A Guide to Your First Aquarium

Aquariums can be great for children and adults, however, just like any fur friend or scale baby, research regarding set-up and care is vital for a healthy and happy pet. With 4 years of experience working in aquarium shops and being the main fish keeper, I share my knowledge for a basic setup for a healthy aquarium.

Before purchasing your fish and aquarium there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

1) Do I want a tropical (with an internal heater) or cold water (without an internal heater) aquarium?

2) Where will I put my aquarium and what size will fit in the space I’m considering? The size of the tank will determine the species of fish you can house as well as the quantity. Fun fact: A group of different species of fish all living together is called a Community.

3) With the species of fish in mind, what are their dietary requirements? It’s always a great idea to research this for each species, as well as compatibility.

4) Do I have appropriate power points near where I would like to set up my tank and am I able to make it safe in terms of electricity and water being in close proximity?

5) Will the tank be in direct sunlight? Tanks in direct sunlight are not recommended as it will promote algae growth. Algae are great for fish (but unsightly to us).

6) How much time can I give my tank in terms of weekly/fortnightly maintenance and cleaning? If you would like a low maintenance tank it’s best to go smaller with aquarium size and fish size as well as fish quantity. Purchasing a powerful filter designed for the size of your tank is highly recommended regardless of the maintenance schedule.

Now that the above questions have been answered and you know exactly what you’re looking for, the fun part begins! Going to your local aquarium store and purchasing all you need for set-up. Please see below a list of basic items you’ll need:

  • Tank
  • Filter suitable to your tank size
  • Heater and thermometer (depending on the species of fish you have chosen and if they’re tropical)
  • An air pump (this is external to your tank), airline and air stone to promote dissolved oxygen in the water. Fun fact: Fish breathe oxygen just like us! It’s important to have dissolved oxygen in the water or you may find your fish continuously returning to the surface of your tank - this can cause health issues and should be avoided. A good amount of surface movement is what promotes dissolved oxygen in your water.
  • A water test kit
  • Fishnet
  • Water conditioner to remove chemicals from your tap water, this is vital!
  • Gravel or soil - what substrate would you like on the bottom of your tank? In some cases, sand can also be very attractive! Again this also depends on the species you have chosen.
  • Any decorations you would like in your tank
  • Lighting depending on the species of fish
  • Fish food
  • Syphon and bucket which will assist you in aquarium cleaning maintenance.

After you have purchased all that you need for your basic aquarium set up, unfortunately, the tank is not yet ready to house fish. You will need to go home, set up the tank and leave it for one to two weeks, to develop a colony of beneficial bacteria on the filter media and any decorations. This will promote a healthy and stable aquarium for years to come as well as prevent sickness in your fish.

Please see below a guide to setting up your aquarium, this part is called cycling your tank:

  1. Set up your tank with all of your decorations, substrate and filter, heater (optional) and air pump. Please follow instructions on the packaging of these products to help guide you in this setup.
  2. Fill your tank with water. Fun fact: If you place a small shallow bowl/plate in the middle of your substrate and slowly fill you’re less likely to disturb your beautiful set-up with water flow. Remove the bowl after the tank is filled. This is when you add your water conditioner; please see product packaging for dose rate.
  3. Turn on your filter, heater (optional) and air pump.
  4. To promote a colony of beneficial bacteria it is vital for the bacteria to have a food source. This is where fish food comes into play. Even though you don’t have any fish in the aquarium yet you want to put a very small amount of fish food in the tank daily for the bacteria to have something to feed on. This process is called nitrification.
  5. This is probably the most important and time-consuming part of Cycling. Patience is a must to set up an aquarium appropriately! After setting up and feeding the tank with fish food you need to wait 24 to 48 hours before you first test your tank water using the water test kit. If you see a reading of ammonia on your test kit it is now time to use your syphon. Syphoning a tank can be tricky, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed the first time! YouTube videos are a great way to learn. After seeing a reading of ammonia on your test kit you need to remove 25% of the water and fill it back up again. Now every time you add tap water to the tank you need to remember to add a water conditioner (see packaging for recommended dose rate). You need to do this process of testing water, seeing the reading and syphoning 25% of the water out every 2 to 3 days.
  6. Once you have a reading of nitrate on your water test kit you can assume that the bacteria are doing their job and you have successfully cycled your tank! This may take between 1  to 3 weeks to achieve.
  7. Now for the best part, add your fish!

The Nitrogen Cycle:

In natural water systems like lakes and rivers, when the fish defecate after eating, the natural flow of the water system will clear any ammonia that’s present from the faeces produced. In aquariums, this isn’t viable so as keepers we need to try and replicate this at home to the best of our ability. This is why frequent (1 - 2 weekly) water testing and maintenance cleaning using our syphon is needed.

When fish defecate, a harmful chemical called ammonia is produced. In the aquarium, your friendly colony of beneficial bacteria will turn this chemical ammonia into another harmful chemical called nitrite. From nitrite, our bacterial friends will then turn this chemical into nitrate, which is way less harmful to fish to live in, although in high quantities it can become nasty. This is why we do our weekly to fortnightly clean depending on our water testing results!

The above information can be a lot to take in but it can help to ensure your new fish live a happy and healthy life! I recommend doing your research when it comes to fish care and aquarium keeping. The above is what I recommend to start up a healthy tank and to prevent any future illness your fish may contract. Best of luck and happy fish keeping!

Written by Heather Draper, Animal Caretaker

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