6 Easy Fish Tank Care and Maintenance Tips for Beginners

Eric Dockett more

Eric is an aquarium enthusiast with over two decades of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish.

Caring for Freshwater Tropical Fish

Keeping a tropical aquarium can be a rewarding experience. Freshwater fish tanks are inexpensive to set up and maintain, and there is an incredible array of fish available with which you can stock your new aquarium.

Building a tiny ecosystem of animals and plants is an amazing feeling. Many people are hooked for life after they purchase their first fish tank, and their hobby quickly expands to bigger aquariums, more aquariums, or both!

Unfortunately, for many fish keepers it can also be a very bumpy road. Understanding which fish to purchase, what basic maintenance to perform and when, how much and how often to feed among other details is important for keeping your fish alive and healthy.

For beginners it can be especially frustrating. There is a ton of information available on the internet, but much of it confusing and contradictory. How is the newbie supposed to know where to start?

In this article you will read about 6 tips that, if followed, will greatly increase your chance of success as a newbie fish keeper.

6 Important Tips

If you keep at this aquarium thing it will get easier, and you’ll be a pro one day. But since you probably don’t wish to leave a trail of dead fish in your wake as you plod forward and learn the ropes, it’s worth it to get a few basic ideas down.

Here are 6 things you can do to increase your chances of having happy, healthy fish, and a great-looking aquarium.

1. Cycle the Tank Before Adding Fish

In case you’ve never heard the expression before, “cycling a tank” means to take the steps necessary to bring the water conditions up to where they are healthy for the fish. This is something that should be done before you ever add fish to your tank. In other words: You should not purchase your fish tank and your fish on the same day!

Cycling involves the growth of healthy micro-organisms within the tank, which will break down waste and help keep the water safe for fish. This takes a little time, and most experts recommend letting the tank run for at least a week before adding fish.

It is important to start a new aquarium the right way. Many new aquarium kits come with a little packet you can use to add the necessary elements for cycling, or you can purchase it separately at the pet store. You can also cycle the tank simply by adding a little fish food, which will begin to break down and kick off the process.

What you should never do is attempt to cycle your tank with fish already in it. This is very unhealthy for the fish, and until the water parameters are safe they can easily become ill and die. It’s the equivalent of a person trying to live in an atmosphere of noxious gas, and not very kind to your fish.

2. Test and Monitor Water Parameters

So how do you know when the water is safe for your fish? It’s smart to purchase an inexpensive water testing kit and monitor the levels of ammonia, nitrates, nitrites and the pH of your water. I recommend the API Master Test Kit. This is the testing kit I’ve used over the years. It’s easy to manage and the results are very clear. If you test the water weekly, one kit should last you quite a while.

Ammonia, nitrates and nitrites are natural chemical compounds that result from the lifecycles in your tank. They are fine in low levels, but left unchecked they can build up to unhealthy amounts. Follow the instructions on the test kit and take the necessary steps to keep the water parameters correct.

You can also test the pH of your water source with the kit. Most fish can adapt to most pH levels, but if the water is very hard unfortunately it may be necessary to bring the pH down with chemicals.

3. Perform Regular Water Changes

If you find your water parameters out of line there are over-the-counter products that will help keep these chemical levels in order. But, in my opinion, clean water is usually a better answer than adding even more foreign chemicals to the tank.

Frequent water changes are the key. You need to remove about one-third of the water from your tank every week and replace it with fresh, clean water. This dilutes the chemicals in the water and makes it healthier for your fish.

If fact, if you fail to do this you will find your water parameters harder to keep under control. The waste buildup will pollute the water to the point where it becomes unhealthy for the fish.

You should also learn to vacuum the gravel in your tank, to remove the debris that has accumulated on the bottom. None of this has to be hard, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of work every week. Water changers and siphons are available, which enable you to vacuum and remove water at the same time.

