Updated: January 20, 2022 - By: - Categories: Equipment

Anyone who has ever had an aquarium knows that there are plenty of aquarium supplies you can pick up. Using the right supplies based on the type of your aquarium will make the tank the best it can be.

Freshwater aquarium supply checklist

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.

Here is our list of aquarium supplies.

1. The aquarium


There are many kinds of aquariums on the market in various sizes and shapes. Silicon glued frameless glass aquariums are by far the most popular due to their economy, endurance, and practical use. Frameless aquariums are also elegant and decorative.

As the size increases thicker glass plates are necessary to resist the increasing water pressure plus occasional mechanical shocks caused by careless handling. Safety is more important than economy; buy your aquarium from a reliable dealer.

Despite the common belief that the maintenance of a small aquarium must be easier, it is much more difficult to establish a reliable biological balance in a small aquarium than in a larger one.

Aquarium fish as well as plants are more or less adapted to stable environments in nature. Slightest disturbances like accidental overfeeding, a rotting plant, or a dead fish may easily shift the whole balance of a small aquarium to intolerable conditions. Large aquariums are more forgiving for such disturbances. Larger water volume means larger biological and chemical stability.

It is a common experience that most fish thrive and breed much better in large aquariums. Fish, and especially territorial species like cichlids, need adequate space for living. Unstable water conditions and narrowness of living quarters means stress and stress is a sure invitation for diseases.

For that reason, it is strongly recommended that an aquarium should accommodate at least 20 gallons of water. A 20 gallon aquarium with sizes 24 x 12 x 16 inches (length x width x height) is ideal for a beginner.

First, inquire about the particular space needs of the fish species you intend to keep before you buy an aquarium. Some fish like South American dwarf cichlids require surprisingly large territories compared to their size. Some high-fin fish like angelfish or discus need high aquariums, at least 20 inches, to swim comfortably.

2. A durable stand


All things considered, this is a quite heavy hobby. An aquarium decorated with sand and rocks weighs approximately 11 pounds per gallon volume. For example, a 20-gallon aquarium weighs approximately 220 pounds. A 100-gallon aquarium can easily weight up to 1100 pounds. The aquarium stand must accordingly be very stable and robust. Especially for larger aquariums, special stands are necessary.

An elastic material such as styro-foam should be placed between the aquarium and its stand to absorb mechanical shocks. Styrofoam is also a good heat isolator which may help you save some electricity.

Choose a proper location for your aquarium, make sure that your aquarium does not receive direct sunlight from a window. Direct sunlight encourages excessive algal growth if algae promoting micronutrients such as phosphates and nitrates are abundant in water which is almost always the case in home aquariums. Furthermore, direct sunlight may overheat your aquarium in summer.

Fish feel insecure if the aquarium receives light from all sides. Therefore it is advisable to place the aquarium against a wall. What’s more, it is very difficult to decorate an aquarium that is standing in the middle of the room unless it has a great width.

Choose a stand here: https://portlandaquarium.net/fish-tank-stand/

3. Hood /canopy

Quite often aquariums are purchased complete with plastic hood and cover. These are to prevent the fish from escaping and also help to prevent heat and evaporation loss. They also have provisions for the light fittings.

Whatever your choice you must ensure a condensation cover or tray is fitted between the water surface and the hood to prevent condensation forming on the electrical light fitting. I personally prefer the appearance of a clear plastic hood. It is easy to set up an LED light fixture over a transparent hood.

Choose a stand here: https://portlandaquarium.net/hood/

4. Lighting system and timer


Aquarium fish need light for them to see and for the aquarist to see them. Fish also react to the presence of light or lack of it. When the sun goes down and darkness approaches, the fish disappear into their hidden holes to rest and await the new day. When the dawn arrives and the light is strengthening, fish will re-appear and begin looking for food. So light governs their life habits and it follows that this light cycle should be reasonably followed in the aquarium.

Plants need light to assimilate their food through photosynthesis. It is the good luck of the aquarium keeper that most aquatic plants are not directly exposed to strong sunlight in nature. Most tropic plants grow in rivers or pools that are completely or partially shadowed by terrestrial plants, therefore too much light intensity is not required for freshwater aquariums. Much more powerful lighting systems are necessary for marine aquariums.

Different plants are adapted to different light intensities. For example plants like Cryptocoryne species, Anubias species or Java moss may still grow well under a low light intensity while plants like Cabomba species or red-leaved Alternanthera species require strong light. Generally, red-leaved plants require a much higher intensity of light.

