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The $300,000 Aquarium - Exotic Tanks Are All the Rage

By: Barbie Bischof

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Growing numbers of fish lovers are taking their aquarium hobby very seriously, sometimes spending thousands of dollars to build tanks in their homes. But few people are as serious about it as one man in South Florida who spent more than $300,000 – not including the fish.

"He asked us to dig up his entire front yard to create a shark habitat," recalls Jim Post, an owner of Biscayne Aquaculture in Miami. "So we did."

The result was a 125,000-gallon saltwater habitat designed as a moat around the man's house. Walkways cross the moat to his front door, and there's a separate 10-foot-deep freshwater koi pond, created as a spot for him to sit and relax while observing his pet predators swimming below. Lush tropical vegetation adorns peripheral walkways.

Oversize Aquarium Sales Soar

Over the last year, designer aquarium sales for the home and office are up by 20 percent, according to Pet Product News, a trade newsletter. "My customers are using aquariums against a wall as design accents or as room dividers," says Craig Beital, the owner of Beital's Exotic Aquariums in Pearl River, N.Y. He recently designed a 600-gallon tank that was so large a crane had to hoist it up the 27th floor of a Manhattan apartment building.

Brian Schlindwein, whose firm, VersAquatics, does maintenance for aquariums in the Kansas City area, says his business in large, custom aquariums has gone up some 30 percent in the last five years. "I'm not only seeing more aquariums over 200 gallons, I'm seeing special shapes as well, from octagons to pentagons to everything in between," he says.

Schlindwein was recently charged with maintaining a 700-gallon reef tank that's 8 feet deep with two glass walls at 45 degree angles. The tank is lit by natural sunlight and filled with live corals and saltwater tropical fish. He estimates that it cost $40,000 to set up the tank. His bill for maintenance is $150 a week.

At Oceanic, Inc. in Dallas, Texas, head of custom sales, Jerry Acoff, says sales of the company's custom home aquariums tripled in the last six months. "I'm on the phone from 8 in the morning to 5 at night taking orders," he says.

Home Builders Offering Custom Aquariums

Oceanic sells what Acoff calls, "high end, furniture quality" aquariums from 200 to 565 gallons to retailers across the country. One thing that's pushed the business ahead, he says, is that some homebuilders now offer custom aquariums in their new houses. "When people see one that's well cared for, they want one, too," Acoff says. And most of the time they want one that's different from their neighbor's so they go for unusual designs.

One reason for the growing appeal of aquariums, designers think, is that new technology allows the tanks to be silent and easier to maintain. Most people who can afford such extravagant furnishing commonly have someone come in monthly to do tank maintenance. Still, as aquariums get bigger and more complex, engineering the system becomes as crucial as considering what fish will go into it.

"Engineers and architects are very good at designing ingenious systems of moving water around," explains Post, "but it's also important to know what parameters suit the species that will live in these tanks."

Environmental Compatibility Is Key

Aquarium species have strict temperature, salinity and pH requirements. No matter how clever the habitat looks on the blueprints or how well the numbers may add up on paper, a serious designer will also consider the "compatibility" of the environmental conditions that will exist once the mini-ecosystem is built.

"Tank designers without any biology background have a far more difficult time planning for the 'what-ifs' that come along later down the line," explains Post. A knowledge of biology can help identify possible design flaws – not necessarily technical or numerical flaws – but oversights that could result from not being able to anticipate a conflict between the ecology, mating behaviors, interspecies compatibility or water quality needs.

The man who commissioned the shark habitat in Florida wanted it to be essentially foolproof. All the maintenance would have to be able to be handled by the house staff and shouldn't take too much time, effort or technical know-how. Post recalls that the hardest part in fulfilling that demand was figuring out a rugged filtration system design that could be tweaked to compensate for a range of environmental conditions.

"Rain washing through the surrounding landscape made the habitat water brown and cloudy, and really screwed up the chemistry," says Post, "and sharks can't really remain healthy in such a fluctuating environment."

Overall, the shark habitat took four months to build and was completed in 1995. Five years later, its healthy sharks and clean water stand as a testament to the importance of designing an aquarium not only to be a decorative holding tank, but as a miniature ecosystem that must integrate to some degree with its unnatural surroundings.

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