Reef Aquarium Tank Choices: All-Glass vs. Acrylic

Reef Aquarium Tank Choices: All-Glass Vs Acrylic

You’ve finally decided to take the leap and create your very own reef aquarium. The next step you have to take is choosing which type of aquarium you would like to have. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to a Pet Supermarket, Pet Smart or another local fish store and seen aquariums on display. What you’ve been exposed to are the most common types of aquariums that are created from either glass or acrylic polymer.

The glass aquarium is usually made of plate glass with a thickness that varies with the capacity of the aquarium. This style of the tank usually comes with a black plastic band around the top and base of the aquarium as well as a center support to prevent bowing. The most common shapes are rectangular and square; however, new manufacturing processes have led to an increase in the availability (and popularity) of the bow-front aquarium. Note: One of the main manufacturers of glass aquariums is All-Glass; the aquariums they produce are one of the most prolific in the market.

The acrylic aquarium has been known mostly for its use as a “custom” aquarium. This style of tank is often seen at large zoo aquariums and in custom home installations. As acrylic is a type of plastic, it is easily molded into any shape imaginable and, thus, carries the custom moniker for its ability to fit into places that glass aquariums can not. Included in the custom moniker is the concept of price in which acrylic is definitely more expensive than glass.

To help you determine which type of tank is best for you, we’ve created a table that outlines some key advantages and disadvantages of both glass and acrylic aquariums. Comparatively read through the listed points and determine which type of aquarium would be the best for your application. When you’ve decided which type of aquarium you would like to use for your reef, just click the “The Filters” link to move on to the next step/topic in your path to creating a reef aquarium.

Feel free to use Google Search to take you to reputable aquarium manufacturers and retailers where you can purchase your equipment.




Advantage = All-Glass

The winner in the scratching category is the glass aquarium. The plate glass used in all-glass aquariums is very tough and difficult to scratch. If you hit it with a piece of live rock or clean it with a sponge that has an embedded piece of gravel, you’re going to scratch it, but it’s much tougher than the acrylic in this respect.

Disadvantage = Acrylic

The loser in the scratching category is the acrylic aquarium. The acrylic aquarium is known for its tendency to be easily scratched; it requires much more care when placing rocks and completing regular maintenance. Belt buckles, purse clasps and even fingernails can scratch the acrylic; even tank inhabitants like crabs and snails can damage the surface.


Advantage = All Glass

The reason that an all-glass aquarium wins this category is due to the fact that an all-glass aquarium holds up better to regular maintenance. This means that you don’t need special “acrylic safe” sponges, pads and cleaning implements to scrub the surface without causing scratches. There is a catch however if a scratch does occur, its repair is much more difficult than if the tank was acrylic.

Disadvantage = Acrylic

As previously mentioned, acrylic scratches!!! This doesn’t mean that you can’t get cleaning implements that will not scratch acrylic; it just means that you will NEED to so you don’t damage your aquarium. There are, however, numerous acrylic polishing, buffing and scratch removal kits that make repairing scratches (on the outside only) relatively easy. You can only use the kits on the outside due to the toxic nature of the polishing compounds.


Disadvantage = All Glass

As anyone knows, if you drop a glass jar, it breaks! The same properties that make the jar break are what make glass aquariums more fragile than acrylics. A hard knock or a sharp impact can cause a glass tank to crack or shatter, leaving you with a significant amount of water on the floor and a tank full of dead corals, fish and invertebrates. This is a rare occurrence, however, and should not deter you from considering an all-glass aquarium.

Advantage = Acrylic

Acrylic is stronger than glass, period. It takes a smaller thickness of acrylic to hold the same amount of water as an all-glass aquarium. This added strength comes from its plastic-like characteristics such as ductility and flexibility. These characteristics enable the acrylic aquarium to be easily drilled for plumbing and overflows. It’s important to note, however, that these same characteristics will cause the acrylic aquarium to be scratched or dented when impacted.


