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What Are the Different Aquarium Types: Tank Setups Explained

Aquariums have long been a source of fascination for people of all ages, offering a mesmerizing glimpse into the aquatic world. But not all of the aquatic world, nor all aquariums are created equal.

In this guide, I’ve split aquarium types into three different categories:

  • By setup — Do you want to keep tropical fish or cold water species? Are you a beginner who is tempted by a nano tank or an enthusiast to try saltwater setups?
  • By purpose — Do you want to keep a few goldfish, a breathtaking betta, or a community tank with various inhabitants?
  • By location — Is it going to be an aquarium atop a dedicated piece of furniture or something subtler, like an underwater window, built into the wall of your flat?

Understanding the different types of aquariums is essential for choosing the aquatic environment that aligns with your ideas, desires, and space. These categories are helpful to highlight certain aspects of your future aquatic biodome, but you must understand how they overlap all the time. 

A warm water aquarium can host marine lifeforms and sit inside a wall.

A brackish tank should be kept warm and are a mixture of fresh and salt water. They can also be mounted inside a wall.

Let’s examine each type of fish tank in detail and see how these aspects overflow into each other.

Aquarium Types by Setup

The different setups, ordered from easiest to hardest to maintain, look as follows:

  • Warm water aquarium — Suitable for beginners.
  • Cold water aquarium — Suitable for beginners, especially in places with a temperate climate.
  • Nano tanks — Smaller aquariums require more attention than larger (+20 gallons) tanks, which makes them more suitable for hobbyists with some experience.
  • Brackins water tank — Special setups that require in-depth knowledge of species and their environment.
  • Marine tank — Marine fish, strictly speaking, aren’t that much harder to tend after than freshwater species, but the initial setup is considerably more expensive and difficult to assemble. Tank and water maintenance requires specialized knowledge that comes with years of experience.
  • Reef tank — Keeping saltwater species alive is a challenge, but keeping a coral system alive and thriving brings the challenge — and the reward of having it — to a brand new level.

The first two entries in the list, warm and cold aquariums, can be considered overarching categories. Most fish tanks require some level of heating, which makes them warm water aquariums. They can still be brackish or saltwater.

With this clarification out of the way, let’s check the various aquarium setups in greater detail.

Warm Water Aquarium

Warm water setups are the most popular aquarium types. Usually, the term is reserved for setups that mimic the conditions found in tropical regions. They can accommodate a wide range of vibrant and colorful fish species such as guppies, tetras, and angelfish. This variety of pretty, sturdy fish, and the relatively modest initial investment required (here’s a detailed breakdown for starting an aquarium) make them ideal for beginners.

A heater is a necessity to maintain a consistent temperature (usually 24-28 degrees) in a warm water aquarium. Additionally, proper filtration, regular water testing, and a balanced diet contribute to the health and happiness of the inhabitants.

Cold Water Aquarium

Cold-water aquariums are excellent low-maintenance setups. These aquariums house freshwater fish species that thrive in cooler temperatures.

In general, they are easier to care for, assuming you can put the fish tank in the temperature range of 18-24 degrees. Cold water fish like goldfish and White Cloud Mountain Minnows are popular choices. They are quite sturdy and deal with temperature fluctuations better than their warm-water counterparts.

The main advantage of a cold water aquarium is the reduced need for a heater, although a chiller may be necessary during warmer months.

Cold water tanks are as easy, if not easier, to maintain than warm water setups, but the variety of cold-loving species is more limited.

Nano Aquarium

Nano aquariums typically range from 2 to 10 gallons. But limited space doesn’t mean sacrificing the joy of owning an aquarium.

They offer a compact and visually appealing option for smaller living spaces. Nano aquariums can house various fish species, such as small tropical fish, dwarf shrimp, and snails. Despite their smaller size, these setups aren’t easier to take care of than larger tanks. In fact, they require regular maintenance and careful monitoring of water parameters.

The thing is, larger aquariums become ecosystems that can regulate themselves to a much greater degree than a nano tank. Size matters a lot in that regard, which is why nano tanks are more suitable for more experienced hobbyists.

Brackish Aquarium

Brackish water aquariums provide a unique habitat for species that require a mix of freshwater and saltwater. These setups bridge the gap between freshwater and saltwater tanks, hosting intriguing creatures like mudskippers, archerfish, and certain types of gobies. The use of live plants and suitable rock formations can create a natural and aesthetically pleasing environment.

Their setup and maintenance require deep knowledge. Careful attention to salinity levels and regular testing is necessary to maintain optimal conditions.

Saltwater Aquarium

Saltwater aquariums are a window into the wonders of the ocean. They are diverse and can house vibrant coral reefs, exotic fish, and mesmerizing invertebrates.

