How to set up an aquarium at home.
Texto © Giuseppe Mazza
English translation by Mario Beltramini
North of Perth, Australia, I have watched, in an old black and white TV set, an unusual programme in colour and relief.
Taken off everything, but the case and the glass, the owner had transformed it in an aquarium, and his sons, indifferent to the influence of the new TV set placed in the room close by, were spending hours there, like if they were stuck to it, to observe the birth of the Guppies (Poecilia reticulata), the funny proceeding of a Red fish with his flowing tail (Carassius auratus), or the orderly vaults of Angel fishes (Pterophyllum scalare).
Charm of the “live” transmission, or better, the discovery of a new world, of something authentic.
An ecosystem, a fragment of a biding place pulled away from nature, as Konrad Lorenz, father of modern ethology: a natural habitat tending to biological balance.
I agree with him. I refuse the consuming attitude, exclusively “decorative”, of aquaria, with overcrowded pools, plastic plants,
divers, sunk vessels or strong boxes moved by bubbles, water “sustained” by additives, and useless accessories, which, enriching the dealers, transform the lover into an “apprentice wizard”, and, of course, kill the fishes.
I against the animal as a toy, the animal as an object or, which is the same thing, the stupidity.
Aquariology is simple. It’s a school of common sense, which stimulates reflection, creativeness, and allows a daily contact with nature, even in the absurd cement cities where, often, we are obliged to live.
Let us see together the basis.
First of all, the pool. It must be not too small (less than 50 litres), or too high (column shaped aquaria must be ignored, even if very nice looking): the surface of contact water – air, through which gaseous exchanges do happen, must be the most possible ample.
In the past, much has been discussed, about toxicity of gum mastics used for fixing metallic frames. Nowadays, with silicon glues, the problem has been overcome and anybody, using sufficiently thick and well squared glasses, can easily build an aquarium.
An inexpensive solution, for large size fishes, can be also a pool in cement, where we shall have opened a window, varnished the inner part with a non toxic waterproof product, and stuck a crystal window pane of about 12 mm, by 1 metre of length.
Then, before thinking to the décor, we shall have to get clear ideas about the species to be kept there.
Substantially, tow kinds of aquaria do exist: the marine one, with animals of the Coral reef or the Mediterranean, and the classical one, of tropical, fresh water, which is easier to entertain.
In any case, water will always be the same: oxygenated by the minute bubbles of a porous stone, and recycled with various methods, will be only partially changed, from time to time.
In order to remove wastes and food remainders, which putrefying cause the accumulation of nitrogen compounds, strongly poisonous, we shall intervene with mechanical filters (gravel, perlon wadding), chemical (active carbon) and biologic (bacteria and plants).
There are very good “under sand” filters, suitable for small pools, formed by a simple grating, covered by perlon wadding, which use the bottom itself of the aquarium as filtrating material, external filtering cases, placed laterally or behind the basin, and outer turbine (Eheim system) filters, usually with a cylindrical structure.
The water can circulate more or less quickly, sucked or pushed by the bubbles of an aerator, but, above all, it is important that the mass of the filtrating material is proportionate to the pool.
A filter is never big enough, because it is especially there that live colonies of nitrifying bacteria, capable of rendering harmless the toxic substances.
In lieu of usual “active carbon”, which in a few weeks loses its absorbing power, we can also use porous carbons (to be washed once a year), receptacles, in short time, of very useful micro organisms.
Aquatic plants (not to be confounded with the algae, mostly microscopic, which appear as disturbing green encrustations, or brown on glasses), besides having an undoubtedly aesthetic value, are necessary for the natural balance of water.
They get rid of the nitrates produced by the bacteria, absorb the carbonic anhydride and release oxygen.
He who loves the greenery, can also imagine the aquarium as a small inner greenhouse.
To cultivate an aquarium, is in small, like cultivating a balcony or a garden, with the advantage that we are not ties to the rhythm of seasons.
With the thermostat set at 25 °C and a Grolux lamp, in our pool, like in Tropics, there will be summertime all the year round.
Plants on the market are almost 200, but when choosing them, you will have to keep in mind the size of the basin, the lighting, the ground, the water and the animals to put in.
If wishing to keep herbivores or ciclides, which dig holes in the gravel, thus eradicating everything, we shall have to be contented with Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana), which is little attractive and finally forms, with these fishes, wandering masses detached from the bottom, which are sufficiently decorative.
Then, there are fishes and plants which need hard waters, rich in limestone, and species suitable only for acid and soft, almost distilled, waters.
But let us start from zero, that is from the one who has an aquarium ready, and loving plants as much as animals, wishes to re-create at home a marshy habitat.
If a quarantine pool is not available, I suggest to begin with animals, also because, especially in wintertime, fishes offered by shops are often sick, and almost all medicines cause harm to the plants.
I would say to proceed in this way:
1. To lay down on the bottom of the aquarium an inclined bed of wall washed gravel, starting from the back with a thickness of 6-12 cm, which will reduce to almost zero at the base of anterior glass.
2. To place, in strategic positions, old roots and decorative rocks bought, or picked up during excursions in the mountains, all fit, provided they are well washed and do not contain marble or fluorite.
3. To slowly pour the water, and switch on heating and filter. After 2-3 days, with the help of a pipe, which later will be used also partial renewals, change almost completely the water, thus eliminating eventual poisons dissolved in the same.
4. After 3-4 days, to introduce the plants, and after about one month, all going well, the first fishes .
It’s a perhaps long procedure, for impatient people, and some dealers, who like selling again animals, plants, medicines and wonderful products which “make old” water at once, but for own experience, this looks the best way.
