Glass Vs Acrylic Aquarium – Which Is Better?

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Whether you’re a first-time fish owner or an experienced hobbyist, buying a new aquarium can feel like a huge (and exciting!) affair. Unfortunately, many fish enthusiasts find themselves overwhelmed by choices when they step into a fish store. Having to select between glass and acrylic tanks can be daunting!

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, know that you’re not alone in your confusion. Both types of tanks seem to look the same, so what is the distinction? And which one is better? In this article, we take a deep dive into the difference between glass vs. acrylic aquariums.

What Is The Difference Between Acrylic and Glass Aquariums?

Acrylic and glass are both clear, see-through materials that are often used in tank construction. On a molecular level, acrylic is a type of plastic made of acrylonitrile monomer, while glass is a solid made by fusing sand, soda ash, or limestone together at very high temperatures.

Acrylic tanks have a reputation for being lighter, more malleable, and impact-resistant, while glass tanks are prized for being scratch-proof, cheaper, and remaining clear throughout their lifespan.

Comparison Table

Features

Acrylic

Glass

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Clarity over time

Starts off clear, but will turn yellow over time

Clear throughout the duration of its lifespan

Scratch Resistance

Poor – Scratches very easily

Good – Very difficult to scratch

Weight

Lighter

Heavier

Strength

Strong, impact-resistant material

Sturdy, but highly breakable material

Cost

More expensive than glass

Cheaper than acrylic

Malleability

Highly malleable and can be shaped into curved surfaces

Not malleable – glass tanks tend to be angular and geometrical
 

Acrylic

Clarity over time

Starts off clear, but will turn yellow over time

Scratch Resistance

Poor – Scratches very easily

Weight

Lighter

Strength

Strong, impact-resistant material

Cost

More expensive than glass

Malleability

Highly malleable and can be shaped into curved surfaces

Glass

Clarity over time

Clear throughout the duration of its lifespan

Scratch Resistance

Good – Very difficult to scratch

Weight

Heavier

Strength

Sturdy, but highly breakable material

Cost

Cheaper than acrylic

Malleability

Not malleable – glass tanks tend to be angular and geometrical

Pros of Glass Fish Tanks 

Scratch Resistant

One key benefit of glass aquariums is their scratch resistance. Glass is considerably more scratch-proof compared to acrylic, which means that it will withstand the wear and tear of everyday use a lot more effectively.

This is an important quality, as tank maintenance involves scrubbing tank walls, moving tank decor around, and adding gravel. You want a tank that lets you do all of the above without fretting about unsightly scratches – tank maintenance is hard enough!

In addition, tanks can also be scratched from the outside. As careful as we all try to be around our tanks, many of us still occasionally bump or rub against our tanks. These tiny little mishaps occur as part of day-to-day life, so we want a tank that’s a little more forgiving and scratch-proof!

Stable and Split-Proof

Glass is a sturdy material that can support a massive amount of weight over distances, making them a stable option for most setups. You will be able to place a glass tank over most types of aquarium stands without worrying about instability.

This quality is especially important if you’re dealing with a larger tank size – one with greater volume of water. While tanks made of acrylic material may leave you worried about flexing and splitting seams, glass tanks all but eliminate that risk with their outstanding material durability. 

Another advantage to this split-proof quality is the fact that you can leave your tank uncovered for easy maintenance, without needing to worry about any water pressure exerted against the wall of your tank. Perfect if you have a taller tank!

Color Does Not Change

One key benefit of glass over acrylic is that their color does not change over time. Glass is a strong and chemically inert material that will retain its clear, colorless, and see-through quality for the duration of its lifespan.

This is an important quality as the goal of a tank is to allow you to get a clear and accurate view of your fish and carefully curated aquascape. Any discoloration on the surface of your tank would ruin the immersive experience of looking at your tank, making your painstaking efforts seem like a waste.

For this reason, glass is perfect for hobbyists seeking a flawless, crystal-clear display.

