It's just over a month now since I wrote about setting up our new aquarium from Swell, so I thought it about time to let you know how we are getting on and tell the tale of finally getting some aquatic residents in our tank. Mr C has become the main fish keeper in the house (whilst I'm just in charge of feeding them!) so I'll let him do the story-telling this time…
We took a sample of water (in a baby food jar) with us to our local trusted fish shop, where they tested it for free and declared it fit for fishy habitation. Water testing is important, and becomes more so once you've got fish in your tank, as those fish generate waste products which must be broken down and removed via biological processes and water changes. The invisible things happening in your water are intriguing and vital to the survival of your fish, so it's worth understanding them properly. To that end, we shall indulge in a bit of science…
Cycling a new tank
The new tank needs to "cycle", which is to say that it needs to build up its biological contents and acquire a balanced steady state, otherwise your fish will be poisoned by their own waste. Fish produce ammonia, which is toxic and will kill them if it builds up in the tank. However there are good bacteria that will establish themselves in your filter over time, which convert ammonia to nitrites. Nitrites are also poisonous to fish, but luckily there are further good bacteria which convert nitrites to nitrates. Nitrates are relatively harmless and will even fertilise your live plants if you have them. The nitrates do still need to be removed but that happens courtesy of regular water changes.
Doing a water change and "hoovering" the gravel
To start with, your brand new tank will be devoid of those important bacteria, but if you add just a few hardy fish to start with, and perform regular water changes, in six to eight weeks the cycling process should have completed and the right sorts of bacteria will be established. Ideally you'd test your water for ammonia, nitrites and nitrates every few days, to keep an eye on the process. If you see that ammonia or nitrite levels are dangerously high, a fairly substantial water change will solve the problem quickly and keep your fish alive. Assuming the cycling process proceeds normally, you'd expect to observe an initial spike in ammonia levels followed by a spike in nitrite levels, then finally a spike in nitrate levels, with ammonia and nitrite falling to zero. Water test kits are of course readily available and easy to use or your local shop can test it for you. We've now bought handy dip-in-the-water strips that change colour to show what's what, which makes it easy to keep on top of things.
Water testing with the handy 5 in 1 test strips that we got from Swell
Finally, some fish
Even once your tank is cycled, perhaps after six or more weeks, you should only add fish in small quantities, so that the delicate ecosystem isn't overwhelmed. We started with three blue guppies, which are particularly attractive and quite hardy, so good for the initial cycling. They had no problems at all and after several weeks of the cycling process working its invisible magic, the shop confirmed that our water was in good condition and we added a couple of dwarf gourami and three Sterba's corydoras.
Our first residents the blue guppies about to be introduced
The dwarf gourami and Sterba's corydoras waiting in their bags before going into the aquarium
These were selected with the expert help of the staff in the shop, who helped to guide us through the maze of compatibility and suitability concerns that must be considered in order to end up with a happy tank. For instance:
- Many types of fish need to live in small groups, which is why we got three each of the guppies and corys. We will probably increase their numbers in the future too.
- Some types of fish live predominantly on the bottom, others in the 'mid-water' and others at the top, and have different feeding habits. The Corys for instance are sweet little catfish that live at the bottom and find their food amidst the gravel. They help to clean the tank (probably only a little bit though, realistically) and if you're feeding with flake food, you need to make sure that some of it actually makes it down to them, instead of being all gobbled up by the fish at the top.
- Some fish are aggressive, especially if they're protecting territory. For this reason we got one male and one female Dwarf gourami, but no more. The male will not need to defend against other males. Similarly, some fish have a reputation for nipping fins, so for instance you'd tend not to put Tiger barbs in with long-tailed guppies.
- Different fish prefer different environments, in terms of temperature, acidity, planting, substrate (gravel) etc. For instance because the Corys root around at the bottom, big sharp gravel could be a problem.
How many fish?
It's easy to overstock a tank, which stresses your fish and affects their behaviour. There seem to be a few different ways to determine how many you can accommodate, of which the simplest is one inch of fully grown fish per gallon of water. If we use that rule, then our 72 litre tank therefore can host about 16 inches of fully grown fish. The fully grown bit is important as what you buy in the shop could grow to ten times the size and need a great deal of space.
We can therefore squeeze a few more in, but not many more. Better to have a happy, healthy tank.
It's not all been plain sailing. The biggest surprise and difficulty has been algae, which clouds the water and coats the glass, gravel, plants and ornaments. The tank is in a corner of a room far from natural light and even a 30% water change every two days (a fairly extreme regime) doesn't seem to keep it at bay. This is extremely troubling! Currently we are trying to keep the tank lights on for a shorter period each day, and only turning on one of the two bulbs. Hopefully this will help, but we'll be seeking expert advice when next in the shop.
Little Miss C helping to clean algae from the tank using an algae magnet
We also fell foul of ich (also known as white spot disease), presumably brought in by the second batch of new arrivals. White spots appeared on the guppies so we scrambled to look it up and then acquire the medication. This required adding the dense green/blue liquid every other day, whilst also upping water changes and ensuring relatively high temperature and aeration. The spots have gone and there's no sign of further trouble, so hopefully the problem is resolved. It's worth reading up on ich properly as it's actually rather fascinating and understanding the lifecycle of the parasite helps to defeat it properly.
The joy of fish
It's been a fair amount of work getting things set up, populating the tank and keeping it clean and healthy. However, putting in the research and the efforts, then seeing the results is very rewarding. And of course simply watching the fish is enthralling and relaxing. They are surprisingly characterful and individual in their behaviour. The male dwarf gourami is a particularly beautiful but somewhat skittish specimen.
10% off at Swell
If you've been inspired from our posts to have a go at keeping fish yourself then Swell UK are offering you 10% off your first purchase. Just enter the code SWELL10 to receive 10% off your first order of £5 or more from the Swell UK website.
Disclaimer: We were provided with an Aqua El Brillux 60 from SwellUK in exchange for blogging about our experiences of becoming a family of aquarium owners. Since then we've also received some water test kits from them.