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Fishkeeping is an addictive and enjoyable pastime involving maintening a clean and safe environment for a wide variety of fish, snails, shrimp, coral and plants. This guide is intended to give a beginner a very general understanding of what is involved in maintaining an aquarium, it will give a guide on starting up an aquarium, cost, work involved and what could be achieved. Aqariums can be either freshwater or saltwater and there's a big difference in cost and work involved for each one but as most newcomers won't want to go straight into a complicated saltwater setup I'll focus mainly on freshwater or tropical aquariums.
I've kept tropical fish for over 2 years and have kept a large variety of fish and have recently upgraded tanks to a larger and more eye catching model. Originally though I started off with a 3ft (width) rectangular tank (roughly 100 litres) which came complete with a heater, filter and light. I paid £60 for this secondhand tank and bought a new stand, this also cost £60 from Pets @ Home.
I've recently bought another secondhand tank, this time I opted for a Trigon £350 complete with stand, two heaters, filter and a powerhead to move the water around the tank. Brand new this tank costs £699, this shows the benefit of buying secondhand as I paid £265 for the tank (found through a fish forum) and then another £40 to upgrade the lights so the total price was £305. I've had this larger tank running for 6 months and have used a gravel base and then slate, moss balls, pump light (red light which pumps out tiny bubbles) and various plants as decorative items and hiding places for shy fish. In total now I have 20 fish in the tank.
**What is a tropical aquarium?**
Basically its a freshwater tank that can hold tropical fish and is the cheapest and easiest way to start. Its different to a marine tank in that salt is not added to the water and therefore only tropical fish can survive in this environment.
**Costs and maintenance required for a tropical aquarium**
The cost of starting a tropical aquarium depends largely on what size tank you decide to buy. As a guide its worth aiming for a tank of at least 40 gallons (180 litres), this is because as you get more involved in this hobby and keen to experiment with different fish you will need a large tank to house them. Also as the fish will grow you've got to be able to provide enough room for them to swim and exercise properly. With that in mind two tanks to consider would be a Trigon 190 litre or a Juwel Rio 240 litre, both of these are readily available new or secondhand.
When you have a tropical tank up and running you will always have your filter and heater turned on and you will have the lights turned on around 8 hours each day, if you also use a powerhead this will add to the electricity cost. When I had my first 100 litre tank the electricity bill seemed to go up by around £12 per month, obviously the bigger the tank the bigger the filter unit required and there's more water to heat so this will increase the bill accordingly.
When considering which filter to buy make sure that the model you choose can handle the amount of water in your tank, filters start at small internal models suitable for 50 litre tanks and go up to £200+ external models that handle over 500 litres. As the tank suggested earlier was around the 190 litre mark an appropriate Fluval Filter (this is the model I use) would cost around £40. You will also need to buy filter pads, these go inside the filter and trap waste, excess food and other pollutants as the water passes through, these cost around £6 each from any fish supplier.
On top of this you have the cost of fish food - its important to offer a variety of food to the fish to boost their energy and aid their digestive system so you should be feeding them flakes (£3 per tub that will last at least four months), pellets (£1.80 per tub that will last about 3 months) and bloodworm (£2.50 frozen blocks that last about 6 weeks). However on top of this you can add much more food depending on whether your fish take to it, for example try cucumber (weighted down), crushed peas, prawns and lettuce. Some people also suggest garlic as its a great energy provider for fish. Its important to vary the food you feed the fish as you wouldn't want to eat the same thing every day so why should the fish?
The only other cost to consider are decorative items for the tank ie slate, ornate stone, plants (around £1.50 per bunch), coloured pump lights, coloured lightbulbs and the fish themselves. Obviously the more difficult-to-find fish come with a higher price tag but most fish suppliers offer the same basic choices so look to pay between £1 and £3.50 for your first lot of fish. More on choices and compatibility of fish later.
**Weekly and monthly tank maintenance**
The most important part of an aquarium is the water, poor quality/dirty water is the most common cause of problems and can easily wipe out your whole tank so you should make sure that the filtration is good and the water changes are frequent. Most people suggest weekly water changes of around 15% with at least a 40% water change every month, this sounds a lot but a 15% water change is only going to take around 20 minutes in a 100 litre tank. A must for an aquarium is a water testing kit, these can be bought as single kits for individual tests or you can buy a pack which contains 6 testing kits for between £15 and £20. The most important things to test for are nitrate, nitrite and PH, high levels of these can kill your fish.
