Huge double drop-off aquarium is a step above the rest


Drop-off tanks have been growing in popularity over the past few years and it’s easy to see why. Just as the first mass production drop-off tank was finding it’s way into retailers, we visited an Aquarium Composition tank that goes the extra step.

Words: Steve Baker; Images: Nathan Hill.

Used correctly, drop-off tanks can add an extra dimension to your fishkeeping. Coral keepers can achieve the look of a spilling reef and river tank set-ups can use the steps to recreate the gradient of a river bank. They also enable the creation of a greater number of habitat types, whether it’s salty water or fresh.

The three-step tank you see here is the creation of Aquarium Composition – a five year old business that specialise in luxury aquarium design, installation and maintenance. The Lincolnshire based company deliver their custom fish tanks nationwide while maintenance regimes are taken care of by local contractors, or by Aquarium Composition themselves if it’s local enough.


Joe Chambers is the man behind this tank and the business. He comes from an engineering and fabrication background with project manager experience, making him well positioned to design and build high-end aquaria, as well as managing customers’ expectations, once he decided to merge his passion of fishkeeping with his professional experience.

Joe tells us of particular methods and intricacies around the design and installation of a step-down tank. Starting with special CAD (computer animated design) software that identifies and shows stress factors, an important issue surrounding step-down tank builds.

To dissipate the stress of the stepdown corners they are radius cut with high pressure water jets (hydrocut). Joe also points out “the tank sits on wood rather than a foam pad. Because the weight is uneven we can’t afford any amount of movement which would put immense strain on the corners and would quite easily crack the front and/or rear panels”.

He also tells us of positioning the 350kg tank which took four people with trollies and jacks and that the design process took him three months.  

Maintenance regime

The tank has been up-and-running for six months (at the time of our visit in April 2020) and is truly bedded in. Joe’s maintenance regime is proved by the cleanliness of the water, glass and the internal display. It’s not just his visits that keep this tank in condition, it’s also the partly automatic routine he has put in place, taking all but the job of feeding the fish and turning taps away from the client.    

The six Ecotech light units are set to provide seven hours of light, up to a maximum of 30% power. They give a lovely shimmering effect to the tank, provide a good spectrum for plant growth and will offer a huge number of years of service – being so unstressed. Dosing pumps are also employed so there is a reliable amount of TNC complete liquid fertilizer and TNC carbon additive, which are supported by adding root tabs every 3 months.

Carbon dioxide is provided 24/7, dissolved in to the water via a Sera power diffuser. It’s the one thing which has been adjusted since the installation. The original ceramic diffuser, positioned in the sump, resulted in microbubbles in the tank which neither the clients nor Joe were keen on. “the power diffuser gives a much better rate of diffusion than the standard ceramic ones were doing, so it’s proved a valuable upgrade. If nothing else it makes each gas canister last longer and gets rid of unsightly micro bubbles” Joe comments.

Water changing

Joe has also installed a semi-automatic water change system which allows the clients to change water weekly without the need for physical exertion and with very little risk of getting things wrong. It works on an overflow system, so there is no chance of removing too much water and running equipment dry etc.

Overflow water flows to flower beds in the garden and an in-line HMA filter conditions the tap water as it flows to the tank. The genius part of this system is the external, warm water tap, from which the tank is filled. It is thermostatically controlled to 24°C, to match the temperature of the tank. This means, even if the overflow water change is forgotten about for a while, the tank won’t get chilled. It’s also very handy for washing muddy dogs off after a walk apparently.

On show

The display features 140kg of Frodo stone nestled upon Tropica substrate. The selection of fish and plants is ‘classic community tank’ mixture and is comprised of species that the client liked and that Joe suggested.

Some of the feature fish – several Pearl gourami, Trichopodus leerii – decided to be a touch shy once the photography equipment came out. But the Angel fish, Pterophyllum scalare, where happy to show themselves off. There’s an air of humour with a large group of Cardinal tetra, Paracheriodon  axelrodi, and just two Neons, P. innesi, giving the viewer a bit of a ‘where’s Wally’ game to play.

A shoal of Harlequin rasbora, Trigonostigma heteromorpha, compliment the grouping and movement of the Cardinals and fill a higher level in this deep tank while several Siamese algae eaters, Crossocheilus siamensis, and Panda garra, Garra flavatra, dart around and aid with keeping the tank almost algae free.

The cabinet is finished off with high gloss, easily removed panels with a subtle reflective fleck that picks up sunlight coming into the room at the right time of day. It’s all very tidy, easy to use and simple to keep clean.

Not on show

When you take the clean-looking, exterior panels away it continues looking very neat and tidy. From the powder-coated metal frame (with near colour matched CO2 canister) to the shelved dosing pumps, this is a dream for the organised fishkeeper.

You can see the experience in practice here. Pipework is minimalist, very neat and valves are easily accessible. The dosing pumps (and sump illumination) are an obvious influence of Joes marine keeping experience and a major part of how he takes care of his installations from a far. In honesty, I felt quite unnerved at this level of tidy and was slightly relieved when one of the draws was opened, revealing a comparative melee of fish foods.

Along with the lighting (running at 30%), both the filter pump and the circulation pumps are over-adequate and under stressed – running at 50% and 80% respectively. Not only does this improve the overall life of the product and its consumables, it also allows for a change of set-up – to marine or keeping larger/messy freshwater fish – with no upheaval of equipment.

A pretty penny

I know I want one, and I’m sure you want one too. It’s only the overall price tag of around £16’500 that’s stopping me ordering one today.

That’s right, this kind of design and quality doesn’t come cheap and Joe estimates that each drop-off step adds up to £800 in labour costs alone.  

It certainly is a set-up to aspire to – designed with extreme detail, beautifully built and maintained with great attention. Each time I muster up thoughts of dream tanks, an image of this tank is inevitable now. In realistic terms the cost is beyond me, but we all need dreams and an answer to “what would you buy if you won the lottery?”, don’t we.

Set-up details

  • Tank and cabinet manufacturer: Aquariums4life
  • Tank dimensions: 258x50x915cm
  • Tank glass: 19mm Optiwhite, 2x 19mm base
  • Background: Light blue vinyl
  • Cushioning: wood to avoid movement
  • Total volume: 1000 l
  • Filtration: 135x46x50cm sump
  • Return pump: Ecotech Vectra L1
  • Circulation pump: Ecotech Vectra M1 
  • Heating: 1x 600w D+D Schego titanium heater with D+D dual heating and cooling controller
  • Lighting: 6x Ecotech Radion XR15
  • Dosing pump: 2x D+D H2Ocean P1 pumps
  • CO2 diffusor: Sera power diffuser


Name: Joe Chambers                                                

Age: 32

Time in the hobby: 14 years

Time in the industry: 5 years

Favourite fish (owned): “Discus or Rays, it’s very close… probably Ra….. no, maybe Asian Arowana. Oh I don’t know, they all have their quirks”

Fish you’d most like to keep: I’m currently on the hunt for a Dwarf Golden Eel for my reef tank.

Top tip: “Research. Your tastes will always change, with experience, as to what you want from your aquarium. If you spend some time researching a direction you want to head in then you will hopefully save yourself time and money in the long run.”