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How to Setup a New Aquarium

Carefully lift the tank into position on top of the styrofoam, making sure it is square with the base. If undergravel filtration has been chosen, the bottom of the tank should be completely covered with UG plates, assembled according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Depending on the size of the tank, one or more uplifts should be fitted at this stage. As a general rule, a 60cm (24in) or smaller aquarium will require only one uplift, while a 90cm (36in) one should have an uplift in each rear corner. The larger the tank, the more uplifts are needed.

 How to Setup a New Aquarium

Creating the underwater scene

Once the foundation rocks and substrate have been positioned, other forms of decorative material can be arranged, e.g. bogwood, flowerpots, slate, ceramic drainpipes, and cork bark.

If digging fish are to be housed, everything must be secured to prevent rockfalls or other toppling items falling against the glass and cracking it! Silicone sealant or underwater epoxy resin can be used to secure pieces that are a potential risk. Avoid making unstable piles of rocks from small left-over pieces – they always fall over, perhaps trapping fish, damaging plants, or even shattering the aquarium.

Bogwood and cork bark have a tendency to float until they become thoroughly waterlogged, which, under normal circumstances, may take several weeks. To enable such materials to be used immediately, they can be weighted down by attaching them to rocks using nylon fishing line or strong cotton. This sort of arrangement is etisily camouflaged using plants and the like.

Room to manoeuvre

At this stage do not overwhelm the aquarium with roekwork and other decorations. Space must be left for the addition of heaters, in-tank filters and other devices.

Plants will also appreciate room to grow and develop, and fish must have space to swim about in!


Immersion heaters are normally provided with a ‘holder’ – a clip with suckers – to attach them to the glass, so that water can circulate freely around them. Heaters in contact with, for example, the substrate, or which are not fully submerged, may overheat and crack their tubes. Heater/stats are best positioned at an angle of about 45 degrees and in a good flow of water. Heat rises, so this prevents the thermostat from detecting the heat from the element too soon and prematurely disconnecting, with the result that the aquarium fails to be maintained at the preset temperature. Likewise, if using ‘separates’, do not position in-tank heaters close to thermostat sensors. Heater/stats and external thermostats are best wired into a circuit without a switch, either to a cable tidy or straight to the mains. In this way, the heating cannot be switched off accidentally.

The heating system can be installed once the aquarium has been filled with water, but should not be switched on yet. Don’t forget the thermometer!

Installing an air pump

Air pumps are commonly sited beneath the tank and the tubing run up to the top of the aquarium.

Unfortunately, when the power is off (intentionally or because of a power cut), the airline can act as a siphon, drawing water from the tank, through the air pump, and onto the floor! Avoid this by fitting an anti-siphon device between the pump outlet(s) and the device(s) supplied. If there are several of the latter, a set of gang valves will distribute the air as required. Wire the air pump and any other electrical equipment operating biological filtration to an unswitched terminal to avoid accidental disconnection.

Starting up

The hood, complete with fluorescent tubes, can now be positioned and the control unit connected to the cable tidy or multisocket.

Check the wiring one last time, and if all is in order, connect the cable tidy or multisocket to the main electrical supply and switch on. As the water will be cold, the heater should now be operating and its ‘on’ indicator light illuminated. If not, then disconnect everything from the mains and feel the heater: it should be warm. If not, recheck the wiring. If it is correct, you should suspect a faulty piece of equipment (another good reason why livestock are not introduced at this stage!). If you have a professional electrician assisting, he will be able to test all the electric circuitry and equipment electronically, locating any problems quickly and easily.

The filtration should also be switched on to test that it works. Many aquarists, however, prefer to start their filters running permanently a day or two after the tank has been planted, to allow the plants a chance to start rooting before subjecting them to a current. The lighting can also be tested, but it is unnecessary to leave it on until the plants have been introduced.

Over the next 24 hours, the aquarium water will reach approximate operating temperature, although some fine adjustment may be necessary. Expect a range of 1 to 1.5ˇăC (2 to 3ˇăF) between on and off -this is perfectly acceptable. Pump and/or air flow adjustments may also prove inevitable before a perfect balance is achieved.

