Tips for Beginner Aquarists
Tips for Beginner Aquarists

Tips for Beginner Aquarists

By Doug Z

1. Read, read, and read some more..

Be it the Internet, magazines, or books.

Books and magazines are the best of course, as they have been meticulously edited, and the information has been checked and re-checked for their accuracy, which cannot always be said for Internet blogs, articles, etc.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that especially when it comes to the equipment involved in fish husbandry (lights, heaters, etc.), what was top of the line when the book was written and edited can often be quite dated by the time the book actually hits the bookstores. Easily a year or more can go between the time a book is written, edited and published and when it appears in bookstores, let alone in libraries. So always check to see when the book was published, and take that into account, especially where equipment is involved.

Magazines are more up-to-date, and will have cutting edge information you will need. They are also generally well edited and will have advertisements for the products you may be looking for.

2. Be wary of the Local Fish Store/ Look before you leap.

It's BEST (can't stress this enough) if you do your research BEFORE darkening the door of any fish store. If you've done your homework, you will be far better equipped to assess whether the staff know what they are talking about - how well they are caring for their fish, and whether they are stocking the best equipment, medications, etc.

Believe me when I say that the fish store that has a knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff that really care about their fish and their customers are unfortunately the exception, rather than the rule. Once found, if ever, treasure them! Spend your money there, even if it's cheaper to go to the Walmarts of the pet world (truly dismal places for fish, in my admittedly limited experience as an aquarist, and you'll undoubtedly know to whom I refer).

Even when an employee IS enthusiastic and seems knowledgeable they can unintentionally give you inaccurate information. And keep in mind that they are there to sell you things! If you do your homework, even if you don't know whether or not they are right or wrong, you know where you can go to check. ALWAYS double and triple check!

On some issues, there will of course, be different schools of thought (carbon vs. no carbon, sand vs. gravel). But look at each and decide for yourself, armed with your research, which way you want to go.

3. Be prepared to spend more, to save more.

I'll say this time and time again, without apology, doing your research will save you time, money, and effort.

Sure, that Under Gravel Filter is a lot cheaper than that Hang On Back filter, and cheaper still than that canister filter. And it all comes with the tank! Heater, fish net, all in one! But consider how much you will have saved by buying the canister filter from the get-go, rather than buying the UGF, and then having to toss it in the garbage, or go through the hassle of selling it to someone else for a pittance, when you discover it's no good for your high-tech planted tank.

Books are a vitally important resource when learning about your hobby. So if that book that you really could use is not available from the library, look in a used bookstore, or bite the bullet and just get it for full retail. Sometimes you'll get burned and the book turned out to be not that earth-shattering. But this is where doing your homework (I'll be mentioning this, ad nausium, too) pays off here, as well. Read reviews and see what others thought of the book first.

4. Really ask yourself what you want out of this hobby.

Do you like looking at the plants more than the fish? Do you like docile, friendly fish, or aggressive, spunky fish? Do you like salt water (marine) fish or freshwater fish? Do you enjoy the technical aspects (water changes, water testing, tank maintenance)? Are you going to be able to moniter your tank often? Do you have friends or family that can help take care of your fish when you go away? How much can you afford to spend? Do you have room for the tank you have in mind? Do you move around a lot? Do you want to be moving a 75 gallon aquarium to a new house, or three 25 gallon tanks?.

5. Some basics to consider regarding aquariums and their placement.

Make sure the tank is close to an electrical outlet. You would be surprised at how many people don't consider this aspect until they have 70 gallons of water in their tank!

Make sure you get a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) adapter for the power outlet, which will keep anyone from getting electrocuted if there is an unfortunate mishap involving water and the electrically-powered tank equipment (lights, etc). Also get a surge-protected power bar to keep the equipment from getting fried in the unlikely event of a power surge.

Make sure there is no DIRECT sunlight shining into the tank at any time of the day. This leads 9 times out of 10 to annoying algae issues. So keep it away from windows if at all possible, or make sure you have drapes that will negate any light penetration. Indirect light is fine, and a nice boost to lighting any plants in your tank receive from your aquarium light fixtures.

