News & Politics

Buying Aquariums for Your Home

Hooked on fish, more people are putting in big tanks

This article is from 2006's Pet Guide package. The information may be out-of-date, so please call locations listed for new information.

To see the new Pet Guide from 2008, click here.

When Julie and Joe Campagna decided to expand the basement of their Reston home, they faced a design dilemma: What to do with that wall between the indoor lap pool and the home office?

"We wanted something unusual," Julie says.

So when they decided on an aquarium, what they got was no fishbowl. The 1,200-gallon saltwater tank, which spans the 16-foot wall, had to be lowered into the house by crane.

The result is a window of color and movement. Julie describes it as living art.

"You can look and look at your Picasso, and it never changes," she says. "The aquarium never gets old."

When guests in their home disappear, the Campagnas usually find them in the basement, mesmerized by the fish.

Home aquariums are getting bigger, says Tom White, owner of the Marine Scene in Herndon, which designed and services the Campagnas' tank. The tanks are becoming popular architectural elements, especially in new homes.

Craig and Valerie Dykstra incorporated a 210-gallon aquarium into the kitchen of their home in Fairfax County. Craig, a founder of America Online, and his wife framed the tank in the wall like a workof art.

Bob and Joyce Johnson decided to build an aquarium into their new house in McLean four years ago. The nine-foot, 600-gallon tank separates the living room from a dining space on the main floor. "It's proven to be a complete joy," says Bob, who is a documentary producer anddirector.

Such big tanks come at a high cost. John Holland, who owns Blue Region, a custom aquarium business in Silver Spring, says the tanks he works on–which include custom cabinetry and plumbing and often have unusual shapes like curved fronts–startat $15,000 and can cost more than $200,000. The biggest he has worked on was a 2,200-gallon aquarium in Hunan Manor, a Chinese restaurant in Columbia, Maryland.

The budget-minded can still buy a 12-gallon tank with colorful coral and a few bright creatures for about $500 at Marine Scene. And White says that standard tanks, which come in sizes up to around 200 gallons, cost $30 to $60 a gallon for the equipment, which includes lights, filters, and a stand. Fish, crabs, snails, anemone, coral, and other life forms cost extra.

Large custom tanks are more expensive.

"Most people have no idea how intricate a fish tank can be," Holland says. "They just think of it as a box of water."

When Julie Campagna talks to and feeds the creatures in her tank, it's clear the aquarium is more than just decoration. She has names for all of the 60 or so fish and claims each has a distinct personality.

Poupon, a mustard tang, is a busybody. The largest fish, a unicorn tang named Miss Piggy, is a wimp. Bandit, a large emperor angel with a black masklike marking across its face, rules the tank. He "barks" when irritated, making a grunting noise that sounds like a creaky floor.

Fish tend to live longer and grow bigger in large tanks. The Campagnas have had some fish for more than five years, and Miss Piggy is roughly twice the size of a human hand, far bigger than most fish for sale in pet stores.

Most people buy aquariums for their own enjoyment, not for the kids. "It's usually the guy who had a small freshwater tank growing up," White says.

Joan and Gerald Greenwald's fish days started when their children were in elementary school, with a trip to buy goldfish for a school fair. The kids are now in their forties; the Greenwalds, part owners of a minor-league hockey team affiliated with the Washington Capitals, graduated to a 360-gallon built-in aquarium before it sprang a leak and flooded the house.

"The tanks kept getting bigger and bigger," Gerald says. "When I finally got the 360-gallon tank, that's when I stopped."

Some studies have suggested that watching fish can help relieve stress–one reason they're so popular in dentists' offices–and may lower blood pressure. Bob Johnson finds this to be true.

"I just love the serenity and the gracefulness that you feel when you sit and watch the fish," he says. After work, he likes to sip a glass of wine from a bench near the tank.

The fish seem to know Bob. When he approaches the tank in the evening–feeding time–they swarm toward him, even if other people stand nearby too. When he lowers a piece of frozen food–a blend of seaweed, kelp, clams, and other fish food–into the water, he smiles as some of the fish eat out of his hand.

Before he became the manager of Totally Fish, an aquarium store in Aspen Hill, Ken Yuen kept 46 tanks in his home.

"I'd rather sit there and watch a tankful of fish than the TV," he says.

With so many tanks, Yuen didn't have much time to sit and watch; he spent six to eight hours caring for his fish each night.

While some hobbyists enjoy spending so much time on their aquariums, keeping one doesn't have to be a big job. A typical medium-size saltwater, or marine, tank requires about half an hour of maintenance every other week once you know what you're doing, Yuen says.

Freshwater tanks take even less work, because freshwater fish are less sensitive to things like changes in water quality. Tetras are a popular freshwater fish because they look exotic but aren't much work.

Saltwater creatures–from fish to shrimp to anemone–are more colorful and exotic than freshwater species, and having a marine tank means you can grow coral. But often the most beautiful sea creatures need the most care, with careful monitoring of temperature, light, and diet.

"It's a real balancing act to take something out of nature and make it work," Julie Campagna says. The lights in her tank are timed to simulate the sun's cycles, and she feeds her fish three different kinds of food.

The popularity of big tanks has fueled a market for custom-aquarium businesses like Marine Scene and Blue Region that provide design, installation, and ongoing maintenance. Many staff members have degrees in biology or experience in home construction. Monthly maintenance, which includes cleaning the tank and monitoring the water's chemical balance, starts at about $150 a month and can cost more than $700 for bigger jobs. While expensive, tank services can help protect an investment in exotic fish, which cost anywhere from $50 up to $1,800 for a large flower horn at Totally Fish.

Bob and Joyce Johnson both marvel at the little wonders of their aquarium–a fish that changes color when agitated; the shell a horseshoe crab left on the tank's floor when it molted.

"To experience this sea environment is just incredible," Bob says.


These businesses can help you set up a home aquarium. Most offer design, installation, and in-home maintenance of a tank. Congressional Aquarium, Marine Scene, and Totally Fish have retail stores where you can browse.

Blue Region, Silver Spring; 301-942-2583; Specializes in high-end tanks.

Congressional Aquarium, 142 Congressional La., Rockville; 301-881-6182; A fresh- and saltwater-aquarium store. Custom installation but not design or maintenance.

The Marine Scene, 293 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon; 703-689-2815; A retail store and aquarium service specializing in saltwater tanks.

Totally Fish, 13671 Georgia Ave., Aspen Hill; 301-598-2229; A freshwater- and marine-aquarium store and service. Custom tanks up to 400 gallons.

Wet Pets, Chevy Chase; 301-565-3474; The largest aquarium service in Washington. Leasing options available.