The Fish Tank

Before you purchase or choose any equipment, take the time to plan your new aquarium in every possible way. Carefully think through where you are going to place the fish tank. To avoid excessive algae growth, do not place the aquarium in direct sunlight.

Be sure that the area where you will place the aquarium can support the weight of a filled aquarium. Water weighs about 8.4 pounds per gallon, so a 30-gallon tank will weigh at least 250 pounds. Choose a location that is not too far from a source of water (you don't want to carry water too far—unless you want a real workout) and make sure that there is an adequate electrical supply close by.

If you want your fish to be active and unintimidated by you when you enter the room, put them in well-used living areas. You want the fish to acclimate to people entering and leaving the room. If you don't, you'll end up with skittish and anxious fish when people enter the room or approach the tank.

Fishkeeping in History

The Chinese were the first to keep fish. They didn't have glass, as we know it today. So they kept their fish in large beautiful bowls. This pottery today is greatly prized.

Make sure that you place the tank in an area where no one will be upset if some water hits the floor. In dealing with a fish tank, you deal with lots of water. Even the most careful of hobbyists will splash water around a tank and in many cases water will escape from the tank.

Make sure this is the place! Once you put this puppy together, you're stuck with it. It can't be moved without great difficulty and high risk. You can't slide a fish tank the way you can a sofa. Where it's at is where it stays. A good idea is to set up your stand and tank (empty) in an area for several days before you begin filling it. Leave the light on. Get a feeling that this is the perfect place for your aquarium.

Before You Buy Anything!

Plan out what you're going to buy and how you're going to set up your tank. Begin by reading starting with the bottom section, Meeting the Needs of Your Fish and those sections that follow before you buy anything. You don't want to come home thrilled with all your new equipment and then read that it's not right for your situation. Read and think it through carefully.

This may sound funny, but we've found that you are better off buying the biggest and best aquarium you can afford right up front. You don't want something that's going to dominate a room, unless that's part of your decorator's goal.

But if you want healthy fish, you're going to need a tank that provides a large enough space to swim and a good air-to-water-surface ratio. The size of the tank directly affects both. The temperature of the water and the surface area of the tank dictate how much oxygen is in the water. Colder water has less oxygen than warmer water. Different fish require different temperatures for their comfort, but a good average is 75°F, a temperature where oxygen may be limited.

Since fish, like us, breathe oxygen, you need to make sure there is always oxygen in the tank, and that negative gases can be easily exchanged. The larger water surface area has a larger area for toxic gases to escape the water and be exchanged for oxygen. The larger the surface area, the better the tank is able to handle a larger number of fish.

The first question you want to ask yourself is this: How many fish do I want in my tank? The answer is not how many do you want; the answer is how many will your tank hold? How do you calculate this? Easy! By multiplying the width times the length, you can calculate the surface area. This is then used to determine the maximum number of inches of fish that the aquarium can hold. Most fish experts generally agree that one inch of cold-water fish requires 30 square inches of surface area and that one inch of warm-water fish requires 12 square inches of surface area. Because cold-water fish are used to breathing more oxygen, they generally have higher oxygen requirements than tropical fishes. So cold-water fish require differing amounts of space.

Definition Please: Tropical Fish

Tropical fish is a general term for any number of fishes that may be kept in small, standing aquariums, usually in homes. They may either be freshwater or saltwater fish. Many of the most popular tropical fish come from the Amazon, India and the East Indian Archipelago, the Malay Peninsula, Africa, and Asia.

You still don't understand? How about an example? If you have space in your living room for a 30-gallon aquarium with a length and width of 32 and 14 inches, respectively, then you will have a surface area of 448 square inches (32×14). This tank has the capacity for 15 inches of cold-water fish (448/30) or 37 inches of warm-water fish (448/12). So, in reality, you could have seven two-inch goldfish, which are considered cold-water fish, or 37 one-inch neon tetras, which are warm-water fish, in this tank. This is just an example, of course. Very few aquarists want an aquarium solely occupied by one variety.


We like glass better than acrylic, but there is a case to be made for acrylic. Acrylic is usually molded or welded at the seams. This makes acrylic tanks structurally better and stronger than glass tanks. Acrylic tanks also tend to have fewer defects.

Acrylic tanks are also less likely to shatter (although to shatter any kind of tank takes quite a lot of pressure—usually from an outside force). The other thing to be said of acrylic is that when it's empty, it's easier to move. Glass is heavier.

All that said, acrylic tends to yellow faster and more easily than glass, and it tends to scratch a lot more easily as well. This becomes very important over the years, as you want to see your fish—and you can't, because the acrylic has scuffed. Also, it's more difficult to clean algae effectively. You can't scrub it real hard because it will mar the viewing surface.

Therefore, choose tanks that are longer than they are tall because surface area is so important to the capacity and health of your aquarium. Are you still not understanding the difference? Let's say you are looking at two 30-gallon tanks. Even though both tanks may hold the same volume of water, a tall, thin tank will have a much lower carrying capacity of fish than a long, wide tank will, because of its smaller surface area. While many beginner kits are 10-gallon kits, we recommend your starter tank should be 20 gallons. In the end, it will allow you much more growing room as you become more interested in your hobby.

