fish tank care and feeding
January 11, 2013 10:07 AM   Subscribe

My daughter (she's 3, so, really, her parents) received a 10 gallon fish tank for Christmas. I know nothing about fish.

It is currently set up with gravel and plastic plants, a filter (that sits on the outside and actually filters the water out of the tank I guess?) and a heater. We have 8 fish - 4 neons, two gold crescent platy and two red minor serpae. Evidently the woman at the fish store said in a month we should also get something that eats algae. We have fish food. We have a net. We had some stuff that makes the water fish friendly, but only a sample size.

the fish have been alive for 3 hours so far.

What should I know? what do we need to do, aside from feeding the fish twice a day? How do we clean the tank? Add water?Treat the water? Do we clean the gravel? Seriously - there were no instructions. I will try to get to the fish store and pick the brain of the lady there but it might be a while, and googling brings up tons and tons of sites but I can't sort the wheat from the chaff.

posted by dpx.mfx to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Don't put your fishtank right next to a stereo or play loud bass-y music when they're sleeping.
posted by spunweb at 10:22 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Experience: parents didn't think I could win goldfish at the fair; I magically improved my coordination and ended up with three surprise fish. They lasted for three years and with some guppy friends!

1) Cleaning the tank: getting a fish that eats algae will help, as will swapping out the filters on the regular. You should get a thing like this (talk to your local pet store about the best options) to suck the grosser stuff out of the rocks. This will also require a water change of the tank; I think I used to take my goldfish out in a separate bowl so they wouldn't get caught or damaged during the cleaning. It will require one or two buckets that should be pretty much reserved for fish water. We also went through a lot of large snails which were really fun but substantially less hardy than the fish.

2) Treat the water: there are drops for this; what you use might depend on your local water supply. I lived in DC, so my fish got a blend of very dechlorinated tap water and spring water. (They were pretty spoiled goldfish.) You don't remove or change all of the water (maybe two gallons at a time) at once, because the fish need to be acclimated to it.

Vaguely useful things: a little net, maybe a little scoop (for water transfers) and a smaller tank (like 2 gallons.) These are useful if you need to pick up and move or sequester the fish for any reason, like cleaning or disease. Fin and tail rot and other little diseases might happen. There are medicines that go in the water. (This will again vary based on your set up and species, but mine never really suffered through anything awful.) There are also extended release feeding capsules, which kept my tank alive for a couple of weeks. Don't introduce lots of things into the tank at once. Keep extra packs of the filters and heater bulbs around; maybe take a picture of the size/kind and store it on your phone so that you can easily get more.

It is pretty easy, really! Our pet store guy was really great, and even in the days before the internet it was pretty easy to get a handle on disease management and treatment. On the off chance you have some casualties, you may want to consider how you'll handle the Great Floating Fish question with your daughter. You may also want to photograph the fish to find similar replacements.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:22 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Small freshwater tanks with hardy fish (platys and neons are fairly sturdy) aren't too tricky. Don't panic. ;)

1. When the water gets low, top it off. You don't need the water treatment drops if you let it sit in bucket for 24 hours ahead of time.

2. You will want to swap out approx 1/2 the water periodically. The frequency varies depending on size of tank, type of fish, etc. I've typically done it with with a small tank every 3 mos. or so. Use a length of plastic tubing will create a siphon to help you suck the water out. The fish (if you don't accidentally suck them up) can just hang out the tank while you do this.

3. You'll want to scrape algae off the sides from time to time. One of those magnetized scraper things are pretty handy.

4. These can be useful for both swapping out the water and vacuuming up the gunk on the gravel.

5. Plecos and/or mystery snails are good for cleaning.

Have fun! You'll figure out what works for you and your fish as you go. Yes, there will probably be fish casualties, but we've all been there.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:23 AM on January 11, 2013

Yay fish! Fish are pretty easy and low maintainance, BUT expect to see some of your fish die off in the first week (the neons in particular are usually pretty delicate). Usually if you keep them alive for a month, you're in it for the long run.

Feed them ONCE a day, and only as much as they will eat in 5ish mins. (If you always have a bunch of food on the gravel, you're feeding them too much) the more fish eat, the more they poop, the more work you need to do on the tank. If you feed them 2x a day, you need to be feeding them a VERY tiny amount (like under a pinch). I am too lazy to be that precise, and have even gone long weekends without feeding them (although I then feel guilty)

Every other week (or at the minimum once a month), scoop out about 1/3rd of the water (it may be surpisingly yellowish. I use an old tupperware because ew fish poop) before you replace it with fresh water, scrub down the sides of the tank with a regular sponge (I just dedicate a kitchen sponge as the 'tank sponge'). Refill with clean water from your tap. Pour it in gently so you don't completedly traumatize your fish/distrurb the gravel. When you change the water, also change the filter medium in the filter. It will look gross. I recommend bringing your garbage can over TO the tank, and avoiding the frantic dash with hands full of gross fish filter. I am also assuming you've got the Tetra Filter? (it's the most basic filter sold in stores), you can buy refills for it online, for way cheaper than at petco/other bigbox store. Additionally check out Fosters catalog (also online) for replacement tank stuff.

