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Subject: [FAQ] Aquaria: Beginning Fishkeeping

This article was archived around: Thu, 13 Jan 2000 08:03:09 GMT

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Archive-name: aquaria/general-faq/beginner Rec-aquaria-archive-name: general-faq/beginner Alt-aquaria-archive-name: general-faq/beginner Sci-aquaria-archive-name: general-faq/beginner Posting-Frequency: monthly
* This is only a text dump of part of the Aquaria FAQs. * * The web "original" may be more current, is navigatable hypertext, * * and contains enhanced content not available in this posted version! * * http://faq.thekrib.com or http://www.actwin.com/fish/mirror * FAQ: Beginning Fishkeeping contributed by Thomas Narten Welcome to the wonderful world of aquariums. This FAQ provides advice and guidance to help insure success in your endeavor. Though this document is designed for a first freshwater aquarium (saltwater people: make sure to read the SALTWATER BEGINNER FAQ), there is much information applicable to both freshwater and saltwater aquaria. This FAQ is a work in progress; if there is anything you feel we've left out, please drop a suggestion to the author or the FAQ Working Group, and we'll see if we can add it in on the next release. The FAQ Team Copyright The FAQs owe their existence to the contributors of the net, and as such it belongs to the readers of rec.aquaria and alt.aquaria. Articles with attributions are copyrighted by their original authors. Copies of the FAQs can be made freely, as long as it is distributed at no charge, and the disclaimers and the copyright notice are included. _________________________________________________________________ Table Of Contents Before You Buy... * Introduction + Tips to Insure A Successful First Aquarium + How Much Time and Effort Is Involved? * Tank and Equipment + Where to Get It + What Is Essential (Tank, Heater, Thermometer, Filter, Gravel, Light and Hood, Powerhead or Airpump, Stand, Cleaning Tools, Bucket, Nets, and Test Kits) * How to Find a Good Aquarium Store Setting Up Your Tank... * Preparing Your Water + Tap Water (Chlorine, Chloramine, Other Chemicals) + Well Water * ``Cycling'' Your Tank + The Nitrogen Cycle + How Much Ammonia Is Too Much + Minimizing Cycling-Related Stress + Speeding Up the Cycling Process * Practical Freshwater Chemistry + The Big Components: (pH, Buffering Capacity, General Hardness, Salinity, Nutrients and Trace Elements) + Altering Your Tank Water's Chemistry (Hardening, Softening, Changing pH) * Which Test Kits are Important + Ammonia (yes) + Nitrite (maybe) + Nitrate (yes) + pH (yes) + General Hardness (maybe) + Buffering Capacity/KH (maybe) Setting Up Your Fish... * Fish Stress + The Meaning of Fish Stress + Causes of Fish Stress + Symptoms of Stressed Fish * Adding Fish + What's a Good Kind of Fish + How Many Fish Can one Keep + Acclimating New Fish + What and How Much to Feed * Partial Water Changes + Purpose + How Often * Long-term Success + Coping with Algae + Coping with Snails + Coping with Vacations + Coping with Moving + Euthanizing Fish + Breeding Fish Beginner FAQ: Introduction What constitutes success? Healthy fish that live a long time, quite likely even breeding and having babies. Success also means having a tank that looks nice without a lot of maintenance (e.g., constantly battling excessive algae growth). How To Insure Your First Aquarium Is a Success Having a successful tank is not difficult, nor is it necessarily a lot of work, provided you use some common sense. These guidelines are based partly on science and partly on experience gleaned from aquarists having many years experience in ``the art of fishkeeping.'' The following list summarizes the most important rules for success. Each is discussed in more detail in subsequent sections of this document. Have patience. Buying a tank, setting it up and filling it with fish all in the same day, while possible, is a sure road to disaster. In fact, setting up and fully stocking your first tank will take close to two months! An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Providing an environment that minimizes fish stress is the key to success. As fish become stressed, their immune systems weaken and they become more susceptible to disease. Moreover, most fish medicines don't work very well, aren't worth the money, and frequently do more damage than good. Often, the best treatment for sick fish is to relieve stress by 1. performing regular partial water changes, 2. not overfeeding, 3. checking that your filtration system works, 4. giving them enough room to live, and 5. keeping them with compatible tank mates. (See the STRESS SECTION of this FAQ for full details.) Understand and respect the nitrogen cycle. Fish produce toxic wastes (ammonia) that must be broken down by bacteria through biological filtration. Most fish deaths for first-time tank owners are a direct result of not understanding the nitrogen cycle and are completely avoidable. (The NITROGEN CYCLE SECTION explains how the process works.) Perform regular maintenance on your filter to keep it clean. Dirty (clogged) filters operate at reduced efficiency. In the case of biological filtration, a clogged filter will be unable to remove ammonia properly, resulting in fish stress and eventually death. Floss-based biological filters are cleaned by gently rinsing them in used tank water that has been siphoned into a bucket. Undergravel filters are cleaned through regular vacuuming. (Filters are discussed briefly in this beginner FAQ, and in more detail in their own FILTRATION FAQ.) Properly treat all tap water before adding it to your tank. Municipal water contains such added chemicals as chlorine or chloramine to make it safe for human consumption. These substances are toxic to fish and can weaken, damage or even kill fish. (See the WATER TREATMENT section of this FAQ for details.) Take the time to learn basic water chemistry Basic water chemistry is pH, hardness and buffering. You needn't enroll in a chemistry course, but you should know enough about water chemistry and the specifics of your local water supply so that you can keep fish happy. Every location's water source is different, and some fish won't be able to survive in your water. You can learn details about your water from a local fish store, through the use of test kits, and from local aquarium clubs (or, amazingly, from the CHEMISTRY section of this FAQ). Keep the pH of your tank's water stable. Rapid pH changes stress fish. Tank water has a natural tendency to become acidic due to the production of nitric acid (nitrates) from the nitrogen cycle. Keeping pH stable requires having adequate ``buffering''. If your water is soft, you may need to add buffering agents. Again, see the CHEMISTRY section for details. Avoid adding chemicals that lower the pH (e.g. ``pH-Down''). Such chemicals frequently have undesirable side-effects (e.g., stimulate algae growth). Moreover, in most cases (despite what books and stores tell you) the pH of water DOES NOT need to be adjusted to make it ``more perfect'' for a particular species of fish. If the pH of your tap water is between 6.5 and 7.5, it is just fine for most fish. (This is discussed in the CHEMISTRY section too!) Pick fish for your water. Select fish who are native to waters having a similar chemical properties (pH and GH) to your local tap water. If you have hard water, choose hard water fish. If you have soft water, choose soft water fish. This is especially important if you water is outside the 6.5-7.5 pH range. Changing the natural hardness (or pH) of your tap water can be hard work and often takes the fun out of keeping aquariums. Moreover, bungled attempts at adjustment are common and often worse for fish than the original sub-optimal water conditions. A good way to learn which fish live happily in your local water is to check with a local fish store (or club). Choose the fish to fit your tank. Select fish that are compatible with each other and think long-term. That 1 inch fish sure looks cute at a store. But what will you do when it gets 6 inches long and views its cohabitants as potential meals? Fish have specific minimal space requirements that are dependent on their physical size and temperament. Select fish whose needs will be met in your tank. Be sure your tank has adequate hiding places (e.g., rocks, plants, driftwood, etc.) for its inhabitants. Properly acclimate fish before adding them them to your tank. (Details are covered in the section on ADDING FISH.) NEVER add store water to your tank (it may contain diseases), and if feasible, quarantine new purchases for 2-3 weeks before adding them to your tank. Perform regular partial water changes. Changing 25% of your tank's water every other week serves two purposes: it dilutes and removes nitrate before it accumulates to dangerous levels, and it replaces trace elements and buffers that get used up by bacteria, plants, etc. Finally, regular partial water changes help insure that your tank's water chemistry doesn't deviate significantly from that of your tap water. The latter benefit is especially important should disease strike your tank; water changes are the most important step in controlling disease, and large water changes are not safe unless the chemical composition (e.g., pH and GH) of your tank's water is similar to your tap water. Shop only at ``reputable'' stores. Sadly, many pet stores are more interested in taking your money than selling you healthy fish. It is almost always worth spending a little more money to get quality fish. Diseases introduced to your tank with newly purchase fish may infect your other fish with catastrophic results. Buying a low cost fish is also not much of a bargain if it dies less than a month later. But many stores will instead try to sell you equipment and medications you don't really need. Your best defense is to arm yourself with knowledge so that you can properly evaluate their advice. Some hints for finding ``reputable'' stores can be found in the STORES SECTION. The above summary serves as a reminder of the principles that lead to happy fish keeping. Each of these topics (and many more) is discussed in the remainder of this document. How much time and effort is involved in keeping a fish tank? For a 10-20g tank, once it is set up, expect to spend about 30 minutes every other week doing partial water changes, cleaning the tank, etc. If this is too much time for you, DON'T GET INTO THIS HOBBY! You will also spend a few minutes once or twice a day feeding your fish, turning the lights on and off, etc. Warning: many people spend much more time than this simply looking at their tank and its inhabitants. Of course, that is the whole point. :-) Be prepared to spend several hours researching the hobby before you make your first purchase. The more time you spend BEFORE you actually get the tank, the smoother things will go. Go to several pet stores to find one that looks like a reputable place. Visit them again several more times. Get some beginner books. Read this beginner FAQ several times. Most people who get frustrated with fish tanks made mistakes that could have been easily avoided. The way to avoid mistakes is to learn the basics (e.g., the nitrogen cycle) BEFORE you put fish in your tank. There are few things more upsetting than frantically reading the FAQ for the first time, while three feet away your beloved fish are dying. Remember: most aquarium problems are easy to prevent, but hard to deal with after the fact. Beginner FAQ: Equipment Where To Get Your Equipment All fish stores sell tank setups containing ``everything you need'' for one price. However, a smart shopper looks carefully at what the package contains to be sure it includes only what you need (and doesn't include things you don't). Packages vary from store to store, some are more appropriate than others. Be especially wary of setups bought at discount stores (e.g., ``Hartz'' brand). They often include obsolete technology, noisy pumps, cheap heaters, etc. Garage sales are a great way to get into the hobby cheaply. However, a few cautions are in order. Before buying the tank, examine it closely for cracks or scratches. Although cracks can be fixed, doing so is more hassle (for a beginner) than it is worth. Don't buy a scratched tank; algae will grow in the scratches making the tank look bad. Be wary of really old equipment. It may no longer work well. Before setting up the tank (especially if the tank is used), check it for leaks. Fill it with water outside and leave it for a week. A leak on your carport is a lot less of a problem than one in your living room. To clean the tank, NEVER use soaps or detergents. Use water and nothing else. If you want to sterilize the tank, gravel, etc. wash everything plastic in a mild bleach solution (use pure bleach, not one with other additives). Rinse everything well in clean water, and let everything soak a bit in a solution with a bit of added dechlorinator. (Non-plastic) gravel can be sterilized through boiling. Equipment: What's Essential and What's Not Tons of aquarium gadgets are available at pet stores. Some are essential, others are useful only for specialized applications, and some are completely useless (though stores selling them probably won't tell you that). The following checklist shows the items that will likely to be of use to you. Tanks Tanks come in many shapes and sizes, but there are only two types: glass and acrylic. You will probably want to get a glass tank. In summary: Glass Acrylic ===== ======= cheapest per gallon more expensive per gallon hard to scratch scratches easily (e.g. scraping algae with razor blade) scratches permanent scratches can be buffed out (though not easily) higher index of refraction lower IOR (tank distorts less when viewed from angle) empty tank heavy same sized tank weighs less (empty) (important with tanks >30g) Tank stand only needs to Special stand needed that supports support edges entire base of tank (not just edges) more easily broken harder to break The size and shape of the tank is completely up to you. However, keep the following in mind: 1. Contrary to first impressions, larger tanks are not necessarily more work than smaller ones (within reason, see the TABLES AND CONVERSIONS for information on large tanks). In particular, it is easier to keep water chemistry stable in larger tanks than in smaller ones (the less water, the