Have you ever gazed into a thriving community tank and wondered how every fish, plant, and critter appears so healthy and glowing with vitality?
The answer often comes down to a few simple habits that separate pro fishkeepers from the rest. If you want to boast a vibrant community tank, in radiant health, we suggest you follow them, too.
Here, we’ll reveal 11 key habits of pro fish keepers with thriving community tanks.
Having a Plan
Owning an aquarium is so exciting that it can be easy to rush into setting up a tank without proper preparation.
But while a little bit of spontaneity and impulse buying shouldn’t be ruled out, starting a new community tank without a proper plan is a recipe for disaster. The good news is that planning a community tank can be an extremely fun, rewarding process in its own right!
Before you buy your tank, equipment, or fish, make some lists or spider diagrams of what you’d like to achieve. If you like drawing, grab some colors and sketch out what you’d like your tank to look like. Do you want to create a lush aquascape packed full of live plants and driftwood, or a stark, rocky tank with sparse décor?
Which type of fish would you like to keep, and how many? Do your research and make sure they’re compatible with each other and your local water chemistry. Now calculate how large your tank needs to be, where you’ll site it, and which equipment you’ll need.
Don’t proceed until you’ve got the basics figured out. If this all sounds a bit complicated, fear not, our website is packed with helpful articles on these topics, and we’ll also discuss many of them below.
Choosing Compatible Tank Mates
When it comes to community tanks, the single greatest skill is probably choosing the right combination of tank mates. While this can take significant experience to master, there are some tried and tested combinations that offer beginners the best chances of success.
For a healthy community aquarium, be extremely cautious of adding semi-aggressive tank mates like cichlids, barbs, and gouramis that can cause stress, injury, or even fatalities to your other tank mates. Keep things simple to avoid this distressing situation for both you and your fish!
Selecting the Right Fish for Your Water
A habit that’s often overlooked by beginners is choosing the right fish for your local water chemistry. Although it’s possible to alter water conditions according to your fish, it’s much easier to choose fish that suit your local water as it is.
Keeping a fish in water parameters outside their preferred range is a common rookie error that can lead to stress, skin problems, as well as more serious health issues.
If you have soft, acidic water, then choose fish that naturally prefer these conditions. This includes almost all fish from South America such as tetras, angelfish, cories, and plecos. It also includes fish from West Africa and Southeast Asia like kribensis, gouramis, and rasboras.
If you have hard, alkaline water, instead choose fish that come from those habitats such as livebearers, Central American cichlids, and many types of rainbow fish.
If your local water is neutral, then lucky you! You’ll be able to keep the majority of popular community fish in your tank.
Choosing a Large Enough Tank
For a healthy community aquarium, it’s much better to go for a medium-large fish tank. All too often, beginners choose tiny tanks that are ill-suited to community setups. While 10 or 15-gallon tanks are suitable for betta fish or shrimp, a community setup requires 20 gallons as a bare minimum.
Sadly, novice aquarists sometimes try to keep tetras and rasboras in smaller tanks only to find that they don’t school properly. In nano tanks, these fish tend to bob around or ‘hover’ rather than school. They’ll feel stressed, become more prone to aggressive behavior such as fin-nipping, and begin to look drab and unhealthy.
Additionally, small tanks have a much lower buffering capacity than larger aquariums and so are more prone to sudden swings in water temperature and parameters that can prove lethal to your fish. A little extra water volume goes a long way to keeping things stable!
Refraining From Overstocking
Closely related to our above habit is not overstocking your fish tank. While it can be tempting to keep buying attractive fish from the store, it’s crucially important to stick to the basic formulas on stocking density.
For community tanks, a good rule of thumb is the one-inch of fish per gallon rule. Using this formula, a 4-inch long bristlenose pleco requires 4 gallons of water. A school of 10 harlequin rasboras, each measuring 2 inches long requires an additional 20 gallons, and so on.