Replacing only part of the water, allows you to avoid dealing with the water conditioners and spending time futzing with the water. If you have black and white gravel, I'd recommend looking into ammonia absorbing gravel after a while- it does help keep the water clearer, but that's more of a 3m down the line sort of thing.

If you can keep your fish alive for a month, awesome! next step is to get a pair of algae eating shrimp. DO NOT GET THE ALGAE EATING CATFISH. (the catfish don't really stop growing, which is cool at first, but then... kind of scary).

For internet resources, I usually just google, and try to be very very specific in the question- there is waaaaay too much information out there.
posted by larthegreat at 10:24 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

How long has the tank been set up? Has your tank been properly cycled?

My instinct is that you're overstocked for a new tank, and you're going to run into problems. Did you use any cycling chemicals (basically, stinky bacteria) in your setup? Do you have a water testing kit? You want to be very careful about ammonia, pH, and nitrates for the first few weeks.

In terms of ongoing maintenance, you'll have to do some water changes (with treated water; I use Seachem Prime). You'll also need a gravel cleaner and a bucket.

There aren't many algae eaters that will do well in a tank your size, so I'd recommend keeping the tank away from direct sunlight. Maybe shrimp or snails? There are tank cleaners that look like erasers on magnets that you can use.

You probably only need to feed once a day -- overfeeding is really bad for your tank.
posted by snickerdoodle at 10:24 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't need the water treatment drops if you let it sit in bucket for 24 hours ahead of time.

This is only true if you have chlorinated water; many places have chloramine, which does not dissipate over time.
posted by snickerdoodle at 10:25 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is only true if you have chlorinated water; many places have chloramine, which does not dissipate over time.

QFT. I killed a fish once (a platy, in fact) because I didn't know this and the fish guy at the store didn't tell me. Get the chemicals. Relatively cheap, better safe than sorry.
posted by phunniemee at 10:41 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had fish for ten years. If there is one piece of advice I would give, it is to invest in a Python or similar product. Tank maintenance is so, so much easier (since you are going to be doing it, make it easy on yourselves.) The Python allows you to pull old water out of the tank directly into the sink (no buckets!) and then you make sure your tap water is the right temperature, flip a valve and refill your tank (again, no buckets!) I mix the water treatment (also use Seachem Prime) directly in the tank.

I did it the old fashioned way for the first few years, and I'm never going back.

Your fish will be happier slightly underfed than overfed. Don't starve them! But better a little hungry than too much food in the water-- both excess food and extra fish poop are not good for water chemistry. Watch them when you feed them and you will get a sense for how much is the right amount.

If you get a power outage, put a blanket over the tank to keep the temperature up. And the inverse, in a heat wave keep an eye on your tank to make sure it doesn't overheat.

Aquariacentral has great forums to get advice as well.
posted by ambrosia at 10:47 AM on January 11, 2013

The tank has been set up for two days, but the fish were added today. The tank came with some kind of goo that was added after the water treating chemically stuff. I can't remember what it was but it definitely smelled and it said something about "slime".

Evidently fish-store woman said that these were the appropriate fish for "setting" the tank, and that if we wanted more fish later we should wait a month. (I am totally happy with 8 fish.) (Apparently the woman thought we'd kill some fish - there's a warranty).

Oh, and the tank does not have a lid or a light - should it? Does it matter? It is not in direct sunlight.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:50 AM on January 11, 2013

If I remember my tanks correctly neons are hard to keep alive. They need really clean water, which is almost impossible to maintain in a 10 gallon tank. When you need to replace fish look at zebras. They are small, very active and fun to watch, and basically indestructible.
posted by COD at 10:51 AM on January 11, 2013

A lid is helpful to help slow evaporation, and also to helps keep stuff from falling into the tank.
posted by COD at 10:53 AM on January 11, 2013

I think you'll be ok with the fish you have an no lid; some types of fish are kind of jumpy.

The neons I usually add when the tank is much older (6 months), because they like stable water.

The slime coat isn't enough; you need something for cycling the tank (Tetra Safestart, etc.)

I wouldn't toss the filter material each time -- you'd be getting rid of the beneficial bacteria that breaks down the ammonia produced by your fish. Instead, siphon out your dirty water into a bucket and then rinse the filter material in the water to dislodge the physical particles.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:24 AM on January 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents taught me the right way to feed my fish by prepping little dixie cups of food for me to dump in the tanks. They did this for me as a little kid, but also for anyone of any age who was feeding our fish while we were away. The temptation to overfeed is very, very strong and it can be harmful to the creatures and the tank. What they can consume in under 5 minutes (the tiniest of pinches) as mentioned above is a good measure.

