Updated: October 2, 2020 - By: - Categories: Starter guide

A freshwater aquarium can provide years of enjoyment for you and your fish if established and maintained correctly. Different fish or flora may require special equipment, or unique filtration, so setting up the tank correctly is essential to short, and long term success.

Probably the most important task (and often the most overlooked) is the planning process. Before buying anything, simply taking the time to plan out the habitat will almost eliminate any problems down the road. A few things that need to be on your plan include: tank size, tank location, type of tank environment (rocky, planted), types of fish, substrate, filtration, lighting, heating, and water circulation.

With these points in mind, start a real plan to put the tank together, write this plan down and then research the fish to determine what equipment will be needed to provide the proper environment for them. Once your plan is assembled you can purchase the equipment you need and feel confident you have the correct habitat for your fish. Use the list below as a general step-by-step guide to setting up an aquarium.

Choose a proper location for your tank


It is best to avoid natural lighting sources in most situations. Natural sunlight coming through windows and patios tends to spawn algae growth, and can lead to problems for the beginner. Find a medium to dimly lit, cool area with sufficient air circulation for your aquarium.

Make sure that you have access to electrical outlets close by and easy access to the location is essential for your weekly tank maintenance.

Place the tank on the stand

Measure the length, width, and height of your stand/tank/canopy as it will set. Make sure that the chosen location is large enough to accommodate not just the tank and stand, but any HOB (Hang Over Back) filters and hoses. Make sure the tank is level and fits squarely on the stand.

Remember that water is very heavy (close to 8 lbs. per gallon!) so it’s preferable to have a level, well supported area for your aquarium, failure to do so can result in disaster. It is recommended to “test fill” any new aquarium outside to test for leaks.

Filtration system setup


Arrange the filtration components as where they will be when the tank is running. Make sure there is adequate spacing between the components and the wall. Ensure everything fits and that there is proper spacing.

Plumbing and electric supply

Make sure that your electrical outlets are properly grounded and any extension cords involved are heavy duty and have a breaker. Make sure to use drip loops on all cords coming from the tank. Check all plumbing fixtures and filtration components to make sure they have been properly fastened/sealed.

Build an attractive aquascape


After the substrate and decorations have been sufficiently rinsed (Do Not Shortcut Rinsing), you can begin to arrange the aquarium inside before you add the water.

Put the substrate first. Usually, about a pound per gallon is enough when using a plain aquarium, or 2-3 inches of a good quality substrate (fluorite, eco-complete, aquatic soil) if you are choosing live plants.

Next put in the rock/wood/plants to decorate the tank. Some fish require hiding spots, caves, etc. so arrange with the specimens you will be adding in mind.

Add water and test the filter

Use treated tap water (add a tap water conditioner to the water) to fill your tank and take your time. Don’t destroy all the aquascaping you just finished.

Filling the tank and starting the filters will be the test to see if the plumbing fixtures are working properly, it will also show you what your finished aquarium will look like, and you may end up making some changes to your aquascaping at this time.

Lighting and other equipment


Turn on all of the aquarium lights to be sure all bulbs are working. Make sure all lights and fixtures are away from aquarium/filter water splashing.

Most lighting purchased with tanks is totally inadequate for a well lit tank, even more so for a planted tank. Your plant selection should be partially based on the amount of light you have as well as the addition of CO2 and fertilizers. Read the guide for planted aquarium LED lighting.

Make sure that all devices are operating properly and that your water flow is consistent with the needs of your future inhabitants.

This is also the time to start your thermometer, air pump and any powerheads or other devices.

Cycle the new tank

This is the most neglected process in fishkeeping! It is also the reason for most beginner fish deaths and why some people give up on keeping fish.

Usually cycling a tank is done by putting some hardy fish in the tank and letting nature take its course. While it is possible to cycle with hardy fish, it often shortens the fish lifespan and often kills the fish outright. Fishless cycling is actually easier and has the benefits of not hurting the fish and allowing you to fully stock your tank once the cycle is complete.

Fishless cycling is simple; add enough ammonia to the tank to increase the level to 5ppm. Keep the level of ammonia at 5ppm until the tank is capable of removing the ammonia in a 24 hour period (ammonia level reading 0).

Beneficial bacteria have then been created that convert the ammonia into nitrate. Almost done now. The nitrites are also dangerous to fish just as ammonia is, but the next step in the process is bacteria that change nitrites into nitrates. Nitrates are less harmful to the fish and are easily removed by water changes.


Aquarium nitrogen cycle

A good test kit is essential in determining when your tank has completed the cycle. BE PATIENT, cycling a tank can often take between a month or two. Yes, it’s a long time, but your fish will love you for it.

A commercial product that supplements beneficial bacteria can be used to “instantly” cycle a tank. Some people add substrate/decorations or filter media from an established aquarium to jump start the cycling process.

Introduce some fish

If you have properly cycled your tank, you can add a full bio-load of fish right away, if you have chosen to go the fish-in cycle method you must add specimens sparsely, and be extremely careful in the choice of additions; only very hardy fish will survive.

Add specimens that are compatible, not only behaviorally, but also environmentally. Be careful to not overstock your tank, too many fish will create water conditions that are hazardous to your fish. For beginners, it is recommended not to exceed the 1 inch of fish per gallon rule (this is based on the adult size of the fish, not its current size).

There are several methods available for transferring fish from a shipping bag to the aquarium. Dumping fish straight from bag into the tank is probably the worst method.

Floating the bag in the water for 15 minutes then release the fish into the tank; netting the fish out of the shipping bag and putting it into the tank.

The use of a quarantine tank is highly recommended, especially for established aquariums.

In closing, starting a new tank is a rewarding experience, but as with any pets, you are now responsible for their health! Do your research and plan ahead, you and your fish will be grateful in the long run.

Lucas has been keeping successful fish, planted, and reef tanks for many years. He loves to collect aquatic organisms and have as many aquariums as he can afford.

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