Sunday, October 15, 2017

50 Ways to Kill Your Fish: Uncycled Aquarium

Don't Panic About Aquarium Cycling!

Despite being a habitual researcher, I balked at learning about the aquarium cycle. It's because everyone made it sound so tedius! They would immediately dive into complex chemical terms and scientific names, and it made my eyes roll into my head in boredom. Here's the very simple, "Cycling for Dummies" explanation...

How to Cycle Your Aquarium

What Does Cycling an Aquarium Mean?

It means your fish or other aquatic animals have the ability to live in an aquarium without dying in their own waste (like ammonia and urea). This can be accomplished in several ways:
  1. Do frequent water changes to manually remove the waste. 
  2. Grow beneficial bacteria that will convert the fish waste into a less toxic chemical, which buys you more time between water changes.
    1. Use live plants (or algae) that will directly uptake ammonia and convert it into new leaves and plant growth.
    Note: That means that putting water in your tank and letting it sit without fish for a week will not cycle your tank (been there, done that). Cycling is a means of removing ammonia, not aging water. Also, plecos and other bottom dwellers do not eat poop; they make it. :)

    What is the Best Method of Cycling My Aquarium?

    This is a totally a matter of opinion, so I'll tell you my story. When I first started researching aquarium cycling, the most popular method people on the internet recommend is method #2, specifically using fishless cycling to grow beneficial bacteria. This involves pouring liquid ammonia (aka fake fish waste) into your tank as a food source for the bacteria and then waiting till you grow enough bacteria to consume the ammonia. Since I did not have a source of beneficial bacteria to kick start the growth in my tank, a couple of months passed without anything happening so I gave up.

    The next thing I tried was fish-in cycling, which means putting a very small number of fish in your tank and growing beneficial bacteria off their waste. Unlike using liquid ammonia, having actual fish poop is a surefire way that bacteria will come. I used two cory catfish in a 20-gallon tank, fed them lightly, and carefully monitored the water parameters. Contrary to popular belief, they thrived without incident and naturally grew beneficial bacteria over the course of several weeks.

    Unfortunately, after a couple of encounters with disease, I had to wipe out all my good bacteria with the bad when sanitizing my aquarium. That's when I discovered the miracle of live plants. I'd always used fake plants before because a) live plants seemed difficult and b) I hated the algae problems that seemed to come with them. However, aquascaped tanks full of foliage looked so beautiful, so I decided to give it a shot with my nano tank. There are many super easy low-light aquarium plant species that can be tied to a rock and basically treated like a fake plant. The difference was incredible though. I did an experiment to see how long I could go without changing the water, and even a month later, ammonia and nitrites were still 0 ppm and the nitrate levels were only 5 to 10 ppm! Σ(°ロ°) That never happened in my tanks with no plants and beneficial bacteria only. Surprisingly, using live plants for biological filtration seems to be one of fastest ways to cycle your aquarium (assuming you're starting from scratch like I was).

    Betta tank with narrow leaf java fern, windelov lace java fern, and anubias nana petite
    All the java fern and anubias plants are tied onto rocks or décor that are easily moved for cleaning.

    Bottom line: how does nature clean up fish poop? It gets washed away or diluted (method #1) from rain and other water sources, and bacteria and plants (methods #2 and 3) break it down as food. I highly recommend using all three methods to keep your fish happy and your water clean.

    P.S. A huge thanks to Aquarium Co-Op's video that covers this subject more in-depth. I just discovered Cory's YouTube channel and I really appreciate how he speaks from his own experiences, not just what is repeated on the internet.

    Thursday, October 12, 2017

    My Husband Left His Dream Job as a Video Game Developer

    pair of emperor penguins
    Sticking by my soulmate "for richer or for poorer" (Source: Christopher Michel)

    I always imagined my husband would be someone like my dad – tall, gangling, wears glasses, has a solid job as an engineer. Mr. Gamer is tall with a sense of humor, but that's where the similarities end. He's barrel-chested, has perfect eyesight, and holds an insanely unstable career as a video game developer. In the first four years we were married, he worked at four different game studios. Let me tell you how each of his jobs ended:
    1. Game got canceled
    2. Studio got bought out
    3. Studio closed
    4. Game got canceled 
    As you can see, the success rate of video game studios and their products is not great. Why does this perpetual cycle of job loss happen? This guy answered it better than me (pardon my paraphrasing):
    Since the industry is project-based, job length tends to be directly associated with product development cycles. Companies tend to dump staff once a project ships since they don't need a full production team for starting development on the next project. Now the nicer companies will use temporary contract hires for short term production staffing needs. This lets the employee know that they likely don't have a paycheck when the project ends. However, the big publishers regularly cut even full-time staff once the Christmas games are sent to manufacturing.