It's worth noting that larger tanks are actually a little easier to take care of, since the water needs less cleaning and the ratio of bad-:good-for-fishes stuff is more forgiving.

Is the tank in your daughter's room? Does she use/want a nightlight? Fish tanks are wonderful late-night companions and that might be a fun reason to get a light if you want one.

New water and abrupt temp changes are killers. Don't ever replace all the water at once. Introduce new fish slowly: first, in their bag floating in your tank so they adjust to the temperature, then dumping them and (almost always) their own water in after the time recommended by the store has passed.

If you found a store you like and trust, don't hesitate to call the shop with questions and identify an expert there you like to talk to. Nothing is worse than bringing home new fish that don't thrive because the store didn't take care of them.

My favorite algae eater is the great Plecostomus.
posted by juliplease at 11:36 AM on January 11, 2013

Basically you need to age a tank so that the filters etc work properly. Aging or "setting" the tank means getting a nice healthy colony of good bacteria going that will convert the fishes wastes from stuff that will kill them to basically harmless matter. While you still have to filter the solids out of the tank, it is the chemicals in the waste that do the most damage to fish until they are broken down. There are very few ways to rush this process and it can take from a month to 8 weeks. This is why the fish store woman thinks you are going to loose a few fish and you probably will. You can get things to add to the water to help the bacteria establish, or if you know someone with tank putting some of there dirty gravel in can help "seed the bacteria into your tank (and spread diseases so trust your source before you do this).

As you already have the fish and so can't do a fishless cycling to get the good bacteria up to speed first things, some you can do to reduce the stress to your fish are to do regular water changes to help decrease the levels of nasties in the water. Take out say 10% of the water and replace it with fresh water of the same temp as your tank, that has had the chemicals to remove chlorine etc from it stirred in. I would do this at least twice a week for the first few weeks, though once established this needs to be done a lot less often as water changes are stressful to fish, a little and often is better than doing a huge water change at once.

I would get a lid for the tank, evaporation will only help to increase the concentrations of ammonia etc in the water and it stops things jumping into and out of the tank. A light really isn't important except it makes viewing the fish easier or if you decide to add live plants.

Snickerdoodles advice on fliter cleaning very important.

Getting a siphon vac to do water changes into a bucket is a pretty easy way to clean the solids off the bottom. Just make sure any buckets you use for the fish tank and water are only used for it and don't have chemicals etc from other uses in them.

If or when you loose some fish, I'd suggest waiting a month before buying any more fish and then slowly add the fish one or 2 at a time so you give the bacteria time to catch up. For a first tank I'd suggest sticking with guppies (though avoid mixing males and females unless you want 3 million babies and harried females), plattys and mollys are pretty and pretty tough too as are the zebra danios someone else suggested.

Ask lots of questions at the petshop. I worked in a petshop part time for years and my favourite customers where the ones that asked a thousand questions because they wanted to learn. It's the ones that would insist on buying a tank and dumping in a bunch of expensive fish the next day with no idea of care etc, then would come in and tell my our fish sucked because they were all dead a week later that drove me crazy.
posted by wwax at 11:40 AM on January 11, 2013

Our kid's tank had a bamboo shrimp in it for a long, long time and he was frankly the star of the show. He was the only creature in the tank with a name ("Clark", for those who are interested. It's a long story.)
posted by jquinby at 2:53 PM on January 11, 2013

...but you'd want to adjust your bioload a little before adding anything else. But the shrimp was a gas.
posted by jquinby at 2:55 PM on January 11, 2013

Small tanks are actually much more difficult to maintain than larger tanks -- the water conditions can fluctuate more rapidly because there's less volume. Ideally, you would have added fish one at a time as you got the biological cycle set up in the tank. Now, you can salvage things by doing frequent water changes with non-chlorinated or treated water that is the same temp. as the existing water. If any fish die, wait a while before adding new ones. Live plants help get the biological cycle set up as well. Platies also enjoy nibbling on live plants.

When it comes to feeding fish, less is more. They will always act hungry, but just give them a pinch of food.

Platies are very hardy and they're livebearers, so if you have males and females you will get baby fish. A trio of platies (2 females, one male) and two cory cats work well in a ten gallon, just in case you need to re-stock your tank in the future.

I have found neons to be touchy, and it seems that many neons in pet stores are in poor health before you even bring them home. Don't blame yourself too much if they don't make it. Good luck!
posted by Ostara at 8:05 PM on January 11, 2013

Yeah, the neons didn't make it (already). The other four seem to be fine so far. Thanks for all the advice - I'll be making friends with the fish lady soon, and won't be adding any more fish until we get things stable.

I'm also shocked at how much evaporation there is already!
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:01 AM on January 12, 2013

« Older New Yorker Article Where Older Writer Mourns...   |   Half-remembered quote about poets Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.