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Your First Aquarium – Part 1

finding-nemoFish tanks have become significantly more popular over the last decade, thanks to Disney’s Finding Nemo (2003). Ironically, one of the themes of the movie was about saving a fish from a tank and returning it to the sea, but it seems more people wanted to own fish in a tank.

Are you tempted by an aquarium? Sure, an aquarium may be the most gorgeous decoration in a living room when taken care of correctly. But understand than a fish tank is not primarily a decoration, no more than a dog or a cat. Fish are animals, too.

Running an aquarium is a hobby. It does not run by itself. It requires some time everyday to feed the fish and watch on them, and some more time every week for performing maintenance such as water changes and cleaning. If done correctly, it can be a very rewarding activity.

Pick a destination

Before you begin, you must have an idea of what you want to do. What do you intend to keep? Do you want small or big fish? What species? How many of them? Do you want plants? As every breed of fish have different requirements for space and water parameters, you should get informed and determine what are your requirements and what your budget can allow.


An image is worth a thousand words…

Forget about bowls. No fish can feel comfortable in such a small container, at least not for very long. You may be tempted by a betta as the salesperson at the pet store told you it lived in a glass. They literally sell them in plastic glasses or extremely small bowls. This is incorrect. As a minimum, a betta needs 40 liters / 10 gallons of water. Furthermore, a betta is a solitary and territorial fish and as such must remain alone. Betta are very beautiful, but are not a good choice for a beginner.

Also, any person who has been in the hobby for some time will tell you, do not ever get a goldfish. These are not aquarium fish, they are pond fish. In nature, goldfish grow to very large fish, weighting a few pounds. Goldfish have the ability to temporarily halt their growth, which is useful during dry seasons. They will grow again when water returns. This mechanism kicks in when they are put in aquariums, because of the relatively small space. When they hold on their growth for too long, they die. Goldfish rarely live a year in a tank, while they live up to twenty years in the wild.

An actual Nemo, or clown fish, hosting an anemone

An actual Nemo, or clown fish, hosting an anemone

Are you looking for a Nemo? Nemo is a saltwater fish, it won’t live in tap water. Furthermore, Nemo wants to care for an anemone, which is not an easy species to care for. Therefore, Nemo is not a good choice for beginners, it is rather classified as an intermediate level fish.

Look around at shops around you town, in the classified or on forums, and see what is available. Get informed before you buy though. Acquiring a species that you don’t know will yield negative results for both you and the fish.

Among the parameters to consider, the most obvious is water temperature. It is very easy to heat up the water using a heater, which is inexpensive, but it very difficult to cool down an aquarium. If you live in area where summers get hot and you don’t own an air conditioning unit, you should pick tropical fish, which are comfortable in water temperature of 25ºC / 77ºF or more. Tropical fish are already quite popular mainly because of their great choice of vivid colors.

Another parameter is acidity of your tap water. It can vary greatly from one municipality to another. You may want to pick fish which are comfortable in your tap water. You may also consider buying bottled water (large bottles, not Smartwater). You can check your tap water parameters using test kits sold at modest price, or bring a sample to be tested at some specialty stores.

More decisions

An aquarium may take quite some place in a room, so you must first determine a size that will fit comfortably in your living room. Also, the larger a tank, the more expensive it is to maintain it and the more time it takes away from you. Because of the inherent risks of owning a large aquarium, many jurisdictions have insurance requirements for aquarium larger than a certain volume. However, a small tank can only hold a few fish.

If you are just starting out, a size ranging from 35 to 75 liters / 10 to 20 gallons is good for a freshwater tank. Larger is better, if you can afford it. For saltwater, 100 liters / 25 gallons is the minimum recommended, and more is a lot better.

Please keep in mind that you cannot move a filled tank. You must figure where you will set up your aquarium as the location will be permanent. Also, you will want to have some space around it so you can easily perform maintenance without getting clogged in a small corner of a room. I like to leave 15 cm / 6” at the back so that equipment and wires can be installed and reached for maintenance. I leave as much space on the side if the aquarium will be in a corner.


