Fishkeeping for Beginners

The most important part of any fishkeeping is cycling the tank. It mimics the fish's natural habitat and ensures they are healthy and live a long, happy life. In this guide, we will go over a few ways to cycle a tank. Yes, there is more than one way... there's probably hundreds of ways, but we give you our best advice and tips to make it as painless as possible. 


Before you even pick out fish that you want in your aquarium, our best advice is to know and understand what a tank cycle is, how to achieve it, maintenance, proper cleaning, and everything in between.  It's best to have no surprises and wonder what is going on when you are new to the hobby.  And please, always research! There is not a perfect way to cycle a tank. There are no magical solutions, but there are a lot of great tools, products and tips that can get you where you want without panic and misguidance. Please note, these are our best solutions and what works for us, may not always work for you but we will give you a lot of examples and techniques to make your journey a simple one. 



Where do I start? 

This is where things have multiple ways of achieving the same goal. 


The diagram above shows how a tank cycle works but it just shows you how it works, not how to achieve it. There are a lot of ways to cycle a tank and there is no perfect way, but we are going to go over a few here.  


When you start a new tank, there are a few things you should know. 

First, you'll need a water test kit. We recommend using API Freshwater Master Kit. Strip kits are not reliable for us and you'll get the most accurate readings from the one listed above. Second, have all of the preferred additives on hand before you start. (ie dechlorinator, beneficial bacteria boost, ammonia reducer as well as nitrite reducer and nitrate reducer), substrate, all decor you plan on using as well as live plants if you are using them. And most important, your filtration system. Follow the set up below and hopefully you don't have any issues but, if you do, we have an entire FAQ section that will also help.


1. What kind of substrate do I want to use? That depends on the fish you prefer. Most all fish do well with small pebbles or sand. Some prefer one more than others due to their natural habitat in rivers and lakes. And yes! you can have both in one tank! 

Once you choose your substrate you'll want to add about 1 pound per gallon. So, if you have a 55 gallon tank, you'll want to add 55 lbs of well rinsed substrate. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but in order to achieve the 2 - 3 inch depth, this is what you'll have to have.  You can rinse it until the water is clear with your standard tap water at this step. 


2. After your rinsed substrate is added to your tank, it's time to choose decor! This is the fun part. We recommend using live plants when possible. Although, sometimes the fish you choose are not plant friendly. We will go over some options later on for that. Adding plants and decor is best at this step because you aren't putting your hands in a ton of water and trying to make things stay where you put them. It's also easier to see what you are doing. Be creative and get things placed where you want them. You'll also go ahead and get your aquarium heater and filtration system of your choice set up but NOT turned on. Depending on the one you choose, whether it's an HOB (hang on back) or canister filter, it will still need water to run properly and not damage it. So, set it up but don't have it running at this point. 


3. Adding water is a slow process. Dumping it in will upset your substrate and disperse it all over your tank and can move plants, uproot and totally mess up everything you just did. There is a solution though. If you are using a hose or pouring, try placing a styrofoam plate at the bottom of the tank and gently let the water run or pour on that. It will keep everything from being disturbed and decrease the amount of debris in your tank while filling it. That isn't all though. This step is where you want to add your dechlorinator to your water based on how many gallons you are adding. Read the instructions carefully and add that directly to your tank or to the water you are pouring in. Either way, at this point there are no fish and that choice is up to you. We recommend filling your tank to just below  or right at the tank top rim (on a standard tank). For rimless tanks only leave a few inches. You don't want your water too low for your filtration system or too high for water displacement when adding fish. 


4. Once you have your dechlorinated water added, you'll also start the filtration system and heater. Your tank is almost completely set up at this point. It's set up - NOT established. Check your system to ensure it is running properly. Make sure your aquarium heater is placed where it should be according to the directions for your specific heater. Establishing or cycling a tank comes next but, for now, you need everything working properly so you don't have surprises later. 


5. At this point you can add products to your tank to help establish beneficial bacteria. There are a great deal of them on the market. Our best advice is to do your research and read reviews. We have used many different kinds and some we swear by and others didn't hold up to our expectations. This choice is yours and what you prefer may be very different from someone else. Just make sure what you use is safe for fish and other inhabitants you plan on having in your tank. We, at Go Fish Aquatics, use Microbelift Special Blend, but go with what you prefer. 


Done! right? NOPE! 

