Originally created 05/13/05

Custom-built tanks provide focal point, peace for homes

Doctors and hospital administrators figured out a long time ago that aquariums are a great way to soothe jittery nerves, and homeowners are catching on, too.

But it's not enough to have a bowl with goldfish in it. These days, custom aquariums are integrated into the home as much as a couch or entertainment center.

Along with her husband, Joseph, Marilyn Sleister shares her Martinez home with two dogs, three cats and a bird.

She has made a 4-foot-long, 75-gallon cherry wood-encased tank the centerpiece of her living room. Amid nine live plants and chunks of driftwood, six fish varieties can dart in and out of view.

"It's relaxing," Mrs. Sleister said. "I come home and have a cup of tea and watch the fish swim, and my animals all gather around me."

Even though she has owned aquariums off and on for the past 25 years, she had planned only to pick up food for the koi in her back yard when she spotted the cabinet at Bob's Tropical Fish on Washington Road two years ago.

"I saw that and I said, 'Oh my God, that's my living room,'" she said. "It took Stan to get it the way I want it, though."

Stan Buckalew, of Aqua Design & Service, worked with the Sleisters to create the tank's riverbed ecosystem.

"Most of my clients want what (Mrs. Sleister) got, with a minimum amount of fuss," said Mr. Buckalew, who works primarily with businesses. "It's not a hobby that's hard, but there's so much information out there it's hard to know what you need."

The majority of tanks that he builds and maintains hold fresh water. Saltwater fish are generally more exotic than freshwater fish, and because they have to be caught in the wild, they tend to be more expensive. They're also more fragile.

"The ocean does not change. Ever. It's always going to be about the same pH level and have a relatively constant salinity and temperature, so the animals living there aren't as adaptive to change," Mr. Buckalew said.

Location is key for a first-time aquarium owner. A simple rule of thumb is to put it in the room where you'll spend the most time watching it, and keep it out of direct sunlight.

"I have a 10-foot-long, 30-inch-wide square aquarium that holds 400 gallons that's going to go in a person's kitchen," Mr. Buckalew said. "That might not sound right at first, but when you see it, it makes sense. It'll look like a picture, with a frame around it and everything."

If you encounter a custom-made aquarium in Augusta, the chances are good that Bob Monaco helped build it. The 300-gallon tank at Walton Rehabilitation Hospital and the open tank at Modish Salon & Spa on Broad Street are a couple of the aquariums built by Mr. Monaco, who ran Monaco's Tropical Fish for 30 years in North Augusta. Before he left the business two years ago to become an auctioneer, he installed custom tanks in dens, TV rooms, bathrooms, kitchens - everywhere, he said.

In addition to avoiding algae growth caused by excessive sunlight, Mr. Monaco said, aquarium owners have to learn proper feeding techniques if they want to succeed.

"The biggest problem for a hobbyist is pollution; a person pollutes his water with food," he said. "Never use the term 'overfeeding,' though. It's not just the fish you're talking about; it's the whole environment."

As for the environment of the tank, Mr. Buckalew said, tastes vary as much as living rooms. He and Mr. Monaco agree that the healthiest environments are the ones with the most space and the most hidy-holes.

"Ironically, the more things you put in your tank, the more you'll see your fish, because they're more comfortable and will come out more often," Mr. Buckalew said.

When Gerald Dickson renovated his Evans home, he made sure the area that used to be a bathroom was put to good use. Where there were once pipes, there is now a 120-gallon, cherry wood-trimmed tank teaming with gourami and tetras.

Special fluorescent light bulbs nurture live plants, and down below, concealed by cabinet doors, are the pumps, filters and pipes that keep the whole thing running.

Mr. Dickson, a professional builder who adorns his living room with hunting trophies, said the aquarium is integral to the feel of the room.

"It's something nice to have in the background. You have water trickling in the background, and they don't bark, they just swim around," he said.

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.


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