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The Age of Aquariums

With this essential guide, you won't need to fish for compliments on your new tank.

With the advent of winter's bitter bite, nature has shed its vibrant colors, and most activities have moved inside.

So now is the perfect time to make your home a great place to relax -- and build a soothing aquarium filled with beautiful fish.

You could swap the plasma TV for a 30-gallon wall-mounted aquarium -- your children will thank you (much) later.

For a professional touch, try a high-end professional tank designer. To keep it clean, you can even hire a tank-service specialist to do all the work.

But if you prefer a more hands-on experience, you can easily get started all on your own.

Gone Fishing

An aquarium aficionado since the '60s, Fred Barron, 59, of Norfolk, Va., has had as many as five tanks and an outdoor fish pond.

He has since downsized to one tank with two oscar fish -- an albino and a tiger; not surprisingly, they resemble their names -- and the pond.

Barron, a retired biology teacher, constructed his

fish pond nine years ago in his back yard, where temperatures average 35 to 70 degrees in the winter. The pond is home to about 50 fish -- koi and fancy goldfish -- that range in size from 2 to 12 inches long.

Gazing into the pond is a proven stress-reliever: "I get lost in sweet nothings. The fish are different colors, so it's like watching a kaleidoscope going around and around as the fish swim back and forth, playing and bantering," Barron explains.

Breed All About It

For beginning aquarists, Barron recommends low-maintenance guppies or zebras. Guppies are known for their oversized, flowing tail; one type of hearty zebra, the danio rerio, is often used in biological studies.

Prices for goldfish -- another good starter fish -- can vary widely. says you can get them from $8 to $20 each. Rare or new varieties can fetch $5,000 to $15,000 apiece.

It can be a worthwhile investment -- goldfish can live about eight years in aquariums and up to 25 years in well-maintained ponds.

Keith Seyffarth, 36, of Bozeman, Mont., is a Webmaster who has loved fish since elementary school and ran a fish department in a pet store for seven years.

As this seasoned guru points out, most beginning fish shoppers look for qualities such as beauty or aggressive behavior. People seek out bright colors so they can identify each fish and tell them apart. But fish can have interesting personalities, too.

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Seyffarth is partial to the dragon fish, or violet goby. Dragon fish have an eel-like body, small eyes and poor visual acuity -- but to Seyffarth, their charm outweighs their arguably off-putting appearance.

Tank Talk

Seyffarth created the

First Tank Guide in 1994 to disseminate "bare-bones information on tank setup." The site has since evolved into much more -- aquarium owners can access extensive material on troubleshooting or even ask Seyffarth a question directly.

As Seyffarth explains, the ideal tank for beginners is a 10-gallon unit with an appropriately sized filter and just two fish. At this point, the

tank cycle begins, a process necessary to remove the toxins that the fish's metabolism creates. For more fish, Seyffarth recommends adding only two fish for each 10-gallon increase in tank size, and only after the tank completes its initial six- to eight-week cycle.

Three-gallon tanks and tiny "night-light" fishbowls should be avoided, he warns. Larger tanks create a more stable environment for the fish, and you are able to get more of a variety of fish as well as larger fish.

Siamese fighting, or betta, fishbowls with protruding, live plants are also popular with beginners. However, it's not clear whether they are safe for the fish. So if you go this route, be sure to keep the bowl clean, the plant it feeds on healthy and supplement it with betta fish food.

In terms of shape, horizontal rather than

vertical tanks afford fish a more natural swimming range.

And when decorating, avoid figures that have jagged edges, as these may hurt you or your fish. Do provide plenty of hiding spaces, if that is your finned friend's preference.

Most important, it is best to set up your tank well before you add any fish, to make sure the thermostat (if needed) and aeration and filtration systems are functioning properly. This is also the time to check for any visible cracks or leaks.

Salt vs. Fresh

As for water, consult with your local pet store to determine whether the fish you select require fresh, brackish or salt water, as well as the appropriate temperature range.

Marine or saltwater tanks are needed for healthy corals, crustaceans and other exotic sea life.

Brackish water is a combo of salt (marine aquarium salt) and fresh water, similar to the water in an estuary or marsh.

For any tank, you'll also need the proper water conditioner. "The city puts in chlorines and chloramines to kill germs to make water drinkable, but those chemicals are deadly to fish," Barron explains.

"It can also be devastating to your biological filter," Seyffarth adds. As a fail-safe, invest a few dollars on testing kits that check for harmful substances.

Finally, you will need to replace 10% to 15% of the old water with new water every week.

Telltale Warnings

"A fish's immune system is almost as robust as ours," says Seyffarth -- but they are also as fragile.

A fish can get diseases and will show signs of stress if it has a poor diet, if other fish are picking on it, if the tank has poor water quality or is overcrowded, or if the fish has been moved too much.

Some of Seyffarth's key warning signs:

  • Look for anything out of the ordinary. If a middle- or top-swimmer starts to bottom or burrow, there may be a problem.
  • Most fish hold their fins erect, not taut. Fish with clamped fins are usually stressed or in poor health.
  • Opaque or fuzzy eyes may indicate an illness, a bacterial infection or stress.
  • Look for any change in color.
  • Heavy breathing and panting are signs of stress related to poor water conditions.

With the proper care and maintenance, your fish may live for many years. Home-aquarium fish offer a cost-to-enjoyment ratio that rivals most any other pet's. And next to a potted plant, large fish tanks are about as low-maintenance as caring for a living creature can get.

So don't be shy -- jump in. The water's fine!

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