Starting Fish Keeping - List Of What You Need To Own And To Know

  • #1
This is an e-mail I wrote to a friend who wants to start in the fish keeping hobby. I'd like it to be re-used as a reference for other beginners. I've made it as fool proof and complete as I could so he just needed to follow the instructions.

Note: The brands I recommend are sometimes European.

Here's part I of the e-mail:

  • tank: buy the biggest one you can afford. you'll have way less maintenance because the water will get dirty way less quick, and the fish won't be so prone to sickness. only accomplished fish keepers should have smaller aquariums, but again, that's a commonly unknown thing. there's a lot of these in the fish-keeping world. I personally really like the Ferplast Cayman aquariums, but they're not on show often so you would need to order it. What I like about them is that they have hinged tops, so you don't need to lift the whole canopy every time you want to reach the water. If I were you, I'd go for 100 or 150L or so.
  • bucket: a 10L bucket for water changes. Needs to be dedicated to your fish stuff as the slightest contact with detergent might kill the fish.
  • dedicated basin: for any cleaning work and for rinsing the new gravel. You'll need to dedicate this to fish use to make sure it never comes into contact with soap.
  • dedicated coliander: for rinsing the new gravel. You'll need to dedicate this to fish use to make sure it never comes into contact with soap.
  • watering can: a 10L watering can. to pour water back in after water changes. the fish love it as they think it's raining. it triggers a lot of species to mate too!
  • gravel vacuum: really cheap stuff. it's basically a hose with a funnel end. you create a vacuum in it and it sucks up the dirt off your vaccuum
  • hose: just ask for a green Eheim hose and they'll know what you mean. Just get 1m or something. It's just a rubber hose but it's aquarium-safe (a lot of rubber-made products release toxins into the water, so that's why you need aquarium-safe stuff). It helps when you want a more powerful vacuum force to clean up stuff.
  • water conditionner: (to dechlorinate your tap water before you put it in the tank when you refresh the water). I recommend Easy Life Liquid Filter. It's also got stuff that promote the fish' immune system, that reduce stress, that stimulates the fish slimecoat, etc. It's got a lot of pluses, basically and again, that will prevent disease.
  • vitamins: Seachem Garlic Guard is really good stuff but not commonly available. Fish often get problems because of vitamin defficiencies, and I dip all my fish food in it to make sure I can prevent that. It's got added vitamins. It also has a strong taste of garlic for which the fish go mental. So if you have picky eaters, that stuff really helps too. If you don't find the Seachem stuff, Sera does some liquid vitamins too. And Vitachem is also excellent, but again, difficult to find in Holland.
  • Food: It depends on the fish you get, of course, but Aquatic Nature stuff is really good.
  • heater: I recommend an Aquatic Nature one. They're the only ones I know that show the temperature digital, and that are completely accurate. Also, that means you don't need a thermometer. It's included.
  • filter: I'd buy an Eheim ECCO or Professional. They're external filters. They're really good because they're extremely quiet, you can get replacement parts 40 years from now, and they have a 3 year guarantee which you're likely never to need as they're so sturdy. I'd get rid of whatever filter comes with the aquarium because they'll be rubbish. I'd also buy a small internal filter (I recommend using the AquaEl brand). The filter will come with an outlet wand wiht lots of holes. Place that one close to the surface of the water, and place the holes so that they are blowing water parallel to the surface. This will increase surface agitation which is great to oxygenate your water.
  • substrate: I'd buy dark substrate. It relaxes the fish, and renders their colour and the plants' colour way more striking. The kind of substrate you get depends on the fish. Bottom dwelling fish can't have sharp-edged substrate or it will cut off their barbels. So in general, smaller, rounder substrate is better (with the exception of betta fish who will eat it and die, doh!). When you start with live plants, you'll need at least 3 to 4 cm of fine gravel for them to be able to root properly.
  • plants: I'd start with fake plants and take it from there. Go live when you feel more confident. It's a waste of money to go live at the beginning.
  • algae scraper: I like Mag Float because, well, it floats! So if you drop it, it won't hurt the fish. It's really not that critical, but if you come across them, they're handy.
  • veggie clips: most fish love a cucumber slice in their tank. They'll gorge themselves on the stuff. The veggie clips are basically a plastic clip with a suction cup to attach them to the tank walls.
