The Evolution of Aquarium Construct: Plastic, Acrylic and Glass Aquariums

lineup showing glass, acrylic and plastic aquariums

The recorded history of aquarium-keeping is fascinating. In the 19th century aquariums were constructed of ornate cast-iron frames, glass panels and a slate bottom. In the 1960s aquariums were manufactured with a stainless-steel frame, slate bottom and glass panels glued in with a black tar-like adhesive. They were quite heavy! Today aquariums constructed of injection-molded plastic, acrylic and glass. We’ll take a look at the evolution of aquarium construct and discuss how each type has its place in the aquarium hobby.

Plastic Aquariums

Plastic specimen container
Plastic aquarium/specimen containers

When you think of plastic aquariums you probably picture those inexpensive miniature aquarium kits sold in Big Box stores. In the evolution of aquarium construct plastic was used because it is lightweight, inexpensive and doesn’t break in shipping. To the novice a plastic tank may look like a great way to get into the hobby. The truth is these aquariums are typically designed to take your money and run. Their inadequate for maintaining a stable, healthy ecosystem. This makes it especially hard for beginners to have success. From a purely aesthetic aspect, the plastic bow-fronts and cylinder aquariums provide a blurry, distorted view of the fish. The plastic is relatively soft and will easily scratch. But don’t dismiss plastic tanks altogether. Many aquatic research aquarium systems use miniature plastic aquariums connected to a central filtration system. The view is not pretty but that’s not the goal. The plastic tanks can take an accidental hit and are easy to remove and clean when the time comes.

Acrylic Aquariums

Acrylic aquarium construct
Clear-for-Life Rectangle 55 Gallon Acrylic Aquarium – Show

During the early years of reef-keeping acrylic aquariums made a big splash. The aquariums were hand-made and “welded” together with adhesive. Acrylic tanks were easily built to any shape or size. Unlike glass aquariums, acrylic tanks don’t have a bead of silicone between the glass. On the California coast aquarium dealers even promoted the tanks as “earthquake proof”. Acrylic has better light transmission than regular glass. This really shows when you compare a thick piece of glass to an acrylic panel. The downside of acrylic is that it can be easily scratched if you happen to pick up some coral grit while scraping algae. This can happen with glass too but not as easily. Depending who you ask, some say acrylic tanks get brittle with age and turn yellowish when exposed to UV light. Keep in mind that acrylic is used in many custom aquariums. It’s even used to create swimming pools that extend from the sides of luxury hotels. You’ll also find many fine filter sumps and accessories constructed from acrylic. It’s a sturdy, dependable material.

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Glass Aquariums

Glass aquarium construct with overflow
Mini 40 External Overflow Aquarium – NUVO-EXT 40 Gallons – Innovative Marine

Without question, glass is the material of choice for most aquariums these days. Glass is an interesting material. Scientists call it an amorphous solid, a state in-between a solid and a liquid. There are six basic types of glass. Each has its own unique characteristics. Soda-lime glass is the least expensive and most common type of glass. Its formula consists of 60-75% silica, 12-18% soda, 5-12% lime. Soda-lime glass is used in most windows, glassware, lighting products, and beer bottles! It’s used in the manufacture of aquariums too.

Regular glass vs Starphire glass

If you’ve shopped for a reef aquarium you’ve probably noticed that some manufacturers use something called Starphire glass. Starphire, Starfire, Eurowhite, Ultraclear and Optiwhite are all trade names for a special type of low iron glass. Regular soda-lime glass has a greenish tint, which you can see on the edges. The greenish hue becomes more noticeable on thicker glass panels. Starphire glass contains about 1/10th the iron of standard glass. It doesn’t have the green tint of standard glass. Low-iron glass has an azure blue edge but panels are crystal clear. The difference in clarity is dramatic in side to side comparisons. This type of ultra-clear glass is used in a variety of applications because it lets vivid colors through without the negative effects of the green hue. You can imagine why aquarists like Starphire glass for reef and planted aquariums.

Is Starphire glass expensive?

The glass industry considers Starphire glass to be equivalent in strength and durability to regular glass. It’s used where visibility and natural color transmittance is important. Fortunately, it’s not super-expensive. That’s why you see more and more aquariums made this this beautiful glass.

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Final thoughts

You can see in the evolution of aquarium construct that each material has its place in the hobby. Plastic aquariums are great for isolating a piece of coral or treating a fish. Custom aquarium installers work in glass and acrylic. Many of the large curved aquariums are made from acrylic materials. But today most aquarium manufacturers are using glass. Modern reef-ready aquariums are strong, durable, resist scratching (with proper care) and are available in an array of styles and sizes. Whichever you choose you will be all about your plastic, acrylic or glass Aquariums.

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