Aquarium Basics

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Getting Started In Aquaria

Knowing where to start with fish keeping can be difficult. Here is a step-by-step guide for getting started in one of the most rewarding hobbies in the world. These steps can help you to avoid many common mistakes and get you into an aquarium that can become an exciting part of your decor.

1. What kind of fish to keep.

Different fish require different space, environment, conditions and care. Determining which fish you want to keep before buying your equipment will save a lot of time and expense in the long run.

2. Research your type of fish.

Your first purchase should be a book. It is important to learn about the fish you want to keep. This will let you know what conditions they will need, how to set up your aquarium, how big they will get and in turn determine the size of aquarium you will need. Usually a ratio of 1cm of fish/2 Litres of water is about right. Researching your fish type will also give you an indication if the fish you have selected are compatible with each other.

3. Space for your setup

Now that you have completed your research you will have an idea about what size of aquarium you will have and how much space you will need. Remember that you will need to allow room for any external filters including power cords and filter tubing.

4. Budget

How much can you afford to spend on your aquarium? If this is your first aquarium, how much can you afford to spend on a new hobby that you are not sure you will continue with?

5. Setup

Now you have everything home, clean all items in readiness for setup. Make sure that you clean your aquarium with a clean cloth and water (DO NOT USE CHEMICALS). Rinse filters, filter parts and filter media with water. Flush all pipes etc. You should expect to spend a couple of hours setting everything up if this is your first aquarium. Fill the aquarium with water, turn on your filter, heater and lights, and let it settle for a couple of days so you can make sure that everything works properly and that nothing leaks.

6. Select your “starter fish”

In the first couple of days, while the aquarium is running without fish, you can go back and select a few starter fish. These fish should be hearty, inexpensive, relatively small and something you want to keep in your aquarium in the long run. You only want to select 1cm of fish per 16 Litres of water, but this time (and only this time) you can use the size the fish are when you get them to determine their impact. This is because your fish will not grow much in the 4-6 weeks it will take the aquarium to “cycle”.

7. Cycling the aquarium

Over the next 4-6 weeks it is important to be patient. Be very diligent with aquarium maintenance, be absolutely sure not to over feed, watch your fish's behavior closely, do extra water changes as necessary, and DON'T ADD ANY MORE FISH. Until your aquarium has finished cycling, you should only stick with your few selected starter fish.

8. Aquarium Maintenance

 Feed and observe your fish every day. Check your filters at least twice a week. Perform a 10-15% water change every week, and scrub for algae at the same time. Each month you should check all hoses, fittings, clamps, cords, lights and other miscellaneous equipment. This may sound like a lot, but a couple of minutes a day can save you a lot of time and money in the long run. Water changes usually take under 30 minutes for an aquarium, including checking all equipment and scrubbing for algae! Most people find their aquariums to take under 2 minutes a day to keep everything in good order.


Cycling Your Aquarium

What is Cycling?

Cycling the aquarium is the process that establishes a bacteria bed in your biological filter to remove the toxins that the fish's metabolism creates. There are right and wrong ways to do this, and several things you can do to slow this process (which you don't want to do). There are two steps to cycling, but you don't have to do anything special for either of them. First, your filter will grow a culture of bacteria that digest Ammonia and turn it into Nitrite (which is more toxic than the ammonia in hard water or water with a higher pH) then, your filter will produce bacteria that digests Nitrite and turns it into relatively harmless Nitrate. However, Nitrate will contribute to loss of appetite and stress in your fish, as well as contributing to algae growth, so it is important to do regular small water changes to keep your aquarium in best condition.

Water changes whilst cycling

Some will recommend not doing water changes while the aquarium is cycling because they believe that this will disturb the bacteria that are colonizing the biological filter and will either prevent the aquarium from cycling or will make it take longer to cycle. This is actually one of the common misconceptions in the aquarium hobby. Not only does performing frequent small water changes while cycling the aquarium not delay or hamper the cycling process, in fact, in many cases it seems to speed it up slightly! In addition, if your aquarium is cycling and has fish in it, the elevated ammonia and nitrite levels are almost always fatal to the some, if not all, of the fish before the biological filter is up and running if you do not perform regular, frequent, small water changes to keep these toxin levels low. Performing small, frequent water changes while the aquarium is cycling is not only beneficial to the cycling process and helpful to the bacteria you are trying to establish, but it is also crucial to the health of the fish in the aquarium.

