It’s easy to be intimidated by the maintenance involved in a freshwater fish tank if you’ve never kept one before. From the chemistry of the water to the materials used in design and construction, it often involves an intersection of biology and art that most people aren’t familiar with.
So, are freshwater fish tanks hard to maintain? Freshwater fish tanks need regular maintenance to operate well and protect the health of the living animals that inhabit them. However, once they are established, they are relatively easy to care for as long as some basic ecological concepts, thanks to regular maintenance, such as the nitrogen cycle are understood.
With a little knowledge of the concepts behind regular fish tank maintenance, even a newbie can avoid the usual pitfalls and mistakes that come with starting a freshwater aquarium for the first time. Keep reading to find out more about how to get a beginner freshwater fish tank started the right way.
How to Maintain a New Freshwater Fish Tank
The period when you’re starting up a freshwater tank involves the highest level of maintenance and is arguably the most crucial time you’ll spend with your aquarium to get things off to a good start. For newbies, this is also the time that you’re most likely to make a critical mistake in the setup of your freshwater fish tank that could lead to fish loss or other fish tank related problems.
Here are some of the concepts you’ll need to look at when you’re starting up a new freshwater tank to make sure that you have everything you need ready to maintain it for the long term:
- Establishing the tank and making sure everything is running correctly: This means inspecting everything from hoses, air pumps, and valve checks to making sure that the filter is turning over water properly. The best time to get acquainted with how the tank works is before you introduce living fish to the mix. That way, if any of your equipment doesn’t work, you’re not scrambling to replace it.
- Learning how water chemistry works and how to test for it: Learning how to test water samples from your aquarium and adjust the water chemistry accordingly is one of the most important skills someone who has an aquarium needs to learn. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to correct water chemistry problems before they adversely affect your fish.
- Stocking the aquarium conservatively based on size and species: Many problems with beginner aquariums can be related to the owner’s lack of knowledge about how many fish can be comfortably housed in a given aquarium size or what species of fish can cohabitate peacefully together. Learning these things before purchasing fish for your tank can prevent aggression. Learn here – How many fish I can fit on one Fish Tank.
Supplies for Starting a Freshwater Fish Tank
If you’re getting ready to start a freshwater fish tank, it’s essential to have all the necessary equipment ready well before you ever bring any fish home. Most of the major mistakes new aquarium owners make involve introducing live plants and animals before their aquarium is established enough to sustain life, so colled without good fish tank bacteria and you can’t get the aquarium up and running without having the correct supplies ready to go.
Necessary tank equipment you should gather before adding your fish includes:
- Tank: It is essential to have your fish tank ready to go before you bring home fish, and it’s also important to make sure that the tank is rinsed out well with clean water (no soap!) before you fill it and run it for fish. This will ensure that no unwanted manufacturing chemicals or residue from storage is left on the inside of the tank that might negatively affect the water chemistry.
- Fish food: There are different kinds of fish food available for fish depending on their dietary preferences, and cichlids will thrive on a much different kind of fish food than goldfish will. Be sure to research what kind of fish food your prospective species prefer and have it ready to go before buying your fish. Meanwhile acknowledging your self about what to do whet you are run out of fish food is also a not bad idea.
- Cleaning supplies: Having necessary cleaning supplies in your aquarium’s maintenance cabinet before you get the tank going makes it much easier to maintain the tank once you have live animals in it. Making sure a tank stays clean is significantly easier than trying to clean it once it’s filthy and full of algae.
- Medical supplies: Like cleaning supplies, medical supplies for your fish are not something you’re going to want to have to scramble for in the case of an emergency. It’s a good idea to keep several generic fish antibiotics and other medications on hand with your water testing kit so that you can treat any medical emergencies such as injuries or sickness quickly. The faster you can respond to a medical problem in your tank, the more likely you are to save the fish.
- Quarantine tank: A quarantine tank is a small tank (ten to twenty gallons typically, depending on the type of fish kept) that is used to remove a fish from the general population for observation or medical treatment. This allows sick or injured fish to heal without being harassed and stressed by other fish and prevents medications from having to be used on the main tank.
