A tank between 10 and 30 gallons is the best size for beginners. Smaller
tanks can be managed, but require more attention to detail. Larger tanks often take up
more space than can be spared and are more expensive. Certainly, if you have a tank that
is outside this range, don't hesitate to use it, but be aware that these instructions will
have to be modified.
If possible, use a tank that is longer than it is tall. Tall, narrow tanks
and those of unusual shapes are difficult to light adequately, and are also hard to work
in. Some of the best tanks are:
Standard 10 gallon, standard 15 gallon, 20 gallon "long", 20 gallon
"high", 29 gallon "high", 30 gallon "long".
All of these tanks can be outfitted with commonly available aquarium
Other equipment and supplies:
Enough good quality fluorescent lighting to reach at least 2
watts per gallon. An exception to this rule is the 10 gallon tank. This tank is small
enough and shallow enough that you can usually get adequate growth of shade tolerant
plants using a single 15 watt bulb as long as the bulb is less than 1 year old, and of
good quality. Except for the 29 gallon "high" tank, all of the other tanks
mentioned can be adequately lit with two bulbs of the largest size that will fit on the
tank. i.e., two 24" 20 watt bulbs over the 20 gallon tanks, and two 36" 30 watt
bulbs over the 30 gallon tank. For the 29 gallon size, you will need three 24" 20W
bulbs for adequate light. Aquarium strip light fixtures come as either double or single
bulb fixtures. You can use any combination of single or double bulb fixtures that will
meet your needs.
Some good brands of bulbs are:
More expensive: VitaLite Pennplax Ultra-Trilux Triton
Less Expensive: GE Chroma 50 Phillips Ultralume 5000 Phillips Daylight
Heater: 150W heaters are probably adequate for the 10-20 gallon tanks, 200W
heaters will be adequate for the larger tanks. Buy a good quality submersible heater.
Don't skimp here... a tank is left unattended too often to risk your plants and animals to
a faulty thermostat!
Thermometer: Any aquarium thermometer will do, but I prefer the
stick-on-the-glass liquid crystal type for several reasons. They are unobtrusive, but easy
to read, they are inexpensive, and most are marked with both Fahrenheit and Celsius scales
which makes them another useful learning tool.
Filter: Do not use an under gravel filter or other air driven filter in a
planted tank. It will drive off needed CO2. Use either an internal or external power
filter. There are many good ones on the market. My preference is for those that have
rinsable, reusable filtration media rather than those with disposable "cartridges". They are less expensive to maintain, and more environmentally
friendly. Any good pet shop can tell you which size filter to get for your particular
tank, but it is better to slightly oversize the filter rather than skimping. A couple of
reliable brands of outside power filters are Marineland and Hagen. Duetto internal power
filters are excellent in a number of applications.
CO2 Generator: See specific directions for making a yeast reactor.
Electrical equipment: Use a heavy duty power strip to provide power for your
aquarium equipment. If you cannot locate the tank near an outlet, use a heavy duty
extension cord. You will also need a light timer (like the ones used when people go on
vacations) to turn the tank lights on and off each day.
Support: Remember that an aquarium is heavy! Filled, it will weigh close to 10
pounds per gallon. 10 gallon tanks can be placed on a sturdy table. Larger tanks really
need a properly designed aquarium stand.
Gravel: Use fine non-coated natural color aquarium gravel. It should be between
1-3 mm. in size, and not contain calcium carbonate bearing rock. You can test this by
placing a drop or two of muriatic acid (available at the hardware store) on a sample of
gravel. If it foams, don't use it.
You will need about a 25 pound bag for a 10 gallon to 20 "high" tank, you'll
probably need a 50 pound bag for the larger tanks.
Laterite: This is an iron rich tropical clay that will serve as the nutrient
base for your plants. Your local pet store will either carry it, or can order for you.
Another very good alternative for the substrate of a planted tank is Seachem
Flourite. This product is attractive, easy to use and grows plants very well. You do not
need to add laterite or other materials to a Flourite substrate; it can be used as is.
