Excerpts from: Keeping Murphy Out of Your Aquarium
What's wrong with your aquarium? Cloudy water, biological and chemical filtration, fish, (healthy, dying or murderous), pH and the mysterious buffer are covered in 'Keeping Murphy Out of Your Aquarium' which is presently out of print for revisions. The medicine section and disease sections were in dire need of an update. The following information is excerpted from the book by Alice Burkhart, which one day she honestly hopes to get back into print, only better. (This book will save your fish, money and time.) These are small excerpts, for crises. Hope they help. Happy fishkeeping. (Oh, most of the fish graphics and photos are on Aquarium Info page, my home page and art page. Publication of photos, graphics, text, articles or information from my pages, whether on the Internet, or any commercial use requires licensing. Copyright Alice Burkhart, 1999, All Rights Reserved. Email for licensing information.)
Murphy's Law and Aquariums:
'Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong' doesn't have to apply. The more you know about your aquarium, the fewer dead fish you are likely to have.
New book co-written by Alice Burkhart, 'Pocket Guide to the Care and Maintenance of Aquarium Fish' is available on Amazon, most bookstores, and probably in your public library next year. Everything Fishy doesn't have a major book wholesaler, so at this time, we can't sell it.
My book Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium includes specific environmental requirements for tropical community fish suitable for beginners, including: algae eaters, bala sharks, barbs, clown loaches, corydoras catfish, danios, gouramis, guppies, mollies, otocinclis, platies, plecostomus, rasboras, red-tail and rainbow (labeo) sharks, silver dollar fish, and tetras. Bettas are labyrinth fish, like gouramis, and have the same environmental requirements EXCEPT they will not peacefully share a tank with their own species. (In other words, you may have several gouramis in one tank, but only one betta. Do not put a betta in with your gouramis.)
Specific information on ick, ich, white spot, or by its scientific name ichthyophthirius is offered. Other parasites, fungi and bacterial diseases are covered in broader terms, with an emphasis on quarantine, good water quality and common sense.
An introduction to your aquarium.
This introductory document assumes you have purchased a tank setup with an undergravel filter, because these are the least expensive setups sold; and thousands are sold without instructions. While I use supplemental external pumps on some of my tanks, all of them have undergravel filters. Undergravel filters work, provided you follow the rules. Of course, my first tank didn't come with any rules, or any instructions at all. That's why this page is here, and why 'Keeping Murphy Out of Your Aquarium' was written. Fish gave their lives before I read those 500 page aquarium books. How many fish? I'd hate to guess.
Tank assembly and setup varies. Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium has a couple of diagrams that may be very helpful on page 8 and 9. One thing beginners, (and hobbyists returning to their hobby), need to know: De-chlorinate. As of 1997, you may need a de-chlorinator that breaks chloramine lock to treat city water everywhere in the U.S. Letting water stand only allows the chlorine to evaporate, it will not break chloramine lock or remove chloramines.
Rinse everything going into an aquarium in clean, clear water. Use no soap, detergent or cleansers on the tank or anything going in it. Do not put seashells, sand dollars or most sedimentary stones in your freshwater aquarium. Seashells and many stones will drive the pH up and kill the fish.
If you purchased an aquarium with an external pump, tank assembly will be easier. Live plants do prefer aquariums without undergravel filters, so if you are planning a heavily planted tank, an external filter is going to be better. However, a sponge filter and airpump can provide in-the-tank biological filtration that doesn't bother your plants. In the event of a power outage, a backup sponge filter may keep everyone alive a couple of hours longer. The biggest advantage to a back-up sponge filter: once it is seeded with bacteria, it can be easily moved from one tank to another, for quarantine, hospital tanks, etc. A sponge filter can be added at any time, whether the tank is new, old, has gravel, or is bare.
However, without an undergravel filter, the debris that gathers on the tank bottom will take longer to be processed. Before you set the aquarium up and put fish in it, you might want to pick up a filter plate and an inexpensive pump or powerhead to use, in addition to your external filter. It is easier to add an undergravel filter when there are no fish in the tank.
