First shopping list – the details

Following on from the first shopping list, here are the explanations for why the items on the first shopping list are needed and what to look out for.

  • Aquarium

    The best aquaria for beginners are long, rectangular ones as most beginners do not know which way the hobby will take them and these are the tanks which give the most stocking options. It is best to go for at least a 90×30×30 cm (3×1×1 ft) tank as anything shorter will restrict you even on many of the “popular” fish. 60×30×30 cm (2×1×1 ft) is the absolute smallest that I can recommend to any beginner as setups smaller than that will not tolerate mistakes. Taller aquaria will not allow you to keep any larger fish, nor (really) any more fish, but the extra water will result in more stable parameters. Tank height does matter for some fish, such as Pterophyllum spp. (angels) and Symphysodon spp. (discus), but they should have quite large tanks anyway (for most species starting from 150×60×60 cm (5×2×2 ft)), so are usually not kept by beginners. Tank width/depth (the front to back measurement) does not matter too much for tanks tanks under 120 cm (4 ft) as they are too small to keep any fish that are large enough to have trouble turning around in a standard 30 cm (1 ft) wide tank. Odd shaped tanks and ones with low surface areas should generally be avoided if one does not want an extra level of difficulty and more stocking restrictions, this includes cubes, hexagonal prisms, “picture frames”, bowls and tanks with artificially reduces areas such as the Fluval Edge.

  • Filter

    Usually, the filters that come with the aquarium kits are fine, but if you do not have one, then I recommend external filters. I prefer to use Fluval internal filters or Eheim external filters. If the filter has activated carbon inside it, then the activated carbon should be removed and replaced with a media that does not affect the water while providing a high surface area for bacteria, such as porous ceramic media or sponges.

  • Test kits for ammonia, nitrite, GH and KH (water hardness), nitrate and pH

    It is only worth spending one’s money on liquid test kits, or maybe digital ones, but the strips are usually very inaccurate and can give false positives and, more worryingly, false negatives.

  • Dechlorinator

    Your first dechlorinator should be one that claims to “deal” or “neutralise” chlorine, chloramine, ammonia and nitrite. These are usually about the same price as ones which only work on chlorine and chloramine and add an extra level of protection because one of the by-products of chloramine removal is ammonia, so if your water supply has chloramine, as many in Europe do, then using a more traditional dechlorinator would leave the new water with ammonia in it, which would make the water changes during cycling redundant. Also, tap water can contain both ammonia and nitrite, both of which are harmful to fish.

  • Household ammonia

    Any household ammonia that does not contain anything other than water will do. Apparently the test to see if it contains other things is to shake up the bottle and see if it produces foam: if it does not, then it is what you want, but if it does, then it contains other constituents. I have never tried this method as I have never seen ammonia that contains other cleaning agents or perfumes in it. In the UK it is possible to buy ammonia from Boots, in the USA from Ace Hardware and in Germany from eBay.

  • Tubing for water changes

    Anything that is clean will work, starting from filter tubing all the way to garden hoses. If you plan to refill the tank straight from the tap, then it is worth getting a short length of tubing and a longer one or a python system.

  • Bucket

    Useful for lugging around water and for acclimatising fish. The bucket needs to be a new one and must never be used for anything other than fishkeeping to avoid contamination and poisoning the fish.

  • Thermometer

    Alcohol and digital thermometers are the most accurate. Avoid liquid crystal thermometers as they measure the temperature of the room and glass, not the water.