more easily a small chemical change causes a big change in relative concentration). Much of the regular maintenance work does not require twice the time for twice the size. For example, a regular partial water change for a larger tank may require one more bucket of water than for a small tank. That doesn't translate into twice the work, since you already have the bucket and siphon ready, your hands are already wet, etc. 2. It is very common for people to really like their fish tank and want to add more fish. A larger tank can hold more fish safely. Indeed, a single 10g tank adequately supports only a handful of medium sized fish. 3. Note, however, that the number of fish that a tank can safely hold depends not only on the volume of the tank, but on its shape. For example, some fish spend their entire lives near the bottom. Doubling the volume of a tank by doubling its height won't allow you to keep more bottom dwelling fish. Surface area is more important than volume in determining how many fish a tank can support. If possible, start with at 20g (or larger) rather than a 10g (or smaller). A 20g (``high'' or ``tall'') makes an excellent first tank size. Avoid all tanks smaller than 10g. They are simply too small to keep healthy. For example, although many stores sell them, the tiny 1 gallon goldfish bowls are totally inadequate for even a single fish. Stay away from them! Heaters If you are keeping tropical fish, you will need a heater. A heater insures that a tank doesn't get too cool, and that the temperature stays steady during the course of the day, even when the room cools off (e.g., at night). For many tropical fish, a temperature of 78F is ideal. There are two main heater types. Submersible heaters stay completely below the water. A second, more traditional style, has a partially submerged glass tube (which contains the heating coils), but leaves the controls above the water. Submersible heaters are the better design, as they can be placed horizontally along the tank's bottom. This helps keep tank temperature uniform (heat rises), and prevents the heater from becoming exposed while doing partial water changes. With the traditional design, one must remember to unplug the heater before doing water changes; if the heater is accidentally left on while the coil is above the water, the tube gets hot and may crack when you fill the tank back up with water. If your room is never more than 8-10F degrees cooler than your target tank temperature, a heater of roughly 2.5 Watts per gallon will suffice. If the differential is higher, up to 5 Watts (or more) per gallon may be necessary. Remember, the heater needs to keep the tank at its target temperature, even when the room is at its coldest point; the tank's temperature should not fluctuate. Heaters (especially cheap ones) will fail. Most often the contact that actually turns the heater on and off gets permanently stuck, either in the on or off position. In the former case, your tank can get VERY hot, especially if the heater is larger than your tank actually requires. To minimize potential problems, avoid heaters larger than the optimal size for your tank. To prevent winter disasters, use two smaller heaters in parallel rather than one large one. That way if one fails, the consequences won't be as disastrous. Thermometers You will need a thermometer to verify that your tank stays at its proper temperature. Two types are commonly available. The traditional bulb thermometer works the same way as the ones you can buy for your house. They either hang from the top edge of your tank, or float along the surface. The second common design is a flat model that sticks to the outside of the glass. In this design, liquid crystals activate at a specific temperature, either highlighting the numerical temperature or a bar that slides along a scale. Aquarium thermometers can be rather unreliable (check out the ones on display at a fish store --- they should all register the same temperature, but frequently don't). Thus, thermometers are good for verifying that your temperature is not too far off, but may be off by several degrees in some cases. When buying a thermometer, look at all the thermometers and pick one that has an ``average'' temperature, rather than one of the extremes. Filters There are three types of filtration: biological, mechanical and chemical. Biological filtration decomposes the toxic ammonia that fish produce as waste products. All fish tanks MUST have biological filtration; biological filtration is the cheapest, most efficient and most stable way to breakdown toxic ammonia. Mechanical filtration traps such particles as plant leaves, uneaten food, etc. (collectively known as mulm), allowing them to be removed from the tank before they decompose into ammonia. Chemical filtration (e.g., activated carbon, zeolite, etc.) can remove (under limited circumstances) such substances as ammonia, heavy metals, dissolved organics, etc. through chemistry (e.g., ``adsorbtion'' or ``ion-exchange resins''). Chemical filtration is mostly useful for dealing with short-term problems, such as removing medications after they've served their purpose, or purifying tap water before it goes into a tank. A healthy tank DOES NOT require the use of chemical filters such as activated carbon. One point about filtration cannot be made enough. ALL FISH TANKS MUST HAVE BIOLOGICAL FILTRATION. Although chemical filtration can remove ammonia under limited circumstances, it are NOT a general solution. Typical filters perform some or all of the three filtration types in series. Mechanical filtration (if present) usually comes first (where it is called a ``pre-filter''), trapping particles that might clog remaining stages. Biological usually comes next, followed by the chemical filtration section (if present). Whether or not chemical filtration is useful (or even helpful) depends on who you talk to. It can be useful for removing fish medicines after their effectiveness has ended (partial water changes do the same thing though). They can also remove trace elements necessary for plant growth (with obvious results). Unless you have a good reason to believe that your circumstances require chemical filtration, avoid it. Filters are not maintenance-free. For example, if debris is allowed to accumulate in a mechanical filter, it decomposes into ammonia, negating its primary purpose. Likewise, a biological filter's effectiveness diminishes as it becomes clogged. Biological filtration requires water movement across a large surface area on which bacteria have attached (e.g., floss or gravel). The less surface area available, the less effective the filter. UGFs are cleaned by regularly vacuuming the gravel (e.g. while doing partial water changes). Canister and power filters are cleaned by removing the media and gently squeezing it in a bucket of used tank water (tap water may contain bacteria-killing chlorine). There is no magic formula for what size filter one needs. Consult with specific manufacturer's ratings and be conservative. You can't have too much filtering (though you can have too much water movement), so err on the side of overfiltering. Filters are discussed in more detail in a separate FILTER FAQ. Gravel Gravel serves three main purposes. First, it serves as decoration, making your tank look nicer. Second, if using an UGF, gravel is mandatory as it is the filter media (the surface area on which bacteria attach). Third, in plant tanks, it serves as a ``substrate'' (e.g. dirt) for plant roots (consult the PLANT FAQ for details on what quantity and type of substrate is appropriate for plants). Ultimately, the choice of color, size, etc. is up to you. However, be aware that dark gravel better highlights a fish's colors. Fish adjust their colors to match that of the surroundings, and light gravel tends to wash out a fish's true colors. Most of the gravel sold for aquariums is plastic coated. For obvious reasons, you should not boil it. :-) It is also very expensive ($1 a pound). Gravel can be purchased for much less at patio stores (e.g., Wallmart, Home Quarters, local sand and gravel suppliers, etc.). However, it often tends to be larger than ideal and too light in color (e.g., marble chips). Sand can also be used. Be aware that not all gravel is inert. For example, coral, sea shells, dolomite and limestone will release (leach) carbonates into the tank raising its pH buffering capacity (see the CHEMISTRY SECTION for details). When keeping African rift lake cichlids, this is desirable. But in most other cases, you will not want your gravel affecting the water chemistry. As a quick test, drip an acid (e.g., vinegar) onto the gravel in question. If it foams or bubbles, the gravel is going to leach carbonates into the water. To be absolutely sure, fill a bucket of gravel with water and measure the pH over a period of a week. If the pH remains stable, it should be safe to use in your tank. When used for the first time, gravel should be washed thoroughly. Simply rinse clean water through it until the water comes out clear (tap water is fine). For example, put the gravel in a bucket of water, fill it with water, and churn the gravel up. Drain the water and repeat the procedure until the water remains clear. Before using gravel of unknown origin (e.g., not purchased at a fish store), you may (as a precaution) want to boil it for 15 minutes to kill unwanted bacteria. Driftwood and other Decorations It is safe to place items in your tank as long as they are inert, meaning they won't release (leach) chemicals into the water. Most plastics are inert inert, as are glass and ceramic. Wood may leach substances into the water, changing the pH in a possibly inappropriate manner. Driftwood often leaches tannins and other humic acids into the water (much like peat moss), possibly softening it and lowering its pH. The water may also obtain a yellowish tea-colored tint. The tint is not harmful and can be removed by filtering the water through activated charcoal. If you use wood that you've found yourself (e.g., woods or lake), boil it first to kill any pathogens. Boiling it (long enough) will also make it sink. Lights & Hood You will probably want to purchase lights and a hood. A hood prevents fish from jumping out of the tank and reduces the rate at which water evaporates. A good hood effectively seals the tank (except perhaps where the heater and filter reside). You want as little water as possible evaporating as it may raise the room's humidity to unacceptable levels and requires more maintenance (i.e., you will have to ``top off'' the tank once or twice a week to replace the lost water). There are two styles of hoods. Full hoods combine the light and hood as a single unit. Hoods include space for only 1 or 2 (parallel) fluorescent light tubes, which is fine for fish-only tanks, but not usually enough for growing plants. Glass ``canopies'' cover the tank with two strips of glass connected by a plastic hinge, but don't include lighting. A separate strip (or other) light is used in conjunction with it. Canopies are a bit better for plant tanks than full hoods; one can upgrade or change the lighting without replacing the entire hood, and in situations where very high wattage is needed, one can usually fit more light bulbs directly above the tank. Light serves two purposes. It highlights and shows off your fish's colors and provides (critical) energy for plants (if present). Unfortunately, the two purposes conflict somewhat. In a fish-only tank, a single low-wattage fluorescent bulb suffices and does a good job of showing a fish's true colors (most fish don't like bright lights either). If you want to grow plants, however, more light is needed, and the bulb's spectrum becomes an issue; be sure to consult the lighting sections in the PLANT FAQ before purchasing your light and hood setup. Whether or not you will be growing plants, fluorescent lights are the way to go. Incandescent bulbs give off too much heat, causing your tank to overheat in the summer. Fluorescent bulbs run cooler and use less electricity for the same amount of light. Note that in the summer time, even fluorescent lighting can produce enough heat to lead to tank overheating problems, if your house gets warm (e.g, you live in the tropics and don't have air conditioning). Unfortunately, light grows not only plants, but algae. If your tank contains lots of the kind of light plants desire, and there are no plants, algae quickly fills the void. Thus, the ideal lighting for fish-only tanks differs significantly from that for a plant tank. Two components of light are of particular importance: intensity (i.e., wattage) and spectrum. Plants require intense light and certain spectral ranges produce more growth than others. Different types of bulbs give off light in different spectral regions. So-called ``full-spectrum'' bulbs attempt to reproduce the sun's full spectral range. They are good both for growing plants and bringing out a fish's natural colors. Specialized ``plant'' bulbs (e.g., gro-lux, etc.) emphasize a spectral range that stimulates plant growth. Such bulbs grow plants (and algae!) well, but fish don't look quite right under them, because the light does not have the spectrum of normal sunlight. The common ``cool white'' bulbs give off light designed for humans in windowless offices; they neither grow plants particularly well, nor bring out a fish's natural colors. As a quick rule of thumb, 2-4 watts/gallon of full-spectrum (or specialized ``plant'') lighting is good for plants; for fish-only tanks, use less than 1 watt/gallon, and avoid using plant bulbs. Powerheads A powerhead is a water pump that runs completely submerged in a tank. They typically attach to the ``lift tubes'' associated with UGF filters, pulling water through the lift tube. The stream of outgoing water can usually be oriented in (almost) any direction, and it is common to point them in such a way that water circulates throughout the tank and stirs up or ``agitates'' the surface a bit. Air Pumps An air pump simply bubbles air through your tank. Air pumps serve two purposes. First, they insure that your tank maintains an adequate concentration of oxygen. An air pump is NOT required for this purpose, as long as your tank maintains adequate water movement together with surface agitation. This is generally the case if external (e.g., box or cannister) filters are used. Second, air pumps can be