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Your First Aquarium

After much deliberation you have now decided to set up an aquarium in your home. The first question is where do I start. There are lots and lots of books most of which are very helpful, but as always some give conflicting advice and it can be difficult to decide how you should go about it. The first decision you have to make is how big an aquarium do you want. Most people settle for the average size of between two and three feet in length with a width and height of around 18 inches. This is a very manageable size which will give you a good start in the hobby. However, the general rule is to buy as big a tank as you can afford, for two reasons. Firstly, because as most people find with this hobby it can be quite addictive and you will quickly find yourself wanting a larger tank, and secondly as I will come to later in this article, by having a larger tank with greater water volume, it does reduce the risk of poor water quality. Clearly a fish tank with a lot of water in it is very heavy so always make sure you place the tank in a position where there is sufficient support and of course it goes without saying the tank must be on a level surface. If your tank comes with it’s own stand it will make life a lot easier, but if you do decide to make your own stand, it is wise to place a piece of polystyrene beneath the tank which will help to protect it from any uneven surfaces.

If you are new to the hobby it makes sense to buy a tank which comes with all the kit you need to get started such as a heater, filter, and lighting. Once you have the tank in the position you want it, fill it with water and allow it to stand for a couple of days with everything running. This will help you to check that there are no leaks and that everything is running as it should. I will now run through the various issues which you need to consider before thinking about buying your first fish.

Aquarium Décor

There are many different substrates that you can use in your aquarium. It is a matter of personal preference and it may take several reconstructions of your tank before you find gravel and décor that you are happy with. One point to bear in mind with anything that you put in your tanks is that if it is not inert it can have an impact on your water parameters and as an example, many types of gravel will increase the pH of your water. This tends not to be a big issue for most fish, but for those that do have very specific requirements, it is something to keep in mind. Your local fish shop will help you to decide what gravel is best and they will high light the types which are inert and which are not. Sometimes it can be advantageous to buy décor which helps to increase the pH of your water because some fish prefer these water conditions.

Prior to putting your gravel into the tank, give it a good wash under tap water. This will help to get rid of most of the dust which may otherwise lead to cloudy water conditions.

Water Quality

The first thing to be aware of is that the water which comes out of your tap is not suitable for keeping fish in without adding a water conditioner. Tap water contains chlorine and in most cases chloramines which if left untreated is very harmful to tropical fish. You can eliminate the impact of these additives by using a good water conditioner and your local fish shop will point you in the right direction.

The second point to bear in mind is that your tap water will either be alkaline or acidic, soft or hard. In most cases in the U.K it is relatively alkaline and quite hard. As you get more into the hobby, you will find that some species of fish do require certain water conditions, although most will adapt to your local water and the fish you find at your local shop should already be tolerant of your local water conditions.

When putting the water into your tank, place a small saucer on the surface of the gravel. This will stop any unnecessary disturbance of the gravel when you pour the water in. By now you will have filled your tank with water and have added an appropriate conditioner.

Getting the tank ready for the first inhabitants

This is the difficult bit and does require a lot of patience. To fully understand why this is requires knowledge of what is know as the Nitrogen Cycle. A fish tank will only function properly when the filter has matured and is full of special bacteria which will break down the waste produced by your fish into less harmful compounds. Basically fish produce ammonia through their own waste including respiration and if this is left to build up in a tank it will very quickly become toxic to the fish usually culminating in their deaths. One of the most common problems with any new tank is called New Tank Syndrome. This basically entails a newcomer to the hobby going out buying a tank and filling it with all the fish they like without any preparation or knowledge of the consequences. What then happens is that the ammonia in the tank builds up very quickly because none of the beneficial bacteria have had time to populate the filter and break it down into less harmful bacteria. The end result is fish deaths and a newcomer to the hobby who very quickly becomes disenchanted with the whole thing. The answer is patience and adopting a process which leads to the gradual build up of the bacteria you need in your filter to support a community of the fish you want to keep.

