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Aquarium Basics

You are probably wandering what are some of the first things you need to get your fish keeping experience started. If you walk into a fish store for the first time you will find that you will be overwhelmed with the various equipment and supplies that are available. Most of what you will find there would be listed under the not very necessary category.

Since most of you do not know to walk into a fish store for the first time with a list in hand, then after reading this you will be able to save a lot of time and a lot of money with your very own list!

Here is a checklist of the most important items to purchase:



  *Substrate and decorations

  * Cover and Light

  *Heater and Thermometer

  *Mechanical Filter and Bio-filter

  *Water Test Kits (two sets)

  *Aquarium Salt

  *Water Dechlorinator/ conditioner

  *Ich Medication

  *Bucket and Siphon Hose

  *Algae Scraper


If you’d like you can print out this list so you can take it with you when you go. I am going to cover each item individually to help you make the best selection.

Let’s start with the tank. Most people feel that a “starter kit” is the best way to go but in fact they do not contain all the equipment that you will need to get you started. Some require you to buy a heater and some a filter. On the other hand they may contain unnecessary things you really don’t need. They also tend to promote a much smaller tank than what is needed.

Tank size is a very important factor in planning for your fish experience. If it is at all possible, as far as budget and amount of room needed for the tank goes, pick the largest tank you can get. The larger tanks are much easier to clean and maintain than the smaller ones. You can also keep more varieties of fish and you have room to grow into.

I highly recommend a glass tank. Acrylic tanks are lighter and more resistant to jarring, but they are also more expensive and scratch easier. For a first tank choose the glass. Once you have more experience then it will be worth the investment and satisfaction.

As far as shape goes, well everyone has their opinions on this but the one opinion that counts more is your fish. If you are planning on keeping cichlids or catfish they stake out their territories on the bottom so if you bought them a tank that is tall and deep with the floor size minimal then it really wouldn’t be a good tank for them. They would never use the upper portions of the tank. These types of tanks are more useful in the community settings. Gourami’s that inhabit the top portions, barbs in the middle and Cory catfish on the bottom. For the cichlid and catfish lovers you would be best to get an aquarium that may hold the same amounts of water but be lower and wider to provide more surface area on the bottom to allow for territory. It is important to note that the shape of an aquarium is more important than how many gallons it holds.

No matter what tank you decide to purchase, be sure that you purchase an equally stable stand for it to sit on. Tops of dressers or tables do not make the best stands for your aquarium. For every gallon of water you have in your tank the weight would equal 8lbs per gallon. If you have a ten gallon tank, just filled with water it would weigh 80 pounds!!! That’s more than most TV’s weigh. That’s more than my seven year old daughter weighs and she is much bigger than a ten gallon tank. Buy only stands that are recommended for the tank you are purchasing.

Substrate and decorations are the easiest part. You can virtually decorate your tank with anything that would be deemed safe for the fish. Here is an example. I raise cichlids and the bag of cichlid substrate at the fish store was $22. It is designed to keep the water hard and maintain a high ph. My water is already hard, has a high ph, and nothing that I have ever tried would bring it down enough to keep the fish I wanted to keep. Now after doing some research I discovered that limestone is a great substrate and decoration for tanks that are holding cichlids. Well I was happy, living in the limestone capital of the world I went to the highway and picked up a whole bucket full of the stuff and brought it home. The fish loved it! I used sand as the substrate which makes them even happier. They can suck it through their mouths where they strain it for micro-organisms that they naturally feed on.

As you can see it really depends on what type of fish you are keeping and if you want to go all natural or keep it more towards your taste. Plants make a good decoration. Live plants are beautiful but can be expensive to keep. That will be covered in another article I am writing, so for now let’s keep with the basics and get the equipment.

Some tanks can be purchased with the cover and light and some you have to purchase them separately. I prefer the florescent over the incandescent any day. The light is much brighter and they last longer. There are many types of florescent bulbs you can buy and it will really depend on the type of fish you buy, but just the aquarium bulb should do. You will defiantly want to invest in a proper cover so that you can avoid the fuzzy fish syndrome. Any fish will jump if it can.

A floating thermometer will work quite nicely. These are nice if you have more than one tank. I use one between two and three tanks to check temps in the AM when I do the rounds. You need to make sure that the temps do not fluctuate more than a few degrees a day. Which leads me to heaters. Most brands are pretty reputable but it is the type that makes the heater. Invest in a submersible heater. The ones that clip on the back of the tank are not trustworthy and do not keep the temps regulated enough. One very nice discovery that I made was a filter with the heater built into it. It warms the water as it is filtered and returned to the tank. These types of heater/filter combos are nice, especially if you own an Oscar who gets bored!