Cycling a tank will tank anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Usually it is several weeks and just adding beneficial bacteria is not going to cycle your tank. You also have to feed it. What is feeding? It's exactly what it says! You'll feed your tank as if fish were in it. Why? To achieve your ammonia levels that start the cycle process.  You'll also follow the instructions on your preferred beneficial bacteria. You usually have to add it at certain times like day 1,  day 7 and monthly, but that is just an example. This part is important because without any beneficial bacteria, your tank WILL NOT CYCLE. 


Back to feeding the tank, you'll need to do that every single day. There are a few tricks but we will talk about that later. The best way for a beginner is to just drop a pinch of fish food in the tank every day. It doesn't have to be much, remember you aren't feeding fish, just giving the tank some waste so ammonia will build. 


This is also the time that you'll get in a habit of checking your water parameters. There is a handy little key card in the test kit that shows you what they are.  You don't have to check them daily and we don't think you should at this point, but you will need to about twice a week. 


Why am I doing this?  Because you need to see and understand the cycle process. Once your ammonia reaches a certain level and you have that beneficial bacteria, nitrites will kick in. And once the nitrites go up enough, your nitrates will start to rise as well. This is the tricky part. LEAVE YOUR TANK ALONE! Don't clean it! Don't add ammonia reducer! Don't add Anything except your beneficial bacteria as directed on it's instructions. We know it's hard, but the only thing you'll accomplish if you do is having a clean tank that isn't cycled and looks pretty. This is also the time when you determine if you need to do a water change. I know, I just said DON'T touch it. But, if you do NOT have live plants, nitrates will not go away on their own and will require a water change. Typical water changes are about 20% but I will post a cheat sheet below that will help based on the levels. But if you DO have live plants, leave it alone! Let the plants take care of the nitrates. Please remember, one live plant is not going to remove the nitrates from a large tank. It will take a good amount of plants to do that successfully. Once you get to this point you'll see all of your parameters level out. There will be minimal or 0 ammonia as well as nitrites and nitrates. Your tank is cycled! You can add fish!


Now, this is the quick version of how to set up a tank. Keep reading for all of the extra tips and tricks that we use as well as some in depth information that you'll want to know about each of these steps. 

This chart will help you figure out when you need to do a water change, add prime (or your preferred reducer) and when to just leave your tank alone.  So, don't stress out, there is always an answer to the issue you are having. We will go over all of these readings as you keep reading. Remember, this is a help guide and NOT the absolute rule to go by. 

Substrate isn't the only thing to consider. You'll also need to consider what type of plants and hiding places your new fish do best with. I will be the first to tell you that earth eaters will completely redecorate your tank and most likely uproot and possibly eat every single plant in your tank. Cichlids are known for redecorating to their liking as well. Ask my Flowerhorn how often we have arguments about where he likes the plants in his tank. Other fish, such as Angelfish, won't really bother the plants and actually love them. They also lay their eggs on broadleaf plants. Do your research but know that live plants are best. In the event you prefer plastic plants, be prepared to clean them or have algae eaters that clean them for you. And without live plants you'll be doing a lot more water changes! 


This also applies to hiding spots. Research your fish to make sure they have the proper places to chill. Some like to hide during the day and most all need places to escape to reduce stress. 

Learning what works

 When you are choosing a substrate for your tank, keep in mind the fish you plan on keeping. Some fish easily scrape themselves on rocks and sharp surfaces and have soft underbellies. Others are earth eaters and sift sand through their mouth and gills. Some prefer rock and others prefer sand. Either one you choose, do the research on your planned tank mates to determine what is right for yours. And don't rule out both! It is ok to have half pebbles and half sand or whatever combination you prefer. Just be mindful of your fishes natural habitat. 


Let's talk about some important tips and tricks to help you out. Below you'll find several things that we wish we knew when we first started keeping fish. Hopefully, it helps you have a head start.

How do I get my ammonia levels up faster when cycling a tank? 

Well, there are a lot of ways to do this. Some fishkeepers like to add ammonia to the water in order to reach that goal fast but, unless you are seasoned and know the appropriate amount to add, we do not recommend this for beginners. So, how can you do it safely? One way that we have done this is to add a single, raw shrimp to the tank. You'll want to put it in some sort of cheesecloth so that as it breaks down and the time comes to remove it, you can do so without a huge mess. Basically, ammonia is created from dead plant matter, uneaten fish food, and fish waste (poop).  This will speed up the process for ammonia and once it has risen enough you can remove it from the tank. Usually a few days is all it takes, but you'll have to have beneficial bacteria built up or you are only mucking up your tank.

