Stephen Siegel doesn't have to travel too far to admire the amazing creatures of the sea and the brilliance of its aquatic life. He has a small piece of it in his Hauppauge home -- a 345-gallon saltwater reef tank filled with live rock and coral. "I have living reef from the Fiji Islands that was transported to my living room, which is an amazing thing. You never see things like this unless you are a scuba diver and go a far distance in the ocean to get this view," says the 70-year-old businessman.
For Siegel, it is more than just living art; it is the best therapy around. "When you sit in my living room and turn classical music on and have the fireplace going, you feel like you are in a different world," he says. Indeed, numerous studies reveal that watching aquarium fish can make a person feel calmer, reduce feelings of anxiety and lower blood pressure.
Maintenance is key to maintaining the health and longevity of fish and other organisms. This includes feedings once a day and weekly cleaning of algae that builds up in the tank. "Checking the water temperature every few days and changing the water once or twice a month are also required in order to keep the salinity, pH, nitrate and nitrite levels at an optimum level for the fish," says Darian Odabasi, owner of Aquarium Design Network, whose company cleans Siegel's aquarium twice a month.
In recent years, custom tanks built and installed by a professional aquarium installer have become all the rage. These aquarium specialists either design the tanks on their own or work closely with an architect, structural engineer and contractor. The tanks can be built anywhere in the home -- within a wall, as part of a bookcase or a bar -- in places you wouldn't imagine. Some are so stunning you feel like diving right in.
THE TROPIC OF WOODBURY
AQUARIUM 170-gallon saltwater aquarium that contains nine tropical fish from all over the world (Indonesia, Hawaii, Florida), live sand (naturally harvested sand from ocean beds that have not been sterilized), a combination of natural base rock and some synthetic coral decorations.
LOCATION The tank is between the kitchen and the family room. A custom bookcase surrounds the side of the tank that faces the family room.
HOMEOWNER Lance Gordon, an entrepreneur, Woodbury
FAVORITE FEATURE Gordon, 42, enjoys the design element of his aquarium. "The tank connects two rooms, so I love that I can see through the tanks and that I have a built-in unit that surrounds it. I like that I can sit in the kitchen and be part of the den." A father of four, he adds, "My kids are mesmerized by the fish, and I am, too. I love to feed them. I know when a fish is being picked on. I know when a fish is dying." His wants to place an aquarium in his office. "It is going to be a shark tank, and it is going to be crazy. One of the reasons I want to get a shark tank is so I can name the first shark I get after my father-in-law. He passed away years ago. "He was a great guy."
COST $7,000 to $9,000 (additional $5,000 for cabinetry)
CHALLENGE Once the wall was open, Blue Marlin workers were able to place the tank in its exact location and get all the measurements before the cabinetry work was done, says owner Paul Cuomo. "Now the tank looks like a built-in that it was always part of the home." The company put a separate filtration system in the basement, since the homeowner did not want to hear any noise.
THE FISH IN THE STAIRCASE
AQUARIUM 325-gallon saltwater tank that consists of an assortment of tropical fish -- Yellow Tang, Sailfin Tang, French Angel, Engineer Goby, Coral Beauty Angel, Fox Face Rabbitfish, Powder Blue Tang, Falcula Butterfly, Niger Trigger and about 20 Royal Damsels. In addition to live rock, the tank also contains two starfish and six hermit crabs.
LOCATION Underneath the curved grand staircase.
HOMEOWNER Leonard Bellavia, 54, attorney, East Islip
FAVORITE FEATURE The placement of the aquarium is key. "We wanted it visible from just about every room," Bellavia says. The curved glass is another favorite feature. "It is so unique. Everyone who gets a glimpse of the tank from the front door -- the UPS delivery man to the pizza guy to the trick-or-treaters -- always ask if they can see the aquarium. Then they ask, 'How is that possible?' " Bellavia says he enjoys the therapeutic and inspiring effect it has on him. "As a trial lawyer, I have prepared many openings and closing statements in the middle of the night while gazing into my aquarium. It is the perfect backdrop for introspective thought."
COST $12,000 (price does not include the millwork)
CHALLENGES Michael Kovarik, owner of Long Island Aquarium Service, Inc., says he encountered a few obstacles during the installation. "There wasn't ample room underneath the stairs to accommodate the plumbing and filtration system. So we ran the plumbing down through the floor into the crawl space and across the length of the house and up into the garage. Doing this allowed for a seamlessly quiet aquarium."
MIMICKING THE DAYLIGHT
AQUARIUM This 345-gallon tank contains more than 40 tropical fish from Indonesia, Hawaii, Saudi Arabia and Australia, 400 pounds of live rock from the South Pacific Islands, live sand and 100 to 200 pieces of live coral, snails, shrimp, crabs and feather dusters (an underwater creature that looks like a feather duster).
