Fish keeping has so many variables, that no two tanks will ever be the same, and thus a lot of fish keeping is trial and error. As long as the basics are followed, you should soon have a thriving tank and happy and healthy fish.
Obviously one of the first considerations to be made is "where will my fish live"? There are many, many different tanks available and probably the choice of tank will depend on where it will live, and the available cash.
Decide where your tank will stand, bear in mind that once your tank is set up, it will be a huge upheaval to move it again, so choose a place where it is out of direct sunlight, not on top of a heat source such as a radiator, and away from possible knocks i.e. behind a door that might be flung open. A fish tank doesn't need to sit on a specialised piece of furniture, although some of these are stunning to look at, my own tank sits on a home made stand in alcove, A piece of furniture that you already own may suffice, depending on the weight of the tank. Remember a tank that is full with water, gravel and rock / ornaments can be deceptively heavy. If you have a piece of furniture you'd like to use, if you are not sure whether it will stand the weight, then take advice form someone who can help.
A thing that surprises many first time fish keepers, is that the larger the tank, the easier the water chemistry is to keep stable. I have a personal dislike for goldfish bowls, and when purchasing a new tank to house a community set-up (i.e. a variety of harmonious fish living together) I would not buy a tank less than 18" x 12" x 12". There a couple of reasons for this, firstly as said before it can be difficult to keep the water chemistry stable in a small tank, and secondly, when you get 'hooked' on fish keeping, there is a big probability that you will want to keep more and more fish, so you will end up having to upgrade your set-up.
To maintain a healthy tropical set-up, stable heating in your tank is a necessity. Many tropical fish are very sensitive to water temp fluctuations, even minor ones. One of the most common types of heating, is a traditional heater thermostat unit. Each heater consists of a coiled heating element encased in a glass tube. The heater is switched on or off depending on the temperature of the water, by an integral thermostat that is adjusted to meet the requirements of both fish and plants. My personal favourite is a separate thermostat that clips to the side of the tank, I see the temperature that it is set at, and can adjust it if necessary, without disturbing the tank and it's occupants
When choosing a heater/ thermostat, always aim for one that provides the required heat with some spare capacity.
Note: If your tank is in a cold room then more heating will be required. If in a hot room then you will need less and in certain cases may need to cool the tank.
Aquarium lighting serves 2 main purposes.
1. To allow visibility of the tank and it's occupants.
2. Light is essential for healthy plant growth
3. To maintain as natural as possible habitat for the fish who are used to twelve to 14 hours of sunlight per day.
If you to choose to use artificial plants, then you need only choose a light a light that shows the colours of the fish to their optimum.
If however you are intending to grow a variety of aquatic plants successfully, then here are several other considerations to be made.
The amount of lighting i.e. the wattage is dependent on the size and depth of the tank to be lit.
There are many different tubes available, some to enhance fish colour, some to promote plant growth, and others suitable for marine or night-time viewing. The best thing to do, is to pay a visit to your local fish store, and look at the array of lighting tubes, decide on what sort of tank you will be aiming for, to get a feel for the type of lighting that you will require
The tank lighting needs to be one specially devised for aquarium use, and thus needs to be bought from a specialist shop, the fluorescent tube fittings available in your local DIY shop are not meant for use near water, and should not be used, without consulting a qualified electrician.
The nitrogen cycle, filters and filtration
This section is a lengthy one, I was going to skip through it, but to succeed in fish keeping you really need to know the basics about water chemistry, as changes in a tank can happen very quickly, and disasters can be prevented by taking time to understand these facts.
I have tried not to get too complicated, but feel free to email me or ask in the forum if it doesn't make sense or if you feel that I have made an error.
Filtration is one of the most important aspects of fish keeping, all fish produce waste as do we all, when fish live in their natural habitats i.e. rivers and streams, the water is constantly changing, there is much more of it and usually a less dense population of fish, thus fish waste is soon diluted and is mostly harmless. When fish are kept in a tank, they have to rely heavily on us to prevent dirt and harmful chemicals building up in the tank. This is where filtration comes in. Below is a simple explanation of how waste products are cycled throughout the tank.
