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Tank Tools and More (Reference Section);
Keeping Your Aquarium in a Healthy State


by Bob Fenner  

Being successful in maintaining a freshwater system takes applied know-how in the way of set-up, stocking and ongoing maintenance. Discussion of all elements of aquarium gear could easily fill a few books; here we’ll focus on four areas of concern: Substrates, Fish Medications, Heaters, and Cleaning Tools.

A friends 200 gallon Asian biotope system… simply set-up and a joy to maintain.



Call them gravels or sands, substrates are both useful and beautiful additions to aquariums. Yes; there are some few settings that call for “bottom-less” arrangement; commercial set ups where gravel would be in the way, hatcheries where constant waste removal negates their use; but most all other kinds of tanks benefit functionally and aesthetically through incorporating one or more type of substrate. Here is a quick run-down of plusses and applications.
1) Looks! Colored, natural, heck, even smoothed glass is better than a bare-bottom look. For-appearances sake having something on the bottom of your tanks beats having nothing hands-down. Bear in mind the type of set up, what you’re trying to achieve, accentuate when picking out gravel… What grade will look best, what color/contrast? Many fishes, and some invertebrates literally pale when kept in too light a colored bottom; darker colors bring out their markings and hues in turn. What about the outside setting where the tank is situated? Do you want the tank to stand out, or blend in with the setting it’s in? Where, when in doubt, neutral brown-tan colored substrate is a good bet.

Small natural settings call for darker, brown and tan substrates

An industrial setting, with light colored stand, canopy and surroundings… light colored gravel


2) Functions: Substrates do so many good things for a captive setting. For one they discount the light-reflection from the bottom that would occur if there was nothing there. This can be a very big deal; adding stress to the inhabitants.
                Gravel and sands also fulfill an important function in providing surface area for biological filtration. Yes; some mulm, uneaten food, wastes, do accumulate there… and serve a similar purpose in making homes for beneficial bacteria. This being stated, you don’t want too much of this otherwise desirable material building up. Do see our last section on Cleaning Tools regarding gravel vacuums.               Along with the aforementioned space for biological filtration, non-coated natural gravels can serve as a ready source of alkalinity; their carbonate, alkaline earth (calcium, magnesium) and other components dissolving, going into solution, in part due to the lowered pH (reductive) environment in the substrate itself.

                Habitat: Think about your home, office… do you have bare floors? Likely not. Much of the  livestock we keep has important “bottom time”; rooting about on or even in the substrate for food, shelter. Many loaches, killifishes and more delve into the bottom… and need soft media there.
                Anchorage for bottom plants. Though there are entirely free-floating species like the various “Duck Weeds” (see pix of Riccia and Cryptocoryne ciliata), rooted plants need suitable grade and depth and chemical make-up of substrate to do well.

Riccia; one of a few “duck weed” plants available. A free-floating species.

Cryptocoryne ciliata; one of the many plants requiring a fine substrate for anchoring.


Having a few inches of substrate goes a long way to keeping your system cleaner, more stable and optimized for your livestock; just be sure to keep up with your regular vacuuming as part of frequent partial water changing.

Fish medications:

                The issue of using medications is a contentious one. It’s a fact that more aquarium livestock is actually killed by medicating than by diseases themselves. Not to discount med.s entirely though; they do have their time and place… it’s just that so many times/cases folks jump to unconfirmed conclusions and mis-actions in treating for mostly environmental issues, or the wrong cause otherwise; misreading symptoms. I’d like to make a few general statements here regarding disease, or rather its antithesis: health.

                The three sets of factors that determine livestock health are:
 1) It’s initial state, genetic and developmental
 2) The suitability of the environment… A huge collection of criteria incorporating chemistry, physical make up of water, stability, foods/feeding, social aspects such as sex ratio…
 3) The presence and degree of disease-causing (pathogenicity) activity of infectious and parasitic agents

Initial State


Suitability of the Environment


Venn diagram of the three sets of factors that determine livestock health. Aquarists should do their best to understand and provide appropriate environments, nutrition… pick out the better suited species, initially healthy specimens, and exclude disease-causing organisms. Medicating should be the last option.

                All three sets of factors are dependent, interactive with each other, and often displayed as such in three partially overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.  The small “intersecting area” of all three exemplifies this interaction… and points out the need to take into consideration all three sets in discerning what is going on when confronting an apparent disease situation.
                The vast majority of livestock losses are due to deficiencies/challenges of poor environment: What is your water quality? Have you kept up with regular maintenance? Is there something you can do to boost your livestock’s immunity/response? Perhaps simply lacing foods with vitamins, HUFAs will save them. When/where in doubt, often successive partial water changes will work wonders. For many pathogenic (biological agent) diseases, manipulating temperature alone is the best treatment.

As stated, there are occasions that call for direct chemical treatment; mainly external Protozoan (white-spot, velvet…) and internal (worms of various sorts, some protozoans). These need to be diagnosed accurately… and utilized to the letter per the medication-supplier’s instructions.
            Various dyes, metal solutions, even biocides like formalin/formaldehyde, anti-microbials and anthelminthics/vermifuges do have their place in our pet-fish arsenal of treatments. One just has to know when it is appropriate to apply them, and then to do so carefully.
            I would like to add a cautionary statement regarding currently overly-popular “herbal” “medications” promoted by some retailers. These are at best placebos; at worst, trouble in terms of poisoning and interruption of biological filtration. Avoid them. 


