How to Setup Your First Aquarium

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Interested in having your very own fish tank at home? You’ve come to the right place, here at FishTankSetups we put together a guides that help beginners and experienced individuals in the aquarium hobby. All for free! Feel free to browse around and don’t forget to tell your friends who helped you get your aquarium running!

Benefits of Having a Fish Tank at Home

Aside from satisfying your love for fish, owning a fish tank, or aquarium, can positively influence your life in many different ways. There have been numerous studies conducted in the last few decades to show that gazing into a fish tank at home can help relieve stress, lower your blood pressure, and can even help you to fall asleep at night. Size, or the type of fish doesn’t seem to matter; what’s important is that your fish tank is sufficiently equipped to care for your fishy friends. Interestingly enough, these benefits don’t appear to be apparent for a fish tank that doesn’t have fish in.

If you have children, or you regularly have friends and family come over who have children, then a fish tank is a perfect learning aid. It can encourage them to ask questions, such as: What do fish eat? How do they breathe under water? Do they ever sleep?, and so on. Not only that, but learning to care and look after animals at a young age will teach your child responsibility.

Determine What Type of Fish Tank You Want

Before you start looking at the individual different types of fish that are available, you first need to decide what type of fish tank you wish to own. Is this fish tank for your kids or for you? What type of tank you decide on will largely depend on your budget, how much room you have available, and what fish species you’re most likely to purchase.

There are a few basic categories that fish tanks fall under.

Simple Fish Tanks

freshwater-aquarium-setup

These aquariums are what most people will think of when they think of fish tanks. They are customarily small, have minimal decor, and will usually have easier to keep fish inside of them. This criteria isn’t set in stone though, but it’s fairly accepted that the bigger and/or more exotic the fish are, the more effort goes into the tank.

Goldfish are one of the most popular fish that are found in simple tanks. This species of fish can easily be kept communally too, as long as there is sufficient space. We don’t however, recommend them for first time fishkeepers.

Monster Fish Tanks

monster-aquarium-setup

There is no set tank size that makes a monster tank…a monster tank, but if you’re looking at aquariums hitting at least the three digit number on gallons, then you’re on to the right track. These tanks will definitely look the most impressive, as you are able to either: create a large ultra realistic ecosystem, with a multitude of different species, or, you can purchase large and exotic fish species that regular sized tanks would never be able to accommodate.

These tanks will need a large space and a big budget, not only to fill with fish and flora, but to maintain too. You can’t skimp out on filtration, you need filters made for large aquariums. Have a 150 gallon? It’s recommended you get a filter that filters double that amount. Monster fish tanks are definitely the most sought after setups for both novice and experienced keepers.

Planted Fish Tanks

planted-aquarium-setup-by-shay-fertig

Planted fish tanks can be of any size. They add benefits to the fish by increasing the oxygen levels in the water and giving them places to hide away if necessary. Plants will also increase the aesthetic of your tank, turning it into a realistic ecosystem, rather than just an ordinary tank with water in it.

There are many different types of planted aquarium styles to choose from so if you end up becoming bored with a setup, you have plenty of other styles to play around with.

Saltwater Fish Tanks

saltwater-reef-aquarium-setup

Saltwater fish tanks are of course, required to harbor any saltwater species. These tanks can be some of the most amazing, especially if they are created to replicate a reef. Although heating isn’t always required, the majority of the most sought after fish will require the water to be heated to very specific temperatures. The salinity levels will also need to be continuously monitored if you have sensitive fish.

Determine What Tank Size You Want

After you have decided which tank style you wish to pursue, the next step is determining how big you want your tank. The first consideration should be the space that’s available in your house, as if you live in a small apartment, the logistics of installing a large tank will be challenging.

The cost of maintaining the tank should be your next consideration. Small tanks are relatively cheap to run, but if you choose to pursue a large aquarium, the costs can start to add up. Some equipment you can find locally from those who are getting out of the hobby to save a few dollars but purchasing new also saves you money in a way – if it breaks, you can return or exchange it.

Lastly, your fish selection should be your final thought. It’s important to thoroughly research the maximum size that your chosen fish species can reach and to plan accordingly. For instance, if you have your sights set on creating a monster fish tank, and you purchase them as a baby, will there be adequate room for when they reach their maximum size?

The Nitrogen Cycle! *IMPORTANT*

“Why did my fish die? I just setup the tank!” Answer is you probably didn’t cycle your tank. In short, cycling your tank allows good bacteria to fill your tank, this bacteria is what helps to keep your fish alive.

