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Setting up a New Fish Tank

The fish tank is of course a vital component to any fish keeping aquarium setup. Fish tanks are where the fish live. There are many different kinds. Some prefer to keep their fish in bowls.

Others prefer a huge, extravegant fish tank. The setup you choose will depend on what you are looking for and how much you are able or willing to spend. It is important to know from the beginning how much money you can afford and are willing to spend on your fish tanks. In fact, not only is it important to consider your current budget, but you must also think about any potential future changes that may impact your ability to maintain your aquarium, as larger, more expensive aquariums will typically require more money to mainain and feed livestock. While many hobbyists advocate that people get as large a fish tank as they can afford, many smaller tanks are equally or even more beautiful and fulfilling as their larger counterparts. It all depends on what you, the fish tanks owner, decides to do with the aquarium.

1. Introduction

The aim of this article is to give some basic information you will need when starting up a fish tank for the first time. It has been written with tropical freshwater fish tanks in mind, but most of the principles apply to saltwater and other types of fish tanks as well. Much of it is based upon my own experiences when I first ventured into this amazing hobby.

When starting out, you will be faced with a great many choices, the most fundamental of these being which type of fish you will want to keep.

Different species of fish have different levels of care and require different conditions – this should always be taken into consideration especially when stocking a community fish tank (a tank containing a variety of different species).

At first when you start to research everything it can all seem a little overwhelming. The main thing is to read as much material as you can, and don’t be put off by terms such as cycling etc, it will all become clear in time.

Fishkeeping is an interesting and rewarding hobby, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

2. Basic Start-up Equipment Required

A standard fish tank is a rectangular shaped glass or acrylic box with an open top. When choosing fish tanks, it is important to consider whether you have room for it, whether the floor can support its weight, and whether you can afford to keep an aquarium of that size going. The larger the fish tank, the more expensive the filtration and other equipment, and the more electricity they will consume each month. As an example, a 55 gallon fish tank and basic metallic stand cost $89.00. However, by the time the entire saltwater setup was purchased, it came to over $1,000 including the filter, heater, substrate, test kit, and ornaments. Of course, you can get a much smaller fish tank with a much less elaborate setup. For example, a complete kit for a 10 gallon freshwater fish tank may cost less than $30.00.
fish tanks

Fish Tanks Equipment

  • Fish tank
  • Fish tank hood and lighting
  • Filter
  • Heater
  • Thermometer
  • Substrate (sand or gravel)
  • Water conditioner (to remove harmful chemicals from tap water)
  • Test kit (to test for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH)
  • Plants (live or silk/plastic although this is optional)
  • Polystyrene to cushion the base of the tank (depending on the sort of tank)
  • Fish Tanks Stand (one with a built in storage area is useful for storing fish tank equipment, food, external filter etc)
  • Net
  • Fish food
  • 2 buckets – one of clean water and one for dirty water
  • Gravel vacuum
  • Decorations (for fish to hide)
  • Fish Tank background (optional)

When it comes to choosing your first aquarium, although smaller fish tanks may be less expensive, if you opt for one you will be more limited in the size and number of fish you can keep.

There are now a wide range of fish tanks for sale, and some of these include all the equipment you will need – heaters, filters, lighting etc.

Fish tanks can be either glass or acrylic. If choosing an acrylic fish tank, please bear in mind that this can be scratched much more easily than glass.

Once you have selected your fish tank and equipment, it is not simply a matter of adding water and then fish, as the fish tanks will need to be cycled first. (See Cycling Your New Tank)

3. Checking and Positioning Your New Fish Tank

Once you have acquired all the relevant equipment, you will no doubt be anxious to get started. Firstly, decide where you would like to position the fish tank, as once it had all be set up it cannot be easily moved. This should be on a flat, even surface and must be within easy reach of a power outlet. Make sure that all plugs will be easily accessible.

Check that the fish tank is level when positioned on top of the stand – this can be done using a spirit level. Uneven fish tanks will put unnecessary strain on the glass and could eventually lead to a leak. Avoid positioning the fish tank close to a heater or a draughty door and avoid direct sunlight exposure.

