Starting a fish tank for beginners that have never had a fish tank before. Everything that you need to know, do and buy is explained here.
Which type of aquarium setup do you want?
There are 3 basic aquarium setups
1. The tropical freshwater tank. This is the most common. This is an aquarium that uses tap water or other freshwater source and a heater to maintain the tropical temperatures needed. There are a wide variety of colourful fish and plants available to populate this type of aquarium.
2. The cold-water tank. This is less common put still popular. By far the most common fish for this aquarium is the goldfish. With the growth of fish keeping there has been a wider availability of other cold-water/temperate fish (besides goldfish) that do not require warm water or a heater. Some of these fish are quite colourful.
3. The marine tank. This is a heated aquarium that uses seawater instead of tap water. You don’t need to take trips to the sea to obtain seawater. You can actually buy a sea salt mix and add it to tap water to make your own seawater. Most marine fish in the hobby are reef fish. Reef fish are the most colourful fish available. Maintaining a marine tank is much more difficult than the other two and is not recommended for beginners.
Beginners should choose either the cold-water aquarium setup or the tropical aquarium. Both are as easy as each other. The tropical aquarium is more colourful and allows you to have more fish in the tank but does require a heater.
Where to place your aquarium
Where not to place an aquarium
1. Do not place near any heat source such as a fire or a radiator.
2. Do not place near a window that has any sunlight.
3. Do not place near a draughty location.
4. Do not place in a location that has a lot of disturbances such as people walking by or banging doors.
You need to place the aquarium near a double electric socket. Place the aquarium in a location where you can observe it comfortably and you have easy access to the top of the aquarium for maintenance.
Essential equipment for the beginner’s fish tank
Glass aquariums are recommended for best viewing. Plastic tanks are available but scratch easily
Buy a as large a tank as you can reasonably afford. A 2ft/60cm tank is the recommended minimum size.
You need a heater for a tropical aquarium. But no heater is required for goldfish or temperate fish.
Lighting is needed so that the plants can grow and you can see the fish clearly. Good lighting can bring out the colours of your fish.
Ammonia and nitrite test kit is essential for a new aquarium to test for fish waste build-up.
Filter – a canister or even a sponge filter is necessary for biological filtration to break down fish waste. A sponge filter will need an air pump to power it.
Fish food. A good quality fish food that is made for the type of fish you keep. Remember some fish are carnivorous, some are mainly herbivores, while most are omnivores.
A syphon and bucket to remove water easily from an aquarium is a necessity. You can also use the syphon and bucket to return fresh water to the aquarium in a way that does not scare the fish.
Plants. Plants help remove fish waste(manure) from the water and provide a healthier more natural looking environment for the fish. You can choose from floating plants, rooted plants and non-rooted plants such as moss balls.
It is not essential to have gravel or sand but most people prefer it because it gives a grounding to the aquatic scene. Plants can be potted in pots with soil topped with gravel for better growth.
A thermometer is essential for a tropical aquarium to check if the heater is heating the water to the ideal temperature for your fish. This varies depending on which species you have. However, there is a range of temperatures that fish tolerate.
A hood. This prevents excess evaporation, heat loss and stops fish jumping out of the aquarium.
How to set up your fish tank
A fish tank when filled with water can get heavy so it needs a floor that can support it. Most floors in modern houses do this with ease. You can place an aquarium on a fish tank stand or a cabinet. A fish tank cabinet is preferred because it has been designed to support the weight of a tank of water. Home furniture can be used as long as the top surface is straight and has vertical support in the middle which will prevent the cabinet from bowing. If you buy a larger tank then a proper fish tank cabinet or stand is a must.
The stand or cabinet has to be level under load. The floor might not be level so use a spirit level on top of the aquarium and adjust things until the aquarium is sitting level. Before filling the aquarium use a cushioning material underneath the tank, ie between the tank base and the top of the cabinet. Polystyrene foam is ideal and helps distribute out any unevenness.
Basic aquascaping for your beginner’s aquarium
Find a picture of an aquarium that you like online and try to replicate it. When you place the gravel in the aquarium slope it from the back to the front. Place tall or bushy plants at the back and sides of the aquarium. Leave the front and middle of the aquarium plant free except for the occasional specimen plant. Place heaters, filters and other equipment behind bushy plants.
Setting up sequence for a beginner’s aquarium
Once the tank has been properly located and set up level, you are ready to start putting it together. A suggested sequence is as follows.
1. Wash your gravel or sand by placing some in a bucket then running water from a tap into it. Dust will come out with the water flow. Swirl it with your hand until all the dust has gone. Then place the cleaned gravel/sand in the aquarium. Then put the next batch of gravel/sand in the bucket and repeat until all the gravel/sand that you need is in the aquarium.
2. Half fill your aquarium with water. Smooth out the gravel/sand again. It usually gets disturbed when you add water to the aquarium.
