- Category: New Aquarium Setup
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Think, Plan, Research!
The most important step when setting up a new aquarium is, without a doubt, the planning and research. Many aquarium fish deaths can ultimately be blamed on poor planning and research. Too many aquarists run down to the local fish store (LFS) and buy a bunch of fish that catch their eye. In a few weeks, after one fish has devoured all of its tank mates, they realize they should have learned a bit about the animals they put in their tank. A few hours of reading can avert unnecessary livestock losses.
Here are just a few questions that should know the answers to before you buy that tank:
- What kind of animals do you want to keep?
The needs of a hardy goldfish are very different from those of more delicate tropical species. Research the needs of any species you plan to keep. Also, keep in mind that there is enormous diversity in the aquatic ecosystems of the world. For example, fish from the Amazon Basin thrive in soft, acidic water, while those from the volcanic rift lakes of central Africa do best in very hard water with a basic pH. Your fish will be healthier in the long run if you can closely match their native environments. The only way to do this is to know as much as you can about your fish before you buy them.
- How much are you willing to spend?
Like it or not, an aquarium is an expensive hobby, and the money you have to spend dictates to a great extent what you can do. Don't be fooled by your LFS into thinking that you can set up an aquarium cheaply. If you are not ready to spend the money to give your tropical fish all that they need to be happy and healthy, then it is best to pick simpler fish, like goldfish, or pick up a different hobby. This is not to say that to be successful you will need to sell your first-born child. While the aquarium hobby is an expensive one, it need not break the bank. When I say "give your aquarium fish all that they need to be happy and healthy," it does not mean that you have to buy thousands of dollars worth of fancy equipment, it means that you have to be prepared to buy filter media, maintenance equipment like flexible brushes and sponges, pay for the extra electricity, and a whole host of other small expenses that eventually add up.
- How much space do you have?
This seems like an obvious consideration, but it is worth discussing. Fish, like all animals (including people), need their space. While the spot you have picked out for your aquarium may be able to fit the footprint of your tank, that is not necessarily enough. Their needs to be enough space around the tank that people are not constantly walking past and brushing against the tank. Your fish will be happier out of high-traffic areas of your home. In addition, while small tanks (say less than 55gal) are not really a problem, medium and large tanks (75gal and up) can put a lot of strain on the floor. Remember than water weighs about 8.8 pounds per gallon, so when you factor in the weight of the tank, the water, gravel, rocks, etc. a 90gal aquarium can easily weigh 1500-2000 pounds! Tanks of this size are best placed on the basement or ground floor.
- How much time can you spare?
In addition to money and space, an aquarium will take up some of your time. How much time depends on how healthy you want your fish to be, how clean you want the tank to look, and to a lesser extent, on how much fancy, high-maintenance equipment you buy. At the bare minimum, you will have to budget a few minutes every week or two to clean the glass and about an hour once or twice a month to change the water and maintain your filter. Obviously, small, frequent water changes are best. Find out more here.
The Basic Equipment
Note: All of the equipment mentioned here is discussed in detail in the Equipment section.
Now that you have given some thought to what you want your aquarium to be, and done some research on the animals you plan to keep, you are ready to go out and start buying some equipment. First, obviously, you will need a tank. There are many choices and many factors affecting the decision. Basically, you should choose the largest tank you can afford in terms of money and space. In the long run it will improve your chances of success, especially as a beginner, since larger systems are inherently more stable than small ones. For example, the temperature of the water in a 10 gallon aquarium will change much faster than the temperature in a 120 gallon tank. This means that a big tank is much more forgiving of mistakes and laziness than a tiny aquarium. Of course, you will also need some sort of stand to hold your new aquarium.
The next most important, and most confusing, piece of equipment is the filter. A filter is necessary because an aquarium, unlike a river or a lake, does not enjoy the advantage of huge volumes of water to dilute wastes and detritus. In a closed system like and aquarium, fish waste and rotting food can quickly foul the water if there is not adequate filtration. There are a huge number of types and brands of filters, all claiming to be the best on the market. Basically, there is no "best." Any number of filters would be perfectly adequate in the average home aquarium.
There are, however, some points to keep in mind. First, there are three types of filtration, and you want a filter that will provide all three. They are (1) mechanical filtration, which removes large (visible) particles from the water; (2) chemical, like activated carbon, which helps to remove dissolved organic compounds and other harmful chemicals; and finally (3) biological filtration, which breaks down toxic fish waste products into relatively harmless nitrate. The most common types of filters available currently are under-gravel filters (not recommended), canister filters, power filters and wet/dry or trickle filters. Many aquarists are currently leaning toward power filters that hang on the side of the tank. The reason for this is that if canister filters are not well-maintained, or if the water stagnates in the filter for any length of time (like during a power outage), toxic chemicals accumulate in the filter and can then be circulated through the tank with potentially disastrous results. For an in depth discussion of filtration, see the Equipment and Water Chemistry sections.
