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Acrylic vs Glass Aquarium – Buyers Guide & Comparisons

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This is one of the most common questions for both beginner and experienced aquarists around the world. Which is better, glass or acrylic aquariums? The age-old debate of acrylic vs glass aquariums seems to be never-ending. Today, though, we’re going to try to help you decide.

When you’re looking for an aquarium, you have two choices: glass or acrylic. Glass is one of the most common and easiest to find. However, acrylic is quickly becoming even more popular due to a few key reasons.

As you’re first taking a look at both materials, it may be hard to tell the difference. Both glass and acrylic plastic used in tanks today are crystal clear. Both materials are capable of holding significant amounts of water without issue.

While many aquarists will prefer a glass tank, there are quite a few situations where acrylic may be more preferred. We’ll get into the reasons why in just a second.

For now, read through some of the biggest pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages to each material type. If you’re on the fence about which is right for you, the pros and cons below should help you quickly decide.

It’s worth noting that most people will never be able to tell a significant difference between the two types of materials. We don’t want you getting overwhelmed trying to decide when most aquarists only use the glass vs. acrylic debate to have something to talk about.

We commend them for keeping the debate going, but if you’re on the fence about buying an aquarium, there’s a couple of rules you can follow to ensure you’re getting what you need.

  • The biggest separator between glass and acrylic is the attractive price tag on most glass tanks.

  • Acrylic tanks are known for scratching and hazing.

  • Glass tanks cost less than acrylic tanks and resist scratching and hazing. However, acrylic tanks weigh less than glass tanks and can give you unique shapes. Glass tanks are square or rectangular with sharp edges.

  • Glass has minimal impact resistance, while acrylic can withstand quite a bit of abuse. The clarity on a glass tank is consistent, while acrylic tanks will need regular maintenance to maintain their clarity levels.

This is a fundamental summary of the most significant talking points. However, as we all know, the nuances between each type of tank are as endless as the debates, themselves.

Glass vs. Acrylic Aquariums - The Debate Begins

You’ve seen the basis for most of the arguments between acrylic and glass. But, if you want to understand the differences and why one type of tank works better than the other in various situations, we’ve broken down each of the major areas below.
  1. upfront cost (glass wins)

  2. Most beginners are surprised when they hear that glass aquariums are cheaper than the same sized tank constructed from acrylic.

    When you compare the two materials, in their raw form, glass costs more to manufacture than acrylic plastic. Acrylic is even cheaper to ship and transport than glass.

    However, glass tanks are still cheaper, size for size, than their acrylic counterparts. The reasoning behind this is quite simple…

    When it comes to a popular hobby, such as aquarium keeping, glass aquariums are the most popular type of tank. This increased popularity means that more glass aquariums are being manufactured, which helps reduce the overall cost to the manufacturer.

    When you reach a specific size, though, the balances begin to tip in favor of acrylic tanks.

    Larger tanks are cheaper when they’re acrylic. For instance, if you are in the market for a tank over 150 gallons in size, you’re going to find glass tanks are incredibly expensive. Acrylic, on the other hand, is much more affordable.

    This comes down to the weight of the glass, itself. Glass is inherently harder to transport, especially for larger tanks. That increase in cost gets passed onto you, the consumer.

  3. scratch resistance (glass wins)

  4. For beginners, one of the best choices you can make is to purchase a glass aquarium. Acrylic is known for being easy to scratch, and one scratch can quickly throw off your view into the tank.

    Nothing is more frustrating than spending hour after hour putting together the perfect tank, only to have a scratch happen and pull attention away from your aquascape.

    Many times, you may not even get a chance to set the tank up before it gets scratched. A large number of customers have complained about acrylic tanks being damaged while they were being shipped.

    Let’s assume that you get your brand new acrylic tank at your door without a scratch on it, though. If you brush up against the tank with the wrong material, like a zipper on your jacket, you could easily find it full of scratches.

    You read that right. Merely brushing against your tank with a zipper is enough to leave small scratches in the acrylic. This does not happen with glass tanks.