used to force water through a filter (e.g., sponge or corner filter). If using a UGF, for example, an air pump produces bubbles that force water up the uplift tubes, pulling water through the filter. In larger tanks, powerheads perform the same function. Thus, an air pump is not required, provided your tank has good water circulation. Stands You will need some sort of stand on which to place your tank. The stand can either be specially designed to hold your tank, or existing furniture. The first thing to consider is whether your chosen stand can support the tank's weight. When full of water, tanks weigh a LOT (the water alone weighs roughly 10 lbs/gallon). Consult THE TABLES in the INTRODUCTARY FAQ for detailed specs on common aquarium sizes. If you live in an older or cheaply constructed home, give consideration to how weight is distributed among the stand's supports. The larger the surface area of the leg stands, the less instantaneous pressure (per square inch) on the floor. You don't want the stand to crash through your floor! If you plan to have a large tank (e.g., 55g or more), be sure the floor itself can properly support the weight. For big tanks, try to place the tank perpendicular to the floor joists (so that the weight is distributed over multiple joists). Placing your tank near a load bearing wall is also safer than placing in the middle of your floor. Stands should keep the tank level, in order to keep weight distributed properly. An un-level tank places stress in the wrong places, increasing the odds of having the tank break (yes, this does actually happen sometimes). In order to more evenly distribute weight on the stand, it is a good idea to place a 1/4 inch sheet of Styrofoam between the stand and the tank. Plants There are two kinds of plants (depending on who you talk to): real and plastic. Both kinds provide decoration and hiding places for fish. Plastic plants are (obviously) easier to maintain. Although it is possible to grow real plants in an aquarium, it is not always trivial to do so (e.g., plants have special lighting requirements). If you are at all interested in trying to grow real plants, consult the PLANT FAQ before purchasing your tank --- especially the hood. Miscellaneous Cleaning Tools Siphoning is the easiest way to remove water from a tank. For large tanks, using a ``water python'' or other long hose allows one to dispense with the bucket and siphon water directly into a drain or outside garden. When removing water via siphoning, you should also clean (``vacuum'') your gravel. Many ``water changing'' hoses are available at local fish stores and include a gravel cleaning attachment. The basic idea behind them is to connect a wide mouthed tube to the end of the siphon hose. When the tube is plunged into the gravel, the water flow churns up the gravel, but only the detritus (dirt, mulm, etc) is light enough to be siphoned out. Note that the dirty water being removed from your tank contains nitrates, which make an excellent fertilizer for your flower or vegetable garden. To remove algae from the side of your tank, a plastic, non-soapy scouring pad can be used. If you have an acrylic tank, be especially careful that the pad isn't hard enough to scratch the side. Many types of algae can be wiped free using the floss inserts made for Whisper filters (cheap and can't scratch). Some of the slower growing algae simply can't be removed with a scouring pad without a lot of work (and churning of the tank!). A razor blade works best at this point. Go to your local fish store and purchase a scraper that has a long (foot long) handle with a razor blade on one end. A razor blade can be used to remove just about anything from the sides of a tank. However, razor blades CAN scratch glass, if one is not careful. So-called ``magnet cleaners'' can also be helpful for removing algae. A scraping block on the inside of the tank is held in place by a magnet held on the outside of the tank. Moving the outside magnet moves the scraping block, removing algae without having to plunge your entire arm in the tank. The best magnet cleaners are those with a strong magnetic field (e.g., larger magnets), and they work best on smaller tanks, which have thinner glass. A toothbrush is one of the most effective tools for removing algae from the inside of plastic tubing. Bucket For Water Changes You will need at least one bucket for adding and removing water from your tank. Use the largest bucket you can comfortably work with (e.g., up to 5 gallons). Use it only for your aquarium and don't ever put any chemicals in it. Nets You will need at least one fish net, and having two is better; catching fish is easier if you use one net to chase fish into the other. Nets with a fine mesh are harder to use because of their high water resistance. The right net size will of course depend on the size of your fish. Note: netting fish is stressful. In particular, the fish net scrapes off some of a fish's protective slime coating. If possible, when catching fish, use a net to chase the fish into a small plastic or glass jar. Test Kits You will probably want to buy some test kits for measuring things like ammonia concentrations. Because there are so many kits, recommendations as to which to buy are given in a separate TEST KIT SECTION of this FAQ. Beginner FAQ: Finding Reputable Fish Stores Like all businesses, fish stores have to make money to survive. Unfortunately, some are more interested in profits than selling you just what you need and nothing more. Consequently, a smart customer is a careful shopper. Of course no store is 100% perfect all the time, but the difference between a good store and poor one can be astonishing once you've been to a few. Visit a store several times, and don't rely on just one experience. If the same bad patterns are present on multiple visits, find another store. The following highlights some of the things that distinguish a good, reputable store from one you should avoid. If the fish don't look good at the store, chances are they won't survive long after you bring them home; they may already have been stressed beyond the point of recovery. 1. A store's fish tanks should be clean and the fish should look healthy and unstressed (e.g., no nipped fins, good colors, fish active, etc.). Are dead fish removed quickly? All stores will have fish die in their tanks; good stores will remove them quickly (fish covered with fungus have probably been dead a long time). 2. Do any of the fish show signs of disease such as ick (tiny white spots)? A good store won't sell you ANY fish from a tank that has ick, even if the specific fish you are purchasing looks OK. 3. Are incompatible fish kept in the same tank? If so, how can you trust the advice they give you concerning compatible inhabitants for your tank? 4. Check out the store's policy on fish returns. A good store will give you full credit on fish deaths for a period of a few days, provided you bring in a water sample so that they can test your water for ammonia. 5. Are the sales staff knowledgeable about what they are selling? A good store will ask you about your tank (size, inhabitants, etc.) in order to find out whether a prospective fish purchase would be a good addition to your tank. A bad store will sell you whatever you want; they'll be happy to sell you more fish later, after incompatible inhabitants have killed each other. For beginning aquarists, a good store will take the time to explain the nitrogen cycle, and advise you to wait on fish purchases until your tank has become established. A bad store will neglect to mention the nitrogen cycle, until you return a few days later wondering wondering why your fish died (now they can sell you more fish, and maybe ``nitrification bacteria'' to go with it!). Ask lots of questions. Be wary of vague answers; they are a sign that the seller doesn't know the answer (and isn't willing to find out), or worse. Like that tiny oscar fish? A good store will warn you that oscar fish get VERY big, and verify that your tank is big enough and that none of its inhabitants will get eaten by the oscar. A bad store will remain silent. 6. Be wary of adding medications to your tank; they frequently don't work or are unnecessary. (See the DISEASE FAQ.) A good store will first ask about your tank's water quality, verify that cycling has completed, etc., and suggest water changes. They will also recommend medications only if they can identify the specific disease. A ``bad'' store will encourage you to buy medicine, without regard to whether the specific medicine is useful in combating the specific problem you have. A good store will ask you what fish you have in the tank, as some medications are toxic to certain species of fish. A bad store will let you find out the hard way. 7. As a (very) general rule of thumb, stores that specialize in aquariums are better than stores that sell fish as a sideline. In the former case, a ``bad'' store won't make money over the long haul (they can only sucker customers once or twice) and will eventually go out of business. In the latter case, a store's fish department may continually lose money, but remain open because the rest of the store (e.g, puppy sales) is making money. Of course, there are exceptions. 8. Finally, buying fish at the cheapest store isn't necessarily a good bargain. A healthy fish is worth paying extra for. A sick fish may infect all of your tank's inhabitants or die shortly after purchase; some bargain. Is a pattern becoming clear? A good store is knowledgeable about the products they sell and will take the time to be sure the customer is making a purchase that they will be happy with in the long term. They want your repeat business in the future. A bad store will encourage (or fail to discourage) you from buying things you don't need. Beginner FAQ: Water Treatment Municipal Tap Water in the Aquarium Most people use tap water in their tanks; it is cheap and easy to use. Unfortunately (for aquarists), local water companies add chemicals to the water to make it safe to drink (e.g., chlorine or chloramine to kill bacteria). More recently, concern about water flowing through older lead pipes has caused some water utilities to add pH-raising chemicals to the water (because lead dissolves less readily in alkaline water). Consequently, tap water must be specially treated before it can safely be used in fish tanks. Another potential problem concerns variability in the chemical properties of your water supply over time (e.g., month-to-month). Some water districts don't have enough water themselves, forcing them to purchase additional water from neighboring water districts in times of shortages. If this water has a different chemical properties (e.g., hardness), your tap water's chemistry will vary as well. As a common example, high bacteria levels are more of a problem in summer than winter, especially in warmer climates. Consequently, it is not uncommon for water companies to use more chlorine in summer months to keep bacteria in check. Even such factors as local weather can have an impact; heavy rains may cause the hardness of your water supply to decrease as local reservoirs fill. In general, chlorine and chloramine are the two additives that cause the most problems. Note that these two substances are VERY DIFFERENT! Be sure you know what is in your tap water and treat appropriately. Chlorine In the US, EPA guidelines require that tap water at any faucet contain a minimal chlorine concentration of 0.2 ppm, and stringently limits the concentration of bacteria (which may require more than 0.2 ppm chlorine to keep in check). Because chlorine breaks down over time, the chlorine concentration of the water that comes out of your tap will be lower than that put in at water plant. Thus, the exact concentration at your faucet depends on how far you are from the water plant, how long it takes the water to travel from the water plant to your house, how much chlorine is initially added, etc. Chlorine at high concentrations is toxic to fish; at lower concentrations, it stresses fish by damaging their gills. Concentrations of as little as 0.2-0.3 ppm kill most fish fairly rapidly. To prevent stress, concentrations as low as 0.003 ppm may be required. Fortunately, chlorine can easily be removed from water by the chemical sodium thiosulfate, readily available at fish stores under various brands. Sodium thiosulfate neutralizes chlorine instantly. Note that there are many ``water treatment'' products that are advertised as ``making tap water safe''. Read labels carefully. Inevitably, the ones that neutralize chlorine all contain sodium thiosulfate, plus other substances that may or may not be useful. If your water only contains chlorine (as opposed to chloramine), sodium thiosulfate is all you need. The most cost-effective treatments use only 1 drop per gallon of water. Most other water treatments are much more expensive in the long-term; they may require a teaspoon of treatment (or more) per gallon! Chlorine is relatively unstable in water, escaping to the atmosphere on its own. Water left in a bucket (or tank) with adequate water circulation (e.g. filter or airstone) will be free of chlorine in 24 hours or less. Many netters report that they perform partial water changes without ever treating their tap water to remove chlorine. Keep in mind that even though fish show no APPARENT ill effects from untreated water, that doesn't mean that the chlorine isn't stressing your fish. How much stress depends on how much chlorine is introduced to the tank, which depends on many factors (including the percentage of new water added). Because chlorine removers are so cheap (pennies per usage), the insurance they provide should not be passed up. Chloramine One problem with using chlorine to treat water is that it breaks down relatively quickly. Another concern with the use of chlorine is that it can combine with certain organics (that may or may not be present in your water) forming trihalomethanes, a family of carcinogens. Consequently, many water companies have switched from using chlorine to using chloramine. Chloramine, a compound containing both chlorine and ammonia, is much more stable than chlorine. Chloramine poses two significant headaches for aquarists. First, chlorine-neutralizing chemicals such as sodium thiosulfate only neutralize the chlorine portion of the chloramine, neglecting an even bigger problem: deadly ammonia. The consequences can be devastating to fish. Although a tank's biological filter will (eventually) convert the ammonia to nitrate, the time it takes to do so may be longer than what your fish can tolerate. The second problem relates to water changes. One of the primary reasons for doing regular water changes is to remove nitrates that build up. If your replacement tap water contains ammonia, you'll be putting nitrogen right back into your tank and it will be impossible to reduce the nitrates below the concentration in your tap water. Fortunately, tap water concentrations are relatively low (1 or 2 ppm); you are more likely to have a much higher concentration of nitrate in your tank. Chloramine can be safely neutralized through such products as Amquel, which neutralize both the ammonia and chlorine portions of the chloramine molecules. The neutralized ammonia will still be converted to nitrates via a biological filter. Another method for neutralizing chloramine is to age the water while simultaneously performing biological filtration. For example, get an appropriately-sized (plastic) garbage can, fill it with tap water, dechlorinate it with sodium thiosulfate, and then connect an established biological filter to it. Just as in your tank, the bio filter will convert the ammonia to nitrate, after which it can safely be added to your tank. Note: you must add sodium thiosulfate to neutralize the chlorine; otherwise, the chloramine will kill the bacteria in your biological filter. Alternatively, the ammonia can removed by filtering the water through zeolite or carbon before adding it to your tank. [Note: folks report mixed success with this. If you have concrete (positive or negative) experience to report, please notify the FAQ maintainers.] Other water impurities you should be aware of In addition to the additives described above (chlorine and chloramine), municipal water may (or may not!) contain other elements that the aquarist may need to know about. Water in some locations actually contains nitrates. In some places, water contains elevated concentrations of phosphates (1 ppm or more). High phosphate has been linked to algae problems, and a comprehensive algae control strategy may require removing phosphates. High levels of iron (1 ppm or more) have also been linked to thread algae. Consult the algae section of this FAQ for more details. How to Find out What Your Local Water Company Adds to Your Tapwater The quick answer is to ask someone who knows. A local fish store (if they reside in the same water district as you do) should be able to tell you. Alternatively, call your local water utility. Ask to speak with the ``water chemist''. Tell them you are an aquarist and want to know about the pH, GH, and KH of your water, as well as how much the water characteristics vary from month to month. Finally, (in the US) if you really want details, have them send you a copy of the periodic water report they are required to generate for the EPA. It contains a detailed listing of exactly what your water contains and in what concentrations (e.g., iron, nitrates, phosphates, etc.). By law, the report is available for public inspection. Well Water You may have access to well water instead of municipal tap water. One advantage with well water is that you don't need to deal with chlorine and chloramine. On the other hand, well water is frequently (much!) harder than water available through local utilities. In addition, the only way to know its composition (GH, KH, etc.) is to run tests on it yourself. Alternatively, there are companies to which you can send water samples that will perform a detailed analysis of its contents (for $20-100). One potential problem with using well water is that it frequently contains high concentrations of dissolved gases (which may be dangerous to fish). For example, well water is frequently supersaturated with CO2, which lowers the water's pH. Once the CO2 escapes, the pH will increase. Fish shouldn't be subjected to this temporary pH fluctuation. For safety, aerate well water thoroughly for several hours before adding it to your tank. Beginner FAQ: The Nitrogen Cycle, and ``New Tank Syndrome'' What Is the Nitrogen Cycle? Like all living creatures, fish give off waste products (pee and poo). These nitrogenous waste products break down into ammonia (NH3), which is highly toxic to most fishes. In nature, the volume of water per fish is extremely high, and waste products become diluted to low concentrations. In aquariums, however, it can take as little as a few hours for ammonia concentrations to reach toxic levels. How much ammonia is too much? The quick answer is: if a test kit is able to measure it, you've got too much (i.e., it's in a high enough concentrations to stress fish). Consider emergency action (water changes and zeolite clay) to reduce the danger. (A more detailed discussion of ammonia toxicity can be found later in this section.) In aquaria-speak, the ``nitrogen cycle'' (more precisely, the nitrification cycle) is the biological process that converts ammonia into other, relatively harmless nitrogen compounds. Fortunately, several species of bacteria do this conversion for us. Some species convert ammonia (NH3) to nitrite (N02-), while others convert nitrite to nitrate (NO3-). Thus, cycling the tank refers to the process of establishing bacterial colonies in the filter bed that convert ammonia -> nitrite -> nitrate. The desired species of nitrifying bacteria are present everywhere (e.g., in the air). Therefore, once you have an ammonia source in your tank, it's only a matter of time before the desired bacteria establish a colony in your filter bed. The most common way to do this is to place one or two (emphasis on one or two) hardy and inexpensive fish in your aquarium. The fish waste contains the ammonia on which the bacteria live. Don't overfeed them! More food means more ammonia! Some suggested species include: common goldfish (for cold water tanks), zebra danios and barbs for warmer tanks, and damselfishes in marine systems. Note: Do not use ``toughies'' or other feeder fishes. Although cheap, they are extremely unhealthy and using them may introduce unwanted diseases to your tank. During the cycling process, ammonia levels will go up and then suddenly plummet as the nitrite-forming bacteria take hold. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't even begin to appear until nitrite is present in significant quantities, nitrite levels skyrocket (as the built-up ammonia is converted), continuing to rise as the continually-produced ammonia is converted to nitrite. Once the nitrate-forming bacteria take hold, nitrite levels fall, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is fully cycled. Your tank is fully cycled once nitrates are being produced (and ammonia and nitrite levels are zero). To determine when the cycle has completed, buy appropriate test kits (see the TEST KIT section) and measure the levels yourself, or bring water samples to your fish store and let them perform the test for you (perhaps for a small fee). The cycling process normally takes anywhere from 2-6 weeks. At temperatures below 70F, it takes even longer to cycle a tank. In comparison to other types of bacteria, nitrifying bacteria grow slowly. Under optimal conditions, it takes fully 15 hours for a colony to double in size! It is sometimes possible to speed up the cycling time. Some common procedures for this are detailed later in this section. Warning: AVOID THE TEMPTATION TO GET MORE FISH UNTIL AFTER YOUR TANK HAS FULLY CYCLED! More fish means more ammonia production, increasing the stress on all fish and the likelihood of fish deaths. Once ammonia levels reach highly stressful or toxic levels, your tank has succumbed to ``New Tank Syndrome''; the tank has not yet fully cycled, and the accumulating ammonia has concentrations lethal to your fish. How Much Ammonia Is Too Much? In an established tank, ammonia should be undetectable using standard test kits available at stores. The presence of detectable levels indicates that your bio filter is not working adequately, either because your tank has not yet cycled, or the filter is not functioning adequately (e.g., too small for fish load, clogged, etc.) It is imperative that you address the problem (filter) in addition to the symptoms (high ammonia levels). The exact concentration at which ammonia becomes toxic to fish varies among species; some are more tolerant than others. In addition, other factors like water temperature and chemistry play a significant role. For example, ammonia (NH3) continually changes to ammonium (NH4+) and vice versa, with the relative concentrations of each depending on the water's temperature and pH. Ammonia is extremely toxic; ammonium is relatively harmless. At higher temperatures and pH, more of the nitrogen is in the toxic ammonia form than at lower pH. Standard test kits measure total ammonia (ammonia plus ammonium) without distinguishing between the two forms. The following chart gives the maximum long-term level of ammonia-N in mg/L (ppm) that can be considered safe at a given temperature and pH. Again, note that a tank with an established biological filter will have no detectable ammonia; this chart is provided only for emergency purposes. If your levels approach or exceed the levels shown, take emergency action IMMEDIATELY. Water Temperature pH 20C (68F) 25C (77F) _________________________________ 6.5 15.4 11.1 7.0 5.0 3.6 7.5 1.6 1.2 8.0 0.5 0.4 8.5 0.2 0.1 Minimizing Fish Stress During Initial Cycling Should ammonia levels become high during the cycling process, corrective measures will need to be taken to prevent fish deaths. Most likely, you will simply perform a sequence of partial water changes, thereby diluting ammonia to safer concentrations. As a final caution, several commercial products (e.g., ``Amquel'' or ``Ammo-Lock'') safely neutralize ammonia's toxicity. Amquel does not remove the ammonia, it simply neutralizes its toxicity. Biological filtration is still needed to convert the (neutralized) ammonia to nitrite and nitrate. Thus, adding Amquel causes the ammonia produced by the fish to be neutralized instantly, yet still allows the nitrogen cycle to proceed. Using Amquel during the cycling phase has one significant drawback, however. Amquel (and similar products) may cause ammonia test kits to give false readings, making it difficult to determine exactly when cycling has completed. See the TEST KIT SECTION for details. It is also possible to cycle a tank without ever adding fish. The role fish provide in the cycling process is simply their steady production of ammonia; the same effect can be achieved by adding chemical forms of ammonia manually (e.g., ammonium chloride). However, it is a bit more complicated than using fish because the water chemistry needs to be monitored more closely in order to add the proper amount of ammonia on a day-to-day basis. Speeding Up Cycling Time (For the Impatient) The nitrogen cycle can be sped up or ``jump started'' in a number of ways. Unfortunately, they require access to an established tank, which a beginning aquarist may not have available. The basic idea is to find an established tank, take some of the bacteria out of it and place them in the new tank. Most filters have some sort of foam block or floss insert on which nitrifying bacteria attach. Borrowing all or part of such an insert and placing it in the new tank's filter gets things going more quickly. If the established tank uses an undergravel filter, nitrifying bacteria will be attached to the gravel. Take some of the gravel (a cup or more) and hang it in a mesh bag in your filter (if you can), or lay it over the top of the gravel in the new tank (if it has an UGF). If you have a box, sponge or corner filter, simply connect it to an established aquarium and let it run for a week or so. Bacteria in the water will establish a bed in the new filter. After a week, move the now ``seasoned'' filter to the new tank. More recently, products containing colonies of nitrifying bacteria have become available at pet shops (e.g., ``Fritz'', ``Bio-zyme'', ``Cycle''). In theory, adding the bacteria jump-starts the colonization process as above. Net experience with such products has been mixed; some folks report success, while others report they don't work at all. In principle, such products should work well. However, nitrifying bacteria cannot live indefinitely without oxygen and food. Thus, the effectiveness of a product depends on its freshness and can be adversely effected by poor handling (e.g., overheating). Unfortunately, these products don't come with a freshness date, so there is no way to know how old they are. Some (not many) aquarium stores will provide aquarium buyers with a cup of gravel from an established tank. A word of caution is appropriate here. Due to the nature of the business, tanks in stores are very likely to contain unwanted pathogens (bacteria, parasites, etc.); you don't want to add them to an established tank. For someone setting up their very first tank, however, all fish will probably be purchased from the same store, so the danger is relatively small, as the newly purchased fish will have been exposed to the same pathogens. If possible, seed a filter with bacteria from a non-store tank. Of course, there are many variations on the above that work. However, it is a bit difficult to give an exact recipe that is guaranteed to work. It is advisable to take a conservative approach and not add fish too quickly. In addition, testing the water to be sure nitrates are being produced eliminates the guesswork of determining when your tank has cycled. Beginner FAQ: Practical Water Chemistry What You Need to Know About Water Chemistry, and Why Water in nature is rarely pure in the ``distilled water'' sense; it contains dissolved salts, buffers, nutrients, etc., with exact concentrations dependent on local conditions. Fish (and plants) have evolved over millions of years to the specific water conditions in their native habitats and may be unable to survive in significantly different environments. Beginners (especially the lazy) should take the easy approach of selecting fish whose needs match the qualities of their normal tap water. Alternatively, an advanced (and energetic!) aquarist can change the water characteristics to match the fish's needs, though doing so is almost always more difficult than