The beneficial bacteria (nitrifying bacteria) mentioned above, is the lifeline within a tank set-up. When you come right down to it we care and provide for bacteria and they in turn care for our fish day in and day out. The bacteria need the simple pleasures of life, which a good biological filter will provide. They need a comfortable home.
Requirements for healthy biological growth
1. Oxygen: Nitrifying bacteria are nearly defined by their need of oxygen (which our filter's water flow should provide). A filter with more surface area will support more bacteria. Filters that provide more oxygen to the bacteria can often out perform filters with greater surface areas. Conversely, filters that tend to starve bacteria of oxygen operate less efficiently and had better make up for it in the surface area department (i.e. undergravel).
2. Nutrients: Nitrifying bacteria eat nitrogen. Again, your filter's water flow should bring this to them.
3. Care & attention: We do not want to kill off the 'friendly' bacteria, each time we tend our tank, wash our filters etc. If you choose a filter with a sponge inner for example, it should be rinsed out in tank water, not under a running tap, and never ever should it be treated to a wash with washing up liquid or other such detergents. I've heard people say, " I always rinse it thoroughly, so that it doesn't affect the fish", but what they are doing is stripping it of the beneficial bacteria.
The bacteria themselves produce waste called nitrite (NH) and this too is toxic to the fish. Still more of those beneficial bacteria use nitrite for their nutrient source. The scenario just described with the ammonia is replicated. Again this may take up to three weeks in a newly established aquarium. In your planning allow for a total of six weeks to establish such a filter. It is up to us to stay out of the way of the nitrifying bacteria. Invasive cleaning with chlorinated tap water, using antibiotics inappropriately, dramatic pH shifts, or over feeding of any kind may all have a profound effect on the time you will spend 'cycling' or establishing your biological filter the first time. You will typically see an initial rise in ammonia and then its decline as the bacteria swing into action. This is followed by a rise and fall in the nitrite levels. Don't allow yourself to believe that this is a once in a lifetime event. Your aquarium's nitrifying bacteria count is affected each time that you add or lose a fish, clean a filter, or even feed differently. Plan on making small moves in these areas in order to avoid having to confront that initially difficult cycling period all over again.
A final thing to consider is that the final step of the nitrogen cycle (as far as we are concerned here) is the conversion of nitrite into the less harmful nitrate. Logic indicates that if we have daily ammonia production, we will have daily nitrate production as well. Nitrate is considered to be less harmful due to the fact that it doesn't kill at the low levels which nitrite and ammonia are capable of doing. Most aquarist, however, use it as a benchmark of an aquarium's cleanliness. Regular partial water changes. It is the most realistic way for us to maintain reasonable nitrate levels. Ideas of what is realistic do vary from one aquarist to another. Most species of fish seem undaunted by a level lower than forty parts per million. Make that your goal through water changes. Note that No one can tell you exactly how often and how much to change! Every aquarium is different, due to stocking and feeding differences. Your aquarium's maintenance schedule will have to be flexible as this will change with time. A little bit of trial and error and lot's of water testing will be required, especially in the first months of your hobby.
That should be all that we need to know. Manufacturers on the other hand would like you to believe that the process is more complicated. It helps them to sell more filters, additives and cultures. Some do work and some are ineffective. Always be wary of adding unfamiliar products to your water. If you are in doubt, let the bacteria do the decision making for you. Take a hands off approach for about a month and things are bound to change for the better when the basics are in place. Stay out of the way of your bacteria and you will be well on your way to the more interesting points of keeping fish!
I think for me, the most important lesson I learned during my first weeks as a fish keeper, was that to get any where fast, you have to go slow, i.e. ensure that you are not trying to hurry or ignore any of the first steps in fish keeping, when you are waiting to stock your tank, things seem to be taking ages, but if you don't allow time for the 'friendly bacteria ' to flourish in your new tank, and you add fish too quickly and in too large a number, you will invariably stress and kill your fish and also then cause mayhem with the tank chemistry, in the end it will take less time, less money and less stress to go very slowly in the beginning.
If you don't believe me, browse through the forum, and other fish sites, and take note of all the problems caused by ' NEW TANK SYNDROME' i.e. the time in which the friendly bacteria are trying to cultivate, and balance your tank, time after time people try to rush the process... and YES I've done it too, and the result is stress on you, stress on your fish, and stress on your pocket.
