- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Phil Brower is fascinated by fish. His love for the creatures began when he lived in the Republic of the Marshall Islands for about three years. He spent most of his free time scuba diving and snorkeling, collecting fish from the Pacific Ocean to put in aquariums located in almost every room of his home. In 1993, when he moved to Silver Spring, he set up a 125-gallon saltwater fish tank with about 20 fish, including Spanish hogfish and emperor angelfish. The aquarium, which is in his living room, cost about $6,000, including its accessories.
"When I realized that now I had to pay for the fish, I was upset," Mr. Brower says. "I used to catch the fish for free."
Maintaining a fish tank is more than a hobby, says Andrew Lankasky, general manager of Totally Fish in Silver Spring. Many aquariums serve as pieces of living art in the home. Often they serve as relaxing centerpieces that add to the interior design of a room.
"The possibilities are endless," Mr. Lankasky says. "Pick a shape that you want the tank to be, and I can have it made."
Mr. Lankasky says standard shapes include hexagons, pentagons, pie wedges, squares, flat backs, bow fronts and rectangles. He tells customers to buy the largest aquarium they can afford because most people end up wanting bigger tanks as time passes.
Fish tanks need filters, heaters and gravel or marbles as substrate. Most aquariums also use lights, especially those with plant life, he says. For Maryland and Virginia residents, Mr. Lankasky reminds them to buy products to neutralize the chlorine in their water so the chemical doesn't kill the fish. Residents of the District need products to neutralize chlorine and chloramine.
The number of fish in a tank affects how often the water should be cleaned, Mr. Lankasky says. Changing at least 10 percent of the water twice a month is the minimum requirement for keeping the tank running well.
Because saltwater tanks require multiple filters, they usually are harder to maintain, he says. Freshwater tanks need only a basic filter. These come with most freshwater starter kits, which include a 10-gallon tank for about $65.
Mr. Lankasky emphasizes that freshwater fish will not survive in salt water. Freshwater fish cost about $3 per fish, while saltwater fish cost about $25 per fish.
"Biological features must be in balance for tanks to work properly," Mr. Lankasky says. "You are creating a miniature biological ecosystem. With salt water, you are creating a miniocean as opposed to a lake."
Those ecosystems can make their homes in oak and cherry furniture pieces, says Tom Senyitko, owner of Wally's Aquarium in Alexandria. This allows fish tanks to be placed in living rooms instead of unfinished basements.
"You can watch the fish as you sit in your nice lounge chair as opposed to watching the television," Mr. Senyitko says. "You can take your mind off the rest of the world."
Mr. Senyitko says he designs aquariums that resemble bodies of water from different continents, such as the African lakes that are rock-based, the Australian and South American rivers that are plant- and wood-oriented, the Caribbean saltwater reefs, and the Chinese and Japanese pond and water gardens.
"This is a biology project," he says. "We try to duplicate nature as best we can."
Robert Brynda, senior aquarist at Colorado's Ocean Journey in Denver, says researching the compatibility of fish is important before placing them in an aquarium. Some people accidentally buy fish that become too large for the aquarium, such as pacu fish and clown knifefish.
Knowing what to feed the fish also is important. Freshwater fish tend to eat plants, while saltwater fish feed on marine algae.
"If you have a large predatory fish, they can eat other small fish," Mr. Brynda says. "Some can be territorial or aggressive. Try to avoid putting species together that might fight."
Operating a fish tank is similiar to maintaining an outdoor garden, Mr. Brynda says. Along with feeding the fish, you need to trim the plants need and adjust the light.
"You can definitely make choices with regards to the plants to give it a better appearance," Mr. Brynda says. "The colors of the fish can also really brighten up an aquarium."

