Those of you who don't keep up with my many betta fish (HOW DARE YOU) might not remember little Cinco, the fish who can't swim (and also isn't all that small).
Cinco is in a 5 gallon tank with a highly restricted sponge filter. He has a submersible, adjustable, 25w glass heater.
So, first question: Why do I have to water change?
- If your tank has a filter, your water change is largely to remove nitrate generated by your nitrogen cycle
- If your bowl does not have a filter, your water change is to remove ammonia generated by your fish
- You also remove solid wastes from the water while you change the water
- If your cycle failed, you need to do a water change to remove other toxins that build up
- If something bad gets into your tank (toxin, disease, or other), you might need to do an emergency 100% water change with cleaning. This is different from today's water changes.
- When you need to change the water is determined by a lot of things. Some tanks need it once every two weeks or once every week. A small 1-gallon bowl or a tank with a broken/forming nitrogen cycle may need it twice a week.
- I can't tell you exactly when you need to do water changes. On the other hand, you can buy a thing that can tell you exactly when you need to do water changes. Go out and get yourself an accurate test kit for freshwater. I like API's liquid tests. They're easy to do and easy to read, and have a reputation for being accurate.
- If you have fish, you need a test kit. This is important. Trying to take care of a fish without a test kit is like trying to drive your car if you have 3" of snow on all your windows. You can't tell what you're doing, and you're going to kill someone because of it.
- If you have a tank with a filter, you need a test for ammonia, a test for nitrite, and a test for nitrate. If your tank does not have a filter, you only need a test for ammonia. Your bowl won't produce any nitrite or nitrate.
The first thing you're going to need to do is to run a water test. This is the first step of doing the water change. Without this, you can't tell if you had a surprise spike in the system, and you might change too little water. Living in fucked up water makes your fish weaker, which means if they get sick, they're going to die of a disease a healthy fish could fight off.
For some reason, I don't have a picture of all three tests, but his nitrite was zero, ammonia was below .25ppm, and nitrate at about 20
Your water tests tell you how much water you need to change.
- If your ammonia is above .25, you need to do a change big enough to get it under .25
- If your nitrates are above 20, you need to do a change big enough to get it at 20 or below
- If your nitrite is anything, you need to get that level down to where it doesn't register on your test at all. This is usually 80%-100% of the water.
(If the cycle's going really well, there shouldn't be an ammonia reading at all. The fact that there was ammonia means that I need to move the filter up a notch to get more water going through it)
Even if your water tests are below maximum, if it's water change day, it's a good idea to change enough of the water to vacuum your gravel. Poop falls in there and you don't want him living in poop, bro.
While you're doing those water tests, unplug your heater and filter. Changes are easier if you turn those off.
(Say hi to my mom, accidentally photobombing the tank here.)
After your water tests, take some time to look at your fish. Really look at him. You need to know what your fish looks like, so that you can notice if anything changes. Keep an eye on things that concern you.
If your fish gets sick, it's important to know if that shiny spot on their back is a tumor they've already had or a rapidly-developed columnaris saddle. Fish that are sick usually are sick before they start acting sick. The key to keeping your fish healthy is to notice that they are looking or acting differently before they start looking or acting sick. My fish Casper had a tumor on his back that grew slowly, but ended up the size of an edamame bean. Keeping an eye on him, how it was growing, and how it was acting, let me know when it was starting to affect his quality of life.
Also, if I saw another fish lie on the bottom or lie flat on decorations like Cinco does, I would immediately think that they were sick. Because I know Cinco, however, and I keep a close eye on all his traits and behaviors, I can use other things to judge if he's feeling sick.
If you're new to betta fish or if you like lists, you can keep a journal for your fish. Every time you change the water, you can write down temp, test results, what size water change you did, and the state of the fish's eyes, fins, body, movement, breathing, and iridescence. This is handy to look back on when you think something isn't right.
Step two of the water change is to take water out of the tank and put it in a bucket. If your tank isn't small enough for you to safely pick up and move to a sink, look into getting a siphon.
Quick note: Even if you let your filter and heater cool, try to keep the heating element under water. If you put your heater horizontally near the bottom of the tank, you can drain almost all the water out without it reaching the air.
