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The Pain of the Tall Tank

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Tips and Tricks for Tall and Vertical Aquariums: Pros/Cons, Aquascaping, Maintenance, and Stocking

Tall tanks: you love 'em or hate 'em. There's no denying that seeing a bright column of water with fish swirling up and down and tall plants swaying makes you want one. But do they stand tall against criticism? Vertical tanks have unique challenges and advantages, and we'll give you the rundown. 

Pros and Cons of Tall/Vertical Aquariums

The most obvious pro? They look cool. Even if you know nothing about aquariums, if you see a big tank at eye level or higher, you're going to be drawn in. They have more vertical space for tall, background aquarium plant species (means less trimming for you). There are also a few fish species that benefit from more tank height than traditional tanks because of their vertical growth. Additionally, these tanks take up less floor space, so they can be great in smaller or crowded rooms. 

Unfortunately, this smaller footprint is also a downside. Fish need horizontal swimming space, especially many popular, active species like danios and tetras. Not all gallons are created equal. A 20 gallon long tank will be better for most fish species than a 30 gallon tall. It's not the number of gallons that counts with a vertical aquarium, but the surface area. If you were in a shipping container, would you have more room to move if it was sitting on its end or on its side? Same principle applies with tanks. 

This decreased surface area also poses a problem for aeration/oxygen. With less water surface, there's less room for oxygen exchange and, generally, less oxygen in your water as a result. I'm sure I don't need to explain why less available oxygen for your fish is a bad idea. 

Other disadvantages due to a tall tank's build are maintenance/cleaning difficulties and the fact that the taller the aquarium, the more structurally fragile it is. 

Tall Tank Maintenance and Cleaning

Do you hate cleaning? Would you rather sit on a hot grill than scrape your tank glass or vacuum your substrate before you have to? Congratulations on your new, bouncing baby headache now that you've gotten a vertical aquarium if you don't have the right tools. The issue isn't that they're inherently dirtier (though they can be if you overstock), but that you feel like you need SCUBA gear or one of those gloves they use to palpate cows to reach the bottom with your hands. They're much harder to maneuver in and much harder to clean as a result. If you've really fallen in love with them, they're not impossible to clean, but I'll clean a long tank over a tall tank any day. It's also a royal pain to plant things in substrate when you have to reach so far. 

Fortunately, there are a few tools to help with tall tanks. A step stool can give your vertical advantage back and make it easier to work and see where you're working. There are also glass scrapers, sponges, scrubbers, etc. with long or extendable handles to give you more reach. If you're into aquascaping or planted aquariums, longer planting tongs can help you out. For moving bigger things, you can also try something like an aquarium grabber. There are also longer siphons, or you could extend a shorter one with pipe, additional tubing, etc.

A magnetic aquarium cleaner
A Magnetic Aquarium Cleaner

There are also a few brands of magnetic aquarium glass cleaners that work well and are honestly pretty fun to use. These are great for tall tanks because you don't have to have any extra reach or even put your hand in the tank to use them. Magnet cleaners are effective for regular maintenance, but if you have a lot of algae or a really dirty tank, you'll want your other tools. Also, make sure you choose the right kind for your tank material - some are better for glass and some are better for acryllic. 

To counteract the aeration problems caused by decreased surface area, it's essential you maintain dissolved oxygen. You can do this by using an air pump/airstone or spray bar, increasing filter flow, or manually stirring/agitating the tank water. Live aquarium plants also produce oxygen (hornwort is amazing for this), but only during the daytime. At night, they actually use oxygen, so keep that in mind. 

Aquascaping/Decor Ideas

Tall aquariums pose a design challenge due to decreased room for decorations and hardscape on the bottom of the tank and a lot of empty, vertical space to fill. But if you get it right, you can make some stunning aquariums. One option is to design around the center, with a centerpiece and decor placed strategically around it (great choice if you have a large, distinctive piece of decor) You can also do a sloping design since you have more vertical room to work with. Tall live aquarium plants are a great choice regardless of which route you go, as well. 

Fish and Plants for Tall Aquariums

We touched on it a little bit above, but fish species that like a lot of swimming room won't be good fits in a tall tank unless it's also adequately wide. Large fish like goldfish, oscars, etc. are immediate no's unless you have a vertical tank the size of a water tower. You also don't want fish that are known for being territorial (e.g. rainbow sharks, cichlids) because with the smaller footprint, there is less territory to go around. The classic fish for vertical freshwater tanks is the angelfish because of the way it grows up more than out. Discus are another option for the same reason. If you go saltwater, seahorses are the most popular.

Aponogeton Boivinianus, A Green, Background Aquarium Plant
Aponogeton boivinianus, an excellent plant for a tall tank

When it comes to aquatic plants for tall tanks, you have a few challenges. One is reduced substrate surface area, which means less room for outward growth and less room for roots. The other is light. The taller the tank, the more water your light has to get through to make it to your plants. Your options are either brighter aquarium lights or easy plants that can tolerate low light and low tech. Tall tanks are lots of fun with background plants, because you can grow some of them until they're massive. 

Carpeting plants will pose a challenge since they've evolved to grow in shallow, well-lit environments, but you can try them if you have good lights or choose an easy species (don't buy dwarf hair grass for a tall tank like I did one time unless you're very experienced. Oh my god). Floating plants are also a fun choice to add a layer to your tall tank, but keep in mind if you have other plants in the substrate, you're further filtering their light. 

Here are some good, easy choices for tall tanks: 

Background species: Vallisnera "Jungle Val;" Giant Jungle Val (Vallisneria americana); Aponogeton boivinianus

Midground species: AnubiasJava Ferns (Microsorum)

Foreground and Carpeting species: Java moss; Dwarf Sagittaria Subulata (Dwarf Sag); Staurogyne repens; Hygrophila corymbosa "Compacta"

Floating species: Really any as long as you're not worried about blocking light to lower plants, but red root floater is a good all round choice.

Red root floater, a red aquarium plant
Red Root Floater

Overall, if you can choose between a tall tank or a long tank, the long tank is the easier option and the best choice for most fish and plant species. But if you're short on space or already have your tall tank, you can make it work and turn it into something gorgeous with the right knowhow. They don't have to be...tall orders. 

And that's all we've got. If you have cool ideas for another blog post, comments, questions, etc. hit us up, and keep tanking on!


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