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The Top 13 Mistakes Beginner Aquarium Hobbyists Make

If you're new to the aquarium hobby there are certain mistakes you'll want to avoid.  Be diligent to avoid these mistakes and you'll save yourself hours of frustration and be well on your way to the perfect aquarium!

As a new aquarium hobbyist, there are a variety of mistakes that can easily be made when setting up and maintaining your first aquarium. Usually, the first place most people look for information is at the local fish store because, when the initial thought of having an aquarium takes hold, the natural thing to do is to "go look at some fish". This can be a hit or miss proposition, depending on which employee you talk to. Just like any industry, there are great, knowledgeable employees and there are employees who aren't so knowledgeable in the local fish stores. For those of you reading this, follow the advice given below and you'll save yourself from an endless aquarium nightmare!


1. No Patience:

This is probably the biggest mistake beginners make. And, it is somewhat understandable. The excitement of having an aquarium full of colorful fish has kicked in and the urge to "get it done right now" is hard to resist. However, you must understand that you're setting up a thriving ecological system in a tank and this requires the proper foundation to be successful. Don't concentrate on the fish just yet. Patience is critical. Following this rule will eliminate hours of headaches and frustration.

2. Not Understanding The Nitrogen Cycle:

The nitrogen cycle is a natural occurrence in nature. It occurs on land and in the water. Being a successful aquarist requires an understanding of the nitrogen cycle and its various stages. The good news is you don't have to have a PhD in microbiology to accomplish this! A basic understanding will suffice. For now, just understand that certain stages of the nitrogen cycle can be very toxic to fish eventually killing them if left unchecked.

3. Starting With An Aquarium Too Small:

This is a decision made from having too small of a budget or just plain bad advice. With that being said, it does make good sense to not "go all out" when trying out a new hobby. After all, you may not like it and buying the biggest and best would turn out to be a big waste of money. So, assuming this hobby is right for you, follow this rule. Bigger Is Better. Why? Because, it's easier to keep stable water parameters with a larger volume of water. A change in pH, ammonia, or nitrites ( and they will change! ) will have a more drastic impact on a smaller volume of water. Therefore, if your budget allows, start with a minimum 25 gallon to 30 gallon tank. An aquarium in the 50 gallon range would be ideal!

4. Not Adding Live Plants:

Adding live plants to a freshwater aquarium is an absolute necessity. And yes, you can have a successful aquarium without live plants. However, live plants provide several benefits. Most importantly, they oxygenate the water which your fish and the "good bacteria" in the aquarium need to survive and thrive. Secondly, since plants are more complex organisms than algae, they utilize the "nutrients" in the water more readily (plants and algae feed upon the same nutrients). Think of plants as the big pig at the table eating all of the food and leaving mere scraps for the algae. A small amount of algae in the aquarium is okay. Help to keep it that way by adding live plants.

5. Under-sizing The Filter:

A properly sized filter should turn the aquarium water over 4 to 5 times per hour. And yes, you'll get advice that says 2 or 3 times per hour is fine. But, don't buy an undersized filter to save a few bucks. Efficient mechanical filtration plays a very important role in having a low maintenance aquarium. Remember, a filter slightly larger than needed is just fine. However, a filter slightly smaller than needed is never okay and can lead to a frustrating situation. This hobby is supposed to be fun and enjoyable, not frustrating. Don't frustrate yourself, start off with a mechanical filter sized correctly from the start!

6. Adding Fish to Soon:

Setting up an aquarium isn't a matter of buying the tank, filling it with water, and listening to the "kerplunk" of your fish hitting the water as you immediately add them! Believe it or not, this is a pretty common mistake. The nitrogen cycle must be complete and water parameters must be stable before even thinking about adding fish. Don't be too eager to quickly add fish. Remember to have patience.

7. Adding Too Many Fish At One Time:

After the water parameters have stabilized, it's now safe to add fish. A good rule of thumb is to add 1 to 3 fish at a time. Remember, once the fish are added, the "bio-load" just increased. There are now sources of waste in the aquarium that weren't in there previously. Fish poop, fish respiration through their gills, and uneaten food are sources of waste. It is important to give the mechanical and biological filtration time to "catch up" and adjust to these changes. Resist the urge to add all of your fish at one time. Remember to have patience.

8. Overstocking:

Putting too many fish in an aquarium can overload your filtration system and make it very difficult to keep water parameters in check. This can be bad, as high ammonia levels are very toxic to fish. You may have heard to stock 1 inch of fish per gallon of water in the aquarium. This is misleading. How do you think a 20 inch catfish would do in a 20 gallon aquarium? Not too well. A safer bet would be to take 75% of the total gallons and then apply the "1 inch of fish per gallon of water rule" to that figure. So, a 50 gallon aquarium x 75% would equal 37.5 gallons. Then, stay below 37 1/2 inches of fish (based on mature size not the size when you buy them) and you should be fine.

9. Choosing Incompatible Fish:

Certain species of fish do not get along. In the wild, this isn't a problem because either they don't originate from the same area or, at the very least, there's plenty of room for them to avoid each other. This isn't the case in an enclosed tank. Secondly, some aquarium species are carnivorous. If the other fish in the aquarium are small enough to fit into their mouths, assume that this will happen. And third, not all species of fish require the exact same water parameters. Do your research before buying fish.

10. Overfeeding The Fish:

This is probably the #1 mistake beginners to the aquarium hobby make. Fish may appear to be hungry, but that doesn't mean they are. Think about it. There really isn't much else for the fish to do but swim around and eat. Feeding fish once a day is a good schedule to start with. And yes, the label on the fish food container may say two or three times a day. But, stick with once a day. You won't be starving your fish. Fish can go several days without eating with no ill effects. If ammonia and nitrites are out of whack, withhold food for several days to minimize excess waste until water parameters stabilize. Your fish will be just fine.

11. Not Testing The Water Regularly:

With a newly set up aquarium, testing the water on a regular basis is a must. PH, hardness, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates should be monitored during this phase. Ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates should be checked daily during the start-up cycle. Why? Because, without doing so, you won't know when it's safe to add fish. And besides, since you probably haven't done this before, the practice of testing and interpreting the results will be good for you.

12. Not Changing The Water Often Enough:

Regular water changes are important to maintaining a healthy aquarium. There are different opinions as to how often and how much. Assuming that your aquarium is not severely overstocked, you are not overfeeding, and filtration is sized and working correctly, a 10 - 20% water change once a week should be fine. Regular water changes help remove wastes that build up in the aquarium and is an important task in your maintenance schedule.

13. No Maintenance Schedule:

Having an aquarium full of fish is not a "set it and forget it" hobby. It requires regular maintenance. Depending on the size of your aquarium, plan on spending 1 to 3 hours a week on maintenance. This would include changing the water, testing the water, feeding the fish, cleaning the filter, and handling any problems that may arise. If this time requirement doesn't fit into your schedule, you should probably consider another hobby or look into having an aquarium maintenance service handle this for you.

Remember, every aquarium is different. There is no "one size fits all" strategy. A 10 gallon aquarium will take much less time to maintain than a 50 gallon aquarium. So keep this in mind when considering the time investment for your aquarium set up. Be diligent to avoid these mistakes and you'll save yourself from hours of frustration and be well on your way to the perfect aquarium!

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