More in-depth version: The nitrogen cycle is an extremely important process that must be established before you start adding your fish, especially if you plan on keeping sensitive species. Essentially, the cycle is to allow beneficial bacteria to establish themselves within your aquarium, which will allow the conversion of ammonia to nitrate. The process can take anywhere between 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the size of your tank. The best way to ensure that the ammonia, nitrates, nitrites and pH levels are optimal is by using a readily available aquarium kit.

Aquarium Equipment & Supplies

The amount of essential equipment will differ depending on which tank set up you are pursuing, as well as what fish or other species you intend to add to your tank. Missing out on important equipment can lead to your fish becoming unhealthy and as well as your mini ecosystem becoming destroyed.

Water Dechlorinator

Often referred to as a chlorine neutralizer or remover, a dechlorinator is a chemical that you add to your water, so that it nullifies the chloramine and chlorine in the water, which renders it harmless.

Chlorine can harm your fish or shrimp, as well as damage your biological filter. Dechlorinator is very inexpensive and shouldn’t be forgotten about. A great brand to look for is Prime by Seachem.

Decorations

Decorations are extremely important for your fish tank, regardless of the size.

Firstly, they improve the aesthetics of the tank, and can help to blend it into your other decor that’s present in the room.

On a more important note, decorations will make your fish feel safer and more comfortable. Fish are natural prey animals, and as such, are easily stressed if they feel vulnerable. Making sure that their tank is well decorated will decrease their chances of becoming stressed, which will result in their immune system functioning correctly.

Fish that have tank decorations, regardless of whether they are natural looking rocks, or a pirate’s treasure chest, are more likely to display natural behavior, and will actually spend more time out in the open. Of course, if your fish species are naturally shy, then this doesn’t apply.

Powerheads

aquarium-powerheadPowerheads are crucial for circulating the water in your tank. The more circulated your tank water is, the better the water quality will be.

They will ensure that tank debris won’t settle at the bottom of your tank, and will make them more likely to be picked up by your filter. Moving water allows more oxygen to reach the fish, as well as bringing food to more stationary species.

Planted tanks gain benefit due to the plants requiring a flow of water, just like their fish counterparts. As these tanks are more likely to have debris in them, due to the additional biological matter, the flow of water can ensure that there are no dead zones present, and that any rogue debris doesn’t stay in one place and go stagnant.

Saltwater tanks gain their benefit from powerheads due to the ocean always moving in nature. In the wild, these fish will constantly be battling against the currents, even if they are in a relatively safe area. It’s been shown that if saltwater fish don’t have enough water movement, they end up creating fatty deposits around their liver and heart, resulting in a shortened lifespan. If you plan on adding coral to your tank, which we would recommend, they require a flow of water to stimulate them and to bring them food.

When water is left stagnant and immobile, it will produce a thin film over it. When this happens, gas will be unable to exit, or enter, the water. The movement caused from powerheads ensures that the water is always flowing, which will allow oxygen to enter the water.

Saltwater

Aside from all of the other responsibilities that you need to concern yourself with when creating a fish tank, for saltwater enthusiasts, they have a couple of extra obligations.

The first thing you will need is a good sea salt mix – do not use regular table salt! If you are starting fresh with an empty tank, you can fill it initially with tap water. Only do this if you have not added any live rocks or sand in, as the chlorine will kill the bacteria off of them. Add the sea salt mix and stir the water or turn on your powerhead, if that’s easier, and keep mixing until the water is clear.

You should test the salinity of the water by using a hydrometer that has been specially designed for saltwater aquarium use. For tanks that you intend to add coral to, the salinity must be somewhere between 1.023 and 1.025. However, if you plan on creating a fish only with live rock FOWLR tank, then you should  aim for between 1.020 and 1.025.

FOWLR – Fish only with live rock.

Substrate

The substrate used for your aquarium will have a number of functions and should be chosen depending on the type of tank you’re creating.

Substrate helps the fish with orientation and reduces the chances of light reflection irritation, caused by light reflecting off of the bottom of the tank. The substrate also acts as a breeding ground for microscopic organism and other beneficial bacteria.

Simple and monster fish tanks gain the most benefit from gravel substrate. Due to the ever increasing filter technology that’s available, the gravel size isn’t as important as it once was, although finer gravel is preferred if you aim to add bottom feeders into the tank. Substrate doesn’t need to be more than 2.5 inches in height. Having deep substrate can actually cause harm to your fish, as food particles will eventually get trapped down there, and will produce toxins which will harm your fish.

Getting the right substrate for planted tanks is paramount. Even though they are aquatic plants, they still gain the majority of their nutrients via their roots. Therefore, the substrate provided in a planted tanks needs to be able to provide and store nutrients that can be used by these plants. The substrate could be one or two layers. We recommend aqua soil as it will not float verses if you were to use topsoil with a cap over it. Topsoil (must be organic) requires a top layer of gravel or sand to keep it in place.