Disadvantage = All Glass

An all-glass aquarium will weigh on the order of 3-9 times as much as an acrylic aquarium of the same volume. This is due to the fact that glass is much dense than acrylic, even though an acrylic aquarium will often be constructed of a thinner material. This is often a moot point; however, as the weight of an aquarium is mostly determined by the volume of water and decorations (which are often rocks in a reef aquarium).

Advantage = Acrylic

An acrylic aquarium will weigh on the order of 3-9 times less than an all-glass aquarium of the same volume.

Availability of Shapes and Sizes

Disadvantage = All Glass

All-glass aquariums do not come in nearly all the shapes and sizes as acrylic aquariums do. The manufacturing processes needed to form glass into complex shapes are just too difficult and expensive to make them commercially feasible. At volumes over 200 gallons, the weight and cost of plate glass get expensive enough that acrylics become the only option. There are bow front glass aquariums, but more complex shapes will most likely stay out of the reach of glass materials.

Advantage = Acrylic

Acrylic is a type of plastic that melts at a much lower temperature than glass and, thus, has the ability to be formed and shaped in many more ways than glass can. If an aquarium is needed that has panels a foot thick, multiple layers of acrylic can be bonded together to form a single, super-thick panel. This manufacturing capability is what makes acrylic far superior to glass in this category.

Appearance Over Time

Advantage = All Glass

An all-glass aquarium will maintain its clarity over time very well. Glass will not yellow due to full spectrum light, and if a panel needs to be replaced, the only difference you will notice is the reduction in scratches over the replaced pane.

Disadvantage = Acrylic

Some acrylic aquariums will yellow over time with exposure to full spectrum lights due to the chemical composition of the acrylic. Although the newer aquariums have a more stable chemical composition than the old, yellowing is still an issue with acrylic aquariums. There is also the fact that, after years of use, you might be looking through so many scratches that you may not even notice the yellowing.

Viewing Distortion

Disadvantage = All Glass

The glass used in an all-glass aquarium has a different index of refraction than the water it holds; this leads to distorted images, color differences and position inaccuracy. These issues get worse as the thickness of the glass increases, but for an aquarium of small to medium size, these problems should not be that significant.

Advantage = Acrylic

The type of acrylic used in aquariums has nearly the same index of refraction as the water it holds. This means that when you view something from outside of the aquarium, there will be less distortion than in an all-glass aquarium.


Advantage = All Glass

An all-glass aquarium is less expensive than an acrylic aquarium of the same size. This is mostly due to the overhead the acrylic manufacturers carry due to the fact that two out of five aquariums shipped to market will be too damaged to sell.

Disadvantage = Acrylic

An acrylic aquarium is more expensive than an all-glass aquarium due to the increased cost of shipping. These aquariums have to be shipped very carefully in order to assure that they reach their destinations unharmed. This is easier said than done as many aquariums are often too damaged to be sold. Unusable aquariums add to the overhead that the manufacturers have to carry, resulting in higher prices for consumers.


It is important to note that the decision of which aquarium to use is up to you! Personally, I prefer all-glass aquariums to acrylic aquariums because they are stronger, cheaper and clearer. All of the photos on this website, unless noted otherwise, are from one of my own aquariums (through the glass!).

If you have an aquarium larger than 300 gallons, then you will be forced to look into the option of an acrylic aquarium due to the required thickness of the glass and, subsequently, the loss of viewing performance. Also, if you are looking for an aquarium that has a complex shape other than a square or rectangle, you will almost certainly be looking for an acrylic aquarium.

We hope that this page has aided you in your decision-making process and ask that you e-mail us with any suggestions, comments or articles you would like to see added.

Once you’ve made your decision on which aquarium to use, you can either follow our sponsors’ links to purchase an aquarium or go onto the next category (The Filters) in your path to creating your own reef aquarium!!


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