Starting a River: A Beginner’s Guide to Freshwater Aquariums

By: Luis R. Pérez Lasalle

When most people hear the word “Aquarium” their thoughts immediately go to large tanks of corals and exotic fish that require dedication and hard work to keep healthy and beautiful. While saltwater tanks are indeed beautiful and usually best left to experienced fish keepers, their freshwater counterparts offer even the most basic of beginners the opportunity to have a vibrant and beautiful ecosystem within their own home or apartment without the need to break the bank or spend hours working on it. Fresh water aquariums are ideal for beginners as they require less upkeep than their salt water counterparts and still offer a plethora of colorful and unique fish species and live aquatic plants that can give any home a small but thriving ecosystem. With this guide I will show you a way to set up your very first fresh water tank as well as warn you on certain pitfalls and guide you towards other helpful individuals that can offer their own expert advice.

The first step you will need to follow to get started in the hobby is choosing the right size for your aquarium. “Bigger is better.” comments Pablo Robles, a veteran fish keeper and active member of the fish keeping community on the west side ofPuerto Rico. “Bigger tanks will offer the most stunning landscape possibilities as well as regulate the chemicals in the water a lot easier.” he adds with a chuckle as he loses himself in facts and past experiences. But bigger is not always better, as for beginners or new fish keepers might have a hard time finding or purchasing such tanks. “Everyone should start with a simple 10 or 20 gallon tank. They are easy to find, pretty cheap and can help anyone get the feel for the hobby.” comments Pablo before quickly detailing the amount of space required for bigger tanks. “If you don’t have a place to put the tank, a good place, then you shouldn’t buy one. You need to clear a perfect spot before you even buy a tank.”

An aquarium with plastic or synthetic plants is easier to maintain and is recommended for newer aquarium owners. Plastic plants do not wither, need pruning or require special chemicals to stay vibrant.

The next step, as Pablo pointed out, is to decide a location for your future aquarium, and believe it or not, there are several considerations you need to take before setting up the tank. Noise, amount of natural light, proximity to electrical outlets and proximity to other electrical devices should all be taken into consideration before selecting a spot for your new aquarium. Most fish are nervous when first introduced to a new home and will become stressed if their tank is close to any loud noises such as radios, televisions or slamming doors while the acclimate to their new surroundings. Another important requirement when choosing a location is the accessibility you will have to the tank. The space around the tank should be clear of obstacles to facilitate partial water changes and cleaning, more on those later. If you opted for a “planted” aquarium then the amount of natural light, or sunlight, the tank receives will also need to be taken into account. Keep planted tanks away from windows as too much sunlight might promote the unwanted growth of algae within the tank. The ideal location for your tank should be close to electrical outlets to facilitate the filtration and light system, away from noisy setting and easily accessible for better viewing as well as easy maintenance. When you have found and cleared the perfect spot for you tank, then it is time to go shopping.

A large 90 gallon planted aquarium is harder to maintain than smaller aquariums but the end result is captivating. With a variety of plants and driftwood the tank almost seems like a portion of river bed has been placed within the home.

When it comes to finding the best prices on aquariums it is best to shop around. Big name stores will usually offer “bundles” or “kits” that are very convenient for first time buyers as they possess everything you need to set up your first aquarium. Although bargain hunting is ideal, don’t shy away from your local pet shops. While the prices at local pet shops might be slightly higher than those of big name stores, the knowledge most pet shop owners possess makes the experience worth it. When looking for an ideal pet shop that sells high quality aquarium supplies you need to ask around. “It isn’t easy finding a good pet shop, like mine.” comments Luis Vazquez, owner of “Aqua Mundo” a pet shop that specializes in aquariums and all related products. “Some pet shops don’t know anything about fish, they just want to sell someone as many products as they can.” he elaborates with a disapproving tone as he experienced such salesmen when he first started out in the hobby. “They wanted me to buy a lot of filters and chemicals that, now I realize, beginners would have no use for. Everything from expensive fish food to chemicals for saltwater aquariums they tried to pass off as useful for freshwater aquariums.” To avoid finding yourself in a similar situation its best to look online for local aquarium hobbyist groups as they usually possess first hand experiences, both good and bad, concerning which shops offer the healthiest fish and the best prices. Good pet shops will have clean display tanks, fish that look colorful and energetic and knowledgeable employees that will direct you to the best products for your particular needs. If the fish tanks are grimy or the fish look sickly or weak it is best to avoid that pet shop as the survival rate of the fish you purchase might be low.