  • decorations: I'd get a couple of caves or fake hollow logs to make sure the fish have some place to hide and relax. Again, this goes a long way in disease prevention as stress really affects fish quickly. For some reason, they really like a hamster maze. So that is a really cheap way to give them the stimulation and diversity they need.
  • air pump: get Eheim 100 or 200. They're the most silent and robust. You need an airpump to add oxygen to the water. Also, bubbles are pretty! The Eheim pumps are about 8 cm or so, so you can hide them easily.
  • air hose: you'll need to buy 3 meters or so of air hose to transfer the air from the pump to the tank. Buy the transparent stuff as it's less of an eye sore. The 3 meters is so you have some spare.
  • air hose clips: Get the transparent ones as they're less obvious to the eye. You use them to guide the airhose to wherever you want in the tank. You just pass the air hose through them, and attach their suction cup to the tank wall and bury them under the gravel.
  • 3-way air valve: instead of having 3 airpumps (which is really loud), you can just split the air hose into several paths. It's better to have oxygen in two different ends of the tank to make sure it's plenty oxygenated. If you do that, you're better off buying the Eheim 200 pump, though, as it's powerful enough to support the multi-way valve. The valve itself is really just a couple of euros' worth of plastic. Nothing high-tech.
  • anti-return valve: it's again one euro or so. It's just a bit of plastic that prevents water from running from your tank back up into your air pump.
  • furniture: We just use Ikea cupboards, but it's not the best idea as an aquarium is really heavy. The problem with aquarium furniture is that it's so ugly. So anyways, all am saying is just be very mindful of the weight of a water-filled aquarium in your choice of furniture for your tank. And also, get something with drawers and shelves so you can keep all your fish-related bits and bobs in one place and not drive your wife crazy.
  • air wand: That's the end of your airpump. The flexI wands are excellent. the problem with airstones is that the area with bubbles is too limited. the problem with air wands normally is that they only release bubbles from the end closest to the incoming hose. the flexI wands are well, obviously, flexible, which is already a great advantage in aquascaping, but they also release air throughout the wand, and not just at the beginning.
  • multi-plug socket: seems silly, but just make sure you have one handy before you buy your tank. We've always running out of plug sockets because of all the gadgets we buy our fish. But seriously, though, with your two filter, air pump, heater and light you already need about 5 sockets.
  • medication: as a preventative measure, buy eSHa 2000and Exit. eSHa 2000 is great because of its extremely broad spectrum. I believe it treats both gram-negative and gram-positive bacterial infections, so you don't need to be a fish diagnosis expert to treat your fish. It's really cheap and really effective and very good to have handy. Exit treats what's called ich. Ich is the commonest disease and very easily cured but fatal if not treated.
  • water testing kit: I'd get the Seratest kit. If you buy them separately, I'd get test kits for ammonia, nitrate, nitrite and pH. You don't really need to use it often, but if you see a problem with one of your fish, those are the first thing to watch as potential causes. I wouldn't buy the paper strip tests as they're reknown for being completely unreliable.
  • hospital tank: I'd buy a small (25L) tank to be able to isolate sick fish. This is super important to allow you to medicate that fish only, and to prevent contamination. You can just store it away from view when you don't use it. I recommend the Aqua 40. It's cheap and on sale everywhere. It's a 25L tank. That tank will also require a small heater (if you don't get Aquatic Nature, then you'll also need a small thermometer), substrate, a fake plant, a small cave (super important for sick fish to be able to hide), an airstone/pump/hose and a small filter.
  • 4 clothes pegs: yes, clothes pegs. It's handy when you acclimate new fish.
  • fish bags: ask the shop for a couple of fish transport bag for free. This will come in handy if you ever need to return one.
  • transparent measuring jug: really handy. Again, needs to be used for fish only and not washed with washing up liquid or any kind of detergent.
  • fish net: you'll need to buy the right size for whatever fish you have. This may mean a couple of different fish nets. Make sure they're fine-meshed as the lesser quality ones have such big holes that the fish spines or scales can get stuck.
  • turkey baster: Just a really cheap piece of cooking equipment (nor more than a euro or dollar) that can work wonders to start a syphon and pick up left-over food or other small objects.
