Tuesday, August 12, 2014

More fish, a bigger tank, a brighter future

Long-time readers will know that I have a fish tank, and that I take the ownership of pets seriously, including fish. That said, according to "expert" fish enthusiasts, I still sometimes do things the wrong way.

This past weekend my daughter and I went to the pet store to get some more cat food, fish food, and aquarium filters. We came home with all of these, some plants, and half a dozen White Clouds.

Last time I attempted to add White Clouds to my tank was early last year, when we still had the last two Black Neons. I also added three Black Kuhli Loaches, and while two of the Loaches survived (the third died after hanging out on the water heater, burning himself, then succumbing to his wounds), not one of the White Clouds made it. One by one, over the following week they all went belly up. I blamed the Black Tetras for picking on them (I'd seen them harassing the Clouds) so I decided I wouldn't add any more fish until the Black Tetras were gone.

Just so you know, I didn't have two Tetras living on their own. Okay, I did, but they were the last survivors of a larger school, so when they finally went to that big fish tank in the sky I added another Kuhli Loach and a dozen Neon Tetras. All bar two of the Neons made it, but as I expected to lose a couple of them that was an acceptable loss. It helps that PetSmart offers a 14-day money back guarantee. Yes, even on dead fish.

So I had 10 Neons and 3 Kuhli Loaches living in a 10-gallon tank, and I was adding 6 White Clouds. To paraphrase Amity Island's Chief Brody, I was going to need a bigger tank.

At 24" wide, I knew my coffee table/aquarium stand was large enough (just) and sturdy enough to hold a 20-gallon tank, and searching PetSmart's website showed me they had two 20-gallon tanks on sale. One was on-sale at $50 but was just the tank with a hood & fluorescent light. The other was $80 more but was a "starter kit", so it came with a hood with LED lights (Ooh!), a filter, a heater, a net, a strip thermometer, etc.

Now I needed a new, larger filter as my current one is only rated for a 10-gallon tank, and it's so old that Poseidon only knows how it's still running, but the rest of the stuff I'd get in the "starter kit"? I have a net, and a strip thermometers costs about $2, and the larger the tank the more stable the temperature, so a new heater may not be necessary, but a hood with LED lights? Ooh! New tech! Shiny!

Because I take pet ownership reasonably seriously I researched LED lights for aquariums, and discovered that unless you really, really, really know what you're doing, the fish enthusiast community does not recommend LED lights with a planted tank, and I have plants in my tank. In fact I'd just added more plants to my already planted tank. Don't get me wrong, you can have LED lights with a planted tank, you just need to make sure they're outputting light in the correct PAR wavelength, or something. And cheap LED lights, the type you get in cheap "starter kits", apparently they don't output the right PAR wavelengths. But I know fluorescent lights work for planted tanks, so the cheaper tank seemed the way to go. I'd still have to buy a larger filter, but I was saving $30 vs the "starter kit", and $20-$30 is about what a 20-gallon filter would cost me, so it's not like I was spending more to get less. (Okay, I would be getting less, but I'd be spending less, and the stuff I wouldn't get for spending more I didn't really need anyway.)

Then I lucked out. While at PetSmart I discovered they had a sale where if you bought a tank & hood combo (which I was doing), you save 50% off a filter, so I was able to pick up a filter rated for a 30-gallon tank for $13, so I spent $20 less than the "starter kit" and not only got better equipment but it was better suited for my particular tank. Bargain! But it's a 30-gallon filter, right? Why didn't I get a 20-gallon filter? Because experience and research has shown me that a filter's rating cannot be trusted, and you're better off getting more filter than you think you need.

In my excitement at finally upgrading to a 20-gallon tank (this wasn't really on a whim; it's something I've wanted to do for a long time), it wasn't until I got home that I fully comprehended just what lay ahead of me. I needed to move 19 fish from one tank to another. And the tanks needed to switch places so I needed to drain the first tank before I could physically pick it up. And I needed to move the substrate from the first tank to the second and that couldn't really be done with the fish in either tank, so the fish needed to be transferred to a holding container, and they needed to spend as little time in there as possible because I needed to minimize the impact of the move on them, and that meant keeping their water change to a minimum so I couldn't just dump the water from the 10-gallon tank but even if I managed to retain all 10-gallons the fish would still be undergoing a 50% water change, and...transferring fish from one tank to another is not necessarily an easy thing to do.

