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If you've ever been mesmerized by the living jewels swimming through a tropical fish tank at your dentist's or doctor's office, you've discovered one of the benefits of having an aquarium. The colorful, self-enclosed world is peaceful, and has a calming effect on patients.

A well-maintained aquarium can bring that calm peacefulness into your home, too. And it's only one of many good reasons to take up the hobby. Tropical fish are among the easiest pets to raise. No house training is required, no trips to the vet for shots, no licenses to buy, and - unless you keep piranha - no biting.

A tropical fish tank is like a living piece of art, colorful and always changing. It provides a focal point for a special room in your home. It fascinates visitors.

An aquarium is also a continuing educational experience for you and your family, as you learn how to provide for the needs of fish and plants, and observe how one species of fish interacts with another. If you're able to maintain a near-perfect environment, you may find that your fish are breeding. Helping to raise and nurture their babies is yet another learning experience.

Is It Right for Me?

Despite the benefits (and the fun), raising tropical fish isn't for everyone. It helps if you like animals, for instance. Before you rush out and buy an aquarium, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the time? It's much less than you need to spend caring for other pets, but raising fish still requires a minimum of your attention - at least a half hour each day. That can be difficult to pull off if your job requires you to travel out of town four days out of five.
  • Can I afford it? The fish tank itself, and most of the equipment you need for a well-balanced aquarium, represents a one-time purchase. And over time, your investment in tropical fish will be much less than what it would cost you to raise dogs or cats. However, you should expect to spend anywhere from $100 to $300 or more on equipment, depending upon the size of the tank you buy. Expect to spend another $20 to $50, or more, for the fish themselves.
  • Is there a good spot in my home for an aquarium? Tropical fish require a stable environment. In-tank heaters will help you maintain the proper water temperature, and fluorescent bulbs will bring your fish and plants the light they need to survive in a dark hallway. However, if your home is cool and drafty, or if your windows bathe your apartment in bright sunlight, you may have trouble maintaining a fish tank. It's pretty important to have a strong, solid floor, as a large aquarium is very heavy.
  • Can your children or other pets adjust? Many children will enjoy learning about tropical fish and will benefit greatly from the experience, but young ones may require additional supervision around an aquarium. Overfeeding, rapping on the aquarium glass or throwing dinner scraps into the tank won't be conducive to the health of your fish. Neither will marauding cats. The most common condition leading to tropical fish disease and death is stress. If you think you'll have difficulty providing a quiet, safe location for your fish tank, you probably shouldn't have one.
  • Can you make a commitment? If you have a very short attention span, you may want to steer clear of raising tropical fish - or any other pet, for that matter. While some fish lead relatively short lives of perhaps two years or less, other species, such as angelfish, can live for eight years or more. Obviously, you should be prepared to maintain a clean, healthy environment for at least the duration of the aquarium inhabitants' lives. If your work moves you from city to city every year or two, you may want to think twice about taking up this hobby.

The First Steps

If you passed the self-quiz and you're excited at the prospect of setting up a tank, it's time to take the first step: hurry up and slow down. The best thing you can do to begin is spend a few days reading as much as you can about raising tropical fish. Browse through the other articles. Visit your public library and read the books on aquariums and raising tropical fish. (Pay attention to when the books were published. Aquarium technology has improved a great deal over the past 20 years. If the books you're reading were printed in the '70s, the information may be out of date.)

Between books, look around your home and decide on a good spot for your fish tank. A quiet place away from windows and foot traffic is probably best. Too much sunlight invites algae growth, and areas near windows are more prone to temperature swings. A place where people are constantly tromping by may jostle your fish and cause them unnecessary stress. A corner of a study or bedroom with indirect light might make for good locations. So might an entryway or a formal living room.