- Nets: Nets are needed to move fish both in and out of an aquarium as well as remove any dead fish. It’s a good idea to have a net that is strictly for the quarantine tank and one for the main tank to prevent cross-contamination since many aquatic zoonotic diseases can be transmitted via aquarium equipment.
- Maintenance chemicals: Keeping general maintenance chemicals on a hand, such as water conditioners and algaecides, is an excellent idea to keep from having to run down to the store in case of a problem. Keeping these kinds of adjusting chemicals on hand allows you to address any water treatment issues as soon as they are identified during regular water changes and tests.
- Substrate: Substrate is the material used for the bottom of an aquarium that can range from soil and sand to different sizes of gravel. Different kinds of substrate lend different environmental aesthetics to aquarium habitats and can also act as a material to grow beneficial bacteria.
- Aquarium filter and pump: An aquarium filter turns over water in the aquarium and helps filter out any biological waste and debris particles in the water.
- Air pumps, hoses, and valves: A critical aspect of making sure to keep algae levels down and ensure that fish are well oxygenated is circulation via air pumps, hoses, and air stones. Valve checks are mechanisms in an air hose system that prevent water from backing up into the line and causing a leak.
- Décor: Aquarium décor can range from the kitschy (like castles and bubbling treasure chests) to the natural (boulders and driftwood) depending on the aesthetic that you’re going for. It’s vital to choose décor that doesn’t have any sharp or jagged edges to prevent injury to fish, especially species of fish that have long flowing fins such as bettas. Read more, what other thinks are dangerous to put in a fish tank.
It’s a good idea to design and set up your aquarium dry for a few weeks so that you can choose the design elements carefully and rearrange them several times before committing to a final aquarium design. All things going into the aquarium, such as décor and substrate, should be well-washed before adding it to the tank.
Once you have introduced live plants, fish, and aquatic animals, it is much more difficult to swap out the substrate and other elements than if you do it before adding water. That’s why doing all this ahead of time is a better strategy.
Stocking a New Fish Tank
Learning how to stock a fish tank before you purchase any fish is one of the easiest ways to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with it: species incompatibility and overstocking.
- Species incompatibility: There are many different kinds of freshwater fish that can be kept in an aquarium setting, and they don’t all get along with each other. Some fish, such as cichlids, can be highly aggressive and territorial, while other fish such as guppies and platies tend to be more communal and easygoing with each other. Knowing what kinds of fish are compatible can prevent fighting injuries and stress-related illnesses.
- Overstocking: One of the most common mistakes that people make when purchasing a stock for a new aquarium is buying too many fish for the size of their tank. With a new tank that has a fragile nitrogen cycle, adding too many fish all at once for a fish tank to sustain can lead to multiple fish deaths as the system is overwhelmed, and ammonia builds up in the water.
Choosing Fish for Your Tank
There are several different factors to look at when deciding what kinds of fish you want to include in your tank. Depending on the size and number of fish that you want to keep, you’ll only have specific combinations of fish that will work well.
Here are some of the variables you’ll want to look at when choosing species of fish for your beginner tank.
- Size: It’s a good idea to keep fish together in a tank that are roughly the same size. If you keep small fish with larger fish, many larger fish are opportunistic predators and will chase or eat smaller fish if they can catch them. This is especially true of predatory cichlids such as Oscars or Jack Dempseys. It’s also essential to make sure that you have a large enough tank if you decide to keep large species of fish.
- Species: Certain species of fish are more difficult to care for than others and require more specific water parameters to thrive, while others have been bred in captivity for so long for aquarium use that they are very hardy in a variety of aquatic environments. For beginner fish keepers, it’s better to err on the side of simplicity and choose fish that are relatively bulletproof.
- Habitat: Different species of fish require different types of habitats, and how you want to decorate your tank will determine which fish will live best in the habitat you choose to set up. For example, you would want to set up a very different kind of tank for Corydoras catfish than you would for goldfish.
- Water range preference: While many of the more common types of fish kept in beginner freshwater tanks are hardy with regards to water parameters, it becomes a more critical consideration for more sensitive types of fish such as discus.
