This article concerns the selection, purchase, and set up of a tank for fish – geared to the beginner.
Part One for Beginners – The Tank
You might be amazed at the lack of crossover between pond hobbyists and freshwater aquarists in this country. It might amaze you to know that *most* people who have ponds do *not* keep indoor aquaria. Most people with aquaria are only later interested in pondkeeping.
How To Set Up a Beginner Community Tank Aquarium
Perhaps one of the reasons is that the pond tends to be an investment in time that precludes aquarium keeping, another possibility is that pondkeepers grow accustomed to looking at the watery world from above, and aquarists prefer to study their specimens with the personal and up-close angle of sideview.
In any event, I want to provide a three part series that details the successful set-up and inhabitation of a nice ten to twenty gallon freshwater system, but most of what I will tell you is fitting for systems up to seventy five gallons.
First, select a tank size. Sounds simple to most people, they would choose the cheapest tank, or one that fits on a small table. I would encourage you to consider a larger tank, which gives you more water, more space, and ultimately more success with your fish. The perfect starter tank is thirty gallons. The “Thirty-long” is an excellent tank for almost all types of fish except the really huge Managuense and Oscar.
Secondly, tank placement is important. The tank can receive a few hours of natural lighting each day so long as the sunlight does not contribute to warming. Also, more light could contribute to algal overgrowth. A thick green carpet of algae does nothing for viewing your fish. When placing the tank, be sure to set it level, on a sturdy piece of furniture that can tolerate some water splashing on it. However careful you may think you can be, some water will eventually end up on this piece. Cut a piece of styrofoam (white insulating board from the hardware store) or a thick piece of rubber matting to set the tank on. This will dramatically reduce the chances of stress fractures and leakage on the tank, and also extend the life of the aquarium. Silicone sealed tanks *can* flex a little bit, but the styrofoam will even-out the weight distribution and protect the tank.
The tank will need a cover. All glass covers are ideal. Overhead lighting of the flourescent variety is ideal, at least two tubes of appropriate size should be employed, with an ideal number being about four tubes. My seventy five gallon tank features two 48″ tubes and two 15″ tubes suitable for a ten gallon. Lighting can be adjusted to suit the needs of individual plants and one of the short tubes is left on at night. Full spectrum lighting may be ideal, but little of it’s beneficial Ultraviolet rays will get through your glass cover.
True plant hobbyists always use full spectrum or actinic bulbs suspended *without* any cover over the planted system. I do not advise this for the beginner.
The background of the tank can of course suit your aesthetic preference. There are sheets of illustrated paper to tape onto the tank. My preference, for health reasons, is to allow the back glass of the tank to overgrow with thick green algae. This coating of Algae assumes a nice hunter-green hue and obscures the wires and fittings on the back of the tank, and looks exceedingly natural. Some even allow algae to grow on the side-panes of the tank and only scrape the algae from the fore-pane.
Regardless of the type of fish you intend to keep, I can highly recommend the following filtration system for the starter tank. An undergravel plate. UNDERGRAVEL filters are perhaps my favorites in marine and freshwater systems. They are basically plates that go under your gravel, in an aquarium. The plates support stacks, that pull water down thru the gravel, trapping debris. Here again, the gravel then supports bacteria that ‘eat’ the debris.
The UG filter needs to be ‘hydro-cleaned’ or ‘siphoned’ clean every 2-3 weeks when waterchanges are done. This keeps the spaces between the gravel open for best effect. Finally, the UG plate needs to be pulled out and the gravel very well siphoned, 100%, every 6 months, as there can accumulate under the plate, a pile of dangerously decayed debris after much more then half a year.
For best results, I recommend that the Undergravel filtration system be driven by power heads. These are tiny motors that pump water and mix it with air by the venturi-apparatus sold with them. If you apply the tubing correctly and keep the powerheads just under the water surface on top of the stacks, they mix an impressive amount of air with the water, to the delight of your fish.
At this point you might be saying: “Gosh, it would be *cheaper* to use…blah blah blah.”
It would also be far less effective. And in some cases, the Undergravel is talked down by pet shops who want to sell you the fabulously expensive and totally useless hang-on power filters. Please heed my advice. Set up the tank and use the Undergravel filtration system with powerheads. You will not be disappointed.
