More often than not, when someone says 'fish tank' the two pictures that come to mind are either a goldfish in a small bowl with maybe a fake plant and some gravel or a fish tank the size of a large wall filled to the brim with colorful live plants and exotic fish. That is not what I think of, however. I picture my 20 gallon tank that sits in my living room with a few fish and fake plants. It is not exactly the Taj Mahal, but for what I am capable to take care of at the time it is perfect.
This is without a doubt the most important decision you make when deciding to get fish. The size of the fish tank determines where it can go, what you can put in it, and the amount of time you will be spending on upkeep. A lot of though and consideration needs to go into this before making the purchase.
A few questions to ask are:
How strong is the floor? Even if you have the space, putting a 75 gallon tank in your 2nd level sitting room without extra floor support will most likely cause it to wind up in the basement. A general rule to remember is 12-15 pounds per gallon of water. That includes water, gravel/sand, and decorations. With that formula, a 75 gallon tank can weigh roughly 900 to 1,125 pounds! It is better to be safe than sorry! This is also a good time to find a tank stand that will be strong enough to support that weight as well.
How much time do I have? The wonderful thing about fish is that they do not require a lot of time. Once set up is complete the maintenance is fairly minimal. Although, if you are a very busy person and are home long enough to sleep and shower only, having a larger tank* might become too much to manage. If you spend a lot of time at home you more likely have the time to maintain a larger tank. Read the Upkeep And Basic Maintenance section below to find out what all goes into maintaining a healthy, thriving tank to determine what you think you can handle.
*I am considering a large tank to be 30 gallons or more.*
How much money do I have? A simple, yet important question to ask. If you are living paycheck to paycheck or if you have a steady income with a decent savings account will help in deciding how large of a tank you can afford to have.
What kind of fish do I want? This is usually where people get upset. Most people assume any fish can go in any kind of tank/ bowl and be fine because "it's just a fish" and, unfortunately, they are wrong. This post is designed to help you create a healthy, thriving fish tank and putting any fish in any sized tank is not healthy. We will go into more detail about this in the Picking Out Your Fish section below but I encourage you to go to your local fish store and read the information tags on the different fish! If you have specific fish in mind that you want, you need to make sure you are allowing for the proper tank set up for them!
Filters: Although they aren't decorations, I am including filters in this section because they are a sort of 'accessory' to the tank, albeit a very necessary one. Filters keep the water from getting stagnant and help to cycle the proper and necessary bacteria throughout your tank. They remove large debris from the water column and trap discolorants and odors. However, unless you have a specialized filter, the toxicity of the water won't be solved. That will have to be taken care of manually.
Sometimes you can buy a fish tank 'starter kit' that comes with the light, hood, a net, and a filter. If you go with one of those, make sure to pay attention to what type of filter you have so you know what kind of cartridges to buy to replace the one it comes with. If you are buying the filter separate, READ THE BOX! A helpful tip is to purchase a filter for a tank size slightly larger than what you purchased. For example: You bought a 20 gallon tank so you will want to buy a filter than says it fits a tank up to 30 gallons. The reasoning behind that is after so long of being in constant use the filter will start to lose it's effectiveness and filter less gallons/hour than it was originally supposed to. By getting a filter that filters slightly more than what your tank size requires, you are elongating the life of your filter and saving money in the long run! Check out the Upkeep And Basic Maintenance section to know more about changing filters and different ways to expand their life even longer.
Gravel vs Sand: Every tank needs something at the bottom to help keep the other decorations from floating around in the water. This is most often either gravel or sand. Gravel is the more common of the two and typically easier for beginners, but I will post some basic principles for each.
Gravel: Gravel comes in many sizes and colors and is very common in most all fish stores. The general rule for how much gravel to put in a fish tank is 1 pound of gravel per 1 gallon of water. A 20 gallon tank = 20 pounds of gravel. It may seem like a lot, but once you put it in there it spreads out and holds your decorations in nicely. If you choose gravel, you want to add it to your tank first! Don't fill your tank with water and then add the gravel or you will have an overflow and it will be difficult to even out. Some people will fill the tank about 1/4 with water, add the gravel and decorations, then fill it the rest of the way slowly to avoid the water pressure pushing everything into each other.
