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The Natural Aquarium, 7 Tanks and Equipment

Updated on January 28, 2015

It's your tank


Statement of Purpose

To argue for the keeping of aquariums for fun and entertainment as well as mental health and lower blood pressure.

About 2500 years ago someone was fishing one day and said “This is too much like work. I can trap fish and raise them in a pen and eat them when I want to” and the first fish farm was born. They are found in many places, Hawaii (see above), Japan, Asia, etc.

It took us white guys 2400 years to catch on and the Brits build the first public aquarium at Regents Park in London in1853, but the park was started in 1811, the public wasn’t allowed in until 1845, then just two days a week. The idea gained in popularity since that time, first in Europe, then in the US, first as small tanks, then public aquariums.

Wooden frames with pitch were used to hold fish and tropical fish were immediately popular after the Regents Park Aquarium was built, in particular one with a wide range of temperature tolerance, the Paradise Fish related to the Beta and Gourami. This fish is still available and is a very nice fish to keep and in warmer areas can over winter in outside ponds.

People find attending to fish in an aquarium a relaxing, calming experience. I have found the people who do not pay attention to an aquarium are often quite uptight or may have an agenda preoccupying them and distracting them from the beauty around them.

Beauty is all around us. It’s everywhere we look if we take the time. Even in a city like San Diego or Los Angeles, beauty is in the trees, in the sky, and water, in the music and artwork, and in the people themselves.

The question is, do we want to bring a little of that into our homes and offices?

An aquarium adds beauty to a room and graces it with a calm atmosphere that is actually beneficial to you and your family. How? You might ask.

In his book, The LANGUAGE of the HEART (Basic Books, Inc., New York) James Lynch the author notes on page 156 “Blood pressure was highest when people spoke, and lowest when they attended to fish swimming in the tank. More important, blood pressure was lower when people attended to the fish then when they rested quietly in a comfortable chair staring at a blank wall. There is a difference between passive relaxation and actively attending to the external environment in a relaxed state.”

For those of us with no blood pressure problems, the aquarium helps reduce stress, but will not cause your heart to stop. For those who do have this problem, this book is your best change since it provides the easiest, most stress free way to establish a flourishing aquarium and reduce your blood pressure. It’s even less stressful than talking.

The Benefits of This Series

This series of articles will help you understand just how easy keeping a beautiful aquarium or paludarium can be and how inexpensive and trouble free it can be, or it can be as expensive as you choose to make it. Customizing and making choices that expend the price is easily done, just look below in the Paludarium, but it need to be expensive. The journey can be long and frustrating (see the introduction), or it can be as easy as setting it up and letting it run itself, with a little monitoring and maintenance.

This book will help you to do that. Set it up once and rarely bother it except to feed the fish and garden the plants.

What time is it?

It’s decision time! This section will help you get the pieces together to build the hole in the next chapter. From here, simply think through the process and make decisions, take action, that is, start buying the components. But first, plan.

Raising Cherry Shrimp

How Large of a Tank?

How large of an aquarium do you want? There are many things that enter into this decision not the least of which is the location for the tank. A bedroom tank may be 10 or 20 gallons, while a living room tank may be between 20 and 300 gallons depending on the room.

If you make it too large it will dominate the room. If it is too small it will get lost and no one will notice it. Only you can make this call. The larger the tank, the more stable it will be when something goes wrong. The smaller the tank, the easier it is to change your mind. We have friend whose son changes his mind about pets like most kids change their socks, every few days, you know what I mean.

If you are undecided about whether you want a tank or not, take some time to decide before you move on. Even a small tank requires a bit of work and there is no reason to set it up if you are not going to keep it long.

Many choices

Yes, these are unfiltered, and simply glass cookie jars used to raise Cherry Shrimp
Yes, these are unfiltered, and simply glass cookie jars used to raise Cherry Shrimp | Source

What Type of Tank?

What do you mean, what type of tank?

Open or closed? Glass or Acrylic? Custom or off the shelf? Mine is an off the shelf 70 gallon acrylic aquarium, Andrew’s, a custom made 130 gallon (if filled with water) glass aquarium. A custom tank is nor all that much more, so, if you have a specific space you want to occupy, order a custom tank.

