks is their tendency to scratch from abrasive decorations and cleaning. But unlike glass, most acrylic scratches can be removed through polishing.
Acrylic Scratch Removal Kits
Repair kits contain sandpaper and polishing pads for smoothing scratches by hand. Start with coarser grit sandpaper before transitioning to finer polishing pads. Take care not to create heat buildup.
Plastic Polishing Compounds
Specialized polishing compounds are applied by hand or with a buffing tool to remove scratches and restore clarity. They come in varying grits – work up gradually from heavier cut compounds to fine polishing.
Wet Sanding Acrylic
Lightly sanding acrylic under running water acts as lubricant and clears debris. Start with 600 grit and work up to 2000+ before polishing. Let acrylic dry fully between sanding and polishing.
Rotary tools like Dremels allow polishing pads and compounds to spin at high speeds for faster scratch removal. Take it slow to avoid excess heat. Wax finishing protects the finish.
With care and patience, most acrylic scratches can be removed. But prevention is key – avoid abrasive algae pads, sharp decor, and aggressive cleaning. A soft cloth is ideal for routine upkeep.
Long Term Care for Acrylic Aquariums
While acrylic tanks are engineered to last years, proper maintenance and care are required for longevity. Here are some tips:
Avoid Direct Sunlight
UV exposure causes acrylic to become brittle and yellow over time. Place the tank out of direct sunlight and utilize shades to control intense daylight.
Use Soft Cleaners
Clean acrylic gently with soft cloths and mild soap to avoid new scratches. Never use abrasive pads or chemical cleaners on acrylic.
Install UV Filters
UV sterilizing filters protect acrylic clarity by controlling algae growth and preventing yellowing. Replace bulbs annually for maximum effectiveness.
Monitor Water Chemistry
Test pH, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates routinely. Poor water quality corrodes acrylic, causes scratches, and requires frequent polishing.
Inspect decorations for rough edges before adding to tank. Sharp objects can easily gouge acrylic. Smooth or replace as needed.
With routine maintenance and avoiding harsh chemicals, acrylic aquariums can stay crystal clear for 5-10 years or longer. Proper care protects your investment.
Key Takeaways on Acrylic Aquariums
To recap, here are the essential things to know about custom acrylic fish tanks:
- Acrylic allows unique shapes but requires more care than glass. Weigh pros and cons.
- Larger acrylic tanks get exponentially pricey. Set a budget before exploring options.
- Seam quality is critical – invest in an experienced acrylic tank builder.
- DIY builds require advanced skills. Expect material waste and imperfections.
- Add functional features like overflows early in planning stages.
- Prevent scratches and UV damage with proper cleaning and lighting.
- With routine maintenance, acrylic tanks can stay flawless for years.
Acrylic opens up exciting possibilities beyond standard glass aquariums. By partnering with a quality fabricator and caring for your investment properly, an acrylic tank can provide stunning aquatic views for decades to come in shapes limited only by your imagination. This guide covers everything you need to know to determine if an acrylic aquarium aligns with your needs, space, budget and vision.