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Holiday Aquarium Purchasing

The holidays are fast approaching; you took the kids to the pet store for dog food or as a cheap entertainment alternative to get them to settle down while you shopped for the spouse, your brother, or them and so forth.  Now you have created a ‘situation’;  the kids saw a “pretty fish” a cool shrimp, some ugly pleco and the aquarium hobby suddenly is the coolest thing since silly-putty.

You say to yourself, or your spouse; “It would be an educational present, teach them responsibility, keep them entertained and/or occupied until spring . . .”    Stop right there.

Over and over again, hobbyists, veterinarians,  your Dad will tell you the Holidays are the worst time to introduce a brand-new pet hobby into the family.  K, now we have said it as well.  In the event you were smart and started the tank cycling by Thanksgiving so you could have fish by Christmas, you will probably experience ‘new tank syndrome” by sometime in January.  If  you have not started yet, please buy all the hardware, wrap it nicely, put it under the tree dry, like any other gift.  Tell them this is an all winter project and you are as excited as they are.

{down off the soapbox}

Tank Cycling, What is that?

Tank cycling is approximately a three to six week process to prepare your tank for those pretty fish and cool looking shrimp.  In your head you may have just said, “Oh noooo . . .”  with an air of dejected disappointment. That’s ok, we are not mad at you.
Or a light bulb went off and you thought “Ahhhh”.  Both are normal.

During these first few weeks, you will actually be raising bacteria to help you with tank maintenance  Once your bacteria farm is chomping away at the stuff in the water column that is toxic to fish, your cycle is complete.  However, the term “tank cycling” is unintentionally misleading.  The bacteria farm is thriving, you are beginning to add fish over a period of a couple of weeks, tank looks great and then “whaaaaat is that?” Tank cycling will be reviewed in a future post.  In the meantime if you are itching to get started, we used this method; Fish-less Cycling. Good luck to you, keep us posted if you have questions.  For everyone else still reading, let us look at the start-up supply list before we go back to the pet store with bouncing kids, bad weather and too little time among the other families who have bouncing kids, too little time, you get the idea.

Before we start, let us say we will not try to tell you what size tank is appropriate for your family, home or lifestyle.  We will say this, if you are brand-new to this hobby, start with a small to mid-size tank; 10 to 29 gallons.  10 gallon is large enough to have a few interesting inhabitants and be relatively stable with regular maintenance.  Up to 29 gallons gives you more options and tanks over 10g are more stable due to higher water volume.  Higher water volume dilutes many common chemical issues, easing your maintenance schedule and giving you a little more time to correct problems before livestock death and kids of all ages broken-hearted over the loss of the favorites in the tank.

General Supply List

  • Tank, both glass and acrylic tanks have their pros & cons
  • Filter, we use filters rated 1-3 sizes above the tank size because we want squeaky-clean water in our heavily planted and shrimparium tanks, you may not need to go overkill like we do and One box/package extra filter media, do not skimp on this and do not wait until the manufacturer’s recommended time for changing the media, you may need it sooner than expected
  • Heater if you are keeping tropical fish, cold water fish like goldfish and White Cloud Mountain minnows do not need a heater, again we use a heater that is rated 1-2 tank sizes bigger so we can raise the temperature higher, reliably for certain specific conditions.  Ours are Rena and Stealth.  Both good products with good features, neither has given us a problem.
  • Aquarium Vac/Siphon there are a couple of types, basically you want something to get all the crud; leftover fish food, fish poo, decaying plant parts and so forth, out of the substrate
  • Aquarium Hood and/or Lighting for tanks 10g or larger, there are hoods with lights pre-manufactured stocked right near the tanks or you can opt for one of those complete tank kits which contain most or all of what we have listed, except the aquarium vac.  Higher end lighting will be discussed in a future post.  If you know you will be creating a heavily planted tank from the start, there is good information in both Aquatic Plant Central and Badman’s Tropical Fish.  Do your homework, please.
  • Decorative Elements including Plants this is a topic all by itself.  Differences in aesthetic taste, tank goals and livestock requirements again affect your decisions.  You have researched the needs of the fish you are interested in, right?  If not, do not fret too much.  You will have plenty of time while you are cycling your tank to do your homework.  For now, buy a few fast growing plants to help with start-up,  Aquatic Plant Central is our favorite site for this sort of research.
  • Substrate; sand, gravel, or specialty stuff again a topic all by itself and each has pros and cons which will be discussed in future.  However, as a startup gravel the size of Grandma’s pearls is always a safe bet.  It is relatively inexpensive; you will need 1-2.5″ for the bottom of the tank.  Up to 2.5″ for planted tanks.  Either Badman’s or Aquatic Plant have library and forum topics on substrate as well.
  • Water Conditioner this is super-important, do not leave the store without it.  Read the label, you need a conditioner which removes both chlorine and chloramine.  All city tap water has chlorine in it, chlorine is deadly to your fish.
  • Water Test Kit and GH and KH test solutions again, for successful fish keeping, do not skip this purchase.  You need to be able to test your water out of the tap as a baseline for problem solving, you also need to be able to test your tank water on a daily basis while you are farming bacteria.  Additionally, this information is crucial when asking for help from aquarium keepers online.  They cannot see your tank and cannot help you if they do not know this information.  Super-important, there we have said it twice.

