Starter Aquarium
June 16, 2004 9:44 AM   Subscribe

What are you personal suggestions for starting a beginner aquarium? Freshwater vs. Saltwater, fish selection, tank size, books to read, etc.? [mi]

I'm thinking of starting an aquarium in the next few months, but aside from the Bettas I currently have, and goldfish from childhood, I have little personal aquarium experience. Unfortunately, much of what I read about fish is contradictory.
posted by drezdn to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Good websites would be nice too.
posted by drezdn at 9:51 AM on June 16, 2004

Take your time. It takes a while for the water chemistry to get to where it needs to be at the beginning, so don't expect to set everything up at once.

Have you found a good local fish store? That's key- look for one that is clean and well-maintained. Ask them lots of questions- the good ones are happy to give their advice. I'd recommend looking for a place that only does fish, rather than a big petstore chain that happens to have a fish aisle. Look at the fish. Do they seem stressed? Are there dead fish in the tank? Loud music playing in the store? Move on. Your fish are going to be a bit stressed out with the transition, so the better cared-for fish are more likely to make it.

The more planning you do at the beginning, the better.

Freshwater is certainly easier than saltwater, so for a first tank, I'd suggest freshwater. And don't start with a tiny tank- I'd suggest 12 gallons or even larger. It may seem daunting, but fluctuations in water chemistry are easier to control in a larger tank, so it's a bit more forgiving to your fish.

Think about where you are going to put your tank, because you're not going to move it once it's in place. Make sure the floor can support the weight of the water. Make sure whatever stand you plan to put it on can hold that much weight.

Once you have the size and placement of your tank settled, think about what else you want to have in it besides water and fish. Live plants take a bit of care but help with water chemistry issues, and many fish need some plants and/or driftwood for shelter or they get stressed. If you get driftwood, soak it for a few weeks to get the tannins out, or your tank water will look yellowish. It's a lot easier to place plants in the tank before there are any fish in it, on the initial set up. Err on the side of too many plants- some will die, some will get eaten, and it's easier to cull them than to plant more later.

Start with easy fish, like a pair of gouramis, or a handful of zebra danio, and gradually add more over time. It will probably take two months, or more, to go from empty tank to fully-functioning fishtank.

Drs. Foster and Smith have a good information center for aquarium stuff, as well as being a good resource for reasonably-priced supplies.
posted by ambrosia at 10:37 AM on June 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

First, freshwater is the way to go. Save the saltwater until you feel comfortable with changing filters, keeping the water clear and the right temp, feeding, etc.

Second, purchase a kit with everything you need - tank, filter, rocks, heater, air stone, all that good stuff. I got a 29 gallon from WalMart for $90 a few years ago. It was a lot cheaper than buying everything seperately and very easy to set up.

That is another thing you want to think about - how large of a tank do need/have space for? A 29 gallon is great, but might be a little big for a first-timer, and it all depends on the size of the fish.

Most in the Cichlid family is easy to take care of and pretty hard to kill. They are also even tempered (even if the petstore has a 'semi aggressive' label) and get along well with other fish. Other good first-time fish are Tiger Barbs and the small 'sharks' - Bala and Columbian Hi-Fin are both common.

Good luck and email is in the profile if you have any other questions!

On preview, plus everything ambrosia said.
posted by dual_action at 10:42 AM on June 16, 2004

two great sites:

I got into fish about a year or so ago. I bought a 45 gal. tank from a coworker and started a freshwater tank. I love it.

my recommendation is to go for something over 30gal to start. Smaller tanks are more volatile - much more susceptible to ich and algae problems. I also recommend starting with freshwater - if only because the fish are less expensive.

also, pick up a copy of dr axlerod's book

one thing about fish - every fish owner thinks they know the right way to keep fish. I don't really think there is one right way to start. just do some research and get going.
posted by soplerfo at 10:44 AM on June 16, 2004

Er, that is supposed to be separately
Spellcheck is being weird.
posted by dual_action at 10:46 AM on June 16, 2004

What ambrosia said. Also, The Krib has an excellent FAQ. If you'd rather not wait a couple months to fully stock your tank, you could try fishless cycling.

Basically, it takes time to build up the bacteria in the filter that keeps the water clean. Rather adding a few fish, waiting a couple weeks hoping the fish don't die and then adding a few more fish, you use pure ammonia to simulate a full fish load and you can get the bacteria built up within a couple weeks. At that point you can add all the fish at once. It does require purchasing a couple test kits for $5-10 each, but you should probably have those anyway.