How to Prepare a New Aquarium

Once the decision to purchase a fish tank has been made, it is easy to get carried away by the excitement, and completely disregard advance planning; and we must stress once again that planning is essential at every stage, not least when it comes to setting up, i.e. installing the tank, equipment and decor chosen earlier. It should be clear by now that buying a complete aquarium set-up and fish/plants on the same day is a recipe for disaster. The equipment will, of course, survive, but the fish will not!

This article is designed to lead you through setting up a basic aquarium, although everyone’s set-up will be different and procedures may have to be altered to accommodate the individual. It is strongly recommended that a specific plan of action, based on these general principles, is drawn up to suit every new aquarium. Your plan should include a timetable, especially if there are glues and paints needing time to dry and/or you need to organize outside help.

aquarium planning How to Prepare a New Aquarium

Before you start, it is worth reviewing once again the suitability of your chosen site as regards viewing potential, accessibility, safety, access to electricity, water, light levels and drainage. Once the tank is installed it will be too late for second thoughts!

Making preparations

It is essential, before you start, to make sure you have all the necessary aquarium equipment and all the tools required at the ready, plus any assistants you may need. Not everyone is fully conversant with electrical wiring, although most aquarium procedures are straightforward, so the help of an electrician or experienced hobbyist may be necessary, if only to demonstrate so that you can do the same job should it be necessary at a later date. Tanks are heavy items and many will require the assistance of one or more fit adults to lift them. All other surplus members of the family (especially excited young children and pets) are best encouraged to go to the park, or otherwise excluded until the majority of the work is completed.

As we are dealing with water, gravel and rocks, a certain amount of mess is to be expected. Make sure carpets are protected with plastic sheeting or several layers of newspaper. That way any spillage can be quickly and effectively cleared up without permanent damage.

Dress for the occasion – glass is very dangerous stuff, so wear stout gloves and shoes when moving your aquarium, and make sure arms and legs are covered, even in hot weather.

Fitting the background

It is generally best to measure up and fix the background when the tank is empty and before positioning it, as the task becomes increasingly difficult when the tank is against a wall, full, or you are fighting electric wires.

Plasticized ‘backgrounds on a roll’ are easily attached using adhesive tape. If you wish to paint the back, the glass must first be thoroughly de-greased with methylated spirits (or other ‘cleaning’ alcohol), otherwise the paint will soon peel off. Cork tiles and other buoyant materials mounted inside the tank should be stuck into place using silicone sealant if they are not to pop up to the surface within a few days! At least 24 hours will generally be needed for paints and glues to dry, before you can proceed.

Preparing the interior decor

Meanwhile, the substrate and rockwork can be washed. This is a time-consuming job, but is essential if murky, polluted water is to be avoided. It also provides an opportunity to check for ‘foreign bodies’ that might pollute the water, ‘faking a few handfuls at a time, put the substrate into a sieve or bucket and wash under a running tap until clean, stirring with tt wooden or plastic spoon, or hands, until the water runs clear. Rocks are best scrubbed in hot water (without soap) to get them scrupulously clean.

At this stage, decorative structures that require glueing can be constructed. Silicone sealant or underwater epoxy resin is ideal for attaching rock to rock, wood to wood, or rock to wood. Ensure that the components are completely clean and dry, otherwise they will fall apart very quickly once under water, and allow at least 24 hours’ drying time before use.

How to Maintain Aquarium Water Quality

Water quality is affected by two main factors: firstly, contaminants (organic and inorganic) which it contains when drawn from the tap, and secondly those which enter it while it is in the aquarium. Both inorganic and organic contaminants are involved.

Inorganic contaminants

Tap water may contain small quantities of various metallic salts, either naturally or as the result of environmental pollution. It may also become contaminated with lead or copper from domestic pipework, and for this reason water from the hot water cylinder, or water that has stood in the pipes for some time, should not be used.