Filtration plays an important part in the health and balance of an aquarium. Filters can be as simple as an air driven sponge or box filter to the elaborate wet-dry systems containing ultra-violet sterilisers and protein skimmers.
In between these two extremes are under-gravel filters (U.G.F.s) that are air or power head driven. Power heads are small water pumps that attach to the lift tubes of the U.G.F. and circulate water through the gravel media. U.G.F.s require that gravel be placed on top of the filter plates that lay on the bottom of the tank. Usually 3-4 inches of gravel is recommended as a minimum. This type of filter along with most other types of filtration takes a while to be effective and requires a period to allow beneficial bacteria to multiply in the gravel or other filter media. U.G.F.s require that the gravel be cleaned on a regular basis in order to keep filtration at an optimum. The general consensus, is that if you want to have a heavily planted tank, then it is probably better NOT to opt for undergravel filtration, although some plants survive quite well with this sort of filtration, most plants will not thrive at all, Also if you want a sand substrate instead of gravel, then you will not really be able to have an effective undergravel filter.
Power filters / sponge filters, another option, are usually attached by hanging on the back interior of the tank. A small pump pulls water through a tube from the aquarium and circulates it through filtering media before it flows by gravity back into the tank. Power filters have advantages of being inexpensive to moderately priced, easy to service and they are effective as particulate and biological filters if proper maintenance is observed. One consideration is that many of today's power filters require that you use some form of insert or inserts to keep the water quality at its peak. This involves buying new media at various intervals and should be considered when buying power filters. You should never throw away all of your filter material whether it be a sponge of spheres or whatever, if the media needs to be changed for some reason, then remember to try and do it in stages, or you could run into problems
Another popular option is the canister filter. Though usually more expensive than power filters, they have the advantages of less maintenance of the filter media and generally operate more quietly and are less prone to mechanical problems.
The canister is housed outside the tank and can be hidden away in a cupboard under the tank; the filters use a variety of filter media.
There are other types of filtration, but for simplicity I have mentioned the three most popular methods, if you are taking advice from a shop, try and shop around for advice, to prevent being sold the most expensive set up.
Setting Up the tank
So we bought the tank, housed it where it is going to live, make sure that your tank is placed on a sheet of polystyrene, this will even out any imperfections in the base or surface it is on. We have purchased a heating system, we have decided on the light source and bought the appropriate equipment, and we have decided on the method of filtration that we are going to install. And meanwhile, we are taking notes and learning a little about how our tank is going to run. And we are looking at fish in the shops, maybe looking for a good supplier.
Decide on how your new fish tank is to be aquascaped, are you going to use rocks, bogwood or lot's of plants, or do you want to go for the bright and amusing novelty tank decorations?
Depending on the type of fish you are going to house, you need first to consider the type of substrate you are going to use, whether you go for gravel, sand, or bare glass you need to consider the requirements of the fish, e.g. When I first started fish keeping I had a mixed community tank, and used gravel as a substarte, (I have an internal power filter) Over the years, I becam more and more fond of the loaches, khulis, weather loach, the corydoras species, and other cat fishes. I recently made the decision to change to a sand instead of the gravel, a big upheaval, but worth it due to the fact that my fish are on the whole much happier. Gravel is the usual choice, and there are some lovely synthetic types of gravel out there today, You will need to rinse out most types of gravel thoroughly and thorough means just that, rinse small amounts of gravel at a time in a bucket, swilling it over and over again with clean water, until the water runs clear, don't skip this stage, if you use dirty gravel, you will have problems when you add water to your tank, Now if you are using an undergravel filter, you will have set up the filter plates up lift tubes etc as per instructions, you can now gently cover the plates with 3 inches of gravel, 2 Inches maximum should be added if you are using any other forms of filtration. You can landscape the gravel, making different levels by using rocks and bogwood to help, remember that you are the one who has to look at the tank, so do what YOU want.
