Sunday, February 25th, 2018

11 Steps for Starting your Fish Tank


I’ve heard and read these stories all too often. A child’s birthday is coming up, and Mom & Dad want to surprise junior with a freshwater aquarium or saltwater aquarium for that special day. Mom & Dad visit the local Pet Store or Fish Store, buy a 10-gallon starter aquarium kit and wrap it up.

The birthday morning is then spent setting up the aquarium. That afternoon, the family goes back to that local Pet Store to buy some of those colorful fish. And those small shiny ones. Oooh – and that cool-looking catfish in the corner tank. Dad! I want one of those neon-looking ones too!

One week later, the fish have died, and Mom & Dad decide that maybe starting a fish tank wasn’t such a good idea. Junior is bummed that all of his fish died, but he’s since been distracted by the new video game he got for his birthday as well. The fish tank is emptied and put into the attic or garage, only to be sold at next spring’s garage sale.

Luckily, your experience with starting your fish tank doesn’t have to end up like this. Follow these 11 simple Tips to Starting your Fishtank, and you should avoid many of the common mistakes made by first-time fish keepers.

Tip #1: Buy and Read a Book on how to Start an Aquarium
A book on starting an aquarium is a must if you are a first-time fish keeper looking to start a fish tank.  You can research your aquarium interest online as well (for free), but books offer portability and are sometimes just an easier read.  You will learn what conditions fish need, what aquarium equipment you will need, how to choose proper aquarium lighting, what type of filtration works for freshwater or saltwater aquariums, whether to choose live plants, how to setup your aquarium, and lots of other handy background information you need to be successful.

Some good starter books include:

Tip #2: Start with a Freshwater Aquarium
For a first-time fish keeper, I would recommend starting out with a freshwater aquarium.  A freshwater aquarium setup is considerably less expensive and less complicated than its saltwater equivalent.  Freshwater fish are also much cheaper for starting out, ranging from $2 to $10 instead of $20 to $100+!

Tip #3: Buy the largest aquarium you can
In general larger tanks are easier to maintain than smaller tanks. The larger water volume serves as a buffer to slow down chemical imbalances in your aquarium, and also let’s you have more fish!  Stay away from the ten gallon fish tank special at WalMart – a starter tank would ideally be a minimum of 20-30 gallons. Regardless of whether you buy a glass or acrylic aquarium, be sure to check out our chart of glass aquarium sizes to get an idea of the dimensions and approximate weight of your finished aquarium.

Tip #4: Purchase the required equipment to start your fishtank

  • Lighting
  • Heater
  • Thermometer
  • Filter (Power Filter, Undergravel Filter or Canister Filter)
  • Gravel or sand (one to two inches)
  • Aquarium Vacuum
  • Nitrogen and PH test kits
  • Aquarium Glass Cleaner
  • Fish Food
  • Decorations / Plants
  • Fish Net
  • Two 5-gallon buckets
  • Towel

Tip #5: Choose an appropriate location
The location of your aquarium is an important consideration for your new hobby.  You want to keep your fishtank away from drafts and direct sunlight, and preferably away from any areas in your house that has heavy traffic.  You also want to locate your aquarium stand near an electrical outlet, as you will have lighting, heating, filters and possibly an air pump to plug in.  If you are keeping a large tank (100+ gallons), you may also need to take structural considerations into account, as your finished tank setup will weigh over 1,000 lbs!

Tip #6: Provide some decorations & shelter for your fish
Decorations, such as large rock, live plants, plastic plants or wood make your aquarium more attractive and provide a place for your fish to hide when they are stressed.  Live plants provide a benefit of being able to process some of the aquarium waste as well.

Tip #7: Setup and cycle your aquarium
When you first setup your aquarium, it will not be able to process the waste the fish are producing.  You need to cycle your fish tank, giving the aquarium time to develop the naturally-occuring bacteria needed to process the amonia produced by your fish into the more harmless nitrate.  This process can take up to 8 weeks, during which time it is important to not have too many fish in your aquarium, and to do weekly water changes (15-20% of the water).  Don’t forget to add a water conditioner (such as Start Right) to remove the chlorine from your water if you are on a municipal water supply.

Tip #8: Purchase some starter fish
During the cycling process, you need to have some fish in your tank to produce the waste that creates the beneficial bacteria for your filter system.  These fish should be hardy and able to withstand some less-than-ideal water conditions.   White Cloud Mountain Fish, Zebra Danios, Platys and most catfish are all good choices to start with your aquarium.  Don’t overdo it though!  Two or three of these starter fish are all that your tank can handle at the beginning.

Tip #9: Introducing more fish to your aquarium – don’t overpopulate!
As a general rule, you should budget one to three gallons of tank size per one inch of fish to not stress your filter system.  For a 20-gallon tank, this would mean 15 to 20 inches of total fish length total.  Resist your urge to get more fish than your tank can properly support.  After selecting your fish, travel straight from the store to your house, and float the bags in your aquarium for 15-20 minutes prior to introducing your fish into your aquarium.  This will help match water temperatures and reduce the stress on your fish.

Tip #10: Conduct regular 15-20% water changes
More than anything else, regular water changes will help recover from any mistakes you might be making with your aquarium.  Smaller, weekly water changes of 15-20% of the water volume are better than a large (40+%) monthly water change, and will keep your fish healthy and happy!

Tip #11: Involve your whole family!
If you’ve followed all these steps, congratulations!  Take some time to enjoy the fruits of your labor with your whole family.  We’ve spent countless hours in front of our salt and freshwater aquariums watching our fish, plants, invertebrates and other animals interact with each other.  By having all family members involved, no one individual gets stuck with all the maintenance, and it can be a fun family activity for all involved.

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