While shopping for an aquarium, you’ve probably noticed that most tanks consist of one of two materials: glass or acrylic. What are these two materials, and how do they measure up to one another?
Glass aquariums are less expensive than acrylic aquariums, are more scratch-resistant, and offer better clarity. On the other hand, acrylic aquariums come in different shapes, are lighter in weight, and are more impact-resistant than glass.
Considering purchasing a glass or acrylic aquarium for your home? In this article, I’ll explain the main differences between the two types of aquariums and help you make an informed decision.
Are Glass and Acrylic Aquariums the Same?
Glass and acrylic aquariums share many similarities, but they’re not the same. Each has different price points, properties, weights, and materials. Acrylic is made of acrylic acid polymers or acrylate polymers (essentially, plastic), whereas glass is made of sand, soda, and lime.
The different properties of each material provide them with their own benefits. Here, I’ll cover some pros and cons of both acrylic and glass aquariums to help you decide which one is best for you:
- More scratch resistance
- Better clarity
- Lower cost
- Easily breakable
- Extremely heavy
- Available in different shapes
- Prone to scratches inside and out
- Tends to discolor over time
The aquarium that you choose will depend on your personal needs. For example, some people value price over clarity, whereas others prefer fun shapes over impact resistance.
Take the time to read through this article and think about what you need from an aquarium. By the end of this article, you should better understand which option is right for you.
How Can You Tell the Difference Between Acrylic and Glass Aquariums?
It’s often challenging to tell the difference between acrylic and glass aquariums by vision alone. If you’re looking at pictures on the internet, it’s even more difficult to distinguish between the two materials – you’ll have to rely on the product specifications in the description.
If you’re shopping in person, however, there are a few ways to tell them apart.
You can tell the difference between glass and acrylic by tapping the surface with a metal object like a ring. Glass creates a high-pitched sound when tapped, whereas acrylic sounds dull. Also, glass is usually cooler to the touch than acrylic. Finally, acrylic tanks typically have a solid top.
Why Are Glass Aquariums Cheaper Than Acrylic?
Despite being cheaper to manufacture and transport, acrylic is usually more expensive than its glass counterparts – but why?
Glass aquariums are cheaper than acrylic tanks because they’re in higher demand. As a result, companies manufacture more glass aquariums. Therefore, the overall cost is reduced.
You can see price comparisons of glass aquariums versus acrylic aquariums on Amazon.com. For example, the SeaClear 20 Gallon Acrylic Aquarium is significantly more expensive than the Tetra ColorFusion 20 Gallon Glass Aquarium, despite offering the same capacity and general shape.
The SeaClear aquarium is – as the name implies – made of clear acrylic, so you’ll be able to see everything held inside clearly. The Tetra ColorFusion aquarium comes with color-changing LED lights so you can transform the look of your tank as and when you like with the touch of a button.
With that said, once you reach a certain size of tank, the price of glass aquariums rises significantly, whereas acrylic tank prices stay pretty steady – so for larger aquariums, acrylic is cheaper than glass. This is mainly due to weight and transport costs.
A 150-gallon (568 liters) glass fish tank weighs significantly more than an acrylic tank of the same size. That makes shipping and handling far more labor-intensive and, thus, more expensive.
Is Acrylic Harder to Scratch Than Glass?
Acrylic aquariums may be strong, stiff, and provide some optical clarity, but let’s call it what it is: plastic. It’s nearly inevitable that you’ll end up with scratches at some point.
Acrylic is much easier to scratch than glass. All it takes is the tiniest grain of sand or a rivet on your jeans to brush against the tank as you walk past. It doesn’t matter how well you care for an acrylic tank – it will never measure up to glass in terms of scratch resistance.
With that said, glass isn’t totally resistant to scratches either. It is, however, far less likely to scratch than acrylic. This is precisely why windows are made of glass, not acrylic – if windows were acrylic, curb appeal would go down in every neighborhood.
