Hey guys! My #tinytankchallenge project is going to be a 2.5 gallon “pico reef” tank. I haven’t completely decided on what I’m stocking it with yet (probably some zoas and frags from my big tank which won’t cost me anything), but I just ordered most of my equipment, so I thought I’d get things rolling with that.


I had a $50 Amazon gift card from my birthday, so I’ve technically only spent ~$40, however, for fairness sake, total so far is $68.48 US dollars. I didn’t need to buy a lid, since the tank came with one, nor substrate, since I already had a bag of crushed coral lying around. (I’m not counting that anyway, because lots of people like bare-bottomed reef tanks, so this was optional). CXehKVeUAAA0usSI also have a small powerhead handy I may use, depending on how powerful that little filter is. For live rock (which will be doing most of my filtering, I have a bunch of small chunks I can scavenge from the big tank, but I may buy one nice piece from the local shop, which will probably put me right at the $100 mark.

I went with the 25 watt heater, even though it’s about 3X what I actually need because I’ve had good luck with that brand and didn’t want to chance an off-brand, pre-set betta heater, which is basically what all 10 watt aquarium heaters are. Funny, probably a better chance of cooking your tank with one of those than a decent thermostat controlled heater at a higher wattage.

I chose the filter I did because of the thin build. A lot of people use Aquaclear filters because they add the most water volume, but they’re significantly more expensive, around $40 or $50 and I’m really just using it for some chaeto algae. The reviews on this filter were generally good (quiet) and since it’s going on a desk in an office, I liked that the pump was internal and the external case is one solid piece so there’s no chance of a leak. I may have to mod the pump to slow it down by removing one or two of the impeller blades.

There really isn’t room for a fish in this tank, besides maybe a small goby, but I’ll probably have some micro-brittle stars, snails and such. Maybe an emerald crab.


Water Changes!

Here at Chez Spears, we like alliterative days for things: Meatball Monday, Taco Tuesday…you get the idea. I’ve found that using alliterative days to be a very useful shorthand for streamlining and making menu-planning easier for my family.  This handy tool is also useful when it comes to remembering to do an extremely important aquarium task, and so Water-change Wednesdays were born.

Why do water changes?

Fish in the wild generally live in bodies of water much larger than the largest of aquariums, often with strong currents, which helps to dilute or wash away any waste products the fish make. This isn’t so in our much, much smaller glass boxes of water. Fish waste has nowhere to go. Our fish do get some relief from the beneficial bacteria that break down ammonia and nitrite, two chemicals that are very dangerous to fish health. (See: nitrogen cycle). Live plants will take up some of the nitrates the bacteria produce, but high levels of nitrate are also damaging to fish health. Then there are the organic acids that can alter tank pH, and other nasty byproducts of decomposing fish waste that just sit and build up in the tank water. We can alleviate some of these issues by using extra mechanical filtration, various scrubbers and reactors, and chemical filtration in the form of resins and other compounds, all to target and remove specific waste products. One thing all of these methods have in common is that they are expensive!

This is where water changes come in. Changing your tank’s water is the easiest and least expensive way to maintain high water quality. What I mean by a water change isn’t just topping off the tank to refill what’s evaporated, but physically removing some of the old water and replacing it with new. Removing a portion of the water from the aquarium removes the nitrates, the organic acids, and other waste byproducts directly from the aquarium. Replacing that old tank water with new water helps to further dilute any remaining waste products until the next water change. New water also replenishes the essential minerals that fish absorb from the water column, similar to the minerals we ingest from our drinking water. Couple your water changes with gravel cleaning, and you can remove any solid wastes (fish poo, leftover food) that may have collected in the aquarium substrate as well.

How much do I change, and how often?

There are as many opinions on how much water and how often to change that water as there are aquarists. One thing they do agree on is that breaking a tank all the way down to clean it is unnecessary. Doing so not only stresses the fish out when they are removed from the tank, but breaking the tank all the way down destroys the tank’s biofilter, since it kills off all the beneficial bacteria.

In my experience, changing around fifty percent of the water once a week seems to work well (Water-change Wednesdays ring a bell?). The fish stay in the tank throughout the process, and seem to enjoy their freshly cleaned water after I’m done. Replacement water is made up to match the current tank water parameters as closely as possible so as not to shock the fish by any rapid water chemistry changes. Since my fish all tolerate my local tap water parameters, all I really do is make sure I’ve removed any chlorine or chloramine that’s been added by the municipal water treatment plant, and match the temperature of the tanks.