Do you want an open or closed tank?

Check the Internet for “open aquariums.” The effect of having a tank with no top is dramatic. The most beautiful aquarium I ever saw was in Yokohama Japan, and it was an open system in a local fish shop back in December 7, 1991. (If you are Japanese, you probably don’t see the irony in that date, if American, you do!) This tank was an acrylic tank, about 60 gallons with overhead lighting, heavily planted, and was a delight to look at. I took a picture and wish I had it to show you. It looked like a small piece of nature cut out neatly and placed on a stand.

There are definite advantages to each type of system, that is, opened or closed.

With an open system you will have to change the water a little more frequently because you will lose water to evaporation much faster than with a closed system, and salts will build up because they are in the water you replace and don’t evaporate. This is worth it if you can handle the other difficulties such as humidity and lighting requirements. LED’s will make lighting easier as the prices come down as they have just in the last year. You can now buy 6500k (daylight) LED panels as well as “grow” panels specific for the plants.

But think about this, do you have young kids or pets that may get into the water? Then you have another choice, you can opt to film the tank and hope to catch it on video and try to win the $10,000, or use a closed tank. Consult with your spouse, this is a reasonably important decision.

How large of an LED bank do you need? Consult the manufacturers. Do not buy the first ones you find, there are a lot of options and those options will grow with time.

Do you want to disguise the water intakes and outflows or just accept them as is and allow plants to shield them from view? If you want to raise Cherry Shrimp or others, you will need to protect the water uptake, if there is one, with some fine fiber. I used an old black nylon my wife had and this worked well. Plants can cover this visually since you can use plants that emerge from the water. Be careful though, while you can use certain water iris, when a tuber dies, the smell can be quite bad, you just need to learn about the plants you keep and intervene before something like this happens.

It is a good idea not to have art work too close simply because of the humidity and it is a good idea to keep the aquarium at room temperature to keep the humidity lower. If the tank is 5 degrees higher than surrounding temperatures, you will have lots of evaporation.

For the rest of us, a closed top tank is desirable. Choose a tank that fits your design requirements, there are lots of options at your local fish store.

How Much Light?

You need a lot of light but there are many good choices today. No, as I did above, you don’t need to make your own lighting fixture.

The aquarium shop will likely try to sell one of many very good fluorescent lighting options. These are fine, but there are other choices, with LED, as discussed above being the best, but be sure you have 6500K (“sunlight” frequency range, or degrees Kelvin) for at least some of the light, even if you bias the light to the blue actinic range, or the “grow” colors of blue and red. You will want to see natural colors in the tank. Definitely error on the side of more light, your plants need light. Light drives the system.

LED lighting is changing so fast that I am reluctant to give more than guidance. Two years ago, LED’s were not an option, one year ago, a very expensive option, now, the cost of the systems are on par with good fluorescent systems, and shortly I expect all fluorescent systems to be off the market. If you have a good fluorescent system, by all means use it, but when buying a new one or replacing and old one, it will be more cost effective to buy a good LED system.

Mosses, Java Fern, Cryptocorynes, some Swords and others can take less light, but mosses will prevent Ambulia from growing well and eventually kill tropical water lilies. Believe me, mine are all dead and gone! I do prefer the moss. You need to make these decisions for your tank, but mosses (avoid Java moss, it looks messy and it is hard to get rid of) absorb so much nutrient it is hard to pass by.

Biological aquarium filter

My simple biological filter. It really works!
My simple biological filter. It really works! | Source

How Much Filtration?

Ask your local fish store to recommend a good canister filter. Go for the larger filter that fits your tank. Unless you have opted for a small tank, you could actually double the flows in the tank if you like clean, moving water. That is what was done in the picture below, two large canister filters are running that tank. This will be different for the paludarium section of this book simply because you can build a wonderful filter right into the tank.

Go to your local hardware warehouse and buy an appropriate amount of the green scratch pad in the cleaning section. Buy a variety of textures. In the hardware store they are in the cleaning section. Be very sure not to get those with soaps or cleaning agents in them (the label would state these are included as a selling point).