Tank Set Up:
These directions make the following assumptions about your tap water:
KH: (carbonate hardness) reading of between 3 and 8 KH. (test kit, or have the
pet store do the test for you)
Phosphate: below .5 mg/l (test kit, or water department report)
Nitrate: Below 10 mg/l (test kit or water department report)
If your tap water does not fall within these parameters, you will need to make some
modifications. Contact your pet shop for specific suggestions.
Place the tank on a stable, level surface. If there is even the slightest unevenness
in the support, the tank can develop leaks. If you have any question about the surface
that you are placing the tank on, place a couple of sheets of corrugated cardboard, or a
sheet of styrofoam under the tank. Any excess can be trimmed off close around the tank.
This is also a very good idea if you are using an open metal aquarium stand. The styrofoam
will prevent heat loss from the bottom of the tank.
Before you go any further, fill the tank with water, wait twenty minutes to test for
leaks and empty. This may seem like an annoying waste of time, because most tanks will not
leak. But believe me, if you've bought the one that does, you will be much more annoyed if
you find out about the leak after the tank is fully set up and running.
Install the thermometer, filter and heater, but don't plug anything in yet. Set your
heater to approximately 76F unless you will be using fish that specifically need warmer
(like Discus or Rams) or cooler (like Goldfish or White Clouds) water.
Rinse your gravel under running water until the water runs clean. The better you rinse
your gravel, the less cloudy the tank will be when it is first filled. Mix laterite into
damp gravel in a bucket. Use enough gravel to make an approximate 1 to 1 1/2" bed in
the bottom of the tank. Be prepared, this step is messy! You might want to wear rubber
gloves. While you want the gravel to be damp, try to avoid introducing any standing water
to the aquarium.
Note: Seachem Flourite will NOT rinse completely clear - That's OK, it is an important
property of the substrate, and if the tank is filled slowly, there will only be minimal
temporary clouding of the water.
Next cap the substrate with enough plain rinsed gravel to bring the total depth of the
substrate to 3". With a 10 gallon tank, you can get by with a gravel bed of 2 - 2
1/2". Level the front edge of the gravel carefully so that it looks neat once the
tank is filled.
If you are planning to use driftwood or any decorative rocks, they can be placed in the
The next step is to fill the tank about 3/4 full of water. The water should be between
70-80ºF. The exact temperature is not critical, but you want to be within a range that
will not harm the plants. How you fill the tank will make the difference between a tank
that will be crystal clear by morning, and one that can take a week or longer to settle
Get a shallow saucer or bowl and place it on the gravel. VERY slowly, TRICKLE the water
onto the saucer. Let it gently overflow, filling up the tank. When the saucer is
completely submerged, you can speed up the flow a little, still aiming the flow at the
plate. If this is done carefully, the water should be quite clear from the very beginning.
If you aren't careful enough, don't panic. The tank will look cloudy for a few days, but
it will eventually settle out.
When the tank is about 3/4 full, it's time to plant:
Here is a list of good sturdy beginners' plants. Those with a * are particularly good "nutrient sponges", and should be emphasized in a start-up tank:
Small Leafed Hygro*
Willow Leaf Hygro*
Fuzzy Duck Weed
All of these plants should be readily available. If your local pet shop
doesn't regularly stock them, they should be able to order them for you from their
supplier. Beware of choosing plants for your aquarium just because they look pretty. Many
pet stores sell a number of terrestrial plants as aquarium "decorations". These
WILL NOT survive long term, and as they deteriorate, they will add to the waste materials
in your tank. There are also a number of very tempting red plants for sale. While some of
these are good aquarium plants, most need very strong light, and are a little more
sensitive than the species listed above.
"Rosette" or "crown" plants are planted individually in the
substrate. Make sure that the crown itself is above the substrate surface. Only the roots
should be buried. This is also true for the thick rhizome of Anubias plants.
Stem plants are usually sold in rootless "bunches". They should be removed
from their elastic band or lead weight, and planted no more than 3 stems at a time. They
will quickly root themselves under good conditions. If they tend to float out of the
substrate in the beginning, you can place a few small stones around the base. Another
trick is to leave them floating for a week or so. Usually they will have begun to develop
roots in that period of time, and it will be much easier to keep them down.