    The other piece is that when finishing up a title, employees are more likely to look around at other options. If you've just shipped your third football title and are burned out on the genre, you tend to wait until the game is done and then find another job somewhere else.

    While there are some developers that have spent an entire career at a single company, what is far more common is finishing 1-2 games at a studio and then moving off to another one.
    It's similar to the movie industry: once you finish a film, everyone splits ways and finds another project to work on. However, unlike Hollywood where short-term contractors are protected by unions, the video game business has no such safeguarding in place.

    Mr. Gamer says that's why most game developers (unless you're in management) tend to be in their 20's – fresh out of college, willing to work long hours, and happy to uproot and change companies every year or so. Now that my husband's been married a decade with two young kids who love to tackle him every chance they get, he's not so happy with the unpredictability of his career. And he's tired of having his hard work not amount to squat, either from too many cooks in the kitchen or from another project failing to launch. Call it a midlife crisis, I guess, but Mr. Gamer is now in the process of trying to untangle himself from his longtime career mistress, the video game industry. (⊙_⊙)

    lion dad with lion child
    Aww, who wouldn't want to spend more time with their mini-me? (Source: TNS Sofres)

    The big question Mr. Gamer is wrestling with is what to do as an ex-designer. Artists can get work as artists, programmers can continue programming, producers usually become project managers... but designers don't seem to be applicable anywhere else. Their job skills include making game mechanics, the story and characters, maps, and/or scenarios. Not very useful in the "real world" outside of video games

    Despite this long season of not having any idea what our next steps should be, God has been so faithful in providing for us day after day. And there's been such incredible spiritual growth in both of us, born out of these trials. I feel like I'm a completely different woman, wife, and mother than I was a year ago. Our story ending is still unwritten as of yet, but I'm so hopeful that the light at the end of the tunnel is near. Pray that Mr. Gamer will be able to find work that pays the bills, has good work-life balance, provides him creative control, and isn't too soul-crushing. 八(^□^*)

    Sunday, October 1, 2017

    50 Ways to Kill Your Fish: Buy Sick Fish

    This advice may sound obvious, but buy the healthiest fish you can. When you go to the pet store, don't let the employee choose any ol' fish that ends up in the net. I used to stand in front of the shop tanks and stare at the fish forever until I was sure of which ones I wanted... the most lively, engaging, beautiful creatures possible!

    Aim to buy happy, healthy fish from your pet store

    What Are the Signs of a Healthy Fish? (aka How Can I Tell If My Fish Is Sick?)

    It can really depend on the species, but here are some general guidelines of what to look for:
    • Appetite: Healthy fish are always looking for food, so loss of appetite is one of the first telltales that something's wrong. Don't be afraid to ask an employee to feed the fish as proof of their hunger. This is especially useful for species that are notoriously picky eaters.
    • Swimming Ability: You should be able to immediately spot any fish that are having difficulty swimming, can't stay upright, or keep bumping into things.
    • Energy Level: Lethargic fish with no energy can be a sign of illness (or they could be sleeping). Conversely, swimming quickly or erratically can be a sign of distress.
    • Breathing: Look out for fish that keep gasping for air at the surface or have unusually rapid gill movement. 
    • Outlier Behavior: Remember that Sesame Street game "One of these things is not like the other"? Yeah, don't pick the oddball. If this fish is alone and it's supposed to be schooling fish, just say no. If it's hovering near the water surface or sitting at the bottom (and that's not usual for the species), then beware. If it's an overly aggressive fighter or an overly shy wallflower hiding behind the filter for a long time, it may be way stressed out.
    • Imperfections: This isn't a comprehensive list, but some common signs include...
      • Wounds: ragged or white burns on fins and tail, short barbels, holes, missing scales
      • Discoloration: faded color, white patches, cloudy eye, stress bars, inflamed gills
      • Parasites: white or gold spots, worms in poop or gills
      • Deformities: scales that don't lay flat (like a pine cone), swollen eyes, crooked back or tail