One last thing: a cheap source of fish equipment is Big Al's.

On preview: I would disagree with dual_action's characterization of Cichlids. I bought a few semi-aggressive Cichlids for a community tank and within ten minutes of adding them to the tank, one had swallowed another fish whole. On the other hand, if the tank is large enough and the other fish have places to hide, Cichlids might work for you. So I may have just been unlucky.
posted by hootch at 11:01 AM on June 16, 2004

I would second hootch's caution about cichlids. There are a LOT of varieties and some are very aggressive, even with each other. I've kept Africans for years and they can be frustrating. They are pretty tough, though.

You might want to test the pH and hardness of your tap water before you figure out what kind of fish you want to keep. There are tons of water conditioners on the market, but if you can find fish that like the kind of water you have already, things will be much easier on you. For example, cichlids like hard, alkaline water.

I'll echo the advice to get a bigger tank (20 gallons or larger), and to go with freshwater to start out. Also find a good, local pet shop with people who know what they're talking about. The big stores can be ok, but the folks who work there aren't always as knowledgable. And take your time. I guess I'm repeating what everybody else said, but it can be a really enjoyable hobby if you get off on the right foot. Have fun!
posted by drobot at 11:44 AM on June 16, 2004

I guess I have been lucky with my cichlids! I have four five-year old Convict Cichlids I've raised since they were tiny and they get along great with each other and the others in the tank. They are probably abnormal, so don't take my advice. :)
posted by dual_action at 12:54 PM on June 16, 2004

I think convicts usually aren't too bad. Some other South American cichlids I think are ok. I just wouldn't want somebody going into the store with a tank full of pretty malawi cichlids only to have them torment their mollies.
posted by drobot at 1:00 PM on June 16, 2004

Tetras (most varieties) are easy-care, pretty, and usually not aggressive. Loaches are good bottom feeders. I am especially fond of clown loaches - I usually get them in twos or threes.

An aquarium is a lot of fun and viewing pleasure without a great deal of work. I definitely agree with the recommendation to find a good fish store. Have a good time with it!
posted by littlegirlblue at 1:02 PM on June 16, 2004

When I was a kid I started my 29-gallon freshwater tank with swordtails. They're hardy and not terribly incompatible with other fish. The only thing is, sometimes they're jumpers. On the other hand, I never had any luck with guppies at all.
posted by furiousthought at 1:51 PM on June 16, 2004

If I knew then what I know now, I would have never gotten a pair of Oscars as a "beginner" fish.

I started out with a 29 gallon tank, and two tiny, cute little oscars. Today, I have the same Oscars ( now 11 and 12 inches long) and a 180 gallon tank.

I love those fish... like my own child, really. They get all excited when I enter the room, they eat out of my hands, and have so much personality. Really. Yeah, I know, they're fish... but.... Oscars are different, okay???

The bad thing is, these guys are tough to take care of at times. Everything has to be incredibly stable in their tank, or they go crazy. And since I have had them so long, I'm a bit of a fanatic about them.

Try to start out cheap, small, and manageable for your first aquarium. Freshwater is best. Get a GOOD filter system.

Have fun!
posted by bradth27 at 2:01 PM on June 16, 2004

Filter: Aquaclear Mini
Heater: Ebo-Jager 100w

For a small to middlin' freshwater tank you CANNOT beat these. My fishkeeping life became much, much easier once I went with these items.

Stay the hell away from under-gravel filters, even if the nice people at the LFS think they're cool...
posted by dragstroke at 4:45 PM on June 16, 2004

I would second the opinion of starting with freshwater. Fewer water quality parameters to deal with, and the cost of entry is less expensive. I recommend this book by Gina Sandford as a decent primer.

I am also fond of the Eclipse systems™ of aquarium filters from Marineland. Kind of pricey, but very slick and easy to maintain, especially for the beginner.

And remember, if you ever finish with your fish, don't release them in the wild.
posted by piskycritter at 4:47 PM on June 16, 2004

I'm no expert, haven't had fish since I was a teen. BUT I would strongly suggest you NOT get the gouramis that Ambrosia suggested. I found they became aggressive to the other fish (I had the blue ones). Tetras, swordtails, guppies, loaches, are all peaceful sorts. Bettas tend to get picked on by the others (pity, they are beautiful).
posted by Goofyy at 12:22 AM on June 17, 2004

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