It is common for someone new to the hobby to forget that routine maintenance is essential to keeping your aquarium alive. Without regular upkeep nitrogen can build up, fish may become sick, or you may fail to notice a piece of equipment is failing. The goal of regular maintenance is to avoid these issues or catch them before any harm may come to your fish.
The hardest part about doing the maintenance is simply remembering to do it on time. One of the easiest recommendations that I’ve heard is to relate these maintenance steps to something you normally do such as paying your mortgage/rent or picking a day when you don’t work when you have time to work on the aquarium.
Feed And Examine Your Fish
Old school aquarists didn’t have the methods that we have today to test the quality of water in our tanks. Instead, each day when they fed their fish they would watch to make sure each fish had their fill of food, that they were all swimming without difficulty, and that none of the fish exhibited signs of disease. This by far is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your fish are safe and happy. I often hear, “my fish suddenly died” and although that can happen, more commonly it is a case of us not really looking at our fish closely for several days and failing to notice their downward trend. It’s understandable too, life often gets in the way and certain things must get done, but just a couple minutes a day will save you money in the long run.
The first thing you want to do is add food to your tank and make sure you see all of your fish eating. If you see any stragglers, make sure they are at least getting some food and look them over for shortened fins or bite marks. What commonly happens is several fish get a majority of the food and start to grow bigger and then begin to bully the smaller fish. If this is the case you may need to add food in two seperate spots so the smaller fish don’t have to compete as much for food. Additionally you will want to look for any discoloration, fish that are struggling to swim or stay upright, and any other odd behavior. If you see any of these issues it may be a sign of poor water quality, bullying, or disease and can be your first warning that something needs to be addressed.
Partial Water Change
If you are familiar with the nitrogen cycle, then you know that with time nitrogen will begin to build up in your aquarium and the best way to take it out is doing a water change. The general recommendation is to change out at least 50% of the water in your tank every month, but it is best to spread this out. That is why it is better to do a 25% change every other week.
To perform a water change, you will need a bucket and gravel vacuum as well as an algae sponge if you like to keep your aquarium glass crystal clear. Begin by unplugging any filters to prevent them from running dry then take the sponge and scrub the walls of the tank which have algae growth on them. Let the tank stand for 15-20 minutes to let the debris settle on the top of the substrate. After this time, insert the gravel vacuum and begin a siphon. There are several ways to do so (and instructions are included with the vacuum) but I personally do so by inserting the large end of the vacuum fully into the water and sucking on the other end like a straw until the water begins to rush down.
At this point, gravity will take over and water will continue to be drawn out of the aquarium so place this end into the bucket and focus on the end that is still in the water. Your goal is to move slowly in the tank to disturb as little debris as possible. If you have gravel substrate, you can stick the vacuum straight down into the gravel and watch as the debris is pulled out of your tank. After the water being siphoned turns clear, lift the vacuum straight up out of the substrate and allow the gravel to fall to the bottom, then move to a new spot and repeat. If the substrate is sand, you cannot insert the gravel vacuum into the sand without removing it all from the aquarium. Instead, lower the vacuum to about half an inch to an inch above the sand and allow the siphon to remove the debris which is resting on top. Continue this process, but be aware of how much water you have removed (a lot of people who do this the first time overfill their bucket and spill water on the floor). Once you have removed the desired amount of water, lift the gravel vacuum out of the aquarium to break the siphon. Properly dispose of the water (plants love this nitrogen rich water) and then fill the tank back up to its proper level before turning your filters back on.
Perform Water Tests And Record Results
Although you will be monitoring your fish each day, performing water tests certainly doesn’t hurt. In fact, if you do notice discolored, stressed fish the odds are high that one of your water parameters is off and testing your water will tell you the specific problem. Test your aquarium’s pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate and write the results down in a notebook for every tank you have set up. This is important because you can begin to notice trends such as a slow build up of nitrate and address them before any harm occurs.
Unless you are using a canister or under gravel filter the filter media should be cleaned approximately once a month. Since there are many different types of filters with variations depending on brand, the process of cleaning will be covered in a different article. The general idea though is to remove the filter media and wash off the built up debris. Do not do this with chlorinated tap water or you will kill all of the bacteria on the filter media and have to re-cycle your aquarium. Instead, use the water removed from your tank during the water change and scrub the filter media off with your hand to remove the loose debris. If you use carbon, replace it with new carbon.
Visually Inspect Equipment
It is a good time while doing this water change and filter cleaning to quickly inspect the equipment which is running your aquarium. I highly recommend having a thermometer in your tank to ensure the heater is functioning properly. You will also want to check over your filter and make sure debris hasn’t built up on the media and greatly slowed down the flow. This is especially important if you have decided to stick with the cartridge filter for a hang on back because after three to four months of cleaning, they eventually become clogged and the cartridge must be replaced. Check over any other equipment you may have such as air pumps, auto water top offs, or lights in order to ensure there are no leaks or undesired noises which need to be fixed or replaced.