Aquarium Decoration: What You Need to Know

An in-depth review of aquarium decorations. Aquarium Decoration: What You Need to Know

Have you ever noticed how so many higher-end restaurants have aquariums in their dining rooms, or the fact that many medical waiting rooms have a fish tank in them? Aquariums have always been a source of fascination for people of all ages. We all seem to stop and take a few moments to gaze at a beautifully put together tank, whether we’re a child with his nose plastered against the glass, or a pair of lovers with the lights turned down, a glass of wine in hand, snuggled together while gazing at the beauty contained in this cubicle world. Aquariums are a virtual fantasy land, only limited by our own imaginations.

What To Do

There are so many directions you can go when you decide to put an aquarium in your home. The first decision that you’ll be making is what size or type of aquarium you’ll want to have. Now I’m not referring to the famous carnival goldfish in a bowl on your desk, although even those options have grown through the years. I even have a friend who cut the top off of an empty (obviously) whiskey bottle, sanded the edges, cleaned and sanitized the bottle, put a handful of gravel in the bottom and made it a home for his goldfish, named “George”. George has happily lived in that bottle for the last year and a half.

There’s also the beautiful Betta, or Siamese Fighting fish that live singly in a fairly small container. The possibilities for these fish are endless. Whether you decide to utilize a container that you have at home, such as a pretty brandy snifter, or venture into the increasing store-bought options, you’ll likely find something just right to suit your taste or decor. The nice thing about these particular fish is that they don’t need circulating water, they’re a labyrinth fish, which means that they have the ability to breathe oxygen directly from the air, as well as draw oxygen from the water. What this means to you is that you’re able to house them in just about any container that holds water, and you can make that even simpler by using an automatic fish feeder. Of course, you’ll have to maintain a clean water environment for your Betta by changing the water every week or so. Also, Betta’s like to have a place to hide and/or rest, so putting some thick foliage in one corner or a baby food jar on its side is ideal for your Betta.

Fresh or Salt

So now that we’ve touched on the single fish option, let’s take a look at some full-blown aquarium ideas. The first thing that you’re likely going to decide is whether you want a freshwater or saltwater fish. Both have challenges and both have benefits, it’s all in the work that you want to put into maintaining your aquarium, the initial, as well as an ongoing investment that you want to make, and the look that you want to attain. It’s generally a good idea to start with a freshwater tank if you’ve never had an aquarium before. The startup cost for purchasing fish is far less than the cost of saltwater fish, and you have hundreds of varieties to choose from. Having live corals and reefs in your tank can also add a significant cost to those initial expenses. Another consideration with a saltwater tank is that you’ll also need additional filtration equipment for that type of setup. There’s also some extra work required when it’s time to change your water since you have to mix your saltwater in advance. This job can be a bit of a lengthy procedure because the salt is slowly dissolving. Because of this, you would need to purchase a hydrometer so that you’re able to meter your salinity levels. Another, yet more expensive option would be to purchase pre-made saltwater from a pet store. Freshwater tanks also need to be monitored for acidity and PH levels, as well as have chemicals added to the water, however, it’s somewhat easier to monitor and mix.

Lighting is another area that can have some sizable cost differences. Freshwater tanks typically only need standard fluorescent lighting, whether it has live plants or plastic flora. Some fanciers use different colored bulbs to make the colors in their fish stand out, however, these aren’t necessary. Saltwater tank lighting should be a forefront consideration for you, as they can require some extremely expensive lighting, especially when you have live coral reefs in your tank. Metal halide and actinic lighting is generally what’s necessary to provide the proper spectrum levels for your saltwater world.

Without argument, saltwater tanks simply can’t be beaten when it comes to bright colors from both fish and coral. Yes, there are some absolutely beautiful freshwater fish, however, they just don’t seem to have the intensity in their colors that the saltwater fish have. The only fish that have a bit of that intensity to them are African Cichlids, however, you can’t put any other type of fish with them due to their high aggression levels.

Which Way to Go

So now that we’ve covered some of the differences between fresh and saltwater aquariums let’s look at what you might need to do first. Let’s assume that you decided on a freshwater tank. The first thing you’re going to do is to decide on what size and shape aquarium you would like to have. Aquarium can range anywhere from a tiny 1-gallon tank, and it goes up from there. You typically don’t see anything much higher than a 100-gallon tank in a person’s home. This is due in part to not only the floor space that’s needed but because of the weight of the tank on your floor joists (a gallon of water weighs nearly 9lbs). There’s also a nearly limitless amount of shapes available. For decades, the only thing available to the fish enthusiast was the good old fashioned rectangular tank. Nowadays there’s round, half circle, triangle, hexagon, cube-shaped, coffee table tanks, and the list goes on.

