Three-dimensional (3D) aquarium backgrounds have been popular in Europe for years, and are gaining popularity in the US. They provide an attractive, albeit more expensive, alternative to traditional foil or printed backgrounds, and also serve to conceal pumps and other equipment located in the aquarium. While there are also a lot of attractive DIY 3D backgrounds out there now, this article is intended to provide some insight into installing one of the manufactured products, and perhaps a few tips that will enhance its appearance.
The most important questions to consider before purchasing a 3D background are "Is it practical for my aquarium?" and "Why would I want to go to the trouble to do this?". The first is easier to answer. 3D backgrounds come in a fairly wide variety of shapes and styles, but all take up space in the aquarium and are therefore better suited for larger tanks. Those with "flat" profiles can be installed directly against the back wall of the tank, but unless most or all of the equipment is installed behind the tank this defeats one of the main purposes for installing one. The answer to the second question is a matter of how realistic a setup you want to achieve and whether you mind having equipment visible in the aquarium. In my case, due in part to space and accessibility limitations behind the tank, external sumps and canister filters are not really an option, and therefore having intake siphons and a heater within the tank is unavoidable. I decided that a 3D background installed with sufficient room between the background and rear wall of the tank would be an attractive way to conceal everything, both in the tank and behind it.
The 3D background market is dominated by European manufacturers, although some US-made products are now appearing on the market. Pangea and AquaTerra (manufactured in Denmark) are available in the US. Both primarily market one-piece, high relief backgrounds intended to be installed so as to leave a space behind the background. Other manufacturers, such as Juwel, market modular, low relief background sections intended to be installed flush against the wall of the tank. It's a growing market, so just do some searching. Most are molded from high-density polyurethane foam to create extremely realistic, high relief surfaces, which are then painted in one or more color schemes.
Because they are European-made, they are sized for metric-volume tanks. Although most are also suitable for use in standard US-manufactured tanks, this can present a few minor problems. In my case, I planned to install one in a 90-gallon tank. Most are sold with both metric and equivalent English units noted, but pay attention to the dimensions because some trimming is likely to be required. In my case the width needed to be reduced slightly, while the height was slightly less than ideal for a 90-gallon tank.
There are several available options that make a good rock background for a Lake Malawi or Tanganyika setup. AquaTerra offers two, appropriately called "Tanganyika Rock" and "Malawi Rock", and Pangea offers one called "Rocky IV" (not to be confused with the movie). The "Malawi Rock" pattern is more reminiscent of the rounded boulders found in the rocky habitats in the lakes. However, the choice comes down to personal preference. I purchased the AquaTerra "Tanganyika Rock" background for a couple of reasons. First, the Malawi background has a deeper profile, (due to the size of the "boulders" in the pattern) that I thought would be more suitable to a tank with more depth than my 90-gallon tank. The Tanganyika pattern, while still fairly deep and irregular, is somewhat more uniform in depth and intrudes a bit less into the tank. Second, consider what type of natural rock you plan to use in the foreground and stack against the background. I happened to have a lot of rocks suitable for a Malawi tank strewn throughout the woods on our property, and decided to use these. However, they tend to be somewhat irregular rather than round, and therefore a better match for a background with a more angular pattern.
Once you have your background, decide how you want to place it, "right-side-up" with more shelves or "upside-down" with more overhangs. Also consider the equipment you intend to conceal behind the background and where you want to locate inlets and outlets - more on this later. Now you will need to trim one end to provide a 1/8-inch gap at each end. Depending on the height you may need to trim the bottom as well, but this was not an issue with mine.
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