Aqua soil is the better option. Why? Fish can stir up your substrate if they get spooked. Also when doing maintenance on your tank and you’re vacuuming with a siphon you might hit pull up some soil by accident leaving you with a muddy tank. If you plan on upgrading or downgrading your tank size in the future aqua soil can easily be taken out of your tank verses topsoil where you would have a hard time separating the two layers.

Saltwater tanks need a substrate that not only looks natural, but helps to provide the environmental requirements that bottom-dwelling creatures would need to survive. Caribsea sand can help to replicate natural marine conditions, as it has live ocean bacteria sealed inside. The substrate should not be higher than 2.5 inches.

Having no substrate should never be a considered option, especially with how inexpensive it is. It will improve the quality of life of all living things inside the tank, and will help with the natural filtration of the water. Barebottom tanks are a thing and should be left to professionals. They require you having a strong biological filter because substrate is out of the picture.

Filters

The primary use of an aquarium filter is to extract all of the excess food, organic matter, unwanted chemicals, and fish waste products that will end up being harmful, if not removed.

Fish will constantly excrete waste as they move around the tank, and if it isn’t removed, the toxins that the fish are trying to get rid of via their waste will end up building up in the water, which will result in the water turning toxic.

Filtration methods are classified as being either biological, mechanical or chemical, each with their own benefits.

Biological filtration is the process of microorganisms and bacteria converting waste products into less harmful substances. This process will convert the toxic ammonia that the fish will excrete into nitrite, and again into the lesser toxic nitrate. While nitrate is not relatively harmful, it will build up over time if water changes aren’t conducted. Too much nitrate can cause death for your fish or shrimp.

Mechanical filtration, which is what most people would associate as being a “filter”, is when water is pushed through a filter medium, and will act just like a strainer. Filter media can be made out of a variety of things, like sponge or specially made filter pads. The quality of the filtration will depend on how fine the media is, as the more fine it is, the more particles will get picked up. However, finer media will mean that you will have to change it a lot more frequently, as it will get clogged up faster.

Chemical filtration is the result of chemical resins or carbon being added to the water, which will extract the toxins. Carbon will actively remove the unwanted chemicals and odors from the water. It can also be bad, say you’re medicating a tank or dosing fertilizer in a planted aquarium – carbon will remove this from the water. Keep this in mind.

There are several filter types available, some will benefit certain types of tanks or specific fish species.

Hang on back filters are the most common for hobbyists due to their great biological, mechanical and chemical filtration. As the name suggests, these filters hang over the side of your tank, and will suck up the water via tube.

The mechanical and chemical filtrations occurs from the water being pushed through the pad, and on through the carbon layer, which will remove the chemicals and toxins in the water. Biological filtrations occurs inside of the filter cartridge, as beneficial bacteria will form within.

canister-filter-setup

Canister filters are another popular filtration system, and are especially useful for aquariums that are at least 40 gallons. Because of their size, these filters work well for saltwater aquariums, planted aquariums, or even monster aquariums which are more prone to having higher filtration requirements.

internal-filterFor small aquariums, internal filters are ideal. These filters are best used for aquariums that are less than 20 gallons in volume, and are secured to the inside of the tank via suction cups.

undergravel-filterThese filters are placed under the substrate and will pull water down through the gravel, and up through the uplift tubes. These filters will require an air pump, airstone, or powerhead to pump the water through them.

sponge-filterThe most basic of all filters are sponge filters. These are primarily used for nursery tanks, or for aquariums with tiny fish and invertebrates. They are also powered by an air pump, which will pull the water through the spongy material.

aquarium-sump-filterSumps are filters, but on a large scale. They are more commonly used for larger tanks, which require a large amount of water to be filtered. Sumps can be as large as a medium-sized aquarium, and will typically have all the types of filter media inside of it which a small filter would have, but just on a larger scale.

Lighting

There are many lighting options available for your tank, but LED lights are certainly the most beneficial for the majority of situations. LED aquarium lights require approximately 80% less electricity than their regular counterparts, and also do not heat up to anywhere near the same levels. Their lifespan is also considerably longer. LED lights can also be programmed and dimmed, allowing you to create realistic light cycles.

Although your simple or monster tank may not require a certain type of light, it should still be something to consider installing. It will allow you to see the fish more clearly, as well as bringing out their true colors. Just like how you can sometimes see pond fish glistening in the sun.

