From an inexpensive goldfish in a bowl to a $1 million 5,000-gallon tank with rare fish, aquariums are mesmerizing to watch. The sound of water is comforting, and the slow movement of the fish can help calm active minds. “Aquariums are also spectacular decoration,” says Ben Carlin, operations manager of Carlin Aquarium Systems. “In fact,” he adds, “some clients have quit watching as much television and spend their time instead taking in their aquariums.”
Carlin calls aquariums the “ultimate tinkerer’s hobby because it is limitless in terms of what you can do with your personal system.” There is always some way to be interacting with it. With the internet, aquariums as hobbies have proliferated as serious hobbyists see and want what others have.
“It’s like fashion,” states Carlin. “Things come in and out of style.” He maintains an elaborate saltwater aquarium and is a fan of coral, which can even come with a certificate of authenticity to raise its value.
Carlin Aquarium Systems is a Roanoke-based aquarium design, installation and service company with clients in Roanoke and surrounding regions, including the New River Valley. The business evolved from a retail store to a commercial model.
Sean Raines is senior director of marketing for Aquatics for Spectrum Brands – Global Pet Care, which manufactures some Tetra aquarium products in Blacksburg’s industrial park. Raines calls aquariums: “Where pet meets hobby.” He concurs with Carlin on aquariums’ peacefulness and adds that companionship, just having life in the house, is another reason people buy aquariums.
There has been a recent bump in sales and interest in the hobby, according to Raines, as people use soothing aquariums to escape the pandemic or have a virtual vacation with a tropical theme in their homes. “More fish are finding new homes now.”
Fish are popular family pets because of the educational opportunity. Fish can teach children responsibility and how to care for another living thing. Families also use fish to teach science or geography. “Fish,” Raines notes, “are especially appropriate for families with allergies or asthma since they have no dander. The demographic for aquariums used to skew older, but now is young families, Generation Z (born 1995-2015), and Millennials (born 1981-1995). Those groups enjoy experiences and enrichment versus buying things.”
To get started with an aquarium, Carlin says 90% of people visit a big box store like PetSmart or PetCo and purchase a 10-gallon freshwater aquarium kit. It is desktop sized, and you just add water. Other popular sizes are 29-gallon and 55-gallon. Carlin calls the latter the “smallest big aquarium” as it would require a four-foot base and take up an entire wall. Popular freshwater fish include tetra, betta and angel fish, and often freshwater aquariums have fun and cutesy décor.
Most hobbyists plateau here, Carlin relates, because the more unusual the tank and its contents, the higher the price. The next step would be a saltwater aquarium, which is more advanced and thus not usually appropriate for kids. Saltwater aquariums tend to have a more naturalistic look and house area-specific fish – or, as Carlin declares “the cast from Finding Nemo” such as clown fish, hippo tang and royal gramma.
Aquariums are not cheap. A cost guideline is that a freshwater tank with fish costs $10 per gallon, so a 55-gallon tank would cost $550. A fully set up saltwater aquarium with coral jumps to $100 per gallon or $5,500. The cost might be half of that if there were only fish and not coral included.
Then there are maintenance expenses. Carlin sees two mindsets: Either maintenance is part of the fun, or it is a chore. Maintenance includes removing and replacing with clean water 10 to 20% of the water volume and replacing filters. For freshwater, this costs $10-30 per month and is typically done bi-weekly. Saltwater is again more expensive at $30-75 per month for weekly maintenance.

Carlin’s best piece of advice is “do your homework” to avoid the “Finding Nemo” effect. When that ocean-themed movie was popular, people bought clown fish like the character Marlin without researching appropriate supplies, leading to unnecessary fish deaths. The responsible thing is to provide each fish its best opportunity to survive.

Raines wishes more people would benefit from the joy of having an aquarium. “They are remarkably addictive,” states Carlin, “bringing relaxation and enjoyment of the underwater world into our daily lives.”

How to Build an Aquarium:

1. Select a tank size and shape.
2. Determine which filtration system.
3. Find gravel.
4. Decide where to place for your
fish tank.
5. Fill the tank with water.
6. Set up the filter, light, gravel,
decorative items
7. Let things settle down.
8. Introduce fish to their new home.


Text by Jennifer Poff Cooper