Nano Tank Revolution

As the talk of "going green” continues to heat up, the once-fringe notion of nano tanks becomes more and more acceptable and desirable.

Small cardinalfishes such as these threadfin cardinals (Zoramia Leptacantha) make for a fascinating addition to a nano reef. Just make sure you don't overstock your small tank. Photo by Scott W. Michael.

In these tough economic times, where talk of savings and environmentally friendly alternatives is all the buzz in many aquarist circles, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Even in less-stressful, more freewheeling times, a 250-gallon fully outfitted reef system or an Amano-style planted tank were often deal breakers for starry-eyed aquariumkeeping upstarts who wanted “that tank in the window.”

As these newbies turned their pocket linings inside out, revealing only some spare change and a lint ball or two, they were put off by the 1) initial high expense of the hardware, 2) the number of man-hours needed to maintain their ideal “dream tank” and 3) the monthly costs of keeping pumps, skimmers, lights, etc., humming along. They became quickly dissuaded from not just getting the display tank on impulse, but even forgoing ever getting it or, still worse, blowing off the hobby entirely for something a bit less time-consuming, labor-intensive and less expensive.

Perhaps it was a frustrated hobbyist who came up with the idea of nano aquariums in the first place. A nano aquarium can be anything the aquarist wants it to be. It just has to fit in an aquarium of 30 gallons or less for marine nanos, or 10 gallons or less for freshwater setups (keep in mind that there are probably as many definitions of what a nano is as there are nanos).

Nano tanks can be representative slices of a particular biotope (plants, invertebrates and fishes that inhabit the same kind of habitat). Biotope setups even attempt to have substrate, decór and water parameters that reflect those found in their charges’ native environments. A nano can also be a mini reef, a planted tank, a fish-only setup or a species-specific setup.

Next time you catch an uninvited hitchhiker in your reef tank, rather than destroying it, think about setting it up in a small nano of its own. Sometimes, hitchhikers can be just as fascinating as anything we choose to keep. Just grab a small, inexpensive pet-store aquarium, toss in some sand, a rock and the aquatic offender and, voilà!, instant nano.

Obviously, the numbers of corals, anemones, fishes, invertebrates or plants the aquarist can stock drops significantly with these elfin setups. Also, fishes that might be comfortable in a 100-gallon tank would, because of their size (just because you buy it small doesn’t mean it stays small – research any potential new acquisitions, especially if they are going to end up in a nano tank), would be contorted in a nano tank.

Everything on, or in, a nano is smaller. Smaller occupants, smaller decór, smaller tank, more closely pruned plants – smaller monthly outlay to the local utility. I even came across a fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand protein skimmer especially designed for nano tanks at a recent aquarium show, Reef-a-palooza.

If you’re short on time, cash poor and love the aquarium hobby beyond all others, give a nano tank a try. These small systems are perfect for office desktops, adding a bit of whimsy to a child’s room or for firing up conversations. One can get every bit as lost in a well-designed nano setup as with a much larger aquarium – you just have to get a bit closer, that’s all. No longer an afterthought, there are nano tank contests and even nano tank clubs. The one I’m familiar with is the Southern California Nano-Reef Society (, but with a little work you should be able to find similar groups, both marine and fresh water, in your local community.

Here is a slide show of some nano tanks I’ve come across during the last few years. Go green! Go nano!

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