External filters using carbon or zeolite have a slower, somewhat safer break-in cycle. Risks with these come later, because when you depend on chemical filtration, you must maintain it. There will probably be fewer beneficial bacteria to do the work of maintaining water quality. Over time, you may spend more money on filter cartridges and supplies to maintain water quality. Maintenance tips for external or non undergravel filters.
New Tank Syndrome: The Break-In Period.
The fish you buy on set-up are all the fish you can add until your biological filter is established, usually 4 to 6 weeks. A fish added while your tank is in 'Break-In' will die due to sudden introduction to toxic levels of ammonia or nitrite. Your aquarium will develop two species of beneficial bacteria during break-in. These bacteria will feed on the ammonia and nitrites, and multiply to fit the food supply. When enough bacteria are present, ammonia and nitrite test results will show zero, or ideal. When ammonia and nitrite levels are ideal, Break-In is over.
Your first fish should be 'hardy' species, Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium has charts on pages 12-14 that define hardy fish for your water supply.) If you start with hardy fish that are suitable for your water supply, they will probably survive break-in. During break-in the levels of ammonia and nitrites will rise gradually, allowing your hardy, suitable fish to get used to them. (Clown loaches, puffers and catfish are not hardy break-in fish.) Tell the pet store that these will be your first fish, so they have the opportunity to sell you hardy ones. Look for healthy fish, but remind the person waiting on you that this is a new tank, and listen to their recommendations. At least one fish must survive from beginning to end. If any fish die, remove them with a clean net, immediately. Do not add new fish to replace them. Ammonia or nitrite poisoning will cause the fish to appear red around the gills. They may seem to gasp for 'breath' at the top of the water. Different symptoms may need researched, (start with the pet store), and treated.
Break-In timing varies. To speed up the process, acquire some gravel or bio-beads from an established aquarium. Small pet stores with separate tanks may be willing to sell you a fresh bacterial culture from one of their healthy tanks. Ammonia removing resins or chemicals may slow the process of break-in. Large quantities of resins or chemicals may make it take as long as 6 months to develop an adequate biological filter. Avoid packaged bacterial start products that contain enzymes and other chemicals. Their ingredients are an expensive substitute for break-in that may be less effective in the long run. A research study (that I have wished for the time to properly conduct) on the Internet has found one product that contains only the right bacteria as a culture for starting your aquarium, with no enzymes or heterotrophic bacteria. I have tested FritzZyme 7, in new tanks, and tanks undergoing heavy antibiotic treatments. It works. It is sold in small pet stores and on Everything Fishy. (The saltwater version of this product, FritzZyme 9, does a fantastic job on new marine tanks.)
Without a bacterial culture, you can still develop a healthy biological filter. It usually takes at least 3 weeks if the tank temperature is at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Details on the process of break-in start on page 23 of Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium.
If you used no carbon, zeolite, or ammonia removers, 3 to 6 weeks after you added your first fish the biological filter should be mature. Ammonia and nitrite test results that show zero will confirm it. Do not add more fish until you have had your water tested for ammonia and nitrites.
Cloudy water may occur for a variety of reasons. For the first couple of months after setting up your aquarium, the bacteria that process fish wastes will be multiplying to establish the biological filter. The visual effect is more hazy than cloudy, like a clear distortion in the water. The tank will clear itself in a day or two, nothing needs to be done. The same thing occurs when biological filtration has been disrupted for any reason. Enzyme and bacterial start products that you might add to the water, and certain medicines may also cause a hazy appearance.
White cloudiness may have a variety of causes. Fine air bubbles from a powerhead may give the water a slightly white appearance. Adjusting the airflow on the pump can eliminate this cause. Contaminants added to the tank by children, such as flour or milk, would obviously give the tank water a white appearance. When in doubt, smell the water for clues. Look for foreign objects such as a piece of chalk, etc. A prompt 40% to 50% water change is advisable, even if the contaminant doesn't seem to be toxic to fish. If the water smells of shampoo, dish soap, bar soap or bleach, make a bucket of de-chlorinated water and net any living fish out into it immediately. Turn off the pumps and start siphoning the water out. (Whether you do a water change or a bucket, don't panic, and be sure to dechlorinate.) See Water Change.