It's not just moving the fish. I didn't want to start them off in a brand new ecosystem. I needed to keep the same filters and gravel/substrate, and as much of their old water as possible, in order to replicate as much as possible the living conditions of their old tank, but with the new plants and new filter there was still a chance the new tank would cycle and go through an ammonia spike then a nitrite spike, either of which can be deadly to fish.

The optimal way to move fish from one tank to another is to set up the second tank and have it running for a month or so to make sure it's cycled properly, then net the fish, bag them, acclimate them to the water in the new tank, and then finally set them free in their new home. I could't do that because the new tank had to take the place of the old tank.

I started by siphoning off 2 gallons of water into my first bucket, pulled the plants (and marvelled at just how long their root system had become; these were obviously not the plants I just bought but were established, older plants), dropped them in the bucket, then hooked my 10-gallon filter over the edge of that bucket, essentially creating a 2-gallon aquarium with conditions almost identical to the 10-gallon tank.

I scooped out the White Clouds and dumped them in the bucket, along with all bar the three swiftest, most agile Neons. After unsuccessfully chasing them around the tank then noticing how fast their gills were opening & closing, and realizing I was not minimizing their stress levels as intended, I left them alone until I'd siphoned off all bar an inch or so of water. Trapped in a small pool, surrounded by substrate, the little buggers were much easier to catch. At this stage the Loaches were easier to net too, although with their eel-like bodies they didn't remain trapped in one area like the Neons but were able to writhe their way around the almost-empty tank.

Using a new (clean) plastic Solo cup I scooped most of the substrate into another bucket then switched the two tanks over. Some of the nasty, brown water tagged along with the substrate, so in retrospect I should have used my hands. Although the substrate looked nasty, because I wanted to replicate the living conditions as much as possible between the two tanks I couldn't rinse off the substrate or the chlorine in the tap water would kill off the beneficial bacteria that live in the substrate, but I could certainly pour off that nasty, dirty water. I'd managed to save 9 gallons of mostly clean water, so I didn't need to keep the filthy stuff from the bottom of the tank.

With the substrate now mostly water free I added it back to the tank, poured in 2 gallons of the old water, replanted the plants, added the remaining water (except for the bucket with the fish in it), 2 gallons of conditioned tap water (carefully measured to ensure it was the same temperature as the tank water), then hooked up both the 10 and the 30-gallon filters. Remember what I said earlier? More filtration is not necessarily a bad thing. Finally I carefully lowered the bucket containing the fish into the now almost full aquarium and tipped it sideways, then tipped it a little more, and a little more, until it was almost completely upended and the fish had swum out into their new home, then I topped off the tank.

Although just a few inches larger (in each dimension), the 20-gallon tank is (obviously) twice as large as the 10-gallon. Almost immediately the schooling pattern of the Neons became apparent, and just like that I realized that as happy as I was with my new 20-gallon tank...I wanted to go bigger. Alas (or perhaps fortunately) there is literally not enough room for a larger tank.

If I were just starting out, knowing what I do now, I'd have started with a 20-gallon. It doesn't require any more maintenance than a 10-gallon tank, it looks a lot more impressive, and it provides a larger living space for your fish. "But Cap'n!" you say, "don't the pet stores keep Betta fish in tiny cups? How is a small tank cruel?"

To that I say, if you want to keep a pet, any pet, do your homework. Research the pet first so you know what kind of home it needs, and how to look after it. For fish, learn what it means to cycle a tank. Read up on ammonia and nitrate spikes. And if you have your eye on a particular species of fish, such as Bettas (aka Siamese fighting fish) learn as much as you can about them first, what's their native habitat like, etc., before you buy them.

This is not an expert's guide to owning fish because I'm not an expert. This entry is proof positive of that. If you want your own fish tank, or any pet for that matter, do your research.


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