Ornaments in the system can include any rock other than shale or limestone. Any porous rock should be avoided. Granite, Volcanic Rock and other inert, molten-made rocks are acceptable. Sedimentary rocks should be excluded because many contain petroleum residues. Petrified wood is also highly ideal and is very attractive. Driftwood will dramatically reduce the pH of the system and this would be acceptable for certain south American fishes, or it would need to be corrected upwards with a chemical buffering compound.
Heat should be provided to any fish you intend to keep, including Goldfish. Many Goldfish keepers are unaware that the highly selected Asian carps are better suited for warmer waters. Ranchus, Orandas, Bubble eyes, etc. all do better in heated systems, e.g. 74-78 degrees at a minimum, which might mandate a heater , especially during the winter.
The problems you can encounter with Goldfish kept too cool include: Increased susceptibility to bacterial infection, increased incidence of irreconcilable Dropsy or floater diseases, where the fish floats helplessly at an unusual angle, even upside-down! As well, the filter in cooler systems does not function well, and ammonia problems may result.
All in all, you will only enhance the health of the fish and the function of the aquarium when you heat it up, as I said, 74 degrees minimum.
Fill the tank with water. Any water will do, but distilled water contains no electrolytes and should be avoided. Standard tap water is acceptable since there are no fish in it.
How to Accomplish the Cycle of Beneficial Bacteria without donated germs.
Heat the tank to 88 degrees and make sure aeration is very vigorous from the power heads or as an alternative, from an airpump through a tube to a large airstone. In any event, we want the water to be warm and bubbly.
Go to the grocery delicatessen and order One Raw Small Shrimp for each ten gallons you want to have conditioned. For a seventy five gallon tank, a suitable number would be Seven Raw Small Shrimps. That sounds like a fabulous Czechuan cuisine <grin>.
At this point, with the addition of the shrimps, (which will serve as nitrogen fuel for the system), we would add a buffer. The buffer will support the pH from falling as the system undergoes the Cycle. “Buffers” help those folks whose pH will not remain constant due to a variety of factors.
Fish wastes and the metabolic by-products of de-nitrification also bring down the pH, unless it is buffered. Compounds that buffer include: Dolomite, Crushed Coral, Oyster Shell, Bicarbonate, Limestone, and a variety of commercial buffers on the market. I personally use and recommend SeaChem® Neutral Regulator or if not available; Kent’s pH Stable.
At 88 degrees, with vigorous aeration and circulation, you will evolve a stew of a fairly smelly but biologically very active nature. This stew is growing powerful heterotrophic bacteria that start the Cycle. If you are not already familiar with the CYCLE, this is the process by which fish wastes and other debris are broken down by bacteria in an aquatic system.
Let’s trace it here. Ammonia is produced by the fish, from gills and vent. *Nitrosomonas* bacteria in the gravel break the Ammonia down, *before* it has a chance to accumulate and harm the fish. This results in the production of Nitrites. *Nitrobacter*, a second cousin bacteria, breaks down Nitrites into harmless NitrAtes before the Nitrites can accumulate and harm the fish. The Nitrates are simply plant and algae food. In the presence of phosphates, plants use Nitrates to grow, but without the plants, Nitrates could accumulate and cause sickness (Bloody fins and weakness) in the fish. The Cycle (without bioseeding) takes 4-6 weeks. The only thing, I repeat, THE ONLY THING that can hasten this is an aquarium heater, some nitrogen (protein) fuel, and appropriately buffered water.
You really should check out the article on BioSeeding. This is a process of taking beneficial bacteria from a healthy, trustworthy filtration system and seeding that into your recipient system. It gets you cycled in like, 2-3 DAYS.
After the tank has bubbled and circulated for a week or two, you will notice that it goes from cloudy to clear.
At this point, you must check the Ammonia and pH of the system. If these parameters indicate that the cycle has completed, (for example, pH @7.4 and Ammonia <0.15 ppm) please execute a 75% water change. Add back the buffers, and dechlorinate the fresh water. The next day, you will be ready for some fish. In the next section, I will detail the selection of the right fish for community tanks as well as some special characters you might consider, and the quarantine suggestion for healthy additions to the tank.
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Dr Erik Johnson is a Marietta, Georgia Veterinarian with a practice in small animal medicine. He graduated from University of Georgia with his Doctorate in 1991. Dr Johnson is the author of several texts on Koi and Pond Fish Health and Disease as well as numerous articles on dog and cat health topics.