Water change equipment 

The basic equipment you need for water changes are: buckets for new water, a bucket for old water, a gravel siphon, and some kind of water conditioner. Your friendly neighborhood aquarium shop, or big box pet store if you don’t have any locally owned shops around you, likely has knowledgeable and friendly staff that will gladly sell you everything you need on this list, and at full retail prices. I’m not saying they’re trying to cheat you, but I will say that water change equipment is one place you can save some money, if you know where to look!

Let’s start with buckets. My local big box pet store has a 3-gallon bucket they sell for around $12. For me to do a 50% water change on my 29-gallon aquarium, I’d need six of these (five for new water, one for old water)! Or, I could go to Home Depot and pick up a good ol’ 5-gallon Homer bucker for $3. Sparing you (and me) the math, that’s a lot of savings!

The sturdy Homer bucket, and supplies for a DIY gravel vacuum.

Water conditioners can be pretty pricey, too. A 16 oz bottle, at the same big box store, of a brand-name water conditioner goes for around $13. The store brand, which is actually made by the same exact name brand manufacturer, goes for $9.99. If your town or city uses only chlorine to treat its tap water, you don’t even need water conditioner. Letting your new water sit for a day or so in your make-up water buckets is long enough to let the chlorine come out of the water on its own. However, chloramine won’t naturally dissolve out of the water, you’ll need a water conditioner to break the chemical bonds between the chorine and ammonia molecules.

Gravel vacuums and water siphons are another area where you can save a lot of money.  At the big box store, siphons range from around $8 for your basic vinyl tubing gravel vac, around $15-$25 for vacuums with built-in hand pumps to start the siphon, all the way up to $69 for a very fancy venturi faucet-driven vacuum. There is a DIY option, however, that can save a ton of money, if you don’t mind the old-fashioned way to get your siphon going.

DIY gravel vacuum

This build uses 5/8″ vinyl tubing that you can find at your local hardware store. I found 10 feet of it for a little less than $5. This will form the siphon. The gravel vacuum attachment is a 20 oz. Coke bottle. Start by drilling a hole in the bottle cap slightly smaller than your tubing. I used a 1/2 inch drill bit to make this hole:

Once your bit is through the plastic, wiggle it around a bit in there to make the hole slightly larger. Your fingers will thank you later.

Next, insert your tubing into the hole you’ve drilled in the top of the bottle:

Crimp the tube slightly with your fingers to get it to squeeze through the hole. You don’t need to push it in very far, about an inch or so is enough.

Lastly, cut off the bottom of the bottle, and trim the hose so you have about five or six feet of tubing attached to the bottle:


Voila! A homemade, DIY gravel vac, and it really works!

How do I DO a water change?

First, make sure you’ve prepared your new water beforehand. Next, get your gravel vac and old water bucket and head to the aquarium. I recommend bringing along a few towels. They’re good for soaking up any spills, as well as drying off the front of the tank when you’re done. Then, you need to get the siphon started.

I’ve always been partial to starting my gravel vacs the old-fashioned way: sticking the vacuum end in the tank and sucking on the tube end to get a flow going. If you have enough practice, you CAN avoid sucking in a mouthful of old tank water. Another option you can use is submerging the entire tube in the aquarium and filling it with tank water. You can then cap the tube end with your thumb, remove it from the tank, and place it into your old water bucket. Once the flow is going, stick the gravel vac end into the substrate and suck out all the old fish poo and whatever else is lurking down there!

I don’t know who Cassandra is, but she’s very nice for letting me hack her Coke bottle.

Once you’ve removed as much old tank water as you need to, slowly pour the new water from your make-up buckets into the tank. I use my hand to spread out the new water as it pours in, so as not to disturb any plants’ roots or the substrate. What to do with the old water? Give it to you house plants and container veggies! It’s full of wonderful organic fertilizer that they simply love.

Why we love water changes

Here at Parlour Oceans, we believe that maintaining high water quality on a budget is easy (and best!), and water changes are the way to do it. Keep your fishes’ water fresh and clean, and they’ll reward you with vibrant color, vigorous activity, and long healthy lives.

The Nitrogen Cycle and You, or Who Said Anything About Learning Science?

I thought I left chemistry back in high school!

