So you’ve bought an aquarium, and filled it with water but what do you do next? Adding the fish into a tank full of water will soon see you heading back to the nearest aquarium to buy some new fish and feeling very guilty. In this post, we will give you the lowdown on everything you need to know about running a thriving aquarium with happy and healthy fish that live long lives. If you haven’t got your aquarium yet, check out our ‘best aquarium near me’ tool below to find your nearest trusted seller.
Table of Contents
- How to cycle an aquarium
- Top Tip: How much does a 10 gallon fish tank weigh?
- Top Tip: Where to get driftwood for aquarium?
- Step-by-step guide to cycling an aquarium
- How to get crystal clear aquarium water
- How to plant aquarium plants
- How to clean aquarium plants
- How to make aquarium decorations safe
How to cycle an aquarium
As alluded to in the introduction, if you add your fish to a tank full of water without doing anything to it, you’ll soon have a tank full of dead fish. To avoid this, you need to cycle your aquarium. So what is cycling an aquarium? Stated simply, cycling an aquarium forces your tank to go through something called ‘the nitrogen cycle’ which allows beneficial bacteria to grow in your tank water that can eat harmful bacteria derived from the waste (eg. poo, wee, and uneaten fish food) your fish will inevitably produce.
Whilst it is possible to cycle an aquarium with fish in the tank, this is not a suitable method for beginners. The best approach for cycling aquariums for beginners is the fishless cycle. There are a whole range of ways to cycle an aquarium and it can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months. The important thing to remember is that you cannot skip this step and must wait until the nitrogen cycle is complete. This involves 3 parts:
#1 The ammonia phase
During this stage of the nitrate cycle, ammonia levels will build up as waste breaks down until the point where deadly levels are reached. Fortunately, new bacteria emerge independently which feed off ammonia, eating it the moment it appears. When ammonia levels go down you are reaching the nitrites phase.
#2 The nitrites phase
Unfortunately, the nitrites produced by the bacteria eating ammonia are also toxic for your fish. However, as the nitrite level rises a new bacteria again comes to the fore that is capable of eating nitrites the moment they are produced. You can tell this bacteria is present in your tank when nitrite levels decline.
#3 The nitrates phase
The nitrate bacteria are the output of the nitrogen cycle and when kept at appropriate levels will help you to run a healthy aquarium. However, nitrates can still become toxic for the fish in your aquarium if they build up so you need to change the water regularly to prevent this from happening.
Top Tip: How much does a 10 gallon fish tank weigh?
A 10-gallon fish tank typically weighs between 100-11 pounds when filled with water. You can estimate 8.5 pounds of weight for every 1 gallon of fresh water.
Top Tip: Where to get driftwood for aquarium?
A great place to find driftwood for aquariums is down by your nearest beach, but if beaches are too far away you can check out our store finder tool above to find your nearest aquarium which will sell driftwood ready for your tank.
Step-by-step guide to cycling an aquarium
Okay, so now you know what the nitrogen cycle is, how do you actually go about cycling an aquarium? The following is a tried and tested method suitable for beginners and, as you do it before you have fish in your tank, you are not putting your fish in danger.
#1 Get yourself an aquarium test-kit
Unfortunately, you cannot see the nitrogen cycle taking place with the naked eye so you will need a kit that allows you to test for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels in your water.
#2 Buy some ammonium chloride
Whilst you can create your own waste with fish food and wait for it to break down, you can speed up the process by buying ammonium chloride. However, make sure it is 100% ammonia (NH4Cl) and is unscented as scented ammonia products will actually kill the nitrogen cycle off.
#3 Buy some de-chlorinator
If you are using tap water to fill your aquarium, then you will need to dechlorinate your water as both chlorine and chloramine are found in tap water and both kill the beneficial bacteria you are trying to generate. Remember to use this whenever adding water to your aquarium.
#4 Install your aquarium where you want it
Make sure your aquarium is far from any heaters, it is out of direct sunlight, and it is near to an electricity source to power your filter, air pump, and other tank requirements as these will be needed throughout the nitrogen cycle. It will also need to be on a strong enough surface to hold its weight when full or you can look up how to build an aquarium stand for the given weight of your tank.
#5 Add you dechlorinated water
Make sure you fill your tank with water containing no chlorine. You should aim to keep this between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit as this is the preferred temperature for bacteria in the nitrogen cycle.
#6 Check the pH level
The water needs to stay at ph7 (neutral) for the cycling process to work. If the pH level is too low, then you can higher it using peat moss, adding driftwood to the tank, or having live plants in your tank. If the level is too low, you can raise the pH level by adding baking soda (1 teaspoon per 5 gallons), or adding crushed corals, dolomite chips, or limestone gravel. Make sure to regularly check the pH level.