first appears. In either case, you need to know enough about water chemistry to ensure that the water in your tank has the right properties for the fish you are keeping. Water has four measurable properties that are commonly used to characterize its chemistry. They are pH, buffering capacity, general hardness and salinity. In addition, there are several nutrients and trace elements. pH pH refers to water being either an acid, base, or neither (neutral). A pH of 7 is said to be neutral, a pH below 7 is ``acidic'' and a pH above 7 is ``basic'' or ``alkaline''. Like the Richter scale used to measure earthquakes, the pH scale is logarithmic. A pH of 5.5 is 10 times more acidic than water at a pH of 6.5. Thus, changing the pH by a small amount (suddenly) is more of a chemical change (and more stressful to fish!) than might first appear. To a fishkeeper, two aspects of pH are important. First, rapid changes in pH are stressful to fish and should be avoided. Changing the pH by more than .3 units per day is known to stress fish. Thus, you want the pH of your tank to remain constant and stable over the long haul. Second, fish have adapted to thrive in a (sometimes narrow) pH range. You want to be sure that your tank's pH matches the specific requirements of the fish you are keeping. Most fish can adjust to a pH somewhat outside of their optimal range. If your water's pH is naturally within the range of 6.5 to 7.5, you will be able to keep most species of fish without any problems. If your pH lies within this range, there is probably no need to adjust it upward or downward. Buffering Capacity (KH, Alkalinity) Buffering capacity refers to water's ability to keep the pH stable as acids or bases are added. pH and buffering capacity are intertwined with one another; although one might think that adding equal volumes of an acid and neutral water would result in a pH halfway in between, this rarely happens in practice. If the water has sufficient buffering capacity, the buffering capacity can absorb and neutralize the added acid without significantly changing the pH. Conceptually, a buffer acts somewhat like a large sponge. As more acid is added, the ``sponge'' absorbs the acid without changing the pH much. The ``sponge's'' capacity is limited however; once the buffering capacity is used up, the pH changes more rapidly as acids are added. Buffering has both positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, the nitrogen cycle produces nitric acid (nitrate). Without buffering, your tank's pH would drop over time (a bad thing). With sufficient buffering, the pH stays stable (a good thing). On the negative side, hard tap water often almost always has a large buffering capacity. If the pH of the water is too high for your fish, the buffering capacity makes it difficult to lower the pH to a more appropriate value. Naive attempts to change the pH of water usually fail because buffering effects are ignored. In freshwater aquariums, most of water's buffering capacity is due to carbonates and bicarbonates. Thus, the terms ``carbonate hardness'' (KH), ``alkalinity'' and ``buffering capacity'' are used interchangeably. Although technically not the same things, they are equivalent in practice in the context of fishkeeping. Note: the term ``alkalinity'' should not be confused with the term ``alkaline''. Alkalinity refers to buffering, while alkaline refers to a solution that is a base (i.e., pH > 7). How much buffering does your tank need? Most aquarium buffering capacity test kits actually measure KH. The larger the KH, the more resistant to pH changes your water will be. A tank's KH should be high enough to prevent large pH swings in your tank over time. If your KH is below roughly 4.5 dH, you should pay special attention to your tank's pH (e.g, test weekly, until you get a feel for how stable the pH is). This is ESPECIALLY important if you neglect to do frequent partial water changes. In particular, the nitrogen cycle creates a tendency for an established tank's pH to decrease over time. The exact amount of pH change depends on the quantity and rate of nitrates produced, as well as the KH. If your pH drops more than roughly two tenths of a point over a month, you should consider increasing the KH or performing partial water changes more frequently. KH doesn't affect fish directly, so there is no need to match fish species to a particular KH. Note: it is not a good idea to use distilled water in your tank. By definition, distilled water has essentially no KH. That means that adding even a little bit of acid will change the pH significantly (stressing fish). Because of its instability, distilled (or any essentially pure water) is never used directly. Tap water or other salts must first be added to it in order to increase its GH and KH. General Hardness (GH) General hardness (GH) refers to the dissolved concentration of magnesium and calcium ions. When fish are said to prefer ``soft'' or ``hard'' water, it is GH (not KH) that is being referred to. Note: GH, KH and pH form the Bermuda's Triangle of water chemistry. Although the three properties are distinct, they all interact with each other to varying degrees, making it difficult to adjust one without impacting the other. That is one reason why beginning aquarists are advised NOT to tamper with these parameters unless absolutely necessary. As an example, ``hard'' water frequently often comes from limestone aquifers. Limestone contains calcium carbonate, which when dissolved in water increases both the GH (from calcium) and KH (from carbonate) components. Increasing the KH component also usually increases pH as well. Conceptually, the KH acts as a ``sponge'' absorbing the acid present in the water, raising the water's pH. Water hardness follows the following guidelines. The unit dH means ``degree hardness'', while ppm means ``parts per million'', which is roughly equivalent to mg/L in water. 1 unit dH equals 17.8 ppm CaCO3. Most test kits give the hardness in units of CaCO3; this means the hardness is equivalent to that much CaCO3 in water but does not mean it actually came from CaCO3. General Hardness 0 - 4 dH, 0 - 70 ppm : very soft 4 - 8 dH, 70 - 140 ppm : soft 8 - 12 dH, 140 - 210 ppm : medium hard 12 - 18 dH, 210 - 320 ppm : fairly hard 18 - 30 dH, 320 - 530 ppm : hard higher : liquid rock (Lake Malawi and Los Angeles, CA) Salinity Salinity refers to the total amount of dissolved substances. Salinity measurements count both GH and KH components as well as such other substances as sodium. Knowing water's salinity becomes important in salt water aquariums. In freshwater tanks, knowing pH, GH and KH suffices. Salinity is usually expressed in terms of its specific gravity, the ratio of a solution's weight to weight of an equal volume of distilled water. Because water expands when heated (changing its density), a common reference temperature of 59F degrees is used. Salinity is measured with a hydrometer, which is calibrated for use at a specific temperature (e.g., 75F degrees is common). One component of salinity that neither GH or KH includes is sodium. Some freshwater fish tolerate (or even prefer) a small amount of salt (it stimulates slime coat growth). Moreover, parasites (e.g., ick) do not tolerate salt at all. Thus, salt in concentrations of (up to) 1 tablespoon per 5 gallons can actually help prevent and cure ick and other parasitic infections. On the other hand, some species of fish do not tolerate ANY salt well. Scaleless fish (in general) and some Corydoras catfish are far more sensitive to salt than most freshwater fish. Add salt only if you are certain that all of your tank's inhabitants prefer it or can at least tolerate it. Nutrients and Trace Elements In addition to GH, KH, pH and salinity, there are a few other substances you may want to know about. Most tap water contains an assortment of nutrients and trace elements in very low concentrations. The presence (or absence) of trace elements can be important in some situations, specifically: * nitrates, which are discussed in great length in this FAQ in conjunction with the NITROGEN CYCLE; * phosphates, the second most prominent nutrient. Phosphates have been linked to algae growth. If you have persistent algae problems, high phosphates may be a contributing factor. In a plant tank, ideal phosphate levels are .2 mg/L or lower. To control algae, frequent partial water changes are often recommended to reduce nutrient levels. If your tap water contains excess phosphate, water changes may be aggravating the situation. Your local water company can tell you what the exact phosphate levels are. * iron, manganese and other trace elements. Plants need iron in trace quantities to grow. Tap water in many areas contains no iron at all. Consult the PLANT FAQ for more details. Altering Your Water's Chemistry Hardening Your Water (Raising GH and/or KH) The following measurements are approximate; use a test kit to verify you've achieved the intended results. Note that if your water is extremely soft to begin with (1 degree KH or less), you may get a drastic change in pH as the buffer is added. To raise both GH and KH simultaneously, add calcium carbonate (CaCO3). 1/2 teaspoon per 100 liters of water will increase both the KH and GH by about 1-2 dH. Alternatively, add some sea shells, coral, limestone, marble chips, etc. to your filter. To raise the KH without raising the GH, add sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), commonly known as baking soda. 1/2 teaspoon per 100 Liters raises the KH by about 1 dH. Sodium bicarbonate drives the pH towards an equilibrium value of 8.2. Raising and Lowering pH One can raise or lower pH by adding chemicals. Because of buffering, however, the process is difficult to get right. Increasing or decreasing the pH (in a stable way) actually involves changing the KH. The most common approach is to add a buffer (in the previous section) whose equilibrium holds the pH at the desired value. Muriatic (hydrochloric) acid can be used to reduce pH. Note that the exact quantity needed depends on the water's buffering capacity. In effect, you add enough acid to use up all the buffering capacity. Once this has been done, decreasing the pH is easy. However, it should be noted that the resultant lower-pH water has much less KH buffering than it did before, making it more susceptible to pH swings when (for instance) nitrate levels rise. Warning: It goes without saying that acids are VERY dangerous! Do not use this approach unless you know what you are doing, and you should treat the water BEFORE adding it to the aquarium. Products such as ``pH-Down'' are often based on a phosphoric acid buffer. Phosphoric acid tends to keep the pH at roughly 6.5, depending on how much you use. Unfortunately, use of phosphoric acid has the BIG side effect of raising the phosphate level in your tank, stimulating algae growth. It is difficult to control algae growth in a tank with elevated phosphate levels. The only advantage over hydrochloric acid is that pH will be somewhat better buffered at its lower value. One safe way to lower pH WITHOUT adjusting KH is to bubble CO2 (carbon dioxide) through the tank. The CO2 dissolves in water, and some of it forms carbonic acid. The formation of acid lowers the pH. Of course, in order for this approach to be practical, a steady source of CO2 bubbles (e.g. a CO2 tank) is needed to hold the pH in place. As soon as the CO2 is gone, the pH bounces back to its previous value. The high cost of a CO2 injection system precludes its use as a pH lowering technique in most aquariums (though see the PLANT FAQ for inexpensive do-it-yourself alternatives). CO2 injection systems are highly popular in heavily-planted tanks, because the additional CO2 stimulates plant growth. Softening Your Water (i.e., lowering GH) Some fish (e.g., discus, cardinal tetras, etc.) prefer soft water. Although they can survive in harder water, they are unlikely to breed in it. Thus, you may feel compelled to soften your water despite the hassle involved in doing so. Typical home water softeners soften water using a technique known as ``ion exchange''. That is, they remove calcium and magnesium ions by replacing them with sodium ions. Although this does technically make water softer, most fish won't notice the difference. That is, fish that prefer soft water don't like sodium either, and for them such water softeners don't help at all. Thus, home water softeners are not an appropriate way to soften water for aquarium use. Fish stores also market ``water softening pillows''. They use the same ion-exchange principle. One ``recharges'' the pillow by soaking it in a salt water solution, then places it in the tank where the sodium ions are released into the water and replaced by calcium and magnesium ions. After a few hours or days, the pillow (along with the calcium and magnesium) are removed, and the pillow recharged. The pillows sold in stores are too small to work well in practice, and shouldn't be used for the same reason cited above. Peat moss softens water and reduces its hardness (GH). The most effective way to soften water via peat is to aerate water for 1-2 weeks in a bucket containing peat moss. For example, get a (plastic) bucket of the appropriate size. Then, get a large quantity of peat (a gallon or more), boil it (so that it sinks), stuff it in a pillow case, and place it in the water bucket. Use an air pump to aerate it. In 1-2 weeks, the water will be softer and more acidic. Use this aged water when making partial water changes on your tank. Peat can be bought at pet shops, but it is expensive. It is much more cost-effective to buy it in bulk at a local gardening shop. Read labels carefully! You don't want to use peat containing fertilizers or other additives. Although some folks place peat in the filters of their tanks, the technique has a number of drawbacks. First, peat clogs easily, so adding peat isn't always effective. Second, peat can be messy and may cloud the water in your tank. Third, the exact quantity of peat needed to effectively soften your water is difficult to estimate. Using the wrong amount results in the wrong water chemistry. Finally, when doing water changes, your tank's chemistry changes when new water is added (it has the wrong properties). Over the next few days, the chemistry changes as the peat takes effect. Using aged water helps ensure that the chemistry of your tank doesn't fluctuate while doing water changes. Hard water can also be softened by diluting it with distilled water or R/O water. R/O (reverse-osmosis) water is purified water made by a R/O unit. Unfortunately, R/O units are too expensive ($100-$500) for most hobbyists. R/O water can also be purchased at some fish stores, but for most folks the expense and hassle are not worth it. The same applies to distilled water purchased at grocery stores. Beginner FAQ: Test Kits Which Are Useful? There is a seemingly endless array of test kits for testing everything from ammonia levels to phosphate levels. Does one really need to buy them? The quick answer is no. It is quite possible to have a healthy tank without ever buying a single test kit. However, test kits are extremely useful at eliminating guesswork when something goes wrong (e.g., fish appear stressed or die). In the following, we describe the test kits that are most useful and the conditions under which they are useful. Ammonia Test Kit Get one. Ammonia test kits are cheap ($5-10) and will tell you whether your tank has elevated ammonia levels. This is useful in two circumstances. First, during the tank-cycling phase, regular testing for ammonia will tell you when the first phase of the nitrogen cycle has completed. Second, should you have unexplained fish deaths, testing for ammonia verifies that your biological filter is (or is not) working correctly. Note that even in an established tank, the biological filter can sometimes weaken or fail outright. Common causes include * not cleaning the filter regularly (water can't flow through a clogged filter, where the nitrifying bacteria reside), * naively adding fish medicines (antibiotics kill nitrifying bacteria (oops) as well as disease carrying ones), * having too small a filter for the fish load, etc. Be warned: if you have fish deaths and subsequently ask the net (or a fish store) for advice, the first question asked will be ``What are your ammonia (and nitrite) levels?''