Aquarium Fish

Beginner to Fish Keeping - Part 2: Basic Equipment and Extras

Online Aquarium Fish Magazine | Beginner to Fish Keeping - Part 2: Basic Equipment and Extras

Last month, this author discussed the beginning of the aquarist's hobby; choosing a tank size and deciding where to put it. To read this article please visit: Fishkeeping Beginner: Part 1. Having made a solid foundation on which to build a successful aquarium, we will now begin discussing the more concrete details of setting up an aquarium.

Once you have decided how big your tank is going to be, you will have to purchase the tank, as well as the equipment you will need to get the tank running. Purchasing the tank is fairly straightforward. All you have to do is buy a tank of the proper size. Unless you are getting a very large tank, you are going to want to get a glass tank. Only if your tank is going to be multiple hundreds of gallons should you have to worry about acrylic tanks. The equipment you will need for a tank is very simple. You will need some sort of filter, a heater (probably, this will be discussed later), a thermometer, and lights. Aside from a brief mention of lights, this author will spend the rest of this article discussing filtration.

Aquarium lights are probably the easiest part to cover. This author will presume that you will not begin with a heavily planted tank, so any sort of aquarium light, such as the kinds that will probably come with the tank, will be fine.

For aquarium filters, there are several different types, but before this author goes into detail on those, a few filtration concepts should be explained.

The first is mechanical filtration. This is the use of filter media to physically remove particles from the water. Mechanical filtration can take sediment, bits of floating food, and any other visible particles out of the water.

The second is chemical filtration. This is the use of filter media such as activated charcoal to remove chemicals from the water. In this author's opinion, chemical filtration is largely unnecessary, unless a particular chemical, such as medicine from a treatment, needs to be removed from the water. Still, if it is available in a filter, there is little reason not to use it, as activated charcoal isn't expensive.

The third is biological filtration. This is the most important type of filtration. Your tank may survive without physical or chemical filtration, but without biological filtration, your fish will suffocate in their own waste. Biological filtration utilizes certain water born bacteria known as nitrifying bacteria to change the ammonia in fish waste first into nitrite and then changes the nitrite into nitrate. This is necessary because ammonia is extremely toxic. Nitrite is less toxic, but is still dangerous for your fish. Nitrate, the final product of this process, is quite a bit less toxic than nitrite, and is only dangerous to your fish in large quantities. Biological filtration requires some sort of media for the nitrifying bacteria to live on. They will attach themselves to anything, so the important part is to have as much surface area as possible for the bacteria colony to live on. Many filters use a piece of sponge-like material for this, others use fancier concepts to increase surface area.

With that knowledge in mind, let's discuss the different types of filters.

The first, and probably most common, kind of filter is the Hang on Back Filter. As its name suggests, this filter hangs from the back of the tank. Most Hang on Back (or HOB) filters have all three types of filtration. This completeness is the HOB filter's greatest strength. They also take up little space in the tank. Their main downside is that they take up space on the outside of the tank.

There is a type of Internal Filter that functions the same as HOB filters, but sits within the tank rather than on the outside.

Sponge Filters sit within the tank. They are run either by an airline or a power head (which pulls water in one end and pushes it out the other). Sponge filters are very reliable, and provide excellent biological filtration, as well as a bit of mechanical filtration. They're ugly, but they can be hidden behind decorations. The only maintenance they need is a periodic swishing through a bucket of tank water to clear the excess gunk from them.

Under Gravel Filters, like sponge filters, use either an airline or a power head to pull water down through the gravel, up into pipes at the back of the tank, and out into the tank again. This type of filter pulls some detritus into the gravel, providing a bit of mechanical filtration. However, its greatest function is biological filtration. There is a lot of surface area on the gravel in an aquarium, so it provides excellent nitrification. The downside of UGFs is that areas under the gravel can become clogged with detritus, creating pockets of still, non-aerated water. The anaerobic bacteria that can grow in these spots create very toxic waste, which can kill fish quickly if it's released into the rest of the water.

Canister Filters are mostly for larger tanks, and probably not necessary for the beginner. They sit outside of the tank, usually housed in the cabinet of the tank's stand, and draw water out through a hose, returning it by another hose. Canister filters can house a wide variety of filtration media, making them very versatile.

