Updated September 16, 2014
Whether you are a new aquarium hobbyist starting your first tank or a seasoned veteran adding new stock to your tank, there is nothing more heartbreaking than buying new fish just to have them die as soon as you add them to your tank. In some cases, there is nothing you can do – fish simply fall ill or succumb to the stress of transport. In many cases, however, it is a failure on the aquarium hobbyist’s part to properly acclimate fish to their new environment. It is vital that you properly acclimate new fish to your aquarium as not doing so can lead to shocked or dead fish. This article will address the proper way to acclimate fish – the drip method.
The “Old” Method
I refer to this method as the “old method” because it was the one typically used by aquarists in the past. In most cases, your local fish store would have put your fish in a plastic bag so you can bring them home. The “old method” involves floating this plastic bag in your tank to give the fish time to adjust to a change in temperature. Many people still use this method to this day, but there is a far more effective method that will be addressed in the next section. The problem with this “old method” of acclimation is that it does nothing to acclimate your fish to the various water parameters of your tank – aside from water temperature, of course. In fact, it often does not even accomplish this as the temperature at the surface of your tank tends to be warmer than the rest of the water as it is heated by your lights.
If you do choose to use this method, please remember to turn off your lights before floating the bag. This will ensure that you do not submit your fish to extremely high temperatures that could be dangerous or fatal.
The Drip Method
The drip method is the modern method preferred by most modern aquarists. It not only allows your fish to get used to the temperature of your tank, but also adjusts them to the pH, hardness, and numerous other water parameters. It is easy to do and only takes between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the speed of dripping. The following discussion will walk you through the drip method in a step-by-step fashion:
- 5-gallon plastic bucket
- Airline tubing
Step 1 – The Ride Home:
When you purchase your fish at the pet store, the sales associate will place them in a plastic bag with water from the stock tank. The bag will then be filled with air and tied off with a rubber band. If the store does not provide you with a paper bag, bring one with you so you can put the plastic bag inside it. This will reduce the amount of stress your fish are forced to endure on their ride home because it will keep the area dark and quiet. Also, be sure to not shake the bag too much or place it by the vents of your car (where the bag can become too hot or cold depending whether the heater or air conditioner is turned on). You are simply trying to make the trip as nice as possible for your new fish.
Step 2 – Transferring the Fish to a Bucket
Once you get home, get out your bucket (can also use a pitcher if dealing with small fish) and carefully empty the contents of the plastic bag into it (both water and fish). If there is not enough water in the bag to cover the fish once you put them in the bucket, you can tilt the bucket (put something under one side) so the water depth increases. You can then remove this wedge once enough water has been added to the bucket.
Step 3 – Setting up the Siphon
Once your fish have been transferred to the plastic bucket, your next step is to set up a siphon using the airline tubing. The process is the same as when you use a siphon to vacuum your gravel except that you will want to either have a siphon control mechanism that pinches the tubing to reduce the flow rate, or you can tie several loose knots in the tubing to control the flow. I would recommend the knot method, as it is the easiest and doesn’t require you to buy any extra equipment.
Before you start the siphon, tie several loose knots in the length of airline tubing. Once you have tied two or three loose knots in the tubing, place one end of the tubing in your tank and suck on the other end to start the siphon (be sure to not get any water in your mouth – you should only have to suck on the tubing for a second or so). Once water starts flowing through the tube, tighten the knots by pulling on them until the flow is about 4-5 drips per second. You can increase this rate slightly (6-7 per second) if you are worried about keeping the fish in the bucket for a long period of time. All that is left for you to do once the siphon starts flowing is to wait.
Step 4 – Removing Half of the Water
Because the water dripping from the siphon occurs at such a slow rate, it could take a long time for the bucket to fill up. It is important to be patient during this process, however, and to wait until the water volume in the bucket has at least doubled. After the water in the bucket has doubled, stop the siphon and remove half the water from the bucket. Then start the process over again. Once the water volume in the bucket doubles again, your fish should be properly acclimated to your tank water. As I said before, this process should take between 30 minutes to an hour. It is important to be patient, but if you are worried about your fish being in the bucket for an hour simply increase the drip rate slightly.
Step 5 – Putting the Fish in Your Tank
Now that the fish have been acclimated to the conditions in your tank, it is time to introduce them to your aquarium. Turn off the lights and leave them off for 3-4 hours after the fish are introduced to prevent sudden changes in tank temperature during the acclimation period. Catch the fish in the bucket with a net. You want to make sure the net is an appropriate size relative to the fish; it should be much larger than the fish. Once a fish is caught, carefully put the net in the tank water and let the fish swim out. Do not throw or drop the fish from above the surface of the water. Repeat for each of your fish.
Do not put any of the water from the bucket into your tank. While most of it is now your own tank water, there is still a portion that came from the fish store. You may trust your fish store, but you do not know anything about their tanks. By introducing their tank water into your tank, you may be introducing diseases or other undesirable things. It is best to just use this as a good time for a water change and fill the tank up with new water.
While the drip method is very easy, some people do not like setting it up. An alternative method that is not as good, but it much better than the floating method, is to place the fish in a bucket or pitcher and add a cup of water from your tank every 4-5 minutes. Repeat this until the water volume in the bucket is doubled, discard half the volume, and the repeat until the water volume is doubled again. There really is no difference between this and the drip method, but some people seem to prefer adding the water via a measuring cup rather than dripping it via tubing. The choice is really up to you.
The drip method of acclimating aquarium fish may not be a quick process, but it is easy to implement and it is the best way to ensure that your fish are acclimated slowly and properly to the parameters in your tank. Using the drip method ensures that your fish are not shocked when they are introduced into your aquarium – they might be if you only float the bag in the tank for a little while then pour the contents into your tank. You go through so much effort in researching fish and providing them with a proper environment – why take the risk that they might die if you do not acclimate them properly? Hopefully, after reading this article, you understand the importance of slowly and properly acclimating new fish to your aquarium before adding them. The more care you take in acclimating your fish, the smoother the transition will be and the more likely your fish are to make a full and simple transition into your tank.