Once you’ve found an ideal pet shop, and have purchased a basic 10 gallon aquarium kit, it is time to set up the tank so that you can begin populating it. The initial set up is easy:

  • Thoroughly wash the gravel in a pale of clean tap water. Rinse the gravel until the water in the pale is clear so as to prevent cloudy waters and particulates.
  • Rinse the fish tank so as to remove any dust or dirt that might have come with the purchase.
  • Once both tank and gravel are clean, gently pour the gravel into the bottom of the tank, making sure there is at least an inch of gravel evenly covering the tank bottom.
  • Carefully add tap water to the aquarium making sure not to disturb the gravel too much in order to prevent cloudy water. Once the tank is filled to about an inch from the top margin add the Water Conditioner so as to remove any water impurities and chemicals found in ordinary tap water.
  • With clean hands place the plastic plants and decorations around your aquarium to suit your own tastes. Tip: Its best to bunch plants together as it gives fish a place to hide and feel safe.
  • Set up the filter and light cover of the aquarium.

Once you’ve set up your aquarium it needs to sit for a about 5 to 7 days in order for the water and natural filtering cycle to stabilize. During that “cycling” period you can choose the type of fish you want for your aquarium. The most common rule to follow when deciding what type of fish to purchase revolves around the size of the aquarium. For a small 10 gallon aquarium, a good rule to follow is 1 small fish (1 – 2 inches in length) per every gallon or 2 medium fish (3 – 5 inches in length) per gallon. This will ensure lively and healthy fish while keeping the aquarium clean and lowering the amount of maintenance needed. For beginners the best fish are called “community fish”. These are species that are relatively calm and peaceful and get along with other species. Amongst these are Guppies, Platys, Mollies and Tetras. These species are colorful, come in a wide variety of colors and patterns and are bred to be resistant to most beginners’ mistakes. A school of 10 Neon Tetras swimming in unison, with their vibrant blue and red bodies are a very pleasant and beautiful sight in any home.

Neon Tetras are commonly available in most pet shops and are considered a favorite amongst new and veteran aquarium owners. They are best kept in groups of 6 or more and should be provided with plenty of plant cover to hide in.

Once the water has cycled it is time to purchase your fish and get them home as quickly as possible. When introducing your new fish to their new home follow these steps:

  • Rinse off the outside of the bags with clean tap water to remove any unwanted particles that might have hitched a ride from the pet store.
  • Place the bags floating on the surface of the aquarium water and leave them there for about 15 minutes to equalize the temperature of the bag water with that of your aquarium.
  • Once the time has passed, carefully cut a hole on the top of the bag and with a fish net coax the fish out into the aquarium. Try to avoid as much as possible pouring the water in the bag into your aquarium to prevent any unwanted contaminants.
  • Once all the fish are in the aquarium, turn off the aquarium lights and give them a few hours to get used to and explore their new homes.
  • Congratulations you now have your own aquarium.

The “Asociación de Acuaristas de Aguadilla” holds monthly meetings to discuss aquarium tips and share experiences. They readily welcome new members and invite them to participate actively in the group.

If you are wondering: “What now?” then allow me to finish off my guide with some extra advice. Perform weekly and monthly maintenance on your tank to keep your fish healthy. Daily feedings, weekly partial water changes and monthly filter cleanings will ensure that your fishy friends live a long and healthy life. If your interest in the hobby grows then the internet is filled with information and support groups of fellow aquarium owners that can help you with any doubts. The “Asociación de Acuaristas deAguadilla” is an organization of avid and knowledgeable aquarium owners that hold monthly meetings in a calm and friendly environment to discuss the hobby, give away fish and plants, educate fellow members on new fish keeping techniques or practices and help new aquarium owners in their endeavors.


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