Fish Tanks 101
Fish are popular pets for both their beauty and their stress-relieving properties. There’s also a wide variety of fish and tank styles to choose from so there is an option for any home and style. This blog will go over the basics of how to prepare a fish tank, install all the equipment, and ensure the tank is ready for your new fish.
Many people think that you can purchase fish and a tank on the same day and have a fully functioning aquarium later that day. However, that is a misconception. Fish need time for acclimation and your aquarium will need time for all the chemicals and equipment to adjust.
Create a plan for your fish tank
You’ll need to decide which species of fish you are going to keep before you go to the store to look for tanks and equipment. Different species require different styles, equipment and plants needed, and water conditions. Make sure you do your research before you purchase your tank. Also, consider if your tank will hold more than one fish.
Once you know what species, and how many of that species your tank will be housing, you can purchase your tank. Bigger is always better, so if you can afford a larger tank than what is suggested, get it! If you cannot afford the size of the fish tank that is suggested you should consider getting a different species or less fish. Fish kept in small quarters can become stressed and agitated.
The best way to plan your fish tank once you know the size is by drawing a rectangle the same size as the bottom of the fish tank on a piece of paper. Once you have it drawn, you can then figure out where you want to place your plants, decorations, or other necessary equipment. Keep in mind that your fish will need room to swim around and do not crowd the tank with too many accessories.
Clean the tank
Once you have purchased a tank and all your necessary equipment, you’ll need to make sure that everything is clean. If you’ve purchased a new tank you just need to wipe out the inside with a damp cloth to remove any dust. However, if you have purchased a used tank you’ll need to do a bit more cleaning.
Remember to never use soap or detergents on your fish tank as these chemicals are harmful to fish. You should also designate cleaning equipment like cloths and buckets to have the sole use of cleaning your fish tank. This way you aren’t contaminating your tank with household chemicals or any other debris.
For a used fish tank, you’ll want to start by removing any dirt or debris from the outside of the tank using vinegar and a paper towel. You can do the same to the inside, however, make sure that your tank is not acrylic before using a paper towel. Acrylic tanks can scratch easily which makes them look blurry and imperfections on the inside of the tank can be dangerous to your fish.
After you’ve cleaned the inside and outside of your used tank, you need to make sure there are no leaks. This can be done by filling the tank with a few inches of water and leaving it for a few hours. Come back to your tank after it’s sat for a while and run your finger along the bottom edge to feel for any wetness. If you do find any leaks, you’ll need to seal them up with aquarium sealant before adding any more water or fish.
Find a place for the tank
Choosing a place in your house for your fish tank is for more than just aesthetic purposes. You’ll need to make sure that your tank is out of direct sunlight and near a power supply. Another part you’ll want to consider before running to the pet store is whether the stand you’ve chosen is strong enough to hold your tank.
Tanks become very heavy once they are filled. You’ll want to make sure that the place you’ve chosen for your tank is ideal before you’ve filled it with water. Moving a multi-hundred-pound fish tank is not fun!
Once your placement has been chosen to be near a power supply and you’ve made sure the tank will be out of direct sunlight, you need to make sure the tank is level. This can be done with a leveling tool, like what you use to hang artwork. If you don’t have a leveling tool, you can simply fill the tank with a few inches of water and verify that your tank is level by eye.
Add gravel, rocks, or sand
Which substrate you will use is mostly a personal choice, however some species will require a particular type. Make sure you check with your pet store about your fish’s ideal substrate before purchasing. Consider that sand will be easier to clean as well since the debris stays on the surface.
As for the amount of substrate, it really depends on looks. Typically, 1 lb of substrate per gallon of water is enough to make a 1-inch thick bed. If you want a thicker layer, follow this rule to add inches as you’d like. Keep in mind, different substrates have different weights so this rule may vary.
Before adding whichever substrate you choose (except sand), you need to rinse it. For sand, you’ll want to sift it and remove any large debris. Put a few small amounts at a time in a bucket and fill it with cold water. Stir the mixture and continue rinsing until the water runs clear. Note that powder-coated gravel will not rinse completely clear and you will need to stir less vigorously.
Once you’ve thoroughly rinsed your substrate you can add it to your tank. To ensure that you don’t damage the surface of your tank, start with a thin layer at the bottom and then pour the rest in. Consider bulking up certain areas of your substrate to allow for plants or accessories to be partially buried.
The technique you will use to add water to your tank depends on whether you are setting up a freshwater or saltwater tank. Also, if you are setting up a tank that is smaller than 20 gallons, you can place your decorations, plants, and equipment before adding water.
Firstly, in order to prevent your gravel or sand from becoming disrupted when you pour water in use a saucer or small bowl. Place the saucer or bowl in the middle of the tank and begin pouring the water in, slowly tip the saucer to allow a gentle stream of water to hit the substrate. Do not pour too much water at once or too quickly as to maintain the integrity of the substrate.
Once your tank is filled, you will need to add a de-chlorinator to the water. You can purchase these at any pet store. The instructions are on the back of the bottle. Instructions are typically written in terms of ratios (ml/gallon). Follow these instructions carefully, if you have questions, call your pet store for clarification.
