Beginner FAQ: Introduction
constitutes success? Healthy fish that live a long time, quite likely
even breeding and having babies. Success also means having a tank that
looks nice without a lot of maintenance (e.g., constantly battling
excessive algae growth).
Having a successful tank is not difficult, nor is it
necessarily a lot of
work, provided you use some common sense. These
guidelines are based partly on science and partly on experience
gleaned from aquarists having many years experience in ``the art of
fishkeeping.'' The following list summarizes the most important rules
for success. Each is discussed in more detail in subsequent sections
of this document.
Buying a tank, setting it up and filling it with
fish all in the same day, while possible, is a sure road to
disaster. In fact, setting up
and fully stocking your first tank will take close to two months!
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
environment that minimizes fish stress is the key to success. As fish
become stressed, their immune systems weaken and they become more
susceptible to disease. Moreover, most fish medicines don't work very
well, aren't worth the money, and frequently do more damage than good.
Often, the best treatment for sick fish is to relieve stress by
(See the STRESS SECTION of this FAQ
for full details.)
- performing regular partial water changes,
- not overfeeding,
- checking that your filtration system works,
- giving them enough room to live, and
- keeping them with compatible tank mates.
Understand and respect the nitrogen cycle.
toxic wastes (ammonia) that must be broken down by bacteria through
biological filtration. Most fish deaths for first-time tank owners are
a direct result of not understanding the nitrogen cycle and are
completely avoidable. (The NITROGEN CYCLE
SECTION explains how the process works.)
Perform regular maintenance on your filter to keep it
Dirty (clogged) filters operate at reduced efficiency. In the
case of biological filtration, a clogged filter will be unable to
remove ammonia properly, resulting in fish stress and eventually
death. Floss-based biological filters are cleaned by gently rinsing
them in used tank water that has been siphoned into a bucket.
Undergravel filters are cleaned through
regular vacuuming. (Filters are discussed briefly in this beginner FAQ,
and in more detail in their own FILTRATION FAQ.)
Properly treat all tap water before adding it to your tank.
Municipal water contains such added chemicals as chlorine or
chloramine to make it safe for human consumption. These substances
are toxic to fish and can weaken, damage or even kill fish.
(See the WATER TREATMENT section of
this FAQ for details.)
Take the time to learn basic water chemistry
Basic water chemistry is pH, hardness and
buffering. You needn't enroll in a chemistry course, but you should
know enough about water chemistry and the specifics of your local
water supply so that you can keep fish happy. Every location's water
source is different, and some fish won't be able to survive in your
water. You can learn details about your water from a local fish store,
through the use of
test kits, and from local aquarium clubs
(or, amazingly, from the CHEMISTRY section of
Keep the pH of your tank's water stable.
Rapid pH changes stress
fish. Tank water has a natural tendency to become acidic due to the
production of nitric acid (nitrates) from the nitrogen cycle.
Keeping pH stable requires having adequate ``buffering''. If your water
is soft, you may need to add buffering agents. Again, see the
CHEMISTRY section for details.
Avoid adding chemicals that lower the pH (e.g. ``pH-Down'').
chemicals frequently have undesirable side-effects (e.g., stimulate
algae growth). Moreover, in most cases (despite what books and stores
tell you) the pH of water DOES NOT need to be adjusted to make it
``more perfect'' for a particular species of fish. If the pH of your tap
water is between 6.5 and 7.5, it is just fine for most fish.
(This is discussed in the CHEMISTRY section
Pick fish for your water.
Select fish who are native to waters having a similar chemical
properties (pH and GH) to your local tap water. If you have hard
water, choose hard water fish. If you have soft water, choose soft
water fish. This is especially important if you water
is outside the 6.5-7.5 pH range.
Changing the natural hardness (or pH) of your tap water
can be hard work and often takes the fun out of keeping aquariums.
Moreover, bungled attempts at adjustment are common and often worse
for fish than the original sub-optimal water conditions. A good way to
learn which fish live happily in your local water is to check with a
local fish store (or club).
Choose the fish to fit your tank.
Select fish that are compatible
with each other and think long-term. That 1 inch fish sure looks cute
at a store. But what will you do when it gets 6 inches long and views
its cohabitants as potential meals? Fish have specific minimal space
requirements that are dependent on their physical size and
temperament. Select fish whose needs will be met in your tank. Be sure
your tank has adequate hiding places (e.g., rocks, plants, driftwood,
etc.) for its inhabitants.
Properly acclimate fish before adding them them to your
tank. (Details are covered in the section on
NEVER add store water to your tank (it may contain diseases),
and if feasible, quarantine new purchases for 2-3 weeks before adding
them to your tank.
Perform regular partial water changes.
Changing 25% of your tank's water every other week
serves two purposes: it dilutes and removes
nitrate before it accumulates to dangerous levels, and it replaces
trace elements and buffers that get used up by bacteria, plants,
etc. Finally, regular partial water changes help insure that your
tank's water chemistry doesn't deviate significantly from that of your
tap water. The latter benefit is especially important should disease
strike your tank; water changes are the most important step in
controlling disease, and large water changes are not safe unless the
chemical composition (e.g., pH and GH) of your tank's water is similar
to your tap water.
Shop only at ``reputable'' stores.
Sadly, many pet stores are more
interested in taking your money than selling you healthy fish. It is
almost always worth spending a little more money to get quality fish.
Diseases introduced to your tank with newly purchase fish may infect
your other fish with catastrophic results. Buying a low cost fish is
also not much of a bargain if it dies less than a month later.
But many stores will instead
try to sell you equipment and medications you don't
really need. Your best defense is to arm yourself with knowledge so that
you can properly evaluate their advice.
Some hints for finding ``reputable'' stores can be found in the
The above summary serves as a reminder of the principles that lead to
happy fish keeping. Each of these topics (and many more) is discussed in the
remainder of this document.
For a 10-20g tank, once it is set up, expect to spend about 30 minutes
every other week doing partial water changes, cleaning the tank,
etc. If this is too much time for you, DON'T GET INTO THIS HOBBY! You
will also spend a few minutes once or twice a day feeding your fish,
turning the lights on and off, etc. Warning: many people spend much
more time than this simply looking at their tank and its inhabitants.
Of course, that is the whole point. :-)
Be prepared to spend several hours researching the hobby before you
make your first purchase. The more time you spend BEFORE you actually
get the tank, the smoother things will go. Go to several pet stores
to find one that looks like a reputable place. Visit them again
several more times. Get some beginner books. Read this beginner
FAQ several times.
Most people who get frustrated with fish tanks made mistakes that could have
been easily avoided. The way to avoid mistakes is to learn the basics (e.g.,
the nitrogen cycle) BEFORE you put fish in your tank. There are few
things more upsetting than frantically reading the FAQ for the first time,
while three feet away your beloved fish are dying.
Remember: most aquarium problems are easy to prevent, but
hard to deal with after the fact.
Tank and Equipment