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A Show Tank in the Home


by R. C. Mills
(Dick Mills will be well known to many readers as the ex-editor of "The Aquarist and Pondkeeper" magazine in the UK. - He is still very actively involved with both the Hounslow A.S. in West London and the Federation of British Aquatic Societies)
Article provided by archive section.

With the resumption of the Open Show season it is the aim of the organising Society to attract not only as many entries as possible, but also new members from amongst the visiting, curious public. Many of these "unconverted" visitors, apart from being bewildered by the array of so many specimens of fish on show, are usually drawn to the Furnished Aquaria class and can be seen imagining such a thing of beauty in their own homes; "Oh Bert! Wouldn't one of those look lovely in the front room, under that picture of the Chinese Girl with the blue face...", you can picture the scene. Whilst any new member to the hobby is to be welcomed with open arms, it must be realised that should these tyros try to set up such an aquarium at the outset of their fishkeeping careers and fail in the attempt, then the hobby may well have lost a supporter. Of course, such an aquarium can be set up but is it a practical scheme, or even desirable as a long-term proposition? Let us examine a "Show Tank" and see where it stands or falls on both the day-tc-day and the long-term basis.

Although outwardly the Show tank is just the thing to have in the home, and a much admired addition to the decor, there is a difference between this type of setup and the usually met with planted aquarium in which we keep our fish, in sickness and in health; each is designed and set up with different purposes in mind. The Show tank is an exhibition piece, an example of what can be done, showing off the degree to which the aquarist has progressed, everything being chosen for its nearness to perfection - all geared up for a few minutes perusal by the judge on Show day. The tank in our home, on the other hand, has to be the living quarters for all our fish for a long period of time whilst we experiment with feeding, growing on, breeding and all the other chores of fishkeeping-including changing our minds over different species and how to keep them!

At first sight the Show tank appears to be a beautiful, complete aquarium. However, we may discount the first adjective as we all know that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." What about "complete?" This is probably true (except for the electrical hardware, about which more later), but here one can find fault because of this very "completeness." Think about it - the word itself surely means whole, finished, lacking nothing, ended; this is an excellent goal to strive for, as a reward at the end of some period of time, not by taking all the short cuts to perfection at once.

It is analogous to only buying adult fish - the aquarist learns nothing of the practicalities involved in the keeping of the fish or of tank management, and if this system is adopted at the beginning of a career in fish-keeping then the aquarist may never acquire that valuable commodity, experience.

In the Show tank we see an abundance of plants, every inch of space utilised, a shoal of perfectly matched (or as near as we can get to it) fish, landscaped gravel - in short, the utmost limit has been reached, and to my mind it's all too complete!

Take the plants: not a leaf out of place, not a root showing nor crown buried, as it all should be, of course. But where is there the room in this planned perfection for the plants to multiply, or even grow, without crowding out their neighbours? We all like vigorous plant growth with attractive clumps and thickets, but isn't it more natural (and perhaps cheaper too!) for the plants to develop by themselves and landscape them by pruning? Besides, a Show tank may look excellent "on the day," but give that self-same tank a few weeks and the picture may have changed drastically with plants growing at different rates all over the place. Another important factor - the plants may have been chosen for their pictorial effect to please the judge, and the various species may not be compatible together over a long period of time, some thriving at the expense of others.

So plants need to be chosen with care, with a view to their growing rates, living requirements and practicabilities. For instance, those beautiful clumps of bright green cabomba, myriophyllum, ambulia and, for the coldwater enthusiast, hornwort or elodea - all these present a wonderful sight, yet in the hurly-burly of our community tank such plants soon become choked with mulm, churned up by fish such as barbs, or covered with algae due to insufficient light control. These plants are therefore not a wise choice, unless more attention is paid to the plants than to the fish! Arthur Boarder, in his series "Breeding Goldfish - Setting up a Tank" gives some good advice on planting a furnished tank for the home, "Do not be tempted to use as many kinds as you can get. Remember that you are not setting up a tank for exhibition purposes. You could use a different technique for that, but all you are concerned with is to create an attractive tank which can last for many years without having to be disturbed."

That perfect shoal of fish, to play their part in gaining points for their owner, must be matched and, being selected for show potential, are probably of adult size. Bearing this in mind the home tank won't hold many adult fish without becoming overcrowded, and whilst most young fish get on all right with each other the same cannot be said for adults of differing species! The exhibition tank is usually a "one species" tank and the aquarist may be loath to devote (or lose!) valuable tank space to only one species of fish. Again, the ''interesting'' species may not be suitable for a furnished tank anyway; the cichlids would soon dig it up and the dwarf cichlids would soon be lost to view amid the luxuriant plant growth! Barbs might be suitable but what a job to catch - another point to consider. Some of the catfish and other bottom-dwellers would soon distribute a layer of mulm over the plants. Most of the smaller characins seem to fit the bill as perhaps do the livebearers and labyrinths, but the fact remains that the show tank is just that - an exhibition piece rather than a functioning aquarium.