Clear, 100% pure Ammonia read the label and shake the bottle.  If you do not see the words, “clear” or “pure”, shaking the bottle will tell you what you need to know.  If it foams or gets bubbly like shampoo, it has other stuff in it.  Put it back.  You do not need a gallon either, although if you are buying it for household use, get what you need.  For fish tank cycling a small bottle. 8-12 ounces will do just fine.  It is cheap, buy it at the dollar store or the grocery store.

That is a pretty extensive and yes, expensive start-up list.  We may have forgotten something, if we did, we apologize.  Go to the pet store armed with your list, get the things on your list, first.  Sales people will try to up sell you a whole lot of things you either do not need or should wait to buy as you are nearer the end of tank cycling and have done some homework.

What to absolutely leave at the pet-store

  • Fish and shrimp, you will have some three to four weeks to do homework and make informed decisions.  We do not personally advocate the practice of bringing home feeder goldfish to jump-start your cycle. We feel this is a poor fish-keeping practice for two reasons; they are cold water fish, you get all the bacteria food you need from the cheap ammonia you will dose with.  What will you do with the goldfish once your heated, tropical aquarium is ready for those fancy fish you have your eye on?  Do not flush them, or any fish, ever.  If you absolutely must bring home something live to keep you and the kids interested, ask the sales staff to show you the fast-growing plants.  Pick up some plants.  Yeah, it is anti-climactic, we get it.
  • Bacteria in a bottle so-called beneficial bacteria to “jump-start” your bacteria farm.  No one we know in four fish-keeping hobbiest forums uses this stuff because it is junk.  Let’s think about this for a minute; that bottle of bacteria has been manufactured, packaged and shipped across the country without a food source in a sealed bottle.  It sat in a hot or cold warehouse for who knows how long and arrives at your pet store to sit on the shelf, again for who knows how long.  It jacks up your initial start-up bill by $2.50-$7.00 a bottle with no guarantee the bacteria are alive, much less viable in quantities high enough to do you any good.  Buy an extra plant.
  • UV sterilizers, Air-stones & Co2 equipment uv sterilizers are purchased after diagnosing specific problems, wait on them.  Air-stones are ok; they oxygenate the water but there are no fish in there to benefit, so as a means of keeping the kids entertained, they have some value.  CO2 equipment can be purchased toward the end of the tank cycle to give the plants the carbon they might  need if you went high-tech with your lighting; however you can also just wait a bit.
  • Fertilizers and plant nutrients again wait.  Give yourself these couple of weeks cycling to watch growth, remove the stuff that died from transplant shock, it happens and see how they do.  The nitrates they need will be provided by that ammonia we keep yammering on about.
  • Betta fish in a bowl or vase please do not cave into this, please do not “rescue” the pretty-fish-in-a-cup as a means of keeping yourself or your kids entertained.  This is a horrible way to keep fish.  Yes betta fish, both males and females must be kept away from each other to prevent fighting; however this practice is the worst of the fish-keeping hobby, next to fish-dying and painting.  If hobbyists stop buying bettas from pet stores who keep the fish this way, pet stores will be forced to properly house bettas in tanks with proper filtration and swimming space .  Please.

Some concluding thoughts;  we are not about being kill-joys or super-geeky in giving this advise.  We proudly aspire to be a super-geek of aqua-culture among those who have more experience than we have thus-far.  We have made some stupid mistakes, fortunately none resulted in livestock death, so far.  Our mistakes are documented here and elsewhere for all to read should you be interested.

Our initial outlay for a 10 gallon tank was approximately $125.00, not including fish or fish food, by far the lease expensive part of the hobby most of the time.  Our foundation plants were a little high-end, but that was a choice we made based on our research, previous experience and aesthetic tastes.  So as a ballpark, you can knock that figure down to about $75.00, less if you take advantage of pet clubs, discounts and so forth.  Everything we purchased is readily available in a chain pet store, except our fancy-pants plants.  Count the cost before letting the moths out of the wallet.

We do believe in being good pet keepers no matter what type of pet one owns.   That is the point of taking the time to research, participate in online aqua-culture communities and make mad use of great tools like the AqAdvisor we previously reviewed.

Good Luck, keep us posted.  Comments and questions are appreciated.

Thanks UberVu for the feedback!

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