Be aware of what you are buying when you stock your tank.  Some fish commonly available in pet stores grow much too large for most tanks.
Be aware of what you are buying when you stock your tank. Some fish commonly available in pet stores grow much too large for most tanks. | Source

4. Research Fish Before Purchasing

When it comes time to purchase fish, take some time to research exactly what you are buying. Understand how big the fish will get, its temperament, its space requirements and which fish it will get along with.

It’s a beginner’s mistake to go to the pet store and purchase fish by looks alone. The attendant at the pet store should be able to set you straight, but unfortunately they often aren’t very knowledgeable themselves. You could end up with aggressive fish species without realizing it, or fish that simply aren’t compatible.

Better to do your own research and learn about your pet before purchase. You’d do that if you were buying a dog, right?

Along these lines, do not overstock your tank. You may have heard the “one inch of fish per gallon” rule. This advice is nonsense, and you should ignore it. Knowing what fish you are purchasing and what their needs are helps you to understand how many fish can safely live if your tank.

An overcrowded tank results in increased aggression, increased stress, increased disease and an overall unhealthy living situation for your fish. It is far better to under-stock your tank and have fewer but healthier fish.

Choosing Fish for Your Aquarium

5. Avoid Overfeeding Your Fish

Rest assured, it is very difficult to starve a fish. One feeding per day is plenty, making sure you provide food items for each type of fish in your tank.

A good flake food meets most needs, but if you have many bottom feeders you may wish to include sinking pellets. Don’t assume catfish and other scavengers will get what they need from flakes that float to the bottom of the tank. If you have algae-eating fish in your tank you’ll want to include algae wafers to supplement their diets.

Do not feed more than the fish will eat in a few minutes. Excess food is not only unhealthy for the fish and can lead to disease, but it dirties the tank and can cause spikes in the aforementioned chemicals. It can also help cause undesirable situations like excess algae growth or an outbreak of pest snails.

Many fish keepers put their fish on a feed/fast schedule, utilizing one or more days per week when the fish are not fed. This helps to keep the tank cleaner, and the fish healthier. In simple terms, remember that what goes into a fish must come out, so the more you feed your fish the dirtier the tank will get.

Live plants can help maintain a healthy environment for your fish.
Live plants can help maintain a healthy environment for your fish. | Source

6. Manage Light in and Around Your Aquarium

One of the most frustrating things for the new aquarium owner is managing algae in an aquarium. Algae are similar to plants, and like all plants they require light to thrive. Of course you are going to have lights in your tank, because you want to see your fish. So how do you see your fish without growing a huge crop of algae?

One way is to manage the amount of light your tank gets every day. When you decide on the placement of your tank, try to keep it away from anywhere that will get strong sunlight throughout the day. Like any plant, algae loves sunlight and will flourish if given the chance.

You should keep the tank light on a maximum of 12 hours every day. In reality you can probably do with much less. Remember that the light in the fish tank is for you, not the fish. The moderate lighting of daylight is plenty for them, and about what they would experience in the wild. If there is nobody home there is no point in having the light on. You can keep the light off while you are work or at school, and turn it on when you come home at night.

Obviously the exception here is if you have live plants in your tank. They will, of course, require a full 12 hours of overhead lighting per day. However, live plants will suck up many of the nutrients algae needs for survival, and in themselves can keep algae levels in check.

Learn As You Go

It all may seem daunting, but if you incorporate these 5 tips into your fish care routine you’ll end up with a pretty tank full of healthy fish. Once your tank is up and running the care and maintenance required to keep it going really should not take up a lot of your time. As little as an hour a week is all that’s needed, maybe less depending on tank size.

Remember that fish are not disposable pets, and if you choose to keep them in your home they are worth taking the time to care for properly. Like any animal, your tropical fish need a clean, safe and stress-free living environment. It’s up to you to make that possible, and it’s not as hard as it seems.

Yes, you will make mistakes and lose a few fish along the way, and everyone does. But as long as you are doing your best you shouldn’t feel badly about it. We’ve all been there.

Good luck with your tropical freshwater aquarium!

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