4. Filling the Fish Tank with Water

Firstly, make sure you have a towel to dry your hands near to the fish tank, and that all accessories such as heater, filter etc have been situated in the relevant place.

If you have chosen a background for the fish tank, it is a good idea to add this now, before filling fish tanks with water. One method is simply sticking it to the back using sticky tape. I have found that a much more effective method is to smear some cooking oil over the outside back glass of the fish tank, and smooth the background on using a credit card, making sure that all bubbles are smoothed out. This gives a much clearer and brighter effect.

Now add the substrate to the bottom of the fish tank ensuring that you have washed it thoroughly. This can be done by placing it in a bucket, and running water through it until the water runs clear. Please note: failure to rinse the chosen substrate thoroughly may result in cloudy water which can take weeks to clear.

Now, slowly fill the fish tank to the halfway mark. You may find it useful to place an upside-down plate on the bottom of the fish tank and pour the water in over this, as it will cause less disturbance to the substrate as you add the water.

As you fill fish tanks, check carefully around the seals to ensure that there are no leaks.

If you are planning on adding plants initially, it is a good idea to bring the water to the correct temperature and dechlorinate before planting, as raw tapwater can shock plants as well as fish.
Another fish tank

5. Adding Plants/Décor

There are a couple of reasons for adding decorations to your fish tank.

Firstly, the fish tank will look better if it is nicely decorated. A mixture of natural looking substrate, plants, rocks or wood can make a fish tank look very natural and is very soothing to look at.

Secondly and more importantly, decorating your fish tanks will make the fish feel more comfortable and give them places to hide. A suitably decorated fish tank will encourage fish to show their natural behaviour, and your fish will actually spend less time hiding.

Once you have added your decorations, try moving things around until you have the desired effect you are looking for.

6. Checking Equipment

Now is the time to check all electrical equipment is working. Add a thermometer to the fish tank and plug in the filter, lights and heater. Most fish tank heaters have a dial at the top to adjust the temperature, and a built in thermostat. If you are using an external filter, it is recommended that you let this run for several hours to ensure there are no leaks.

My advice would be that you leave everything running for a couple of day before adding any fish, to ensure that all equipment is fully functional.

7. Filters

No matter what sort of filter you have chosen for your fish tank, it will be free of beneficial bacteria when you first add it. In order for the filter to operate effectively to break down fish waste the fish tanks will have to be cycled. This is a process whereby beneficial bacteria are built-up inside the filter.

There are two main types of filter; internal and external.

Internal Filters

An internal filter is the simplest and least costly method of filtration. Because an internal filter is housed within the fish tank, there is no risk of leaking.

External Filters

External filters are the best means of filtration available in the shops, and have a couple of benefits over internal filters although they are more costly. External filters have a large media capacity, and can also be hidden in cabinets in the fish tank stand.

Note: it is very important to provide fish tanks with adequate filtration, and a powerful filter does not mean that you can skip water changes and general tank maintenance.

8. The Nitrogen Cycle

Before I explain cycling you new fish tank, firstly I will give a brief explanation of the Nitrogen Cycle.

Ammonia (first stage of cycling)
Firstly, ammonia is produced in the fish tanks water through fish respiration, waste and uneaten food. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish, and if not removed will eventually cause death.

Nitrite (second stage of cycling)
During the time when you are cycling your fish tank, nitrite readings will appear in your test readings. Nitrite consumes ammonia, but is the next most toxic pollutant after ammonia. High nitrite readings will eventually cause death in most species of fish.

Nitrate (third stage of cycling)
Finally, nitrate is produced in the filter. Nitrate consumes harmful nitrite which in turn has consumed the harmful ammonia. Nitrate at levels of 40 parts per million or below will not be harmful to fish.