  • Wooden spoon: Again, needs to be used for the fish only, and to never touch washing up liquid. You just use it to mix the conditionner and the water in the watering can. This is important, or your fish' gills will be irritated by the chrorine and chloramine in the tap water and that can lead to gill diseases in the long run.
  • clove oil: If you ever need to euthanase a fish, the most humane way is to use clove oil and vodka or another white alcohol. If you need to do it, talk to me and I'll tell you how. Whatever you do, please do not flush them as that's really cruel. The other way would be to quickly decapitate them, but that's often quite upsetting for the owner and very stressful for the dying fish.
  • vodka (or other white alcohol): for euthanasia (please see specific instructions for dosage)
  • ammonia: try to find 100% pure ammonia (to start your fishless cycle)
  • Fishstore advice: always double-check on anything the fish store advises you on, even good ones. they are experts in the short-term care of fish, and often know less about long-term. So they'll tell you it's OK to house female bettas together, etc. because they do it in the short-term. But basically always check. A lot of the time their advice is great, but at other times it's outrageously incorrect.
  • I when you buy a fish, always ask for its adult size and exact species name. That way, you can double-check the care required for that fish. It's better to do some research on fish compatibility and pH requirements before you buy them. Some fish should never be housed together.
  • Impulse purchases: don't impulse-buy a fish if you can resist it at all. First check the fish' requirements on the internet, and then take the decision.
  • Access to knowledge: become a member of a fish forum. Fishlore is excellent, quick and friendly (am moderator on there, so am biased) but US-based so there's a time difference and the recommended products are often not to be found in Europe. Practical Fishkeeping is UK-based and excellent. It's quite scientific-minded. You will have questions and specific situations for which you'll need access to a high number of other hobbyists, so the forum system really works if you need advice. But there's always good ole me of course.
  • How many fish can I have? the rule of thumb about stocking your tank is about 2.5cm of fish per 4L (basically 1 inch per US Gallon). This varies depending on the fish' body shape. 'fatter' fish require more liters comparatively than more slender fish. I'd always understock to avoid disease caused by excess organic waste and stress.
  • Filling the new tank: First off, thoroughly rinse the substrate with a coliander and basin. Again, use a basin and coliander that will be dedicated for fish stuff, and that will never come into contact with soap. You'll have to rinse the substrate again and again until the water runs clear. Then you can place your substrate in the tank. Then condition some water with conditionner, and put a plate on your substrate. When you pour the water in, aI'm for the plate. That way, your water won't go as cloudy.
  • Quarantaine: Quarantaine any new fish for 3 weeks or so. You can use your hospital tank to do that. That way, if there's a problem, you're not contaminating the whole tank.
  • Unwanted fish: You can return fish to a store. They won't always give you your money back, but I mean you always have that solution in case you bought a fish that is hopelessly incompatible with your set-up. It's just something to bear in mind.
  • fish acclimation: never just put your fish from the store bag into the tank. They need to get used to your water's pH, temperature and nitrate levels first. To do so, you can do what's called drip acclimation. What you do is float the open bag (open the bag as soon as you get home or they might be asphyxiated) in the tank. Empty a lot of the bag's water first (not into your tank). Attach the bag to the side of the tank with a couple of clothes pegs. Fill your transparent measuring jug with tank water and place it above the water surface (so you can use gravity). Make a knot in some spare airhose, and attach one end deep in the jug (with a clothes peg). Suck on the hose to create a vacuum until it's totally filled with water from the jug. Then attach the other end above the open fish bag so that it drips water into it. If the drip rate is too slow, just add a couple more knotted hoses to yoru system (the fish can't stay in the bag too long as it's quite stressful). Once 20 minutes or so have passed and over 1/2 the bag water is made of tank water, catch the fish with a net and put him in the tank. You might need to cut loose the edges on the top end of the bag for better reach. It's important that you don't let water from the shop touch your aquarium water, as fish stores can be a breeding ground for diseases.
  • Soap: Dont' ever let the fish, or anything in the tank, touch any detergent of any kind. Soap is highly toxic to fish. A lot of people have lost fish because they cleaned their aquarium decorations with soap.