Filters are plentiful and choosing the right one can be difficult. There are three types of filtration that you will need for your tank. Mechanical, chemical, and bio. Mechanical filtration is the physical trapping of pieces of dirt, waste and food that is unable to pass through the fibers of the fiber medium. Chemical filtration is usually made up of activated charcoal which absorbs water contaminants. Bio filtration enables your fish to survive. When you use mechanical or carbon filtration there is usually a visible result, bio filtration however removes substances we cannot see and replaces them with other substances we cannot see. Sound confusing? It isn’t. (see article on tank cycling) It is just a process that is so small that it cannot be seen by the naked eye. As long as you remember that biofiltration removes harmful ammonia and nitrites from the water by culturing various bacteria that convert those substances into nitrates, which are much less directly harmful. In fact they are not harmful at all unless they are left to build up to high levels. The perfect filter would be one that will supply your tank with all three types of filtration.

That leads us to test kits. They let us look into the world of the micro-organisms that are living in your tank and letting us see how they are doing. You can buy test kits that will test for everything, but you really only need to test for these basic perimeters. The three basic tests are pH, alkalinity, and hardness. It is important that you know these parameters for your water supply and that you monitor them on a regular basis.

The other three tests you will need will test ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. I have an article on tank cycling and it will explain testing for these three parameters.

Aquarium salt is more of a medicinal although some species of fish actually require it to survive. Before you do your fish shopping I advise you to research the type of fish you want to get and learn more about the habitats and requirements.

Water dechlorinator and conditioner is the only chemical I recommend for any tank. Ich medication is a must have when starting out. Changes in water and exposure to other infested fish can trigger an ich outbreak and you will want to be prepared for this in any event.

A bucket marked “FISH ONLY” is a must. This has to be a brand new bucket and must NEVER touch soap. Even the tiniest amount of soap particle can kill your fish. You will also need a syphoning hose to change the tank water. I recommend just getting a PYTHON as you can use it to drain, clean gravel, and fill all in a few easy steps. It was the best thirty dollars I ever spent. You can find them at Wal-Mart and are defiantly a must have for any aquarist. You will also need an algae scrubber. It comes with a handle or you can just buy a pad. Make sure it is fish safe. SOS pads are defiantly not what you want to use.

calvus Tank Cycling

 Tank cycling is something that every new aquarist has to do when starting out with a new aquarium. It is easier to understand if you know the basics and how it works.

Here at Personal Pet Advice we do not recommend cycling your tank with fish. We recommend that you do a fishless cycle by adding fish food to the tank to “feed” the tank and begin the process. Tank cycling can be very stressful on your fish and can even lead to death. Tank cycling takes approximately 4-8 weeks for it to fully cycle. In the fishless cycling you will want to add a few pinches of fish food to the tank twice a day and do water changes of 25% once a week. You need to buy test strips so you can keep track of how the cycling is progressing. These strips are inexpensive and can be purchased at the local fish store. I prefer the 5in1 because they cover all the perimeters except ammonia. You can purchase ammonia test strips and each perimeter that you want to test for separately as well. When you first test the perimeters of the water you should find that the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels will all read 0 ppm. This is normal. As you begin feeding the tank you will notice that the ammonia readings will begin to rise. This is the first step in the process. Food, fish poop, rotting plants and other debris in the tank will produce ammonia therefore the water should be tested on a weekly basis and if the fish for any reason just don’t seem to look or act right. Most trouble begins with poor water quality. There are three bacteria that are essential to your new tank. The first is ammonia. It is the food for another important bacteria that feeds on the ammonia causing it to break down and be less toxic to your fish. This second bacteria is called Nitrite. Although it is important to the tank it can also be very toxic and can lead to death. It is the waste of the Nitrite called nitrate that is less toxic of the Nitorgen cycle that is the least toxic unless it is found in very high levels of 40 ppm or greater. Anything over this limit can be deadly but with frequent water changes these levels can be kept at a minimal.

For maintenance we recommend 25% on a weekly basis. To make this task easier you can purchase a neat little gadget called a Python. They make water changes easier no matter what the size of your tank. It also has a gravel vacuum attached to clean the gravel. After cleaning the water and gravel you can also use the Python to refill the tank. Be sure the water temperature varies no more than a few degrees. After the ammonia has begun to develop you will notice by testing the water that the nitrite levels are beginning to rise. Once this bacteria appears then you know you are almost finished. It usually takes a few days for the nitrates to appear once the ammonia levels start to rise. When the cycling is complete you will have 0 ppm readings for nitrite and ammonia and somewhere less than 40 ppm for nitrates. It is then safe to add fish.

Only add a few fish to begin with. Every time you add new fish there will be a rise in ammonia and your tank will need to do a mini cycle to accommodate the extra bacteria being added to the tank. Another note to keep in mind is the size of the fish. It is common for beginners to add too many fish too soon. Try to resist the temptation. Be sure to keep in mind that most pet stores keep juveniles in their tanks and that since they are babies, they don’t stay that way for very long. The rule of thumb is one inch of fish per one gallon of water. There are always exceptions to this rule though and those being goldfish, plecustomus and larger bodied fish as well as cichlids. A 10inch Oscar has a bigger body mass than 10 neon tetras for example. The Oscar could devour the tetras and only develop a slight bulge. Consider the fishes mass when they are fully grown.

