Q: I’m a long-time animal lover but due to some rather intense allergy issues, my preferred pets, cats and dogs, are totally out of the question … even pooches of the “hypoallergenic” variety are non-compatible. I’m thinking the best way to calm my rampant pet-want is by investing in a home aquarium. I’m not talking a Tracy Morgan-style shark tank but I’d also like something more involved than a lonesome betta in a bowl. I realize that keeping an aquarium isn’t the most resource-friendly undertaking, particularly when it comes to keeping all those filters, heaters, lights and pumps goin’. Any thoughts on how I can keep a few fish without raising my monthly electric bills to near-Sea World proportions?


Trying not to do anything too fishy,


— Ian, Culver City, Calif.

A: Maybe you saw this coming, but I’m going to throw a generic low-impact living answer back at you for this one: Bigger is most certainly not always better. Don’t underestimate that lonesome betta in a bowl. My very first pet was a goldfish named Georgy Girl (after the walrus at a local zoo not the song/Vanessa Redgrave movie from the ’60s) that I won at a carnival. I took Georgy Girl home in a plastic bag and deposited her into her new home, a very simple, small tank where she lived for eight years (except during her monthly tank cleanings when she spent 30 minutes in an empty Cool Whip tub).

Yes, you read that right … eight years. Georgy Girl was quite the fish. She even “danced” when I tapped on the glass. My point? Sometimes a simple goldfish in a bowl can be just be just as meaningful as a tank full of expensive, exotic fish in a tricked-out, energy-guzzling aquarium.

However, it sounds like you may not be content with just a single fish in a bowl. If stepping it up a notch, keep in mind that the bigger the tank, the more energy will be needed to keep those lights, aerators and pumps operating. In 1997, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory issued a report claiming that modestly sized freshwater home aquariums of around 10 gallons use as little as 90 to 120 kilowatt-hours annually which certainly isn’t too egregious. You might notice a slight bump in your bills but it’s certainly nothing to lose sleep over. But as the tanks get bigger, so does the cost to operate them. Also, if you opt for saltwater, expect additional costs since saltwater powerhead pump systems require extra juice. And here’s an idea: a solar-powered fish tank.

Throwing in habitats like coral and living plants (I’m not sure about those chintzy ceramic sunken pirate ships and treasure chests) will also require more energy to be pumped through the system. “Aquascaping” can be fun but don’t over do it … I’d say go for basic rocks (not that oh-so-tempting array of colored marbles) and some natural driftwood.

Just as important as keeping your home aquarium energy-efficient as possible, is selecting the right kind of fish to live in it. A rule of thumb when finding Nemo: choose captive-raised instead of wild-caught fish. Another reason to opt for freshwater instead of marine aquariums aside from the fact that they’re less expensive to operate is that 90 percent of freshwater fish are captive-raised. Buying tropical fish, on the other hand, can be trickier. While an increasing number of saltwater species are captive-raised, a majority are captured from the wild, mostly in Southeast Asia, often using “chemical stunning” methods involving cyanide.

If you do opt for wild-caught, inquire if they are not endangered and collected in a sustainable manner using hand-nets. The Marine Aquarium Council is a wonderful resource for keeping abreast of this issue. Unfortunately, there are only four MAC-approved tropical fish retailers in the U.S. and none of them are in your neck of the woods.

So, Ian, my closing advice: keep it simple and small-ish and keep it freshwater. If you simply must go the tropical route, be proactive in finding out where your little fish friends hail from. Keeping pet fish in an eco-friendly manner isn’t exactly as straightforward as other pets but with a little research, you should be able to keep a healthy, happy fish without disrupting Mother Nature or your monthly electric bill.

— Matt

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Photo: bloodu/iStockphoto

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

How can a home aquarium be made more environmentally friendly?
The bigger the tank, the more energy needed to keep those lights, aerators and pumps operating, so keep it simple, small and freshwater.