The surface area of this material is used for bacteria to occupy and the physical size mechanically removes detritus that enters the system. Remember, the Asian Trumpet Snail will eat that material and recycle it. Truly a great snail to have working for you in your tanks. (This is the secret mentioned on the website, if you are looking.)

The detritus breaks down and provides nutrients to the system. The bacteria removes excess nutrients through complicated pathways. The more surface area you have the better this filter acts to buffer nutrient fluxes in the tank and the more stable the tank will be. Yes, this can be taken to an extreme. If money is no object (not usually the case) then buy more, it simply means a little more work but a lot more tank stability.

When you get it home, open the filter and cut the scratch pad materials to fit into the filter container. If it has an inflow side that is open, it will have a sponge type filter, or other large particle filter section. Leave that side alone, this is a great part of these filters for our purposes. This will catch larger pieces of organic detritus and it will slowly break down right there before it gets in further.

There will be gaps, holes, spaces, all you are trying to do is to get large amounts of surface area and a good particle filter. Just fill up the space as best you can without becoming obsessive compulsive about it, unless you are actually OCD, then go right ahead and enjoy yourself.

Pay attention to the path water normally flows through the filter. There will be some kind of partitioning normally used to hold charcoal or amino chips, and so on. If you use the larger filter materials, that is, the coarse material at the beginning of the flow area then this enables water to penetrate deeper into the filter reducing areas where water doesn’t circulate and also traps larger particles helping to break them down and prevent blockages.

You need to fill the canister with water to allow it to start working once plugged in. Some have built in little hand pumps to help with this process.

You need to treat this water unless you have a large tank already filled with good water.

Remember, tap water does not have a lot of excess chlorine or chloramines, it has just enough to do the job and keep the water safe for consumption. Adding a little tap water to a large tank is not a problem unless you have a particularly sensitive fish, especially upper Amazon fish that require soft water. Adding a lot of tap water will cause fish to be harmed or die if it is not treated.

With most fish you can do this slowly as you put the water into the tank. Do not add the dechlorinating chemicals fast as fish can be killed instantly if they swim through that while it is concentrated. I do mean instantly, I have seen it happen, very strange. The fish swims into the dechlorinating fluid and doesn’t even make it through the flow, it flips and turns and is dead. Some will recover if it is partly diluted, and so forth, but just be careful how you add it. Better still, treat the water before you add it to the tank. The best practice is to age the water outside before use (assuming you are not using R.O. or distilled water).

Lots of fish to choose from.

Note the Beta at the top left. With a large tail he is too slow to catch many fish fry.
Note the Beta at the top left. With a large tail he is too slow to catch many fish fry. | Source
Endler's Livebearer.
Endler's Livebearer. | Source

What Type of Fish Do I Want To Keep?

I used to keep killifish and you don’t want them in an open tank. A friend told me he put some of my fish in an open tank with a divider keeping the Jack Dempsey Cichlid on the other side. He opened the door, the killifish was startled and jumped into the other side of the tank. The Cichlid though it was feeding time and charged. The killifish jumped back across the tank. This was one lucky fish until the next time when the Cichlid was a little hungrier and the same maneuver was fatal. Yes, you can die from fear.

Some fish jump and you do not need them in an open tank unless you have lots of surface covering plants like water lilies. My Endler’s still jump periodically even in a 70 gallon tank. I find them on the floor with the Ghost Shrimp who wander off to find a new pond and never get far.

Fish come in four basic water types, soft water, fresh water, brackish, and salt water. This book is good for the first two categories but not for salt tanks.

The fish I currently keep, Endler’s Live Bearer, likes brackish water but does well is tap water. Any fish except upper Amazon fish like many of the tetras and discus can take and appreciate a little salt added to the tank. A little Epson Salt is good also, especially for the plants who need the sulfate.

This is important because you will need to know which plants to buy. With soft water you can raise Water Sprite, very pretty, with harder water you have a wider variety of plants and the nitrogen cycle is improved with some alkalinity, mosses, cryptocorynes, Amazon Swords, and so forth.