Once you've done your homework, get proactive. Use the Yellow Pages and visit all the tropical fish stores in your neighborhood. Talk to the owners. Find out how they got interested in aquariums. Find out which fish they like best and why. Ask them what equipment they recommend, and if their recommendations are based on more than manufacturers' incentives. Find out if there's a fish hobbyist club or organization nearby. If so, contact a few members and ask them the same questions you asked the fish store owners.

Realize that many of these questions have no "right" answers, just the respondent's opinion. Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself what setup is best for you and your home. But since you've no doubt done a good job researching the subject and asking questions up to this point, you're highly likely to make good choices.

Setting It Up

Here's one more opinion to add to your growing list: when setting up your first aquarium, pick the largest tank you can comfortably afford, within limits. Twenty to 50 gallons should be about right. Don't worry, however, if you can afford only a five or ten gallon tank. You'll do fine. It's just that a larger tank is actually easier to take care of than a smaller one. Why? A larger body of water tends to retain stability. 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 a small one.

After you've decided on the tank size you want, pick the best of the tropical fish stores you visited, and stop by again. Tell the owner 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 owner's reasoning behind his recommendations before plunking down your money.

From your reading, you will have found by now that your responsibility as a tropical fish owner includes controlling five major areas:

  • Water quality
  • Water temperature
  • The amount of light the tank gets
  • The number of fish and plants
  • The amount of food the fish get

The store owner will help you pick out filters, water pumps, gravel, water-testing kits and anything else you may need to maintain good-quality water. This may include chemicals that will help you get rid of chlorine or other compounds in your tap water that may be harmful to fish; it most certainly will include a kit to test the water's pH (acidity or alkalinity). Be sure to ask for details on how to use anything you purchase. And read the other articles on this site about maintaining [good water quality], and on the pros and cons of various [filter and pump] arrangements. (A good under-gravel filter augmented by a hanging filter at the back of the tank is best, but there are several other good systems from which to choose.)

The store owner will recommend an in-tank heater. These come with thermostats that are very accurate in keeping the water at the temperature best suited for the fish you buy. In general, this temperature may range from 74 to 80 degrees for most tropical fish. Goldfish are the exception, generally requiring a significantly lower water temperature. (For this reason, you won't be able to keep exotic goldfish and other tropical fish in the same tank.) Ask the store owner for a recommendation on water temperature once you decide on the fish you want. (We'll discuss that in a moment.)

There are a few more items you'll need to buy. To control light, you'll want some sort of aquarium hood to hold fluorescent bulbs. Your store owner can recommend the proper wattage. You'll also find that some bulbs are based on portions of the light spectrum. Don't waste too much time agonizing over whether blue-spectrum or red-spectrum bulbs are better. As long as you provide sufficient wattage for 10-12 hours or so a day, all will be well. You'll also need a good fish net and a waterproof thermometer.

What About Plants?

Live plants certainly add a great deal of natural beauty to a tropic fish tank, but if this is your first aquarium, we recommend against them. 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, meaning 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 live plants can be expensive.

All of this is nicely balanced off by the wonderful look they give to a tank, and 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.

Wait, There's Still More

Now, before treating yourself to the enjoyment of shopping for the fish themselves, you need to go home and set up your tank. You'll need to wash out the tank with a mild dish soap, and rinse very thoroughly. Put the gravel into a clean bucket (about half a bucket's worth of gravel at a time) and rinse it until the water swirling around it stays clear. Follow your store owner's advice and any manufacturer's instructions, and install the filter system, then pour and arrange the gravel. Consider gently sloping the gravel from back to front so that any excess food particles will roll forward where they can be seen and removed. Arrange your plastic plants in the gravel so that they provide places for skittish fish (and babies) to hide.

Next, put a large dish on top of the gravel in the center of the tank, and pour water into it slowly, so it gently flows out over the dish's rim. Be patient. This may take awhile, but it will leave your gravel and plastic plant arrangements intact.

Fill the tank to within about an inch from the top and, again following manufacturer's instructions, start your water pump and filter system, and attach your water heater, set for a temperature between 74 and 80 degrees.