Typically Cheaper Than Acrylic

costs Reduction Concept . 3d rendered illustration

Have you ever wondered why glass is used in the vast majority of cases? Apart from its list of positive attributes, one key factor for its popularity is because it’s usually cheaper.

This creates an interesting feedback loop: People opt for glass because it’s cheaper, which in turn allows manufacturers to produce tanks in bigger quantities and reap the cost benefits of large-scale production. This then causes glass tanks to become more affordable, perpetuating this feedback loop once more.

Cons of Glass Fish Tanks

Heavier than Acrylic

The first, and most glaring drawback of using glass vs. acrylic aquariums is that the former is significantly heavier. Glass fish tanks can weigh between 4-10 times more than ones made of acrylic – and that’s before you’ve filled the tank.

If you anticipate needing to move your tank every so often, glass might make this task more difficult compared to acrylic. In fact, the transportation costs associated with moving glass aquariums might even negate any savings you’ve made by opting for the cheaper material.

Brittle and Breakable

Most common aquarium glass tends to be fragile, making glass a poor choice if you’re placing a tank where it might be struck by sharp impact or be tipped over. 

While this is only a concern with non-tempered glass, tempered glass tends to be a lot more expensive and heavier, negating many of the benefits that come with it. 

Greater Degree of Visual Distortion

Glass has a different refractive index compared to water, which means that it will bend rays of light entering and emanating from the tank. This will cause the objects in your tank to appear distorted – whether it’s appearing to be a different size, shape, or distance from the front of the tank.

The degree of visual distortion will also depend on the shape of the tank. Most tanks are angular, but if you opt for a curved glass tank, you will likely have to contend with an even greater degree of visual distortion. You will also face a similar problem if your tank uses thicker glass panels.

If visual distortion is a big concern for you, definitely think twice about opting for glass. However, do note that opting for acrylic may not necessarily nip this problem in the bud. Unless you opt for good quality, well-fabricated acrylic, visual distortion is likely to remain a problem as well.

Limited Shape Choices

One of the key differences between glass vs. acrylic aquariums is shape choice. Glass is not a flexible material, which means that a typical glass panel would be flat and angular. So, when you opt for tanks made of glass, you are typically limited to squarish, geometrical shapes.

This isn’t a problem in the slightest for most aquariums, but if you’re looking for an aquarium in a nontraditional shape, it might be best to opt for acrylic. 

If you are dead set on glass, you can opt for a curved glass aquarium. However, they tend to come at a hefty price tag and need to be custom-made.

Benefits of Acrylic Tanks

Lots of Shape Options

One thing fish enthusiasts love about acrylic is that it is a flexible non-rigid material. This makes acrylic an excellent material for any aquarium owner who is looking for a more experimental tank shape. 

The appeal of a non-traditional tank shape is evident. It gives your tank a one-of-a-kind, bespoke look, making for a more interesting and appealing feature overall.

Furthermore, having access to more shape options means that you’ll be able to find the perfect tank that fits the décor of your room. Looking for a rounded, cylindrical tank? Or a tank with wavy, curved surfaces? Acrylic is the perfect material for bringing these ideas to life. 

Weight is Much Lighter than Glass

The most obvious benefit of an acrylic fish tank over their glass counterpart is they are lighter weight. Acrylic fish tanks weigh between 4-10 times less than tanks made of glass, which means that moving these tanks would be a lot easier.

The benefits of a lightweight tank may not be apparent when dealing with smaller tanks. Though heavier, a small tank made of glass (such as a 10-gallon tank, for example) is still fairly easy to move and shift. However, the difference will become more evident as the size of the tank increases. 

Strong and Impact-Resistant Material

Because acrylic is more flexible, it also has much greater impact resistance compared to glass. While a very strong impact can still break acrylic, the amount of force needed for this to occur is considerably greater compared to that required by glass.

This makes acrylic a great material if you are using this tank in an area with high foot traffic. Acrylic will hold up against accidental bumps and collisions, though of course, we always recommend being extra careful around fish tanks!

Minimal Visual Distortion of Light

Plants and fish in the aquarium with cloudy water

Acrylic material comes in a variety of grades, quality, and clarity, giving fish keepers a greater variety of options when it comes to selecting tanks with minimal visual distortion.

