Setting up a home aquarium takes quite a bit of work. Unfortunately, too many people go to the fish store, buy a glass bowl, and place a goldfish in there. That won't result in a happy, healthy, thriving fish! If you want your fish to thrive, here are the steps to follow to correctly set up your home aquarium and to properly clean your fish tank.
What Is the Nitrogen Cycle?
Before getting into the steps to follow to set up your home aquarium, it would be best to understand why these steps are necessary. Or, put another way, why can't we buy an aquarium glass tank, put some water in there, and stock up some fish?
The answer lies in the nitrogen cycle. Your new aquarium is an enclosed environment. Everything your fish does in there, from the food they eat to the waste they excrete, will affect the fish.
When you put food for your fish, two things will happen. They'll likely eat some of it, and some of it will fall to the bottom to decay. If you have live plants, that plant material will also find its way into the water and break down. It would be best to cycle your tank to ensure that this matter isn't toxic to your fish.
Bacteria in the water will begin to convert this decaying material into ammonia. The problem is that ammonia is highly toxic to fish. Even if you have a big fish tank, there will eventually be a build-up of ammonia unless you change the water super frequently.
Fortunately, with enough time, bacteria will establish in the aquarium to oxidize this ammonia to nitrite. Nitrite is still toxic to fish, but it's less harmful than ammonia, so the aquarium is heading in the right direction.
Finally, subsequent bacteria colonies will form to convert nitrite to nitrate. Nitrate is slightly toxic to fish, but the occasional water change (25% or so once a week, for example) can keep these levels in check.
How To Establish the Nitrogen Cycle in Your Home Aquarium
Because ammonia and nitrite are so toxic to fish, you must establish this cycle in your home aquarium before adding any living aquatic creatures. Fortunately, getting the right kinds of bacteria into your home aquarium is relatively straightforward. (Please note, this short guide assumes you're setting up a freshwater tank - saltwater ones are a little more involved, although the general premise is the same.)
First, you'll need an aquarium test kit. Many people use this aquarium kit for testing. Next, you'll need a source of ammonia. Many people use ammonium chloride (you can find this online) while others use fish food. Do not use household ammonia as it contains additives that are toxic to your fish.
Next, add all your gravel, plants, and decorations. These provide a valuable surface area on which the bacteria can live. Once installed, add dechlorinated water to your small or big fish tank.
Check your water's pH level using the test kit. Ensure that it is above 7 (most water coming from US taps is above 7). Anything below seven could result in a failed cycle, so check it now to be safe.
Add the ammonia to the tank. You'll want to add small amounts until you hit 2-4 ppm of ammonia (use your test kit to keep checking this and add small amounts until you hit this level).
Wait a week or so. After that point in time, check for the presence of nitrites. Your ammonia levels should decrease, as well, so add about half the ammonia you put in earlier. Keep your ammonia levels below four ppm.
Within the next few days, check for nitrates. You should see your ammonia and nitrite levels drop, as well.
Keep testing your water. Once the ammonia and nitrite levels reach zero, add in the same amount of ammonia you put in at the beginning. Check back in 24 hours. If the ammonia and nitrite levels are zero, your tank has cycled! If not, wait until they reach zero, add the ammonia, and re-do this last final test until you can add ammonia and have it disappear in 24 hours.
Congratulations! You've Set Up Your Home Aquarium Correctly
If you have a fully cycled tank, complete with decorations, gravel, and a filtration system, you've set your tank up correctly. Add some fish, and they should be alright! If you're not sure which fish to get, this guide might help.
Please remember to change the water and clean the tank periodically. Add fish gradually. Adding too many fish at once could overwhelm the bacteria established in the tank and cause issues. If you're also thinking of getting a betta fish, know that you can't just randomly add other fish types in your tank. Here are some of the best fish types that go well with bettas.
After adding beautiful fish like the Blood Parrot fish or the betta fish, monitor the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels to ensure that they don't get out of hand. If you notice them rising, change the water more frequently until the levels slow down. Other than that, with an adequately cycled tank, the amount of maintenance that you'll have to do on your home aquarium should be minimal!