Choosing the right Equipment for your freshwater aquarium

Knowing exactly what types of equipment you need before you begin to set up your aquarium will save you time, frustration, and money. The aquarium market is vast and it is easy for someone to get lost in it all. Hopefully after reading this page you will have a better understanding of the types of equipment you need, and don’t need.

Choosing your aquarium can be very exciting. I love going to my local fish store to check out their selection and imagining what that tank would look like in the corner of my living room. Shape and size are a two things you may want o consider. Perhaps you want your tank to sit in the corner of your room. Well they make aquariums that are 3 sided and fit perfectly into a corner. You should purchase the largest aquarium you can afford or are willing to spend. The reason behind this is that the more total water volume and aquarium holds, the easier it is to maintain a stable system. I often hear around the forum community that “the solution to pollution is dilution”. Basically meaning the bigger our tanks are, the more tolerant they are to our mistakes and fluctuations in temperature and changes in water quality.

The shape of your aquarium also plays a role. An aquarium with a larger surface area allows for a better surface gas exchange and will allow oxygen to enter your water more easily. Other reasons you may want to consider the shape and size of your aquarium is ease of aquascaping and tank maintenance. You have to remember that you need to be able to reach the bottom of your aquarium so a taller aquarium (or a short person) may require a step to be able to reach over the aquarium rim. Large tanks over a few hundred gallons may require a snorkelling mask and some swim trunks to reach the bottom! With aquascaping it depends on your personal preference. With planted tanks, a taller aquarium will allow you to keep taller plants, however a wider aquarium will give you a larger footprint to plant many different foreground, midground, and background plants. A larger footprint will also give you more room to place decor and other hiding spots for your fish. Some fish are bottom dwellers and require a larger footprint to easily swim around. And most fish are horizontal swimmers, not vertical swimmers. Meaning they swim back and forth, not up and down. You will also need to decide if you want an overflow drilled into your tank. An overflow is a device that carries water from the display tank into a sump beneath the tank. You can still have a sump without a built in overflow drilled into your tank, you just have to use a less reliable overflow box that carries water from the tank to the sump via siphon over the back glass. (For more about sumps see filtration). These are all just a few things you should keep in mind when choosing your tank.

Aquarium backgrounds

Having a background on your aquarium can make your fish stand out and hide unsightly cords at the same time. The easiest type of background is a vinyl background that you can glue or tape to the back glass. These can be found at your local fish store and can be found in several different colors and patterns. If you want a more permanent background with a smoother look, consider painting the back glass. If you lack artistic skills like me, a simple blue or black painted background will do just fine.

The stand

I personally like to build my own stands so I can design the stand however I like. If you do decide to build your own stand, please be sure you build it strong enough and level. Remember that water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, plus the weight of your decor, substrate, and equipment. It’s safe to say that an aquarium weighs 10 pounds per gallon in all. So a 50 gallon aquarium will weigh roughly 500 pounds. Larger aquariums over a few hundred gallons may require you to reinforce your floor. Please consult a contractor before installing large aquariums to ensure your floor will hold the weight. If you don’t want to build your own stand, ask your local fish store to recommend a stand that is right for your aquarium.

Where to put your aquarium

You want your aquarium to be located in a place where the whole family can enjoy it but there are a few areas you want to avoid. Places like hallways with too much traffic may upset your fish. You should keep your aquarium out of the kitchen due to the fluctuations in room temperature, humidity, cleaning chemicals and traffic. You should also avoid placing your tank in direct sunlight, as this can increase the temperature of your tank water as well as cause unwanted algae to grow. Living rooms, dens, and bedrooms make great places for both you and your aquarium to be happy.

Quarantine Tanks (Q-Tank or hospital tank)

The last thing you want is for one of fish to get sick, but you still need to be prepared if that does happen. Having a quarantine tank is crucial for larger systems and recommended for all systems. A quarantine tank allows you to quarantine new fish so you don’t introduce a sick fish into your aquarium and risk the health of all your other fish. It also allows you to separate and treat any fish that may become sick. Some serious aquarists have a Q-tank set up and running all the time, while others simply have the necessary equipment to set one up on the spot if needed. You don’t need all the bells and whistles for your hospital tank, all you need is a small aquarium, and normally a 10-20 gallon works just fine, a heater, and an adequate filter just for the Q-tank.