. Ammonia levels are measured in ppm. At concentrations as low as .2-.5 ppm (for some fish), ammonia causes rapid death (consult the CYCLING SECTION for further details). Even at levels above 0.01-0.02 ppm, fish will be stressed. Common test kits don't register such low concentrations. Thus, test kits should NEVER detect ammonia in an established tank. If your test kit detects ANY ammonia, levels are too high and are stressing fish. Take corrective action immediately by changing water and identifying the source of the problem. Warning: Amquel and other similar ``ammonia-neutralizing'' water additives are incompatible with most ammonia test kits. Water treated with Amquel will falsely test positive for ammonia, even when ammonia is not present. Test kits using the ``Nessler'' method are known to give false readings under such conditions. Nitrite Test Kit You might want to get one of these; nitrite kits are cheap ($5-10) and are useful in the same circumstances where an ammonia test is useful. The only time a nitrite kit provides information that an ammonia kit can't is while testing for completion of the second phase of the nitrogen cycle (see the CYCLING SECTION). As in the case for ammonia, if your test kits detects nitrite, your biological filter is not working adequately. Once a tank has cycled, nitrite kits are pretty much useless. (If the bio filter in an established tank isn't working, both ammonia and nitrite levels will be elevated.) Nitrite is an order of magnitude less toxic than ammonia. Thus, one common saying about tank cycling is: ``if your fish survive the ammonia spike, they'll probably survive the nitrite spike and the rest of the cycling process.'' However, even at levels above .5 ppm, fish become stressed. At 10-20 ppm, concentrations become lethal. Nitrate Test Kit Get this kit! Nitrate levels increase over time in established tanks as the end result of the nitrogen cycle. (The only exception to this rule is heavily-planted tanks and some reef tanks, which MAY be able to consume nitrogen faster than it is produced.) Because nitrates become toxic at high concentrations, they must be removed periodically (e.g., through regular water changes). Having a nitrate test kit helps you determine whether or not your water changes are removing nitrates quickly enough. Nitrates become toxic to fish (and plants) at levels of 50-300 ppm, depending on the fish species. For fry, however, much lower concentrations become toxic. Note: A nitrate test kit is only of limited value in determining whether the nitrogen cycle has completed. Most nitrate test kits actually convert nitrate to nitrite first, then test for the concentration of nitrite. That is, they actually measure the combined concentration of nitrite and nitrate. In an established tank, nitrite levels are essentially zero, and the kits do properly measure nitrate levels. While a tank is cycling, however, a nitrate kit can't tell you how much of the reading (if any) comes from nitrate rather than nitrite. pH Test Kit Get one; these kits are extremely cheap, so there is no excuse for not owning one. You will want to know the pH of your tap water so that you can select fish whose requirements meet your water conditions. In addition, you will periodically want to check your tank's pH so that you can be sure it stays stable and doesn't increase or decrease significantly over time. In some cases, tank decorations (e.g., driftwood) or gravel (e.g., made of coral, shells or limestone) change the pH of your water. For example, tank items may slowly leach ions into your tank's water, raising the GH and KH (and pH). With driftwood, it is not uncommon to have the wood slowly leach tannins that lower the pH. General Hardness (GH) Kit You may want to get one of these, but having one is not critical. You don't need to know the exact hardness level. Knowing whether your water is ``soft'', ``very soft'', etc. is good enough. Your local fish store may be able to give you sufficient information. Alternatively, call your water utility (see the TAPWATER SECTION of this FAQ). Carbonate Hardness (KH) Kit This kit is not critical to have. By regularly monitoring the pH, you can figure out whether your KH is ``high enough''. That is, the KH should be high enough that your pH stays stable over time. If you have trouble keeping the pH stable, you may want to increase your tank's buffering capacity. Your local fish store may be able to give you sufficient information as to your KH value. Alternatively, call your water utility. A KH kit is, however, indispensable to plant enthusiasts who use CO2 injection. It is also strongly recommended that you get one if you want to change the pH of your water, and it is a very useful diagnostic tool if you are experiencing pH stability problems. Beginner FAQ: Fish Stress and Healthy Fishkeeping What Stress Means, and Why it is Bad for Your Fish. Most fish can tolerate environmental conditions that differ somewhat from the natural conditions in which they evolved. This does not mean, however, that they will be as healthy or live their full normal life span. For example, keeping a fish in water that is cooler (or warmer) than its preferred condition forces its body organs to work harder to keep it alive. That is, such conditions place the fish under increased stress. Increased stress reduces a fish's ability to ward off diseases and heal itself (e.g., if its fins get nicked, or parasites get introduced into the tank with newly purchased fish). In addition, stress reduces a fish's ability to breed successfully and shortens its natural life span. A small amount of stress by itself is not usually fatal, but as stress levels increase, a fish's ability to cope with it decreases. Thus, one of the most important goals of a fishkeeper is to remove sources of stress wherever possible. It should be noted that eliminating stress does not guarantee that your tank will be healthy. But it significantly increases the odds. Many netters boast regularly about how they've kept fish (apparently) ``healthy and happy'' for long periods of time under (apparently) highly stressful conditions. Such aquarists are sitting on a time-bomb; the not uncommon followup story will refer to one fish getting sick, then another, with an end result of multiple fish deaths. Reducing stress simply increases the likelihood that a tank will stay healthy (much the same way as eating right, exercising and getting the proper amount sleep is generally associated with a long healthy life for humans). Common Causes of Stress in the Aquarium In this section, we list some of the more common stress-inducing conditions. In all cases, the level of stress induced by a specific factor is highly species-dependent. You should be aware of the type of stress that will be present in your tanks and select fish known to tolerate such conditions well. For example, if your water is hard and alkaline, you're best off selecting fish that thrive under such conditions. Nitrogen compounds (ammonia, nitrite and nitrate) have varying degrees of toxicity and are stressful at all levels. Ammonia is toxic in low concentrations and severely stresses fish under ANY concentration. Consequently, a healthy aquarium must have an adequate biological filter that quickly converts ammonia to nitrite (and nitrate). Although significantly less toxic than ammonia or nitrite, nitrate also stresses fish. Thus, a means of removing excess nitrate (e.g., through regular water changes) helps keep an aquarium healthy. The water temperature of your tank should match the needs of its inhabitants. Keeping water temperature too cold or too warm for a particular species will stress those fish. For example, goldfish prefer cooler temperatures (under 70F) than most tropical fish (goldfish survive winters in ponds where temperatures approach freezing), guaranteeing that a tank containing both goldfish and tropicals will either be too cold or too warm for some of the inhabitants. Some fish prefer soft water, others prefer hard water. Keeping a soft-water preferring fish in harder water (and vice versa) is stressful. Some fish prefer acidic water, some prefer alkaline water, others prefer water with a neutral pH. (Some fish don't care too much.) Some fish live in brackish water conditions; they will do better in water with a small amount of added salt. Other species are extremely intolerant of salt. Add salt only if all of a tank's inhabitants can tolerate salinity. Mollies, for example are known to like salt, whereas many species of catfish tolerate no salt at all. In general, fish lacking scales (or having small scales) don't tolerate salt well. The amount of physical space required for a particular fish depends on its species. Some fish do just fine in a 10g tank, others need 100g or more. Keeping a fish in a tank that is too small for it increases the level of stress (on everyone), frequently leading to increased aggression among tank inhabitants. Note also that the amount of space required may change should fish pair off to breed. Cichlids, for example, claim a portion of the tank for themselves when in breeding form, chasing away any fish that encroach on their territory. Thus, the onset of breeding behaviors frequently increases stress levels. Not all species of fish mix well with others. As an obvious example, most cichlids will eat smaller tank inhabitants (e.g., anything they can fit in their mouths). Even if too big to be eaten, however, peaceful fish will be stressed if kept with aggressive fish that chase them around all day. Moreover, many fish communicate through behavior and body language (i.e., cichlids frequently establish a ``pecking order'' in which one fish is king). Fish of one type of species may not recognize the signals given off by others, guaranteeing continual strife. Some fish school in nature, spending their entire lives in large groups (rather than individually); they never feel comfortable or ``safe'' when kept by themselves. Cory cats for example, do better in a tank with 6 or more other Corys than they do by themselves. While it may be tempting to buy six different kinds of fish, this may not be ideal for the fish themselves. The opposite can also be true. Some fish are more aggressive towards members of their own species (e.g., mating behaviors), whereas they may not feel threatened by other species and pretty much ignore them. Fish need oxygen, and some fish are more tolerant of low-oxygen water than others. Water with insufficient oxygen stresses fish. Note that as the water temperature goes up, the amount of dissolved oxygen in water decreases. Poor nutrition also causes stress. A healthy diet is a varied diet, and one should avoid using old foods in which vitamins and other nutrients have broken down. ``Old food'' includes food that has been stored in hot places, been exposed to air (not sealed), etc. The ``cure'' of adding medicines to tanks is often worse than the original disease. Medications that kill bacteria, parasites, etc. are usually not too discerning: they may also kill your nitrifying bacteria (now you REALLY have a major problem) or be toxic to the fish themselves. For example, some species of fish do not tolerate certain types of medicines at all. Adding such medications may weaken healthy fish to the point that they become susceptible to the original disease. Adding untreated water to your tank may introduce chlorine or chloramine, both of which are toxic to fish. Be sure to treat all water prior to adding it to your tank. Sudden changes in water conditions can be stressful. Within limits, most fish can adjust to sub-optimal water conditions (e.g., wrong temperature, wrong pH). However, fish have difficulty adjusting to a SUDDEN change in water chemistry. Thus suddenly raising (or lowering) the temperature, changing the pH, changing the water hardness, etc. stresses a fish. It is more important to keep the water chemistry stable over the long haul than to keep keep water conditions exactly optimal. In summary, many factors lead to fish stress. Minimizing and eliminating sources of stress increases the chances of keeping tank inhabitants healthy. The exact amount of stress an individual fish can take depends greatly on what species it is, its age and size, etc. A stressed fish is a weakened fish. Although it may appear healthy to the casual observer, it will be more susceptible to disease, injury, etc. In contrast, healthy (unstressed) fish will be able