- Social preference: Some people might not consider the social needs of the fish when deciding which fish to choose for your aquarium, but many kinds of fish live in groups and become stressed out when kept on their own. In some types of fish, such as tiger barbs, keeping too few of the fish can create conflicts within the hierarchy of the school that leads to fighting and other behavioral problems.
- Livebearer considerations: There are species such as guppies and platies that are commonly kept in beginner fish tanks, but when keeping livebearers, it’s important to remember that keeping mixed groups of males and females leads to fry and baby fish quickly. If you stock conservatively and leave room to increase the school, this can be managed, but if you stock your tank to full capacity and then breed the tank’s ecosystem can become overwhelmed.
A good idea before you purchase stock for your fish tank is to make a list of potential fish that you’re interested in keeping, then do research into each of the species and see what their minimum tank size requirements are and what other species of fish they’re compatible with.
By doing this process on paper and not in the fish store, you can avoid impulse purchasing fish that ultimately won’t do well in your aquarium because of incompatibility or overstocking.
The Nitrogen Cycle and Fish Tank Maintenance
One common term you’ll hear tossed around when you’re looking into starting up and maintaining a freshwater fish tank is the “nitrogen cycle.” But what exactly is the nitrogen cycle? The nitrogen cycle is the ecological process by which nitrogen is converted into different chemical forms in aquatic and terrestrial environments.
Concerning the aquarium environment, the nitrogen cycle is established by colonizing the aquarium with naturally occurring, beneficial bacteria that help to keep the water filtered of biological waste.
The reason that this is important in a freshwater fish tank is that the aquarium is a closed ecological system. Without the nitrogen cycle in place, ammonia and other waste products build up in the water to the point that it cannot sustain aquatic life. At this point, if the water can’t be filtered through the nitrogen cycle, the fish and plants in the aquarium will be poisoned and die.
How Does a Filter Factor into the Freshwater Nitrogen Cycle?
Filters are an essential part of the nitrogen cycle and keeping the aquarium maintained because not only do they clean particle debris out of the water column, the filter media also houses the primary source of beneficial bacteria in the aquarium.
While these beneficial bacteria are also found in some numbers on plants, décor, and in the aquarium substrate, the main source of nitrifying bacteria is found in the filter itself. The filter pump pulls water into the filter and over the beneficial bacteria to clean it and place it back into the aquarium system.
How Do Live Plants Factor into the Freshwater Nitrogen Cycle?
Live plants are an excellent addition to many freshwater aquariums because they provide additional oxygen and help to keep the aquarium water clean. They aid the nitrogen cycle by providing another surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow on and removing toxins from the water.
Freshwater aquatic plants require a bit more regular maintenance than plastic ones (such as intermittent fertilizer and artificial lighting). Still, they are also preferable since they aren’t sharp enough to hurt fish like many plastic decorations and can provide a quick snack for herbivorous fish. On an aesthetic note, live plants also make an aquarium look more natural.
How Do You Establish a Freshwater Nitrogen Cycle?
Establishing the nitrogen cycle in a new freshwater fish tank is mostly a waiting game. Once a fish tank has been set up, it needs to be run for several weeks after introducing either live plants or a bit of fish food to jump-start the cycle.
Once the cycle is somewhat established (which can be determined by testing ammonia levels in the aquarium water via a water chemistry test kit), then a few fish can be added at a time (1-2 fish a week) until the aquarium is fully stocked. To determine how many fish your aquarium can reasonably house, check out this stock calculator at AqAdvisor.
How Long Does it Take to Establish a Freshwater Nitrogen Cycle?
Generally speaking, it can take 6-8 weeks for a new fish tank to cycle fully. Adding live plants and other sources of beneficial bacteria can speed up the amount of time it takes to get the nitrogen cycle in the tank established. When the cycle is established, it’s important not to add too many fish at once, as this can cause the cycle to crash. Moderation is vital when stocking at this point in a new tank setup.
How Do You Check if a Nitrogen Cycle has been Established?
After you set up a new tank and have run it for two weeks with plants and a small source of ammonia like a pinch of fish food, you can check the water chemistry and see what your ammonia levels look like. Fish can start to be gradually added to the aquarium once there is no residual ammonia in the tank.