Saltwater must be prepared before adding it to the aquarium. Start with reverse osmosis water. You can purchase “RO” water or use store-bought treatments. Then, use a de-chlorinator. To create your saltwater, follow the instructions on the packet that you’ve purchased from the pet store. Salt used to make saltwater is different from table salt or other household salts, so make sure that you buy saltwater-specific salt.
Use the same steps mentioned above to fill the tank without disturbing the substrate. If you do create some fogginess when pouring the water, it is not a big deal, you will just have to wait longer for settling to occur.
Again, depending on what species of fish you have, what kind of tank (salt or freshwater), and how large your tank is, the equipment you need will vary. But almost all tanks will need a filter. There are two types of filters, internal and external.
Internal filters are pretty easy to install. Follow the instructions on the box and assemble the parts. The filter will need to be placed on the back of your tank and in a place that allows the wire to reach a power supply. There are underwater gravel filters that will need to be installed before adding water.
External filters typically sit below the tank, on the stand. This kind of filter works by carrying the water out of the tank to the filter below where it is cleaned before it is sent back to the tank. There are two tubes, an inlet and an outlet. Both of these tubes should be free of kinks and bends to allow for maximum flow. Usually, external filters will need to be filled with water before you plug them into the power supply.
Then, you’ll want to install a heater. Heaters are usually used for saltwater or tropical fish tanks. They are usually pretty user-friendly, with a dial on top to select the temperature and a line to show you how far to submerge the heater. Place your heater and thermometer on opposite sides of the tank to make sure that your tank is heating consistently.
Any other equipment that you’ve bought can be installed at this point. Some other equipment you may have would be air pumps, stones, lights, and protein skimmers. Always make sure that equipment is working properly before adding your fish!
All the practical parts of your fish tank are completed and you can start making it look pretty. This means any decor, plants, or fish playgrounds can finally be placed. Make sure to rinse each item before putting them in your tank. This goes for plants too.
Make sure to do some research before positioning your plants. Some plants will not thrive in certain tank placements such as an Anacharis, which does much better in the back of the tank. Read recommendations for planting them as well since some plants will need to be buried further in the substrate than others.
Run a cycle
Even though your tank might look ready for fish, there’s still one more step. This step is known as the Nitrogen Cycle. While most fish stores recommend leaving your tank for 24 hours before adding fish, experts recommend longer.
The purpose of the Nitrogen Cycle is to build up a bacteria “bed” in your biological filter. This is integral to your fish’s health. The first thing the filter will do is grow a culture of bacteria to convert ammonia to nitrites. Then, a culture of bacteria that converts nitrates to nitrates will grow. Ammonia and nitrites are toxic to fish. Cycling should be done without fish in the tanks so they are not exposed to any of the toxins.
Start by adding ammonia to your tank, this is cheap and available at any pet store. Like many of the other chemicals you’ll be using for your fish tank, just follow the instructions on the bottle since they differ from brand to brand. You should test your water once per week to check ammonia and nitrite levels. You’ll see the levels spike and then drop all the way down to zero once your tank is fully cycled.
If you need to speed up the cycling process, add a filter from an established tank, increase your water temperature, or increase water levels. All of these options encourage bacteria growth. Just keep in mind that letting the water fully cycle is important for your fish’s long-term health.
Saltwater filtering takes longer than freshwater cycling, typically around 6-8 weeks. This is because salt water is a more complex solution than freshwater. Saltwater fish also tend to be more needy as far as nutrients and conditions go.
Live rock is commonly used to cycle saltwater tanks. These rocks are referred to as “live rock” because they are the host for the bacteria growth. Choose rocks that are light and porous. Transfer the rock from one wet environment to another very quickly to prevent the bacteria from drying, and possibly dying.
If this is not enough to get the cycling process started, you can use the same steps as mentioned before for freshwater. This is using ammonia to start off the cycle.
Keep checking your levels weekly, or a few days per week. Once your ammonia and nitrite level have hit zero, you’ll want to change half of the water. This is to remove any build-up of nitrates.
Add your fish!
The most exciting and rewarding step has finally come. You can add your fish! But, you can’t just dump them in there. If you have a large school of fish, you need to add them slowly over a few weeks or months, depending on the size of your tank.
Then, you’ll need to acclimatize your fish. Fish are sensitive to any changes in water, even the slightest temperature or condition change can be a shock. To prevent shock, you should transfer your individual fish slowly.
The best steps to follow to acclimatize your fish are to dim the lighting in the room and turn off any aquarium lights you may have. Then, let the bag that you brought your fish home in float in the new water for around 15 minutes to let it slowly match the temperature of your tank. Then, open the bag, leaving the top above the aquarium water level, and add approximately ½ cup of water to the bag. Repeat this process every 5 minutes until the bag is completely full. Then, dump half of the water from the bag and replace it with water from the aquarium ½ cup at a time. Once you have filled your bag for the second time, use a net to scoop your fish from the bag and add it to your aquarium. Discard the bag and the water within it.
Over the next 24 hours, make sure to watch your new fish to ensure they are eating properly and there are no signs of illness. These signs could be decrease activity, odd swimming patterns, or lack of directional awareness.
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