Over a year ago, before Master C was born, we started talking about getting an aquarium and some fish for Little Miss C. We then started looking into what was involved with the hope of having these new members of the family before Master C made his appearance.
However, having discovered just how much there is to know and along with everything else that was going on in our lives at the time, it just never happened. Move forwards a year and I received an email from SwellUK saying that they were looking for family bloggers to work with. Exactly the motivation we needed to finally make this happen, especially since Mr C has some time on his hands until he starts his new job next month.
Seeing as we'd found it hard to find everything we needed to know in one place we thought there must be others in similar positions, so we decided to document what we discovered through our fish owning journey. I've therefore got Mr C (who incidentally also blogs at UK Nature Blog) to thank for co-writing this post and providing some of the photographs.
The best part of any hobby – buying the kit
The first thing that we had to choose was an aquarium and the choice is initially mind-boggling!
We knew that we wanted to keep tropical freshwater fish and that meant that we needed an aquarium with a heater to get the water to the correct temperature. We had also decided where in our living room we wanted it to go, so we knew roughly how big it could be.. After lots of looking online and reading up on reviews we decided to go for the Aqua El Brillux 60 starter kit, a tall 72 litre (confusingly) tank, along with internal filter, heater, lighting and some sachets of stuff – most important being the tap water conditioner, which promises to both de-chlorinate and introduce 'good bacteria'. Getting all this in one starter kit made things much easier.
The Aqua El Brillux out of the box and where we planned to site it
The kit buying doesn't stop there though. Oh no. There are plenty of other things we needed before we could even consider exactly which fish to buy.
We also bought (whilst under pressure from bored 3 year old Little Miss C running amok in our local fishy supermarket):
- Gravel for the bottom (9KG of tasteful German quartz in our case)
- Artificial plants, having been advised in the fish shop that keeping real ones alive is a major job in itself and may require a CO2 system. We spent a fair bit of money on half-decent looking examples.
- A couple of bits of tropical hardwood root (not pictured above) that will look architectural and give the fish something to swim around
- The piece of resistance: Spongebob figurine.
- A four-way power adapter with individual switches, so I can plug all the gubbins in and turn it off as required. There will be no getting behind the cabinet to the wall socket once the tank is full of 72Kg of water! The cabinet's strength was tested by Mr C climbing on it bodily.
- A foam mat on which to place the tank, presumably to protect it and the furniture, and perhaps to absorb vibrations to some extent. Mr C actually made this from a double layer of laminate floor underlay and therefore we have no idea if it's up to the job. Frankly it's a bit of a guess at what that job is anyway, but the (very limited) instructions suggested we should have one. Instructions that tell you to do something but don't explain why are very frustrating!
The tentative 'aquascape' (for that is what they call the beautiful vista in your tank) was mocked up in the trolley, by laying out the bags of gravel and putting hings on top as best as they would go. This genuinely helped to figure out what to buy and how much of it.
Putting it all together for the first time
Once it was all out of the box we got more than a bit confused by the tank's design, which had two wires for the lights, with separate power bricks and switches. This means you can switch one or both on, but we want to hide the ugly inline power bricks (which have the switches on) round the back. It would have been much better if the switches were on the aquarium lid itself, and there was just one plug. As it is we used a four way adapter with individually switched sockets and used them to switch the lights, with the power bricks hidden away at the back.
Another major confusion/annoyance is that the light cables have to stretch all the way along the inside of the tank from the right hand side, where they're connected to the lights, to the left where the hole is for them to exit. They just dangle over the water in an unsatisfactory manner. The extremely limited instruction sheet was no help here in explaining how it should work, so it's still not clear whether we set it up correctly or not. What's really weird is that the light fittings themselves look symmetrical such that they could have been fitted the other way around in the factory, and hence avoided this problem entirely. Mr C considered unscrewing them and turned them round himself, but for a plastic clip in the hinge that looked like it was meant to go in and never come out again.