    If your tank is going to be in a high-traffic area, you have pets around, or kids that are moving around the tank, it’s only a matter of time before an acrylic tank gets damaged.

    Then, you have to think about the types of livestock you’re going to include in the tank. Some of your favorite tankmates can create small scratches on the inside. Take, for instance, snails. A snail can scratch the acrylic. Sand moving around can scratch the acrylic.

    Even though you can purchase kits to help restore the clarity in your acrylic tank, this is often more maintenance than many beginners are willing to do. The last thing you want to do is spend time maintaining the clarity in your acrylic tank when you have to focus on water quality.

    When it comes to resisting scratches, glass aquariums are significantly better. It doesn’t take long for an acrylic tank to look beat up and hazy, even with regular use.

  5. weight (acrylic wins)

  6. Glass, when you’re comparing tanks of the same size, is always heavier than acrylic. The difference in the weight between the glass and an acrylic tank may shock you.

    To give you an example, let’s compare the same two tanks. We’ll look at 10-gallon tanks in both glass and acrylic varieties. The only difference is the materials they’re constructed from.

    The glass tank could be upwards of 10 times the weight of the acrylic tank. The extra weight of the glass tank does mean it is usually more durable, but the lightweight acrylic plastic does have a few key benefits of its own.

    Smaller acrylic tanks are easier to move around than the same size glass tank. The lighter weight means you can reposition the tank when you want to. This is even with water inside the tank.

    When you start getting into the realm of more substantial, custom-built tanks, you’re going to need to start thinking about whether the area you’re going to install it can withstand the weight.

    For instance, a larger glass aquarium will need a significant stand to hold its weight. You will also need to ensure that the floor underneath the tank can withstand the pressure. Acrylic tanks weigh significantly less, so you’re able to get a bigger tank on the same stand without worry.

  7. variety (acrylic wins)

  8. Glass tanks are known for two shapes: square and rectangular. If you’re okay with the standard forms, the glass aquarium may be all you ever need.

    If you want something more custom, though, acrylic is the only way you’re going to get it.

    Glass cannot be shaped and formed while still maintaining the qualities that make it stronger than acrylic. Acrylic, on the other hand, can be heated, flexed, shaped, and molded into different shapes.

    If you want a round, circular tank, acrylic can deliver. If you want a tank with a bowed front, acrylic can provide. Acrylic can be molded into pretty wild shapes, so the different designs you’ll find can be as endless as the artist’s imagination.

  9. durability (acrylic wins)

  10. Pound for pound, when it comes to durability, acrylic will always win. Think about how many glasses you’ve broken in your life. Now, think about the same plastic. How often are you dealing with broken plastic compared to broken glass?

    With some acrylic, you can strike the plastic with a hammer, and it will not budge. You might scratch it, possibly even crack it, but it will still be left standing.

    Do the same thing to a glass tank, and your aquascape is going to be sitting on the floor surrounding you. Glass is known for chipping, cracking, and breaking.

    If you’re going to install your aquascape in a high-traffic area or have to be concerned with pets and children moving around it, you may be better suited with acrylic over the glass. Acrylic has proven to be more durable.

  11. view clarity (glass wins)

  12. To understand clarity, look at the windows in your home or vehicle. The glass is designed to remain crystal clear and let light in.

    For acrylic, though, ultraviolet light can damage the plastic. The acrylic beings to become dull and develop a yellow haze.

    For some aquariums, this can be a significant problem. If you are maintaining a planted tank or a coral tank, you may need to supplement ultraviolet light to keep your plants and corals happy and healthy.

    That means you’re building in a lighting system that will cause your acrylic tank to degrade, become fragile, and develop an unattractive yellow haze.

    Now, some manufacturers are creating “ultraviolet light-resistant” acrylic tanks, but you need to understand that even those tanks will discolor eventually.

    Glass does not face these same issues. Regardless of how you have your glass tank set up, you will not have to worry about ultraviolet light affecting its clarity.

  13. customizations (acrylic wins)

  14. One of the best parts of building your aquascape is being able to customize it to exactly what you’re trying to achieve.

    Glass aquariums are relatively straightforward. You can install extra equipment, but you’re generally required to use magnets and suction cups to secure it.