9. Cycling Your New Fish Tank

Once the fish tank has been set up it will have to cycle. Cycling is a process where the chemical levels in the water reach a point where it can sustain fish. Some fish are hardier than others. A freshwater betta fish may be able to go into tap water treated with a tap water condition immediately, whereas the suggested time to wait to allow a saltwater fish tank to cycle can be up to 6 to 8 weeks! You can have fish in the fish tanks during this time, though there is a good chance they may be lost. Many saltwater fish keepers start off with inexpensive fish called damsels when they cycle their fish tank, though these fish are often removed once the fish tank has cycled if they survive because they can be aggressive towards more expensive fish added.
Firstly, you will need a freshwater test kit, which includes tests for Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate and pH. I have used a couple and would highly recommend the Master Freshwater Test Kit from Aquarium Pharmaceuticals (API). This is a liquid test kit (more accurate than test strips) and is readily available from most local fish stores.

Cycling With Fish
The time has now come to start cycling your fish tank. This can be done by using some hardy fish, such as zebra danios. When cycling the fish tank, the general rule of thumb is approximately one inch of fish for every 3 or 4 gallons of water. For example, 16 gallon fish tanks would require around 5 fish for cycling.

When adding fish to your fish tank, ensure that the fish tank water is dechlorinated and at the correct temperature. Do not add the fish immediately to the tank water when you bring them home. It is necessary to float the fish inside the bag in the fish tank for around 20 minutes to help acclimatise them. This will bring the water in the bag to around the same temperature as that in the fish tanks, and will prevent shocking the fish.

Now, time to add the fish! Gently untie or cut the bag and let the fish swim free.

For the next 6 - 8 weeks, you will have to be very patient, and be prepared to spend a lot of time performing fish tank maintenance. Watch the behaviour of the fish closely, and do not overfeed.

During the first week of having the fish in the fish tank, perform water changes of around 10 - 15 percent every couple of days. After the first week, it is time to start testing your water, and this should be done at approximately the same time each day. At this point, you will be monitoring for ammonia and nitrite readings (although nitrite may not yet be present).

After the first week, when ammonia levels start to increase (anything above 1ppm), perform a 10 – 15 percent water change. This will dilute the ammonia in the fish tank. Ammonia readings will be present throughout the initial stage of the cycle (water changes help keep these from becoming too high). Anywhere from 1 week onwards, you will notice a presence of nitrite in your test reading. This is the second stage of the cycle.

After a number of weeks (but remember this varies in each case) you will notice the nitrite reading peak and then start to fall again, and the presence of nitrate in the fish tank.

Once you have a steady reading of ammonia 0, nitrite 0, and a presence of nitrates, you will know that your fish tanks have finished cycling.

Please note that when adding new fish after the cycle is complete, this should be done very gradually over a period of weeks or you may experience another ‘mini’ cycle in the fish tank.

10. Adding Fish

Now the fun part, choosing your fish. There are many ways to acquire fish for your fish tank. You may have an LFS or local fish store near you. You should check out a number of local fish stores before making your purchase so that you can compare prices, cleanliness, and overall quality. If you see fish half dead or rotting in more than one fish tank at the same fish store, you probably want to buy from somewhere else! If you don't have a local fish store or you cannot find the type of fish you want (for instance, not every fish store sells saltwater fish because they are expensive and those that do may have a limited selection), you can order live fish online. There are many websites setup where you can choose a fish by species and even size. They will ship the fish to your door and most guarantee that the fish will live at least a specified period of time so that you can be sure you are not throwing away money. Of course, if you have friends who keep fish and they want to give away their fish or their fish have babies (fry), you can add these to your tank.  

11. General Fish Tanks Maintenance

Once your fish tank is setup you can relax and enjoy watching its inhabitants. Unfortunately, though, your work isn't finished. The fish tank must be maintained. A number of factors will affect how frequently aquarium maintenance must be performed and what needs to be done.
Fish tank maintenance is an essential part of your new hobby, and neglecting this will lead to problems with both the fish tank and the long-term health of the fish. The most effective way of keeping fish tanks clean is to combine both water changes, gravel vacuuming, algae removal and filter maintenance.

As you continue the day-to-day running of your fish tank, you will find that you rapidly build up new knowledge, skills and interest.

I have found fishkeeping to be a very enjoyable and rewarding hobby, and hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.