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Now that you've made the decision to fill a fish tank, it's time to get down to particulars. One of the joys of maintaining an aquarium is the seemingly endless ways you'll discover to vary fish, plants and additional creatures. Once you've armed yourself with knowledge, this hobby is limited only by your imagination. Like snowflakes, no two aquariums are exactly alike. But be prepared. You have some major decisions ahead and it's wise to begin conservatively.

First you must choose whether to maintain a fresh or saltwater environment. Information on both is readily available.

Freshwater: Maintaining a freshwater aquarium is strongly recommended for beginners or those with little time to devote to this hobby. Freshwater varieties are less expensive and as a rule, easier to maintain. As you might guess, even within this category there are fish varieties that vary from easy-to-keep to difficult.

Saltwater (also known as Marine or Seawater): Varieties exist for the beginner here, too. However, saltwater has stricter requirements and is less forgiving of mistakes. The fish tend to be more expensive because some of these varieties are captured in the wild, as opposed to being raised in captivity, and are therefore not easily or cheaply replaced. You'll also have to keep a closer eye on your tank's temperature, pH, salinity and nitrate content. Consult a PETCO Aquatic Specialist with questions regarding your salt or freshwater environment.

In both saltwater and freshwater fish types, there are two groups: cold water and tropical.

Cold water fish: These fish are low maintenance. In addition, they use ambient air, so you don't need to control the temperature of the water. Finally, these fish are usually inexpensive as well.

Tropical fish: They have advantages, too. For instance, given the same size aquarium, you can put more fish in your aquarium. Most importantly, these fish are beautiful. They may be iridescent, or one of many different colors.

Brackish Fish: Many enthusiasts think this system combines the best of both freshwater and saltwater aquariums. You'll have the benefits of the lower cost of freshwater species as well as live plants and a multitude of colorful fish varieties to choose from.

No matter what you choose, start conservatively and take the time to sit back and enjoy your aquarium.

Goldfish: It's a paradox that the pet that held its own for centuries as a toy and prestige symbol of courtesans and kings in the Orient has been a staple of pet shops and dime stores for generations in much of the Western world. There's a good reason for this. These hardy creatures can survive substandard conditions that would have most other species flinging themselves from the aquarium in desperation. Goldfish and their exotic cousins thrive in a pond environment or in a large goldfish tank. Don't mix them with tropical fish, however, as they are cold water fish and have their own unique needs. There are shapes, sizes and colors for every taste.

Because they're extremely hardy fish and require minimal maintenance, goldfish make a great aquatic pet for beginning hobbyists.

What About Plants?

Live plants certainly add a great deal of natural beauty to a tropical fish tank, but if this is your first aquarium, they are not recommended. Instead, buy enough plastic plants to give your fish plenty of thick cover, at least in the back corners of the tank.

Live plants need nutrients, which means you'll have to provide sand or some material with more organic matter than gravel if they are to root. Fine-particle materials on the tank bottom can make the aquarium more difficult to filter properly. Also, live plants may require more than 12 hours of light, and they can be expensive. Despite all of these negatives, they do enhance the appearance of a tank. In fact, the right plants can provide some supplemental food to certain fish species and help condition the water. But consider trying to maintain a well-balanced tank without live plants for the first few months before you add another variable.

What Kind of Tank?

When choosing your first aquarium, pick the largest tank you can comfortably afford, within limits. Aim for the 20 to 50 gallon range. Don't worry, however, if you can only afford a five or ten gallon tank. A larger tank is actually easier to take care of than a smaller one, since a larger body of water tends to remain stable. Temperatures can change more rapidly in a smaller tank. Cloudiness or chemical imbalances in the water won't occur as rapidly in a large tank as in a small one.

The shape of the tank and the material it is made of are largely based on personal preference. The number of fish you want to have in your tank will largely influence this decision as well. Glass is the most popular material but wood and plastic are other alternatives. Overall, remember that regardless of its shape, a tank with a larger surface area will be able to accommodate more fish.

After you've decided on the tank size you want, visit your local PETCO and talk to the Aquatics Specialist. Tell the specialist what size tank you're interested in, and ask what else you'll need for a complete setup. Be sure you understand and agree with the recommendations before you take on the responsibility of an aquarium.