Beginners Guide to Tropical Fish

Welcome to this wonderful hobby! You may be feeling overwhelmed and have many questions to ask. This beginners guide to tropical fish aims to answer as many of those questions as possible. If you still have questions after you are finished reading please use the contact me form to send me your questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.

In case you do not know this yet, aquariums can be split into 4 groups; freshwater coldwater, freshwater tropical, brackish and marine. The term freshwater refers to the water not having salt in it. Marine aquariums are also referred to as saltwater aquariums; they house fish you would normally find in the sea. Brackish aquariums have salt in them, not as much as marine tanks. In the wild you would find brackish fish where the rivers meet the sea.

This website is devoted to freshwater tropical aquariums and fish!, however the advice included in this site will also apply to coldwater tanks.

Most new fish keepers are shocked to find out what has to be done before you buy any fish. People often think it’s as simple as buying a tank, some fish and sticking the two together. Hopefully you haven’t got the fish or the aquarium yet. I would suggest you do things in the following order.

  1. Decide on budget.
  2. Test your water
  3. Do a little research on what fish you would like.
  4. Buy the necessary equipment
  5. Set up aquarium
  6. Cycle your aquarium
  7. Add a few fish
  8. Keep testing water
  9. Aquarium maintenance
  10. When time is right add a few more fish

This may seem like a really odd order to do things in, but years of experience have shown me, this way of doing things will avoid upset and disappointment in the long run.

I was lucky when I started fish keeping. My local pet shop had a great aquatics section with a very experienced and knowledgeable assistant, who gave me plenty of advice and made sure I was on the right track.

Ok so let’s look at look at each of the steps in turn.

Decide On Your Budget

Fish keeping can be expensive; some people spend thousands on their aquariums. While freshwater fish keeping is much cheaper than marine fish keeping, it’s still important to think about the costs first.

You can now buy cheap start aquarium kits, which offer great value for money. The down side is these starter aquariums are often are often too small to house the vast majority of freshwater aquarium fish. There are not many good first freshwater fish which will go in this size tank.

Although it would probably seem logical to start off with a little tank and then get a bigger tank later, if you decide you like the hobby. Small tanks are actually much harder to maintain than big tanks. Any mistakes made with a small tank with effect the fish much faster than in a big tank.

The larger the mass of water the more stable it is. For example a cup of tea gets colder faster than a bath full of water. It’s the same for fish tanks, if the heater failed in a big tank the water will cool slower than if the heater failed in a big tank.

So trust me on this point, a bigger tank is an investment, it will make things easier in the long run. You will need a suitable stand for your tank. I would also recommend you invest in a good filter if possible. Check the section on equipment for further advice on stuff you will need.

Test Your Water

You may never have had to test your water before. It’s something us fish keepers do on a regular basis. Once your tank is up and running these are thing you will need to test for on a regular basis, but right now I just want you to test the pH of your water. The pH will affect the range of fish you are able to keep. It is possible to alter your pH, but as a beginner I would not recommend it. It is far easier to pick fish suited to your waters natural pH.

To test your water you can either do it yourself by buying a testing kit from an aquatics shop or most aquatic shops offer a water testing service. Most kits are easy to follow and come with full instructions.

Do A Little Research On What Fish You Would Like

Now you have your pH results you can start researching your fish. I recommend you have look through the different fish profiles, in particular look at their pH requirement and max size.

There of course some fish beginners should not attempt to keep, these would include Discus, Red Tailed Catfish, Killifish, and Oscars. It is often a not a case of a particular fish being a bad choice, it’s more a combination of fish being a bad choice.

Most people start out with a some livebearer fish such as guppies and some tetra, normally neon tetra, both of these fish are colourful, cheap to buy and not aggressive. Click here, for my recommendations on what I think are good first freshwater fish.

Many experts don’t like the idea of a general mixed community aquarium and suggest instead you should only keep fish from the same part of the world together. The advantage of doing things this way is the aquarium inhabitants will have similar water requirements so no fish has to attempt to live in water which is out of their natural range.

Buy The Necessary Equipment

Now that you have some idea of the fish you would like to keep you can start buying your equipment. It helps to have a rough idea, so you not disappointed later when your tank and set and you find out you can’t keep the fish you wanted to keep because your tank is too small.

Check out the equipment section to help you work out what you need.

Set Up Your Aquarium

Each bit of equipment should come with instructions, read those instructions and follow them to the letter. Also try following the these tips;

  • Do not position your aquarium near direct sunlight – direct sunlight increases algae growth.
  • Make sure your aquarium is level
  • If using placing air stones in the tank, attach them to aquarium floor with plastic suckers before putting the sand or gavel in.
  • Wash gravel or sand in a bucket until the water runs clear.
  • If using live plants, try planting them with the tank half full of water.
  • Fill filter with water before turning on.
  • If using bogwood, soak it in a bucket of water for 48 hours before adding to the aquarium – otherwise it will turn your water brown / orange.
  • Add water conditioner to the water.

Cycle Your Aquarium

Cycling the aquarium makes it safe to add fish, if you don’t cycle your aquarium you run the risk of a new tank syndrome outbreak. Click here for advice on how to cycle an aquarium

It will probably take around a month to cycle your aquarium, and then you will be ready to start adding some fish.


Add A Few Fish

I would suggest adding your most hardy fish first. While your tank is still new it will be at risk of new tank syndrome, so even through you have cycled the tank you still need to be really careful for the few months. For a tank of 60 litres I would start by adding 2 small fish.

When you come back from the aquatic shop with your new fish, you should follow these steps to reduce the stress caused to your new pet.

  • Turn off the tank lights
  • Do not untie the bag which is holding the fish.
  • Float the bag in the aquarium for about 30 minutes, the aim of this is to partly let your new pet get used to their new surroundinga while in the safety of the bag and also to let the bag water reach the same temperature as the tank. This will reduce the shock the fish feels when they are let out.
  • Let the fish out the bag.
  • Keep the lights off for an hour
  • Turn lights back on.
  • Watch the fish

Keep Testing Water

Every time you add new fish you need to go through the same process of testing as when you cycled the aquarium. I will take around 2 weeks for the test results go back to normal. Once back to normal, you can add more fish.

Aquarium Maintenance

Aquariums require regular maintenance to keep them looking good and the fish healthy.

When The Time Is Right Add A Few More Fish

To add more follow the same process as the first time you added fish. 

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