In addition to its susceptibility to scratches, acrylic also shows regular wear and tear more than glass – and it’s usually really noticeable. Even if you take on the tedious task of draining the tank, buffing out the scratches, and reintroducing your fish, you’ll never be able to restore the acrylic tank to its original state.
On the other hand, glass can retain its clear, shiny surface for decades down the road.
Do Acrylic Fish Tanks Leak?
Despite being more prone to scratches, acrylic fish tanks do have one major advantage over glass aquariums.
Acrylic aquariums are far less likely to leak versus glass tanks – many are even advertised as leak-resistant. If you purchase an acrylic aquarium and it does happen to leak, repairing it is simple with aquarium-safe glue.
I recommend the APEL Aquarium 100% Silicone Sealant, available on Amazon.com. The glue contains no fungicides or additives that could harm fish or plant life. You can use it to stop leaks and even attach decorations to the sides of the tank.
On the other hand, if glass cracks or leaks, there’s not much you can do aside from replacing the tank. Once glass cracks, the integrity of the aquarium is severely compromised.
For a reef tank with corals, I recommend an acrylic tank. To learn how to start a reef tank, make sure to read my beginners guide which you can find here on my website.
Do Acrylic or Glass Aquariums Offer Better Clarity?
Take a look at a window in your home – the transparent material allows plenty of sunlight to shine through. Now, if that window were made of acrylic, it would look a lot different by now.
Acrylic, unlike glass, starts to break down when exposed to the sun’s harsh rays. As a result, these tanks aren’t suitable for growing real aquatic plants using a UV grow light. If you have your heart set on aquarium plants, it’s best to stick with glass or UV-resistant acrylic aquariums.
Glass aquariums offer unmatched clarity. No matter how long glass is exposed to sunlight, it will not discolor or break down over time. Also, cleaning the surface of a glass fish tank doesn’t cause microabrasions the way that cleaning acrylic does.
While UV-resistant acrylic tanks are far less susceptible to degradation, they’ll discolor over time – all acrylic tanks do. They develop a yellowish tint and become cloudy. The cloudiness is due to the many micro-scratches on its surface that develop as a result of wiping, washing, scrubbing, or even gently brushing against the tank.
Can You Get a Glass Aquarium in Different Shapes?
You can’t get a glass aquarium in a fancy shape. Companies manufacture glass using sand, soda, lime, and in some cases, other ingredients. The result is a hard, brittle material that’s challenging to shape. Because of this, most glass aquariums come in one of two shapes: cube or rectangular prism.
Acrylic, however, is a plastic, so it’s easy to mold. The material is heated during manufacturing and can be manipulated into any shape, from hexagons to spheres.
Another benefit of acrylic is that it allows for easier modifications. You can drill holes in the side to hang plants or accessories without any issues. Try to drill into glass, and you risk fracturing the entire tank.
Do Glass Fish Tanks Weigh More Than Acrylic?
Glass fish tanks are heavy – up to ten times heavier than acrylic. Even if a glass and acrylic tank is of the same capacity, glass always weighs more due to its density.
If you’ve ever attempted to lift a full glass fish tank, you know that lightweight aquariums have their advantages. They’re easier to lift and move around your space, even when they’re filled to capacity. Not to mention, shipping costs tend to stay lower, thanks to the lower weight.
With glass, you’re talking about a really heavy tank. A 20-gallon (75.7 liters) tank filled to capacity can weigh over two hundred pounds (90.71 kg)! If you’re looking into an even bigger glass tank, you can forget about moving it once it’s filled with water!
Are Acrylic Aquariums Impact Resistant?
Glass is breakable – we all know this. When you have a glass aquarium in your home, there’s always a risk that it’s going to break. Whether a child throws a ball in the house or you bump into the tank, knocking it over, you can almost guarantee that the aquarium is going to break.
Acrylic aquariums are far less likely to break or chip. If you live in a home with small children or rambunctious animals, it’s probably best to stick with an impact-resistant acrylic tank.
