Open topped, minimalist design is a winning combination. But can we do more?

Shop for a new off-the-shelf reef tank these days and I wager it will have the following features: Rimless open top, low iron glass, and minimalist cabinet. It may be long, shallow, cube, peninsula, or even a drop-off, but its fundamental design will be the same. Consumers and manufacturers have both come to this happy place through years of fine-tuning and feeding back to each other, and the reef hobby has never been so successful. But I just wonder if, in terms of design and what we think we want, we’re all just following each other like sheep and not really pushing the envelope?

Tanks are designed the way they are now for lots of reasons. Most high powered LED lights use active fan cooling and aren’t waterproof, so need to be raised up above the tank with air able to circulate around them. An open-topped tank is easier to light, has increased gaseous exchange versus a closed one, and a rimless tank is easier to clamp lights on to. And apart from the low iron glass modern rimless reef tanks are quick, cheap, and easy to manufacture as you don’t have to add all those glass bracing bars or molded top trim which all add to labor costs and the bill of materials.

Less is more, but there's lots of equipment to add, and where are you going to hide it?

Minimalist cabinets 

Cabinets are the same. Remove the handles, trim, and matching hood and you have a quicker, cheaper cabinet and it just so happens that a minimalist design consisting of just two plain, matt finish doors is also what the modern reefkeeper wants in their home. Not the big piano top style cabinets from the ‘80s. But I think we are still a long way from being perfect.

There have always been rimless, braceless aquariums but not until ADA brought that style to freshwater aquascaping and Elos brought the minimalist, open-topped design to reef tanks, that the style was seen as ultra-premium, modern, and desirable. When Red Sea launched the Reefer series of stripped back, modern-looking aquariums available without their own equipment they took the reefkeeping world by storm and presented a reef ready tank that was suitable for everyone from beginner to expert, and there wasn’t much not to like. 

I’ve had modern, rimless tanks myself for nearly 15 years now and have also extolled the virtues of them, but now they are pretty much the only choice out there its got me thinking about the next generation of reef tank for the 2020s and if there is anything we could do better. 

Not perfect, but the original Red Sea Max had loads of practical features built-in.

Remember the original, Plug and Play Red Sea Max with the molded hood? The power compact lights ran hot, were temperamental and eventually, the closed hood design got ditched in favor of the S-Max, E-series and Reefer open top designs, but when I think back to the fundamental design of the original Max and what it stood to offer the new reefkeeper, there are many features we really should bring back. It came with pre-specced equipment, a plug and cable console but only needing one socket at the wall.

Now we have so many plugs and cables we have to build our own elaborate cable management systems. Some cable and controller solutions can be bought and retrofitted if you have room but there’s nothing quite like having it pre-done for you and my OCD kicks in when my controllers are all different makes and designs.

And as good as rimless is, it splashes when you clean it, shows salt creep and watermarks, and fish jump out. You can fit a net cover, I know that but I’m looking at my net cover while writing this, and it’s not pretty, and although practical it defeats the object of open-topped, rimless, minimalist design. 

We need more cable management systems as standard.

The next generation

So I’m looking forward to a new breed of super practical, well thought out reef tanks that maybe bring back some of those useful features that we chose to omit in favor of form over function. What about putting a slimline hood back on as an option, but with modern LED lighting? The new ATI Stratton doesn’t have fan cooling and is straight to Wi-Fi, so how about a hood incorporating that, or how about that as the hood, hinged, on a cube tank? No fans, no noise, wide-coverage, and no fish jumping out.

Or how about Maxspect or EcoTech bringing out their own high-end aquarium where all their equipment shares the same central power supply? Or an all Apex aquarium where modules just bolt-on? True All-In-One aquariums seem now to be relegated to the lower leagues of small entry-level nano tanks, where I long for the day when the fully integrated, high tech, larger aquarium returns, fully equipped, pre-fitted, pre-wired, for true plug and play reefkeeping via one central app. 

Imagine a closed hood EcoTech system with Gen 6 fanless light bars built-in (I’m wishing!) and do you really need that extra gaseous exchange these days from an open-top when your skimmer is pulling in and diffusing over 1000 litres of air an hour in the sump underneath? 

What about a modular sump? Everyone wants their sumps laid out differently but what if you just clip a skimmer module onto a fuge module and a pump module? A roller filter module, sock module or ATO module? What would Apple or NASA do if given fishkeeping 3.0 as a project? How would fresh pairs of eyes do reefkeeping differently? Let’s hope even more exciting times lie ahead for our hobby, its equipment, and technology.