Setting up and maintaining a saltwater aquarium demands a higher level of expertise and investment. Advanced filtration systems, precise water chemistry management, and specialized lighting are necessary to support the delicate ecosystem. Regular monitoring of parameters and regular water changes are vital for the health and success of the inhabitants.

Reef Tank

Reef tanks are the epitome of aquatic beauty and complexity. These setups are dedicated to cultivating thriving coral reefs, which support a variety of other livestock.

Reef tanks require a high level of expertise and commitment. They demand advanced equipment, including powerful lighting systems, protein skimmers, and calcium reactors. The delicate balance of water chemistry, nutrient control, and the careful selection and placement of corals contribute to the success of a reef tank.

It takes a skilled, seasoned hobbyist to do and appreciate the complexities of regular testing, diligent maintenance, and patience which are essential for the long-term health and growth of the coral ecosystem.

Aquarium Types by Purpose

We went through the different types of aquariums based on their technical requirements. Now, let’s take a good look at the purpose of the fish tank you want to have.

Here are the various aquarium types based on the purpose they serve. I ordered them, loosely, based on popularity and ease of maintenance.

  • Betta fish bowl — Bettas come in an incredible variety of colors, sizes, and characters. They also come in tiny little containers. While these bowls have a ton of drawbacks, they are affordable and easy to place even in a cramped living space. That makes them very popular entry fish tanks.
  • Community tank — The most common type of aquarium, designed to house a variety of fish and other livestock. Colorful, dynamic, and, when stocked with sturdy species, easy to maintain, community tanks often are the go-to for beginners.
  • Single species tank — Such setups usually are reserved for beautiful species that require very specific water parameters. Discus and cichlids come to mind, and these aren’t beginner-friendly species.
  • Kid’s tank — Introducing the little ones to the hobby takes many forms, but a relatively small tank with sturdy species is a great way to give your child a tank of their own. Under adult supervision, the child should be able to perform most of the aquarium maintenance.
  • Quarantine tank — Also known as hospital tanks, these aquariums protect the health of your livestock and plants. It is a must for any fishkeeper, even if the quarantine tank itself is just a few gallons.
  • Breeding tank — Reproducing your fish is one of the greatest moments in the hobby. Most species require special conditions to get in the mood, so breeding tanks are the way to go.

Let’s discuss these aquarium categories in detail.

Betta Fish Bowl

Betta fish bowls, although often seen as a traditional choice, have specific requirements to ensure the well-being of the betta fish.

These setups typically involve small, unfiltered bowls or tanks. It’s crucial to provide ample space, regular water changes, and appropriate nutrition for the betta fish. While bettas can survive in these setups, it’s infinitely better to provide them with larger tanks with filtration systems for a healthier and more comfortable living environment.

Look at it this way: a bowl costs next to nothing and takes very little space. But that’s like a cramped one-star hotel. The fish won’t be very happy there and there isn’t much room to play with in terms of decorations and setup.

A 5-gallon tank also costs next to nothing and the standard dimensions are 16″x8″x10″. You can toy with them to fit your space better.

For $50-$60 you can get a fully equipped system that will increase the living space of your betta and supply much higher-quality water. We are moving into the three-stars territory. A 10-gallon would be a total blast for it.

I am going on a tangent here, but the point is: don’t keep fish in tiny bowls. Get them at least a large bowl or a small tank.

Community Tank

Community tanks create a harmonious environment with a variety of fish species coexisting.

Careful consideration of fish compatibility, size, and behavior is crucial for a thriving community tank. Community tanks can be populated with various species such as tetras, rasboras, and livebearers. Adequate tank size, the right gravel, live plants, suitable hiding places, and a balanced diet are important for maintaining harmony within the tank.

Community tanks are the most common setup, as they appeal to many tastes and provide a dynamic, vibrant mix of living things. They coexist and interact in amusing ways, showing clearly their characters and preferences.

Single Species Tank

Single species tanks are dedicated to showcasing a particular species of fish.

This type of setup allows enthusiasts to focus on the specific needs and requirements of said species. Technically, a betta bowl is also a single species tank, but this is the most basic setup imaginable.

More specialized tanks are set up to house species like discus, cichlids, or angelfish.

Kid’s Tank

Aquariums can be a wonderful educational tool and a source of fascination for children. My elder daughter certainly is very interested in the lives of fishes.

Kid’s tanks are designed to nurture the interests and capabilities of young enthusiasts. These tanks are typically smaller in size and feature colorful, low-maintenance fish species such as guppies, platies, or tetras.

Adult supervision is crucial, and children should be taught about the responsibilities of fishkeeping, including feeding, regular water changes, and the importance of maintaining a clean and healthy environment.

Quarantine Tank

Quarantine tanks play a vital role in the prevention of diseases and the introduction of new fish into an existing aquarium.

