Despite my comments about the big nasty green in my aquarium, keeping fish has been one of the most rewarding hobbies I've picked up. I'm currently planning a larger (75 gallon) freshwater tank and doing so with the experience and research I've done with the smaller 20 gallon aquarium currently running in my basement.
If you've thought about keeping fish, but aren't sure where to start, there are some things that will prevent you from making beginner mistakes. I managed to avoid some of them, but still fell victim to my fair share.
Due to my inability to put a halt to rambling, this article will come in 2 parts. This first part covers background information and equipent to buy. Part 2 covers the fish and ongoing maintenance.
I'm sure you've got lots of questions: freshwater or saltwater, how big, how many fish, what kind of fish, etc. I'll get to most of that, but first I want to get all parental about a couple of things.
- Fish are living creatures and not inanimate objects. Many will live for years. They deserve you treating them well by housing them in good conditions.
- Under no circumstances will you be adding fish to your tank on the day you put water into it.
OK, the first one should be fairly obvious, but I still wanted to say it. The second isn't obvious because outside of the fishkeeping hobby, no one has ever heard of . . . THE NITROGEN CYCLE . . . Most fish articles will pound you about the head with information on the nitrogen cycle. This may seem like it's because fishkeepers are anal retentive geeks. It is. However, when you're caring for living animals, a little bit of anal retention isn't a bad thing.
The Nitrogen Cycle
Drawing by J
While grossly simplified, the above image illustrates what goes on during the nitrogen cycle. Basically, fish (and other things like decaying food) produce ammonia. That ammonia is just as irritating to fish as it is to you. Just open a bottle of pure ammonia from the grocery store and you'll see what I mean. Since they have to swim in the very water that this ammonia is dumped into, you can see how this might become a problem fairly quickly.
Fortunately, our friends, bacteria come to the rescue. Turns out there is a bacteria that's pretty much everywhere already that really digs eating ammonia. And after a few days or so of ammonia building up in the water, they'll show up for the party and start munching.
UNfortunately, every living process that consumes something also produces some sort of waste. This ammonia eating bacteria is no different. It produces nitrites (note the second "i" as it will be an important distinction later). Great. No more ammonia, just nitrites. What? That's toxic to fish too. Crap.
Never fear, there just happens to be another bacteria living in your neighborhood that grooves on eating nitrites. And it inevitably produces waste as well, nitrAtes (see why I stressed the "i"?). So, since we all know Murphy was an optimist, this must mean that nitrates are toxic too. Well, they are, but not nearly as much so as the previous 2. They're OK enough that you can actually go a week or even a month (depending on a whole pile of variables) before it becomes any sort of problem.
In this case, however, the cleanup crew is you, with a bucket. You'll need to change out a portion of the water on a regular basis. The nitrates can also be removed via plant life through that miracle of life known as photosynthesis where the plants take in water, C02, light and nitrates and grow, while outputting oxygen that the fish need. Thus the circle of life is complete and Simba is happy. However, keeping plants AND fish alive at the same time isn't a task for most beginners in the hobby and I personally just deal with the water changes.
So, the nitrogen cycle lecture and visions of buckets of water across your house didn't scare you off huh? Think you're up to the task? Well, here's what you're looking for.
First of all, if you're anything like me, you buy a lot of stuff online. And, if you ARE me, you buy nearly everything online. Well, not for this project. See, glass tanks are big, heavy and fragile. That just happens to be the unholy axis of evil when it comes to UPS and FedEx. That usually leaves freight shipping via the unmarked white truck and ends up costing significantly more than the $6.95 shipping on your last DVD player. Also note that this is one category where eBay is pretty much "Pickup only" through all of the tank listings.
So, for the tank and other heavy items like gravel, buy it locally or the shipping will kill your credit card. If you have a local fish store (abbreviated in online forums as LFS), choose them over the chains (you know, PetSmart, PetCo, etc.). They usually are actually into keeping fish themselves and not only can help you with decisions you want to make, but they have healthier fish. The inhabitants of my tank that were purchased at World of Fish are all still alive, a claim which cannot be made for the decendants of Petco and PetSmart.
That essentially means that your first stop will be to find your LFS and take a look around. Leave your wallet at home and just go to look. For those of you who are single and broke, this can also be a free date that beats the $10 some large city aquariums charge to look at fish for a couple of hours. See what fish you enjoy and make sure you check out the price tags on them as well. That large lionfish is certainly interesting to look at, but is both poisonous and will run you $80, plus requiring a saltwater setup. The platies and guppies sitting across the room from them are only $2 and not only live in freshwater, but breed like the survival of their species depends on them alone.
Now, normally I'm a cheapskate just like lots of you. I look for the deal, the cheap way to get started and the fastest way to get started. I say that because, well, that's what I did and I regret it. Below is what I'm recommending for someone who is looking to get started with a semi-serious aquarium. The whole setup comes in cheaper than an iPod and will last longer than the battery does on the little white brick. However, this list is driven by ease of use, enjoyment and health of the fish and compromises on price in some areas over that cute little 10 gallon tank that has Sponge Bob on it.