To make sure your tank water has no harmful chlorine, add the chemical drops or tablets recommended by your fish store owner. Using the pH test kit you purchased, test to see that the water's rating is between 6.8 and 7.2. If it is not, follow the kit's instructions for adding the proper acid or alkaline solution to adjust the pH.

Now, do nothing at all for at least a week, except to check the water temperature and pH level and see that your filter system is clearing up the water.

Finally, The Fish

Once the aquarium water has "aged" for 7 to 10 days, and you're able to keep it clear and at a constant temperature and pH balance, you're ready to add fish. But what kind? This is probably the most subjective aquarium decision you'll have to make. After visiting a few tropical fish stores, you're likely to be astounded at the variety of species, and even the variety within a single species.

Careful observation shows that fish species tend to have distinctive personalities, and this should play a part in your decision of which to buy. An accompanying article on this site [ provides more detail on the various types of fish, but consider this: Some of the most beautiful are the worst behaved.

Angelfish usually are no angels; they like to nip other fish's fins. Oscars and other cichlids are notoriously pugnacious. And the male Betta splendens, the Siamese Fighting Fish, is so aggressive it must be isolated from others.

My recommendation is that your first fish be suitable for what's known as a community tank. Your fish-store owner will help you here, and you'll find a wide variety of relatively docile breeds from which to choose. These include everything from striped zebras and neon tetras to dwarf gouramis and fan-tail guppies.

It's by no means an absolute, but a good choice for your first tank are live-bearing fish, such as guppies, mollies, platies or swordtails. These fish generally are hardy, and can survive in a wider range of conditions than some of the egg-layers.

Buy your live-bearers in pairs (male and female) or, as the males of these species are sometime somewhat overly enthusiastic, consider trios - one male for two females. Live-bearers tend to be good breeders and will reward you with babies, which can themselves be raised if netted and removed to their own nursery tank. Adult fish will happily gobble the babies given enough time, but if you have good plant cover, a few of the babies are likely to survive and become new residents of the tank.

Also consider buying a pair of Corydoras catfish, such as the Bronze Cat or Agassiz Cat. These clown-like fish provide comic relief and do a fair job of scavenging the bottom of the tank for decaying food.

How many fish should you buy altogether? Generally, fewer than you want to. A natural tendency is to crowd two or three pairs of four or five species into your tank. Resist the temptation. A rule of thumb is to set aside a gallon of tank space for each inch of fish. And that rule is meant to take into account the fact that a young, one-inch swordfish eventually may grow to three inches. Ask your store owner to recommend a small variety of foods.

When you buy your fish, they will be netted and put into plastic bags, with a little water from their tank. Be careful not to jostle them too much on the drive home, and don't make any stops along the way unless absolutely necessary. There should be enough air in each bag to last the fish an hour or more, but why cut it close? Once home, leave the bag or bags closed and float them on the water in your new tank (you may have to remove the light hood to do this). You're doing this so that the water in the bag adjusts to your tank's temperature. After about 15 minutes, open the ends of the bags and gently mingle the water (and fish) in the bag with that of your aquarium. Make sure you don't accidentally leave any fish flopping in the empty plastic bags!

It's not a bad idea to keep the lights off or low during this introduction to the new tank and, although the temptation will be great to do otherwise, try to keep at a small distance from the tank for a few hours. Give the fish a chance to adjust to their new surroundings without frightening them. After those few hours, give them a light feeding, just enough that they clean it all up within four or five minutes. If there's anything left over beyond that, try to scoop it out with a net.

If you've made it this far, it's time to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Observe your fish's habits. Keep up your reading, and note how the behavior of your fish compares to the characteristics of the species as described in books on the topic.

Finally, pat yourself on the back. Almost everything about keeping tropical fish is easier from this point on. Most importantly, sit back in a comfortable chair and enjoy the living jewels swimming through your aquarium.