Following is an article I wrote for the March, 2003 issue of Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine:


March 2003 FAMA Magazine
Vol. 26 - No. 3 - Pg. 168
Site Sponsors: FAMA Magazine
Feature Article
PROPERLY MAINTAINING YOUR FRESHWATER AQUARIUM
By
Paul M. D'Angelo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul D'Angelo is 48 years old and has been a professional software developer for more than 25 years. He has been an avid freshwater aquarist since he was 16 years old. At that time, his girlfriend Linda (now his wife of almost 29 years) and Paul purchased aquariums and started what is turning out to be a life-long hobby. They purchased their pride-and-joy, a 70-gallon aquarium, in 1976 and have successfully maintained it since that time. They have had a number of other smaller aquariums, but have now settled down with their 70-gallon tank and a 55-gallon tank.

Because of its importance in Paul's life, he also has to mention that he is a semi-professional drummer and has played drums since he was nine years old. He has had several articles (helpful hints based on years of experience) published in Modern Drummer, an international magazine published for the interest of drummers, like himself.

So, you've bought your new aquarium, have it all set up, and are ready to sit back and enjoy! What a great feeling being able to maintain an environment in your own home in which fish can thrive. Ah, but don't think you're done; you're really only just beginning. The most important item with which you have to be concerned now is not only enjoying your aquarium, but maintaining your aquarium. Yes, maintenance is a most important aspect of keeping your fish healthy and keeping you happy.

I have a fair amount of hobbies, but one that I have pursued the longest, and still enjoy very much, is having freshwater aquariums. They add beauty to our living area and have provided many hours of mental relaxation by just watching the fish live in their own environment. I had a brief foray into setting up a saltwater tank, but didn't have the time or inclination to dedicate myself both to fresh and saltwater set-ups. This article will focus on the maintenance of your freshwater aquarium once you have it set up. Remember, you may only set it up once (unless you have to move it, but that's a totally different article!), but you have to maintain it as long as you have it set up.

My wife and I have determined that, over the years, we have had many fish that have been in our tanks for at least ten years. Based on that statistic, I believe I have been able to maintain a high level of success regarding the maintenance of my tanks. I currently maintain a 55-gallon tank containing Tri-Color Sharks, Clown Loaches, Silver Dollars and a variety of Plecos and Catfish. I also maintain a 70-gallon tank containing Tinfoil Barbs, Clown Loaches, Upside-down Cats, Botias, and a variety of Plecos and Catfish. I've had the 70-gallon tank set up for over 25 years and still get an extreme amount of enjoyment out of it. The tank has survived being moved either within our home or to a new home four different times. I've had my share of tragedies caused by ignorance or, for the lack of a better word, laziness on my part. To paraphrase a sign that was on display in my dentist's office years ago, "Ignore your fish and they will go away."

There are a number of extremely important items that you need to know about and follow in order to keep your freshwater tank in tip-top shape. Aquariums don't have to be hard work, but they will not maintain themselves in a healthy condition without your intervention. Of course, this being your hobby, you shouldn't mind because it turns out that your work input helps your fish live healthy lives, which in itself is a genuine reward. Being responsible for the lives of other living creatures is to be taken seriously. Of course, no matter what I say, water changes are still a pain that I have not yet learned to enjoy, even after 30-plus years of enjoying the hobby!

Let's go over the steps that I believe will help you keep your fish in a healthy environment and help you to continue to enjoy your hobby for at least as long as I've enjoyed mine.

The first and most important point in maintaining a healthy freshwater environment is regular water changes. There are a number of different products available through the pet industry that make changing water easier and easier, but you simply cannot ignore the fact that this is part of the necessary maintenance of the tank.

Do not ever change all of the water in your aquarium. A lot of novice aquarists decide that changing all of the water and completely scrubbing out the aquarium is a good idea in order to keep the tank clean. On the contrary, this will completely upset the biological balance that you are actually trying to maintain in your tank. My rule of thumb is to change approximately one-third of the water in your tank about every 10 to 14 days. Don't think you can just keep adding water to "top off" your aquarium, because removing the old water will remove build-ups of chemical waste in the water (nitrogen and ammonia build-ups immediately come to mind), which "topping off" will not do.

If you are using tap water, remember to use one of the many products that remove chlorine from the water. You may want to check with your county or region as far as how much chlorine is actually used in the water. Many water treatment plants now use something called "chloramines" (no, I'm not a chemist), but our pet stores display signs that indicate that we should use a higher dosage of chlorine removing chemical than is indicated on the label because our particular county uses a potent level of chlorine or chloramines when treating the water.

