Aquariums: Buy or Build? By Keith MacNeil, MarineDepot.com Reef Squad

So you are finally ready to take the plunge! To get your feet—and hands—wet setting up the aquarium you have always wanted. But you are on the fence about whether you should purchase an All-In-One (AIO) aquarium or piece together your own system. If this scenario sounds familiar, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article we will discuss the pros and cons of buying a plug-and-play tank vs. doing it yourself. Our goal is to provide you with the educational ammo you need to pull the trigger and purchase the tank of your dreams.

All-in-one Aquariums

There are several manufacturers making AIO systems nowadays, so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Be sure to read what is included with the systems you are considering because they are in no way standardized. What may seem like a bargain could end up costing you more than you think! Below you’ll find some of the bigger pros and cons of AIO aquarium systems.

Pros:

  • The greatest benefit of buying an AIO aquarium system is that all of the guesswork has been eliminated. Every piece of equipment has been designed and tested to work together seamlessly. A great example of this is the built-in Power Centers and timers in Red Sea Max aquariums.
  • Because components are complimentary, assembly is typically easy. An AIO system may include a unified set of instructions that covers the setup and maintenance of the whole tank.
  • AIO aquariums are ideal for people just entering the hobby. Their ease- of-use allows novice aquarists to focus on maintenance, regular water testing and livestock care so they’ll develop good aquarium keeping habits.
  • AIO aquariums are also great for experienced aquarists looking to downsize and/or simplify their aquarium upkeep.
  • The prices of AIO aquariums are hard to beat. Buying a complete plug-and-play system is often cheaper than piecing together the individual components yourself.
  • Although superficial, AIO aquariums usually have matching components. That means your fish tank, aquarium hood and stand will all look nice and uniform, making it easier to match with home or office decor.
  • All of your equipment will come from a single company, simplifying any customer support and/or warranty issues.
  • Replacement parts are standardized and readily available.
  • Upgrades are making their way into the marketplace as well. Now you can turn the transparent filter basket in a JBJ Nano Cube into a refugium or add an appropriately sized protein skimmer.
  • You can easily remove the hood to mount or suspend a different lighting configuration. You can also mod the hood itself to outfit your system with a custom lighting arrangement of your choice.
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Cons:

  • Most AIO aquarium systems fall into the “nano” classification, around 30 gallons or less. If you’re shopping for a larger system, say, 100 gallons or so, chances are you’ll have difficulty finding exactly what you’re looking for and have less options to choose from.
  • You may not be interested in customizing your tank just yet, but chances are, you will be. The more time you spend learning about the hobby—caring for your tank, reading (books/message boards) and going to events (Reef-A-Palooza, aquarium club meetings)—the more you’ll want to start tinkering with your tank. Unfortunately many of the tweaks, upgrades and mods you’ll want to perform are more difficult on an AIO tank due to space constraints plus they are likely to void your manufacturer warranty.
  • As mentioned in the introduction, AIO systems don’t always include every component you’ll want or need. Some skimp on skimmers, a staple of reef aquaria. Others may not include a light fixture or provide adequate water flow for the animals you intend to keep. Keep in mind when you buy an AIO that you may need to fork over extra dough for a light, protein skimmer and additional powerheads.
  • Some may consider heaters and thermometers “extras”. We consider them essentials yet most AIO systems do not include them.
  • Heat trapped by the hoods of AIO aquariums may also necessitate the need for a chiller. The AIO JBJ tank we use in the office for testing new products is one of the few that includes a chiller.
  • Higher-end, deluxe AIO tanks may be considered costly for an aquarium that offers little room for growth and/or customization.
  • Equipping an AIO tank with reefing-specific gear, like a skimmer, refugiumcalcium or media reactor, can be much more challenging due to the size and form factor of AIO systems. Equipment options are more prohibitive and modifications may be required to get things just right.

Despite some drawbacks, AIO aquarium systems are extremely popular. We stock a variety of sizes and models to choose from. Here are several examples, sorted by size:

Small (2 to 16 gallons)

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Medium (20 to 38 gallons)

Large (60+ gallons)

Building Your Own Aquarium

Building a tank yourself is more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding. We presume most readers aren’t going to fabricate their own glass or acrylic aquariums, so when we say “build” an aquarium, we really mean selecting and setting up the equipment that will compromise your aquarium system.

Maybe you started with an AIO and your growing frags have recently declared war upon each other. Perhaps you are particular about parts and do not want to be restricted by what you can use with an AIO. Maybe you’re a do-it-yourself (DIY) kinda guy or gal, relishing the opportunity to meticulously choose, assemble and fine-tune your equipment to maximize performance and efficiency.

Whatever your motives are, building your own aquarium will give you the most product choices, offer the greatest flexibility for growth (upgrades) and you’re likely to learn a heckuva lot more about aquarium supplies in the process.

Without further ado, here are the pros and cons of building your own tank.

Pros

  • Your equipment choices are almost limitless. Rather than be stuck with products from a single manufacturer, you’ll be able to outfit your tank with the best products the aquarium industry has to offer.
  • Want better lighting? A more powerful skimmer? Upgrading, downgrading and swapping out equipment is easier when you are working with a blank canvas.
  • You’ll be able to go as small or large as your imagination and budget permit in terms of tank size, from a pint-sized pico to a custom-built behemoth in your basement.
  • You’ll have a greater selection of tank shapes to choose from. Instead of commonplace cubes and rectangles, why not opt for something unique like a hexagon, octagon, bowfront, elliptical or cylinder?
  • Reef-centric gear like skimmers, refugiums, calcium and media reactors are usually easier to add to a system you’ve built yourself. System builders often plan their tanks to accommodate future upgrades, which brings us to…
  • You can purchase equipment for a DIY system over time instead of dropping a huge sum all at once. Perhaps you’ll start with the tank and strategically add each individual component over the course of several months. Buying quality equipment up front goes a long way toward helping you achieve success in reefkeeping.
  • Since you assembled the system yourself, you will know the ins and outs of how everything operates and works together. This sort of hands-on experience is beneficial because you will be more capable of identifying and rectifying any issues that arise during the months and years ahead.
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Cons

  • There is a LOT of equipment out there. Our store alone carries over 7,000 products. With so many aquarium supplies available, it can be stressful trying to determine which combination of products will create the most ideal living conditions for your wet pets.
  • In addition to the thousands upon thousands of products you’ll have to consider, understanding the information listed in specs, product descriptions and on labels can be confusing even to experienced hobbyists. Learning aquarium acronyms, technical and scientific jargon will improve your understanding of products and the benefits they provide, but it won’t happen overnight. Until you’re an expert and have everything memorized, you can contact us when you have questions (or reference our Aquarium Glossary).
  • Not all of us are master craftsman. After months of toiling away building your dream tank, it still may not look as clean and refined as an AIO system. If you aren’t particularly handy but have a rather extravagant vision for your tank, you may need to hire a professional contractor or aquarium installer to construct that in-wall masterpiece you’ve been fantasizing about.
  • If you opt for mid- to high-end aquarium supplies, you may end up paying more than you would for a similarly sized AIO system.

Your best course of action is to have a plan. Research the type of animals you intend to keep so you can create an environment with the most ideal living conditions. Perhaps an AIO tank is the way to. Maybe it’s building your tank from the ground up. Either way, do your research, ask questions and take things slowly. Read product reviews on our website, participate in forum discussions and hit up our tech support staff via telephone (1-800-566-FISH), email or via Live Chat if you have questions along the way.

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