Hints on Aquarium Shopping

STAND: You can either get a stand from the aquarium store, or a nice sturdy table. Some of the metallic stands are quite cheap and attractive. If your floor is uneven, be sure to slip some cardboard and/or wood under the legs to stop it from rocking.

TANK: Glass tanks are cheaper (mine are all glass); but if you’re in a spending mood, acrylic is fine too.

CANOPY & LIGHTING: You have two options.

  1. Many fish stores sell tank hoods with a fluorescent light strip built-in. That’s fine … just be sure to make them place the hood on the tank at the store to verify that it’s a good fit. Don’t get the ones with incandescent lighting.
  2. All my tanks have glass canopies — that’s just two strips of glass hinged together, along with an attachable plastic strip that can be trimmed to accommodate wiring for the heater and the filter. I then place the fluorescent light strips (purchased separately) on top of the glass canopy. That’s just my personal preference because I maintain plants that need bright lighting, which requires more than one fluorescent bulb. You can’t add more lights in the standard tank hoods.

FILTER: Try to stay away from the corner filters that are placed inside the tank. They are a pain to clean, and the air pump makes too much noise. Instead, get a power filter that hangs on the back of the tank.

HEATER: The general rule is about 3 watts per gallon, so for a 20 gallon tank, you should get a 75 or 100 watt heater (they come in increments of 25, 50, 75…).

THERMOMETER: I use the simple, cheap suction-cup thermometers with red alcohol liquid display.

GRAVEL: Get any kind of inert gravel for freshwater tanks (not the dolomite or crushed coral for saltwater or reef tanks). It’s best to get gravel locally since mail order could be very expensive due to the weight. The general rule is one pound of gravel per gallon; so you’ll need 20 lbs for a 20 gallon tank. If you decide to try a densely-planted tank later, you’ll have to add about 5 lbs more, but that can wait till you’re ready to plant. Gravel packaged for freshwater aquariums are generally precleaned and only needs a light rinse — don’t boil this stuff because it has a waxy coating. If someone gives you their old gravel, and you don’t know if it is wax coated or not, you can sterilize it by washing it in a bleach solution, then thoroughly rinsing to get rid of the bleach. If you get the gravel from a home and garden store, that variety is usually not wax coated, and it’s safe to boil.

This is a simple, easy-to-maintain 10-gallon tank, with only one 15 watt fluorescent light. Even with such little illumination, the plants are thriving. That’s because these species don’t need a lot of light, just enough for the one bulb for 14 hours per day. No fertilizer is used — the plants get their nutrients from fish waste.

PLANTS: These are some suggestions for a “low light” tank, for instance, a 20 gallon tank with one 15 Watt fluorescent light.

  • Java moss: a nice ground cover. Place small clumps on gravel, rock, or driftwood. Anchor it with a few pebbles. After a few days,the moss will begin clinging to the surface.
  • Java Fern: attractive plant with large long green leaves. It grows best when tied to a piece of driftwood or rock.
  • Crypt Wendtii: graceful plant with reddish leaves. It grows slow but stays healthy. Plant it in gravel.
  • Naja guadalupensis: Plant it in gravel from cuttings. It’s prolific!

DECORATIONS: Decorations are good as cover for fish. Anything goes; just make sure it’s inert and won’t dissolve in water.

  • If you get driftwood, boil it to sterilize, then let it leach out the tannins for a couple of weeks in a bucket of water (occasionally change out the water), and when you put it in the tank, also add a pouch of activated carbon to absorb the residual tannins that will leach into the tank water. The tannic acid is not harmful to your fish, but will make the water tea-colored. The driftwood will eventually stop leaching.
  • Other cheap decorations include rocks, pebbles and small clay flower pots. A small clay pot actually looks quite cute, either lying empty on its side, or with a small plant in it. Don’t use seashells in a freshwater tank, the calcium carbonate will gradually dissolve.

OPTIONAL STUFF: Air pump and air stone for oxygenating the water. This isn’t really necessary, since the filter does this well. Still, some people like it.


  1. Get a bucket (or two) that is strictly dedicated to tank water changes and nothing else. The idea is to avoid using buckets that have held household cleaning chemicals, just in case someone forgot to rinse it out properly and the fish were accidentally poisoned.
  2. Get a good “vacuum” siphon, for water changes and “vacuuming” debris on the gravel.
  3. Algae cleaning pad and/or scraper. For hard-to-clean crusty algae, I generally scrape it off with a razor blade. For cleaning rock and wood surfaces, use an old toothbrush!
  4. Water conditioner for removing chlorine and chloramine. There are lots of good products on the market.
  5. Net. Get a net! I like to use a white net so I can see what I’m scooping up.
  6. A water test kit to test for nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, and pH. I must confess I hardly use these anymore … after you’ve become experienced at this, you’ll know enough about how to avoid problems. But it’s useful to keep checking yourself when you’re first starting out.

What you have in your mind?