Always keep an eye on the pH level of the water in the tank. You can do this by purchasing a simple pH test kit from your local pet store. This is extremely important. When I wasn't quite as diligent about regular water changes, I lost a set of "Tinfoil Barbs" because the pH in the water was so acidic it killed the fish. I had no idea at the time why the fish died, so I took one of the dead fish and a sample of my water to a friend who, at the time, ran a chain of pet stores. He tested my water with a pH kit, and the color displayed red (very bad, very acidic). To make matters even worse, he looked at the Tinfoil Barb and told me it was one of the most beautiful specimens he had ever seen, and being a pet store owner, he had seen quite a few! You should read up on the specimens that you are keeping and find out the best pH range for your fish. Generally speaking, you should maintain the pH around 7.0 (neutral), although there are species that thrive better with the water a touch more alkaline or a touch more acidic. If you have several species that thrive in waters of different pH levels, you probably should not keep both together in the same tank. Be sure that you test the pH of the water you are using for your water changes. I'm lucky because the pH of my tap water is in a very good range. If yours is not, you may have to adjust the pH of your water before introducing it into your tank.

Properly maintain your filtration. Since I'm writing this article mainly from my own experience, I recommend filters that "hang" onto the side of the tank and utilize filter pads filled with charcoal or other some other filtration medium. There will be many who will advise using undergravel filters. I personally have never used this type of filtration; however, you may want to look into the advantages and/or disadvantages of undergravel filters. As long as you clean your substrate when you change your water (again, the pet industry has many "vacuum cleaner" types of apparatus that make this an easy proposition), an undergravel filter is not a necessary item. Depending on how much you want to spend, you really don't even have to discard the filter pads when you change them (it's easier but not necessary). I have found that by running the pads under a strong stream of water, you can remove virtually all of the aquarium grime that has built up on the pad, and use the same pad again. This also has the benefit of not altering the biological balance of your water quite as much as if you put in a fresh pad. It will also save you money!

A second element of filtration is using activated charcoal or some of the other filtration media that the pet industry offers. I have never invested in anything more involved than a high-grade activated charcoal because I've never had any problems with my water that would force me to do this. I change my charcoal about once a month. The charcoal aids in removing harmful chemicals from the water and believe me, your water will not reach the "clear as glass" effect unless you change your charcoal regularly.

Acquiring a small air pump, air-line tubing, and an airstone, will help keep your tank properly aerated and help break up surface tension on the surface of your water. This will help in dissipating any light film that may appear on the surface of your water if the surface is not "broken up" by the bubbles created by the airstone. Plus, an added advantage is that since airstones are available in a number of varying sizes, they also serve as a very nice decorative item for your aquarium.

In order to remove the build-up of algae on the inside of the glass of the tank, you can invest in one of a variety of glass cleaning utensils, but I still find the rough "sponges" to be the simplest, cheapest, and still the most effective. Remember, you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money to achieve the best results.

Be sure to have a quality heater in your tank and maintain the temperature as evenly as possible. Fish react quite badly to fluctuations in water temperature. Another one of my "negative" real life experiences perfectly illustrates this point. One night I had a friend over who spent the night in our guest room where we had a 100-gallon aquarium set up. My friend decided it was too warm in the room and, even though it was winter, opened the window overnight, causing the temperature in the room (and ultimately in the aquarium) to plummet. This severe temperature drop caused a great deal of stress in the fish, which caused a number of them to develop the dreaded disease "ick." I lost most of my fish because of this incident. The tank was heated properly, but not enough to maintain the temperature of the water based on the extreme heat loss in the air. The moral of this particular story is, don't expose your tank to areas where the temperature differs greatly from the temperature of the water in the tank.

You can help keep your tank cleaner by enlisting the help of your fish! Introduce a number of "scavengers" into your tank. Catfish, Plecos, and some other varieties will help, not by ingesting fish waste, but by "cleaning up" uneaten food that may have simply wound up on the bottom of the tank. This will not relieve you of your duties of maintaining your tank, but the scavengers can at least help rid your tank of uneaten food, which will ultimately turn into waste and more quickly modify the environmental conditions of your tank.

If you're not certain of when you last changed your water or charcoal, keep a journal. I've done this for years, noting the dates of when water and charcoal changes were done, as well as when I have acquired new fish. Look back at your journal over the years and you can ascertain how old that Tinfoil Barb really is!

Be aware of the full size that will be attained by the fish that you purchase. I've mentioned that I have Tinfoil Barbs and some other larger specimens, but I also have two fairly large tanks. Don't overcrowd your tank with too many fish and don't buy fish that will ultimately turn out to be too large for the environment in which they are placed. Be sure to ask questions when you are buying your fish in order to find out how large they will turn out to be, how many should be purchased, and what their requirements are as far as water chemistry is concerned.

Let me stress that what I have listed will not take you hours and hours of your time. If you commit to a schedule and know what to expect as far as the work is concerned, it will simply wind up being one of your scheduled chores around the house. The reward is knowing that you are supplying your fish with a healthy environment in which to live, which will help them thrive, which will help you enjoy your aquarium even more. Remember, your fish are depending on you, don't let them down!

pdrums@earthlink.net

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