#7 Add ammonia
Follow instructions on the packet in relation to your aquarium size. For tanks under 40 gallons you should aim for 2 parts per million (ppm). Larger tanks require 4 ppm. Once it has been in the tank for an hour you can test to ensure you have reached the target level. If levels are too low, add more ammonia. To bring the level down, add more water (that has been properly prepared). Note down how much ammonia has been added in total. Check the ammonia daily for a week, until they start to drop.
#8 Test for Nitrites
Once you notice ammonia levels dropping you can start testing nitrite levels. Remember to regularly check pH levels too. You will also still need to be adding and testing for ammonia at this stage so your nitrites don’t starve. Don’t let the ammonia level reach 0ppm or more than 5ppm. Adding half of the amount of ammonia you noted down is a good way to go once levels start to drop. When nitrite levels start to drop, you are ready for the next step.
#9 Test for Nitrates
You need to make sure the reason the nitrite levels are dropping is because nitrates have appeared. At this stage, you still want to add ammonia to feed the nitrites who feed the nitrates! Again, half the dose you noted down will suffice. Test the levels of all three bacteria daily. Once you are able to add a half dose of ammonia and see the nitrite and ammonia levels at 0 within 24 hours you have completed the cycle!
#10 Final testing
Before you add your fish you are going to want to do one final test using a full dose of ammonia (ie. the full amount you noted down). If you still see the nitrite and ammonia levels at 0 within 24 hours and a pH level of 7, you can add your fish.
How to get crystal clear aquarium water
If you have cycled your water, then there is a good chance you will have passed through a cloudy stage and ended up with crystal clear water full of good bacteria. However, if cloudy water does rear its ugly head and fail to pass, then you can try adding driftwood, buy pre-packaged good bacteria, or add gravel coated in good bacteria from good aquarium stores (use our best aquarium store finder above to find your nearest trusted seller). You can also add plants to your tank to help keep your aquarium clean as they are coated in good bacteria.
How to plant aquarium plants
Choose a common plant that is easy to grow like Dwarf Saggitaria or Amazon Sword. These can be bought fully grown or grown from cuttings if you want to save some money. Always make sure the plants are not harboring snails, shrimp, or algae before placing them in your tank. You will need substrate in your tank for your plants to grow. All you need to do then is place the stem of you cutting or fully grown plant into the substrate and it will take care of the rest.
How to clean aquarium plants
If you notice algae growing on your aquarium plants in the tank, there are a number of ways you can deal with this. The easiest method to clean these plants is by leaving them in place and simply rubbing the algae off each plant leaf with your fingers. Make sure your hands are clean before doing this so you do not add unwanted contaminants into your tank. You should do this weekly to keep them free from algae.
If you find the algae does not budge easily with your fingers, then you can carefully extract the plants from the tank one at a time and use a clean toothbrush or algae-pad for aquariums to gently scrub the algae from the plant. You can then rinse the plant to remove any algae residue left on the plant before replanting. If you do not wish to scrub the plant you can use a bleaching solution or a salt and lemon solution whilst the plant is outside of the tank to remove the algae, then soak it in conditioned water before replacing it in the tank.
How to make aquarium decorations safe
It’s great fun designing a fish tank and adding all sorts of weird and wonderful artifacts to create an impressively themed underwater scene. However, it is important to be aware of what not to include in the tank. Just because something is sold at an aquarium, does not mean it is safe. Here are 5 things you should not put in your aquarium and why:
If it isn’t rated food safe, then you should not put plastic in your tank as plastics break down when left in water over long periods and release chemicals which are potentially toxic for your fish into the water.
#2 Untreated wood
Whilst driftwood is a great addition to your tank, this is not true of just any wood. Untreated wood is likely to alter your carefully crafted water chemistry and could harm your fish.
#3 Certain types of ceramics
Just like with plastic and wood, some types are suitable and others are not. If the ceramics you want to put in are dinnerware safe, but bear in mind you not put anything with sharp edges into your aquarium.
#4 Sharp items
Even if you have bought something from the aquarium, you need to think about how it will cope once in the water. Things like glass can break easily and erode with sharp edges that could harm your fish. Anything that is degradable may deteriorate in a way that becomes sharp over time or release unwanted toxins into the water.
#5 Untreated sand
It is not a good idea to add sand from the beach to your tank, even you are not running a freshwater fish tank. This is likely to be contaminated in some way. Whilst this is of no concern in the huge ocean, even in a large fish-tank, this is going to have an effect on your water chemistry and will likely harm your fish.
Maintaining an aquarium is easy when you know how. The key take-away for running a healthy and vibrant aquarium is to make sure you create the perfect environment in the tank before you have even put the fish in it. This involves fostering the right bacteria by putting your water through the nitrogen cycle, adding natural aids to maintain water clarity and appropriate nitrate levels, ensuring your plants stay clean, and safety checking your decorative choices.
Follow the steps above and your fish will live a long and healthy life in their crystal clear tank!