When the gravel and rocks have been place safely in the tank, you need to insert the heater(s) and filter see the instructions for your particular equipment. DO NOT SWITCH ON AT THIS STAGE. Now you can add some water to your tank, fill the tank with water from the cold tap, don't use water that may have been sitting in a hot water tank for some hours, Use buckets of water and tip the water onto either a large plate or a small sheet of plastic that has been placed on top of the gravel, this will prevent the gravel being stirred up too much. When your tank is maybe a third full, you can add your plants to the gravel, (some people may disagree with me hear and say that the cold water can shock them or that the chlorine in the tap water can kill them, and they are the experts, as I don't keep live plants) Once the tank is full, you can then turn on your heaters, and switch on the filter, add a thermometer to the wall of your tank so that you can keep an eye on the tank temperature, You then need to run your tank like this for at least three to four days.. NOTE: NO FISH ARE TO BE ADDED AT THIS STAGE.
It is so hard to see a tank, with water, heat, a working filter, plants and no fish, but this is the point where most people jump the gun and end up in hot water,
Use these few days to observe the equipment, ensure that the thermostat is holding the temperature correctly, that the lighting is working and that the filter appears to be working.
Now obviously if we want to start 'cycling the tank' i.e. starting the tank off in it's journey on the nitrogen cycle, then we need to introduce ammonia, i.e. we need fish but we only need a couple of fish 2-3 MAXIMUM you need to use fish that are quite tolerant of water changes i.e. danios, introduce the fish into the tank, and feed them very little. Whilst the first fish are in the tank you will need to carry out very regular water tests, testing for ammonia, you will notice the ammonia levels will go up and up, as the waste from the fish affects the water, Suddenly the ammonia levels will plummet as the nitrite forming bacteria take hold. Now because nitrifying bacteria don't begin to appear until nitrite is present in significant quantities, Nitrite levels soar, due to the conversion of ammonia, once the nitrifying bacteria take hold, the nitrite levels will fall, nitrate levels will rise and the tank is fully cycled.
This cycling will take anywhere from 2-6 weeks at 70 degrees F+...
If you add more fish during the 'cycling' process, it will mean that more ammonia is produced, this will stress or even kill your fish your fish, the tank could take on the common cloudy appearance which tells us that your fish has succumbed to 'new tank syndrome'
You have a fully cycled tank that has been prepared for its fish... but more caution... DO NOT ruin all your hard work, and rush out to buy a tank full of fish, if you've read the previous sections, you will know now that each added fish creates a 'load' on your filtration. If you suddenly add 10 fish to your tank, the beneficial bacteria, just will not be able to cope with the sudden increase in ammonia production, so you need to tread slowly, adding just 2-3 fish per week or so, until the desired stocking level is fulfilled. Regular water checks at this time can help you to understand what is happening to your tank.
One last thing:
You will have heard talk of water changes, now as we've said, the by-product of our nitrogen cycle, is nitrate. And although strictly speaking, small quantities won't stress our fish, we need to rid our tank of it before the quantities do become harmful, so we need to dilute our tank, and we do this via water changes.
Now basically speaking, the more frequently you change water, the less water needs to be replaced each time. A good starting point is to replace approximately 25% of your tanks water every fortnight, but this can vary greatly, you should aim to keep the nitrate levels below 10ppm, the greater amount of fish you have, and certain types of fish i.e. Cat fish the more you will need to change (quantity or frequency).
Firstly siphon of the amount of water that needs to removed, if you use a tank vacuum, you can remove uneaten food and muck from the gravel along with the water. If your heaters, filter etc are uncovered by the loss of water volume, then they need to be switched off.
You need to replace the tank water with water that has been standing for approximately 2 days, or that has been treated by a de chloniator, The water needs to be the same temperature or very close to it, use boiled water from a kettle to heat the water in the bucket, don't use hot tap water as this can contain impurities. When pouring the water back into the tank, do it carefully and slowly, to minimise stress on the fish, and stirring up the gravel, uprooting plants etc, I also leave the tank lights out for an hour or so afterwards, to allow the fish to settle down again.
So there we have it.... You now have a tank that is fully stocked, one that is healthy, and one you can enjoy daily as long as you maintain it.
There is really so much one can tell you, and I have really tried to cover only the basics of getting your tank up and running, without some of the mishaps we often face.