Exceeding this basic stocking density is a dangerous game to play. Water conditions become fragile and prone to sudden fluctuations, and with less space, your fish may become severely stressed. You’ll also need to do more tank maintenance to keep the tank clean.
It’s much more rewarding to have a healthy community tank with fewer fish than a tank crammed full of stressed fish in poor water conditions.
Waiting for a Cycled Tank
A crucial habit of any aquarium owner who wants healthy lifestock is waiting for the tank to cycle properly before introducing their prized fish. Without proper cycling, your fish will quickly die from ammonia or nitrite poisoning – one of the most common mistakes of newbie fish keepers.
We don’t have time to discuss the entire nitrogen cycle process here, but suffice to say, proper cycling takes time, and it’s essential not to rush it. I’d recommend not adding any fish until your water consistently tests free from ammonia and nitrites – and that can take several weeks.
Having a basic grasp of the nitrogen cycle in a fish tank is an essential pre-requisite for any type of fish keeping, so be sure to read our 101 guide to the nitrogen cycle, here if you’re unfamiliar with the science!
Choosing Reliable Gear
A hallmark of a good fish keeper with a healthy community tank is reliable equipment.
Fishkeeping can be expensive, and it can be tempting to try to cut corners. But while the internet is full of bargain basement filters, pumps, and heaters, an experienced fish keeper will always buy from trusted brands.
Not only does good equipment perform better from day one, but it’ll also last much longer, easily paying you back for the extra investment over the years. Moreover, reliable equipment gives you peace of mind and drastically reduces the chance of fish fatalities due to equipment failures.
Always check reviews before buying, and if possible, choose equipment with a warranty – a good sign of reliable workmanship.
Daily Equipment Checks
Buying reliable equipment is an important step to ensuring smooth tank operation, but one must remain diligent in checking it’s functioning properly every day, too! Aquarium filters and heaters are so essential to tropical aquariums that even one day without them might cost your fish’s lives.
Luckily equipment checks can be as simple as glancing at your tank before you leave the house or go to bed. Reliable aquarium thermometers are the best way to ensure your heater is working correctly, and filters can be checked by the flow visible at the water’s surface or swaying plant leaves.
In case either filter or heater breaks, diligent aquarists tend to have some backup equipment for emergencies.
Proper Feeding Schedule
Perhaps the most common mistake that beginners make with their first community tank is overfeeding. But feeding either too much at a time, or too many times in a day is a recipe for many of the most disastrous aquarium problems.
When fish eat too much, constipation, bloating, and swim bladder problems often result. Any uneaten food that’s left to decay releases ammonia into the water. Ammonia poisoning, high nitrates, algae blooms, and ideal conditions for bacterial and parasitic infections result.
All of this can be avoided by following the golden rule of thumb: Feed your fish twice a day with no more than they can eat within two minutes. Watch closely to make sure that all members of your community tank get their fill, and spread the food out, or use sinking foods if necessary.
Any uneaten food must be removed within 10 minutes to prevent it from contaminating your tank. Clearing up uneaten food is one of the reasons that bottom feeders are so helpful in aquariums. Catfish, loaches, plecos, and shrimp are all excellent for this role.
Maintaining a Varied Diet
A proper feeding schedule is the basis for keeping your fish alive. But to help your fish truly shine you’ll need to offer them a varied, balanced diet that reflects their natural menu. Flake foods and fish pellets may be convenient as a daily staple, but your fish require more diversity to remain in optimum health.
Vegetable supplements include green vegetables like dandelion leaves, blanched nettles, organic spinach or lettuce, nori flakes, and spirulina sinking wafers. Regular feeding of vegetable matter may also prevent some fish from eating aquarium plants!
Fresh and frozen meaty foods such as bloodworms, earthworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, Mysis shrimp, chopped prawns, crickets, and mosquito larvae, are excellent sources of high-quality proteins and fats that most omnivorous fish will go wild for.
Going the extra mile to feed your fish their favorite foods is a great way to show how much you care for them, and they’ll more than repay you with the vibrant colors and stunning condition obtained from proper nourishment.
