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Water Quality in the Beginning Aquarium

Updated on March 17, 2009

Good Water Quality Keeps Tropical Fish Alive

One of the biggest mistakes that novice aquarists make is that they spend too much time worrying that their aquarium is clean. I know a clean house is a joy to live in, and takes a lot of work to keep it tidy, but that is not one of the major factors in keeping fish alive. Actually it is quite the opposite, in the first six weeks of an aquarium's maturation period, I tend to stay away from any heavy cleaning or other radical changes in the environment to which your new charges must adapt.

When a new aquarium starter kit is first set up and filled, all the materials that are added are generally sterile. The gravel has been freshly rinsed in tap water, the fiter material is brand new, and probably also has been rinsed in the sink to remove any trasportation dust or other particles. Decorations, ornaments and other equipment being added to the aquarium hacve also been washed to remove any labels, dirt or chemical traces.

The water that is used to fill the aquarium also came from the tap, and hopefully was conditioned with a quality water conditioner such as Aqua-Plus. Even the water was sterile to start with, assuming it came form a municipal water company it was probably treatrewd atr source with chlorine or chloramine tomake it safe for human consumption. Those compounds are deadly to fish and must be removed. But while they are in the water, the water is sterile since the job of chlorine is to ensure there are no pathological organisms that can cause disease in humans.

Everything has been washed and the water now placed in the aquarium is sterile, but it won't stay that way. Life has a way of exploiting any available niche, and water that was once poisonous is suddenly able to support life of all types, once the chlorine is gone. Often even before the fish are added, there are heterotrophic bacteria are starting to appear. The use of chlorine will kill active bacteria, but often there will also be cysts and spores there that are invulnerable to chlorine. These activate when the conditons suddenly become favourable.

In a future article, I will talk about the consequences of the heterotrophic population on the way a beginning aquarium matures. But there are other factors that are important in the success of a new set-up.  The water will change drasticly from that sterile solution that came from the tap originally.  Over time the pH will change, buffering compounds will be added or absorbed by the occupants in the tank.

By the time the biological filter is established, the water that is removed is nt anywhere close to the water that is added back from the tap.  In the high stress environment of a cycling aquarium, this could be the last straw that will push a fish over the edge to disease or death.  I tend to think long and hard everytime I consider doing a water change during the initial breakin period.  I might be blamed for being lazy, and I won't deny it, when a shortcut is possible, and it either helps the fish or doesn not hurt, I will tend to follow that route.  But, sometimes being a little less attentive saves the fish and allows them to stay adapted to their changing water characterisitics. 

Believe it or not, the time of the year can be a vital determinant.  Christmas is a great time to start an aquarium, the outside conditions allow no run-off (I am in Montreal after all) and so the water companies are not over-treating the tap supply with germicides.  The water supply seems the most conducive to a good start.

I do not recommend that any new aquarium be set up in the spring, if at all possible. As winter relaxes its frosty grip, the frozen areas begn to melt and the spring thaw and consequant run-off occur. All the exhaust fumes, dead animals, decaying plant material and other pollutants are carried into the reservoirs and added to the water table. The water is often at its worst as far as many characteristics are concerned, and should not find its way into any aquariums.   

Personally I refrain from doing water changes if at all possible during the spring thaw. It is often the case that the water you are removing is actually of better quality than what is used to replace it. The very worst water is right after a heavy rain. Do not do any regular maintenance when the rains have fallen driving huge amounts of pollutants into the water system.

The water companies respond to these heavy loads by pouring in added chlorine or chloramine. So, in addition to the run-off, you also have to contend with added germicidal compounds trying to overcome the poorest water quality in the year. It just isn't worth poisoning the delicate eco-system you are trying to establish for your aquarium.

A little care and planning will go a very long way in making sure the fish have the best chance of staying strong and healthy through the initial run-in phase. They have enough to contend with in the toxins that are created in the tank naturally.



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