There can be a lot of conflicting information on how to set up a fish tank, along with contradictory tips, tricks, and methods. While it is widely agreed that freshwater aquariums are easier to take care of than saltwater aquariums, they still come with their own set of hurdles and care specifications. But just because you may be a beginner doesn't mean you can't succeed in owning and setting up a freshwater tank.
To help you along, here's a beginner's guide to setting up a freshwater tank.
The Ever-Important Nitrogen Cycle
As for any aquarium, understanding the nitrogen cycle is critical before anything else. This will arm you with the knowledge to understand why you need certain equipment and how to manage your tank.
The nitrogen cycle occurs as fish consume nutrients and excrete waste. This waste contains high levels of ammonia. The substrate in the tank allows nitrifying bacteria to grow, transforming ammonia into nitrite. However, this nitrate is still very toxic. It takes the bacteria two to six weeks to turn nitrite into its less harmful form, nitrate.
In the wild, this water would constantly change and regulate independently. However, in a controlled environment like an aquarium, this is where water changes come in. Later on, this article will go into a little more detail about water changes and water test kits, but it is important to mention that you should test the water of a small tank every week and a mid-size to a large tank every month. Ideally, your nitrate levels shouldn't be above 50 parts per million (ppm). This level drops down to 25ppm if you plan on breeding any fish.
Gathering the Equipment
There are a few things you need to have before you start setting up your freshwater tank. First, you'll need an aquarium that appropriately fits all your fish. As a general rule of thumb, you should have one gallon of water for every one inch of fish. Enough room is critical to the health of a fish and all their tank mates.
You will also need a water conditioner, a heater, and the proper filtrations systems. When you are setting up your tank and acclimating your fish, water quality is critical, as mentioned previously when we discussed the nitrogen cycle. However, water quality is even more critical when you're first setting up a tank.
The water you place should be distilled or sanitized with a chlorine tablet. You will then use a water conditioner to ensure that chlorine and any other harmful chemicals are eliminated.
Also, freshwater tanks can be kept at anywhere from 60℉ to 80℉, depending on the breed of your fish, meaning that you need a way to monitor the temperature of your tank at the very least. If your fish need to be kept warm, a water heater is critical. Your home's air conditioning or a lamp, unfortunately, isn't enough.
However, that doesn't mean lamps aren't useful to your aquarium, as they help good bacteria grow and are perfect if you have any live plants in your tank. It's important to simulate the day and night cycle in a tank in order for plants to grow properly and for your fish to stay healthy and not become stressed.
All About Filters
While filters are a part of the necessary equipment, they need their own section to be gone over fully. Filters are critical to keeping your tank clean and your fish healthy. There are three types of filtration systems that can be used in an aquarium: chemical, biological, and mechanical. Biological and mechanical filtration systems are must-haves, while chemical filtration is optional.
Mechanical filtration systems are just your typical filters that help your tank mitigate waste and harmful toxins like ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. These filers can contain sponges, cloths, and microfiber materials. Most professionals use a combination of a large and small pore filter to catch as much debris as possible. These filters should be cleaned no less than once a month.
Biological filtration is another must-have as it supports the nitrogen cycle. For this kind of filtration, you will need an oxygenation mechanism to oxygenate the water and help nitrifying bacteria flow through the tank. But be careful, as your oxygenation system shouldn't be so strong that your fish struggle to swim and become lethargic.
Chemical filtration is optional, but it is helpful. You can put different types of media into the filter to help mitigate toxin levels. For example, activated carbon removes chloramine, while oxide mitigates excess carbon.
Where You Should Be At
If you're following along, here's a quick check-in as to where you should be at. You should have an aquarium that is appropriate for the size and number of fish that will be in your tank. You should have clean and ready water on hand, as well as your heater, filtration systems, lamps, and water testing kits.
You should also have at the ready your substrate as well as any décor or live plants you'll put into your aquarium.
What To Do Next
Before putting in your water and décor, you need to place your substrate. If you have plants, your substrate should be 2-3 inches deep for the plants to take root. You'll also need to insert a tab fertilizer to help the initial growth process.
Regardless of whether you have plants or not, you need to make sure that anaerobic pockets don't form anaerobic bacteria that will eat up the oxygen in your tank. Thus, you'll want to have a layer of gravel above your substrate or regularly disturb the sand by spreading it around once your tank is set up completely.
Next, you'll insert your plants if you have them and set up any décor in your tank. After this, you'll need to install your filtration systems and heater. Your tank may look cloudy at this point, but your filtration system should help it clear up in an hour. Remember to measure the temperature of your tank or heat it up to the appropriate level and use your water testing kits to monitor toxin levels before acclimating your fish.
The Acclimation Process
At this point, your tank should be set up and safe for your fish to start the acclimation process. Ideally, you've bought fish that had no dead or ill tank mates and that have been quarantined in their respective bags if so.
You'll want to tie the top of the bag as tight as possible, so no water leaks in, and set the bag afloat on top of the tank water for twenty-five minutes. This will ensure that your fish are properly and slowly acclimated to the water temperature of their soon-to-be home.
Next, cut a small hole towards the top of the bag and add half a cup of the tank water into the bag every four minutes. You will keep doing so until the bag is full of the new aquarium water. Once the bag is full, pour out about half of the water from the bag into a bucket or the sink and repeat the process one more time.
At this point, your fish should be acclimated and ready to be released into the tank. Simply open the bag and let them explore. Remember to check your tank's toxin levels with your test kit, monitor the temperature, change the filter, and perform regular water changes. If you follow those rules, your fish will live long, happy, and enriched lives.
With this complete beginner's guide to setting up a freshwater tank, you're on your way to having the healthiest, happiest fish anyone could wish for. At Natural Environment Aquatix, we have freshwater aquarium fish for sale, so you never have to leave the comfort of your home to find your new best fish friend. So, what are you waiting for? You're ready to set up the ultimate freshwater tank!