More often than not, hospital tanks are quite barren, without substrate or much decoration. The idea is to keep them clean and healthy with minimal effort. The more things you put in the water column, the more influence they exert on the environment.

Quarantine tanks provide a temporary isolation space where new or sick fish can be observed and treated if necessary. The isolation period allows for close observation to ensure the fish are healthy and free from any potential illnesses before introducing them to the main aquarium.

Ideally, new plants should also go through a quarantine period.

Breeding Tank

Breeding tanks serve as controlled environments for fish reproduction. They are set up in a specific way to stimulate the fish pair chosen for breeding. Typically, breeding tanks are shallower, with plenty of places to hide. The selected fish are fed a special diet (usually it involves protein-rich food) and may require specific temperature and water parameters.

Quite often, a dedicated breeding tank would house a single couple and then their fry. Whether the parents stay in the breeding tank after the fry has spawned depends on the species.

These specific stimulating conditions and the necessity to protect the tiny fry from predators are the main reasons for breeding setups.

Aquarium Types by Placement and Installation

Aquariums are boxes of beauty and fascination that come in many sizes. Finding the optimal location isn’t always easy, but here are the options that the fish store (and architects) can provide.

I’ve listed four setups, starting from the two most common and heading into more luxurious installations. The last on the list is a bonus

  • Stand-alone aquarium — Usually, a small or moderate size fish tank that is placed atop an existing piece of furniture.
  • Aquarium stand — A piece of furniture designed for (and often sold with) the tank and its gear.
  • Cabinet installation — Integrate the aquarium smoothly within the house decor. 
  • Wall aquarium — Designed with the building or installed in a soft wall by crafty fishkeepers?
  • Floor aquarium — These usually massive installations are part of the design. People with space and skill also create stunning floor aquariums. They create totally different ambiance in larger spaces.

Stand-alone Aquarium

Some aquarium tanks come as stand-alone pieces that are designed to be placed on top of a piece of furniture. It’s imperative to ensure the tank is securely placed on a sturdy, flat surface to prevent accidents.

Many wooden stands or shelves look flat but hide a small irregularity. Over time, such minor bumps can compromise the bottom of a heavy tank and cause it to crack. Putting a piece of styrofoam or yoga mat can help offset that.

If you have the slightest doubt that your existing furniture will withstand a fish tank (glass, water, and hardscape weigh a lot), it’s better to purchase a designated stand.

Aquarium Stand

Some tanks are purchased with custom-made stands, designed to provide stability and support for the aquarium. They come in various materials and styles, for different tank sizes and aesthetics. The appropriate stand ensures the tank’s weight is evenly distributed, preventing any stress on the tank’s bottom.

What’s more, aquarium stands usually can accommodate all the paraphernalia: filters, food, cleaning tools, etc., making tidy, pretty, and practical arrangements.

Cabinet Aquarium

If you want a seamless and elegant look, integrating the aquarium with the surrounding decor is the way to go. Cabinet aquariums also offer storage space for equipment, supplies, and fish food.

More importantly, they bring the aesthetics to a brand new level, enhancing the impression of the aquarium and the surrounding area. Well-designed cabinet aquariums are outright stunning. 

Wall Aquarium

Some newer buildings have aquariums built as part of the wall. These aquariums tend to be large-scale installations found in commercial buildings. They create a striking visual centerpiece, adding a touch of elegance and tranquility to the environment.

Generally speaking, wall aquariums require careful planning, professional installation, and ongoing maintenance to ensure the structural integrity of the wall and the well-being of the aquatic inhabitants. These unique setups often incorporate advanced filtration systems and specialized lighting to support the larger volume of water and the diverse range of fish and aquatic plants.

However, with a bit of foresight, initiative, and investment, your aquarium might also find a new home.

Floor Aquarium

There are a couple of types of floor aquariums:

  • Integrated into the floor
  • Standing out

Integrated floor aquariums are becoming a trend in high-end buildings to create a stunning focal point and a mesmerizing display.

Floor aquariums require meticulous design, engineering, and construction to ensure the weight of the aquarium is evenly distributed and safely supported by the building structure. These exceptional setups offer a unique perspective, allowing viewers to observe aquatic life from a captivating vantage point.

Apparently, if you have enough space and some experience in construction, you can create your own floor aquarium. 


Understanding the various types of aquariums is crucial in providing ideas for and for selecting the right setup that aligns with your interests, living space, and level of expertise.

Whether you opt for a cold water aquarium, a tropical oasis, a brackish setup, or a captivating reef tank, each type offers its own unique appeal and challenges. Similarly, catering to specific fish species, a single betta fish (hopefully in enough space), or a community tank requires careful planning, research, and dedication.

Regardless of the preferred aquarium type, it will become a source of joy and tranquility, and funny moments.

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