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What you need to set up an aquariumfirsttank

A Tank

For the well being of your fish, longer and wider tanks are better than taller ones.  This is because a taller tank has less surface area at the top of the tank, which is where oxygen enters the system and carbon dioxide exits.  More surface area equals more oxygen and a lower concentration of toxic gasses, which is always a good thing.  Also, more surface area at the bottom of a tank means that territorial fish will have more space to themselves. 

For instance, a twenty-gallon hexagon tank measures sixteen inches from front to back and eighteen inches from one corner to another, so the surface area at the top and bottom is 210.5 square inches.  A twenty-gallon “long” tank is twelve inches by thirty inches, with a surface area of 360 square inches.  That’s a pretty significant difference, considering that the volume is the same.  If you greatly prefer (on only have space for) a taller-style tank, that’s fine, but remember to stock the tank lightly (so that they have enough oxygen) and don’t keep more than one territorial fish (so that they don’t kill each other trying to chase the “invader” out of “their” space).

A Stand

Even a ten-gallon tank will weigh 111 pounds once filled with water (not including gravel), so it will require a very sturdy piece of furniture to support it.  Anything larger than that will require an aquarium stand (and it would be a good idea for that ten-gallon tank as well).  To avoid the risk of leaks and cracks, an aquarium must sit perfectly level (to evenly distribute the weight over the glass) and sit on a piece of furniture that is designed to support that amount of weight.  You might be tempted to risk it, but even one gallon makes quite a mess on the floor, so you can imagine the amount of damage that ten or more gallons would cause.  Stands are also a great place to store food, water conditioner, a siphon, and other supplies discretely out of sight.

A Filter

There are many, many varieties of filters out there: under gravel, hanging power filters, canisters, wet-dry, etc.  For a beginner freshwater tank between ten and fifty gallons, I would recommend a high quality hanging power filter.  If the tank is larger than that, you might consider a canister.  Feel free to contact me if you desire brand recommendations, as I’d be happy to share what I know. 

When selecting a filter, always opt to over (rather than under) filter a tank.  For instance, if you are trying to filter a thirty-gallon tank, choose a filter that is rated for thirty to fifty gallons, rather than the one rated for twenty to thirty.  You don’t want to push your filter to its maximum capacity or you will have a hard time keeping your tank clean and will probably end up replacing it in the future.  It’s worth the couple extra dollars to get a filter that will do its job efficiently.

A Heater

Unless you are planning on keeping cold-water fish (such as goldfish) you will need to heat your tank.  This is another item that you don’t want to skimp on.  Purchase a high-quality submersible heater for your tank rather than a cheap hang-on-the-side type.  The cheaper heaters are known to malfunction and I have had a number of customers who “cooked” their fish when the heater got stuck in the “on” position.  Right now, a good heater will cost roughly $35.00, depending on the wattage, but it’s worth the cost when you consider the risk.

Heaters are measured by watts and you will want approximately five watts per gallon of water you wish to heat (so a ten gallon tank will require a fifty watt heater).  I prefer the heaters that include a thermostat rather than those that require calibration, but that is a factor of how much you want to fiddle with them. You will also want to got a thermometer, even if your heater has a thermostat, so that you can accurately read the tank’s temperature. 


Hood and Light:  A hood limits the amount of evaporation that occurs and keeps the fish in the tank.  Many species of fish are accomplished jumpers and may leap out of the tank, so a hood is a must.  Regarding lighting… unless you are keeping live plants or (in the case of marine tanks) corals, a fluorescent light that fits the length of your tank should be fine.  Live plants will benefit from additional lighting, but more on that another day!

Gravel: You will want approximately one pound per gallon, though less is required for hexagon tanks.  I find that most fish show their best colors in tanks with dark or natural colored substrate.

Water Conditioner:  You will need a dechlorinator to remove chlorine and chloramines from your tap water to make it safe for your fish.  This works instantly and can be added at any time before introducing your first fish.

Decorations: This depends a lot on personal preference and the type of fish you wish to keep.  African cichlids do best with numerous caves and other rockwork in their tank.  Angelfish and other soft water fish may benefit from the softening effects of natural driftwood.  Many catfish enjoy cave-like structures and most fish appreciate clusters of plants (real or plastic) to hide in and swim through.

Background: Backgrounds hide chords and filters from view and make a tank look more attractive.  Darker colors disguise algae growth on the tank’s hard-to-reach back wall, make your fish appear brighter, and typically look the most natural.  However, many children (and adults) prefer brilliantly colored cartoon background, so it’s really a matter of preference.

Test Kits: In my experience, the most important test kits are for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate, because these test the levels of toxic chemicals that build up in your tank as waste matter decomposes.  A pH test is also recommended, but remember that consistency is much more important that keeping the tank at a neutral 7.0.  You will want to avoid fluctuation in pH, so as long as it remains constant over time and you avoid extremes (ie: a reading under 6.0 or over 8.0), it should be fine.

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