Cloudy green water is suspended algae, common in spring, summer and fall. Test the water for nitrates, since algae feeds on them. If nitrates are over 50 ppm, do a 30% water change. The greenest tanks usually have external filters. A photographic full sun demonstration of the benefit of fine, wide, filtration, without carbon, phosphate removers or any chemicals. A non-chemical cure is on page 25 of Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium. I've never had to use an algae killer, but I do know that many of them will kill your fish by rapid oxygen reduction. Filtration products to help remove the suspended algae spores can be found on Everything Fishy's maintenance supply page.
A new aquarium usually has the highest natural pH it will ever have, with all of its natural 'buffering capacity'. 2 to 3 months after setup, or 30 to 45 days after break-in was completed, is a good time to do your first partial water change.
A 25% water change and vacuumming 1/4 of the gravel each month should keep your tank healthy. Always unplug the heater, powerheads and external filters before beginning a water change. Never change more than 1/2 of your aquarium's water at once. Don't forget to dechlorinate new water. Never pick up the aquarium and pour water out. (Don't laugh, I know people who have done this.)
Maintenance of aquariums without undergravel filters:
The maintenance instructions that read 'vacuum 1/4 of the gravel per month' apply to u/g's. With only an external filter, do a 25% water change, rinse the filter cartridges in water removed from the aquarium, then vacuum 100% of the tank bottom to remove decomposing food and fish waste. Always change your carbon if you change your floss, sponge or other biological filtration medium. On a dual external pump, change out 1 cartridge at a time, a couple of weeks apart. Rinse the remaining cartridge in cool, dechlorinated water, to preserve the beneficial bacteria, and your fishes' lives. Comprehensive information on external filters, media choices, chemical, mechanical and biological filtration starts on page 34 of Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium.
Getting your water tested at a pet store is usually free. A 99 cent spiral notebook will give you a place to write your test results down. Additionally, writing down what species of fish you have in the aquarium will help you to remember their names when you are showing off your tank to a friend, or when a fish dies and you need to identify the body. If all of those reasons aren't enough to encourage you to start a log, it is the single best tool for remembering the setup and last water change dates; identifying how 'ich' got in your tank, or discovering how long it's been since the city changed your water supply.
My log is my 'second memory'. A 5 subject spiral notebook allows me to keep track of water change dates and the area of gravel I vacuumed for five tanks, all in one log book. As long as I can read it, it works.
A mature aquarium requires very little care. It's mature biological filter is adequate for large, healthy fish. If it has been months since any new fish were added, the fish have effectively been quarantined. They are accustomed to the tank and each other, so little fighting occurs. (Except at spawning time.)
When you have large beautiful fish that are healthy, and the aquarium doesn't look empty, it may be safest to leave it alone. Feed daily or every other day. Do pH tests once a week, nitrate tests and a water change once a month. If the pH drops, do some extra water changes. But don't add new fish, with the risk of disease and parasites they may carry, unless they are very important to you. I wouldn't add any without putting them through quarantine for at least 10 days in a 10 gallon. The risk is too great, and I get attached to my old friends.
I use a complex formula for stocking, that takes into account the exra ammonia output of larger fish, but a basic formula of one inch of fish per gallon of water will let you know whether you really have the biological space. Remember that fish also need psychological space and boundaries in order to feel safe. Fish that have occupied a tank for a long time will attempt to murder newcomers. Clearing the tank of ornaments and slipping the newcomers in during a water change may help stop the mayhem, but not the risk of acquired disease or parasites. Enjoy your healthy aquarium, but when it is full, it is wiser to start a new tank for a "must have" fish. Instructions for safely starting a second aquarium without waiting weeks to finish break-in are found in Keeping Murphy Out Of Your Aquarium
As your aquarium gets older, the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the tank may drop pH a lot more. The more fish you have in the tank, and the more often you feed them, the more obvious the effect will be. Weekly pH tests are always a good idea, but if your tank is heavily stocked or over 1 year old, they may be vital. Also, read this if your plecostomus has died, and the aquarium is covered with green algae. If your tank is full of fish, your water changes have been every 3 months, and your pH test result was 5.0, don't faint. Everything is normal considering the circumstances of your aquarium. But most of the fish are at high risk of death if you make one wrong move. I know, I killed some fish learning this.