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Aquarium beginners shouldn't skimp, experts says

| Friday, Aug. 14, 2009

Keeping an aquarium could cost you more than a few fins, but that is the best way to avoid taking a dive in the hobby.

"Most people who fail (at) keeping fish do so because they haven't spent enough," says Rich Terrell, aquariumist at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium in Highland Park.

He, other professionals and dedicated hobbyists agree to a simple strategy to make fish-keeping go swimmingly.

• Decide on the fish you really want to have and build your tank around it. That will help determine size of the fish, size of the tank and use of salt or fresh water.

• Spend as much as you possibly can, because cutting corners leads to problems.

• Small tanks create a greater possibility of errors, too, and greatly limit the number of fish you can have.

"It's a matter of big-tank-small-risk, small-tank-big-risk," says Gary Knabe, owner of Elmer's Aquarium in Monroeville. He explains that it is easier for bacteria problems to emerge in small tanks where the amount of water is easier to foul.

Terrell agrees.

"The solution to pollution is dilution," he says.

That alone may lead to deeper water than was first expected, but a cautious entry is the easiest route to failure, he and the others say.

Calling a 10-gallon tank "one of the biggest mistakes a beginner can make," he takes a practical look.

"The cost-per-gallon goes down the higher you go," he says.

In the swim of things

Letting the king fish be the guide is going to decide a great deal about your aquarium.

That, Terrell and others say, will determine salt or fresh water use, size, and types of fish, among other aspects.

Heather Mason, manager at Seahorse: A Pet Paradise in Hampton, says some customers come in and want fish that match Nemo and Dorie from the animated comedy "Finding Nemo."

That means a Clown Fish and a Blue Tang. That also means salt water.

Julie Logan from Seahorse adds choosing a calm community fish and mixing it in with something like a Dog Face Puffer is akin to homicide.

"He'll eat a little Damsel in a minute," she says, referring to a small, community fish that she believes is a good choice for a basic aquarium.

That type of issue can be important in subtle ways, too. Terrell says mixing Giant Danios and Leaf Fish would be bad because the Danios are quite active and would scarf up any available food before it drifts to the ultra-docile, floating Leaf Fish.

Size obviously is important in fish selection. The general rule is one inch of fish per one gallon of water. Simply put, that limits an owner to 10-inch-long fish in a 10-gallon tank.

But, Terrell says, that size includes any type of bottom-feeder or algae-eater added to clean the tank. Necessary inclusion of the practical, cleaning creatures thus limits the inhabitants of a small tank.

Bill Sensor, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Aquarium Club, says a 10- to -20-gallon tank might work for a beginner, but warns about the limitations. He, Terrell and Knabe agree that the 29-gallon size, a standard in many shops, is a wiser choice.

Reeling in the gear

Fresh water or salt, an aquarium is more than a big bowl of water.

Sensor suggests a beginner should plan on spending $150 to $200. Knabe says it will probably cost about $300, counting some sort of stand for the aquarium. Terrell says it might be as much as $500.

That price can go a little higher for salt-water fish as the equipment is a little more expensive, Knabe adds. For instance, lights are a little brighter and warmer to simulate tropical sun and it is possible to get involved in machines to imitate ocean wave movement.

Whatever the cost, a fish-keeper will need a tank, a hood with a light to illuminate and imitate sun, a heater for the water, a thermometer, gravel or stone substrata, and other items.

That doesn't count the price for fish, which range greatly, but can be $5 for a Damsel to $450 for an Electric Blue Jack Dempsey. In between there are $8.98 Red Tail Shark and $59.98 Koi.

One of the important matters is bacteria to help create a living aquarium, Knabe points out. That helps break down fish waste and keeps tanks more natural, he adds.

It also creates a period of curing the aquarium in which bacteria are added to fish-less water to create a natural environment. Logan also points out bacteria-laden "living rock" than can be added to the bottom of a tank for that reason.

It can be two or three weeks before any fish are added to the tank in this process.

Care is less than many pets. (Walks, for instance, are unheard of.) Terrell suggests it amounts to about an hour a week. Knabe says it could be even less, and is centered on changing about 15 percent of the water twice a month with a siphoning system.

Overall, though, Knabe says, modern filters and cleaning devices have made the process much easier than in the past. He points out automatic-feeding timers that take care of that job when the owners are away.

Whatever way a hobbyist goes, Terrell suggests, there is one important rule to remember: settle on one dealer or expert for advice. Wisdom from various sources can work in countervailing ways.

"Then, when you have a problem, there is not one of those people who will know what to do to solve it," he says.

Plunging in

Don Tuttle bought a guppie for his son 40 years ago.

The Plum man now has 90 tanks in his home, the largest of which is 180 gallons. That doesn't count the ones outside he isn't using. Right now. He raises and sells fish and is active in providing equipment for new hobbyists.

Tuttle and others involved in fish-keeping or marketing say it is not unusual for people to get involved deeper and deeper in the hobby and to become active in breeding or other aspects.

"There is always something to learn," says Gary Knabe, owner of Elmer's Aquarium in Monroeville.

"It's not that difficult," Tuttle says of the ever-growing interest. He is vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Aquarium Society. "There are just so many things out there."

Bill Sensor, president of the group, has 23 tanks ranging from 10 to 75 gallons in his home and agrees the range of interest creates that growth. He points to the number of sub-groups in the area, such as the Pittsburgh Area Killifish Association, that deal with specific breeds and attend to specific interests.

Dealing with other fish-keepers can lead to more advanced collections, he says, as they can lead collectors to fish that might not be on sale at a commercial market.

The society will have its fall auction Sept. 20 at the North Hampton Volunteer Fire Department, 5149 N. Pioneer Road, Hampton.

Joining clubs or dealing with other collectors also can broaden a fish-keeper's knowledge, says Rich Terrell, aquariumist at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium in Highland Park. He says "research is important because some fish don't belong together and you have to know that."

Help and advice also can be found at organizations such as Fishy Things, a Monroeville consultant and aquarium designer. Its founder, Glynn Galloway, says the company creates aquariums in commercial spaces or will help a beginner at home. Their help costs a minimum of $55 per service.

They often deal with water-chemistry issues, a matter that often is challenging for a beginner, he says.

"We like to be able to go in and prevent issues from worsening," he says.

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