Catou tested the new stand for flatness

For anything under 100 liters / 25 gallons, mostly any piece of furniture could be used as a stand, as long as there is a steady flat surface, that will not bend or move. An aluminum surface is wrong, not only because it will bend, but also because it will rust. It’s an aquarium that you are setting up, it will occasionally spill water. Hard plastic or wood surfaces are good. For anything over 100 liters though, you should buy a dedicated aquarium stand, or be very picky as to what you will use. A hundred liters of water is quite an heavy weight. If there isn’t support very close to either ends of the tank, it will bend over time. An aquarium is most usually made of glass, a non-flexible material. If the surface beneath it bends or curves, the glass will eventually break and some (or all) water will leak. To the floor below. And to the neighbors beneath.

If you have young children, cats or dogs, take them into consideration when planning for your setup. Aquarium stands are often somewhat high, so as to bring the tank closer to eye level. To compensate, you should choose a stand that is somewhat large and heavy so that it won’t topple if someone runs next to it or climb on it.

What to buy

An empty 29 gallon tank

An empty 29 gallon tank

You may find great bargains if you look around for a used tank, but care is needed to avoid mistakes. If you don’t know the seller, you should at least verify that they are knowledgeable. An incorrectly maintained tank may well leak on you very soon. Of particular note, know that wet silicone must not dry. Newly applied silicone (from the factory) can stay dry for as long as necessary, but once you’ve wet your tank, the silicone must not be allowed to dry for extended period of time. Dried silicone will harden and crack, and eventually cause leaks which might not be immediately apparent. Serious sellers will keep the tank filled until sold, but if it is already empty, ask for how long it has been. I wouldn’t mind a few days, but I would not buy one that had been dry for over two weeks. If you are not comfortable, you may ask a knowledgeable friend for assistance, or buy a new tank instead.

A number of brands are selling low cost tanks now, but the old saying says: You will only get what you pay for. This is very true in this field. Do not get tempted by a very cheap aquarium, you will most likely regret it sooner than later. Cheap tanks may be made of cheap, thin glass, or be glued with poor quality silicone. I suggest that you wait and buy a better one, one with thick, high quality glass, and with a thick coat of silicone. Remember that your aquarium will be up for years, the tank is not something that you can change in a few months.

Freshwater vs. Saltwater

People often only think of freshwater aquaria, but Nemo caused a surge of popularity for saltwater tanks. This is good news, because it caused a lot of better quality equipment to appear on the market at a reduced price. Sustaining a saltwater aquarium was thought impossible in the early 90s, but nowadays it is just as easy to maintain than a freshwater aquarium. It requires a little more dedication, but not that much. There are a few more things to learn, but nothing complicated.

My pet crab, who lived happily with me for 6 months, before I accidentally boiled him

My pet crab, who lived happily with me for 6 months, before I accidentally boiled him

The disenchanting factor may well be cost, though. While a freshwater setup costs the price of a tank, a good saltwater setup will cost $1000 or more. Of course, this amount is to be spent over a few months, as you don’t need to buy all the equipment in a single day. Saltwater requires specific filtration equipment that is more expensive. Also, saltwater fish is still quite expensive for now; there isn’t much choice under $100 a fish.

Once set up and running, however, a saltwater tank does not cost much more than a freshwater one. The main difference is that saltwater is not free. Marine aquarium salt is somewhat expensive, but know that you won’t have to buy salt more than a few times a year.

To be continued…

Take some time to think about all of these questions. Do not rush your decision.

Look around in local stores. Take note of fish you like and check them up on the web to get to know what they need. Look at what models of tanks are available and what the price tag shows. Keep an eye for deals in the classified. Take measurements in your living room before buying anything.

In two weeks, I will tell you how to set up your aquarium.