                All living organisms have a range of temperature they’ll tolerate, and tolerance to rapid increase/decrease in thermal regimes; and though water has a very high specific heat; changing temperature slowly, it is important for even cool water systems to have a working heater to prevent temperature fluctuating too much, too fast in all set-ups.                   
                Nearly all folks use either hang on or submersible glass-tubed electrical heaters; the former being more popular due to their lower cost. These inexpensive clip-ons are fine for small volumes of a few to tens of gallons; but submersibles are preferable… being easier to hide and place further down, deeper in tanks (or sumps) and far less subject to breakage from accidental air-exposure and bumping. There are small wattage enclosed under-tank/bowl heaters (useful for Betta systems) and expensive cable heaters, mostly for planted tanks (to wind about in a race within the gravel bed); and some enclosed in-line heaters and modules for enclosing heaters in plumbed, recirculated systems; useful, but these are for a small minority of set-ups.            

Heater basics: Most beginners use inexpensive hang on models, though submersible heaters are more accurate and far less subject to easy breakage; accidental shattering through air exposure.


                Some pertinent input re sizing and number of heaters, and their placement: Akin to “The Three Bears” and similar myths/folk-wisdom It pays to not have “too much” or “too little”, but “just about the right amount” of heater/s for your tanks. Too little wattage and they’re running all the time; too much and if the setting gets knocked about, you may have a too hot situation in short order. How much heater is about right? 5-6 watts per gallon for smaller systems (a few tens of gallons), and 3-4 watts per gallon for larger… When, where in doubt, or where hundred/s of gallons are involved, it’s a very good idea to utilize more than one heater; divide the wattage… to discount the chance of all failing, and spread them distal to each other for more even thermal control.
                Placement of heaters should be done consciously… submersibles can be hidden, even laid down horizontally on the bottom (not undergravel), but need some water/space and circulation about them to be effective. One can fashion logs, tubes to hide them or buy commercial décor for the same, to prevent damage from rambunctious inhabitants.

                Thermometers vary widely in their ability to measure real temperature, accuracy, and do so consistently; precision. If you have a large/r system it pays to have two thermometers; one placed down low near the bottom and the other near the surface. Bear in mind if using stick-on thermometers that very large glass tanks and more thermally insulated acrylics may give you false readings if there’s a good deal of temperature difference inside the tank itself and outside in the air.

Thermometers come in a few makes/models and types… Liquid crystal ones are far more accurate and precise than alcohol types.


Various cleaning tools available:

                Thank goodness for improved products and technology in our interest as the years have rolled along. People go on and on about better lighting and filtration, but clean-up gear has similarly evolved. Let’s mention three principal, important pieces of aquarium maintenance kit: New water treatment filtration, gravel vacuums, and lowly nets.

Three essential aquarium tools: New water filtration,

Gravel vacuum, and

An assortment of different size soft nets

                It’s the water and a lot more: There is less good quality water about, and greater need to be careful about it. I’m talking about municipally-added sanitizer (chloramine) and a lot more. You may be of the fortunate whose tap water is just fine, simply treated with a dechloraminator; but most folks should at the very least treat and store new water for several days ahead of use. And for aquarists with livestock that needs softer, more acidic water, there is simple technology for removing almost all undesirable liquids, solids and gasses through the use of reverse osmosis or contactor filtration. If you have concern regarding your source water, it is a simple matter to ask your supplier for their ongoing analysis, and perhaps input as to what all those numbers mean. Should your mains water prove “iffy”, you may well want to get and use an R.O. device (and storage) for your potable uses as well as pet-fish.
                There are DIY and commercial preparations you can fashion and buy to replace desired minerals and salts, per your livestock’s needs and ranges; e.g. peat moss extracts and more for further pH depression, Rift Lake salt addition products.

                Regular, frequent (usually weekly) water change-outs and replacement with new water are a standard element of good freshwater aquarium management. There is no simpler, easier and surer way of maintaining decent water quality by these serial dilutions of waste and heavy water. And the best piece of gear to accomplish this water changing feat? A handy-dandy gravel vacuum! Years back we had to make our own “vacs” out of tubing, an inverted funnel or plastic bottle or such with the bottom cut off. Nowayears there’s a huge assortment of transparent tubed vacuums of various size, some with a squared edge for getting into corners, others sporting a bull-dozer like tip for turfing through the gravel; some brands come replete with water bed fill/drain fittings for hooking up to a sink to power drain and re-fill your system. Whichever you choose, do get and stay in the habit of weekly siphoning out 20-25% of your water, while vacuuming half the bottom (leaving the other half till next time, to preserve biological filtration capacity). Your livestock will thank you.

                Lastly in our discussion, though certainly not the end of possible gear, are lowly nets… These one simply cannot have too many of. Good quality, soft netting (to disallow scraping of soft bodies) of various sizes and grades are the tools of the trade and hobby. Folks who know what they’re doing never use just one net; having two in action; one to direct the intended prey, the other to scoop it out, rather than chasing animals around and around. Larger grade netting is desirable for bigger animals, especially ones like armored catfishes (think Loricariids and Callichthyids), to prevent entanglement or expedite the removal of barbed and spikey body parts.


So goes our brief discussion of tank tools and more; hope you’ve enjoyed its perusal and learned a thing or two.



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