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Up to the Gills in Aquarium Possibilities

August 04, 1990|ERIK FAIR | Erik Fair is a writer based in Santa Ana

When Gordon and Betty Wrubel built a custom saltwater aquarium-cabinet into the staircase of their Newport Beach home, they had no idea how quickly a couple of tropical fish named Taffy and Batman would swim into their hearts.

Betty even cried a few months later when Taffy died. The small creature couldn't compete for food in the ecological shakedown of the Wrubels' new miniature ocean. Betty knows that Batman will eventually join Taffy in fish heaven, but for now he's a pleasure to watch as he relentlessly patrols his 90-gallon home.

Jack and Beth Maurer, the Wrubels' neighbors across the street, decided that--all things considered--the Wrubels were having way too much fun with the attractive new addition to their home. So Jack, a highly competitive developer by trade, decided to engage in a little neighborly one-upmanship.

He knocked down the wall between his family room and dining room, moved a couple of weight-bearing studs, and rebuilt the wall around a custom-made, 250-gallon, 8-foot-long aquarium. The tank is now the centerpiece of the Maurers' home. It is also a primary stress-management system for Jack Maurer, who takes great pleasure in servicing the tank and watching his slippery pals glide through life.

Welcome to "Fish Tanks 101": the interface of home design, pet care, relaxation therapy, ecological awareness and live art. For those who want all of the above, and more, in one handy package, the options are endless.

Fish-minded home decorators are using a variety of cabinets and stands to house fish tanks of all shapes and sizes. The resulting aquariums bring beauty and life to living rooms, entertainment rooms, dens, bedrooms, home offices, bars, corners and otherwise useless spaces in nooks and crannies. There is even a company in Costa Mesa, Aqua Art, that produces a 5-inch-thick, 10-gallon tank that can be framed and hung on the wall like a picture.

The first step in aquarium home design is to decide on a tank location and configuration. "Space is usually the biggest dictating factor," says Steve Kendrick, manager of Tis Tropical Fish in Fountain Valley. "Once you select the size and shape you want, you can control costs by using stands or standard cabinetry instead of custom cabinetry or build-ins." You can also save money by selecting from the wide variety of standard tank shapes rather than pay for custom dimensions.

Complete 50-gallon aquariums in simple pine cabinets cost $500 to $700. Installations such as the Wrubels' or the Maurers' cost $2,000 to $10,000. Beyond that, the sky's the limit, according to Kendrick. Tis Tropical delivered a $25,000 tank on a concrete pad to a customer who still plans to spend another $5,000 on filtration and tank decorations, and another several thousand on fish.

Kendrick recommends a minimum size of 50 gallons in a 3- to 4-foot-long rectangular tank. Anything smaller doesn't look right encased in a cabinet and it doesn't provide enough room to add fish or more tank decorations later.

Rich Becktell, owner of Aquarium International in Westminster, says rectangular tanks are best. "Odd shapes are harder to filter and clean," notes Becktell, "so maintenance usually suffers, the tank goes bad and people get discouraged."

Ah, yes. Maintenance.

Reef Systems, the Chino-based aquarium service that installed both the Wrubels' and the Maurers' tanks, also provides maintenance services for $70 to $100 a month. "People have to realize that they're dealing with animals from the wild," says Barboza, "and that they're responsible for taking care of them."

Aquarium services take care of everything except daily feeding. Reef Systems employees stop by the Wrubels' home once a week to test the water for waste products and saline content, and wipe the algae off the inside of the tank. They also change 30% to 40% of the tank's water on a monthly basis, clean the decorations inside and leave notes to let the Wrubels know how individual fish are doing.

Barboza says do-it-yourselfers can expect to spend two to five hours a month on tank maintenance once they learn how to prepare large batches of replacement water at the right salinity and temperature. "We're happy to tell people how to service their tanks and care for their fish," says Barboza, "but lots of people would rather pay us to do it."

Kendrick of Tis Tropical adds that, contrary to popular belief, maintenance is not that much more time-consuming or expensive for saltwater tanks than freshwater tanks. But, saltwater tanks must be serviced religiously because the ecological balance is more critical and more difficult to maintain, and the penalties for system failure are more severe. Kendrick says livestock replacement in 50- to 80-gallon saltwater tanks--especially reef tanks, which include invertebrate life and living coral and fish--can easily cost $800 to $1,500 contrasted with about $150 for freshwater tanks with cured--non-living--decorations.

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