Hobbyists who are concerned about light distortion can opt for acrylics that have the same refractive index as water. This will allow you to gain an accurate view of your setup without needing to worry about image distortion.

However, do note that these acrylic panels tend to be thicker to prevent bowing in the middle, which will add to the cost and weight of your setup. In addition, it is important to select a reputable and skilled manufacturer to ensure that your tank is free of fabrication errors.

Cons of Acrylic Tanks

Yellows Over Time

The key drawback of using an acrylic fish tank is that it will turn yellow over time. Compared to glass, acrylic is a more chemically reactive material, which spells trouble as this can cause it to break down when exposed to UV light. This is what causes it to yellow.

While yellowing is an early sign that acrylic has started to break down, you will eventually spot more severe signs of UV damage if you don’t replace your tank. Advanced UV damage can cause your tank to become porous, brittle, or even break.

A mild degree of UV damage is inevitable, but you can reduce these odds by opting for high-quality acrylic. These options are better able to withstand the wear and tear caused by UV light exposure, allowing your tank to last longer.

Prone to Scratches

One key con of acrylic is that they are highly prone to scratches, which can cause the clarity of acrylic aquariums to diminish over time.

This makes them a bad choice if you need a tank that can withstand a degree of rough handling – think an office aquarium, or one placed in a dentist’s office. Acrylic fish tanks placed in spots with high foot traffic will become covered in a haze of scratches in no time at all.

Be that as it may, there are many inexpensive scratch-fix tools you can use to fix acrylic scratches in a pinch. You will likely find a fish-safe and aquarium-safe acrylic polishing kit at your local fish store. However, having to do this frequently can feel like a hassle.

Typically More Expensive than Glass

If you are a hobbyist on a budget, this is something you seriously want to consider. Acrylic tanks are usually more expensive than their glass counterparts, making this material a poor choice if you’re budget-conscious. 

Even if you manage to find a tank that’s on the lower end of the price range, we would advise you to proceed with a healthy amount of caution and research. Cheaper tanks tend to be made of low-quality acrylic, which will come with a myriad of cons such as welding, distortion, and being prone to UV damage.

The bottom line is this: If cost is your primary factor, definitely opt for a tank made of regular glass. Your wallet will thank you for it, and you’ll find yourself with a sturdy, reliable home for your fish.

Stand Out Features

  • Glass tanks are cheaper than ones made of acrylic, but might cost more to transport because they are heavier.
  • Acrylic is flexible and non-rigid, making it the perfect material if you have unconventional tank shapes in mind.
  • Visual distortion will occur regardless of which tank you opt for, but acrylic provides hobbyists with a greater range of quality. It is possible to get an acrylic tank with minimal visual distortion, while the same cannot be said of glass.
  • Acrylic is very very scratch-prone, which can be a hassle to polish. Glass is a lot harder to scratch.
  • On the other hand, acrylic is very difficult to break, whereas glass will shatter upon contact with sharp impact.
  • Glass is an inert material and will stay clear over time. Acrylic is not chemically stable and will break down when exposed to UV rays, becoming yellowed and brittle.

Conclusion

So, bottom line – which tank is better? Well, it depends on your personal list of priorities. If cost, scratch resistance, and the ability to stay clear over time matters more to you, opt for glass.

On the other hand, acrylic wins points for being extremely difficult to break, weighing less, and providing tons of shape options for individuals seeking a uniquely shaped tank!

Did you enjoy this article? If you did, don’t forget to share it with someone who might also appreciate it! We’d also love to hear from you if you have any additional insights to share. Just talk to us in the comments section below!

Wanda is a second-generation aquarist from the sunny tropics of Malaysia. She has been helping her father with his freshwater tanks since she was a toddler, and has fallen in love with the hobby ever since. A perpetual nomad, Wanda does her best to integrate fish-keeping with her lifestyle, and has taken care of fish in three different continents. She loves how it provides a nice break from the hustle and bustle of life.

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