Getting Started

You’ll want to set up your tank well in advance of attempting to put fish in it. Depending on what kind of water you’ve put in your tank, you may need to put chemicals in it to remove chlorine, etc. from it. I generally recommend that bottled spring water is your best starting point with your water. You can then add a tank starter solution that will put some of the proper bacteria’s and enzymes in the water that your fish need to be healthy. Your tank will need an air pump and filtration system to keep your water clean and to keep it circulating. Some people also choose to put a bubbler into their tank. Remember the old diver man with bubbles coming out of his helmet? He was there for more than just how he looked in the tank. Those bubbles added oxygen to the water that the fish could then draw out of the water by passing it through their gills. Make sure that you purchase the recommended air pump and filter size for your aquarium. This is where going to a pet store that specializes in aquariums becomes very beneficial unless you purchased an aquarium kit that had all of that included.

You’ll also want to look at how you would like to decorate your tank. Work from the bottom and move upward. With this in mind, you’ll first want to decide if you want sand or gravel in the bottom of the tank. Do you want to go with a more natural look or something a bit more psychedelic? Aquarium gravel comes in a variety of colors, including colors that are enhanced by the use of a black light.

Are you going to include rock or driftwood ornaments, live or plastic plants? Of course, live plants take a little more care than plastic plants. They even make aquarium safe fertilizers if you choose to go the live route, as well as lights that promote growth.

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Aquarium Decor

Let me also take this opportunity to point out that there’s probably an unlimited source of everyday items that you have in your home that can be used to decorate your fish tank. We all have that coffee mug that we purchased at the Grand Canyon or some place like that. It’s sitting in the cabinet, rarely used, taking up space, but you can’t bring yourself to put it in the garage sale….how about using it as a cave in your tank for your fish or snail. This can also hold true for that memento iced tea glass that you got from Disney World.

Have you looked in your child’s toy box? Lego’s are perfect for use in your aquarium. Build to your heart’s content and then use your creation in your tank. There are so many small plastic toys, from toy soldiers and dinosaurs to plastic horses or Mr. Potato Head. Have fun, let your inner child out when it comes to this decorating idea.

Clay pots are another favorite since they can be incorporated into almost any decorating scheme. Clay pots are not only kiln fired, but they won’t expel anything toxic into the water.

I don’t recommend using anything that’s made from wood because it can leak a substance called tannins, as well as other substances that will negatively affect the chemical or PH balance of your tank water. This is why pet shops sell specially treated driftwood for fish tank decor, or even fake wood.

Another great idea is to use pictures attached to the back of your aquarium. This can be cut from magazines, a puzzle that you put together or even family pictures. This is a good way to change the entire vibe of your underwater world. How about a trip to deep space with a picture of the galaxy, add your bubbling diver and suddenly he’s a bubbling astronaut. Maybe a picture of your dog on the back with a doghouse made from lego’s in the water, along with a miniature dog bowl.

Just make sure that whatever you decide to use is properly cleaned and rinsed of any kind of soap. I would also recommend that you not use anything that’s made of a porous material, as it may not hold up very well in a constant water environment.


A little tip for you…. If there’s something that you really want to use in your tank, but your not sure if it’s going to be safe for your fish, try sealing it with Krylon Fusion Paint. It comes in several colors, as well as clear. This is a trick used by aquarium enthusiasts for some time now.

You get the idea here….only your imagination will limit you.

And finally

Well, now you’re at the final phase of finishing your tank and that’s picking out and purchasing your fish. Once again you have decisions to make. Do you want a community tank, where you can several different types of fish living peacefully together? Or maybe you would like a colorful cichlid tank. There are freshwater fish that are known for being easier to care for than others. You can also look at whether you would like your fish to reproduce, as there are some that easily multiply simply by putting a male and female in the tank together. Guppy’s have always been one of my favorites. They come in almost every color imaginable and it’s easy to tell the male from the female. The male always has the bigger, fancier tail, as well as the more brilliant colors. The other neat thing about Guppy’s is that they give birth to their young live, rather than through eggs. Guppy’s will easily mate and you might find yourself offering baby guppies to your friends. Again, this is an area where you should advise a knowledgeable fish person when making your fishy purchases. As much as you’ll want one of everything, remember to allow for approximately one gallon of water per fish. So if you have a ten-gallon tank, stick with two fish.

Have fun and I wish you many happy hours of fish tank gazing.


  1. Rate My Fish Tank/Saltwater Versus Freshwater Aquariums
  2. Petco/Aquarium Setup
  3. Aquarium Advisor/15 Best Freshwater Fish
  4. Aquascape Addiction/How to Decorate Your Fish Tank