    Acrylic, on the other hand, allows you to drill holes into the plastic that lets you create custom routing options for your tubing and equipment. This enables you to keep the gear out of view so that it doesn’t take away from the appeal of your aquascape.

    Even with tempered glass, if you attempt to drill through it, you’re going to end up cracking the tank. Most people are not experienced or skilled enough to drill through glass without breaking it or costing themselves even more money.

acrylic aquarium


Pros


  • One of the most significant advantages of acrylic tanks is that they’re lightweight. This means they are easier to move, even when you have them full of water. The lighter weight also means there’s less strain on the walls of the tank and bottom. Some cheaper glass tanks can crack under the pressure of the water inside.

  • Another advantage of acrylic over glass is that acrylic tanks are significantly stronger and more durable than their glass counterparts. Even though it is easy to scratch an acrylic tank, it is nearly impossible to break an acrylic tank. There may be situations where you can break an acrylic aquarium, but a glass aquarium would suffer the same fate.

  • Acrylic tanks aren’t limited to squares and rectangles. We have featured a number of acrylic tanks that feature bowed fronts and sides. You can also get circular acrylic tanks. In general, acrylic is far easier to mold into various shapes. This isn’t possible with glass aquariums.

  • Compared to glass aquariums, acrylic tanks do not distort your vision into the tank or create refractions. If you’re trying to achieve a crystal clear view of your aquascape, acrylic will provide more clear views, for the most part. Compared to glass tanks that can twist and bend shapes based on the light going into the tank, acrylic doesn’t have these same problems.

  • Acrylic tanks are far stronger than glass tanks when you compare the same sized aquariums. Acrylic doesn’t need to be manufactured as thick as glass does to have the same level of strength.

  • Acrylic tanks can be modified based on the equipment you need to install. If you want to drill holes into the tank to route tubes or securely mount accessories, you can quickly drill into an acrylic tank with the proper precautions. It is nearly impossible to drill into a glass aquarium without cracking the glass.

  • Acrylic tanks are known for providing more clarity than glass aquariums. This clarity makes it easier to see into the tank without having your views distorted. Glass tanks can reflect and refract light, distorting the view you have of your aquascape.

  • Acrylic tanks are easier to polish and repair. If you notice your tank getting hazy from micro-scratches on the outside, you can give it a quick buff to restore the clarity. Glass requires significantly more work if it begins to haze up and get foggy.

Cons


  • Acrylic tanks are known for getting scratched. Even though they are impact-resistant, acrylic is considered “soft” and scratches easily. Rubbing against the tank with a zipper on your jacket, a piece of jewelry or even a ring on your finger is enough to leave scratches behind.

  • The bottom panel on acrylic tanks is a known weak spot. While glass tanks do face the same issues, acrylic tanks have cracked under the pressure of the substrate, rocks, corals, and water inside of the tank. That means you will need to use a pressure mat that supports the entire bottom panel of an acrylic tank.

  • Acrylic tanks are known for their clarity, however maintaining that clarity does take a bit of effort on your part. Ultraviolet light will cause acrylic tanks to lose their clarity and become delicate or brittle. Preventing this is nearly impossible, so its something you should expect if you’re buying an acrylic tank.

  • Acrylic tanks are more expensive than a glass tank of the same size and dimensions. This is because of the higher shipping costs and the fact that many acrylic tanks get damaged during transit. These extra costs get passed onto you, the consumer.

  • Acrylic tanks can be harder to maintain and keep clean. You will need to use special tools that are designed specifically for acrylic tanks. The tools that you will need can be expensive. They can also be hard to find. If you aren’t using the proper cleaning equipment, you could end up damaging the plastic.

  • Unless your acrylic tank is a standard size, you could have issues finding a tank lid that fits properly. Other accessories, like lighting and filtration systems, could also be hard to adapt to your acrylic aquarium unless they are designed to work together.

Glass aquarium


Pros


  • A glass aquarium is significantly harder to scratch than an acrylic aquarium. You could find it nearly impossible to do. You would have to work to scratch the glass and use something sharp, such as a stone or a piece of metal. Small micro-scratches are easier to remove from a glass tank than an acrylic tank.