LOCATION Between the living room and dining room
HOMEOWNER Stephen Siegel, businessman, Hauppauge
FAVORITE FEATURE Siegel says he did not expect to have the size and scope of the tank he has today. "A saltwater tank was much too expensive. I waited until I was an adult to get the tank I've dreamt of. I never envisioned walking around it," he says. The aquarium's light system replicates the normal light that goes from dawn to dusk. At different hours of the day, there are different lighting changes in the tank. "It resembles the whole scene of daylight to sundown," Siegel says.
COST $75,000 for the custom tank, filtration, plumbing, LED lighting, fish, coral, rock and cabinetry.
CHALLENGES Siegel's aquarium is one of the more unusual designs his company has done because of its dimensions -- 54 inches long, 32 inches deep and 48 inches high, says Darian Odabasi, owner of Aquarium Design Network, who designed and installed Siegel's aquarium (and whose company is also featured on the Animal Planet show "Tanked"). He describes it as "a picture window in the middle of two rooms." For Siegel's live reef aquarium, it was the height of the tank that was the challenge.
THE CAT'S MEOW
AQUARIUM This 80-gallon saltwater tank has an assortment of tropical fish.
LOCATION The aquarium is built into the wall that connects the breakfast room and family room.
HOMEOWNER Iram Mansoor, 40, a construction company owner, Roslyn
FAVORITE FEATURE "I don't know how to explain it, but the tank gives me a lot of pleasure by just looking at the fish," Mansoor explains. "My nieces and nephews love it. I think my cat Daisy likes the tank the best, though. She tries to jump in every chance she gets."
COST $4,500 which includes acrylic tank, filtration, starter fish and lights (the cabinetry was additional)
CHALLENGES "The homeowner had a second corridor in the house that she did not need in the space," says Chris Thors, president-owner of Sky Fish Aquariums and Ponds Inc. "Rather than placing a railing, she decided to close up the wall and place a two-sided, see-through tank in the center of it. The cabinetry underneath holds the filtration system."
Big tanks mean big maintenance
Not all tanks are created equal.
Many aquarium specialists design and build such elaborate and high-tech aquariums for their celebrity and high-profile clientele that some companies have to sign confidentiality agreements before starting the job.
Michael Kovarik, owner of Long Island Aquarium Service Inc., has a client with such a colossal aquarium that it looks like a swimming pool. The 2,200-gallon saltwater tank -- which houses more than 65 tropical fish from around the world -- runs from the floor to the ceiling with access to the tank from the second-floor balcony. During bi-weekly cleanings, Kovarik's crew members wear wet suits.
Steve Louro and Fred Del Gaudio may not be celebrities and may not have signed confidentiality agreements before their tanks were installed, but their aquariums no doubt have rock-star appeal.
Louro has a 1,000-gallon saltwater tank that stands 6 feet high, 10 feet long and 2 feet wide and serves as the centerpiece of his St. James home. The tank has a full bar on one side and a 63-inch plasma television that pops up at the press of a button on the other side.
"It is bringing a very small piece of the Atlantis, Bahamas, into my home," says Louro, 48, whose aquarium cost more than $150,000 and requires $400 in weekly maintenance.
Chris Thors of Sky Fish Aquariums and Ponds Inc. in Massapequa Park, who installed the tank, ran lines 75 feet under the floor when the house was being built. They lead to a filtration room with equipment one would see at a public aquarium. The tank includes an electrolyte filter, biological filtration with UV sterilizer, protein skimmer, a chiller to keep water cool, storage area for water and a sensor that immediately signals if a leak starts.
The biggest challenge, says Thors, was getting the tank onto the stand. "The tank's weight was almost 2 tons. I needed more than 15 guys to help me."
When Fred Del Gaudio was doing a renovation on his Manhasset home, he installed a 600-gallon saltwater aquarium filled with more than 30 vibrant colored tropical fish with names like Hippo Tang and Blonde Naso to a Raccoon Butterfly, a Bird Wrass, Yellow Tang and Angel Fish.
The aquarium, which is 4 feet high, 10 feet long and 24 inches wide, is situated between his Jacuzzi and exercise room.
The tank not only adds a beautiful accent to the decor but is functional as well.
"After we had the Jacuzzi put in, we needed a wall to seal off the humidity," says Del Gaudio, 57. "Instead of a blank wall, we decided to do a fish tank built into the wall. The tank is double-sided, giving us a great view from either side of the room."
Ralph Ammirati, the owner of Aquarium Network in Bellmore, whose company designed the tank and installed it, explains that getting the tank into the house was no easy feat. "The tank alone weighed 6,000 pounds. We put it in place prior to the house being built, so if Fred decides to move one day," says Ammirati, "he cannot get the aquarium out of the house."
Del Gaudio, who is a technology consultant, is already thinking about his next toy, one that would give him the specific gravity, pH, ammonia level, nitrite and alkalinity levels that will keep him in the know at all times.
"Being a techie, I want to be able to adjust my aquarium based on a proactive alerting system installed that would let me know if there is any problem, so if, for example, a parameter goes out of specifications I would get a text or email alerting me right away."
"Now, that would be cool," says Del Gaudio, breaking into a smile.