Wednesday, May 12, 2004 - 12:00 AM  Printer friendly page | Send this story to a friend

Local experts share their advice on maintaining your own aquarium

Marijo Saunders THE DAILY HERALD


Finding Nemo a comfortable home is nothing to clown around about. Setting up and maintaining a saltwater or freshwater aquarium requires serious planning and preparation. From choosing a filtration system to finding compatible tank mates, this hobby requires time, patience and a good deal of research.

To help you embark on this underwater adventure, the Herald asked several experienced aquarists for advice on getting started. Whether you choose the less-expensive option of a freshwater tank or go for a more organic look with a saltwater ecosystem, creating your own aquarium can be a challenging and rewarding experience, say local experts. Here are their suggestions:

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1. First things first - research

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Planning is the first step in producing an ideal aquarium. Adam Blundell, president of the Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society of Salt Lake City, said the most successful and content aquarists are those who do their research prior to making any purchases. Blundell suggests studying books and magazines such as Tropical Fish Hobbyist and Aquarium Fish Magazine, as well as browsing Web sites and even joining a club.

The Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society and the Great Salt Lake Aquarium Society are both based in Salt Lake City. They allow members to network with experienced hobbyist who are familiar with and enthusiastic about marine life and personal aquariums. You can also take the time to visit homes and stores with aquariums to visually get an idea of how a tank should appear, Blundell said. When you find something you want to replicate, take detailed notes or pictures. Those who do their homework more often avoid buying things they don't want, he said. "The real key is to know what you want beforehand."

2. Freshwater vs. saltwater

Deciding how much time and money you want to invest in your new hobby may help determine whether to purchase a saltwater or freshwater tank. While both kinds of aquariums offer a variety of options, saltwater tanks are usually more expensive. Experts estimate that getting a saltwater tank started costs about $1500, while starting a freshwater tank costs about $100. Saltwater fish cost anywhere from $5 to $100. Freshwater fish usually sell for about $3 a fish, some stores even offer them for as low as 25 cents.

In addition, saltwater tanks require twice as much maintenance as freshwater tanks. Saltwater ecosystems are extremely delicate, and if things go wrong within the tank, the fish and plants are usually less likely to recover. Experts say that a common trend among saltwater aquarium owners is to hire professional help, usually starting at $100 a month, to handle the upkeep of their tanks. Proper maintenance can be costly but is better than having to replace your entire system, experts say.

For all the expense and work, many find the opportunity to bring authentic sea creatures into their home or office well worth it. "The ocean is a ridiculously uncharted territory," said Randy Olsen, owner of Mountain Shadow Marine in Centerville. Through saltwater aquariums, people can discover the sea's unique and mysterious beauty.

3.The basics

Olsen suggests that first-time aquarists start with a big tank, anywhere from 55 to 75 gallons. Larger tanks are more likely to maintain proper water quality, including appropriate pH and nitrate levels. As a result, they provide a larger margin of error for beginners to learn without the fear of making a devastating mistake. Once you gain experience, Olsen said, you can work your way back to a smaller tank.

For those who don't want to splurge on a large tank, Blundell recommends purchasing a 20-gallon tank for about $40. It's small enough to not be overwhelming, but spacious enough to allow for experimenting with decorations and fish, he said. It's important to remember, however, that the smaller the tank, the more likely problems will occur, said Mark Giorgio, manager of the Orem location of Petco.

Once you've decided on your tank size and shape, the next step is finding an adequate filtration system. Both freshwater and saltwater aquariums need a good system that should be selected based on what you plan to keep or grow in the water. Filter systems used for both freshwater and saltwater tanks are often a combination of biological, mechanical and chemical filters. In addition, saltwater tanks require calcium carbonate, which often looks like gravel, to act as a pH buffer. Talk with an experienced aquarist to find out which filter best fits your needs.

4. Interior decorating

Your aquarium's decor will depend largely on whether you're using a freshwater or saltwater tank. Colorful gravel and a myriad of plastic ornaments such as plants, treasure chests and bubble machines can be used to add beauty and personality to your tank. While these decorations create a unique and fun look for your aquarium, they also provide hiding places for your fish.

Those who have saltwater aquariums often enjoy building reef systems in their tanks by using rock, coral and anemones they've collected from the wild. You can also purchase organic decorations at aquarium shops around Utah Valley. Lighting that mimics mother nature may also be required for some plants to live and grow in a tank. Additionally, heaters may be needed to maintain an appropriate water temperature, especially for tanks that house tropical fish.

5. Selecting fish

Purchase fish that will thrive in the environment you've created. And if you plan to have a group of fish, make sure they're compatible with each other. Ask an experienced aquarist for advice about which fish will interact well together. Experts recommend danios, gouramis, mollies, platies and tetras as beginner freshwater fish because they are hearty species and are compatible with others.

Ideal saltwater fish include damsels, gobies and clownfish. Use caution with clownfish, however. While they are compatible with other species, they don't do as well with their own kind.

Rather than dumping all the fish into the tank at once, add them one or two fish at a time and wait several weeks before adding more. This method allows time for your tank to adjust and maintain its proper water quality, and it helps fish stay healthy.

Learn more -- This Web site promotes conservation of reefs and marine life. It has information about the Salt Lake City-based Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society. -- This retailer's Web site has various aquarium products such as tanks and filters. There are also articles about fish compatibility, nutrition and tank furnishings. -- Learn about water chemistry and how to properly acclimate your fish to its new surroundings. Also, get a list of prices for products and services. -- At the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America's site, locate aquarium societies throughout the nation, interact with other aquarists through chat rooms and find links to a number of Web sites dedicated to marine life.


Sources: Adam Blundell, president of the Wasatch Marine Aquarium Society,; Mark Giorgio and Ken Schow, managers at Petco in Orem,; Randy Olsen, owner of Mountain Shadow Marine in Centerville,; Bob Allen, president of the Great Salt Lake Aquarium Society; Marine Aquarium Societies of North America,

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B1.