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Starting a Planted Tank

Plant Nutrients 101

Phophates in the Planted Tank

Activated Carbon

Fertilizer & the Planted Aquarium

CO2 & the Planted Tank

Algae Control

Safety Around the Aquarium

Cleaning Aquarium Glass

Mysterious Fish Deaths Explained!

Aquarium Photography

New Tank Syndrome

Choosing an Aquatic Heater

Tips for Beginning Fishkeepers

Salt in the Aquarium

Outdoor Patio Tubbing

Malaysian Trumpet Snails



By 2manyfish - October 2000
(part 1)

Beginning fishkeepers frequently complain that they can't seem to keep their fish alive, or that they experience frequent problems with diseases. There is no magical secret to keeping healthy, thriving fish. Most fish are quite forgiving of errors and mistakes. However, there are a few things that you should know to guarantee a healthy, successful aquarium.

1. Adequate aquarium size. The old adage "buy the largest aquarium possible," or the largest you can afford is quite accurate advice. In nature, fish are simply not overcrowded. If you ever watch scenes in movies where fish are swimming in a river, lake, stream or pond, you will immediately notice that there really aren't that many fish per gallon of water. Nature simply doesn't overcrowd her natural aquariums, and neither should you. An understocked aquarium will always have fewer problems and remain healthy much easier than an overstocked aquarium. There are numerous "rules of thumb" to help guide you in stocking an aquarium. One rule is the 1 inch of fish per 1 gallon of water guide. This is a good starting point, but works only with small, slender fish such as Tetras or Guppys. An 8" large-bodied fish such as an Oscar or Goldfish produces many times more waste byproducts than eight 1" Guppys. Yes, I know, there are many fishkeepers who will testify that they knew someone once who kept a 12" Goldfish in a 10 gallon tank. First, I truly doubt their story. Second, the Goldfish quite obviously never had any quality of life. And third, only large daily water changes would have allowed the fish to live - a lot of extra work for the fishkeeper. When choosing a tank for size, keep in mind the size of the fish when they will become adults, and make sure they have plenty of swimming room.

2. Water. With a rare few exceptions, most fish can tolerate water vastly different from what the books say they require. If you can drink your tapwater and live, then usually your fish can live in it just fine. There are many products on the market that claim to adjust the water to the fish's home waters. These products usually don't mention that they rarely work with tapwater, but instead work only with distilled water. In other words, you end up adding chemicals on top of the chemicals already in your water. This can result in very unstable water. Additionally, the additives must be replaced with every water change, which quickly becomes an expensive and messy project. Also frequently overlooked is that many fish you purchase were bred and kept in local water. For example, Angelfish in the wild come from soft, acidic water. However, the Angelfish you purchase in the store may be hundreds of generations away from the wild, and may have come from locally bred stock that has been adapted to your local water conditions for dozens of generations. This is particularly true if you purchase your fish from a local breeder, or acquire them from a local friend whose fish had fry, and they are trying to get rid of the excess. It is also wise to choose fish that are well matched to your water. For example, if you lived in Boise, Idaho and had extremely hard mineral water pouring from your faucet, you would be wise to not try to breed Discus. Instead, the ideal fish for you might be African Cichlids, or perhaps Livebearers, which do well in hard water. Indeed, Rift Lake Cichlids must have hard, alkaline water, and will die within hours if placed in soft, acid water.

3. Water conditioning. Almost every municipality processes its water to kill bacteria, parasites, and viruses that could cause disease in humans. Most municipal water plants use chlorine, while a few others add ozone and chloramine to their water. Ozone poses no threat to fish or humans, and is quickly dissipated after processing. Chlorine and chloramine pose other problems. These chemicals can harm fish, and can also damage the beneficial bacteria in your aquarium, and must be removed. Chlorine can be removed simply by putting the water in a bucket, dropping in an airstone, and aerating the water overnight. Then, it is safe to add to the aquarium. There are also simple chlorine removers on the market, usually based on photographer's hypo, or Sodium Thiosulfate, that can quickly neutralize the chlorine into a harmless substance. Your local fish store sells several brands of chlorine remover. All of these work immediately. Add the recommended number of drops to the water, stir, and a minute later the water is safe to use.

