Setting Up an Aquarium

Maybe you saw the beautiful tropical fish at your local pet store, or visited a friend's house and admired their fish tank. Or maybe you've always wanted to start up an aquarium but never knew how. Setting up and maintaining a freshwater tropical aquarium is not difficult or even particularly time consuming and can be one of the most rewarding hobbies you can choose. Armed with some basic information and an hour or so a week for maintenance, you can have a beautiful healthy aquarium in your home.

This series is intended to cover basic decisions and setup. It is NOT intended to take the place of more in-depth reading and research, only to give you a starting point. If you taking nothing else away from this article do remember this: Research everything BEFORE you buy!!! Many, many people quit this rewarding hobby in frustration because they did not arm themselves with the knowledge they needed to make good decisions. Read everything you can find before you make the investment in fish or equipment. Check some books out of the library. Read the forum a bit. Believe me, every hour you spend on research before you set up your tank will be repaid over and over again in preventing loss of time, money and heartache later on.

Remember that this series of articles is for someone setting up their first freshwater community aquarium, not for the more experienced fish keeper. I will make suggestions intended to give you the best chance for success based on my own experience. However, there are about as many opinions about what makes a perfect tank, as there are fish keepers. Once you know the basic parameters we are working with, you can figure out what is right for your fish and your preferences.

Basic Equipment:
The Tank: What size? A common misconception among beginning fish keepers is that a smaller tank will be easier to maintain, so they buy a little 5g or 10g tank to start with. Then they have a devil of a time keeping fish healthy. In truth, a larger body of water is more stable and gives you many more options in fish. My advice to beginners is always to buy the biggest aquarium that their home and budget will allow.

Some common size tanks:
  • Under 5-gallon:Don't bother. No fish will be happy for long in any less than 5g of water.
  • 5-gallon: Suitable for a quarantine/hospital tank and not much else, in my opinion. In a pinch, a 5g tank can house one betta, although 10g is better even for them.
  • 10-gallon: The smallest viable tank for a long-term home for a few small fish. A 10g tank will require quite a bit of work and attention to keep it stable, but a betta or a small group of Neon or Cardinal tetras can be very pretty, especially when planted.
  • 20-gallon and 30-gallon: A bit more flexible in terms of fish you can keep. A community of small fish of many types can be happy here.
  • 40-gallon: Now we're talking. In my opinion, a 40g tank is just about perfect for a beginner's first tank - big enough for stability and to keep most smaller community fish but small enough so you don't need a wetsuit to maintain it. It fits in most homes and is still relatively economical to buy.
  • 55-gallon: This is a very attractive tank, with good proportions. This is my favourite tank for small schooling fish. The limitation of a 55g is that it is somewhat shallow, front to back, making it unsuitable for larger fish or for really inspired aquascaping.
  • 75-gallon: The smallest "big tank" and very versatile for medium to large (but not huge) fish. One of the prettiest tanks for aquascaping. Now we are getting in to a tank large enough that some research in to your floor's load carrying capacity is probably a good idea.
  • 90 gallon: Easily the most versatile and economical tank (per gallon of water) available. A large tank, suitable for all but the largest tank buster fish, it is still easily maintained and can be kept in most living rooms without taking over the décor. Be sure to check whether your floor will hold the weight before you fill it. I would think twice before putting a tank this size on other than the ground floor.
Larger tanks go up in approximately 25g intervals. The largest commercial tank I know of is 300 gallons of water, but special order tanks of any size can be obtained. Tanks of over 100g, although no harder to maintain than a smaller tank, require a commitment of time each week for water changes and cleaning that most beginners are unwilling to make. If you want to dive in headfirst and get a really large tank, by all means do so. Just be aware that it can take a couple of hours to properly clean and vacuum a 150g tank, so you may want to be sure you like keeping an aquarium before investing at this level.

Glass or acrylic? The only really good answer is "it depends." Glass is cheaper, easier to clean, stays clearer longer, and is more scratch resistant. However, it is heavier and more brittle and prone to breaking and cracking than acrylic. Acrylic is lighter, more flexible and stronger than glass, but is prone to yellowing and scratches much more easily. It is also more expensive. In my own fish room, all my tanks under 100 gallons are glass. Since I live in seismically active California, however, all my larger tanks are acrylic. They are less prone to cracking and bursting seams when the earth starts moving.

What shape? For a beginner, I wholeheartedly recommend a standard rectangular shape. The relatively shallow, long shape is the best for oxygen exchange, easiest to equip with standard hoods, lights, and filters, and is just generally cheaper and easier to outfit than the other shapes. That said, however, corner, hexagonal, bow-front and many other shapes exist and if you like them, by all means get what you like. The only shape I do NOT recommend is the so-called bio-sphere. This is a round tank which, like all spheres, is very narrow at the top, providing for poor oxygenation of the water. If you do end up with this type of tank, only fill it up about halfway so that there will be enough surface area to provide your fish with oxygen. Better still, empty all the water out, fill it 1/3 with potting soil and put houseplants in it. It's close to worthless as an environment for fish.

Small rounded gravel (3-5mm) of a natural colour will suit your needs admirably. I do not recommend coloured gravel for two reasons;
  1. The paint can start to wear off and get in the water column.
  2. You might grow to hate it.
Changing out bright red gravel is a chore I would not gladly undertake. If you want lots of colour, you are better off with bright decorations and bright fish.

The general rule of thumb for most tanks is a pound of gravel for each gallon of water. Start with that and add more if you it doesn't look like enough to you. Do what pleases your eye, but remember that the more gravel you have the more gravel you will have to keep clean. The exception to this rule is if you intend to use under gravel filtration, where you will need 2-3 inches.

Although live plants add beauty and interest to any tank, I will not cover the ins and outs of a heavily planted tank here. This type of tank requires a different substrate.

There are a HUGE variety of things you can use to decorate your tank. Just about anything made of glass, plastic or ceramic and without sharp edges is suitable after a thorough wash and rinse. Your local pet or fish store will also have racks and rows of aquarium safe decorations especially made for the aquarium.

Rocks and Stones
Rocks and stones are a natural addition to any aquarium. They are not only beautiful for the fish keeper, they can be made into caves and hiding places for bottom dwellers and other fish.

Rocks can, however, dramatically change the chemistry of your water in unintended and unwanted ways. DO NOT put natural coral, marine rocks or seashells in your tank for just this reason. As a new fish keeper, you should get your rocks and stones from the store, labelled specifically for use in freshwater aquaria. As you gain experience and learn about the different needs of the fish you keep and the different qualities of the stones, you will be able to buy rocks and stones at quarries and home improvement stores or even collect them yourself. Never take rocks from your garden, as they may introduce pesticides and fertilizers to your tank. As a general rule, avoid rocks with sharp edges or very rough texture that the fish can injure themselves on.

If you want to create a specific look by stacking the rocks, you can cement them together with aquarium silicon. Allow the silicon to cure for at least a week before putting it in the tank.

WARNING! Always ensure the silicon you use is meant for aquariums. For safety never use silicon that doesn't state clearly on the tube that it is safe for aquarium use. Much of the domestic silicon for kitchen and bathroom use, contain pesticides and fungicides. If which comes into contact with the tank water can be fatal to the fish.

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