    I'll give you an example. Our new turquoise and yellow betta suddenly died while in quarantine, so I wanted to replace him with another turquoise and yellow betta. There was a beautiful one that looked very similar to our original fish, but he just seemed... not very responsive. I know bettas in cups don't have a lot of room to move, but still. On the other hand, there was another all-blue betta who wasn't maybe as striking, but was very responsive and lively. I chose to go with personality and health over appearance, and I'm happy to say he's just as dynamic and charming as the day we got him. (o˘◡˘o)

    In the King of DIY's How to Keep Discus video, the speaker recommends starting with obviously healthy stock because a poor quality fish will not magically turn into a beautiful specimen. That advice of course all depends on your goals in fish keeping. There are some people who like to rescue sickly bettas (or other animals) from stores or friends. There are numerous amazing transformation pictures posted online, so good care can definitely go quite a ways. However, just be aware that if you choose to go that route, that's no guarantee of success because you are starting off at a disadvantage. It's going to take a lot of effort, time, and money to potentially bring your patient back from the brink of death.

    betta rescue transformation pictures
    I always enjoy seeing successful betta rescue transformations. (Source: Reddit)

    Picking happy, healthy creatures is going to give you the best leg up in, well, not killing your fish. Hopefully now you'll know what to look out for. Good luck and keep on swimming!

    Sunday, September 24, 2017

    How to Hang out with a Night Owl Husband

    Taking a quick break from the 50 Ways to Kill Your Fish series to talk about marriage. If you recall, Mr. Gamer is a unapologetic night owl and I’ve long given up on changing his ways. In fact, I even gotten used to and fall asleep faster going to bed alone - no one's tossing and turning and snoring next to me. (^_~) Mr. Gamer's and my schedules are off by several hours, but for our family of four, that's just the norm.

    how to hang out with a night owl when you're an early bird

    The only problem is having, well, one-on-one time with each other! With mismatched bedtimes, our shared waking hours are shorter and usually occupied with taking care of our two young kids. By the time they're down for the night, I'm exhausted and ready to hit the sack myself, whereas Mr. Gamer still has a third of his day left to burn. Without meaning to, we can easily become two ships passing in the night, roommates that share chores, childcare, and not a lot of romance. (◞‸◟;)

    I've heard of this parenting practice called couch time where you spend at least 10 to 15 minutes every night having meaningful conversation with your spouse on the couch. However, you're supposed to do it in front of your children to show that your marriage takes priority in the family. Hmm, that's gonna be a problem. I'm not saying that our kids think they're the center of the universe and must always command our attention. With a 3- and 5-year-old, it's just not in their best interest to be left alone together. (⌒_⌒;) Seriously, two minutes barely pass and they're either a) crying and screaming because they're fighting or b) suspiciously silent which means they're getting into trouble and/or endangering their lives. I could have them go to their rooms to keep them safely apart, but then that would defeat the whole point of them seeing us talking.

    boxing kangaroos
    "Mooommm, he's throwing my toys in the toilet! Can I put him in a headlock?"

    So yeah, rather than toss the baby out with the bathwater, "couch time" is just going to have to be modified until they're old enough to not destroy the house. Mr. Gamer and I have come to a compromise that as soon as the kids are asleep, we both get ready for bed together (even though he's still going to be up for several more hours). While brushing our teeth and slipping into comfy pajamas, we take turns talking about our day, sharing what's on our hearts, or geeking out over the latest superhero movie (because there's always another one on the horizon). And we're trying to get better about praying together afterwards, not because we have to, but because we want to have a stronger, shared relationship with God as a couple and not just as individuals.

    Especially in this rough season of life, giving couch time another try has been so good for our relationship. Supporting and getting supported by my soulmate makes it easier to take one day at time without feeling so overwhelmed. So if you're having trouble keeping in touch with your wife or husband, schedule time for it! The payoff is totally worth it. ( ˘⌣˘)♡(˘⌣˘ )

    With the crazy busyness of life, what do you and your partner do to have quality one-on-one time with each other?

    Sunday, September 17, 2017

    50 Ways to Kill Your Fish: No Quarantine

    albino cory catfish and albino corydora

    Quarantining new fish seems like very obvious, super newbie advice, right? I mean, who doesn't quarantine? Look, I too read the manual, heard the warning signs, and obeyed the law. However, despite quarantining every fish, invertebrate, and plant that entered our house, I still managed to cause deaths. How is that possible? Let me give you three ways you may be incorrectly quarantining your fish:

    1) Don't Use Your Display Tank for Quarantine

    Some people say that if you're setting up your display aquarium for the first time, it's fine to just directly add in your new fish for "quarantine." Don't do it! The whole point of quarantine is to keep your new creatures away from the main tank to prevent cross-contamination. Ideally, the quarantine tank should be in a completely separate room from any display tanks since germs can travel through air and water particles.