Make sure there are no inside or outside doors close to the aquarium. The fish will not appreciate the loud, concussive racket from the opening or closing of the doors, and outside doors if left open will affect the temperature of your tank (sunlight, wind).

Make sure the aquarium is in a low-traffic area. A little traffic will get the fish used to people and keep them from scattering to the 4 winds every time someone approaches the tank, but too much traffic will stress them excessively.

Consider how close the aquarium is to the source of water you will be using for water changes. The shorter the distance you have to lug water back and forth, the better.

Consider the sheer weight involved in an aquarium full of water. Even
a small 25g tank will weigh over 250 pounds! Let's look at a 55 gallon tank. 55 gallons of water alone weighs over 400 lbs, but you must also include the weight of the aquarium, plus any rocks or driftwood you have in it, and the sand or gravel substrate. Add it up and you are looking at least 500 lbs! Be sure that the floor you will be placing the aquarium on can handle that kind of weight. You may very well want to consult a professional, like a structural engineer. Even if it looks solid, an older house or one that was built with substandard materials or building practices may well mean trouble. The same rule applies to the stand the tank will be resting on. If it is not specifically designed for aquariums it could fail, with disastrous results.

Consider tank shape and its implications for your application. If it's a reef tank, you will be ok using a taller tank, as you will probably be using a metal-halide fixture for it, which can penetrate deeper than fluorescents (which won't do the plants much good past 18-20")..

6. Be prepared to make mistakes!

All the research in the world cannot save you from foreseeing EVERY eventuality, or learning some things the hard way. The key is to always learn from your mistakes, and keep moving forward!

7. Have FUN!!

It's a hobby, what we do to escape from work..

If it ever feels like WORK, you have some soul searching to do..

Frequently Asked Questions:

Will THIS fish be compatible with this fish?

There are many compatibility resources for freshwater and marine fish on the Internet:

Three other things to keep in mind, when looking at a community tank.

1. When you get fish from different regions, take into account the preferred water parameters of each fish. Some fish, even if they are from the same Continent, may live in water that is quite different from one another. So try and put together fish that have similar needs, in terms of water pH, hardness, and temperature. While fish will adapt to different parameters, they will not flourish, nor show their most vibrant colours as they would in water configured to their native habitat. You could try to split the difference, but then neither species is happy.

2. Generally speaking, it is not advisable to put more than 4 different species of fish in the same tank. For one, putting all sorts of different fish together in one tank looks very unnatural. Also, most community fish are happiest in groups of no smaller than 6 fish of their own kind. Alone, or even in pairs they will not display their natural behavior and brightest colours.

3. It is good to get fish that will occupy all 3 areas of the aquarium: the top, the middle, and the bottom. This will be much more visually interesting, and will keep your fish happy be not having to compete for space as much. There are a great number of fish that will stick to only one area, like the corydorus, for example. This fish stays at the bottom of the tank, for the most part.

Am I overstocked?

There is a much touted but notoriously hard to pin down rule of thumb of 1" per fish per gallon. ie. if you have a 25g tank, you could stock it with 25 one inch fish, or 12 two inch fish, or 6 four inch fish, etc..

But there are so many other factors that affect this guideline as to make it virtually impossible to apply.

For one, consider bioload. Bioload is basically the demand placed upon the nitrogen cycle in the aquarium as a result of the metabolism of the fish in the aquarium. Different fish have different bioloads. Otocinclus affinis, for example, has a very low "footprint", as they more than compensate for their ammonia and feces excretions by consuming the algae in your tank.

Piranhas and other carnivores, on the other hand, are very messy eaters, and put quite a strain on a tank's biological resources by adding more ammonia to the system via the leftover food collecting at the bottom of the tank..