to ward off disease and infection on their own. Thus, the appearance of disease in a tank is frequently brought on by ``poor water conditions'' that leave fish with weakened immune systems. Symptoms That Your Fish Is Stressed In short, stressed fish don't ``act normal'' (with ``normal'' defined according to the species of fish). Once you've had fish for a few weeks, you'll see that each species behaves in its own characteristic way (that's why fish are fun to have!). Some fish tend to always stay near the top of the water, others near the bottom. Some fish swim continuously, others stay in one place. Deviation from their norm usually indicates stress. Common symptoms of stress include: * Fish stays near the surface gasping for breath, indicating that it has trouble getting enough oxygen (the concentration of dissolved oxygen is highest near the water's surface). Possible causes include low oxygen concentration due to poor water circulation, toxins that have damaged its gills, high ammonia or nitrite levels, etc. * Fish won't eat, or doesn't eat as aggressively as in past. * Fish stays hidden continuously and won't come out where it can be seen. Possible causes: aggressive fish, insufficient cover (e.g., plants, wood, etc.) to make fish feel ``safe'' while swimming about. * Fish has nicked fins, open wounds that don't seem to heal. Possible cause: fish is target of aggression. Normally, minor nicks and cuts heal quickly. If they don't, stress levels may be suppressing the fish's immune system. * Fish has disease (parasites, fungus, etc.) Of course, the disease itself is a major problem. But in most cases, a healthy fish's immune system keeps it from getting sick in the first place. Thus, getting sick is a sign that the fish is in a stressed state (or had been until recently). Beginner FAQ: Adding & Feeding Fish Contributed by Lots Of Writers So you've got your tank set up and the filter running, you know about the nitrogen cycle and a little water chemistry. You've got all your test kits poised and ready to monitor your first month. Armed with this knowledge, you make your way to the local fish store to buy your first fish (or two). In this section, we'll deal with some of the common questions about keeping your fish. (Whew! Didn't think we'd actually get to fish, did you?) Selecting ``Good'' Fish There are so many things to say about good beginner fish, we've covered it in a whole separate FAQ (oddly-enough, called the GOOD BEGINNER FISH FAQ); it contains many suggestions for particular fish. Here is the author's general advice: If we define a good beginner's fish as one that is easy to feed and care for, hardy, able to live in a variety of water conditions, and attractive, then there are a number of widely available fish which fit the bill nicely. Many of these are regularly sold as beginner's fish. But watch out! Many of the fish sold as beginner's fish really are not well suited to that role. Many of the smaller schooling fish make ideal first fish. These include White Cloud Mountain Minnows, the several commonly available species of Danios and Rasboras, and most available species of Barbs. For those with a slightly larger tank, Rainbowfish make a great schooling fish. Corydoras Catfish are ever popular schooling catfish. While many beginners are tempted to get just one or two of each of several different schooling fish, this should be resisted. Schooling fish do better if there are several of their own species present for them to interact with. A minimum of six of each of the midwater schooling fish is recommended, while four is the bare minimum for Corys. In the long run, a school of a dozen fish showing their natural behavior will be more pleasing than a mixed group of fishes unhappily forced to share the same tank. (``Mom, why is that one fish hiding behind the heater and that other one just hanging in the corner?'') How Many Fish Can Be Added? The easiest answer to that question is ``one fish at a time.'' As far as how many in total can safely survive, a frequently used rule-of-thumb is ``up to a maximum of 1 inch of fish per gallon.'' Much discussion of this rule has suggested that it really should read ``up to a maximum of 1 inch of SLIM-BODIED fish per gallon.'' ``Slim-bodied'' could be fish such as neon tetras, White Cloud Mountain Minnows, danios etc.; ``medium bodied'' might be red-tailed black sharks, tiger barbs, platys, cory cats etc.; ``heavy bodied'' would be goldfish, oscars etc. In other words, this is only a rule of thumb, and the ``maximum'' population that is safe and humane will vary from tank to tank. Factors that increase your possible fish load include: * regular and significant water changes, * HEALTHY live plants, and * more than one type of well-tended filtration (remember to think of your filter as alive; it needs care just as do your fish). Likewise, factors that decrease your possible load include: * erratic or sparse water changes, * no plants or UNhealthy live plants, and * limited or ill-tended filtration (an undergravel filter can do a great job, but if it fails for some reason and was the only filtration on the tank, a heavily stocked tank will experience much more disastrous consequences than one with a light load). So, back to adding fish. Often it is not practical to add fish one at a time - for instance, you find some especially great looking neons and want to add a small school (6 or 7 fish) to your recently cycled 20 gallon tank. You currently have one 2-inch pl*co and three 1.5-inch platys. Adding the neons will essentially double the ``volume'' of fish in the tank. In this case, you will see the same effects as cycling your tank, i.e., an ammonia and nitrite spike before the bacteria grows to match the new fish population. Test your water frequently and be prepared to do emergency partial water changes if the ammonia levels go up too far. The bio-filter for your tank is only ``fed'' by the wastes of the fish you have in the tank. This means that no matter how large your filter (e.g., one rated for a fully stocked 50 gal tank on your 20 gal), the bacteria population will be limited by the ``food'' it has. Few fish = small bacteria population. We are accustomed to thinking of bacteria reproduction as ``explosive''. Many bacteria can double their population size in hours, after all... but as we have seen in the CYCLING SECTION, the appropriate nitrifying bacteria are relatively slow to reproduce. There will be a time delay between the increased waste production of additional fish, and increased waste processing by the bacteria. In extreme cases, the ammonia increase could harm or kill your fish before the bacteria population had time to ``catch up'' to the amount of available nitrogenous wastes. This is why it is wise to add fish slowly and gradually. Safely bringing your tank's population up to the maximum load can take more than 6 months; in fact, it should be permitted to take at least that long. Leave breaking the rules to those with more years experience than they have fish. Acclimating the Fish to Your Tank (adapted from the SALTWATER BEGINNER FAQ) Once you get the fish home you should set the bag in your tank, allowing the temperature to equalize. After about a half an hour or so, add a 1/4 cup of tank water to the bag. Repeat this process once every 15 minutes for an hour, removing any water if the bag gets too full. Any water you remove from the bag should be disposed of. It will most likely contain parasites and other bad things. After you have the fish acclimated to your tank's water chemistry, there are a couple of things you can do. You can place the fish directly into the main tank and hope for the best, or you could place the fish into a quarantine tank. In either case, quickly net the fish from the bag to the tank so that no store water gets transferred to the tank. The best scenario is to place the fish in quarantine. Keep the fish in the quarantine tank for 2 weeks and watch for signs of disease. If the fish gets sick, you can medicate the quarantine tank without affecting the chemistry of the main tank's. If you are going to quarantine the fish, you should acclimate the fish to the quarantine tank's chemistry, not the main tank. While a quarantine tank is a good idea, it is most likely that you do not have such a luxury (for now, at least... :). In this case, be extra careful to select healthy fish at the store, and carefully monitor your new arrivals for the first few weeks in your tank for signs of stress and disease. You always risk infecting the other fish in your tank when skipping quarantine. Feeding the Fish Most common fish sold in aquarium shops, especially those recommended for beginners, can subsist on processed (flake, stick or pellet) food. Some can even thrive on it... although for fish, just as for other animals, some variety in the diet is usually desirable. Fish food is somewhat delicate. Exposing it to sunlight, leaving the lid off so that damp can come in, or buying a very large container that takes 8 months to use up all can sabotage the nutritional value of your fish's food. Generally speaking, there are five classes of fish food: * various processed foods (processed ground stuff remade into flakes, sticks or pellets; often divided into categories for omnivorous, vegetarian, and carnivorous fish), * freeze dried foods (whole beasties such as blood worms, daphnia etc), * frozen foods (more whole beasties), * live foods (live beasties), and * other fresh foods (home made carnivore food of beefheart, zucchini for your pl*co, etc). To many fishkeepers, flake food is like rice. It will do for most every meal, but a little something else now and again is important. Nearly every new fishkeeper will hear the rule ``feed your fish only what they will eat in 3 minutes'' or similar blandishment. This is terrifying to the beginner; after all, those fish are obviously ravenous! What if they starved! This is only a tiny pinch! How can it be enough? Take it seriously. The reason most folks have fish is, we hope, to observe them. If not up close and personal, at least in a general sense. The perfect time to do some of your observing is when you feed. Each time you feed, park yourself in front of the tank to watch. Put in less than you think can possibly be enough. Watch the fish consume it. Observe what falls to the bottom. If you don't have any fish who are primarily bottom feeders (pl*cos, corydoras, loaches etc.), take the time to learn if any of your other fish will glean the bottom; gouramis often will, but rainbows generally won't, for example. If you do have bottom feeders, watch to see how fast they eat. So you put a little pinch in, and after 2 minutes (you counted!) there is practically no food to be seen... except a little on the bottom which the cories are really going for. Yep, you can probably safely give them some more. But watch to make sure they really eat all of the second pinch too. It is better to feed a tiny bit several times a day, especially with fish who won't scour the bottom, than it is to feed a bunch all at once... but most adult fish will do fine being fed a 5 minute ration once a day. In an established tank, even less often is preferred by some fish keepers; that way, the fish will eat more of the algae and other edibles that can naturally occur in a tank. Another thing to keep in mind: fish CAN get fat, especially if fed a lot of rich foods such as bloodworms. Many of the fish you'll buy to put in your tank are juveniles: how they develop into adult fish will be determined by your care of them. Just as high nitrates can stunt a fish's growth, shorten its life, and prevent it from ever breeding successfuly, fish who are overfed can end up with deformed bodies and other problems - plus they poop more... which has obvious ramifications :-). Feeding a good variety of foods ensures that your fish will get not only the rich foods, but also fiber (brine shrimp and other crustaceans) and vegetables (algae foods, vegetables). A word on live foods: certain commercially available live foods are considered risky by many hobbyists, as they can carry parasites - tubifex worms in particular. You will have to decide yourself how you feel about this risk. Be very sure that you are feeding food that is, indeed, still alive! Rinse the critters thoroughly, and especially if they are not able to live in your tank water, be just as careful about overfeeding live food as you are other foods. Live foods are covered in detail (including culturing instructions) in the LIVE FOOD FAQ. Beginner FAQ: Partial Water Changes Purpose of Water Changes The solution to pollution is dilution; water changes replace a portion of ``dirty'' water with an equal portion of clean water, effectively diluting the concentrations of undesirable substances in your tank. In an established tank, nitrate is the primary toxin that builds up. Regular water changes are the cheapest, safest and most effective way of keeping nitrate concentrations at reasonable levels. During the tank cycling phase, however, ammonia or nitrite may be the substances that need to be diluted and removed. Likewise, if medications have been added to your tank, they may need to be removed after they've served their primary purpose. The effectiveness of water changes is determined by two factors: their frequency and the percentage of water that is replaced. The more often water is replaced, or the greater the quantity of replaced water at a change determines overall effectiveness. The benefits of water changes must be balanced by the stress caused by a sudden change of your tank's water chemistry. If tank water has similar pH, GH and KH as tap water, changing 50% (or more) of the water at one time will not affect fish. On the other hand, if your tank's pH is (for example) 6.3, while your replacement water has a pH of 7.5, replacing 50% of the water all at once will change the pH of your tank significantly (possibly more than 50% depending on buffering factors), which will stress your fish, possibly enough to kill them. Because water changes are the first line of defense in dealing with problems such as disease, you want to be able to do large, frequent partial water changes during emergency periods. Consequently, you want your tank's water chemistry to closely match that of your replacement water. That way, you always have the option of performing large water changes on short notice. Note that this