Chloramine requires special consideration. Chloramine consists of a tight chemical bond between chlorine and ammonia. It is used because it is very stable, and does not break down in the city's water distribution pipes. It cannot be removed by aeration or aging. It cannot be boiled out, and it cannot easily be filtered out. The only practical method of removing chloramine is to purchase a product specifically formulated to break the chlorine/ammonia bond. Once broken, the chlorine is then neutralized with Thiosulfate, and the ammonia is released into the water. This ammonia is the same ammonia our fish excrete as waste, and is consumed over a few minutes by the beneficial bacteria in our tank. We have been taught that ammonia is deadly to our fish, and it is, in sufficient concentration and if the fish are left in the stuff for a length of time. Fortunately, the amount of ammonia released from chloramine is very small, and is consumed very quickly by our tank's bacteria. A heavily planted tank has the advantage of hungry plants that can also consume ammonia very quickly.

There are many products that neutralize chloramine. Personally, I prefer a simple chemical that does that, and only that. I don't want extra additives that "enhance slime coating," or "neutralize heavy metals," or any other extra functions. If I wanted my fish's slime coating enhanced, I would add something to enhance their slime. When I am doing a water change, all I want is to make the water safe for the fish and for the tank's bacteria. When choosing a chlorine/chloramine remover, read the label carefully to see what else it claims to do. You may not want these additives, either. One of the simplest chlorine/chloramine removers is Wardley's Chlor-Out. Kordon's Amquel is perhaps a better chlorine/chloramine remover, because it not only breaks the chloramine bond, but also goes on to neutralize the ammonia. There are other similar products.

3, Heaters. A few fish can live in cool water. Indeed, Goldfish prefer water down in the 55-60*F range. White Cloud Mountain Minnows prefer temperatures down in the 60 degree range. However, most Tropical Fish (the kind most of us keep) require a warmer temperature, somewhere in the 76-78*F range. A few, such as Angelfish and Mollys, do better in the 80-81*F range. Few of us keep our rooms at 81*F in the winter, so a tank heater will usually be required. I have written a separate article on how to choose an aquarium heater. For now, I will refer you to that article. But in general, you should choose a better-quality heater (Ebo-Jager, Rena Cal, etc.), sized for about 5 watts of power per gallon of water. This will easily handle the aquarium when the temperature differential is no more than about 10*F between room temperature and tank temperature. If your room gets much colder than that, you should choose a larger heater. For example, a 10 gallon tank in an average living room would normally do best with a 50 watt heater. If the room gets down in the low 60s or 50s at night, you might want to increase this heater to a 75w or even a 100w model. A larger heater won't damage the tank. It just makes it easier to maintain a warmer temperature in a colder room in the winter. When choosing a heater, you should know that submersible heaters are a little more efficient than other types of heaters. CAUTION: ALWAYS unplug a heater before working on the tank. NEVER stick your hands in the water without first unplugging the heater. Do not ignore these safety precautions, even one, single time. Should your heater develop a short-circuit or the glass break, the heater can pose a deadly threat. Make it a habit: always unplug that heater before your hands go near the water.

4. Thermometers. Never trust the calibrations on a heater. Always provide a separate, high quality thermometer to measure the tank's actual temperature. Get in the habit of checking this thermometer at every feeding. Should a heater fail, you will catch the problem quickly if you do this, and perhaps save your fish's lives. Photographer's supply houses sell very accurate thermometers, and you might consider investing in one to keep as a reference thermometer to check all your other thermometers against. There are also some very accurate digital thermometers available to photographers, and these are very useful to the aquarium hobby as well.

(Continued in Part 2)

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