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How should I Decorate My Tank?

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

How should you decorate your tank? This question comes up a surprising amount in new aquarium owners. This is probably because decorations are a really important aspect of your aquarium. There are two main reasons why you want to decorate your aquarium.

Firstly, plain and simple is that the tank will look better if it's decorated nicely. A well decorated aquarium can be a very nice accent to almost any room in your home or in your business. The decorations you choose will make the tank more appealing and help the tank work with the other decor in the room. Providing nice decorating, or aquascaping, can make the tank much more attractive and appealing in itself, and can also enhance the soothing effects that aquariums are known for. Decorations create the atmosphere your fish live in and you look at.

Related Article: How to Set Up An Aquarium

The second reason is more important for fish wellbeing. In essence, decorating the tank will make the fish more comfortable. Fish are mostly aware that they are in fact prey animals, and as such will have inherited behavior traits which may cause them to become stressed and uncomfortable if they feel exposed or in a vulnerable situation. Providing them with a well decorated tank will increase the inhabitants' feeling of well being and alleviating this stress, thereby improving their immune system and furthermore their ability to resist disease and heal. Read through our article on "How to look out for fish diseases" and you’ll know that most fish diseases actually occur in stressed or injured fish with less than ideal water quality.

Also, fish in a well decorated tank are more likely to display the natural behavior they’d have in the wild. Other benefits include your fish showing improved coloration, tend to be more active, and will spend more time out of hiding! However, having more decorations does not mean that nocturnal fish will come out during the day and change their sleeping patterns, or that fish that normally hide will stay out of hiding.

The simple answer to this question is to decorate your aquarium with types of decorations that either you like, or that replicate the natural environment for your fish - provided that they are not toxic your tank inhabitants. In most cases, the fish don't care if you use a bright orange castle or a simple rock with some holes in it or even if you use live plants instead of pearl-colored plastic ones. They’d be pretty happy with a coffin ornament and some gargoyles as they would be with a lego recreation of The Avengers movie, so it’s all up to you!

That said, if you want to replicate your fish's natural environment then there is a more complex answer to give. To answer this question it’s important to know a little about your fish first. Different fish do have different preferences in the type of decoration, or cover, they have. Fish that are from shallow ponds or lakes, or slow-moving rivers with lush plant growth prefer "soft cover," which is primarily plants, but includes other fine or frilly, generally flexible things. Fish from faster waters or from deep, open areas tend to prefer "hard cover," which is generally rocks, logs, and other large, solid objects.

Just because your fish might prefer one does not preclude the use of the other, it just means that your fish are likely to be more comfortable if more of the cover is closer to their natural environment. Like we’ve mentioned, higher comfort means more natural behavior, lower stress, better colors, and better health.

When looking for things outside of the pet store shelves to put in your aquarium, be on the lookout for potentially toxic materials and stay far away. Some minerals are water soluble which means that the water will break it down, and though the stone itself may not be toxic, when it is dissolved in water it may make a toxic substance or it could harm your water quality by reducing the water's ability to carry Oxygen for the fish to then breathe. Another point is that if the stone is soft enough that it could be chewed or rubbed off by the fish then they could choke on it, or it could block their intestines and kill them. Most of the time, anything advertised as being for aquariums will be okay, but avoid buying anything that looks suspiciously cheap compared to the competition.

Also avoid any ceramic items with bright blue, red, or yellow glazes that are not designed for aquarium use (such as pet food bowls, we’ve seen this happen and while it’s quite funny to have a dog food bowl in a fish tank, make sure they’re safe to be submerged. Some have glazes on the outside and not the inside, this is why!) as these may contain soluble lead. Non-colorfast inks or dyes could be potentially harmful as they dissolve in the water too. Finally, avoid any plastic or rubber items not specifically designed for aquarium use, as these may contain solvents or preservatives that could be harmful to the fish.

We’d like to point out that Lego is safe for underwater building, however you should keep the building to a minimum, as Lego tends to want to float so you’ll have to tie it all down somehow. Whether that's building it underwater in your sink to rule out trapped air and attaching it to a lego base, then using tank gravel to weigh it down or it’s just super gluing some characters to the top of your aquarium safe decorations, just bear in mind that it needs to be secure.

Though some people do like to use found items to decorate their fish tanks, these have to be thoroughly washed, and occasionally soaked in hot water daily for months to rid them of any bacteria and parasites. Keep that in mind when you see a nice looking stick out on your walks!

For most fish, 50-75% cover is fine, and this means that a lot of your tank will be taken up with decorating material. However, this also means that your fish feel that they have never really left their sanctuary so if the decorations are properly arranged, you will probably be able to better observe even the shiest specimens in your aquarium. Remember, only edges and fringe areas provide good cover, so putting a big rock in the tank may fill half of it, but it provides very little actual cover for your fish. As a general rule of thumb, also avoid sea shells, coral skeletons and limestone unless you’re specifically crafting something for the use of them.

Here are some helpful tips that may be useful to you:

  • Put larger plants and decorations toward the back and sides, and shorter things toward the front. This may seem obvious, but there are many tanks set up where juxtaposition of decorations left the majority of the open swimming spaces out of site.

  • Use taller decorations or plants to obscure aquarium heaters, lift tubes, air lines, and other unattractive necessities of the fish tank.

  • Use fewer varieties of items to make the tank look more natural. Use groupings of the same type of plants and offset them with groupings of plants with a different color or texture to create a more appealing space.

  • Use smaller plants or rocks to hide the edges of castles, volcanoes, water wheels, or other resin, ceramic, or plastic decorations to make them look more natural in the tank.

  • Select one or two "focal" decorations or plants and place them slightly off-center in the tank. Centered items often look forced or awkward.

  • Don't forget a background. A background provides a dark, or at least solid, wall for the fish, which can help make them more comfortable. A background will also help hide cords, tubes, pipes, and filters that could otherwise detract from the appearance of your aquarium.

Remember that the decoration of the tank is largely for the viewer, and decorate to your tastes. Live plants are not the necessity that they were once believed to be, so if you are not interested in providing the care required for these additional inhabitants of your underwater environment, stick to their artificial counterparts. Many very high quality artificial stones, corals, coral skeletons, shells, logs, and plants are available in today's pet industry, so don't feel that you need to use live plants, real rocks, and real logs to have a natural-looking aquarium. On the other hand, many striking, but obviously artificial, decorations are also available if those better suit your tastes.

Thanks for checking out this Fish Article! Here's a list of our other popular articles:

How To Set Up Your First Aquarium

Common Care Mistakes in First Time Fish Owners

The Beginner's Guide to Planted Tanks

The Minimal Maintenance Aquarium Set Up Guide

How To Clean Your Aquarium and Decorations

How To Spot Illnesses in Fish

Clean Up Crews for your Freshwater Aquarium

The Best Algae Eaters for Freshwater Tanks

The Best Aquarium Invertebrates

The Ultimate Guide to Setting up and Cycling your Fish Tank

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