Eventually you will know which plants you can raise and which you cannot. If you like Duckweed, good for removing nitrogen, you cannot raise Water Lilies, the Duck Weed will die. If you like Ambulia, you should not raise moss, they compete against each other and one will always dominate the tank verses the other.

What You Do Want

For the first few decades I kept fish, snails were considered the worst thing that could infest your tank. They made a mess of plants and generally cluttered up the glass.

Methods of eliminating them were developed from poisons such as copper based snail killers, which, by the way kills shrimp and fungi which are very good to have, and other methods to insure you did not infect your tank, such as a light lie bath for plants before entry to the tank.

Along with oysters and clams, snails belong to the Phylum Mollusca having soft boneless bodies with a hard exoskeleton, or shell. Further, snails are Gastropoda, having therefore one shell as opposed to two (claims, muscles) or shrimp with articulated hard shells.

There are thousands of types, several of which will hopefully find their way into your tank. They are very useful. One of the most useful is the one we used to avoid at all costs. Conversely, now I spread them from tank to tank intentionally, the Malaysian Trumpet Snail, sometimes called a cornucopia snail. They are also live bearers. In short, nothing can stop them from populating a tank. Fortunately there are loaches to keep them in check.

These snails clean a tank better than almost anything and keep the sand clean down several millimeters. They consume dead fish and plants and recycle their nutrients.

The second best snail to have, the best if you raise egg laying fish, are the Red Ramshorns. I keep supplies of both.

If you want to keep Red Ramshorn snails, then keep only the small serpentine Kuhli loaches. Others will eat the Ramshorns.

Snails add a lot to a tanks ecosystem. They will help your substrate look clean, east detritus of all types, and eat algae.

The old way of keeping tanks had various snail killers because, of you had plants, they ate the plants to survive. Of course, the plants didn’t survive long either so the snails were blamed for the dead plants. They were always found on dead and dying leaves, but not because they were killing leaves, rather, they were eating leaves that were dying.

The plants died because of the aquarium keeping methodologies employed, not because of the nails.

In a thriving tank the snails can hardly do damage.

You can employ two methods for controlling them, as above but the use of loaches, or pick them out of the tank by hand.

Do not use poisons in your tank. Kill them with poison, and at the same time kill any crabs or shrimp you have, and possible a few of your plants. Not a good choice.

Shrimp add lots of personality to a tank. Forget the high priced colored shrimps, the Cardinia and Neocardinia shrimp that are now found everywhere unless you intend on keeping them by themselves. They are sensitive to nitrogen and do not do well in community tanks.

Ghost shrimp are very inexpensive, the so called Amano shrimp (named for the master of planted aquariums) work very well and the Amano shrimp eat algae. Any filter feeding shrimp will usually thrive in a tank such as this unless you do too many water changes and remove all the organisms we are trying to cultivate.

For algae control use Otocinclus. They are a nice addition to the tank and do not harm other plants or fish.

What You Do Not Want

There are a few fish you need to avoid.

African Cichlids will eat everything in the tank except another Cichlid, unless it can get it into its mouth. Don’t go there if you want plants, you cannot have both.

Plecostomus need to be controlled. A small one can be useful in the tank, but the larger ones need to be fed steamed zucchini or they will end up eating plants.

There are some safe plants, Amazon Swords, Java Fern, Ambulia, possibly others. If you love them, raise one, but don’t replace plants that have already been eaten. The replacement will be eaten. Feed these, according to their size, with boiled or steamed zucchini.

Chinese Algae Eaters will grow large and need more protein which they will get from other fish, dead and alive, but soon to be dead, that is, they will kill your other fish.

Siamese Algae Eaters which will grow large but not turn into a live fish eater. However, if you are going to grow moss, they eat moss. In a large tank one or two with a lot of moss is OK, but more than that, or in a small tank, you moss will suffer.

Use Otocinclus instead. They simply o not get large enough to hurt the moss or plants.

Beta, more than one Male Beta and you have an immediate fish fight to the death. One is great, tow and you will end up with one (maybe) which is beaten up and some plant fertilizer.

Killifish, unless you have nothing but Killifish. If you can find them, they are great fish, but make it an exclusive tank. I have raised thousands of them, but they take some work.

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb


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