  • Heater

    Almost any heater is fine, I prefer to use NeWatt heaters because they are ceramic, so are more difficult to break and are less likely to fail than a glass heater. A good heater should last you a very long time (my oldest working heater is probably around 15 years old), while a bad (normally cheap) heater can break very quickly (most of the “cheap” heaters that I have had have failed in under 5 years). If you use a glass heater, make sure you have a heater guard for it: this is a plastic cage that goes around the glass, preventing the fish from touching the hot heater and burning themselves. A heater guard will also reduce the risk of you or a large fish smashing the heater. As a very general rule of thumb, one should have approximately 1 watt of heater per litre in a well heated house. So for our 90×30×30 cm (3×1×1 ft) example tank, which is approximately 80 litres in volume, we need an 80 watt heater. Since most heaters come in 75 or 100 watts, I would chose the 75 watt heater if I knew that the room was always warm, or the 100 watt heater if I could not be sure that the room is always heated. Another option would be 2× 50 watt heaters.

  • Substrate

    Research the substrates and go for your final choice right from the start. I recommend sand from a garden centre because it is usually no different from aquarium sand, but is considerably cheaper, and allows for a much wider selection of stock.

  • Plain background

    I prefer black, but dark blue also works well. White is more difficult to pull off, and the printed backgrounds usually look just tacky. At the very least, a background will hide the equipment cables, and it can even make fish more bold.

Next time, I will be writing a post-cycle shopping list.

Test kits (part 2)

Since writing about test kits, I have been paying a bit more attention to where people go wrong and I have slightly revised my recommendations on the importance of various kits for beginners.

  1. Ammonia and nitrite

    Ammonia and nitrite are still top of the list because ammonia is harmful to fish and nitrite causes haemoglobin to convert to methaemoglobin, which effectively suffocates fish as they are no longer able to absorb oxygen.

  2. Water hardness

    GH and KH are general hardness and carbonate hardness respectively. Both types of hardness are measured in (German) degrees, where 1° is 17.848 ppm. 1 ppm of hardness is equivalent to 1 mg/l (and also one American degree, but this should not be used as ppm or mg/l are simple enough and considerably more common). Water hardness comes second because fast changes in water hardness are quite likely to harm or kill fish and this is something that many people are not aware of. One can avoid these changes by always drip acclimatising, especially if one is not able to measure them.

  3. pH and nitrate

    While nitrate in itself is unlikely to be lethal to fish in the concentrations that are most often seen in aquaria (up to 500 ppm), there is scientific research to back up the popular consensus that it is best to keep nitrate as close to 0 ppm as possible because it will harm the fish (for example, it will result in stunted growth). Nitrates will rarely rise above 50 ppm in a well maintained aquarium even if they are not monitored as they will normally be used up by plants and removed through water changes. pH is important, but not as much as as water hardness because a difference in water hardness will indicate that there is a difference in pH, but the KH also indicates how stable the pH is.

Most “master” test kits do not include the water hardness kits, so it is best to double check what you are getting if you buy a set. I am still working through the kits that I used for the 60 litre aquarium, even though I have been using them for all of my aquaria, so they really are not all that expensive at around £30 for the set and well worth the money to save beginners a lot of headaches.

Test results and maintenance update

Almost two weeks ago, on Friday when I collected the loaches, I did a 20 litre water change on the tank because I wanted to acclimatise the loaches directly to the water they would have in the end, so I used the water from the 60 litre for the quarantine tank. The test results for the water from the 60 litre before the water change were (on day 113):

  • KH: 7 ° (125 ppm)
  • GH: 19 ° (339 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 20 ppm
  • pH: 7.8

And today (day 124):

  • KH: 8 ° (143 ppm)
  • GH: 18 ° (321 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 20 ppm
  • pH: 7.8

The temperature has been steady at 20 °C, which is perfect for these fish and fits in with the recommendation of the breeder from whom I bought them.

Following these tests, I performed an 8 litre water change (with the old water going into the quarantine aquarium that contains the loaches) and finished off by wiping the glass on the outside.

Current maintenance schedule consists of cleaning the glass and pruning the plants once per week. While normally I would recommend weekly water changes to beginners, in a well balanced aquarium such as this (which is lightly stocked and is planted enough that individual plants can not be counted) which does not contain young fish and where the fish are not overfed, the water changes are not as important because the plants can maintain the water quality. For the moment, I do water changes when I feel that they are needed or need water for the unplanted quarantine aquarium.