Other filters, such as reaffirms, fluidized sand filters, and wet/dry filters are usually used for reef tanks or very large tanks, and are not necessary to discuss in a beginner's guide.

Filters are rated for a range of tank sizes. Whenever a filter lists a range, like 20-40 gallons, it is really only good for the low end of the range. In this case, the filter would only be good for a 20 gallon tank. As long as the filter doesn't produce an overwhelmingly strong current, there is no such thing as too much filtration, so a filter rated for a slightly larger tank works, too.

Heaters and Thermometers
Purchasing a heater is, in this author's opinion, quite a bit more simple than purchasing a filter. The important thing when purchasing a heater is that you want to be sure you get the proper size. The package for the heater should indicate the size of the tank that it will work in. There are two types of heaters that a beginner needs to worry about this, hang on back (HOB) heaters, and submersible heaters. In addition, there are more complicated heaters, such as in-line heaters, but those belong in more advanced setups.

HOB Heater
The advantages of the HOB heater is that it is generally less expensive than an equivalent quality submersible heater. It is also easier to get at the temperature control knob, which can also be a negative if the knob is easily turned. However, extra space must be made on the back of the tank and cut out of the hood in order to place the heater.

Submersible Heater
The submersible heater has a couple of large advantages over the HOB heater. First of all, it can be placed horizontally or at an angle, which spreads the rising column of warm water out, heating the tank more evenly. Second, it can be more easily hidden by landscaping within the tank. Its largest negative is the extra cost.

No matter which kind of heater you buy, you get what you pay for. Glass heaters are cheaper than plastic or graphite, but also can break if a panicked fish or cleaning instrument comes into contact with one. One thing you should not make any compromises on is the temperature control knob. If the knob is easily turned, it may be bumped, either dropping the temperature or raising it too high. Either way could kill your fish in a very short amount of time, especially if you have a smaller tank, which will allow the temperature to change more rapidly.

There are three different types of thermometer. A glass thermometer is a simple glass tube, and is very reliable. A liquid crystal thermometer is a strip of tape that you stick to the aquarium. The color of the crystals in the tape changes to indicate the temperature. In this author's opinion, this type of thermometer is difficult to read and not terribly accurate, making it acceptable only as a backup for a more reliable thermometer. A digital thermometer is far easier to read than either a glass or a liquid crystal thermometer. With digital thermometers, though, you get what you pay for. A cheap digital thermometer may or may not be accurate. An expensive one is reliable, but for a beginner, probably isn't necessary.

The above products are the bare necessities of a functioning tank. Some further things that you may want/need.

This is gravel or sand on the bottom of your tank. Some aquarium critters need a finer substrate so that they may dig around in it. Be sure to use substrate made specifically for aquariums. If you are using a UGF, you will need gravel, not sand.

Either real or plastic, aquarium plants provide hiding places for stressed fish, as well as make the tank more aesthetically pleasing. Real plants require care, but provide extra filtration for a tank.

This can range from a piece of driftwood to the stereotypical diver by a treasure chest. Whatever you like, it's not important, as long as what you buy has been made specifically for an aquarium. See Aquarium Aquascape for more ideas.

Oxygen enters your tank through surface area. Bubbles create more surface area, allowing more oxygen to enter the water. Often, your filter will provide enough bubbles to aerate the water. As long as there is a little space between the output of a HOB filter and the surface of the water, it should keep the water oxygenated enough. Sponge filters or UGFs run by air lines also provide aeration. If, however, you have a tall, narrow tank, you may want to provide extra oxygen by putting in an airline. The output can be as simple as a small diffuser, or it can be a decoration that is powered by air bubbles.

You now have the knowledge to purchase the basic equipment you will need for your tank. Next month, we will begin talking about setting the tank up, including the dreaded, often misunderstood, and yet very necessary Nitrogen Cycle.

About the Author
Sam Hirte-Runtsch - Started keeping fish when I inherited a tank from a friend's girlfriend. Have since purchased three other tanks, each with an entirely different setup and type of fish.

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