Another consideration is the level of activity of the fish. A fish that moves rapidly along the length of the tank (danios, for example) is going to be respiring and consuming oxygen at a far greater rate than a more sedentary fish, like a pleco.

Still another consideration is size. A 12" pleco is going to have a far, FAR larger bioload than 12 one inch tetras.

So you can see how it would be ridiculous to apply this rule of thumb and say you would be fine getting 2 12" plecos OR 24 one inch tetras for a 25 gallon tank!

Which brings me to another important point.

You MUST take into account how much the fish will GROW after you add it to your tank. The afore-mentioned common plecos look fine when you get them small (2"-4"). But very quickly they double and triple in size. So plan for how big your proposed fish will get, not how big they are now.

Filtration is another factor when it comes to proper stocking levels. A good rule of thumb is to double the size of your tank, then get a filter rated for that size of tank. So if you have a 55 gallon tank, get a filter rated for at least 110 gallons. Another way of saying this is take the rating of a filter and reduce it by half. If it says it is good for tanks up to 80 gallons, consider it as good for 40 gallons. It is generally acceptable to get 2 filters to meet this goal. So you could get 2 filters rated for 55g tanks for your 55 gallon tank.

Water changes are still another factor when stocking your tank. The more frequently you change your water, and the greater amount changed (30% a week is good standard) the better the conditions in your tank will be in terms of the micro nutrients present in that water that both fish and plants require, and the level of nitrates present.

As long as you are regularly doing water changes, and have more than adequate biological and mechanical filtration, water flow, and oxygen aeration, you can exceed what would could be considered "overstocking".

Your water parameters will be your best indicator. If you find your nitrates are on the rise, even with frequent water changes, the bacteria in your tank are starting to have trouble keeping up, and you should act accordingly.

Will getting live plants provide enough oxygen for my fish?

A common misconception is that having live plants in your tank means never having to worry about oxygen levels in your tank. This is not the case, however. For although plants convert CO2 into oxygen via photosynthesis during the day, they also consume 02 during the night, while producing no O2 at all and adding to the CO2 levels in the tank with their respiration, just as the fish do. It is not uncommon in heavily planted aquariums for the oxygen consumption of the plants to outstrip oxygen production. In such cases you invariably see your fish gasping at the surface of your tank when oxygen levels are at their lowest ebb, in the early hours of the morning. To ensure the fish get enough 02 it is best to aerate your tank during the night for at least 4 hours. The plants will not be unduly affected, as the C02 levels will rise again in the daytime, especially if you utilize C02 injection.

Should I have my lights on all the time?

No. Fish, like people, need their sleep, too.. And having the lights on 24/7 in a planted aquarium is a sure recipe for uncontrollable algae. Not to mention tank temperature issues and the wear and tear on your lights.

Recommended Reading

Setting up a Tropical Aquarium Week by Week

By Stuart Thraves

A fairly comprehensive guide to the set-up and stocking of a planted freshwater aquarium. Lots of helpful diagrams and fish and plant profiles.

International Encyclopedia of Tropical Freshwater Fish
David Alderton

Covers the basics of aquarium set-up, and has quite a few fish profiles, covering temp requirements, feeding, and compatibility. Though covering most tropical freshwater fish, it is necessarily a master of none, when it comes to details.

Tankmaster series: A Practical Guide to Choosing Your Aquarium Plants
By Peter Hiscock

Some good, practical advice, and many profiles on several different types of aquarium plants.

The Nature Aquarium World trilogy (vol 1-3)
by Takashi Amano

Some gorgeous, gorgeous tanks, and a great source of inspiration.

Aquarium Plants: the Practical Guide
by Pabloo Teapoot

A good book end to Hiscock's Plant Encyclopedia. The photos are excellent, but I thought the Hiscock encyclopedia did a better job of describing details like optimal growing conditions, maximum plant heights, etc..

Manual of Fish Health: Everything You Need to Know About Aquarium Fish, Their Environment and Disease Prevention by Chris Andrews

A comprehensive guide to fish health, with plenty of photos and diagrams..