For what fishes are concerned, keeping in mind waters, usually hard, of our cities, I would suggest to start with some Lebistes (Poecilia reticulata), some Platys and sword tails (Xiphophorus spp.), Barbels (Barbus spp.), Angelfishes (Pterophyllum spp.), and some pearly Gourami (Trichogaster leeri), or blue ones (Trichogaster trichopterus).
Species with a fighting spirit (Hemichromis spp., Cichlasoma spp. and generally Ciclides), ore which are bigegr than 20 cm., such as the wonderful Oscar fish (Astronotus ocellatus), the Knife fish (Notopterus spp.), and the Tilapiae (Tilapia spp.), will have, of course, to be kept alone, in suitable pools.
Red fishes (Carassius auratus), do not need heating. They live even 30 years, and veil finned adults are extremely decorative.
Even if funny or unusual, I should avoid, for moral reasons, the shapes “bubble eyes”, “pineapple”, and similar: real and proper impairments, cruelly created by man.
For the feeding, apart dealers’ food in flakes, mainly useful for new born, I recommend small aquatic worms (Tubifex), microscopic crustaceans like Artemia salina, or, more economically, “scrapings” of shrimps and lean steaks (you pass over them a knife and you give fishes what remains stuck to the blade).
To bigger species, you can, of course, offer minced meat, small pieces of fish, or shrimp and mussels.
Vegetarian and omnivorous, generally, will much appreciate boiled rice and fragments of zucchini, cabbages, cauliflowers and boiled spinaches.
The important thing, in any case, is not to exaggerate.
Fishes endure well weeks of hunger, but easily die for indigestion.
Many small administrations of food are better, rather than only a bigger one, and, in any case, all the food will be consumed in a few minutes.
Aquatic small snails (Melanoides tuberculatus and Planorbarius corneus), useful also for removing algae from glasses, and Cleaning fishes (Gyrinocheilus spp. and Corydoras spp.), will take care of the bits which escape from our control.
Plans can be divided, roughly, in three groups: slow growing, fast growing, and floating.
The last ones, like Salvinia auriculata and Crystalwort (Riccia fluitans), must be used with parsimony as they subtract light to the ambiance lying below, but they are precious during fishes’ reproduction.
The first one, as aquatic fern, offers with its roots, shelter to the fry, and the second, a hepatica with a thin thallus very ramified, not only provides very good hiding places, but also shelters in its meanderings a valuable micro fauna which is the basis of the “first days diet” for the fry.
Furthermore, it’s an excellent furnisher of oxygen, and this is very important when, owing to joyful events, we have to stop the filter in order not to draw by suction the new born.
Another nice aquarium fern is the Certopteris thalictroides. From its old leafy branches, improperly also called “leaves”, often do spring up new very small plants, the “plantulae”.
To multiply it, it’s sufficient to take off the parts of “leaf” interested by the occurrence and to leave them resting on the surface.
Then, when the plantulae are well developed and have put out roots, they can be interred in the desired positions.
This is a typical fast growing species.
Other plants growing fast, easy to reproduce and consequently not expensive, are the Cabomba, with the lives finely parted to form large fans, the Myriophyllum, the Limnophila and the Synnema triflorum.
In tropical Asia, where this plant grows spontaneously, it’s considered as a plague for the rice fields, but it has a major decorative effect when in an aquarium.
Relative of noble acanthus, it reproduces, like previous species, by cutting, you take off pieces of the stem, bury them in the gravel, and that’s it.
Nice plants with a slower growth, with smaller necessity of fertilizers, and “gardening works”, are all the members of genders Hygrophila, Vallisneria, Echinodorus, and the Nymphoides aquatica, a gentian called also “Banana plant”, due to the queer prominences of the roots, similar to banana clusters.
All the species proposed so far, need much light. Once, for incandescence lamps and 40 cm high pools, it was suggested a power of 40 Watts for every 10 square cm, but today, usually fluorescence lamps Grolux are used, they give better result. Usually, for a good growth, an aquarium should remain illuminated for 10 hours per day, but you have to consider also the surrounding light.
Generally, if brown algae grow on the glasses, the lighting must be increased, and if the glasses are too quickly covered by green algae, then the lighting must be reduced.
In the two 400 Litres aquaria in my working room, where in winter mornings the sun stays for about an hour, usually, I light on the lamps around 1100 a.m. and I switch them off, if in the evening we do not have any guests, before the dark, also to avoid shocks to fishes caused by jerks of light.
To lazy people, who prefer very slow growing plants, with poor need of light, I suggest the Aponogetum, with their leaves often perforated like a lace, the Cryptocorine, the Sagittaria platyphylla and the Acorus gramineus pusillus, which forms very decorative shrubs.
A last suggestion for those loving the “Botany adventures” and owning a philodendron (Monstera deliciosa), and an aquarium with a non air-tight cover.
It is sufficient to place the pot close to the pool and manage that the aerial roots enter it, like many pipes.
After about one month, the result will be surprising: under water you will see a fantastic, intricate scenery of candid aquatic roots, and your plant, without any need of particular watering or spray, will be very much luxuriant.
Ages ago, in my office, I have abolished also the pots with soil, simply by placing a cutting of Philodendron hanging in the water with only one aerial root.
Now, there are about fifty roots which go down into the two aquaria leaned against the wall.
Fishes are keeping well, the water is clean and the Philodendron, with the help of a few nails, has covered two walls like wall-paper.
It grows up majestically, and, above all, I have not to water it when I am travelling to the Tropics.