Guide For Freshwater Beginners

Bruxes and Bubbles
  • #1
Hello, and welcome to the wonderful hobby of fish-keeping! This post will go over many questions beginners have, the issues they may have in the beginning, and all the general topics related to fish-keeping.

We will start from the very beginning and work our way to the end result - a great fish tank, a satisfied owner, and happy, thriving fish!

Let's start with the first obstacle.

"How big of a tank am I going to need?"

I think many of us been here as beginners. We get a small tank and throw some fish in. Some live, some don't. It's a continual cycle of buying, dying, crying. This is what we want to avoid!

If you have your heart set on a specific fish, then feel free to start a topic on this forum and ask what tank size it needs! We love to help!

Generally speaking, if you want a standard tropical community, a 20 long or a 29 gallon are great places to start. They provide water stability, space, and stocking options that smaller tanks do not provide. Here's an idea of some common fish and invertebrates you may be able to have in such a tank:

Cherry barbs
Dwarf gouramis
Honey gouramis
Neon tetras
Glowlight tetras
Cardinal tetras
Skirt tetras
White Cloud Mountain minnows
Rosy red minnows
Bristlenose pleco (best suited for the 29 gallon unless it's a smaller variety like the blue eyed bristlenose or the super red bristlenose)
Clown pleco
Certain Corydoras species
Betta splendens

Ghost shrimp
Neo shrimp
Rabbit snails
Mystery snails
Nerite snails
Ramshorn snails
Malaysian trumpeter snails
Pond/bladder snails

Now, you cannot go throwing these fish all crazy into a tank. This is just a small sample list of what common pet store fish you may be able to get. Only certain ones can go together, which is why we have this forum. Just ask. If you want a breeding colony of neo shrimp, for instance, you probably do not want to have any fish with them. Or if you have an aggressive betta, you probably do not want any fish with him or her!

Before we go into anything else, let's go through some common fish to avoid unless you are starting with a pond or a huge tank!

- "Feeder goldfish":
These are one of the worst first fish to start with. These fish are the cheap, 12 cent goldfish most people throw in a bowl. Little do they know that this fish has the potential to grow into a 12+ inch behemoth that can live for decades. It's the equivalent of throwing a Great Dane puppy in a tiny crate and expecting it not to grow and for it to live and be happy at the same time. Not going to happen.
"Feeder goldfish" only belong in gigantic tanks (4ft. x 2ft. x 2ft. at the minimum) or ponds of at least the same size. Think of them as minI koi. And while we are on the subject of koi...

- Koi:
Do you think a 2+ foot long behemoth belongs in a tank? Neither do I. Huge pond only please!

- Bala Sharks:
These are social fish that also grow gigantic.

- Common plecostomus:
Giant waste makers (nope, they don't eat the other fish's poop and are not great cleaners either!) and can grow to a whopping 2 feet long! Avoid at all costs!

- Oscars:
Another monster. They grow to a whopping 12-14+ inches and need a very large tank.

Before you get the tank, ask on the stocking forum for suggestions! Say fish you like. They will tell you what can go together, what cannot, and what tank size you'd need for all of it!

Aquarium Stocking Questions

Now for the dechlorinator! This gets rid of chlorine and chloramine in the water to make it safe for your fish. There are many brands.

I prefer Prime by Seachem, but there are many good brands!

Now we go onto substrate!
Substrate is the stuff you put at the bottom of the tank. Sand, gravel, bare bottom, planted substrates, you name it! But which is best? Which should you get?

If you want a fully planted tank, ideally go with a planted tank substrate or sand. I find these two work better than pea gravel.

If you don't care, it's just a matter of aesthetics or how easy is it to keep clean. Bare bottom is easiest to clean, obviously. Sand comes second. Gravel comes third.

Bare bottom has no substrate to suck up and no grooves for poop and food to get stuck in.

With sand, waste and food sit on top. Easy to clean.

You will have to get a gravel vacuum to properly clean gravel.

With sand, there are also cost effective options. Play sand, pool filter sand, and black diamond blasting sand are economical options. All need to be rinsed off well, but you can get a 50 pound bag of any of these for between $4 and $8.

Have you chosen your substrate yet? Great! Let's go on to the next purchase - a heater!