3. Place your potted aquarium plants in the aquarium. Add fertiliser to the roots of the plants.
4. Place all the equipment and any decorations in the tank.
5. Fill the tank to the top.
6. Switch on all the equipment.
7. Place on the lid and turn on the light.
8. Add dechlorinator to the water.
9. Check the temperature and adjust the heater to get the required temperature
10. After 24/48 hours add a couple of fish.
Do a 10% water change every day. The new water needs to be dechlorinated and at the same temperature as the tank water.
11. Daily check the ammonia and nitrites. They will rise as the fish keep pooping and urinating. If the ammonia/nitrite levels go too high, do an extra water change.
12. When the ammonia/nitrite levels start to drop add another 2 fish.
13. Check the levels again and keep doing the water changes.
14. As the levels drop again and again add more fish. Only add more fish when your aquarium can cope.
15. After 6 weeks the aquarium should be stabilised.
Choosing the fish for a beginner’s aquarium
You need to research to find which fish is tough and won’t die easily. You need to avoid fish that are aggressive to other fish. And make sure you don’t buy fish that grow very big. Make sure you have a few alternative choices, because the particular fish you want might not be available. Do an internet search for fish that you like the look of that fits the previous choices.
How to buy the fish for a beginner’s aquarium
Now, you know what fish you are after and they are available. Do you just hand over your money? No! You must go to the fish shop’s tanks and have a good look at the fish in the tank. A tank with dead or sick fish is a big no no. You need to observe the fish. Are they active? Do they have fins extended. Are the colours bright and clear? Make sure there are no missing scales, no spots and no bits of fungus growing on them. Don’t buy a fish with split fins or cloudy eyes. When you approach the tank and pretend to feed them at the top of the aquarium, the fish should all rush to where you put your hand.
Select one fish at a time and ask the shop keeper to net the particular fish that looks good to you. Remember to not get excited and buy just a couple of fish at a time.
When to add the fish to your aquarium
Add the first 2 fish 24 to 48 hours after the tank has been filled up. To add fish to the tank from the bag. Do not just throw them in, but put the closed bag in the water and wait 15 minutes for the bag’s water to match the tank’s temperature. Then you just plop the fish in.
Then do daily ammonia/nitrite tests and daily water changes. As the fish eat they poop and urinate into the water. This pollution is cleaned up by bacteria in the filter. But, it takes time to build up enough bacteria. That is why you need to test the ammonia/nitrite levels. When the levels start to fall, add a couple more fish. If the ammonia/nitrite becomes too high then do an immediate water change of 25% and add dechlorinated water at the same temperature.
Cycling the beginner’s aquarium
This is critical to keeping your fish alive for any length of time. Fish waste builds up in water which slowly poisons the fish. Luckily when fish waste appears in water, bacteria start to grow that feed off this waste and neutralise it. However there is a time lag of several weeks before the bacteria can grow enough to cope with all of the fish waste. Most cycling bacteria grows inside a filter on the sponge material. The filter needs a good flow of water to feed the bacteria, which means you occasionally have to squeeze off the excess mud off the filter to stop it becoming clogged.
Setting up a maintenance routine
Once the tank has cycled, perhaps after 6-8 weeks then you can start to relax and reduce the water changes to 10% every week. Water changes help reduce the level of nitrate that is produced by the cycling bacteria. In nature, fast growing plants and algae would normally utilise nitrate, which is a fertiliser. In the aquarium we need to dilute the nitrate because we normally have too many fish compared to nature.
Feed the fish and do a fish count every feeding time. If any fish are missing then search the tank and remove the dead fish otherwise it could rot and pollute the tank. At the same time, check that all fish are healthy, active and with fins spread. Check for any parasites, any spots or any fungus and treat the fish when they are sick. At the same time check the temperature is right.
Once a week
1.Do an algae scrape of the front of the aquarium. It is better for the health of the aquarium if you do not scrape the side and back panes of the tank. If you are a meticulous person then you can also scrape the side panes as well but leave the back pane alone. Syphon 10-20% of the water into a bucket and sift the syphon through the sand/gravel to disturb any food or fish droppings that are trapped in the gravel. Pour away the bucket of water but be careful not to pour away any accidentally syphoned gravel. Wash this gravel and put it back into the aquarium.
2. Next, mix up a bucket of water with hot and cold tap water until it is the same temperature as your aquarium. Add your dechlorinator to the bucket of water. Then add this water to your tank. Top up your tank until full again.
3. Check there is a good flow from the filter. If the flow is slow then squeeze the excess mud from the filter and throw the mud away. Do not wash the sponge with tap water because that will kill the nitrifying bacteria on the sponge. Just squeeze the sponge by hand and then wash your hands.
4. Check your plants. Prune any dead bits and remove any dead plants.
5. Sit back and relax and enjoy your aquarium. You have passed the hardest stage of fish keeping. Now everything becomes easy and should be a more relaxed routine.