The Beginner’s Guide to Aquarium Maintenance



Fish seem like the easiest pets to take care of, right? There’s no litter box, no need to take them outside, and feedings take about as much effort as shaking a can of grated parmesan over pizza.

A fish’s life may be simple, but the work involved in owning one certainly isn’t.

If you’re the proud new owner of an aquarium, dropping in the fish and calling it a day is a surefire way to end up over the toilet bowl, saying your goodbyes. Aquarium maintenance requires a lot of commitment for your fish to stay healthy and active.

Here are some helpful tips for taking care of your new aquatic friends:

Cycle the Tank

First thing’s first–you’ll need to cycle your aquarium before adding fish. Essentially, this means facilitating enough healthy bacteria in the water to get rid of harmful nitrites and ammonia, which regulates the nitrogen cycle.

The nitrogen cycle breaks down into three stages:

  • Stage 1 (Bad): Uneaten food, rotting plants, and waste from the fish break down, releasing ammonia, which is deadly to fish in large amounts.
  • Stage 2 (Also bad): Bacteria forms to combat the ammonia, but also releases another type of harmful chemical called nitrites.
  • Stage 3 (Good): A final bacteria forms to eat the nitrites, which releases a harmless chemical called nitrates. (It’s fine in small amounts.)

The water is deemed safe for your fish when healthy bacteria can eat the ammonia and nitrites as quickly as they form (stage 3). It’s crucial to add fish to the tank after the cycling process since they’re not likely to survive the first two stages. Completing the cycle can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.

Monitor the Water

Because those dangerous chemicals are floating around in your aquarium, the next step is to monitor them. Get yourself a water testing kit to keep track of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates, ensuring they don’t reach deadly levels.

You’ll also want to monitor the pH levels, which determine the acidity of the water. Keep in mind, different species of fish require different pH levels. (So be sure to find out what’s best for your new pet.)

Stay on Top of Cleaning

Proper aquarium care involves much more than wiping fingerprints off the glass. Regular cleaning is necessary for your fish to thrive in their new home. The frequency depends on the type of fish, how many, and the size of the tank. Both saltwater and freshwater aquarium maintenance requires a thorough cleaning at least every 1-2 weeks.

Scrub the inside walls of the tank to remove any algae buildup. A cloth, algae scraper or toothbrush works best. If there’s significant growth, you can always try eliminating algae with siphonaria limpets, which are small, air-breathing snails. They feed on algae, especially when it grows on rocks, which seriously cuts down your cleaning time.

During each cleaning, you’ll need to remove and replace a third of the water. You can use a cup or pitcher, but a siphon is the easiest way. Designate a bucket to use solely for your aquarium, and empty the water into it. Dump it out, replace it with fresh tap water, adjust the temperature to match what is already in the tank, and add water conditioner.

Trim any live plants, clean the filter, check the fish for any signs of stress, and test the water while you’re at it.

Final Tips for Aquarium Maintenance

As with any new pet, learning the ropes can be a bit overwhelming. When purchasing an aquarium, remember that the store representatives are your guides. They can answer any plaguing questions, demonstrate specific techniques, and provide tips and resources.

Cleaning, testing, scrubbing, and monitoring is a lot, but creating a routine will help keep you on track. Fish are great pets, and maintaining their home will ensure they stay that way.

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