Until then, feel free to ask questions or share anything I may have overlooked.


15 comments on “Your First Aquarium – Part 1

  1. heretherebespiders
    October 23, 2013

    I won’t be doing this myself, but I used to have fish (freshwater, it was the 90’s and salt was out of my league, har har). I read it all anyway. I didn’t know about the silicone – that was a very good tip. Now I know all my old tanks are only fit to be terrariums.

    • Tom Duhamel
      October 23, 2013

      Yes lol. Are you more reptile or rodent?

      • heretherebespiders
        October 24, 2013

        Reptile! Rodents are stinky and mess and don’t make people shudder nearly as much as a big snake does.

        • Tom Duhamel
          October 24, 2013

          Haha! You got your point straight 🙂

          I’d say rats have some impact on a surprisingly large amount of people. I don’t know why. I love them.

          I’m not very reptile. I don’t hate them, but they fail to turn me on, or catch my love of pets, as much as the small fury balls do.

    • Tom Duhamel
      October 23, 2013

      Technically, you could remove the silicone and glue it again. I tried that once, we ended up having to ask directions for the local recycling center. It showed to be a lot more complicated that I would have imagined. You better have a lot of tanks to spare if you want to practice.

      A more common practice is to just sell it at a very low price to the unsuspecting buyer. By the time the leak appears, he won’t remember you, and he will never figure that it was meant to happen. (That’s how I learned…)

  2. sarasinart
    October 23, 2013

    Very good instructions and details for a person starting out and doesn’t know much!

    • Tom Duhamel
      October 23, 2013

      Thanks! I hope you consider joining the hobby 🙂

      • sarasinart
        October 23, 2013

        Been there, did that. Had Oscars and piranhas and all sorts of pretty little fish, well, not at the same time in the same tank, lol. Plecostomus, sharks, cat fish, neons, and it was all fun. It is so peaceful to watch them swimming around in a nice tank.

  3. Cassie
    October 24, 2013

    Great into to the hobby article. Especially with the Nemo reference. I find that aquariums are not the best kids pet. Good job on the sealant point also. I have limited myself to one tank at this time, it is good to have a new fellow hobiest blog also. Welcome.

  4. sledpress
    October 24, 2013

    Fish are too high-maintenance a hobby ever to tempt me, but it’s fascinating to read about the technicalities of it all. If I were foolishly wealthy I would have a pond outdoors for big goldfish or Koi and people to take care of them so that I knew they would thrive. But I’m not so I keep cats.

    • Tom Duhamel
      October 24, 2013

      Haha! If I could afford it (had a house, and a large backyard) I’d sure have a pond. But I’d take care of it myself.

      I agree aquarium is a hobby that takes some time, and that was a warning early on in this article. I don’t like seeing people getting interested only to let the fish die because they don’t really want to spend a few hours a week to take care of them properly. However, most of the time goes at the initial setup, after a few months it takes a lot less time (in part because you get better at doing the tasks faster).

      • sledpress
        October 24, 2013

        I took care of an aquarium once for people who were on vacation. It was fascinating, but I decided it was definitely more than I would want to get into. And yes, it’s good for someone like you to give strong cautions about what’s involved. So many people get pets of all kinds and then don’t have the time to devote to them.

        I am definitely biased in favor of pets I can cuddle.

  5. Lidia
    November 19, 2013

    Is it bad that I giggled when you mentioned you accidentally boiled your crab?

    • Tom Duhamel
      November 19, 2013

      Haha! You may remember the story. I didn’t really boiled them, the word was exaggerated for funny purpose.

      As you may remember, I forgot to turn the chiller on again after a routine maintenance. Two days later, the temperature was up to 25ºC. As I found out through experience, these crabs don’t survive above 20. Despite trying to cool down the water quickly, the last three of them died within a few hours, including the one on the picture, which was the first one I got. They were otherwise very healthy before the incident.

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2013 by in Aquariums and tagged , , , , , .
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