Water Sprite can either be left floating, or planted in the substrate.
Salvinia (and several other similar small plants) are floaters. Remember that they
increase quickly, and remove most of them when you do other tank maintenance. Don't let
more than 1/3 of the water surface become covered with these plants.
Java Moss can be either left loose, or tied (or stapled) onto driftwood.
Java Fern does not usually do well with its roots in the gravel. It is best to tie or
rubber band this plant to rocks or driftwood. You can even just wedge some in between two
Any plants that come in plastic pots should be removed from the plastic
pots, (this may require cutting the pot away with scissors) and have the rockwool removed
from their roots before planting. The rockwool is used to grow the plants, and protects
the roots during shipment, but it may contain hydroponic solution which can cause algae
problems in the aquarium.
Now that the tank is fully planted, it is time to fill it to the top.
It should be filled to above the plastic "frame" and close to but
not touching the lip that holds the cover glass. This is where the water level should be
kept at all times for several reasons. If you allow the water level to drop, the water
returning from the filter will splash down onto the surface, creating a great deal of
turbulence. This will drive off the CO2 that we are trying to add to the tank.
Additionally, the greater distance that light travels through the air, the more it will
scatter, and the less that will reach your plants within the tank. On a very brightly lit
tank, this is a minor consideration. With a moderately lit tank such as we are setting up
here, we need to conserve our resources! Do not, however, go in the opposite direction and
keep the tank full enough that the water touches the glass. This would completely stop gas
exchange, which is not a good idea either!
The last thing to do is to plug in all your equipment, and see that the light
timer is set for about 12 hours on and 12 hours off. You're in business!
Wait at least 1 week, preferably 2 before adding fish to the tank.
At the two week mark, you can add algae eating fish. My favorites are
Otocinclus, which should be purchased in groups of at least 3, and Siamese Algae Eaters (Crossocheilus
siamensis). Siamese Algae Eaters are not available in all areas of the country. They
will also eventually get too large for a 10 gallon tank and will need to be traded back in
to the pet store for a new, smaller specimen. If you can't find SAE's, Bushy Nosed Cats (Ancistrus
sp.) are a reasonable alternative, as are some of the Clown Plecos. (Peckoltia
sp.) Ghost or Glass shrimp are also good algae eaters, and are interesting to watch,
but will most likely become fish food once the tank is fully populated. You'll have to
decide whether your kids (and parents!) can handle that or not. Farlowella catfish are
excellent algae eaters for larger tanks.
Do not feed your algae eating residents for another two weeks. Their job is
to eat any algae as it appears. They won't do that if you make life too easy for them.
At the end of the first month, your plants should have settled in and be
growing well. The algae eaters should be keeping up with most algae, although it is still
normal to need to clean the glass from time to time. At this point, you can start stocking
your tank with its final residents. You can also begin your regular maintenance routine.
Don't fall into the trap of overstocking the tank, either in terms of numbers
of fish or numbers of species. In a 10 gallon tank, 3-4 species is more than adequate,
while the 20-30 gallon tanks can accommodate a few more. The fish will display more
natural behaviors than if the tank is stocked with the "Ark mentality" (two of
these and two of those).
My personal preference is to stick with compatible fish from a single
geographic area. But of course, this is a matter of personal preference, and as long as
the species chosen are compatible, and occupy different areas of the tank, the fish will
not care that they come from different continents! If you want to be completely true to
your geographical theme, you can choose plants native to those areas as well.
If possible, pick one species that stays near the surface, one species that
is a mid water swimmer, and another that stays near the bottom. Make sure you buy
multiples of any schooling fish. An absolute minimum number of any schooling species is
3-5 individuals, 12 or more will allow true schooling behavior.
Steer clear of fish that are known to be scrappy unless you have an
experienced aquarist that can help you plan a community around them. There are so many
beautiful, interesting and peaceful species available that it makes no sense to set
yourself up for problems. Also avoid fish that are known plant eaters.
Once you have decided on the population mix for your tank, add them slowly.
Bring in one species the first week, another the next until the tank is fully stocked.
This will allow the good bacteria in the filter to adjust slowly to the increasing