How do I make my tank cycle faster?

We know that several weeks is a long time to wait when you are excited about fish. There are a few things you can do to speed up the process. One is finding someone with an established tank already and asking them to provide you with a small amount of their substrate to add to your tank (in a small bit of their tank water - not dry and not rinsed). It must be added fairly quickly after removing it from the established tank though. About 30 - 45 minutes is all you have before that bacteria will start to die and become useless to you. You will carefully pour the water off the substrate not to upset the bacteria and add the pebbles or sand to your tank. Another way, same concept, but different item is using a sponge filter or bio media from an established tank. If you have a friend that has some to spare, great! If not, guess what? We actually carry cycled biomedia and sponges. 

How can I have live plants if the fish dig them up?

Some fish will dig up live plants or eat them. However, there is a solution to getting plants in the tank even if they do. Provided your fish choice is just a digger and not an eater, you can always plant them in available rock pots. It is just a plastic pot that looks like a rock and keeps it weighted in the tank. Most diggers can't seem to figure them out and leave them alone. You can also go with a plant that can be glued on a rock or wood. Java fern doesn't like to be planted with it's roots in substrate. Simply super glue it to a rock or wood, even a decoration and the fish will leave them alone. There are a number of surface plants as well as free floating plants like duckweed, azolla, frogbit, java moss and guppy grass. They aren't planted so no need to worry about diggers. If all else fails, grow a plant out of the top of your tank leaving the roots in the water. Pothos is one of the best plants for this.  But, if your fish choice is a plant eater you have a lot fewer options. Top water plants that only have roots in water like pothos are a good choice, you'll just have to protect the roots from being eaten. Using zip ties and a mesh media bag can protect them from hungry little plant eaters and still allow them to do their job. 


What do I do if my PH is too high or too low?

We haven't even talked about PH in your tank. This is a good time to go over that. Yes it is very important. Freshwater Tropical fish can be all over the spectrum in preferences of PH. Research your fish and use your test kit to determine what your PH level your water is. If your PH is too low you can always add certain things to help it rise. The same concept works for lowering it as well. Let's dive into those things. 

Too Low?  There are additives like PH+ and PH - that will raise or lower your PH quickly. However, we do not recommend using them. If you are just starting out, you may end up adding one or the other to find the perfect mix and once you do a water change, it will start again. We call that PH chasing. Do not recommend. Other ways are a lot easier and less stressful. Baking soda will increase PH in a tank. It won't harm fish but you should still research how much you need to use based on your tank size. We prefer using other methods. Texas Holy Stone is a white rock that will increase PH in your tank over time. It's best to know what your water PH is at the start so that it can be added. There is also substrate made specifically for higher PH called Amazonia Aqua Soil. It and others like it are specifically designed to increase PH in a tank for fish that need it. Go Fish Aquatics carries Texas Holy Stone in our store. 

Too High? Again, using additives like stated above we do not recommend but there are a few other ways to lower your PH naturally. Letting water stand before adding it to your tank will naturally lower PH but, it does take about a day and sometimes a couple of days before it's low enough. Another way is adding driftwood. Driftwood naturally lowers the PH in water through tannins. Be advised, tannins can and will turn your water a brownish color. Some people prefer the natural look while others want no part of it and prefer crystal clear water. Either way, it does work. Another item that releases tannins in your water is Almond Leaves or Katappa Leaves. They can quickly bring down a PH but will also have the same affect on your water. Sadly, leaving the wood or leaves in your tank and doing water changes will not help the color. It can sometimes take years for driftwood to stop releasing tannins. We also carry driftwood and Almond Leaves in our store. (PS Almond leaves are a natural antibiotic for sick fish too! and not all wood will release tannins, ask us about it!)

We really hope this answered a lot of questions on how to get started in the wonderful world of fishkeeping! We will most likely add to this as questions come in. Go Fish Aquatics is always here to answer your questions if you have any and we will help in any way we can to find a solution to your needs. Don't be afraid to pick up the phone and call us or come see us! We would love to know all about your endeavors in the fish world and help in any way we can.