And here's part 2.


Livebearers: Kids LOVE livebearers (e.g. guppies, mollies, platys). Mickey mouse platys are a particular hit: they have the shape of a mickey mouse head on their tail.

Livebearers have babies nearly every month, which is great for kids to watch. I either let the parents eat the babies, or I put them in a grow-out tank and give them to shop after a few weeks.

With livebearers, always get one male to several females, or there'll be infighting and sexual harassment.

Also, these fish are reasonably hardy, come in a lot of colours, are really inquisitive and interactive with their owner.

They live to about 5 years.

Algae eaters: I'd get one algae eater. Don't get fooled by the 'fancy plecos' (plecos = large sucker mouth catfish), most of which are not good algae eaters, although the shops will swear that they are. The fancy types are beautiful, but carnivorours. Their mouth is so-shaped so they can hold on to wooden surfaces in high current, and so they can scrape tiny worms off wood.

These two plecos are supposed to be good algae eaters though: the common pleco and the bristlenose pleco. The common pleco gets to 2 feet, so I would not recommend it for the smaller tank owners. I'd get a bristlenose pleco if you want a medium-sized algae eater (they reach about 12cm).

If you want small algae eaters, get some otocinclus catfish. They're about 1.5cm each (less than an inch). You'd need to get a school of 6 or so or they're miserable.

Bettas: Bettas are best kept on their own to avoid aggression problems. They're very pretty, and very intelligent and interactive wtih their human, but can be very aggressive to other fish. Even the females (no matter what the store tells you). Bettas each have their own personality, and it's fun to own a few to really notice the differences in character. In my opinion, they require a 10G to really thrive (about 40 liters).

So a betta is nice if you want a small tank with a lone fish. The females are generally more intelligent and interactive in my experience, but less pretty, lacking the males' long flowing fins.

Goldfish: Goldfish also have great personalities and have excellent memories. You can train them to do tricks (check out

Buuuuut they have huge volume requirements, and I get heartbroken every time I see one in a little bowl. They require 80L (20G) for the first fish, and another 40L (10G) per additional fish after that, so we're talking 160L (40G) for just 3 goldfish.

Goldfish are not best suited for a mixed aquarium (they need cooler water than most pet fish, and they're slow and long-finned so potential victims to fin nippers). They need water between 10 and 21 degrees C.

Goldfish are extremely hardy - which has been their downfall as people housed them in increasingly small containers.

Some goldfish can live up to 30 years and reach 3kg if allowed to live in proper conditions.

The original bunch: If you want more original fish, there's the upside down catfish, the glass catfish, the butterfly loach (aka hillstream loach), dwarf puffers, kuhlI loaches, shrimps, fancy plecos (watch for adult size), african dwarf frogs, zebra snails, etc.

NITROGEN CYCLE: why the first month in your new tank is critical

An established aquarium has bacteria which transform fish waste in less toxic form. These take up to 6 weeks to be established, and before that, the waste is produced by fish in the form of ammonia first, then nitrite, both being highly toxic to fish. This explains why a lot of newbies just give up the hobby after a huge death toll in the first few weeks.

To avoid these casualties: start without fish and add fish gradually. To cycle fishless; add fish food every day for 6 weeks (although there are no fish). You can also use pure ammonia. Test the water for ammonia/nitrite/nitrate after 6 weeks and if nitrite and ammonia are zero, do a huge water change and vacuum half the gravel, also rinse your filter media. Keep feeding your fishless tank daily. A week later, do another huge water change and vacuum the other half of the gravel. Do another nitrate/nitrite/ammonia test. If ammonia and nitrite = 0, and nitrate are no more than 15 or 20, add your first couple of fish. Wait another week to add another couple until you're fully stocked (remember: fully stocked = roughly 1 inch of fish per gallon of water).


