Learning curve.

One of the most interesting things about aquariums is that each one is different-just like its creator. Every aquarium has its own vibe, "operational cadence", characteristics...a "personality" of sorts, if you will. Have you ever noticed that it seems to take a few weeks to really "learn" about a new tank?

I've been setting up a few new tanks lately, so it's fun to go through this process and sort of hit those "mental checkmarks" on the journey.

You go through those various stages-  Conceptual planning, equipment selection, the build-out process, adding the hardscape, water, and ultimately, fishes. You think by then, you'd really know your aquarium. I mean, you do...to a certain extent.


Even after an aquarium has water in it for several weeks or so, it takes a while to get a good "feel" for the tank. Does that make sense to you? A new tank is like a new relationship. Ever think about it in those terms?

It makes a lot of sense. 

Yeah- you go through that period of initial excitement, anticipation, trying to not make mistakes; sometimes, there is a little awkwardness or nervousness associated with it until, ultimately, you realize that it's an enjoyable thing and you just do what comes naturally, making the best decisions possible to keep things happy and healthy. Then, you are very comfortable, while never taking it for granted or becoming complacent.

Good analogy, right? Maybe?

With a new aquarium, the first few weeks are really all about a "shakedown" of critical systems- making sure, first of all, that the damn thing holds water without leaking all over your hardwood floor! Then, the little things like the sounds the tank makes will become evident. Learning the water level that the tank seems to run at, figuring out the best access points for maintenance- "ergonomic" stuff like that. Things you like, dislike, and want to tweak. Early on, you get a "feel" for the tank, much as a driver gets a feel for a new car and all of its quirks.

And of course, there are the inevitable things that occur along the way in this process to throw you for a loop or two: The water won't clear, the system pump is a bit noisy, you can't seem to get the heater to the exact temperature setting you want, lighting timers are awry, that piece of wood won't stay in place where you like it- the usual shit that, although can be annoying, is all part of the game when you're setting up a new aquarium!

You also understand that your tank looks "stark" and "sterile"- maybe still a bit cloudy in this early phase, and you tell yourself that it's just getting underway...

Then comes the "tweaking" phase: "Edits", as I like to call them. You know, that rock needs to be tilted to the left ever-so-slightly, the wood needs adjustment...Maybe, a few less rocks and seed pods..yeah, more "negative" space. Or more leaves...Stuff which sets the stage for the evolution of the aquarium. 


Stuff like that. Part of the "process", if you will.

And then, after all of the anticipation, planning, and execution, there is that day when you tell yourself, "Yeah, this thing is really starting to come together!"

Usually, for me, this is around the second water exchange. By that time, you'll have learned a lot of the quirks and eccentricities of your new aquarium. You'll have seen the way it rebounds from maintenance procedures, and how it functions in daily operation. I always get a lump in my throat the first time I shut off the main system pump for maintenance. "Will it start right back up? Did I miscalculate the 'drain-down' capacity of the sump? Will this pump lose siphon?" 

And so what the fuck if it DOES? You simply...fix the problem. That's what fish geeks do. Chill.


Yet, I know some of these things DO bother me.

That's my personal worry with a new tank, crazy though it might be. The reality, is that in decades of aquarium-keeping, I've NEVER had a pump not start right back up, or overflowed a sump after shutting down the pump...but I still watch, and worry...and don't feel good until that fateful moment after the first water change when I fire up the pump again, to the reassuring whir of the motor and the lovely gurgle of water once again circulating through my tank.

Okay, perhaps I'm a bit weird, but I'm being totally honest here- and I'm not entirely convinced that I'm the only one who has some of these hangups when dealing with a new tank! I've seen a lot of crazy hobbyists who go into a near depression when something goes wrong with their tanks, so this sort of behavior is really not that unusual, right?

In a botanical-style aquarium, you need to think more holistically. You need to realize that these extremely early days are the beginning of an evolution- the start of a living microcosm, which will embrace a variety of natural processes. Bacteria and other microorganisms, nurtured by the abundant botanical materials, will grow and multiply. As leaves begin to soften, organisms such as fungi colonize their surfaces. Lignins, tannin, humic substances, and other organic compounds will begin to leach into the water.

And then, seemingly out of the blue, you look at your tank one day and you know things are even better than they were last week; somehow, much different: The fish are beautiful and relaxed, the hardscape materials don't look so sterile and crisp.  Plants, if present, are no longer "shocked"- they're growing. Biofilms and fungal growths are present, but not overwhelming. The water might have a slight turbidity to it- a definite tint, and there is a characteristic "patina" to all of the materials in the aquarium.

You're seeing a more "broken-in" system that doesn't seem so "clean", has that wonderful pleasant, earthy smell, and you realize that your system is healthy, biologically stable, and functioning as Nature would intend it to. If you don't intervene, or interfere- your system will continue to evolve on a beautiful, natural path.

It's that moment- and the many similar moments that will come later, which makes you remember exactly why you got into the aquarium hobby in the first place: That awesome sense of wonder, awe, excitement, frustration, exasperation, realization, and ultimately, triumph, which are all part of the journey- the personal, deeply emotional journey- towards a successful aquarium- that only a real aquarist understands.

Those are the moments that make the hobby so engrossing and so enjoyable. Those are the moments which make all of the other stuff we do so worthwhile. As you're going through the process of setting up a new tank, be sure to stop and savor each and every moment of the magic of aquarium keeping.

The familiarization itself is wonderful. SO is the learning curve.

Remind yourself at every stage that this is an incredible process..Savor each and every step on what is really as much of a journey as it is anything else. Create, observe, learn, and enjoy.

Stay committed. Stay excited. Stay engrossed...

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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