  • Glass tanks are, in general, harder to break than an acrylic tank. Even though it does take less force to shatter a glass tank, you have to use a significantly harder impact to crack a glass aquarium than an acrylic aquarium. In general, broken glass aquariums are usually a result of something that could have been avoided.

  • The panes of glass in a glass aquarium are significantly stronger than a pane of acrylic in the same thickness. This means that the glass aquarium will support a heavier weight than an acrylic tank will. While the bottom of an acrylic tank may be susceptible to cracking, a glass tank won’t have the same issues.

  • Glass tanks do not require the same structural support that acrylic tanks need. For instance, it is common to find rimless aquariums that are constructed from glass. The same tank in acrylic will require reinforcement around the top of the tank to keep the plastic from bowing and flexing.

  • A glass aquarium is going to maintain its clarity for a substantially longer time than an acrylic tank will. The chemicals in your water and the lighting system you use will not degrade a glass aquarium the way an acrylic tank will deteriorate. Glass is also harder to scratch, which means your view won’t be distorted as it can be with acrylic.

  • When you compare a glass aquarium and an acrylic aquarium of the same size, you’re going to find that the glass aquarium costs less money usually. Glass aquariums are manufactured on a larger scale and do not require specialized tools. Those savings from the manufacturing process get passed onto you, the consumer.

  • Glass aquariums have become standardized so finding accessories that fit well with different sized tanks is easier to do. For instance, if you need a lid for your tank, you won’t have nearly as hard of a time finding one that will fit as you do when you’re trying to fit one to a custom acrylic tank.

Cons


  • In general, it takes less impact to severely damage a glass aquarium than it does to damage an acrylic aquarium. Even though a glass aquarium is harder to break than acrylic, glass is inherently known for cracking and breaking.

  • Glass aquariums can weigh upwards of 10 times more than the same sized acrylic tank. This means you’re going to have a harder time moving the tank if you set it up and decide the area where you created your aquascape isn’t going to work.

  • A glass tank is going to release heat faster than an acrylic tank. Glass is a poor insulator, which means you could need a better heater to keep your water temperatures in the range that your fish and corals prefer. Acrylic tanks do not bleed heat the same way so your heater will not have to work as hard.

  • Glass aquariums are typically available in two shapes, either square or rectangle. If you are looking for a more custom design or a different shape, you are either going to pay significantly more for it or need to purchase an acrylic aquarium.

  • If you are looking to achieve crystal clarity, glass aquariums are well-known for distorting your vision and refracting light waves. That means your corals, fish, plants, rocks, and other decorations could appear distorted. Acrylic tanks do not have this same issue.

  • If you want to hard-mount extra accessories, you may find yourself having issues drilling into a glass aquarium. Unless you have special equipment or specialized skills, you could find yourself cracking the glass as you begin drilling into it. This means you’re going to be left with a useless tank.

  • To maintain the same structural rigidity, glass tanks need to be significantly thicker than acrylic tanks. That means a glass aquarium is going to be heavier than the same sized acrylic tank to maintain the weight of the water inside of it.

So, Which Is Better? Acrylic Vs. Glass Aquariums

While we would love to be the final answer to this debate, we know the debate is only going to rage on without us. The decision on acrylic vs glass aquariums and which is better dramatically depends on what you intend to do with your tank.

If you’re looking for durable, low maintenance, and affordability, glass aquariums will usually win. However, if you’re looking for customizations, unique designs, or larger tanks that stay affordable, acrylic tanks are generally your best bet.

Affiliate links & Images from Amazon Product Advertising API. Last update on 2020-02-16.

Top Editor's Choice on Acrylic Aquarium

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API ALGAE SCRAPER For Acrylic Aquariums 1-Count Container
Contains one (1) API ALGAE SCRAPER For Acrylic Aquariums 1-Count Container; Quickly removes unsightly algae from acrylic aquariums.
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Use on Exterior Surfaces Around an Aquarium or Terrarium; Streak-Free and Drip-Free Formulation

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