In addition to water changes you should also be cleaning the gravel, ideally do this at the same time as the water changes using a syphon to remove all the waste. You can also buy a gravel cleaner (£10 from a local fish supplier) which collects the waste in a bag but allows the water to flow back into the tank.
Its important to read about any fish you are thinking of adding to your tank, don't walk into a local fish supplier and ask them as some are happy to recommend fish that aren't suitable just so they can make a sale. You can either buy a tropical fish book or use google to find out the requirements of the fish, you'll need to know their feeding habits, compatibility, ideal water temperature and breeding habits.
A few examples of some good starter fish would be Neon Tetras, Clown Loach (only really suitable in groups of 4), Platys and swordtails. Clown Loach can be very shy and some people say that they are difficult to keep as the water conditions need to be good but in my opinion they are really nice to watch and relatively not as difficult to keep as most books would have you believe.
Another point to bear in mind is that fish will breed, this is especially true if you decide to get some platys, they are notorious breeders so be careful that they don't start to overstock the tank. Most LFS (local fish suppliers) will usually take unwanted fish in a part-exchange if you can negotiate a deal with them.
Try and get fish that will populate the different levels of the tank for example clown loach will tend to scavenge and eat from the bottom of the tank whereas silver shark are more active and will keep mainly between the top and middle. Also make sure that you create areas that fish can hide in, you can build a cave made of slate or just use a plant pot. Use plants to create an area where the fish can hover in to relax.
Also be aware that some fish will try and jump out of your tank, silver shark are known to do this, in some cases you may need to weight down the tank hood to make absolutely sure. In any case the hood should be closed apart from when you are cleaning or feeding.
Lastly try and plan for the future, some fish will outgrow tanks in less than a year. A silver shark is an active fish that needs to exercise so when they get bigger you either re-home then in a bigger tank or find a suitable tank somewhere else. Plec's are another example of a fish that can grow to well over 12 inches long so bear this in mind when making your decisions.
**Marine and tropical aquarium comparison**
Marine tanks tend to have more colourful and interesting fish, plus with corals swaying in the water currents they can easily take over from the television as the most watched item in the living room. However they are far more difficult to setup and maintain, not to mention the cost which is prohibitive to say the least. An average tropical fish can cost no more than £5, but a marine fish can start at £20 and go up to over £100. The water changes in marine aquariums also need to be done with more care and take longer than tropical water changes. As I've now got my tropical tank stable and running smoothly I'm considering setting up a marine aquarium in my first 100 litre tank which is currently empty, however I'm preparing to spend more on fish keeping than I ever have so think carefully before you decide to choose a marine tank.
I've spent a moderate amount on my tropical tank (perhaps £5-6 per week on various additons and equipment) but have carefully built a slate mountain with loads of caves in and planted eye catching but different varieties of plants to make the tank look as good as possible. Its also nice not to have to spend too long on maintaining my tropical tank and it still draws attention when people walk into the room so perhaps a tropical tank can look as good as a marine.
**Tips for a successful tropical aquarium**
Buy the best filter unit you can and back this up with frequent water changes. Read up carefully on any fish you want and decide whether or not they can really adapt to your tank, if in doubt try an internet fish forum for advice. Start off slowly and build up your fish population over time. You can't just add 10 fish to your tank and hope for the best, you need to add 1 or 2 and then use the test kits over the next week to check on the chemical levels in the water. Also try reading up on fishless cycles, these are available online on most fish forums and explain how to prepare the water for your first fish before they arrive. Most people add their fish and then become disinterested in their aquarium when the fish keep dying. Plan and decorate your tank as imaginatively as possible. Put in the brightest light bulbs possible so that the plants can look healthy and grow well.
If enough care and research is put into setting up your aquarium it can turn into a really interesting and rewarding hobby. There are loads of different types of fish available so there's always new avenues to explore, as well as this you can experiement with different plants, stones, gravels, lights and ornaments to make your aquarium as decorated as you like. Most importantly though set your tank conditions to be as good for the fish as possible, there are many horror stories of poor conditions for fish down to people not researching them before buying, so enjoy the hobby but let the fish enjoy your aquarium too.