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Starting a Planted Tank

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Mysterious Fish Deaths Explained!

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New Tank Syndrome

Choosing an Aquatic Heater

Tips for Beginning Fishkeepers

Salt in the Aquarium

Outdoor Patio Tubbing

Malaysian Trumpet Snails



By 2ManyFish - September 2000

I wonder if any fishkeepers give consideration to potential dangers and threats that can come from keeping fish? But stop and consider that an aquarium is actually an enclosure for biological growth, "toxic" waste buildup, and which has several electrical appliances in very close proximity. The aquarist should be aware of these considerations, and take precautions not to be harmed by his hobby.

To function properly, an aquarium is a living biological environment. Fish constantly excrete waste byproducts. Various microbes (bacteria) digest these waste byproducts into less harmful substances. Currently, there is squabbling among some aquarists as to the names of these bacteria, but they have been referred to as Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter for 50 years, so I will do the same. Both Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter are Gram Negative Rod organisms, commonly called enteric organisms. Put more simply, these are bacteria that survive on fecal material. All animals have very similar organisms in their feces. In humans, bacteria called Pseudomonas and Enterobacter perform identical functions. These bacteria are harmless when contained in the gut, but can be dangerously pathogenic (cause diseases) outside the gut. In humans, Pseudomonas and Enterobacter can cause life-threatening infections, including pneumonia. Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter are very close cousins to Pseudomonas and Enterobacter. They may not be as threatening to humans, but they should not be ignored as being potential disease-causing organisms. A normally healthy human can probably fight off any such disease, but that might not be true for the very young, the very old, or in immunity compromised people such as the sick or debilitate person, or in someone with HIV disease, or AIDS. If you have breaks in your skin, a cut on your hands, or any compromise in your skin's integrity, you may be at increased risk of infection. In other words, what might not harm you might be potentially very harmful to your small child or your elderly live-in grandfather.

Defense against these organisms is simple. Thorough handwashing has always been man's first line of defense against microorganisms, and this works for the aquarist as well. Recent studies have indicated that just plain soap works as well as antibacterial soaps at ridding the skin of bacteria. Certainly we don't want to have a chemical residue on our hands or arms when we dip them into the aquarium. Therefore, it would seem that the use of any mild castile soap would suffice. A thorough hand and arm washing prior to and after working on an aquarium should provide plenty of protection from the microorganisms found in aquariums. If you prefer, long rubber gloves with long cuffs are sold by many mail order pet suppliers, and would seem to be a better solution. For simple tasks in the aquarium, long tongs are an economical and safe way to move an ornament a bit here, or to rearrange a rock there.

Electrical threats from the tank's heater, filters, lights, etc., are very real threats to the safety of the aquarist! All these appliances operate on 115 volts (or higher in some parts of the world). The typical household circuit can supply such voltage at 15 or 20 amps of current. Consider that 0.015 amps (15 milliamps, or MA) is sufficient to kill a human under certain circumstances, and you can readily see that your aquarium has the potential to kill you, several times over, by electrocution!

Heaters are probably the biggest offenders. The only thing between you and electrocution is a thin glass wall. Heater glass can be cracked very easily. An inopportune tap of a heater's glass against a rock or ornament, and you may suddenly find yourself immersed in water that has become electrified! Additionally, heater cords are insulated with a thin layer of plastic that can crack, fray or become cut or abraded. One should never, ever, ever work on an aquarium with the heater plugged in! Numerous aquarists have ignored this advice and have paid for their oversight with their lives.

Other sources of electricity are the filter and the lights. Most filters are pretty well designed to keep the electricity outside the aquarium, but since water is a great conductor of electricity, the threat is always there. Lights can be downright dangerous, particularly if used without a protective cover glass over the aquarium. One false move and the lighting fixture could fall into the tank, suddenly creating an electrocution chamber for the unwary hobbyist.