Whether or not you use a heater depends on what temperature your fish need. Once you figure that out, you can buy a heater or not get one. I've used topfin and aqueon heaters without issue, but there are many, many brands! The best heaters are ideally adjustable.

And now for one of the most important pieces of equipment - the filter.

Canisters, hang on backs, sumps, sponge filters?! Which to choose?!

The most popular tend to be canisters and hang on back filters (HOBs). Sponge filters are great if you have a tank where you need little to no flow (such as a tank with a betta that has huge fins). But they can be bulky in bigger tanks.
Sumps are mostly used for saltwater, but can be used in freshwater.

But for ease purposes, let's stick with canisters and HOBs.

Canisters are generally very quiet, have a ton of media space, but are more expensive. Totally worth it if you have a 40+ gallon, but under that, while they are nice, they are not necessary.

HOBs are arguably the most used filter by most hobbyists. They're cheap, they're easy, and they're easy to find. Here are two good brands that I have personally used:

Aquaclear - A favorite of many people. They have many media options, and look quite pretty. You can adjust the flow. They are a more expensive filter compared to the one I will list next, and they don't prime themselves, but they are great filters and many people love them.

Aqueon Quietflow - My personal favorite filter. They run like a horse, they auto prime, and you can easily clean them. 5/7 of my tanks have Aqueon Quietflow HOBs on them.
They have less space for alternate media, but I don't mind this. I just use sponge, the cartridges, and poly floss.

Now, if you go into HOBs, remember, don't change out the cartridges like the manufacturer says! If you do you kill the bacteria that keeps your tank healthy! Which brings us to our next topic - cycling your tank!

Bacteria. When we think of bacteria, we think of gross stuff, right? Well, the bacteria that grows in your filter is good. It keeps your tank water from getting toxic, and keeps your fish healthy. To put the nitrogen cycle in basics, this is how it works.

Fish poops, food decays, plant dies >> ammonia is created >> bacteria consume ammonia and turn it into nitrites >> bacteria consume nitrites and turn it into nitrates >> nitrates are removed when you do water changes and by plants.

So, we need to grow two types of bacteria in your filter! The ones that eat the ammonia, and the ones that eat the nitrites. Without these bacteria, your fish are not safe. Ammonia is dangerous. You never want it above 0 parts per million (ppm). Same for nitrites - you do not want it over 0ppm. Nitrates are arguably safe up to 40ppm, but are safest under 20ppm. So how do we grow these bacteria without harming the fish?

The easiest way is to buy ammonia with no scents or anything like that (a good way to tell is by shaking the bottle. If it foams, it's not good). Ace hardware sells a good janitorial ammonia that is safe to use.

Here is a great post on how to cycle!
Ammonia instructions for a fishless cycle

Fishless cycling takes around a month. It it much less labor intensive than fish-in cycling. If at all possible, do a fishless cycle.

And once you are cycled, you know what that means? Fish!

Do not stop dosing ammonia until they day you get your fish or the bacteria will starve. The day you get your fish, do a 100% water change before putting the fish in. Which brings us to acclimation!

There are two main types of acclimation. Temperature acclimation, and drip acclimation.

Temperature acclimation is generally appropriate for fish stores very close to you. However, if the water from the fish store varies from yours (test first!) then drip acclimation if it varies a lot or just add a bit of tank water every so often to the bag if it's not very different. Don't pour any of the fish store water into your tank.

Now all you have to do it upkeep! Generally speaking a 50% water change a week is enough for a tank (can be split up between days), but test your water to see if it can be less or it needs to be more!

Before we finish, I'll go over some easy beginner plants for you to try! These work with even kit leds!

Java fern
Marimo moss balls
Some bucephalandra

And here's a guide to little "bugs" you may see your tank!
Invertebrate Identification Key - Aka What The Heck Is In My Tank?!

Enjoy your tank!

If this is enjoyed, I may make a followup with some other information such as how to set up a basic planted tank, breeding and raising livebearers, and more stuff like that! Let me know if you like it!

Did I miss anything? Let me know!

  • #2

Bruxes and Bubbles
  • Thread Starter
  • #3
  • #4
Great article B! Very informative and well thought out.
Bruxes and Bubbles
  • Thread Starter
  • #5
Great article B! Very informative and well thought out.

Thank you!

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