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Getting it Right the First Time - Avoiding the Top 5 Beginner Mistakes

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Setting up your new aquarium should be a fun challenge. Many of us had tanks at home as kids, though we may not remember that mom did all the hard work. Today, aquarium-keeping is a whole new adventure and so much better. There are 100s of varieties of available fish, endless aquarium decoration options, better lighting, and tons of advice on the internet. But all this cool stuff means it can be overwhelming. Let’s make it easier!


Place Your Fish Tank Near Both a Water & Drainage Source

Maintaining your tank includes water changes. This means you’ll be draining water and refilling your tank at least monthly. The closer the water source and drain, the better. Unless you plan on buying an extra hose or just enjoy hard labor (1 gallon of water is approximately 10 pounds), don’t place your tank more than 20 feet away from a faucet and drainage area.


Let Your Tank Cycle Before Adding Fish: Patience is a Virtue. Subdue your impatience

After you’ve filled up your tank with the appropriate water and gotten the filtration system going, you need to WAIT before getting fish. Give the tank some time to cycle (more on that in a different post). Now would be a great time to aquascape!


Pick the Right Filtration System

Don’t skimp but don’t pay too much. There are lots of options. Pick one that matches the tank size. If you have a lot of fish or if you have dirty fish, you’ll have to buy a bigger, more expensive filtration system. And keep it SIMPLE: easier to clean and less likely break. Avoid filtration systems with too many parts and layers. Hang on the back filters are great for simple setups with not so messy fish. If you want cichlids or large fish get a canister filter rated for how many gallons your tank will be.


Picking Fish: Right Way vs. Wrong Way

First, BEFORE YOU BUY research different fish species’ requirements and only buy fish that fit your tank size, budget, schedule, and future tank mates. (Actually, it’s the same process you’d go through if you were looking for the perfect adult non-related roommates for a 3 bedroom house.) Plan to buy only 2-3 fish at a time, starting with the most peaceful of your desired species.

Fish are Awesome…Until You Have Too Many.

This is so important it deserves the double mention it’s getting. I’ll make this short – do not put too many fish in your tank. Tank size and fish type determine how many you can safely put in your tank. A rule of thumb is 1” of fish per gallon, with plenty of exceptions. Go online and double check the tank requirements before you buy. Stocking is an inexact science, but you’ll know quickly if you’ve overdone it. This is why adding fish slowly is important. Too many fish lead to aggression, stress, disease, and death. Even if your fish seem fine, overstocking is a maintenance problem: too much poop! More fish = more poop, and more poop = more maintenance + reduced filtration effectiveness + reduced oxygen. In freshwater tanks, your beautiful light colored sand will be coated in brown fish droppings about 30 seconds after you finished cleaning. Finally, if you’ve got too many amorous fish, you’ll end up doubling, tripling, quadrupling your numbers very, very quickly. Then, you’ll have even more poop. And let me tell you, selling fish babies isn’t usually a money maker. It’s hard to find someone to take 30 orange cichlid babies every 3 months, let alone pay you for them. Instead of sales, you’ll be setting up multiple tanks, annoying your friends by begging them to rehome your fish, and ultimately driving around to find an appropriate body of water for release. When you’re sick of that, you will be stuck with one of the other options: euthanizing (with clove oil), feeding them to appropriate carnivores, or simply watching them kill each other. Not pretty. And seriously, if you end up needing a cleaner fish or run across another perfect fishy addition to your tank, having fewer fish than the max means you can safely accommodate the new stock.

Do Not Leave Your Lights On For Too Long.

It’s the same as having sunlight pouring through windows. You want to mimic nature in how the sun rises and sets. Lighting should be on for no more than 8 hours a day to control algae. Fish also sleep so they need darkness to rest and feel better the next day. If you have indirect lighting in your home that will illuminate the tank, that’s even better and you can leave artificial lighting off.


Keep a Beautiful Tank by Keeping it in the Shade.

Get placement right the first time: once your aquarium is full of water and fish, your 50 lb. tank has become a 500 lb. tank. Let’s get real on location and light. You may have an inspired vision of future mornings: perhaps you see yourself waking up to the same gentle, morning sunny rays that also naturally illuminate the tank of your happy and bright schools of fish. Your fish tank would end up being green with algae within days and a reminder of a Doh! decision. Why? Sunlight + Fish = Algae. As an aquarist you will develop a love/hate relationship with algae. Since you’re just starting out, you only need to know that algae is good for the aquarium until you can see it. If you can see it, then your beautiful dream aquarium may quickly become a green swamp unless you triple the maintenance. Algae also uses up oxygen in your tank that the fish need to survive and thrive. The lesson here: avoid excessive lighting. Sunlight is algae’s bosom buddy. So, plan to position your tank AWAY FROM NATURAL LIGHT unless you want excessive algae. It’s not just sunlight, though. All ambient lighting contributes to algae growth more than you’d think. As for location, place your tank away from windows. Windows affect temperature, closed or not. The same goes for exterior walls in areas with extreme weather: having the sun beat down for 8 hours on one side of the house will heat up the interior wall and the tank abutting it. I’ve seen this in action: my 20 gallon tank against an outside wall next to a window averaged 4 degrees higher temperatures during the day (even with double paned windows and an a/c vent directly aimed at it) than the 20 gallon tank 4 feet away on a shady interior counter. That’s a big difference! At night, the tanks were the same temperature. This temperature fluctuation is stressful for fish. Stressed fish are more likely to suffer from diseases and ultimately live shorter lives.

-Written by Kristen Miller-

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