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Starting up & maintaining a stress free aquarium

So you’ve decided you would like to have an aquarium. Congratulations! You’ve chosen one of the worlds most popular and most rewarding hobbies. A well designed, well kept aquarium never ceases to amaze, intrigue and entertain people with its diverse range of occupants in constant motion and interacting with their environment.

Keeping an aquarium is sometimes the only choice for some people who live in small apartments where a dog or cat isn’t allowed. Or perhaps you have allergies which are easily set off by the presence of fur or feathers. If this applies to you then an aquarium is the ideal choice for you. Also, fish do not need to be sent to a kennel when you go away on holiday for a week.

But where do we start? How do we get from our initial idea to the finished masterpiece without getting things wrong (which is a very common mistake)? Well, from reading this article you have proved that you’re not just another one of those people who go to the shops and buy absolutely everything needed, including fish, arriving home and employing the ‘just add water’ technique which is prevalent in so many newcomers to the hobby. Though usually through no fault of their own. This is definitely the route to failure, not to mention extra expense through dying fish.

Firstly you need to establish the size of aquarium your home has room for. You should aim to get the largest size that your chosen location can comfortably accommodate without it dominating the room. A sense of balance needs to be achieved so that if you have a small room, the aquarium isn’t totally in your face. There are also a few points that need to be kept in mind when selecting the location. Fish do not like continuous disturbance such as a noisy area where people are always moving by. And at the opposite end of the scale, if the aquarium is shut away in a quiet room that is rarely entered, the fish may become too shy and are easily frightened when a member of the family enters.

Choose a site in a regularly used room (such as a living room) away from normal walkways and doors. You should also choose a location away from sources of heat (such as radiators or cookers). Avoid setting up close to a window that receives mid-day or prolonged sunlight. Sunlight will cause overheating and an algae problem worthy of a horror movie. If you do wish to use a window as the location of your aquarium, then I only really recommend you choose North-facing one as this does not get sunlight at all.

Also, if the living room is to be chosen, to make life easier for you, a site that is easily viewed from your favourite sitting position is less stressful for you. An aquarium situated behind you is more likely to be overlooked (maintenance wise) than one in easy view. This makes sense as if you are a tidy person, looking at fish tank with algae covered glass and plenty of dead plants isn’t exactly the kind of focal point in the room that you wish guests to see. A stunning display is always a talking point when friends call by.

Once you’ve chosen your aquarium location and size you need an idea of the kind of fish you want to keep. Find a good aquatic shop in your area and visit it a few times without buying anything. Have a good look at all the fish on sale. There are so many to choose from, so many different shapes and sizes. Find out whch ones are suitable for beginners, make a note of which ones you like the most.

Then, with these notes in hand, do some research for each species of fish. Their adult size (most fish on sale are young), their behaviour, their compatibility with your other chosen tank mates, diet, temperature requirements and suitability to your water supply. For example, there is obviously no use in setting your heart on keeping a goldfish with a Piranha for several reasons, the most obvious being that the Piranha is a predator and will eat the goldfish. Secondly, the goldfish is a coldwater fish and the Piranha requires tropical conditions. Also, the Piranha comes from the Amazon with its acidic low pH water conditions whereas the goldfish prefers a water chemistry that is slightly on the alkaline side of neutral pH. So it is essential that all your chosen inhabitants will live comfortably in the conditions available.

Another point worth mentioning is that in most cases you should not keep large and small fish together. It’s common that the larger ones will eat the smaller ones, but it is also a case of avoiding undue stress on the smaller fish. Even if the smaller fish is too big to fit into the mouth of a larger one, the presence of larger species will stress the smaller individuals in many cases. It can be quite daunting being small.

Also, do not keep skittish, fast swimming fish with slower, more sedate, individuals. Do not keep fish with long flowing fins such as a Betta with fast fin-nipping tank mates such as Tiger Barbs, although this can occasionally be alleviated by making sure that the Tiger Barbs are kept in larger enough numbers so that they prefer to squabble among themselves.

The fish you keep should also match the flow rate of your choice of filtration. Fish from quieter waters such as Bettas, Gouramis, Angelfish & dwarf cichlids will not appreciate being blown around a tank by a powerful internal power filter. And likewise, fish from rapid moving waters such as Danio’s and some barbs enjoy swimming against strong currents.

With this in mind I suggest that you research your chosen fish thoroughly on either the internet or by buying a good book on the subject. The internet has hundreds of excellent sites which range to general fishkeeping, to sites which focus on perhaps only one family or species of fish. If you have internet access, then have a good look through the Yahoo! Groups. One worthy of mention is tropicalfishclub, a large moderated group which aims to provide friendly advice to fishkeepers of all levels experience. Here you can post your questions and concerns and can be assured to receive some of the best advice available as there are a few very experienced members which never tire of offering there help.

I beg you; please do not keep a goldfish or any fish in a small aquarium or a goldfish bowl. These are cruel and often don’t even provide a basic form of filtration. The water would soon become toxic. The smallest size aquarium I would advise to keep some small fish in would be 15 litres. A very useful rule is to ensure that the aquarium is at least six times the length of the fish. Bare in mind the size the fish will reach when adult. Also never purchase the aquarium and fish on the same day. You need to set up your aquarium and have the filter running for around 4 weeks before adding fish in order to let your new tank cycle (mature).

During this time you can add a maturing agent to help jump start the process. Not many are very good with the exception of Biomature by Waterlife. I have heard also marvellous things about a product available in the U.S called Biospira which unfortunately is not available here in Ireland. Tetra have a new product called Safe Start which claims to do pretty much the same thing. My favourite method of cycling is by adding a frozen prawn. This way no fish are harmed or exposed to harmful Ammonia & Nitrite. During this period, test the water for Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate (note the subtle difference in spelling). These are the three chemicals which form the nitrogen cycle. Most stores will also test the water for you.

The way this cycle works is as follows. Fish produce ammonia, which is very toxic to fish, this is consumed by bacteria and turned into nitrite which is only slightly less toxic. The nitrite is then broken down by different bacteria to produce nitrate. This is only mildly toxic but can only be removed by performing regular partial water changes. There are chemicals out there to remove nitrate, but I say to you, there is nothing that does the job as well as a good old fashioned water change.

When your filter needs cleaning, NEVER rinse it in tap water as this will kill the beneficial bacteria which break down fish wastes and will start the cycling process over again, often with deadly consequences. Instead, clean half of the filter sponge in some of the water you have removed from your aquarium. Then next time, clean the other half. Many filter sponges can be cut in half but the manufacturers don’t tell you this.

The stocking density for coldwater freshwater fish is 1” per gallon. Fish (especially Goldfish) produce a lot of ammonia in their waste (& through respiration) and therefore I recommend you change 25% of the aquarium water each week. With tropical fish you can keep 2” fish per gallon. During the first six months of your aquarium, only stock gradually & only to half these levels. After six months you can gradually increase again to the full stocking level.

Keeping fish is often the only pet option for people who suffer from allergies when fur or feathers are present. Also they don’t chew your furniture, wee on the carpet, need a walk or require a stay at a kennel when you go on a week long vacation. A well looked after adult fish will be perfectly fine when left without food for a week while you are away. What they do need is excellent water quality as outlined above. Look after their water and your fish will provide you with years of enjoyment.