Gary Kruegel, owner of Aquarium Concepts in Nashville, Tenn., says he designs fish tanks as aesthetic improvements in the homes or offices of his clients. He runs about 75 aquariums in his local area, including a 400-gallon saltwater tank in the penthouse of the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., that serves as a divider in the foyer.
He also has created aquariums for many of the Tennessee Titans football players, who have fish tanks built in specialty cabinets or the walls of their homes, Mr. Kruegel says. One customer has a 110-gallon saltwater aquarium in his wall with sharks, lion fish and triggerfish.
Some clients request many fish tanks throughout their homes, Mr. Kruegel says. He makes a visual assessment for the best places for aquariums in the house. On occasion, he uses a motif that already exists in the home when designing a tank.
"The concept of my business is creative, living art," Mr. Kruegel says. "The aquariums are like one-of-a-kind furniture pieces."
Artist Sheila Haynes Rauen of Knoxville, Tenn., says she has painted aquariums to give them added flair. She often creates nautical themes on the glass or borrows a motif already on a pillow or wallpaper in the room. When making her design, she purposely tries not to cover the center of the aquarium, which would obstruct the sight of a viewer trying to watch the fish. Sometimes she creates borders on an aquarium, possibly using flowers.
Ms. Rauen is the author of "Sassy Cats, Purr-fect Craft Projects." She often paints cats on the side of fish tanks or circular fishbowls. She usually makes the animals look longingly at the fish, as if the cats want to eat the fish for lunch.
"This is another way to feature some art in your room," says Ms. Rauen, who suggests decorating a glass table in the same room as the painted fish tank to accent the design on the aquarium.
Diane Gordy, owner of the DGI Design Group in Rehoboth Beach, Del., says when people invest in a fish tank, they should consider discussing it with an interior designer to coordinate themes. Because aquariums are high-maintenance, she also suggests that the tanks receive regular care from a professional service. She has designed aquariums for various settings, such as homes, doctors' offices and restaurants.
"It should be part of a plan," she says. "Fish tanks are like living art. They are soothing and entertaining . They can be assembled so beautifully. You have shape, texture and color working together to create harmony."
Catherine Bailly Dunne, owner of Catherine Bailly Dunne Interior Design in Los Angeles, says fish bring a special element into the home. Ms. Dunne is author of "Interior Designing for All Five Senses." Her Web site is www.catherinedunne.com.
"If you have a house that is muted or monochromatic, it's a great way to add sparkle," she says. "It's real fresh."

Tips, pointers for keeping fish
Change at least 10 percent of the water in the aquarium a minimum of twice a month.
Properly dechlorinate the water.
Keep the water temperature in a freshwater tank at about 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. For saltwater tanks, the temperature should be about 74 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
The type of filter depends on the size of the tank and the type of fish. The bigger the tank, the more filters are needed. A filter for a 20-gallon tank should clean a minimum of 60 gallons an hour.
Research the compatibility of fish before placing them in an aquarium. Freshwater fish will not survive in salt water. Make sure the size and temperament of the fish coincide. Also investigate the proper food for the specific type of fish.
When plants are in a freshwater tank, additional hardware items are necessary, such as lights and chemicals for fertilization. Leave the lights on an average of eight hours a day to prevent creating algae. Without plants, lights don't need to be turned on except when one is viewing the fish.
m Corals in saltwater tanks need additional filters, lighting and chemicals to keep them alive.
Don't place a fish tank in front of a window. The water will become green because the sun will make algae grow in the aquarium.
When initially setting up a fish tank, put just a few fish in at the beginning. With a 10-gallon freshwater fish tank, start with about three fish for the first seven to 10 days. Use a kit to test the pH level of the water. The normal pH level for a tank varies with the types of fish in the aquarium. Make sure there is no ammonia or nitrite in the tank. After the chemistry of the aquarium is suitable, add about three more fish. If too many fish are placed in the aquarium before the chemistry is correct, the fish will die, causing an overload in the biological system of the tank. With a 55-gallon tank, start by adding about 10 small fish until the chemistry is correct.
Source: Andrew Lankasky, general manager of Totally Fish, Silver Spring


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