Choosing your substrate

Substrate can help add to the overall biological filtration and take some of the load off your filter. When choosing your substrate, it is really up to you what you want. You could choose sand, rocks, gravel, river stones or even no substrate at all. The only time it really matters is when you have bottom dwelling fish that require a specific type of substrate. For instance if you want catfish you need a smooth substrate like small round pebbles so it doesn’t irritate their skin as they rub across it. If you are growing high maintenance plants you may want to consider an aquatic soil or clay. This can cloud up the water for a few weeks but will eventually go away and your plants will love it. Regardless of the type of substrate, it is recommended you use 1-2 pounds, or roughly 2 inches of substrate to cover the bottom of your aquarium.

Filtration

There are many different types of filtration in this hobby, some better than others, but the 3 main components of filtration are mechanical, chemical and biological. Mechanical filtration is the removal of large particles in the water column through a foam filter or filter floss. Chemical filtration is the use of activated carbon to remove harmful chemicals from the water. Biological filtration uses porous media to attract beneficial aerobic bacteria to colonize and allow for the nitrogen cycle to take place. When choosing a filter, you should select one strong enough to filter your water 5-10 times per hour. So for a 50 gallon aquarium, you want a filter that pumps 250-500 gallons per hour.

Under gravel filters

Under gravel filters are placed below the gravel and use pumps or air stones to force water through the gravel, allowing beneficial bacteria to flourish. In my opinion these filters are outdated and should not be used. They are ineffective, and clog up causing more problems down the road.

Sponge filters (or internal filters)

Internal filters use an air stone to move air through a small sponge or filter cartridge. These filters are only recommended for pico aquariums (under 5 gallons) due to their lack of filtering abilities.

Hang on back filters (aka HOB or power filters)

These are probably the most common filters found on small to medium sized aquariums. This is partially due to their ease of use and their ability to process and clean your tank water very well. Like their name suggests, these filters hang on the back rim of your aquarium glass, and use a pump to pull water into the filtration chamber, forcing the water through mechanical, chemical and biological filter media. Some HOB filters use easy to change cartridges. Although this may make maintenance a bit quicker, I would suggest using a filter that allows you to customize the types of media you use. What I use and recommend is the Hagen Aquaclear filter because you can place bags of whatever type of media you want in the media basket, and you can use much more media than you can with a flimsy cartridge. If you would rather use replacement cartridges I would recommend the Marineland bio wheel filter. The biological media on this filter is built into a wheel that turns as water flows around it. The wheel rotates and exposes itself to both water and air, providing a great environment for beneficial aerobic bacteria to flourish.

Canister filters

Canister filters are very popular with medium sized to larger aquariums. These are external filters that pump water from the tank through a hose and into the canister filter, where it is forced through mechanical, chemical, and biological filter media and then back into the tank through another hose. Canister filters are so popular because of their ability to process large volumes of water through a lot of media. This is important for tanks with a lot of fish that produce a lot of waste. Using a canister filter will help polish your water until it’s crystal clear. One downside to canister filters is that they can be slightly harder to clean and begin to lose flow as they get clogged until they are cleaned out again. Because of this, if you are lazy about keeping up with regular filter maintenance, trapped debris and detritus can lead to an increase in nitrates. For this reason the canister filter has received the nick name “nitrate factory” among fellow aquarists.

Wet/dry trickle filters (or sumps)

Sumps are by far the best type of filter available in the aquarium hobby today. Although more popular with saltwater tanks, these filters still work great in freshwater as well. A sump is normally placed beneath the tank and concealed within the stand. Not only is your filtration hidden in the stand, this also allows you to place other unsightly equipment in the sump like heaters, thermometers and powerheads. To use a sump, you must have either a built in overflow drilled into your tank, or an overflow box to carry water from your display tank to the sump. Water would then enter the sump and be forced through the filter media, and then pumped back into the tank. Sumps add a few extra gallons of water to the total system volume, and remember the quote “the solution to pollution is dilution”? This type of filtration is also highly customizable in the type of filter media you use. I have seen sumps with filter socks to strain out large particles, even a system of shelves to support different layers of media. It is easy to see why this is the number one choice in filtration for serious aquarists.

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