Chemicals used by water companies to kill bacteria (chlorine and chloramine) and crustaceans are also toxic. Water companies are required to provide water with safe levels of contaminants, but unfortunately what is ‘safe’ for humans may be lethal to delicate fish.

aquarium water quality How to Maintain Aquarium Water Quality

Purifying tap water

The simplest way of making tap water safe for hardy tropical fish is to add a conditioner to remove, or nullify, the effects of chlorine and chloramines; if only chlorine is present (ask the water company) then it will dissipate if the water is allowed to stand overnight, preferably with aeration, or can often be driven off by running the tap hard into a bucket. Some conditioners also nullify other toxins, e.g. metallic salts; not all conditioners remove all toxins, so always buy one appropriate to your needs.

To improve tap water still further, we can use special resins (available from aquatic dealers), usually in special tap water treatment filters, to remove nitrates, phosphates and sulphates – all of which are less than conducive to fish health and can encourage unsightly algae in both freshwater and marine aquaria.

In-tank pollution

In-tank inorganic contamination may derive from unsuitable decor or equipment, or the accidental influx of chemicals (such as cigarette smoke, insecticide sprays, aerosol furniture polish, paint fumes etc.). While to our knowledge no smoker has ever been implicated in the demise of any fish (at least through smoking!), most other extraneous toxins are (often quickly) lethal, and prevention is the only remedy.

Organic contamination

Organic contaminants may be present in tap water, usually derived from agricultural fertilizers or resulting from the impossibility (tit least affordably) of totally purifying recycled water. Aquarists whose water comes from rivers, or river-fed reservoirs, should be particularly vigilant. Artesian supplies and rain (or spring) water reservoirs are generally more pure.

Organic pollution within the aquarium comes mainly from the metabolic processes of its occupants (plants and animals). This pollution is controlled by the nitrogen cycle, and an understanding of the latter is essential to the aquarist.

The nitrogen cycle

The nitrogen cycle is the means by which waste products are dealt with biologically by Nature, both in the wild and in our aquaria.

The first part of the cycle deals with the decomposition of the remains of plants and animals, and the excreta of the latter. These are initially broken down into highly toxic ammonia (also excreted by fish) and associated compounds, which form the diet of a genus of bacteria called Nitrosomonus. These bacteria convert the highly toxic ammonia to slightly less toxic nitrite in the first stage of the cycle.

Next, another genus of bacteria, called Nitrobacter, convert nitrite into nitrate. Nitrate is not particularly harmful to most fish in reasonable quantities, though tolerance levels vary from species to species. It may be used in part by plants as natural fertilizer.

Both Nitrosomonus and Nitrobacter bacteria are aerobic, i.e. they need oxygen to survive, breed and perform their tasks. In Nature – and in the aquarium – they inhabit any suitable surface such as rocks, wood, sand, gravel and plant leaves.

Ammonia, nitrite and nitrate cannot be seen in the aquarium water, but test kits are available to test for the presence of all three.

How to Maintain an Aquarium

Much of the fun in keeping fish is to be found in their regular upkeep, the essential tasks that ensure that they are kept as healthy as possible. By carrying out these tasks according to a regular timetable (such as that provided here), the aquarist can be certain that all important aspects of maintenance are covered.

Water changes

In all of the biotopes we have looked at, the water is constantly being replenished or recycled – otherwise the environment would soon stagnate and become toxic to all aquatic life. As aquarium water is ‘static’, it is up to you to change a certain percentage, thus reducing any nitrate build-up and replenishing minerals used up by plants and fish.

How much is ‘topped up’ depends on the aquarium and its occupants, but a good starting point is 25% weekly for fresh water, and 15 to 25% every two weeks for salt water. We have already seen that by measuring the amount of water introduced into the aquarium when it is first set up, we can assess the net volume; and now, using our chosen percentage, we can accurately replace the correct amount.

aquarium maintenance How to Maintain an Aquarium

Used water is removed with the aid of a bucket and siphon tube (sometimes connected to a gravel cleaner). By putting one end of the tube into the tank and the other into the bucket, water can be drawn off via the siphon effect. To start the siphon simply give a quick suck on the ‘bucket’ end of the tube, but if you are worried about getting a mouthful of water, aquatic stores sell siphon-starting bulbs.