    If your fish get sick while being quarantined in your main tank, it can pretty expensive to medicate the entire aquarium (compared to a smaller quarantine tub). Plus, you may have to bleach everything in the tank, throw out whatever can't be disinfected, and start the beneficial bacterial cycle again. It's not worth your time and money! Treat your main display tank like Fort Knox and don't let anything nearby that doesn't have the proper security clearance.

    My story is that I put two new albino corydoras straight into my main tank as the first residents and then a couple of days later, I added a third one to slowly increase the size of their school. I figured since they all went in around the same time, they could be in "quarantine" together. The third cory catfish started acting listless and eventually died a few days later. I freaked out and realized that a) my other two catfish might also die and b) the whole tank was exposed to whatever the dead fish had and I had no idea how to disinfect an entire tank. Luckily, the third catfish did not have any infectious diseases and the first two corydoras escaped unscathed.

    2) "But the Fish Were Already Quarantined by the Seller"

    Trust no one. Not even your friend swears that the fish he's giving you are disease-free. Not even that super reputable seller who already quarantines any fish she imports. It may sound overly cautious, but a) people lie and b) fish can get stressed from shipping and handling. Stress lowers a fish's immunity and can bring out diseases in normally healthy specimens, so it's better to be safe than sorry!

    3) Don't Use a Hard-to-Clean Quarantine Tank

    Don't quarantine fish in a planted aquarium or other setup that is difficult to clean. In my case, I had an empty planted nano tank and decided to quarantine a pregnant balloon molly in it since my quarantine tank was already occupied. Once the fry were born, I scooped them up into a breeder box that I put in my bigger main aquarium. Yeah, turns out the mama molly had columnaris and, via her infected fry, spread it to my entire community of fish. (╥_╥) To make matters worse, I didn't realize the mama molly was sick when she died.  So I put my replacement male molly in the nano tank without cleaning anything because, well, it's hard to disinfect live plants. Guess what the male molly died of?

    How to make a quarantine tank using a Rubbermaid clear plastic storage tote box
    Get a basic quarantine tank that only needs a filter, heater (for tropical fish), thermometer, and hiding spot.

    Bottom line: make your quarantine system very easy to setup, disinfect, and tear down. My current quarantine system is super simple and consists of the following:
    • Clear plastic tub with a lid (good against jumpers and evaporation)
    • Internal filter
    • Polyfil stuffing (cheap, disposable filter media)
    • Heater (the adjustable temperature allows you to raise or lower the heat to best treat the illness)
    • Thermometer
    • Siphon (this one should only be used with the quarantine system)
    • Fake plant decor (for fish to hide in)

    DIY quarantine tank for new aquarium fish using a clear plastic Sterlite tote storage box
    For the clear plastic tub, I marked up the side with the number of gallons to help with accurate medication dosing. I also drilled holes in the lid for air and electrical cords to pass through.

    I don't use cycled filter media because many times the medication I'm using is going to kill the beneficial bacteria anyways. I just cram the filter with polyfil stuffing for mechanical filtration and toss the polyfil afterwards to avoid future contamination. With an uncycled quarantine system, frequent water changes are necessary, but having a bare-bottom tub right next to the sink makes them fast and painless. Anyway, that's my take on a proper quarantine setup. Good luck and keep on swimming!

    Sunday, September 10, 2017

    New Series: 50 Ways to Kill Your Fish

    When I got serious about the aquarium hobby two years ago, I did tons of research. I was determined to succeed and consumed books, websites, and YouTube videos on freshwater fish. Despite being armed to the gills with data, I was shocked to find myself making mistake after mistake. Some of them were newbie blunders, and others were more complex cases that even veterans deal with. None of the how-to guides had prepared me for the onslaught of trouble this hobby brings.

    So what did I do wrong? Nothing. Honestly, studying can only take you so far; hands-on experience is where the true learning happens. And I've definitely had my fair share of both successes and failures. Rather than write an overly detailed technical manual on everything you need to do right, I figured it'd be funnier to hear stories about all the ways things can go wrong. Welcome to the "50 Ways to Kill Your Fish" Series!