As an added precaution, you should consider moving the tank to an area of the home where it’s less likely to be bumped into.
Which Fish Tank Is Best for Beginners: Glass or Acrylic?
A small glass aquarium is a good option for beginners. Glass is scratch-resistant, so you needn’t worry much during cleaning. Additionally, glass tanks are far more affordable than acrylic when purchased in smaller sizes. This means you have more money to spend on fish, food, and other accessories.
Glass tanks are also more likely to last than acrylic. This means you can reuse the tank over and over again, as long as you’re taking care of it.
I recommend the Marineland Portrait Glass LED Aquarium Kit. It’s a small, 5-gallon tank (6 liters) that comes equipped with white and blue LEDs. The filtration system is hidden, making the setup more visually appealing. In addition, the top slides open for easy access.
If you’re looking for a bigger starter aquarium, it might be worth your while to go the acrylic route. Once you exceed a 50-gallon (227.3 liters) tank, you reach a tipping point where glass becomes more expensive due to weight.
Tips for Cleaning Your Aquarium
In this section, I’ll cover the first five steps to cleaning out a fish tank — after the first five steps, the instructions change depending on which type of aquarium you own. I’ll expand on the additional steps in two separate sections entitled “Acrylic Aquarium Cleaning” and “Glass Aquarium Cleaning.”
- Unplug all electrical devices from the aquarium. Don’t proceed to step two until everything is disconnected.
- Use a clean bowl or cup to remove some water from the tank. Pour the water into a container big enough to house your fish until you’re finished cleaning the aquarium.
- Take off the lid of the fish tank. Wipe it down and set it aside.
- Remove the fish from the tank using a net. Gently scoop them up and place them in the container.
- Bring out any algae-covered decorations. Scrub them with an algae pad and a mild detergent.
For additional steps, check out one of the sections below based on your aquarium’s materials:
Acrylic Aquarium Cleaning
Once you’ve scrubbed any algae-covered decorations, it’s time to start cleaning the inside and outside of the fish tank.
Use a melamine sponge to gently clean the inner and outer walls of the aquarium. Don’t use coarse household sponges or regular glass cleaners. These sponges can scratch the surface of the aquarium, and the glass cleaner chemicals could be harmful to your fish.
Next, spray an aquarium cleaner on every side and corner of the aquarium. Wipe it down using a microfiber cloth. Rinse the tank with clean water and pat the aquarium dry with a soft cloth.
To avoid having to scrub algae every time you clean your acrylic aquarium, consider investing in algae eaters. Additionally, if you feel the need to scrape the tank to remove algae, invest in a plastic algae scraper – these are less likely to leave scratches on the acrylic.
Glass Aquarium Cleaning
After cleaning the aquarium decorations, you can clean the inside of the fish tank with an algae pad. Algae pads are abrasive, so they’re not recommended for use on acrylic tanks, but they do fine with glass.
The outer walls may be scrubbed with a soft cloth (material doesn’t matter since glass is fairly scratch-resistant) and mild detergent or spray-on aquarium cleaner. If algae remains, use an algae scraper to remove the stubborn gunk.
Use clean water to rinse the tank, pat it dry, and you’re ready to refill!
Both glass and acrylic aquariums have pros and cons. Which you choose depends on your personal needs, preferences, and tastes.
For most people, it’s difficult to beat a high-quality glass aquarium — they’re affordable, durable, provide optimal clarity, and can outlast most acrylic tanks.
However, if you plan on modifying your aquarium, drilling in the sides, or creating access holes, then an acrylic tank is the way to go. You should also choose acrylic if you need a lightweight tank.
- Indufle Acrylic Processing: Acrylic versus Glass
- Duke University: Aquarium Equipment – What’s Essential and What’s Not?
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A New Approach to Scratch Resistance
- Plastik City: Performance of Acrylic
- Muniz: Plastic vs Acrylic is an Ongoing Battle
- Nualgi Aquarium: Best Algae Eaters for a Balanced Freshwater Aquarium