If you're willing to deal locally and look around, you can get a similar setup for under $100.
The Shopping List
Where it matters, I've included specific name brands and models to make the shopping easier.
- The Tank - 55 gallon plain glass tank, not in a kit. If it doesn't come with a hood and light, you'll need those as part of this bit too. I'll explain why I chose this size after I'm done with the list.
- The Filtration - Penguin 350B Power Filter. This is $35 online (there are some cheaper places, but I've had luck with these guys). This filter is easy to maintain, hangs on the back of the tank and has a BIO-wheel, which gives you compact bacteria-growing power.
- The Heater - brand isn't as important here as that it's stainless steel (or anything else not glass) and 300W power. Should run about $20 online, more in the stores. When you do water changes, if you don't remember to shut the heater off, it can crack the glass.
- Gravel - the fish geeks call this "substrate". Try to resist the urge to get the neon green stuff and get a fairly neutral color. This is one of those things that isn't easily changed down the road and your choice here will live with you for a long time. Get enough to put about 2 inches in the bottom. How much that is will vary by the size of the bits of gravel themselves.
- Stand - wherever you're going to put this tank needs to be able to support a LOT of weight. The water alone is going to weigh nearly 450 pounds. This means that the TV trays you got for Christmas aren't up to the task of holding this bad boy up. And, given the consequences of failure (55 gallons of water on your carpet), think carefully before using existing furniture. If you're buying a dedicated stand, get one specifically rated to hold a 55 gallon tank. These range in price like other furniture but there are usually some options in the $50-100 range.
- Air pump and airstone - Get a battery operated air pump (I learned that lesson when my power went out for 4 days), some tubing and at least one air stone. These are fairly cheap.
- Thermometer - get one that is a regular thermometer (red alcohol in a tube) that floats or sticks to the inside of the tank. Do NOT get the cool-looking color-changing sticker that goes on the outside. They are hard to read and eventually quit working altogether. Yet, nearly every tank I've seen has one of these, dead and stuck to the side, it's black background and white blank stare mocking the owner.
- Test strips - time to play chemist. You're going to need testing strips or kits for: ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH and hardness. Don't buy too many of the ammonia or nitrite ones as you won't need very many once your tank is established.
- Dechlorinator - speaking of chemistry, the water coming out of your tap has been courteously filled with chlorine and a few other chemicals, that, while they keep you from getting things like amoebic dysintery, mess with your fish in bad ways. Get a bottle of dechlorinator to clean out the chlorine in any water you add to the tank.
- Scrubber on a stick - you can get one of the magnetic floating cleaners too if you want, but you're still going to need one of these to make a quick swipe of the inside of the glass every once in a while. A thin film builds up and no amount of algae eating fish or magnetic floaty things compensates for actually running a scrub pad along the sides to make the glass clear again.
- Decorations - this is probably where you're going to have the impulse to buy more than you need. That's why I put it at the end. Make sure you've taken care of everything else on this list BEFORE you buy a single decoration. Everything else ensures that your fish have a safe, clean, healthy environment. If they have that and are a little bored, they can wait until your next paycheck. Besides, decorations can be swapped out easily later, which isn't the case for most of the other stuff. Don't put anything in your tank that isn't foodsafe and I'd just steer clear of anything that isn't sold for aquarium use directly until you know what's going on.
OK. By now, you're probably wondering why I am pushing for a big, 55 gallon setup. It's not just because it's fun spending other people's money. Not just. Actually, it's because, while a 10-20 gallon tank appears to be the good beginner's choice, "start small" and all that, those smaller tanks are actually HARDER to keep fish alive in than the bigger ones. That means that the smaller your tank is, the more likely you are to fail.
Think of it like this. If you get a test back in school and you got 5 questions wrong, how badly did you do? If there were 8 questions, you failed miserably. If there were 200, you aced the dang thing. The same is true in your tank. If you do something that results in a spike in a bad chemical, in a 10 gallon tank, you're likely to kill all of your inhabitants. In a bigger tank, you're more able to correct the problem before you send your fish to sleep with the mobsters.
Also, because the tanks are sized in all 3 dimensions, they don't get that much bigger between sizes on any one dimension. The 75 gallon tank I'm getting soon is actually 4' long, just like most 55 gallon tanks. It's just deeper and taller. As a result, if space is your primary concern, you can frequently go up in size without taking up any more of the dimension that you're really constrained on. I have room for the extra 6 inches deep that the 75 gallon tank is, but not for a 6 foot long tank that the 90 is.
The other reason is that if you get bored with your 20 gallon or just want to get fish that can't live in a tank that size, you still have the tank full of fish to deal with. Most of the fish I've got in my 20 gallon would be food for the fish I'll be putting in my 75 gallon. I am going to just run both tanks, but not everyone has that option. And, if history is any indicator, unless you either just don't have the space or get bored, you're going to want a bigger tank eventually. Buying the biggest you can to start out minimizes that problem.
Well, there's your list. At this point, I'd recommend taking the trip to the LFS, adding up the costs of the list, seeing how much space you have and generally pondering whether to go forward with this setup.
Part 2 will cover setting it up, adding fish, how it works and maintaining it.