Now if you have already added the fish which most people do, you still have to cycle the tank therefore you will still have to do the testing of the water but you will need to test it every day, do more frequent water changes as readings for ammonia of anything over .25 ppm is toxic. Make sure you test after the water changes to make sure the levels are once again safe for your fish. One myth is that the tank will not cycle because the bacteria will not build up. This is just not true. A few years ago I made the mistake of adding too many fish too soon. It took a book that was written by David E Boruchowitz, editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, author of hundreds of books, and a fish keeper for almost 50 years, called “The Simple Guide to Freshwater Aquariums.” He stressed how important water changes are especially during the cycling process and after reading his books I have yet to have lost a fish.

The frequent water changes to keep the levels at a lower reading do cause the cycling process to take a little longer but in the long run it is much easier and healthier for the fish. Another note to keep in mind is you may also want to only feed them once a day until after the cycling has finished. Rule of thumb for feeding is look at the eye. This is the size of the stomach. It is more deadly to overfeed than to underfeed.

How many fish?

Ok, you have bought all the materials needed to get started, you have cycled your tank and all your readings are within range. What's next?


Most people ask the question of how many fish? This is not as easy as it sounds to answer. Most generally the rule of thumb is 1" of fish at adult size per 1 gallon of water. This is better used in conjunction with the community tank such as Guppies, Swordtail, and Platies. You however cannot use this theory with some fish such as Cichlids, Puffers, Goldfish and Plecustomus also known as an algae eater who grows to lengths over 12 inches and more. I have seen pictures of the species up to 20" in length.

Cichlids are a very territorial fish. They in general require about 1 inch per 8-10 gallons of water due to the need to establish territories. You must do a lot of research on these fish before you purchase as they have different requirements such as food, water perimeters and decorations. You will also want to find out what type of breeding habits your cichlids possess. Do they need caves for spawning or maybe just a flat rock? You will also want to know if they are a type of cichlid that requires two or more females to one male or do they mate for life. Cichlids from different areas of the world require different water perimeters. I have mostly Africans that originate from one of the three rift lakes of Africa called Lake Malawi. They are very colorful and are about as close to saltwater fish as you can get but they are also very aggressive and each species requires me to research them so I can give them the correct diet. You wouldn’t want to feed an Mbuna species a high protein diet since they are herbivores, meaning they require a diet of vegetables. On another note American cichlids usually require different water conditions. They need a ph of 7.0 or neutral give or take since most fish adapt to a little less than ideal conditions. A good resource site is at Cichlid Forum. They have a library there that is full of information to help you determine the cichlid that is right for you and your water conditions. Here is the link that will get you started. and of course you can always ask questions here at our forum board or visit the Fish Species Page, updated often!

When you are considering the fish inch per gallon theory you should also keep in mind the body mass of the fish. A 10 inch Oscar obviously has more body mass than ten 1 inch neon tetras. The Oscar would barely develop a bulge after eating all of the tetras. The Oscar is another fish that requires a larger tank. Not only is he a cichlid and a larger fish, they are also VERY messy eaters. They require at a MINIMUM a 55 gallon tank. I have seen them kept in MUCH smaller tanks such as a ten gallon, but this is a very cruel and inhumane way for them to die. It is possible to start a very young Oscar out in a ten gallon but it is much more economical to just get the bigger tank than to upgrade as the fish gets older. I in no way condone using a ten gallon tank for an Oscar even as a juvenile. Mine lives happily in a 55 gallon.

Goldfish is another fish that requires a bigger tank. They are messy fish as well and produce a lot of ammonia. One mistake that people commonly make is putting the goldfish in a community tank. This for a couple of reasons is a bad idea. One the goldfish as I have stated before are very messy and produce a lot of ammonia which is very toxic to fish. The second reason is they require different water temperatures than tropical fish. Tropical fish need water of at least 74F and in most cases 78F. Goldfish thrive and live much longer in a tank where there is adequate filtration and no heater and water temperatures are less than 70F.

Another fish that is commonly bought at a very small size at the lfs that is not recommended for a beginning aquarist is most species of “sharks.” Beginning fish keepers unknowingly enter the fish store to see one of these little darlings but are left unaware of the fact that the baby they just purchased will in fact grow into a huge monster. Most reaching lengths of over a foot. I seen the one that one of the lfs here in my town had. It was about 5 years old and was measured at 15". He was a beautiful fish but he is not a good fish to walk out the door with toting a ten gallon tank.

Do the research and I recommend doing a lot of it to be sure that you are providing your fish buddies with the best possible living conditions. Avoid the temptation of buying too many fish and adding them too fast. Make sure you know how big they will get when they reach adulthood and research their habitat requirements before you shop.

This article contributed by Cichlid Lover.


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