Aquarium equipment – A guide to choosing the basics

Your first visit to an aquatics shop to choose aquarium equipment can be daunting, with dozens of filters, heaters, tanks and much more to consider. What size of tank do you need? Should you buy a tank with lights and filter built in or buy those separately? Do you need an internal or an external filter? What kind and wattage of heater will you need? In addition, there are huge ranges of test kits, water conditioners, fish foods and plant fertilisers to choose from. I hope to break down the array of options to just the essentials for a typical fresh water tank. Let’s go through the basic equipment – filters, heaters, tanks, piece by piece.

What size and shape of tank should you buy?

The best advice anyone gave me was to buy the biggest tank I could afford and had space for. The minimum tank size needed for a limited community of small fish such as the ever popular Neon Tetra, is 60 litres. That is actually the smallest tank size I would advise at all for a new fish keeper because despite the multitude of smaller tanks on the market, there are few fish that do well in them. Furthermore, less water volume means more difficulty keeping water quality acceptable. Ideally, for a mixed community with a variety of peaceful fish a 125 litre tank is a good choice.

Water volume isn’t the only factor to consider choosing a tank. Most fish need that volume in a long, wide tank which gives swimming space, therefore tall, narrow tanks are unsuitable for many species’. Avoid round or globe shaped tanks as they are among the least suitable for fish. Fish swim to and fro, they don’t tend to swim up and down or round in circles;  thus a rectangular shape is a superior choice. Fish also need room to make territory and to get away from other fish in the tank from time to time, consequently tall, narrow tanks and globes limit your choice of compatible fish dramatically.

Aren’t bigger tanks more expensive?

Tanks needn’t cost a fortune –  used tanks abound at bargain prices and often in excellent condition. Choosing used may mean you can buy a larger tank, upgrade to better equipment or most of all, give you a little extra to spend on fish! Some of the smallest aquariums on the market are very expensive to buy and despite their marketing are unsuitable for fish. Personally, I have only bought one tank brand new – my others were second-hand bargains, or in some cases, given to me free by people who were delighted to find a home for them. Buying used means there can be huge savings to be made for the sake of a couple of hours cleaning time.

Filters – internal or external?

Adequate filtration is essential for healthy fish. Filters come in a variety of shapes and sizes; from basic sponge filters all the way to huge external canisters. The right size and type of filter is determined by your tank size and the fish you intend to keep. You also need to consider other factors in addition to removing ammonia and nitrite from the water column. Some fish need a high turnover rate and fast flowing water while others hate water movement. Larger fish produce lots of waste so need a filter big enough to contain plenty of media, whereas very small fish are at risk being sucked into a filter if it’s too powerful. Smaller, less powerful internal or sponge filters are fine for small fish who produce much less waste.

Choosing a heater

Heaters are essential for tropical fish and usually needed in the winter months for temperate species’. Designs vary: basic glass heaters, digital heaters which prevent overheating and external heaters which improve the look of the aquarium. Wattage varies from around 25 watts to 300 watts. As a rule, it takes 1 watt of heat per litre of water to maintain a steady temperature. If there is no exact match, go for the next size up to ensure sufficient heat. As an example, you would buy a 150-watt heater for a 125 litre tank as 125-watt heaters are very rare. I use two 300 watt external heaters for my six-foot tank because multiple heaters are essential in very large tanks to avoid cold or hot spots.

The next articles in this category will go into more detail on the purchase of aquarium equipment….

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