It's hard to see fish in the dark. For this reason, all aquariums need some sort of lighting, even if it is just for aesthetics. The choice of light makes little difference to fish. Generally any full-spectrum fluorescent light is fine. For the vast majority of freshwater aquariums, the fluorescent strip light/aquarium hood combos are perfect. If you will be growing a lot of plants, you may need more light. Either more fluorescents, or more powerful bulbs like very high output (VHO) fluorescents or power compacts. The choice of bulbs depends on the light requirements of the species you want to keep and the depth or your tank (light does not penetrate water well). There are some things to avoid in terms of light. First, try to minimize the amount of direct sunlight that hits the tank. Sunlight will grow algae like crazy. Also, steer clear of normal incandescent light bulbs because these produce massive amounts of heat and the yellow light is not very attractive. Fluorescent lights for kitchens and workshops are O.K., but again the light is slightly yellow. Most aquarists appreciate a more white, or slightly blueish, light since it brings out the colors of the fish better.
All fish will eventually "go over the wall" of an uncovered tank. Even seemingly clumsy creatures, like crayfish, are top-notch escape artists. I once came home to find my crayfish walking around the living room! A tight-fitting lid will help keep your animals in the tank and off the floor. A lid also limits water loss due to evaporation and keeps any junk floating around in the air from settling in the aquarium water.
Next, it makes the tank look nice if the bottom is not just bare glass, so most people aquascape their tanks with gravel and other decorations. Gravel or sand is best kept to a minimum (less than 1 inch) unless the animals you are keeping have a need for deeper substrate. Crayfish, for example, like to burrow and benefit from a layer of fine gravel or sand several inches thick. Also, because gravel can be a great place for beneficial bacteria to grow, one should pay attention to the size and shape. The ideal gravel is small (average size ~2-3mm) and spherical. Very small grains, or grains with flat edges (like silica sand) will compact and retard water circulation through the gravel. This means that gravel will become anaerobic and their is a danger that it could release the harmful metabolic products of anaerobic bacteria (hydrogen sulfide) into the water. The same thing can happen with overly deep gravel beds (more than 2"). Very large gravel traps food and detritus and makes it difficult to remove it. This is also a bad situation since the spaces between the rocks will fill up with crud and degrade water quality. What decorations you use to aquascape your tank depends on your animals' lifestyles and your own artistic expression. Some possibilities include rocks of various sorts (avoid rocks you collect from outside), driftwood, and artificial plants. Let your imagination guide your aquascape. One neat idea to use as a jumping-off point is to try to replicate a specific environment - a sluggish Amazonian backwater, or a deep, rocky rift lake.
The final pieces of equipment are a good heater with enough wattage to heat your tank effectively, and a thermometer, preferably the floating glass kind that can suction to the wall of the aquarium. Last, but certainly not least, is a good quality water testing kit. A test kit is absolutely required because it is the only tool that allows you to monitor your water quality, and water quality is the most important factor affecting the health of your aquarium. At the minimum, a test kit should include pH, ammonia (NH3+), and nitrite (NO2-). In addition, a nitrate (NO3-) and an alkalinity (hardness) kit can also be useful.
Putting It All Together
Finally! All of the equipment is sitting in front of you and you are ready to start putting the tank together. It's easy to get excited at this point and start moving too fast, but resist the temptation and take your time. Patience is an aquarist's most critical asset. Start by assembling all of the equipment - the tank and stand, the filters, heater, etc. and make sure you know how to operate and maintain them. Next, add the substrate, but hold off on adding your rocks and other decorations. At this point, you can start adding water - slowly! A good tip when adding water for the first time is to turn a bowl or plate upside down on the substrate and pour the water onto that. This helps to keep the water from digging a giant hole in your gravel. Fill the tank up to about an inch from the top and check to make sure that the aquarium is perfectly level. If the tank is not level, then the uneven weight on the seams will weaken them over time and could lead to a rupture of the tank. This is true for all aquariums, but is doubly important for larger tanks. Now, turn on your filter and check the whole setup for leaks. When you are satisfied that your setup holds water, remove about half of the water and begin aquascaping your tank. Remember take your time and be creative; you will be rewarded for your efforts with a beautiful aquarium.
O.K. So you have water in the tank and your filter is running. It's time to add fish, right? Wrong! You must let your aquarium cycle for two to four weeks with no life in it. Cycling is the process that establishes the colonies of bacteria responsible for biological filtration. Biological filtration is critically important and without it, fish waste and rotting food will gradually poison your water. Some sources suggest adding a cheap, "expendable" fish into the tank to help it cycle, but I agree with others, like Bob Fenner at WetWebMedia.com, who maintain that this is a cruel and pointless practice. Cycling can be aided just as effectively by adding small amounts of flake food periodically to provide a source of nutrients. Understand that cycling WILL occur without extra nutrient input, it will just take longer. Test the water once a week for the first two weeks, then every few days after that. I said the test kit was a necessity, remember? When the ammonia and nitrite both reach zero, then it is safe to begin adding fish. I know, it is difficult to maintain your discipline and resist the urge to add all your fish at once to a newly setup tank, but your patience will be rewarded with a healthy, breathtaking aquarium!