Completing the scene, and indeed, contributing a great deal to the sense of perspective and "depth" of the tank is the arrangement of the rockwork and gravel. Usually it is banked up and channels formed, but it does take up a lot of valuable swimming space, and I don't know that I would feel safe with some of those sizeable monoliths I've seen in furnished tanks recently! I suppose they're O.K. if they are fully on the tank floor, but perched up on the gravel, with a few bottom feeders grubbing about disturbing them, it all looks a bit dodgy to me!

If the rocks and gravel have been chosen for their pictorial effect (similar to the plants) and too little attention paid to their chemical content then the large rocks can alter the water conditions very quickly, although being quite artistically suitable for the one day affair.

It has always been a source of surprise to me how quickly a pre-arranged, banked-up gravel layout can revert to an ordinary, almost level plain with the odd rock poking up; this is due to the movements of the fish and water over a period of time. Obviously a certain amount of undergravel "architecture" is necessary to prevent this - how about a fibreglass, preformed tank base to build up from? This brings us on to another point - experience, and here we turn from the theoretical to the practical side of things.

There are quite a few "behind-the-scenes" tricks that go unobserved in the setting up of a Show tank that would be impractical, or even dangerous, to be utilised in a long-term tank.

It is nice to suppose that the plants, for instance, have come from a similarly set up tank in the aquarist's home; more likely they have come from a fish-house and tanks kept specially for growing plants, away from nibbling fish! Again, these plants are probably in pots in their normal growing positions to avoid being disturbed by the move to the show tank.

That beautiful rockwork or underwater root system may be prefabricated and glued together onto a backing plate; the glue may prove toxic over a long period. Sunken logs may look attractive, but they are probably held down by a length of wire - lead piping or a milk bottle fall of gravel similarly attached.

Continuing the practical aspects for a moment, beware those rocky grottoes! It is the universal rule in the aquarium that any fish about to die shall, with its last ounce of energy, make its way underneath that archway that you are so proud of! Worse still, in the well-planted tank, is when you know you're "one short," can't see it anywhere and have to dismantle your masterpiece to find the corpse!

As mentioned earlier, the obvious difference between the Show tank and the home aquarium is that provision for the heater has to be made; this can prove a trifle difficult with an aquascaped tank. The best place, theoretically, for a heater is at the lowest part of the tank, So that the cooling water falls and is available for re-heating, setting up a circulation and avoiding cold pockets. Suppose you have built up a beautiful terrain of gravel and rocks on a terrace pattern: the only place for the heater is then up on a shelf or, at the lowest place, up against the front glass! In the first instance, a pocket of cold water is formed below the heater and, in the second place the heater is a bit obvious to say the least! "Ah!" you say, "there's an answer to this - a filtration system." Fair enough, but again thought is called for, as similar problems can arise. If the normal filtration system is employed, with external filter boxes (either air or power operated) any rocks between the return pipe and the outlet siphon will trap dirt, so careful siting of the siphon and return tubes is necessary. There is too, the matter of accessibility to all the "hardware" items, and in our attempts to emulate the show tank the inside box filters would hardly be practicable. Undergravel filters seem to be a logical answer to the problem, being completely invisible and maintenance free, but site these under a fair depth of open gravel-underneath one of those "tombstones" wouldn't do much good!

I like to be able to visually check whether the heaters are working by observing the water currents around them; hiding them behind low rocks facilitates this, whilst at the same time making them as unobtrusive as possible.

From all this, you would be inclined to assume that my fish all swim in bare tanks, but whilst I strive to give my tanks a pleasing appearance with rocks and plants and try to design a furnished layout, practicality is uppermost in my mind - it's bad enough trying to net a fish in my orthodox, planted tanks without attempting to do the same in a densely planted aqua-scene!

As I see it, the Show tank type of aquarium is exactly suited to filling a decorative purpose as an adult and mature aquarium; but for the average aquarist who likes to potter and experiment with various species and conditions it seems to be a waste of obvious talents to expect a beautiful tank to survive over a long period of interesting fishkeeping. The first thing to ask yourself is what your aim is going to be and set the tank up accordingly; you'll save yourself a lot of work (and a lot of grief) should you change your mind after a few months.

A final confession - what attracts me most at fish Shows? You're right! The Furnished Aquaria!


The article has been reprinted with the kind permission of .


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