For reef aquariums, most corals require light as they have zooxanthellae within their flesh. Zooxanthellae are tiny single-celled algae and there are huge numbers of them in a coral. The algae/coral partnership is called symbiotic. The algae assist in the removal of waste products and in obtaining vital trace elements from the seawater. If this algae fails then the coral failure is very likely. As with other plants, the symbiotic algae require light to prosper. So, it is very important to choose the right lighting if you want to keep corals in your saltwater aquarium.

All fish, plants, and corals need a normal light cycle with day and night to prosper, 8-10 hours of lighting is ideal for most home aquariums. With a timer, regular daylight periods can easily be realized.

Choosing an LED light here: https://portlandaquarium.net/aquarium-led-light/

5. Filter and filter media


Aquarium filters are generally made of a water pump and a filter canister through which dirty water flows. There are various types, models, and brands of filters on the market. Some filters are inserted in the aquarium (internal filters) whereas some remain external (external filters).

External filters are generally advantageous because they have a larger canister volume. A filter must be ergonomic in use, otherwise, filter maintenance will become too tedious. A good filter must also be durable and soundless. The hose connections must be 100% secure if an external filter is used.

With proper filter materials in the canister three kinds of filtrations can be realized:

Mechanical Filtration – This is the removal of the bigger particles in the water. This first step in the filtration helps to avoid clogging up the next stages of the process to maximize their efficiency.

Biological Filtration – The bulk of the nitrogen cycle takes place in the biological portion of an aquarium filter system. It is a place for the beneficial bacteria in the aquarium water to colonize and remove ammonia and nitrites from the water as it passes through.

Chemical Filtration – Typically this will be done with carbon though sometimes there will also be an agent for the removal of specific toxins (commonly, ammonia). The carbon itself aids tremendously in sustaining water clarity and removing odor.

The thumb rule is to choose a filter that is capable of filtering four times the amount of your aquarium water in an hour. For example, a 20-gallon aquarium will need a filter with a flow rate of around 80 gallons per hour (GPH).

Read more about aquarium filters: https://portlandaquarium.net/aquarium-filter/

6. Heater and thermometer


Most tropical fish need stable temperatures between 75°F and 78°F (24-26°C) that are significantly higher than room temperature. A thermostat-heater is used to keep the temperature constant at the adjusted temperature. Thanks to modern heater technology, keeping the water temperature almost constant around the adjusted value presents no problems as long as you buy a quality thermostat-heater of a well-known brand.

Some cold water species like goldfish or cardinal fish require cooler aquariums. For them, ideal temperatures vary between 60-72°F (16-22°C.) Some fish like paradise fish or peppered Cory can tolerate a wide range of temperatures that vary between 60-86°F (15-30°C.) Such species need no heating at all.

On the other hand, some sensitive species like discus or blue ram require exceptionally high temperatures, as high as 86°F. At lower temperatures, they are prone to various diseases.

At normal room temperature 68-72°F (20-22°C), approximately 1 watt of heating power will be required for each liter of water (thumb rule 4W/gal or 1W/l) to keep the temperature constantly at 77°F (25°C). For example, a 20-gallon aquarium (75 liters) will need around 75 watts of heating power and a 75-100 watt heater is perfect.

Go to the page for aquarium heaters: https://portlandaquarium.net/fish-tank-heater/

7. Substrate


Substrate type and granularity can also be important for some fish species. South American dwarf cichlids for example need fine gravel or sand to search food or burrow their nests. Ensure that the substrate has no sharp edges that may injure the fish, especially the bottom dwellers.

Calcareous substrates are not recommended for soft water fish or plants because it hardens the water, whereas it will not harm hard water species. On the contrary, calcareous substrate and rocks may play a useful buffer role preventing undesirable pH drops in hard water aquariums e.g. Malawi or Tanganyika cichlids.

The granule size is an important parameter for plants. Some plants like most Cryptocoryne and Vallisneria species prefer fine substrate. Some Echinodorus species prefer rather coarse substrates. Generally, fine substrate means slower water circulation and lower oxygen levels. A too fine substrate tends to become anaerobic and to deteriorate emitting unbecoming smells unless a means for bottom circulation such as undergravel filters are employed.

Find a good substrate for planted tank: https://portlandaquarium.net/planted-tank-substrate/

8. Decoration

This is down to personal choice, although, you will have a better effect if you keep it looking natural. If you’re using rocks in your décor, as with gravel, be sure to use inert materials, such as sandstone or slate.