Siphons use gravity to suck the water out of the tank. While they're sucking the water out, they can also suck crap out of your gravel.
To vacuum all of the gravel, I ended up draining about half the water. If I had a smaller siphon, I could do it in less, but I only want to own one siphon. This is the medium size.
You can use the siphon to vacuum pea-sized gravel and small glass stones by just shoving it into the gravel to suck some of it up into the siphon, and then picking it up to let the gravel out. It lets the gravel down but keeps the fish poopies in your bucket. You just repeat that process until you've vac'd all the gravel.
If your tank is bare, or has sand, you can just hover it over the bottom and it'll pick it up. Some people argue that this makes bare tanks or sand tanks safer, but I disagree. That's for a later post.
Step three of your water change is to use the water in your bucket to water your household plants. The water from your water change has an elevated nitrate level. Nitrate's good for plants. You don't have to waste water. The sea pig gets a fish in its butt. Everyone wins.
Once that's done, dump the rest of the water and fill the bucket up with new water.
All the water in betta fish range should feel slightly warm when you feet it with your fingertips, and slightly cool when you feel it with the inside of your wrist.
You're going to need to put water conditioner into your water, to remove chlorine, chloramine, and heavy metals (unless you're awesome, like me, and get all of your water from your private well and control every aspect of it and are 100% sure it has nothing in it).
My favorite water conditioner is Seachem Prime. It's pretty intensely concentrated, so you only need two drops per gallon to remove chlorine and its friends.
Prime's also handy for if your cycle crashes, but you can't do a change right then, because it temporarily detoxifies ammonia and nitrite. Just follow the directions on the bottle.
However, almost all water conditioners have nearly the same ingredients. Anything that says, "removes chlorine, chloramine, and detoxifies heavy metals," will do the job. I have never run into a water conditioner that doesn't work.
Water conditioner is slightly different from dechlorinator. Dechlorineator removes chlorine, but not chloramine or heavy metals. Most municipalities use chloramine instead of chlorine, so dechlorinator doesn't do all that much.
You hear stories of leaving the water to sit overnight and the chlorine evaporates. This is. Well. Uh. If we were in like 1970, yes? If you leave the water out for about a week, the chlorine evaporates. The chloramine doesn't. The heavy metals don't. It takes a long time. Aquasafe is $2 a bottle. Just get some.
Water conditioner works almost instantly. Drip it in the bucket, give it a stir or let it sit for a few seconds, and you're good. If you're adding water conditioner to the bucket, dose enough for the number of gallons in the bucket. If you're adding to the tank before you add your water, dose enough for the whole capacity of the tank.
If I had a 20-gallon tank and I was adding 5 gallons of water, I'd add 5 gallons worth of conditioner to the bucket, or 20 gallons of conditioner to the tank.
It's safe to go a little bit over on water conditioner. An extra few drops won't hurt the fish, though it also won't make the tank any better.
So, now you need to get the water from your bucket, into your tank. I am not a super strong lady, and a lot of the time I can only barely lug 5 gallons of water around the house. I used to have a pitcher for scooping the water up, but it was too small and I got tired of it. Now I use a milk jug that I sawed the top off with a steak knife. It was easy, and fun!
Any time you use something for your fish, before you use it the first time you need to wash it extremely carefully in hot water, with no soap, and a lot of abrasion. You don't want to dump milk into your tank. My milk pitcher lives in my fish bucket with my water change towel. I use the towel to cover the space between my bucket and the tank, to catch drips.
After a couple of scoops into the tank, I can usually pick up the bucket and dump it in. When you dump, be careful to not dump on the fish. It scares the poor boys.
Cinco already can't swim, so pushing him around with water really upsets him and might hurt him.
I usually aim all my pours on the top of a decoration. If it hits the top of a cave instead of the gravel, it disperses the water and gravel doesn't go flying everywhere. This is especially handy if you're using sand instead of gravel.
Then it's just a quick rearranging of the decorations that might have gotten knocked out of place during the process, and a check on the fish, and you're done! Just time to put everything away.
And there you go, how to do a water change when there's nothing wrong with the tank.
Just remember, test the water, look at the fish, then change the water. Easy, easy.