Sand: Sand usually comes in more natural, earthy colors although you can find it in other colors. Most tanks that have sand at the bottom are home to live plants and very few, if any, plastic decorations. That doesn't mean if you want sand that you have to go that route, it is just the most common. The general rule for for how much sand to add to your tank is 1 - 1 1/2 pounds per gallon of water. When you add water to a tank with sand, it is recommended to get all the sand in the bottom how you want it, then lay a styrofoam plate at the bottom and pour your water slowly on that to prevent disturbing the sand and throwing it all over. **If you are wanting to do live plants (which I won't be covering in this tutorial) whether you use sand or gravel, the pound per gallon rule needs to be bumped up to 2 pounds per gallon! This allows your plants to have space for their roots!
Decorations: This can be the most fun stage of setting up your tank. Almost any pet store you go in will offer some amount of fish tank decor ranging from plants to pink unicorns and castles. This is where you can express yourself the most! Have fun picking out colors and themes, the possibilities are practically endless! One thing you need to keep in mind, however, is that not any plastic toy can go in a fish tank. The decorations that stores sell are treated specifically so that the paint on them will not harm the fish or mess up the chemicals in the water. The ONLY normal-people-toy that I know of that is safe to put in fish tanks are Legos. Awesome, right?
Something to keep in mind when getting decorations is that fish like places to hide. A rock that has large holes in it, a castle or house with a hollow part for them to swim in. A section more heavily planted than other sections of the tank. Not all fish get along, so having places for the fish to hide and keep out of each others personal space is a good idea. We will cover this more in Picking Out Your Fish.
Filter Upkeep: The filter is probably the most important part of your tank. Without a filter your water will get stagnant, algae will grow like a weed, the chemical balance of your water will get out of whack, and your fish will become ill. Keeping your filter in good condition is critical to a thriving fish tank.
The most simple way to maintain your filter is to change the filter cartridge every 3-4 weeks. A dirty cartridge is just as effective as no filter at all so make sure to keep up with this! A lot of good bacteria lives on your filter cartridge, so when you change it, you will want to add a supplement to your tank so your fish aren't effected at all. Another thing you could do is cut off a piece of your old cartridge and put it back in with the new cartridge to keep that good bacteria going.
It is also a good idea to take your entire filter apart every other month or so and scrub the inside well. Usually taking a clean toothbrush to it while under some hot water does the trick.
Vacuuming and Scrubbing: To someone who doesn't know very much about fish tanks, saying you need to vacuum your tank sounds a bit silly. In actuality, there is a tool called a Gravel Vacuum that is used to get all the debris and gunk out of the gravel (or skimmed off of the top of the sand) in your tank. Once your tank is set up and established (meaning the beneficial bacteria colony in the tank has had time to grow) you should gravel vacuum about once a week. You will want to wait a few weeks after the tank is set up and fish have been living in it to do this.
When algae starts growing on the tank walls, you will want to scrub it off to keep it under control. Your local fish store should sell safe scrubbers you can use. Magic erasers and old credit cards have also been known to work quite well. Make sure when sticking your hand in the fish tank that you didn't recently (within the last few minutes) wash your hands with soap or get anything on them that could be hazardous to the fish.
Cleaning Decorations: Ideally, you should not have to clean decorations unless they are being overrun with algae. When you do take them out to clean them, soak them in a 10-1 water-bleach solution and then rinse them off until the bleachy smell is completely gone. Let them air dry before returning them to your tank.
If your tank seems to be growing a lot of algae, AVOID taking everything out (gravel, decorations, etc) and cleaning it all! This will destroy the beneficial bacteria and will basically knock your entire tank back to level 1. The majority of the time, an overgrowth of algae is due to overfeeding or too much light. Try feeding less and cutting back on how much light you allow in the tank for a few weeks and see if that helps. The second step would be to gravel vac, do a water change, then clean the decorations. Your last resort should be taking everything out.
