Setting Up a Tropical Fish Tank

Fish as pets are very popular. An aquarium is a great half-way point between a pet and a decoration, but despite the beauty and interest they can add to your decor, they can be a challenge to set up and maintain correctly. Here’s how to do it the right way so you can enjoy your aquatic buddies for a long time to come.

What Kind of Tank?
Saltwater tanks are beautiful and tempting, but they’re definitely not for beginners. Not only are they more expensive due to the need for live rock and salt testing, but they’re also significantly harder to maintain. The inhabitants are frequently wild-caught and will refuse to eat in captivity, and their water must be carefully prepared days ahead of each change.

Freshwater tanks are a much better bet for beginners. They are inexpensive, and the water can just be treated tap water. There are plenty of options for specialized freshwater set-ups such as planted tanks or predator tanks, but for most new aquarium-owners, the simplest option is a peaceful community tank.

Buying the Tank
Bigger tanks are easier to take care of because they need less cleaning and there is more room for toxins to dissipate. On the downside, bigger tanks are more expensive and also heavier. A 76-liter tank is a good compromise. Used tanks can be a great way to save money, but be sure to insist on seeing it with water in it. Many aquariums develop leaks over time, so make sure yours is water-tight.

You’ll need a lot of aquarium accessories. When you go shopping, look for:
Stand – This could be a specialized aquarium stand, a regular table, or something homemade, but be sure it can hold the weight of a tank full of water and gravel.
Filter – Manufacturers overestimate how powerful these are, so get one that is for a bigger tank. A 75-liter tank should have a 150-liter filter. You’ll also need pads or sponges for inside the filter.
Heater – Tropical tanks need heaters. Unlike filters, you don’t want one that is too big, or you’ll boil your new pets. Get a thermometer to be safe.
Substrate – Go with gravel for bright colors or sand for a natural look.
Lights – Cheap lights are fine unless you want to grow live plants in the aquarium. Also get a timer so you can be sure the light only stays on for 10 hours a day.
Water conditioner – This takes chemicals out of your tap water so it’s safe for the fish.
Testing kit – You’ll need to make sure that ammonia and nitrite aren’t building up in the tank. Strips are cheaper, but liquid kits are more accurate.
Siphon or vacuum – Used for cleaning out waste.
Plants and decorations – Make sure your pets have somewhere to hide, but don’t overcrowd the tank.
Food – This will depend on which tropical fish you get, so buy it when you buy the animals.
Nets, buckets, etc. – You’ll be surprised how many of these you pick up along the way.
Another tank – It’s a great idea to keep a small tank for quarantining.

Setting It All Up
Make sure the tank is set up before bringing your tropical fish home. Prepare the gravel or sand by rinsing it several times in hot water, then put it in the tank and add water. Set up your filter, then add the decorations. Add the water conditioner last.

You’ll need to cycle the tank before adding anything living in order to establish the bacteria that will remove ammonia and nitrogen. This is easy to do by putting a little raw ammonia in the tank and leaving it alone for 3-4 weeks. Test the water with your test kit once in a while, and stock the tank once the ammonia and nitrite have disappeared.

You can also cycle the tank after stocking it, but you’ll need to test the water daily and change it often so the toxins don’t kill them.

Buying Fish
It’s tempting to just buy a dozen of whatever looks pretty, but make sure you have a plan before buying fish. For a 76-liter tank, you should generally keep one school of 6-8 animals, a showpiece, and a couple of bottom-feeders. For the schools, tetras, rainbowfish, danios, and guppies are popular and easy. For the showpieces, gouramis and ram cichlids are good choices as long as you keep only one or perhaps a male-female pair. For bottom-dwellers, go with 3-4 small plecos or corydoras. Bettas are popular as showpieces, but they’re too aggressive to get along well in a beginning community tank, and goldfish get too big and require colder water.

These popular species can be purchased at a pet store, but if you’d like older or more uncommon ones, you may need to post a wanted ad. When you pick out your new pets, look for bright eyes and intact fins. Never buy anything from a tank that has something dead in it.

First float the bag in the aquarium for an hour or so to acclimate everyone to the temperature. Then open the bag and add a little aquarium water to it to help them adjust to the new chemicals and bacteria. Add more aquarium water every five minutes or so until the bag is full, then you can safely release the fish into the aquarium.

Maintaining Your Tank
When keeping fish, you should be sure to feed them six days a week. They need one fasting day so their digestive tracts can clear out to prevent bloating. You should change half of the water each week and test the water monthly to be sure there is no ammonia or nitrite. Use your siphon as needed to suck up excess waste on the bottom.

What If It’s Not for You?
Even if you decide you don’t like keeping tropical fish after all, you won’t lose your full investment. Used tanks and filters keep much of their original value, and even your livestock can be sold to a pet store or through the classifieds. Be prepared to show that your tank is watertight, and make sure everything is healthy, and you should have no problem getting your money back.