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Setting-up Your First Aquarium
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Fish may not be the most appealing option for pets as they seem more decorative than companionable compared to cats or dogs. But taking care of fish is more than just fish. An aquarium is a whole ecosystem that thrives off of each other – a living, breathing, and flourishing piece of nature in your own home.

This may seem like a delicate set-up, and it may be daunting to even attempt. But with careful preparation and understanding of this ecosystem’s needs, an aquarium will eventually take care of itself with only a little help from you.

Planning Your Tank

First, you have to decide what kinds of fish and other species you want in your tank. Would you like a big community tank, or a small species tank? A saltwater tank, or freshwater tank?

This determines the size of your tank, the kind of substrates and equipment you will need, and the care it will require. It will take time to create an environment for your fish, so do not purchase your fish yet at this stage.

For beginners, a bigger tank will be much easier to take care of: the more water and space you have, the easier it is to maintain the balance of your little ecosystem. Most experts would recommend that the smallest you can go for your first aquarium is a 10-gallon long tank.

Preparing Your Tank

In this step, you will need to clean your tank. Wash it with warm water, and do not use soap or detergent as these have harmful chemicals that will hurt your fish.

Choose a location for your tank. Keep it away from places with lots of electrical appliances. Avoid high traffic areas where it could be easily bumped or knocked over and windows where you will not be able to control sunlight, as this will generate a lot of algae growth. Make sure your aquarium stand is also level, secure, and able to handle the weight of the aquarium. Allow at least 5 inches between your aquarium and your wall, as you will need this space for your equipment. It will be very difficult to move the aquarium later on when it has been filled with water, so be certain of your aquarium placement this early on.

Adding Substrate and Water

Most substrates may already be prewashed but it does not hurt to wash them again to get rid of dust, dirt, and debris. Wash the substrate first with warm water. This may take a while for some kinds of substrate, but keep running them through the water until it runs relatively clear. You can arrange the substrate in the tank, create little mounds and slopes to mimic nature, or make space for where your plants and decorations will go. But be careful with moving them about, as certain kinds of substrates like gravel and stone may scratch the glass.

Place a clean plate on top of your substrate and pour your water onto the plate. This will keep your substrate mostly undisturbed as your tank fills up with water. You can remove the plate after you have filled your tank with 2-3 inches of water. If you are preparing a freshwater tank, make sure to also dechlorinate your water if your tap water has chlorine in it.

For saltwater tanks, you need a saltwater mix that you can purchase from the pet store. Saltwater mixes instructions will vary per brand, so make sure to read the requirements and instructions before mixing it with the water.

Installing Equipment

The basics you will need for your aquarium are a filter, thermometer, and powerhead. You may also need a heater if the fish you plan to have requires warm waters.

There are different kinds of filters you can use for your aquarium depending on the type of fish you plan to have, the size of your tank, and the space you have available. Submersible aquarium filters, the most common of the filters, attach to the glass of the aquarium to let the water flow through it. Hang-on filters are waterfall-like filters attached to the outside of the aquarium. Canister filters are the most expensive and are most effective for bigger tanks. You may also inquire in your pet store which one would be best for your needs.

Saltwater tanks may need more equipment such as a protein skimmer, hydrometer, and other maintenance supplies.

The equipment will help your aquarium simulate the environment the fish would have in the wild.

Adding Decorations and Plants

Once you get the equipment running, you can now add in your decorations and plants. Make sure to wash them first with warm water, and that the decorations are aquarium-safe.

While plastic plants are an easier option, you can also opt for live plants as they help generate more oxygen for your fish, as well as help with filtration. They will be extra work, as plants also have their own needs, but your fish will be happier.

Saltwater tanks will need live rocks or reef rocks or pieces of coral that have fallen off from the reef. These rocks help with the filtration of the tank, as it introduces helpful bacteria and algae to the tank. It also provides a familiar shelter for your fish.

Not only do the decorations and plants help make your tank pretty, but it will also help make your aquarium feel more like home for your fish.

Cycling

This step takes the longest time of all, but also maybe the most essential. Cycling refers to the process of letting your tank sit without fishes just yet so it can undergo the nitrogen cycle. In this process, your tank will develop beneficial bacteria in the filtration system, substrate, and decoration. The bacteria take care of the fish wastes, which decay further into ammonia so that it will not harm your fish. This process can take up to 3-6 weeks but can be sped up by 1) dropping food to simulate waste, which becomes ammonia, 2) mixing pure liquid ammonia in the waters, and 3) introduce live bacteria sold in bottles at the pet store or from old filters. There is an option to put hardier, cheaper fish at this step, but they will struggle and likely not survive the process.

Cycling for saltwater is very similar to freshwater cycling, but it would be helpful to have live rocks to aid in the process.

You may purchase test kits to see if your tank has fully been cycled.

Adding the Fishes

Finally, once your tank is cycled you can start introducing your fish. Your fish will be traveling from one tank to a plastic bag and then your home – trust that it will be a stressful process for your fish, but you can help ease it to its new home by remaining calm and patient.

Acclimating your fish is not a long process. When you get your fish in a plastic bag, let it float in your aquarium water for around 20 minutes. This will help get your fish accustomed to the temperature of your tank. Next, drain the water of the plastic bag through a net and into a bucket. The net will catch the fish, which you will then slowly transfer to the aquarium. Now you have a happy, acclimated fish swimming in its new home.

Keeping an aquarium is a process, much like taking care of any other pet. Remember to address its needs: clean it now and then, wash the decorations, and do regular upkeep to keep this piece of nature nurtured and thriving.

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