Also bear in mind the weight of any large rockwork in your design, if you use a lot of rocks be sure the structure is stable, you could consider gluing it together with aquarium sealant, this would avoid it toppling over and injuring fish or damaging the aquarium. These structures are useful, in that they give shelter to the shy and more nervous fish of the community.

9. Aquarium test kits


A very important part of keeping fish in aquariums is to test the water periodically. There are many different types of aquarium test kits out there and it can be confusing in deciding which ones to get and what to test for in your fish tank.

If you have a newly setup fish tank, you will want to get and test for at least the following:

Ammonia and nitrite test: You will need these for cycling your aquarium. They are also necessary for aquarium maintenance. If you have some problems with your fish and can’t find out the cause, check ammonia and nitrite first. For a healthy aquarium, the concentrations of them should be zero.

Nitrate test: ammonia is broken down and converted into nitrite then nitrate, this is the end product of the nitrogen cycle, and is used as a food source by plants and algae. Nitrate is relatively non-toxic, but if high readings are observed from your test result, it is indicative that a partial water change is necessary.

pH test: is needed to determine which types of fish will go well with your water without using any commercial additives and to periodically check to make sure nothing is too out of control with the system. You will also need to do pH tests regularly in the journey of fish keeping.

More details: https://portlandaquarium.net/water-characteristic-ph-gh-kh/

10. Water conditioners

Chlorine is a powerful chemical that is added to tap water to kill bacteria so that it is safe for us to drink. It is potentially lethal to fish if left in the aquarium untreated. It can strip the protective coating off the fish, making them vulnerable to bacterial and fungal infection. Also, heavy metals such as copper, lead, and zinc can be found in most tap water supplies. These metals are toxic to all tropical fish.

It is therefore necessary to treat the water before it goes into the aquarium. There are many products available to do this, some dechlorinate, and others will also remove heavy metals as well, you can also buy products that will completely condition the water, and adjust the pH.

11. Maintenance tools

There are lots of little things that you can pick up. Buckets for water changes, nets for removing large debris or catching fish, cleaning tools for cleaning the tank. 

Water changer /gravel cleaner


When gravel is used in the aquarium it will need regular cleaning, this task is made a lot easier with a gravel cleaner. This consists of a length of plastic hose, attached to one end is a plastic cylinder, this is placed in the gravel, whereby gravel is swirled around in the cylinder and the dirty water is drawn through the tube by gravity, and into a bucket for removal, leaving behind the cleaned gravel. Low voltage gravel vacuums are also available, but these are more expensive.

More details: https://portlandaquarium.net/gravel-vacuum-cleaner/

Algae scraper /magnet cleaner


A algae magnet cleaner helps to easily remove algae adhering to the inside walls of your aquarium. The scraped algae then can be easily removed from the aquarium by using the previous water changer.

More details: https://portlandaquarium.net/algae-magnet-cleaner/

12. Optional supplies

Air pump

The primary function of air pumps is to inject air bubbles into the aquarium, and although a cascade of bubbles rising to the surface may have a pleasing effect on the eye, the main reasons for aeration are rather more practical. For instance, to keep the water moving, which aids oxygenation, helps prevent dead spots (pockets of water that don’t get circulated), and aids the removal of harmful gases.

Air pumps vary in size and your choice would be dependent on the number of features you want to run.

Choosing an air pump: https://portlandaquarium.net/air-pump/

Automatic fish feeder

The automatic fish feeder is intended to give food to the fish automatically by releasing the right amount of feed at particular time intervals. The feeder can be fixed to the aquarium, mostly on the top position. A fish feeder is either operated off battery or electricity power. Some can also operate off both power sources.

If you are planning to take a vacation or you plan to be away from home for some time, then you must find a way to make sure that your fish are well fed as you simply cannot neglect them. Your pet fish needs to eat every day or else they will get hungry, but what are you going to do if no one is around at home to care for them? Luckily, there is an answer that is by purchasing an automatic fish feeder.

How to set up a freshwater aquarium for a newbie?

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

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.

How to cycle a new fish 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.

More about the process here: https://portlandaquarium.net/nitrogen-cycle/

How to add fish to a new aquarium?

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.

More here: https://portlandaquarium.net/buy-and-acclimate-new-fish/

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

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  1. Thanks Lucas, this guide was very helpful! I am setting up the first aquarium for my kids and want to make sure it’s a success on the first try and this is perfect!

    • Thanks for your kind words. I’m very happy knowing this article can help beginners.