Fortunately, eliminating the threat of electrocution is very simple. One good solution is to provide an outlet socket strip (the kind where you can plug in up to 6 items in one strip, and then that strip is plugged into the wall). Plug in all your aquarium's electrical accessories into the strip. Then, before working on the tank for any reason, just reach over and flip off the switch provided on the outlet strip. This instantly removes all electricity to the tank, and lets you safely work on your tank. When finished, just turn the outlet strip back on, and all your appliances will resume normal operation. (You may have to re-prime the pump, but that's a small inconvenience when you consider that you are still alive to work on the tank another day.)

Another line of protection for the aquarist is the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. This is a special electrical socket that can sense if you have suddenly found yourself drawing current to ground, and instantly shuts off electricity to the circuit. Modern houses have these sockets installed in bathrooms and kitchens. They're easy to spot: they're the sockets that have little red buttons between the two sockets. Frequently, the sockets themselves are red, and sometimes the cover plates are red as well. GFCI sockets are very easy to install in place of old "regular" outlets. If you are handy with electrical wiring, you can install one yourself in about 10 minutes time. Or, you can call a licensed electrician, who will be happy to come out and install one for you for a reasonable charge. Plug all your aquarium appliances into a GFCI, and enjoy a greatly increased level of protection.

Other threats to the aquarist include slipping on wet floors. Have you considered adding a simple rubber mat or runner in front of your aquarium? It will provide you with a comfortable surface to stand on while working on your tank, and will reduce chances of slipping as you twist and bend to rearrange an ornament or plant.

Since few aquarists position their tanks on the floor, but instead use stands and supports, consideration should be given to the sturdiness and strength of the stand. Some stands are "overbuilt" and could probably support a Volkswagen, but that may not be true of a cheaper stand purchased from Slick's Fish Store. Inspect your stand from time to time. Make sure it isn't twisting, bending or bowing from the tank's weight. Collapsed stands are not unheard of, and can suddenly dump 55 gallons of water on your floor - or drop the tank on your feet! Don't laugh - it's happened. Of course, the time to consider whether a stand is adequate is at setup, but don't just assume that once installed, you can forget about it. Even iron frames are not perfect. Although it's a rare event, defective welded joints can fail. Inspect your iron frame stand from time to time and make sure no cracks or suspicious looking joints have developed.

Have you given consideration to what you would do if a tank suddenly developed a serious leak? This was a serious consideration 50 years ago, when commercially made tanks were not nearly as available as they are today. We used to make our own tanks, using angle iron for the frames, then setting in a sheet of slate for the bottom, and puttying in sheets of glass for the walls. Before silicone cement was invented, putty and "waterproof" cements had a significant failure rate. Tanks would often develop leaks a few years after construction. Frankly, I have owned only two tanks of modern construction develop leaks, and it's a very rare event (unless you happen to own a lot of tanks, as I do). There is also always the consideration of small grandchildren finding a hammer and deciding to see what it would do to an aquarium. (Don't laugh - it happened to a friend of mine!) Still, one should have "Plan B" tucked into the corner of one's mind in case such a disaster should occur.

First, one should give consideration to where the tank should be set up. I admit that a large aquarium set up in the living room is a lovely addition to any home. However, there is always a threat, no matter how remote, of carpet being damaged by leaking water. If this is acceptable to you, then by all means put that tank in the living room. Better still would be to put the tank or tanks in a room with a tile or linoleum floor, preferably with a drain.

5 gallon plastic buckets are readily available at most hardware stores. A few of these buckets, stacked in the closet or garage, will prove to be one of your most valuable possessions as a fishkeeper. If your tank suddenly develops a drip, a strategically placed 5-gallon bucket will give you some time to work on solving the problem. 5 gallon buckets make good emergency aquariums, a place to house your fish while you repair or replace a leaking tank. They also make great mop buckets. While you're at the store, pick up a good mop and keep it handy with the buckets.

Hopefully, some of these suggestions will help to eliminate some of the threats, major and minor, that can come from keeping aquariums in your home.

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