When you start a new aquarium, you’ll quickly learn that maintaining proper water chemistry is one of the most important aspects of fish-keeping. Now don’t worry, there’s only a few scary terms we’ll cover in today’s article, but knowing these things can mean the difference between a thriving mini-ecosystem and a tank full of sick and diseased fish. We’re going to look at water chemistry and fish waste products from a FW point-of-view, but the same basic information applies to SW as well.

Some New Terms (Here there be science!)

You’ve set up your aquarium. The gravel’s been rinsed and installed. The bubbling castle and the bubbling diver are bubbling and diving away. The plants (you used live plants, right? But that’s another article…) are gently waving in the current. The filter, lights, and heater are all working perfectly. It’s time to add fish, right? Not so fast! That spotless, pristine tank may look perfect, like the ones you’ve envied in the fish magazines, but right now it’s a sterile desert unable to support any life over the long-term.

Let me explain: Fish, when they eat, digest their food. That may seem pretty obvious at first, but the tricky part comes after digestion. Fish must expel the leftovers from digestion, and that waste goes right into the water they’re swimming in. A major component of fish waste, which can be excreted through the bowels or from the gills, is ammonia. Ammonia, at any concentration, is extremely stressful to fish, and at even moderate levels can kill.

This may seem like a death knell to ever keeping fish in little glass boxes, but there’s a savior on the horizon! Bacteria called Nitrosomonas begin the nitrification process by literally eating the ammonia, and converting it to nitrite. Nitrite isn’t much better for fish, so we need another superhero to come help. By the way, you just learned the first half of the Nitrogen Cycle! Nitrosomonas bacteria break down ammonia to form nitrite. See how easy that was? The second half is just as easy: Nitrobacter bacteria take the nitrite and convert it to nitrate. Nitrate, in low concentration, is tolerable to fish, but should be removed through regular partial water changes (but that’s another article…). These bacteria live in the environment all around us, but don’t exist in large enough numbers in your new tank to adequately support any fish yet. You can add a source of ammonia to the tank to help Nitrosomonas bacteria grow, but we’ll get to that later.

New Tank Syndrome – and How to Keep it From Happening to You!

Understanding the Nitrogen Cycle is crucial to being a successful aquarist. Eager new tank owners unfamiliar with proper cycling will often rush to fill their new tanks with fish, only to see the tank cloud up milky white. Then, the new aquarist watches in agony as one fish after another goes belly-up. The aquarist cleans the tank out, scrubbing off all the decor in the process, and starts all over again. Once again, the tank clouds up and fish die. What’s going on?

The milky white cloudiness that the aquarist is observing is a bacterial bloom; the Nitrosomonas are trying to grow into the tank to eat up all the ammonia being produced by the fish. However, the high level of ammonia in the tank from all those new fish has often done its dirty work, stressing the fish to the point of death, long before the bloom even occurs. When the disappointed aquarist cleans out the entire tank to start over, he’s reset the entire cycle back to the beginning. This is the dreaded New Tank Syndrome (NTS). NTS can also happen if the tank is improperly cleaned during routine maintenance (which is also another article…).

How does one avoid NTS? Simply get yourself some fish food and a good, quality water test kit. A water test kit is one item of fish-keeping gear that you don’t want to skimp on, because mismeasuring water quality parameters can literally mean life or death for your aquatic charges. To start cycling your aquarium, put a couple flakes of fish food into the tank (with no fish, mind!) every day. You should begin to see the water cloud up a little after a week or so of feeding your empty tank, so start testing your water. When your ammonia levels have spiked (and yes, you should be recording your ammonia levels when you test your water. Those little Moleskine notebooks work wonderfully for this!) and then dropped to zero, watch your nitrite levels. When these too have spiked and dropped to zero, you’re ready to start adding fish! Cycling this way can take several weeks, but it is so much safer than just sticking a fish or two in the tank and letting them stress it out while the water chemistry changes wildly around them. Do your fish a favor, and take it slow!

Happy Fish-keeping!

Freshwater Equipment Basics

So You Want to Start an Aquarium?

Great! While the focus of this blog is mostly about trying to encourage people to try out marine aquaria, many people feel a lot more comfortable starting with fresh water systems. That’s fine! Fresh water (let’s abbreviate that to FW, OK?) tanks have a lot of benefits, in that we can eliminate the need for a lot of equipment, but let me stress one thing. FW isn’t easier than saltwater, or vice versa. It has different considerations, but almost all the principles involved are the same. The major reason I think people have the perception that FW is easy and SW is not, is the cost of the livestock. It’s certainly more palatable to most people to get all of their silly beginner mistakes out of the way with fish that cost $1.95, rather than, say $99.00.