Water Testing and Maintaining Freshwater Fish Tanks
Testing the water in your freshwater fish tank is one of the most important aspects of regular tank maintenance once the tank is set up and running with fish in it. If you cycled the tank correctly when setting it up, the water chemistry of the tank should be relatively stable, and stocking the tank gradually after that point shouldn’t be too disruptive.
However, if you didn’t establish a nitrogen cycle before adding fish to your tank, the water chemistry of the tank can shift wildly from day to day, putting the health of your fish and plants at risk of ammonia stress. For more sensitive fish that are weak from a pet store environment, this can cause illness and death, which is why it isn’t recommended to add fish to a new tank until it is fully cycled.
Once a tank has been established, however, water testing should only have to be performed roughly once a month unless signs of distress are seen in the fish, or the water appearance is off. The benefit of an aquarium is that once the ecosystem is stabilized, it can be easy to maintain with consistent water changes, periodic water testing to check parameters and careful observation of the tank.
Treating Sick and Injured Fish in a Freshwater Fish Tank
One aspect of keeping fish that many beginners eventually come up against is caring for fish that are either sick or injured. This can happen for a variety of reasons ranging from environmental factors like ammonia poisoning to fighting injuries.
This is one of the reasons that it is recommended for fish keepers of any level—beginner or expert—to have a small backup tank that can be set up in a pinch to serve as a hospital tank in case a fish is sick or injured. Since sick and injured fish require substantial water changes to prevent infection anyway, quarantine tanks generally do not have to be left up and running until you need them unless you keep many tanks.
The easiest way to prevent illness and injury in a fish tank is to perform regular water changes to make sure the water quality is maintained to avoid stressing the fish. You should also avoid stocking issues such as species incompatibility, size incompatibility, or overstocking.
If an injured or sick fish is identified, they should usually be removed from the general population and kept in quarantine until it is determined that the fish is healing, is not contagious, or no longer needs to be medicated. Care should be taken not to isolate schooling fish for too long, though, as this can cause stress to fish that are used to living in a group.
Regular Maintenance on Established Freshwater Tanks
There are a few maintenance aspects that go into keeping a freshwater tank looking as good as the day you stocked it, and they can be broken into a few basic categories:
- Do weekly small water changes: Regular water changes with clean, dechlorinated water (roughly 10% of the water in the aquarium per week) is one of the best ways to keep your tank looking sparkling clean and your fish healthy. Vacuuming the gravel during a weekly water change also removes any uneaten food or plant debris that can cause a build-up of ammonia and nitrates in the water. Small water changes are also less stressful to fish than larger ones.
- Don’t overfeed: It can be tempting to feed fish multiple times a day when you’ve first established a tank because fish often appear to dance and beg as you come near the tank, but you should avoid the urge. Fish only have a stomach the size of a pinhead and require minimal amounts of food to live. Keeping their food intake to a minimum helps reduce food waste and ammonia levels, which ultimately helps keep the fish healthier. The surprise is that your fish even become obese.
- Keep an eye on your fish: Taking a few minutes each day to relax and observe each of your fish and live plants can help you detect any problems quickly and solve them before they become deadly. Changes in behavior during feeding or swimming are often the first or only indications that a fish is ill before dying, so keeping an eye on them and noting normal behavior versus abnormal behavior is an important part of keeping them healthy.
One of the most significant advantages of a fish tank is that once you have the tank well established, it’s a pretty self-sustaining system. Other than a little fresh water occasionally, fish food and some minor cleaning once a week, a well-balanced aquarium will operate with minimal interference or chemical additives.
Freshwater Fish Tank Maintenance Is All About Small Habits
When it comes to maintaining a freshwater fish tank, newbies often make the mistake of doing too much, too fast—they do complete water changes and shock their fish or add too many fish at once and crash their cycle. But for effective fish tank maintenance, you should remember that it’s much easier (and better for your fish) to make consistent small changes to the ecosystem to improve it rather than large ones.
To keep your freshwater fish tank healthy and its inhabitants happy, be sure to remember that moderation is key. A little maintenance performed once a week can go a long way towards increasing the overall health of your aquarium.