The filter and heater are attached by suckers to the inside of the glass, totally submerged, though the lack of cohesive instructions for the kit meant this also wasn't initially clear. There isn't anywhere for the filter bracket to clip over the side, so the little air hose that should attach to that bracket just had to dangle out through the same hole as all the wires. Again it's not clear if this is the designer's intention, but suspicions must be raised about the involvement of a designer at all. The Aqual El Brillux kit is not a cohesive, well thought out experience I'm afraid, if you aren't already familiar with setting up a tank. The separate parts all seem fine, but it's as if they've all just ended up in the same big box and the customer is left to figure out for themselves how to fit them all together.
Given this is a starter kit, I'd expect to find a pamphlet telling me exactly what to do to put it all together, with good diagrams, and for it to further explain how to get the tank started, in terms of water, chemicals, gravel, plants etc. But as explained above, this kit just gives you a few bits and leaves you to figure it all out. Wikihow has a good page with a straightforward rundown of what you need to do. Don't miss the tips at the bottom. SwellUK themselves have also just published a blog post about setting up a tropical aquarium – although we could have done with this post about two weeks earlier!
The lumps of wood needed soaking in water to leach out any brown tannins, that would stain the water of the tank, so they went in a trug of water outside. The label says they might need a few days, so they won't be in the tank to start with.
The tank should be rinsed out apparently, but this is non-trivial as you can't pick it up and swish it about, and even if you could, the lid is fixed on so you couldn't pour the water out. A homebrew helped to get the water out, having sloshed it up the walls from a bottle.
The gravel also needed rinsing to get rid of the dusty, sandiness. Same for all the (artificial) plants and other ornaments. If you want reasonably clear water, this is all very important.
Note the clever use of a plastic bowl when filling the aquarium so that the force of the water doesn't send the gravel flying! (and yes, we did just bring the hosepipe into the living room)
Then the gravel goes into the bottom, deeper at the back, plants artfully arranged, and water added with the garden hosepipe. The sachet of water conditioner went in at this stage too to de-chlorinate the water. A bit cloudy until it settles, but it's already looking good! Leave it half an hour then time to test the electric bits. It's important not to turn the heater on for a good while after filling with water, so it has a chance to equalise temperature with the water.
So, by this stage you have an aquarium beautifully decorated and looking ready for some new inhabitants. But, it's not that simple!
Before you can introduce the fish to your aquarium you need to allow the water to 'settle down', for lack of a more scientific explanation. Some people suggest that you should wait a week or so before adding fish, but there seem to be mixed views on this. Certainly, before buying fish we were recommended to take a water sample to our local aquatic centre so that they could check it for various things and ensure that it was "right" for our new pets.
Waiting for some new inhabitants…
We also had to wait for the wood to finish soaking before adding it – although in the end we found that even then it still made the water in the tank go a bit brown when it was added. That should fade away with future water changes though and it gives the tank a slightly exotic mangrove swamp look.
Then comes the next stage of choosing exactly which fish you want to go in your tank. And that's a whole other blog post…
Thoughts so far
So far our fishy experience has been good fun, but much more involved than I thought it would be. There's also had to be a bit of expectation management with Little Miss C as she initially though we'd get fish the second she saw us unpack the aquarium box. Having to explain to a very enthusiastic three year old that you have to wait for the water conditioner to work isn't easy.
As a hobby Mr C has said that he can see why people get so into keeping tropical fish, as whilst there does seem to be loads to know when you first start, it's actually a topic that's relatively easy to get to grips with. He's one for researching things a lot and this has very much satisfied his inner geek.
You're also likely to have lots of questions as you go along and we've definitely found that there's loads of helpful information on the internet and also some very knowledgeable staff at our local aquatic shop. A trip there with the kids just to ask questions is time well spent (and the children enjoy looking at all the fish too!)
Based on the experience so far:
- You will probably need a siphon to aid in 'rinsing' the tank at the start, and it will be important later on anyway when you need to change the water. I suppose you could improvise by scooping water out as best you can, but that's going to be sloppy and difficult. You can get a combined gravel 'hoover' and siphon that's probably the best way to kill two birds with one stone.
- Remember that when you stick your arm into the water, the level will rise by a centimetre or so. You need to accommodate for this by not filling too full in the first place.
- Choose plants and ornaments that have enough height for the tank. Ours is quite deep so we got a couple of tall plants, and tried to hide the filter and heater somewhat behind one of them.