Water Changes and Water Testing: Water changes are when you take out about 15-25% of the water in your tank and replace it with new water. This is easiest done when you gravel vac as the vacuum will suck out water as it gets the debris out. Allow the vacuum to work until about 20% of the water is out and then replace it with new water. Some people use distilled water, but this can sometimes lack ions and other important minerals for fish. Spring water is usually recommended and tends to still have those minerals in it. If you are going to use tap (sink) water, make sure you are adding the correct chemicals to make the water less harsh. (If you do add chemicals to your water, have a five gallon jug or something equivalent that you have water in beforehand with the chemicals already mixed and settled. This prevents your fish from getting stressed from having straight chemicals dropped into their tank.)
Clarifying on the term 'chemicals' quickly: these are different products to add to your tank to keep the level of your water where they should be. Having your water tested will tell you if the PH, ammonia, nitrate and so on are high, low, or where they should be. (PetSmart does this for free, just bring in a water sample!) You can use that to determine what you need to get to balance your water. If you add chemicals to a new tank, make sure to wait 24 hours for them to spread before adding any fish!
The Inch Per Gallon Rule. This rule goes against most all picture you see on the front of fish tank boxes, and for a good reason. Basically, this rule says your tank can healthily hold one inch of FULL GROWN fish per gallon of water. When purchasing fish, make sure you pay attention to how big they can grow to be. A guppy may only get two inches while that cool algae sucker fish you want can grow to be a foot long! The saying "They will only grow to the size of the tank!" is not a healthy, practical, or realistic saying to follow.
How Quickly To Add Fish. Once your tank is set up you want to wait 24 hours to let the filter run and cycle the water through the tank. Then you only want to add a few fish at a time, preferably no more than 4 at once. Adding too many fish at once can throw off water balances and increase the chances of someone not making it.
The fish store will most likely put the fish in a plastic bag with air trapped inside of it. When you get home with that bag, you want to place the whole bag in the water of your tank and let it float for at least 15 minutes for the water temperatures to equal out. Once the water is acclimated, remove the bag and scoop the fish out (or pour the water from the bag into a net above your sink or in a bowl) and quickly place them into your tank. You don't want to dump the bagged water into your tank because I can almost guarantee the store water and your water were treated differently and mixing the two could mean trouble for your fish.
Wait about a week before adding more fish to be sure the current ones are healthy and happy.
Types Of Fish That Can Go Together. Not all fish are nice to each other. Some are bullies, some are cowards, and some are plain cannibals. Knowing which are which is going to be important. Some fish stores will have tags of information with each fish telling if they are semi-aggressive, a cichlid, goldfish, or if they are a tropical community fish. Tropical community fish are the most popular for home tanks and will allow you to get a larger variety of types and colors in your tank. Semi-aggressive fish allow less diversity and also require many more hiding spots due to them being territorial. Semi aggressive fish, cichlids, and goldfish also require larger tanks as they can grow to be fairly large in size. The majority of fish owners enjoy the diversity community fish allow. If the fish stores you visit do not have these tags, be sure to ask an associate.
Water Temperatures. Different fish also require different water temperatures. Tropical community fish need warmer water (75-82 degrees F) while goldfish like colder water (65-72 degrees F). If the area the tank is in stays cooler, you will want to invest in a tank heater to keep your water at the proper temperature.Submersible heaters are the most popular. Some are adjustable and some are pre-set at 78 degrees F. Make sure you are reading the box to make sure you get a heater with an appropriate wattage for your tank.
Stacking Your Fish. One clever trick I have been taught to make your tank look like it is bursting with activity without compromising the space in your tank is to "stack" your fish. Going back to those handy little information tags, some will tell you where that fish likes to dwell. Some fish stay very close to the bottom of the tank and hover over the gravel. Others like to be out in the open towards the top of the water and others still like to weave throughout the decorations toward the middle area of the tank. Depending on how big your tank is, you could get fish that enjoy swimming in each of these levels. Visually, your tank will look like it is busting at the seams with activity while in reality you were just clever in your fish choices.