Daily tests: day 48 – 57 and adding wood

Test tubes waiting to be washed

I’m planning to do a large water change tonight, in preparation for the fish, and I would also like some clear readings for the record, so I know how much the wood will affect the water after it is added. This morning, the readings were:

  • KH: 9.5 ° (170 ppm)
  • GH: 21 (376 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 80 – 160 ppm
  • pH: 8.2

I expect KH, GH and nitrate to drop after the water change because my tap water readings are lower.

Unfortunately, the diatoms are still there and getting worse, so hopefully, the water change will help improve the situation. I also have a Malawi aquarium, which, for those of you who do not know, is a Lake Malawi simulation, with a lot of rockwork and no plants because the fish which live in the lake naturally graze on algae and have a habit of mistaking plants for algae, which means that most plants would not survive for long. In this rocky and plant-free environment, I also often see diatoms, and as is currently the case with this aquarium, the Malawi setup also has high nitrates, so I assume, given that the general hardness is the only other common factor between the two aquariums, that the nitrate is responsible. I have also noted the appearance of cyanobacteria, an algae-like bacteria, today. I hope this is also related to the high nitrate levels.

I performed a clean of the aquarium, including glass and filter, and changed 36 litres of water, which was approximately 80%. The water readings after the maintenance were:

  • KH: 10.5 ° (188 ppm)
  • GH: 18 (322 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0.25 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 10 – 30 ppm
  • pH: 7.8

The results indicate that my tap water has changed since I took the original readings: my tap water pH has dropped, while the KH has risen.

I also added the wood, right after the water changes. It has now picked up the rich red which gives it the name of “red moor wood”, but is being slow to water log.

Daily tests: days 32 – 38

For the last week, I have been dosing 2 ppm which is being processed into nitrate within 24 hours.

So now, I am only waiting to collect the new fish, as the bacterial colony is stable. Because the Danio margaritatus will be so small, I am not going to move the Pseudosphromenus dayi to the new aquarium until the danios are large enough to not be eaten. I have also been unable to find any of the loaches I was interested in.

Actual 60 litre plant layoutThe plants are growing well; I currently have the light on a 5 hours on, 4 hours off, 5 hours on, off for the night regime: it seems to be working well. There are no problems with Cardamine lyrata and Hydrocotyle cf. tripartita. I have also added one pot worth of Pogostemon helferi, in preparation for the fish… I expect to be buying the remaining plants soon. On the other hand, the Lindernia rotundifolia has completely melted, worse than any Cryptocoryne melt I have ever seen. I suspect this is because the stems I received were grown emersed (above water, the word comes from the Latin word ēmersum, from which “emerge” is derived) and the leaves could not survive when submerged under water. Every single one of the original stems has now rotted, but every node has grown new axillary buds, which have developed into individual plants. For the vast majority, each plant is now 20-30 mm tall and growing well.

Given that the D. margaritatus are now ready for collection, so I will be looking to collect the remaining promised plants this week, or early next week, and to buy the rest as soon as possible.

Cultivating the plantsWater evaporation is still high, as I am not using the condensation tray yet, so I have had to top up the water a few times already. I used dechlorinated tap water, which raises the KH, but this is not an issue as there are currently no fish in the aquarium.

Daily tests: day 31

This morning’s test results were:

  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm

Some of the plants are starting to suffer from the higher temperatures and no light. Given that my first stock will be 9 × 10 mm Danio margaritatus, I expect that they will not produce more than 2 ppm of ammonia per day. So, while for a full stock I would be aiming to see 4-5 ppm of ammonia processed in 12 hours, I will settle for the 2 ppm in 24 hours for now. I will now gradually start dropping the temperature into the 22 °C range and I will start using the lighting. To avoid algae problems, I will also dose ammonia in the evenings from now, instead of the mornings, so that by the time the lights come on, there will not be much ammonia left left.