Today, I want to delve into a hot trend; tiny saltwater aquariums (basically aquariums that are less than 40 gallons (151 litres) and are as small as a few gallons with interchangeable titles of pico, nano, mini and micro) which are becoming increasingly popular because of their perceived low cost and ease of set up and maintenance; but successfully keeping such a tiny tank thriving actually requires a lot more skill and attention than a bigger tank.
A common nano tank story…
Many people are increasingly buying into the hobby because they are attracted to the small capital outlay, plug and play-ability, portability and lack of space required with a tank volume less than 40 gallons. These people often are sold the concept as a pre set-up mini reef (or a complete plug and play set up) from the LFS; the guy says is “easy” to take care of because it is small and houses fewer species than a bigger tank.
A few days, weeks or months later something goes horribly wrong with the mini tank and everything living is wiped out. These people then give up the hobby because of this fatal event that they weren’t prepared for…
This illustrates two points:
- Noone should get into this hobby without taking it seriously and learning about all that is required for marine life support before they jump into the deep end, especially with a smaller tank.
- Small tanks are inherently unstable and require special treatment and regular testing and monitoring compared to larger tanks.
The bottom line is a smaller tank is much less stable than a bigger tank in terms of water quality (which as we all know needs to be consistently good to keep your marine life alive). If you are contemplating a tank of 5 gallons or less, forget it! Really, this minute volume of water gives you NO room for any error; a big risk especially for less experienced aquarists, leave it to the pros or the uneducated is my advice.
A saltwater aquarium volume of at least 40 gallons is my recommendation for the beginner saltwater hobbyist. Remember, the greatest number of saltwater aquarium quitters turn their backs on this awesome hobby because of a very bad tiny tank experience…
Big versus small…is bigger really better?
A tank volume of 40 gallons or more gives you much more live stocking options because of more living space, so you can keep more species and more active species. A large tank size also lets you have a bit of artistic licence in regards to aquascaping and gives you a much greater margin of error for complete system crash in case you overfeed, something dies or the power cuts out. Finally, a bigger tank allows more natural behaviour of marine life through the greater range of natural conditions and habitats you are able to provide, so the more natural behaviours you will be able to observe.
Larger tanks have more water so have a greater dilution factor or buffering capacity should something go wrong physically or chemically. You have more time to react and correct the problem before marine life starts dying, which can happen in a matter of hours for a tiny tank.
Tiny tanks by their very nature are instable, inflexible and are much more likely to crash. When you compare the cost per gallon people usually find they are not much cheaper than larger tanks; a little known fact!
Marine life comes from an environment that is very stable, so the smaller the tank, the harder to keep conditions consistent, the more likely problems will arise…period!
Small tanks need species with low metabolisms and low activity levels to keep waste levels to a minimum, therefore there are less choices especially when you factor in who can live happily with who in such close living quarters. The smaller the tank size, the easier it is to overstock it.
Have I put you off tiny tanks yet?
I don’t intend to paint a totally grim picture, but there are many issues to be aware of regarding the limitations of tiny marine tanks. BUT, if you have carefully done your research and are willing to demonstrate patience, balance and proper set up with your tiny tank you can succeed! Many people successfully keep stunning mini tanks thriving, with a little forethought, planning and discipline you can too.