Replacement water may have to be prepared in advance to match the chemistry of the aquarium. Hardness, pH and temperature are important factors, as is specific gravity where marine aquaria are concerned.

Pour or siphon the new water into the aquarium, slowly and carefully so as not to disturb fish, plants, and other decor.

Cleaning filters

Power (internal and external) and sponge filters will require attention on a regular basis if they are not to clog up with detritus. Any purely mechanical media can be rinsed under the tap or replaced. Chemical media such as carbon are best replaced before they become exhausted. Biologically active media, however, must be treated differently. If they are washed under the tap, chlorine and chloramine will destroy the bacteria and leave the aquarium totally unprotected. It is therefore extremely important to rinse biological media in aquarium water only. If cleaning is carried out at the same time as water changes, the old water can be used for this purpose and then discarded. Never rinse any media actually in the aquarium!

Never replace more than 50% of biological media at a time (30% is better), or the filler will have to be matured from scratch; and, if possible, clean only this percentage of media at any one time. It is wise to reduce loading (i.e. feeding) for 24 hours before and after filter maintenance.

How to Introduce Fish to Your Aquarium

For most hobbyists the most exciting part of setting up a new aquarium is buying and introducing the fish. Even when the filtration is mature, there is some debate as to whether you should add your fish all at once or in small batches over the ensuing weeks.

With freshwater tropicals, if the ‘daily feed’ maturation method has been used, all or the bulk of the population can be added at one time, provided they are fed only very lightly while the filter takes up the load. This also avoids the need for quarantining successive batches. With delicate marine organisms, however, one or two at a time is the golden rule.

When deciding what fishes to buy, remember not to exceed the permissible stocking density of the aquarium, and, in particular, take into account the fact that many fish are sold as young specimens and will grow! All calculations must therefore be made on the ultimate size of the fish, not size when purchased. Of course, the aquarist does not have to keep purchasing fish until the maximum stocking level is reached, but may decide to cease stocking at any time to maintain a particular display community.

aquarium fish How to Introduce Fish to Your Aquarium

Bagging and transportation

Fishes are normally packed in clear plastic bags, often in a brown paper outer or carrier bag so that the fish cannot see out and panic at finding themselves suspended in mid-air! Never carry fishes home ‘unshielded’, unless you want them to die immediately of shock.

Some fish bags have their corners rounded so that fishes cannot get trapped and injured in the ‘point’. If ordinary bags are used, it is worth asking to have bags ‘cornered’, i.e. the corners tied with rubber bands or taped off. A dealer who does this without your asking is a very good dealer indeed.

If you are travelling a long distance (say, over an hour), ask for the fish to be double-bagged, with oxygen. This will ensure that they arrive in good condition and not stressed by a shortage of oxygen in the travelling water. Two bags, one inside the other, will also safeguard against leaks. If you don’t already have one, ask the dealer for a polystyrene fish box. Place the bags in it, packing tiny spaces with crumpled newspaper to avoid excessive heal loss (or overheating) and disturbance while travelling.


On arriving at home, turn off the tank lights and undo the bags, then suspend them in the top of the aquarium while the water temperatures equalize. Some people may tell you to mix some aquarium water with that in the bag to avoid chemical shock, but with freshwater fish this achieves nothing, as it takes them 24 to 72 hours to adjust to any change in water chemistry, and any major change is likely to prove fatal whatever you do at this stage. You must ensure that there is no such major change. Try to keep stress to a minimum -the acclimatization period should be as short as possible, and the bags undone before they are placed in the tank (so they don’t have to be taken out again).

Once the temperatures have equalized, gently upend each bag so that the fish can swim out. Make sure that they have till done so!

Most fish will swim around quite happily in their new home after leaving the bag and the lights can be switched back on after an hour or so. However, a few may be stressed enough to lie on the bottom or hide among the plants. On no account should they be disturbed by prodding or poking. Leave them in peace, with the lights out, and it is very likely that they will be fine on inspection the next morning.

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