is the way tanks start out; when you initially set up your tank, the water is the same as that from your tap. Over time, however, the tank's water chemistry may ``drift'' relative to tap water due to acidification from the nitrogen cycle, the addition of chemical additives such as ``Ph-up'' or ``Ph-down'', the use of non-inert tank gravel (e.g. crushed coral or sea shells), etc. How frequently should partial water changes be made? The more frequent the changes, the less water that needs to be replaced. However, the longer between changes, the more stressful each change potentially becomes, because a larger portion of the water gets replaced. Replacing roughly 25% of your tank's water bi-weekly is a good minimal starting point, but may not be enough. The proper frequency really depends on such factors as the fish load in your tank. Nonetheless, you should do water changes often enough so that 1. nitrate levels stay at or below 50ppm, and preferably MUCH lower (less than 10ppm is a good optimal value); 2. the change in water chemistry resulting from a change is small. In particular, the before and after pH of your tank shouldn't differ by more than .2 units. (Use a test kit the first few times to get a feel for what's right.) If your pH changes too much as a result of a water change, perform changes more frequently, but replace less water at each change. Water changes remove nitrates after they've been produced. Nitrogenous substances in the form of uneaten fish food, detritus, etc. can also be removed BEFORE they get broken down into nitrate. This is achieved by cleaning your mechanical and biological filter regularly, and by vacuuming the gravel with a gravel cleaner. This should be done every time you perform a water change, e.g., every two weeks. Note: if your heater becomes partially exposed to air as the water level drops while doing changes, be sure to unplug your heater while doing your water changes. The heater can crack if the water level drops below the heating coil! Also, be sure to dechlorinate/dechloriminate the replacement water before adding it to your tank! (See the WATER TREATMENT section.) Beginner FAQ: Long-Term Success Contributed by Lots Of Writers In this last section, we bring up popular issues that come up after your tank has been running for a while. Stopping that !@*!@ Algae Plague You should first be aware that not all algae is ``bad''; Algae, like plants, feed off nutrients in the tank, so a good crop of regularly-harvested algae can help keep the pollution levels in check (this is the principle behind ALGAL SCRUBBER filtration). Likewise, algae plagues are usually symptoms of overfeeding or not enough water changes. The best thing to do is to learn what is causing the plague, and eliminate that cause. Test your nitrate and/or ammonia. Increase your water change volume and/or frequency, or feed your fish less. There are also a number of chemical remedies for specific algae types, and algae-eating fish which will consume some algaes. For full details, including specific remedies, please consult the ALGAE SECTION of the DISEASE FAQ. Snail Plague Snails, like algae, can be both useful and detrimental to a tank. Some species will burrow in the gravel, aerating it and keeping it from being compacted; others will eat algae. However, some species will reproduce unchecked, destroying plants and generally being an eyesore. You can protect against snails by sanitizing anything inanimate you add to your tank in a 1:20 bleach solution, and treating new live plants in potassium permangenate or Alum. For ridding your tank of snails, you have little recourse other than vacuuming as many up as possible, though clown loaches are rumored to eat snails. The SNAIL SECTION of the DISEASE FAQ describes individual species of snails and specific remedies. What to do on Vacations Healthy fish can easily go a week without food. When you go out of town for the weekend, don't bother getting someone to feed your fish. (Indeed, someone not familiar with fish tanks is likely to overfeed your fish while you are gone, leaving you a mess to deal with when you return.) Stay away from those ``vacation feeders'' that slowly dissolve. They can upset the pH of your tank and lead to excessive food in your tank. Electrically-operated automatic feeders, though, can be useful as you ``pre-measure'' the amount of food it dispenses each day. If you're going away for longer than a week you will have to make arrangements for someone to feed the fish. Tank minding companies and some fish stores will do this for a fee, but most people ask a friend or neighbor who doesn't keep fish themselves. Sustained overfeeding could overload your filter and wipe out your tank, and the best way to avoid the risk of this happening is to make up individual packages (such as small envelopes) each containing a day's worth of food. The fish don't have to be fed every day, and shouldn't be given more than one day's normal amount of food at a time, even if they've gone a few days without. Be sure to warn your helper not to make up for days they have missed by giving extra food. If your tank has a high evaporation rate you may also want to arrange for it to be topped off with fresh water. This is most important in a marine tank, as you don't want the salinity drifting too high. You can't guarantee there won't be a major equipment failure or some other kind of disaster while you're away, but you can minimize the risk by replacing any suspect equipment well in advance (so you can be sure the replacement is working). Don't add any new fish in the month before your vacation in case they introduce disease that takes some time to come to light. Clean your tank and filter and do a normal water change before you go, but if you've neglected maintenance don't wait until the day before you leave and then blitz it. That will stress your fish and perhaps damage your filtration bacteria just when they least need it. If there is a serious problem, the chances are that it will be discovered too late to do anything about it. However, looking after someone else's fish can feel like a heavy burden of responsibility, and your helper might have better peace of mind if they have the number of a fish store or some other source of expert advice to call in an emergency. Moving a Tank contributed by Timothy Shimeall The best word on moving fish (and in this discussion, fish includes all aquarium animal life), beyond very short distances, is DON'T. Travel is very stressful on fish, and even with the best precautions you should expect to lose several. Given that this is true, you may want to seriously consider selling off your stock and getting new fish at your destination. If, given the above, you still want to try to move fish, then the following may help to minimize the pain and loss of fish. The task of moving fish splits into two tasks: moving the tank, and then (later) moving the fish. Never attempt to move the fish in their tank. Moving the tank The main problem in moving the tank is the filtration system. After a very few hours (less than a day) without a flow of oxygen-laden water, aerobic bacteria start to die. If you are moving a short distance (a few hours' drive or so), it may be possible to preserve your bacteria colony; even for longer drives, some of the bacteria will survive and rebuild itself quickly. With a modest amount of ingenuity and planning, it should be possible to minimize the down time of the filter by keeping water flowing though the media until the last possible minute and restarting it as soon as you arrive. It is advisable to always try to save your old filter media rather than throw it away. The moving procedure is as follows: 1. Put your fish in a holding container (more on that below) 2. Drain your tank. If the move is going to be short, preserve some of the water to help preserve the bacteria colony. 3. Disassemble your tank. Aquarium plants will survive a fair amount of time if their roots are kept wet, so it should be possible to bag them with some water and set them aside for hand-moving. If the move is going to be short, put your (unrinsed) filter medium in a sealed container (preferably a never-used pail or other chemical-free hard-sided container); keep the media wet, but not submerged. For long moves (more than one day), either clean or discard your filter media. Pumps, heaters, etc. can be packed as any fragile appliance. 4. Move your tank. Don't use a moving company or professional packers, unless you have absolutely no choice AND you can supervise them packing the tank and loading it in the truck. It's far better to move it yourself or with the help of friends. 5. Reassemble your tank at your destination. If you're doing a short move you should have enough dechlorinated/treated water available on arrival to fill your tank and get water moving through your filter. If you're doing a long move, then set your tank up as if it was a new tank-- including a week-long delay before putting fish in the tank. Initially, put in a few hardy fish to get the nitrate cycle established. After the tank is stable, put the fish from your old home back in. Moving the fish There are three problems in moving the fish: 1. Where do you put them? You have two options: a friend's tank, and a pet store tank. Some pet stores will, for a fee, board fish during a move. A signed contract, detailing what responsibilities the pet store is assuming, is a very good idea. Some pet stores, for a further fee, will pack and air-ship the fish to you on request. This isn't cheap. Bear in mind that you'll be leaving the fish there for at least a couple of weeks. 2. How do you pack them? For short periods of time (a couple of hours, tops) you can put the fish in sealed bags, half-filled with air. This time can be stretched somewhat by filling with oxygen, rather than air. Put the bags in a padded, compartmentalized container, and ship by air. (This is how pet stores receive their fish). For larger fish, or longer trips, one can use a sealed bucket for each fish, rather than a bag. 3. How do you support them on the move? Fish won't eat during the move. They're too stressed, and you don't want to degrade the water quality by the food, anyway. Fish can survive a week or so without food if they've been previously well fed. Try to maintain an even temperature, perhaps by placing the fish in a sealed cooler, or compartmentalized cooler. For long trips, particularly by car, a battery-powered airpump and airstone is a good idea (if not a must). After the move, slowly condition the fish to the new tank location, as you would in adding new fish to a tank. Euthanasia It's come to this has it? You've read all the FAQs, found out everything you can about diseases, ailments and the proper treatments, asked for help from several knowledgeable sources and have come to the conclusion that you cannot nurse your fish back to health. And since you took on the responsibility of caring for the fish you now must find the most humane method in helping it to die. Several options exist for euthanizing your ill pet. They include chemicals, decapitation, and donation. The best method is probably through the use of chemicals. A few vets recommend an overdose of MS-222, a fish anesthetic. It can be purchased from chemical supply companies as MS-222, tricaine methanesulfonate or Ethyl 3-aminobenzoate, methanesulfonic acid salt. Immerse the fish in a container of 350 ppm MS-222 (350 mg MS-222 per liter of water) for 10 minutes. This is very humane and is non-traumatic for both the fish and owner. Another chemical method is the injection of pentothal into the abdominal cavity. This may be more difficult for the owner as syringes may be hard to come by and sticking animals with needles may not sit well with some people. It is almost painless for the fish if this helps ease your hesitations regarding this method. Finally one can use alcohol to euthanize a fish. Make a 1:5 (20%) solution of Vodka (or any other similar strong grain neutral alcohol) and water. Then place the fish into the container and it will simply `go to sleep'. These 3 methods are highly recommended as they are very humane. One method that has been recommended by a non-veterinary (but experienced Oscar breeder) type is the use of Alka-Seltzer. Place the fish in a shallow container of water and place 2 Alka-Seltzer tablets in a position under the gills. The fish supposedly will `fall asleep' within minutes. A non-chemical but effective method is decapitation. Once again, some owners may be squeamish over this method. If done properly is quick and painless for the animal, and has the benefit of being cheap; most of us own knives but not anesthetics. Use a sharp knife and sever the spinal cord by quickly cutting down through the body just behind the eye at the level of the lateral line. The quicker you make this cut the better it will be for the fish. Remember to disinfect this knife after the procedure if you plan on using it for anything other than euthanizing fish. If you are unable to go through with any of the above methods try contacting a local university. It is possible that one of the departments in biology or similar fields will take your sick fish off your hands. They may use the fish for research and study its disease or will be able to dispose of it properly. Methods that are not recommended but are often mentioned include variations on freezing. Fish tend to suffer in these procedures. It does not matter whether they cool down slowly when you place them in a bowl of water in the freezer or if the water is already cold from the addition of ice cubes. Fish react to these methods in a negative way, and it is painful to watch. Finally one should NEVER flush a fish down the toilet. This is not an effective method of euthanasia but is a form of torture as the fish ends up in a septic tank or similar place where it is bathed in nasty chemicals and sewage before finally succumbing hours if not days later. Breeding Your Fish At some point, you will find yourself unsatisfied with merely keeping healthy fish, and will yearn to delve into the fascinating world of fish breeding. Congratulations! You've gone beyond the scope of the FAQs. Go read some good books on fish breeding, and post questions to the newsgroups. Then write a FAQ on it,. :) [Editor's note: someone has taken us up on the challenge! There is a BREEDING FAQ at last.] End of Beginner FAQ.