What You Need

Let’s start with a rundown of all of the equipment needed to start a FW aquarium.

  • Glass or Acrylic aquarium
  • Top/Hood/Lid
  • Stand
  • Heater (if tropical)
  • Thermometer
  • Light
  • Filter
  • Gravel/Sand
  • Decoration/Plants
  • Fish/Livestock
  • Fish food
  • Dip net
  • Gravel Vacuum
  • Dechlorinator
  • Bucket

Size Matters

The first item on the list is the tank itself. Since we’re talking about beginner tanks here, I want to address something that comes up a lot early on. Something a tad counterintuitive. Many people assume that a small aquarium is an easier aquarium, but in reality, the exact opposite is true. Think of it this way: a larger pot of water takes longer to boil, right? Therefore, anything that goes wrong in your tank, mechanically, chemically, whatever, is going to take longer to happen in more water, and you’ll have more time to catch it and fix it. So the best advice I (and most others) have regarding tanks is always bigger is better.

OK, you say, but what if I can’t afford a big tank or don’t have the space? Small tanks aren’t impossible, they’re just more challenging. My very first aquarium was constructed not knowing any of this. It was a 10 gallon nanoreef tank, and I did OK. Had to learn about testing my water a lot though!

Another word of advice I have about buying tanks is that they’re almost always sold at (or very very close to) cost. Retailers don’t make money on them, they make money on all the other stuff. So you’re unlikely to find too many bargains on brand new tanks in stores, although one big box pet retailer does occasionally run a “dollar per gallon” sale where they actively lose money on tanks with the hope that you’ll buy all that other good stuff to make up for it. Another great way to find aquariums for cheap is to look for people trying to get rid of them. I’ve bought tanks at garage sales plenty of times, and as long as you’re cool with taking the risk on a possible leaker (it happens, but it’s usually worth the risk to pick up a tank for a few bucks) this can be a great way to acquire a tank. Similarly websites like craigslist are often good places to find cheap or free tanks people are trying to offload.

Hoods and Lights

Ok, we have a tank. Now we need something to keep the fish in it and the cat out of it. The two most common options in most cases are either a plastic hood (usually with a fluorescent strip light included) or a glass top (light will need to be acquired separately). Here’s where we may need to ask ourselves a question about what kind of aquarium this is going to be. If we’re planning on a few small fish and some plastic plants or other decorations, then the plastic hood is fine. (You can use some of the same bargain hunting techniques mentioned above to find a hood, or sometimes eBay is good for piecemeal stuff like that). A glass hood is most useful for letting the maximum amount of light into the tank. So if you have designs on a planted tank with live plants (definitely recommended, it’s awesome!) then a glass lid is the way to go. Glass lids are generally about $20 US for smaller (say 20 gallon tanks) and go about a dollar per gallon in size as you go, with oddball sizes like hexagonal tank lids being more costly. Glass lids have another maintenance-related perk in that they’re generally better at preventing evaporation, so you’ll have to worry about that less.

Lights themselves probably deserve a whole article of their own at some point. Luckily, with FW tanks, fish don’t particularly seem to care much about the quality of the light. If you are planning on a planted tank, you may want to make some adjustments. The only thing I’ll add here for now is that while fluorescent fixtures and bulbs are cheap to buy upfront, newer LEDs are much cheaper to run in the long run. So consider that when you’re picking them out. My FW tank uses LEDs and I’m really happy with them.

Stand By Me

OK, the stand. Stands are something you generally won’t find great deals on online. They’re heavy and expensive to ship. We’ll cover types of stands and maybe some tutorials for making stands at a later time. Some people do opt to make their own. If you buy one, avoid ones that are entirely made of cheap pressboard. Angle iron stands are inexpensive but also have some of their own issues. Once you have a stand, make sure it’s level and in a place that’s not receiving too much direct sunlight or temperature swings.


The last major piece of equipment you’ll need is a filter. Filtration as a topic will be getting it’s own articles, for sure, but let’s talk about common filter types for FW. First off, there are 3 basic kinds of filtration in all tanks: biological, chemical and mechanical. Most use at least 1 of these methods, some use combinations of all of them. The most common type of filter in the world of FW are hang on the back filters, which use mainly chemical and mechanical filtration.