Proper Tank Maintenance
Once the tank is set up properly, the key to a long-term flourishing community tank is proper maintenance. There are several aspects to this, so let’s break them down.
Cleaning the Filter
The secret of effective filter cleaning is to remove most of the dirt trapped in the sponge without destroying the essential bacterial colonies that live there. Beginners, often not realizing how vital the bacteria are, mistakenly kill them by washing the filter with chlorinated water.
Instead, gently clean your filter every two weeks using either dechlorinated tap water or water from your aquarium. You can even use the tank water saved from your partial water change.
Partial Water Changes
For a typical community tank, 20-30% water changes every week are normally recommended. For tanks that are more lightly stocked, you could get away with a 30-35% water change every two weeks.
It’s inadvisable to change more than 40% of the tank’s water in any one go (except in emergencies) as doing so can knock out much of the tank’s beneficial bacteria that are essential for healthy water chemistry. Always replace the water with dechlorinated water of matching temperature.
Most people will use some sort of siphon or vacuum to remove water from the tank, so this is also the perfect moment to vacuum your gravel.
Vacuuming the Gravel
Good fish keepers keep their gravel clean. Without regular cleaning, gravel becomes clogged with detritus – a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and pathogens.
Work methodically when cleaning your gravel, making sure no corner of the tank gets missed. Gently disturb the gravel with your hoover nozzle to release dirt and trapped gasses from the substrate.
Gravel vacuums can be made at home by simply fixing half a plastic bottle onto a hose pipe. Alternatively, check out our guide to the best purpose-made gravel vacuum cleaners on the market.
Correct Lighting Schedule
A proper aquarium lighting schedule is essential. Without consistent lighting times, a fish’s body clocks lose sync, they become stressed, and they often succumb to diseases or health problems.
Between 8-12 hours of light time is the usual recommendation for most tanks, with 10 hours being a good default point. After this, the lights should be switched off to give the fish enough time to rest and recuperate.
The easiest way to set up the ideal lighting schedule is to install a timer switch so your lights turn on and off every day at the same time without you even needing to be at home.
Keeping track of water parameters is a trademark of diligent fish keepers who make sure water conditions are always in the ideal range for their fish, plants, and invertebrates. Regular testing is also an excellent way of diagnosing problems before they get out of hand.
For medium to large community aquariums, testing the tank’s water once per month or anytime something unusual is noticed is a good rule of thumb. For tanks of 20 gallons or less, testing the water every two weeks is advisable.
The next skill is knowing how to correct imbalances in the water to benefit your fish. For example, if nitrate is too high, more water changes are needed to reduce it. If the pH is too low, then alkalizing materials such as limestone must be added to the tank to balance the water chemistry.
Maintaining Live Plants
Although live plants require a little more care than plastic or silk alternatives, we highly recommend adding at least a few to every community tank. By cleaning the water and producing oxygen, aquatic plants perform a sterling service in keeping a community tank healthy.
But to become a boon, live plants need maintenance. Dead leaves need removing from the tank before they rot, and excessive plant growth needs pruning back to avoid smothering of other plants.
More advanced maintenance of live plants includes feeding using root tabs and liquid feeds. Most beginner plants, however, will grow just fine without them providing they’re given enough light.
Daily Aquarium Observations
Last, but certainly not least, observing an aquarium’s inhabitants every day is another crucial habit for a thriving community tank. By checking on your fish every day, you’ll be ensuring that any health problems or diseases are diagnosed early on.
You’ll also become more aware of the interactions between your fish and become more able to spot social problems such as bullying or fin-nipping.
By spotting problems immediately and intervening promptly, you’ll nip the problem in the bud before things get out of hand. You’ll also be forging a stronger bond and better understanding of each member of your community tank – a sure sign of a caring aquarist!
Remember, Consistency Is Key
With all of these boxes ticked, you’re well on your way to becoming a pro fishkeeper! All you need to do now is make sure you continue these habits consistently, and your community tank should be glowing with health for years to come.