How to Cycle your aquarium.

You should cycle your aquarium with a small number of fish. They should be hearty fish, and something that you will want to have in your aquarium in the long run. Do not cycle your aquarium with lots of feeder goldfish. Do not cycle your aquarium with any goldfish unless you intend to keep goldfish. Unfortunately many pet shops suggest this.

What Fish Should I Use?

There are many species of fish suited for “cycling” aquariums and many of the Gouarmi, Paradise Fish & Tiger Barb varieties are suitable. Remember you are going to keep these fish in the long run and must ensure that they are compatible with other varieties you intend to keep.

For an aquarium of small community fish, White Clouds or Zebra Danios are good cycling fish; Cherry Barbs or Tiger Barbs are good for a slightly more aggressive aquarium; or Pseudotropheus Zebra is a good choice for an African Cichlid aquarium. Your local aquarium should be able to point you toward some hardy fish of the type you are looking to keep. For a small to medium aquarium, two or three small schooling fish or one small cichlid would be more than sufficient. Let the aquarium sit for a couple of days, feeding your fish carefully to prevent excess food from decaying and fouling the water.

There are several reasons that you do not want to cycle your aquarium with a large number of fish:

  1. Cycling an aquarium with lots of fish will produce a lot more waste, which in turn will stress your fish, resulting in higher die-off rates and increased risk diseases.
  2. Cycling with a large number of fish will increase water problems incurred during the cycling process.
  3. A large number of fish can contribute to a foul smell coming from the aquarium which can spoil the whole experience of owning an aquarium.
Every couple of days do a 10%-15% water change, and after about a week, take a sample of your water to a pet shop or aquarium to get it tested. Many pet shops or aquariums will test fresh water for free! The pet shop where you purchased your equipment should provide this service. After the first week your water should test with a high ammonia reading and maybe just a trace of nitrite. If it doesn't don't worry too much, just give the aquarium time as the process usually takes 4-6 weeks and sometimes longer.
After about 6 weeks, your ammonia and Nitrite levels should be acceptable (about trace levels), and you can add more fish. Do not add more fish until the ammonia and Nitrite levels have both dropped. Remember to add new fish only a few at a time to prevent over-stressing the system. If you add too many at once, your aquarium will have to cycle again.

Trouble Shooting

If, after six to eight weeks of cycling, your ammonia and nitrite levels aren't satisfactory, you need to trouble shoot your situation.
  • Did you treat the water you added to the aquarium to remove chlorine and chloramines? If you didn't the chlorine you added to the aquarium may have killed the bacteria who were trying to start the filter. Or the ammonia in the chloramines could be more than your new bacteria colony can handle.
  • Did you do water changes regularly? This will remove excess waste before it kills the fish or the bacteria.
  • Did you do moderate (10%-15%) water changes rather than large (20%-50%) water changes? Large water changes will stress the bacteria and fish, causing inadequate filtration, as well as removing the ammonia and nitrite the bacteria are trying to metabolize.
Cycling the aquarium takes between two and six weeks depending on several factors including:

  • Amount of ammonia in water for bacteria to digest
  • Availability of bacteria in atmosphere to colonize filter
  • Frequency and relative amount of water changes
  • Reliability of source of waste (ammonia and nitrite)
  • Amount of excess decaying matter in aquarium (dead fish, extra food, plant leaves, etc.)
  • Presence of toxins/anti-bacterial agents/sanitation chemicals in aquarium water
  • Use of chemicals to remove ammonia from the water.

I hope you have found this basic guide usefull. I will be putting together other articles on:
  • Cleaning and Maintenance of your aquarium
  • A guide to calculating surface area and volume for different shaped tanks.

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