What does that mean? All tanks use at least some biological filtration. We’ll talk about the Nitrogen cycle later (don’t be scared, it’s really cool), but the short version is that there are billions of beneficial bacteria in the water breaking down waste into less toxic chemicals. This is why we never want to remove ALL of the water in an aquarium. We’d be removing all those bacteria and actually be making things worse. The media (artificial sponges usually) you put into a hang on the back filter acts not only to mechanically catch waste, but as a place for these bacteria to grow and break stuff down. Chemical filtration is the adding of chemicals to the water to help neutralize the effects of ammonia, nitrite or nitrate. Usually this is done by adding activated carbon to the filter.

For small tanks, hang-on-the-back filters (HOB) are fine. If we start going over the 55 gallon mark, they start to be less effective at moving water enough to do their job and aquarists usually start looking at other options. Another handy, off the shelf type of filter are canister filters. These sit under the tank and look like, well, a canister, with two tubes going back into the tank. One tube is an intake to suck water down, where it gets cleaned in the canister chemically, mechanically and biologically, and then is pumped back up through the other tube. Canisters are more expensive than “HOB” filters, but tend to be much more powerful and do not need to be cleaned as often. Sometimes these can be purchased cheaply used. They tend to last a long time, so it’s an option. Make sure to replace the gaskets if you go that route.

Misc Stuff Needed:

There are going to be some odds and ends here. If you plan on keeping tropicals (animals that like the water between 72 and 80º F), you’ll be needing an aquarium heater and a thermometer. When picking out a heater, I really recommend submersible heaters as they tend to be much better made than non-submersibles. Figure about 5 watts per gallon of water. I like to overshoot the mark a little bit and turn mine down to be safe. You’ll need a thermometer as well to make sure you’re not chilling or cooking your critters. Always have a thermometer. You can go old school and put a $2 one in, or you can go digital and get more accuracy. I like the old style because they work even when the power’s out, and the price is right.

You’ll also need to put stuff in the tank. We’ll cover “aquascaping” another time, but sand, gravel or river rocks are all good options for bottom substrate. I use hardware store “play sand” in all of my tanks because it’s about $3.00 US for a 20 lb bag of it. How you decorate the tank is up to you, but I strongly urge you to research the biome of the animals you’re going to be keeping and try your best to emulate that.


When it comes time to do water changes and cleaning, you’re going to want what’s called a gravel vacuum or aquarium siphon. Also, a bucket. You can get buckets cheaply a lot of places. Hardware stores certainly, but also I just found some for $1 a piece at my local sandwich shop (used for pickles), so look around! The siphon cleaner is basically a hard plastic tube for stirring up the gravel attached to a flexible hose. When I was a kid learning how to do this, you would put the hard tube in the tank, run the flexible tube down into your bucket, suck at the bucket end and hope you didn’t get a mouthful of horrifying water. Nowadays, you can get them with a little hand-pump built in that eliminates all the fun but will probably save you from that fate. You’ll also probably need a bottle of dechlorination chemicals you can buy at just about any pet store. Most fish are really sensitive to the chemicals that are put into our tap water to make it potable, so this is a must. It used to be that you could let tap water sit for 24 hours and that was enough to neutralize chlorine, and it is, if chlorine was the only thing in the water, but most places also use chloramine, which is a much more tenacious beast and must be treated out. Obviously you’ll also need a good quality fish food of some kind and fish. Don’t stock your entire fish tank immediately though. We need to “cycle” the tank (another future article!), so pick a single fish, or even better wait for a week or two before even putting anything in!

Lastly, you’ll need a dip net for working with fish, removing unwanted stuff, etc. These are usually very cheap. Like a $1.00 US or so, but like almost all these odds and ends, your mileage may vary. Also, one great source for these things can be asking your local fish store (that’s LFS in fish geek parlance), if they have a “used equipment section.” You’d be surprised how often they do. I’ve gotten tanks, lights, decorations and other stuff just by asking around for that and offering to pay cash for it. I also check eBay frequently for stuff like heaters and such. They are often available straight from the factory in China for next to nothing.

Wrap up

So that’s a run through of all the equipment you’ll need for starting a great FW tank! Leave your comments, questions or other thoughts below. I’ll be posting more articles about things like the nitrogen cycle and more marine stuff soon!