The Nitrogen Cycle

We already know that fish create waste which is called ammonia. If you have a fully mature filter, the bacteria present will break down the ammonia into nitrite which in itself is also quite toxic to fish if left to build up. However, the beneficial bacteria will absorb the nitrite and turn it into nitrate. If nitrate is left to build up it can over time have an impact on the health of your fish. The way this is removed is by regular water changes which I will come to later on when discussing routine maintenance.

The Filter

So you need your filter to be in good shape prior to placing any fish in the tank. How do you do it. Well there is more than one method and it will come down to personal preference as to how you want to proceed. One of the easiest ways is to introduce a few fish depending upon the size of your tank that are very hardy and able to with stand a small amount of ammonia and nitrite until such a time that the tank has fully cycled and you are able to add a few more fish on a gradual basis. The most common fish used for this are zebra danios and platies. However, you must be very careful about the number of fish you initially add because a large spike in either the ammonia or nitrite level can be fatal for these fish as well. If you do decide to pursue this route it will be a case of regularly checking using test kits the ammonia and nitrite level. Initially the ammonia will go up until it is broken down into nitrite and this level will keep going up until there are sufficient bacteria present in your filter to break them down into nitrate. As soon as the ammonia and nitrite level are zero, which is likely to take around six weeks, you will be able to add more fish, but again only gradually so that your filter has time to develop more beneficial bacteria to cope with the larger bio load from the additional fish.

The second method is to use one of the ready prepared maturation liquids currently available on the market. This would involve adding some of this liquid over a period of time and monitoring the ammonia and nitrite levels until they have dropped to zero.

The third and final method is known as the fishless cycle and this involves putting ammonia into the tank over a period time. This is considered to be a much quicker alternative, but it is more scientific and I will not go into further detail . A search of the web using google will bring up a lot of information on this method.

Choosing Your Fish

This is the fun bit and you should carry out as much research as you can about the fish you want to keep. There are many factors to consider including the amount of fish you can keep in your tank. The question of stocking and just how many fish you can keep in your tank is another difficult one and most answers are different. I will leave you to research this one and all I can say is that the best rule is always understock your tank. Unfortunately it is always tempting to buy that extra fish you see in the shop and inevitably you end up with too many fish – try to resist! This way the filter will not be under pressure and you reduce the potential for poor water quality which may harm your fish.

Remember that a lot of the fish you see in your local shop are juveniles and they may get much bigger. You should always check the eventual size of your fish. Compatibility is another area which requires consideration. Are your chosen fish likely to become aggressive. Are they suitable for a community tank. Plenty of research is the key. One of the biggest mistakes is to turn up at your local shop and make impulse buys, this generally leads to disappointment and the possibility that three months later you end up with a two foot monster in your tank!

General Maintenance

I mentioned earlier that the end result of the nitrogen cycle is nitrate. The primary method of removing this from your tank is through regular water changes and a general rule is to change 20% of the water in the tank at least every two weeks. When doing your routine maintenance it is a good idea to clean the filter in some of the aquarium water. Never rinse your filter under tap water, it will kill all of the beneficial bacteria and your aquarium water will very quickly become polluted because there are no bacteria to break down the toxins that build up. It is also a good idea to clean some of the aquarium gravel in the tank water. On a daily basis you should check the temperature in the tank to make sure that there are no problems with the heater. Heaters can and do break although not very often. I was caught out once with one of my 40 gallon tanks. The heater stat failed and I came home to find the tank temperature had fallen from 80 to 70 degrees. In this circumstance do not panic and just raise the temperature very gradually back to the level you want. This way it reduces the stress to the fish. In this instance I did not lose any fish.

You should also check the condition of your water now and then using test kits. The main factors to test for are ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. A lot of people recommend that you do this on a weekly basis. When you are first starting off I believe that this is a good idea. It will help you to understand the signs in the tank when things are going wrong, but over time as you gain more experience you will then learn from the behaviour of your fish when things are not right and it will not be necessary to use water tests quite so regularly.

So that’s it a brief guide to setting up your first aquarium which I am sure will very quickly lead to your second aquarium and the third and so on! There is no substitute for reading as much as you can before starting out, but I hope that I have at least pointed you in the right direction.

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