Illustration of a home aquarium
There are many things you need to know after you decide to adopt a pet fish. (Illustration by Sarah Yu, Duke University)
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Illustration of a home aquarium

If you’re considering getting fish but don’t know where to start, these tips may be helpful.

I’ve always had a strong love for animals. My mother would always buy my brother and I lots of pets to share like hamsters, iguanas and cats. She did it to give us the opportunity to be responsible for another living creature, making sure they ate properly and had a clean home. And the experiences I had were extremely enjoyable.

As I grew up, I realized I didn’t have as much time to take care of my pets as I did before; it was hard to even take care of myself at times. But I still wanted the companionship of another creature. That was when I went to the pet store and adopted my first betta fish named Blue.

I had a lot of memories with Blue. He was a baby when I first bought him, and his scales shimmered a blue green in direct sunlight and his tail fin, when full grown, was beautifully large. I gave him “SpongeBob” décor to swim around and hide in. He died about two years ago. Today, I own three tanks of assorted fish that I help my fiancé, Joshua, care for.

But, before Blue, I had never kept fish — I was clueless about aquatic creatures. There were thousands of questions that I needed answered to take proper care. Joshua was a big help to get the answers. Not too long after, I became more knowledgeable and comfortable with the hobby.

Perks of a Home Aquarium 

Fish, compared to other pets, are easier to care for because they are confined to a tank for survival; they won’t escape unless there isn’t a lid on it. The more confined space of a home aquarium makes cleaning easier and simpler than for other pets. And tank decorations are in endless supply, allowing one to style a tank any way they want to. A big bonus is that they don’t give off horrible odors if cleaned regularly.

Equipment to Get Started

Starting a home aquarium can be stressful when walking into a pet store. The shelves are stocked full of bottles with unheard of chemicals and different kinds of food for fish. Newcomers to the hobby can have difficulty with all these options when getting started. At least, I did.

If you’re beginning a home aquarium, you’ll need to start with basic materials:

— Fish Tank Stand

— Fish Tank (at least 20 Gallons)

— Heater

— Sponge Filter

— Air pump for Sponge Filter

— Airline Tubing

— Dechlorinate

Fish Tank and Stand

Obviously, having a fish tank and a stand seems rather redundant; fish can only survive in water. I do recommend, however, to start with a 20-gallon tank. It may seem excessive for beginners — and expensive — but it can help in many ways for those starting out.

First, more space allows fish to swim freely. Being cramped into a 10-gallon or smaller tank can cause fish to become aggressively territorial. A general rule of thumb is to have one gallon per fish. For example, if you have a 20-gallon tank, it’s recommended to have no more than 20 fish to avoid overcrowding. There are certain types of fish, however, that don’t need to follow the rule.

Second, more space also allows caretakers a larger margin of error. For smaller tanks, precision is key to avoid overfeeding and overstocking. More waste created is more to clean up. While it may seem like a hassle to clean a large tank, it’s easier to do since it doesn’t need to be done as frequently; more volume requires more time before water quality worsens.

Heaters

Heaters are needed to regulate water temperature in a tank. Fish, whether tropical or not, survive in the proper temperature of their natural habitat. Having it too low or too high could make fish susceptible to various diseases that, if left untreated, can cause death. It’s always good to ask or look up information about fish before buying them.

Sponge Filters, Air Pumps and Tubing

Sponge filters and air pumps are easy to use, cheap to get and essential to any fish tank. Sponge filters are like trash cans in a fish tank, sucking up any debris floating around while also not harming slow moving creatures. It also gives good water circulation for the tanks. And they’re easy to assemble and hard to break. Make sure to read the containers for the filters as well since each one applies to a different size tank. Without the correct filter, water won’t circulate as much as it should, and causes buildup of waste to occur more frequently.

To connect the air pump to the sponge filter, airline tubing is required for assembly. While there’s not a manual, it’s not difficult to figure out. However, there are instructions online for those who are afraid of doing it wrong.

Dechlorinate

A chemical that I find essential to getting started is dechlorinate. Depending on the area, water quality from the tap can differ. Tap water contains various chemicals to help clean it, a common ingredient being chlorine. While it is a minuscule amount, it can still harm the fish. Dechlorinate also rids water of chloramine and ammonia, not just chlorine. There is the option of buying tank water at certain stores, but it can get expensive to continuously purchase.

When dechlorinating water in a fish tank, it’s extremely important to follow the instructions on the package.

Understanding Types of Fish

Before starting a home aquarium, it’s important to know what water environment a fish survives in. There are two types: saltwater and freshwater. Saltwater fish like clownfish or yellow tang are found in ocean water. Freshwater fish like angelfish and bettas are found in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. For beginners, it’s easier to maintain a freshwater tank because it has fewer risks. Saltwater tanks require a knowledge of chemistry to establish equilibrium that fish can survive in.

I’m more accustomed to freshwater fish as opposed to saltwater; I find it a little more difficult to maintain and care for.

Need More Help?

Knowledge is endless for starting up a home aquarium. Lots of questions can come up about what brands are better or types of food to get. While the internet contains many answers, some can be far-fetched; it’s better to ask for opinions from veteran hobbyists.

There are many channels on YouTube that give instructions and information that others are looking for. I recommend looking into Aquarium Co-op and LRB Aquatics videos before anything else. They have years of experience with aquariums and run their own stores around the hobby. Each channel tackles common topics, or questions asked in the comments of previous videos. If the question isn’t answered, they also have livestreams where people can make queries and get their direct answers instantly.

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