    I hope you'll enjoy this series of mishaps and miscalculations that I've run into along the way. If you want the quick and dirty version, here are the top takeaways that summarize what I've learned:

    1) Patience is key

    Don't. Rush. Things. Seriously, this hobby is all about waiting — waiting for the coast to be clear, waiting for the conditions to be just right, waiting for what you really want and not just settling. I didn't take this subtle hint to heart because I was so excited about owning fish asap. Trust me, after the third time you have to take down your tank because of disease, you will be more than happy to wait as long as it takes to have a safe and healthy aquarium.

    2) Disaster WILL happen

    If you're following this series, I'm already assuming that you're a researcher. You want to be prepared, prevent unnecessary fires, and avoid the failures of your peers. Sorry to burst your bubble, but we live in a fallen world where Murphy's Law reigns. No amount of research can save you from hardship. Maintaining proper care and a backup plan will of course go a long way, but I'm just saying, lower your expectations on having the perfect, bulletproof tank. Like, by a lot.

    3) Don't believe everything you read

    If you don't know something, just Google it, right? But sometimes the internet lies. >_< There is a lot of information online, both good and bad. Followers on one forum will be adamant about Method A, and then people on another website will insist on Method B. So who should you believe? The best advice I got from my local fish store was "Sometimes you just gotta try it." Living creatures are sooo complex and nothing is guaranteed. Listen to the rule of thumb, but take it with a grain of salt and be willing to change things up if it's not working for you.

    (Speaking of which, I'm going to publicly state right now that I am not a fish expert or professional ichthyologist. Everything on this website is merely my opinion and personal experiences, so no need to burn me in the comments section if you disagree. Let's keep the dialogue helpful and respectful for the purposes of educating and encouraging others.)

    4) Learn from your mistakes

    This sounds weird, but keep an aquarium log or diary. I have an Excel spreadsheet with columns for recording water parameters, but I mostly use the "Notes" section. It's useful in remembering how I've treated certain diseases or symptoms in the past, but it's also a great reminder of how far I've come when I get discouraged or impatient with the hobby.

    Hope these high-level tips are helpful and whet your appetite for the series to come. Good luck and keep on swimming!

    Sunday, September 3, 2017

    My Aquarium Journey: From Newbie to Addict to ?

    Hello. My name is Anne, and I am a former aquarium addict. Oh my goodness, that sounds so terrible on paper. You're probably thinking of some kid's fish bowl with an upside-down lone goldfish dying in murky green waters. No no, what got me into aquariums was the vision of creating a living piece of artwork. Can you imagine having the top tank in your living room? O___O

    ADA aquascape versus green algae tank
    Jaw-dropping aquascape vs. algae-covered hot mess (Sources: Aquarium Info and Aquarium Care)

    Here's the timeline of my descent into madness:

    2015: The "My First Betta" Phase

    My son was gifted a betta fish for his birthday, and I was determined to do all the right research and provide the best environment for my, er, his new pet. Unfortunately, that studying led me down the rabbit hole of all these other cool tankmates I could potentially keep with the betta... why have one fish when you could have 20?

    My first aquarium for betta fish with gravel, silk plants, and Sponge Bob pineapple house
    Checklist: tank, gravel, colorful decor, filter, heater, fish... we're ready for business!

    2016: Full-Blown Obsession

    When it was apparent our little starter tank would not be able to contain all the awesome, beautiful fish I wanted, it was time to get my own aquarium. I had spreadsheets full of data about fish sizes, food types, compatibility, etc. and I spent my free time perusing fish stores and hunting for the right species. And yet, I couldn't seem to keep them happy or healthy for long. The more I tinkered with my aquarium and its residents, the more problems and deaths I incurred. Why was my friend's algae-covered tank of GloFish doing so well, when I was extensively reading and doing everything right?

    German blue ram in a community freshwater tank
    My beautiful freshwater community tank with a German blue ram as the centerpiece

    2017: Everything in Moderation

    After the second time my tank crashed with disease, I decided to take a break from fish. I still have my original betta tank, now covered with live plants. But the community tank has been repurposed for my axolotl, a fully aquatic salamander that is super creepy cute. 2 years later, I'm still making mistakes and learning from them but that's ok. The difference now is that a) I'm no longer overly obsessive about fish and b) I've realized that the even most experienced fish keepers fail. I hope to cover some of the lessons I've learned thus far, but if you go into this hobby not expecting smooth sailing, that'll go a long way in saving your sanity. Good luck and keep on swimming!