Once you've made up your mind on the right size aquarium for your needs, choosing the tank itself is very easily done. The most popular home aquariums today are constructed of glass plates sealed with a silicone rubber cement in a rectangular shape. These are by far the most common and practical aquarium to buy; I recommend one for the beginner. The most important thing to remember is that these products are nontoxic, because they have been built for the sole purpose of housing live animals. While glass may seem like a chancy substance, because we think of it as being fragile, it is the best of all possible choices. Glass does not scratch as easily or yellow as acrylic does. You may be worried that these tanks seem to lack a framework, but they are strong and sturdy and have been tested to withstand the rigors of the hobbyists’ use. They are much stronger than they look. Aquariums with plastic or metal frames are sometimes available, but we've found that this design is not as aesthetically pleasing and that the frames are unnecessary.


Recently, some manufacturers have been making larger and larger bowls, holding up to 10 or 20 gallons. And some filtration manufacturers have created special underground filters for just such containers. Again, because of the water-surface-to-air-ratio, we would strongly caution against using these. But if you do insist on buying one, you must have a working filter and plenty of aeration.

Look carefully when selecting your tank. Examine it for scratches or places where silicone may have been missed. Sometimes these are early warning signs of defective tanks. Some expert hobbyists build their own tanks, mostly for aesthetic or practical reasons. We advise against this, especially for beginners. If you really want to do this, you must remember to use nontoxic silicone cement to seal the glass; otherwise, all you will be doing is building a deathtrap. Remember to speak with a pet store professional before attempting this.


Certainly one of the most enduring images is that of the fishbowl. No matter the type or size, or the kind of fish in it, the fishbowl is a relic of our hobby's history—much like the tenement is to housing. In an earlier, more unsophisticated age, fishbowls were acceptable. But we simply know more now.

Our recommendation is to stay away from them. The bowl is a confining and inhumane environment for a fish. Yes, they can survive in them. But it's like keeping a dog in a kennel its whole life, or a man or woman living their whole life in one very small room.

They have a very small water-surface-to-air ratio, which makes breathing difficult. That's why you always see fish gulping for air at the surface in a bowl. Since there is no filtration, the water is unfiltered, not properly aerated, and, as a result, very poorly maintained. While daily water changes may provide better oxygenated water, the constant changing environment would be a cruel treatment of your fish. A fishbowl is no more an aquarium than a closet is a house. Therefore, the unfiltered fishbowl will not be examined as such in this book.

The Stand

Hands down, the best way to support the heavy weight of a fully filled tank and all its components is the commercially manufactured aquarium stand. While it may seem like an added expense (who doesn't have an extra table sitting in the garage or attic?) this strongly built stand is especially made to hold the full aquarium. There are countless stories of TV stands, homemade tables, and folding tables that didn't make the grade, and eventually collapsed under the pressure of supporting such a heavy load.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service was created in 1956 as part of the Department of the Interior. However, in its various forms, it actually dates back as far as 1871. This department has actually developed several fish now fancied by tropical fish fans.

The Siamese Fighting Fish

The Siamese fighting fish, which is also known as a betta, is able to breathe air from the surface of the water. The betta has a special organ that allows it to breathe air directly. This is common to many fish in the Labyrinth family of tropical fish.

If and when the stand fails, it can be mighty costly. You may end up with a ruined rug or damaged house. It can cost you home repairs as well as the loss of tank, fish, and other equipment. You're spending some solid money up front, and a stand is a good way to protect that investment.

If you are sure that a commercially made stand is not for you, you need to place something under the tank to keep it from ruining your furniture. Place a 5/8” sheet of plywood and a ½” sheet of polystyrene cut to the dimensions of the tank under the tank. This will distribute the load of the aquarium more evenly and will help ensure that any imperfections in the support surface are properly leveled.

The Hood

While it may seem silly to inexperienced aquarists, the hood or cover is an essential item for any aquarium. First, it prevents fish who want to move on upstream from exiting the tank via the top. Fish can't survive without water, and there is nothing worse than noticing that a fish is missing only to find it dead, stuck to the rug or fallen behind the stand and critically injured.

Second, it keeps items from falling into the tank and possibly injuring or killing your fish. When we were young, someone once threw a wad of bubble gum into a tank of large oscars. We sat there amazed as one of the oscars immediately attacked and ate the bubble gum, chewing it and spitting it out, chewing it and spitting it out. We were very lucky that nothing bad happened.


The hood also slows down the process of water evaporation, and therefore cuts down on the number of times you have to refill the tank. It prevents water from splashing around, which will protect your walls, especially if you have wallpaper. Hoods allow for an overhead light properly focused on the water, providing maximum viewing pleasure.

It also keeps the water far enough from the light so as not to cause an electrical problem. We've seen cases where a light fell in and then there was fish stew. Not pretty. And finally, a hood helps the water retain its warmth by putting a cap on the tank and not allowing heat to escape too easily.

Usually, the hood or cover (sometimes called a canopy) is fitted to the size of your tank and has sections in it that allow for such things as a heater, filter, and aeration tubes. It's always a good idea to make sure that it is composed of thick (1/8”) glass or plastic so that it can support the weight of other aquarium components if needed. It should never be a one-piece item, but should be segmented so that the entire assembly need not be removed in order for you to feed the fish or work in the tank. Especially for the beginner, we strongly suggest the use of a single unit that also contains a housing for an aquarium light.

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