The first question beginning aquarists should ask themselves is whether or not they can provide for all their new pet's needs. Obviously, all fish need a tank. Bowls are only acceptable for betta fish, and even then, they don't provide very good living conditions. Gravel is needed to anchor plants and other decorations (which are necessary to give fish room to hide) to the ground. A heater, light and filter are used to keep the water clean and warm and simulate natural lighting conditions. And finally, water conditioner is needed to remove chlorine and heavy metals from the water. Many fish will die if any of these tank elements are missing. A good setup can be expensive, but is usually worth every penny.
Deciding what tank to buy can be difficult. The type of fish for the tank should dictate the purchase because the special needs of each fish are different. Use the guide (at right) to help start up your search for the perfect pet. The general guideline when stocking your tank is to have one inch of fish (length) per gallon of water. For example, a ten-gallon tank could hold ten inches of fish. So, you could buy 10 one-inch fish, or five two-inch fish, and so on.
Once the fish are decided on and the tank is purchased, many beginning aquarists make a big mistake. When a tank is set up and the water conditioner is added, it needs to cycle. That is, it needs to have the filter and the heater turned on and allowed to run for 24 hours per 10 gallons of water. This process builds up the good bacteria that fish need to help break down their waste, and ensures that the tank is warm enough when the fish are added.
After the tank is ready, the fish can be added. After the aquarium is started, the most important chores to keep up on are feeding, lighting and cleaning. Fish should be fed twice a day. At each feeding (one in the morning, one at night is the most stable schedule), the fish should be given no more than they can eat in three to five minutes. Excess food will cause the water to become cloudy. Feeding time provides a good chance for the tank owner to inspect the filters, heaters and fish to make sure everything in the tank is operating as it should.
Most fish do well on a lighting schedule of 12 hours of light, 12 hours of dark. Don't panic if there are other lights on in the room after the tank lights go off, the fish can still get their shut-eye just fine.
The final task on the weekly tank maintenance checklist is to clean the aquarium. Every week, owners should use a siphon to clean the gravel and water. A siphon is basically a vacuum for the aquarium: placing it in the tank and moving it across the bottom will suck out the dirt. About 20 percent of the water should be removed in the process. When the water is replaced, it should have water conditioner added again to ensure that no toxic metals get into the water. Algae may grow on the sides of the tank and on the decorations inside it. Often it doesn't need to be removed, but many find it aesthetically unpleasing.
Tropical fish are a lively and colorful addition to any dorm room. With careful maintenance, most tropical fish will live to be more than five years old, serving as conversation pieces and sources of entertainment and distraction even after you are done with dorm life.