All you need to do is change about 25% of the water weekly. You'll be emptying the water by using a gravel vaccuum (which gets rid of dirty in the gravel). When you gravel vac, try to do only 1/2 the surface of the gravel per week. That way, you're not disturbing the entire bacterial bed. It's very important that you gravel vac weekly so the gravel is disturbed regularly. This prevents toxic air pockets from forming (from concentrated waste). These toxic air pockets, if allowed to form, can act as a 'nitrate landmine' in your tank and kill the unlucky fish who dug it up.

Once a month or so, rinse your filter pads from excess dirt. Do so in a bucket with water you've just emptied from the tank, not in fresh tap water. This is to prevent the good bacteria in your filter pad from getting into contact with chrlorine/chloramine in your tap water.


Imagine the volume of a fish' eye: generally speaking, that's roughly the size of their stomach and therefore a recommended size for a meal's worth (per individual fish).

So really, you need only minute amounts per fish. It's surprising in the first few weeks, as you think you're starving your fish, but really, they hardly need any food at all. You would know if a fish was underfed because it would look unusually thin. As long as their stomachs are neither bulging, nor sunken, you should be OK. You can in fact hurt them by overfeeding both by polluting the tank, and because they don't always know when to stop and can make themselves seriously ill from overeating.

They prefer several small feedings to one large one.

Try to vary what you feed them as much as possible.

Try to use vitamins or Garlic Guard supplements to dip the food in. Vitamin defficiency is a cause of many problems in pet fish.

Handy food sources to have at home are: cucumbers, flake food, sinking food, frozen bloodworms, frozen mosquito larvae, vitaminated food (Ocean Nutrition does a really good range of vitaminated food in various forms).
  • #2
The watering pot is a really cool idea, I pour my bucket in and make a big crater in my gravel, not so neat. When you say hamster maze do you mean the color semI transparent tubes?
  • #3
The one most useful item I ever had for my aquarium...... a 99cent turkey baster. you can use it to start a siphon, pick up leftovers, get livebearer fry, fill HOb filters, the list goes on and on
  • #4
armadillo, That great! think you have set the record for the longest post on FishLore!
Is it ok to print off? or have you taken out a copy right? is it coming out in paperback soon?.... sorry, in one of them moods.. great job and I can see a lot of people using it.
  • Thread Starter
  • #5
Thanks, Trio. The added bonus of the watering can is that it tricks fish into thinking it's raining which 1/ tends to relax them; 2/ increases the water/air exchanges; 3/ can trigger some species into breeding mode (worked for my otos at least)!

Yes, I mean these (see picture).

The watering pot is a really cool idea, I pour my bucket in and make a big crater in my gravel, not so neat. When you say hamster maze do you mean the color semI transparent tubes?

Ooooh, I'll add that on! Thanks for the suggestion. I also have a turkey baster, but I have to say I don't use it so much.
The one most useful item I ever had for my aquarium...... a 99cent turkey baster. you can use it to start a siphon, pick up leftovers, get livebearer fry, fill HOb filters, the list goes on and on

he he he. Brieviety (and spelling!) is not one of my great qualities, LOL. It does warn the reader that it's very thorough!
armadillo, That great! think you have set the record for the longest post on FishLore!
Is it ok to print off? or have you taken out a copy right? is it coming out in paperback soon?.... sorry, in one of them moods.. great job and I can see a lot of people using it.
  • #6

Wow! So, do you think My Bettas would enjoy a Hamster maze???? That is a really cool idea...

  • #7
I've found that most of our betta love hamster tubing. Not all of them, but most love the floating pieces that we have.
  • #8

I won't bother. I prefer more natural stuff - like plants. Maybe a plant maze? You've got me going now!

  • #9

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