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15 Common Fish Tank Problems and How to Avoid Them

Freshwater fish tank with driftwood

Aquarium keeping is a fun and rewarding activity that can provide years of enjoyment, education and even stress relief. When you’re new at it, however, it’s easy to do things that might not be good for your fish or your stress level.

Here are a few of the most common fish tank problems that beginning hobbyists experience.

1. Starting with too small of an aquarium. Small aquariums can be more difficult to maintain than larger ones and are not well-suited to beginners. Conditions tend to be more stable in larger aquariums, and if things start to go wrong, you have more time to correct them. Aquariums 20 to 55 gallons are ideal for first time aquarists. Always start with the largest aquarium your space and budget allow.

2. Not cycling the aquarium. It takes time to establish the biological balance in an aquarium. While there are products on the market that help speed up this process, the safest way to cycle a newly set up aquarium is to 1) Add just a few fish initially, 2) feed sparingly and 3) Test ammonia and nitrite levels until they stabilize at zero. Repeat this process until the aquarium is fully stocked.

3. Buying fish on the same day as the aquarium. A newly set up aquarium is not ready for fish on the first day. A new aquarium set up should be run for a minimum of 2 to 3 days before the first fish are introduced.

4. Adding too many fish to a new aquarium. A new aquarium is a biological clean slate. The microbes that filter water and create balance in the aquarium are not established and a sudden overload of fish waste can cause toxic ammonia and nitrite levels to rise to dangerous and even lethal levels. This can also result in a longer than normal cycling period.

5. Not testing water in a new aquarium. It’s impossible to know if ammonia or nitrite problems are developing or it’s safe to add fish to your new aquarium without testing water. Existing fish often adjust to slowly rising ammonia and nitrite levels and may not show signs of distress until it’s too late. New purchases can be severely stressed if added to an aquarium with high levels because they do not have time to adjust. There is no magic “safe” time interval for adding new fish, and you can’t see ammonia or nitrite in water. Testing is the only way to know if your aquarium water is safe.

6. Overstocking. When you’re new to fishkeeping, you want to buy every fish you see. But there is a limit to how many fish a beginner aquarium can hold, regardless of how large it is or how efficient the filter is. Many fish grow larger after they are purchased, and some fish are territorial and become aggressive when crowded with other fish. Always err on the side of having fewer fish in your aquarium rather than too many.

7. Overfeeding. It’s normal to worry about your fish going hungry, but you can actually cause more harm by feeding too much. A new aquarium should be fed once a day, and all food should be consumed within two minutes. Uneaten food can pollute the water and cause ammonia and nitrite levels to rise.

8. Buying a filter that is too small. You can’t really over-filter an aquarium, but it’s fairly easy to under-filter one. Most beginner fish tank filters are rated based on how many gallons the aquarium holds. This rating system works well for the most part, however, heavily populated aquariums, or those with large predatory fish or fish that generate large amounts of waste should be fitted with oversized or multiple filters. For best results, purchase a filter that is rated for an aquarium a little larger than the one you own.

9. Seeking advice from too many sources. It’s important to research equipment and livestock purchases before making them, but asking the same question of a number of different “experts” can sometimes result in confusion because everyone has a different opinion or method for success. When you’re new to aquarium keeping, it’s hard to know what techniques will work best for you. Stick with one reliable source of information at first, and follow their advice until you feel confident enough to try things on your own.

10. Compromising quality for price. No one wants to overpay for anything, but the saying “You get what you pay for” often applies in the aquarium world and with your initial fish tank set up. Reliable, quality equipment may cost a little more, but your fishes’ lives depend on it.

11. Impulse buying. Always research new fish before purchasing them to make sure they are compatible with existing inhabitants and will not outgrow your aquarium. Some fish have special water chemistry needs such as lower pH or alkalinity, which your tap water may not provide. Also, if fish you are considering buying are specialized feeders, make sure you are able to provide the proper food for them.

12. Leaving the aquarium light on all the time. Like all animals, fish need a resting period, and it should be the same period every day. In nature the day/night cycle is fairly consistent, especially in the tropics. Leaving the aquarium light on all the time stresses your fish, and also contributes to unsightly algae growth. Putting your aquarium light on a timer is an easy way to provide a consistent light cycle. If the aquarium is used as a night light in a child’s bedroom, turn the light off and draw the curtains during the day to simulate nighttime for your fish.

13. Overcleaning. When an aquarium is first set up, the biological balance is fragile and unstable. Avoid scrubbing ornaments, stirring or vacuuming the gravel or cleaning the filter when it doesn’t really need it, as this can destroy beneficial bacteria and upset the balance. If your aquarium or filter seems to need cleaning in the first 2 to 3 weeks after setup, the filter may be too small for the job, you may have too many fish, or you may be overfeeding. 

14. Topping off for evaporation instead of doing a water change. Adding water to your aquarium when it evaporates is called “topping off”. Doing this instead of performing a water change on a regular basis will result in an accumulation of pollutants such as nitrate and phosphate and a drop in pH and alkalinity. This stresses your fish and leaves them more susceptible to disease. Change out 10% of the water in your aquarium every week or 25% every 2 weeks.

15. Insufficient cover. Aquarium decorations provide habitat, make your fish feel secure, reduce stress and enhance their colors. Fish often hide because there are not enough decorations in the aquarium, seeking refuge behind a heater, filter tube or other object.

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