If you plan on using LED lights for your planted tank, you will first need to understand the requirements of the plants that you’re hoping to use. Each plant will have its own light intensity requirement, so you will need to calculate how much illumination is needed. Most LED lights that have been designed for aquarium use will have a chart to make this calculation easy.

Similar to the requirements for planted aquariums, reef tank lighting will also need to be carefully considered. You will need to work out the light requirements accurately, especially if you plan on having coral.

Heaters

Fish come from all over the world, and will have different heating requirements. They are also cold-blooded, meaning that they can’t generate their own heat. In the wild, if they needed more heat they would swim to somewhere that was slightly warmer, whether that means going closer to the surface, or further downstream, etc. Therefore, in captivity, it’s up to use to make sure that the optimal temperature is available to them at all times.

Even if you believe that you don’t require one, as you live in a colder climate, or your home has a fluctuating temperature, you should still invest in one. Consistent water temperatures will reduce the chance of the fish being stressed, if the temperature were to drop. You should always have a thermometer present when using a heater, and ideally, use a heater that will automatically turn off at a certain temperature, and turn back on if it drops too low.

Fish Tank Maintenance

Fish tanks are not difficult to maintain, but if you start neglecting your obligations, problems will eventually arise. Changing the water is something that will need to be done every two or so weeks, although only a 10-15% change will be required. When doing your water change, a fast way to get your already prepared water back into the tank safely, is by using a submersible pump. Simply place the pump into your tank to drain water. After put it into a bucket filled with (dechlorinated) water, and let it pump into your tank.

A lot of people combine gravel cleaning with their water change. You will need to clean your gravel with a gravel vacuum to ensure that residue or uneaten food hasn’t been trapped in your substrate.

You will need to clean your filter media every so often. There is no rule of thumb for this, but if it looks dirty and clogged up, then it’s way overdue. Start by taking a few cups of water from your tank and placing it in a bucket. By cleaning the media using tank water it preserves beneficial bacteria won’t get killed.

For biological filters, all you want to do is to gently clean it with some tank water. This is because you don’t want to damage any of the bacteria that’s present. A quick wipe is all that’s needed before putting it back into your filtration system.

Chemical filters only need to be cleaned by changing the carbon filter on a regular basis. Replace your carbon if you notice that the water is starting to get cloudy or starts producing a odor. It’s recommended replacing carbon every month. There are also other chemical filter media such as purigen which lasts several months; you can also reuse it – think of it as carbon on steroids. 😉 It will definitely keep your fish tank clear.

This concludes our in-depth guide on starting a fish tank. If you have any questions feel free to contact us or leave a comment down below!

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2 Comments

  1. I have been reading several of these articles and am glad to have found a simple neutral site to read info from. I also have been watching Pectec, Dustin’s Fish, Rachel O’Leary. The DIY fishkeeper, Serpa Design, and a few others. I would like an advice list on this idea for a new tank/ new to the hobby after 20 years away.
    I want a planted tank, with either plant substrate or soil that is capped by pea gravel / larger sized sand in the natural colors in the clay flower pots. I want to use clay flower pots as my hiding spots on their sides. A few rocks to make a little cliff image, and maybe one or two small little figurines/ornaments. I would use Hornwort, Crypt, and a few others I can’t think of the name of but are low light and common.
    I want 5 Glowlight tetras and 5 Neon tetras, 3 panda Cory, a few nerite snails, and maybe a few ghost shrimp. 10 gal tank with a <20 gal filter and a heater. Please tell me if I am on the right track. thank you.

    • Hey Mary Beth,

      First off, thanks for reading! Glad I could help!

      For substrate I recommend using aquasoil instead of capped topsoil. It doesn’t only save you the mess, it also saves you money. If you (accidentally) gravel vac too deeply or move a plant from one place to another you may have soil come up and leave you with a murky tank. Also if you plan on upgrading your tank or re-scaping you can easily drain your tank then remove or shift the aquasoil around.

      Your vision seems great and would love to see how it turns out!

      As for plants here’s a personal list of plants for low tech tanks:
      Foreground – crypt parva, marsilea minuta, microswords, Christmas moss, flame moss, bucephalandras, anubias nana petite

      Mid and background – crypt wendtii, crypt lucens, crypt balansae, lagenandra meeboldi, hygrophila augustifolia, ludwugia repent, ludwigia arcuata x repens, bacopa sp, anubias sp, hemianthus micranthemoides, buces, corkscrew vals, Amazon swords, dwarf sag (might get invasive)

      I’m currently running a Finnex Planted Tank + 24/7 on my low-tech planted shrimp tank. Highly recommend!

      Your stock sounds great, be sure to run a pre-filter on your filter so your shrimp and fish don’t disappear!

      Cheers!
      Jordan

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