New Fish Checklist: How to Set Up a Fish Tank
If you’re starting a new aquarium, the amount of information on the internet can be overwhelming. It would be great if an expert aquarist could guide you through the whole process. Follow along as we share our best practices for setting up the perfect home for your new pet fish.
These instructions may seem complicated at times, but they will help beginners avoid many common pitfalls. After years of running a fish store, we find that it’s very important for new hobbyists to be successful right off the bat. People will eventually give up on fish keeping if they make too many mistakes.
How long do you have to wait to put fish in a new tank?
Preparations for starting a new aquarium can take about one to two weeks for gathering the proper materials, installing the equipment, and starting the aquarium cycling process. Afterwards, the aquarium needs time to establish a healthy ecosystem, and your fish should go through quarantine to prevent the spread of any diseases. Therefore, don’t rush this process by impulsively buying fish or prematurely ordering them online before the tank is ready.
Wait until the aquarium is fully installed and established with a healthy ecosystem before buying fish.
What is the cost to set up a fish tank?
Because fish are relatively inexpensive pets, many people assume that their aquariums and fish tank accessories will not cost much as well. If you plan on buying brand-new aquarium supplies, be prepared to spend around $200 or more.
Shopping List: What to Get Before Buying Fish
Before you can decide how big of an aquarium to get, you must first find the ideal location for it. Fish tanks should be placed on a hard, entirely flat, waterproof surface or aquarium stand that can hold up its entire weight. If the aquarium is not on the ground floor, make sure the floor can also handle the weight. A freshwater tank containing water, substrate, equipment and decor can be more than 10 pounds per gallons of water.
To avoid any drastic temperature changes, don’t place the aquarium in direct sunlight, next to the air conditioning and heating vent, or in front of a constantly opening door that leads outside. You should avoid high traffic areas and flashing TV screens. Avoid lighting that creates shadows or lights that cause moving shadows. For easy water changes, ensure that the fish tank is close to an electrical outlet.
Once you’ve decided on the final location, you can measure the available space and determine what size aquarium you can get. Many beginners choose a 10-gallon fish tank as their first aquarium, but in general, larger aquariums are preferred because a) more water volume helps to dilute the toxic waste chemicals produced from your fish’s poop and b) you can keep more fish without overcrowding them. In the United States, certain pet store chains like Petco offer sales three to four times a year where cheap fish tanks are sold for $1 per gallon in size. Rimless aquariums or tanks with low iron glass tend to be a lot more expensive, so we generally don’t recommend them to beginners.
Rimmed, glass aquariums are a favorite, cost-effective option for both beginners and veterans.
A question we frequently hear is whether you should choose a glass or acrylic aquarium because both have different pros and cons. Glass aquariums are usually cheaper, less susceptible to scratching, and often come with a rim that helps to level out any unevenness between the aquarium glass and the surface it stands on. Rimmed glass tanks should be supported at all four corners. Do not place Styrofoam, or any other pliable mat under them. The rim of a tank filled with water will sink into the Styrofoam and cause cracking.
Acrylic aquariums, on the other hand, are more expensive, but they are ideal for very large volume tanks because the bonded seams are much stronger and less likely to break. Acrylic aquariums are lighter and more resistant to temperature changes. Acrylic tanks (and rimless tanks) are designed to be supported on their entire bottom panel, so a Styrofoam or yoga mat can be used to help buffer against unevenness between the aquarium and the surface it stands on.
2. Aquarium Lid
Many people try to reduce costs by not getting an aquarium hood or top, but they don’t realize that a tank lid saves money in the long run by minimizing loss of heat and water through evaporation and protecting your fish from jumping out. These valuable benefits are why we do not recommend beginners to use rimless, lidless aquariums.
Glass lids can be very affordable and are easy to see. A glass top often comes with a back plastic strip that can be modified to make holes for filtration, airline tubing, or electrical cords. Make sure the openings are very tight so that fish and invertebrates cannot escape.
Acrylic lids can be more expensive and will droop in the water. The flexibility of the material is especially inconvenient if you try to make a hinged flap for feeding fish and it becomes warped over time. Lexan polycarbonate sheets don’t absorb water as readily and are sometimes used for homemade aquarium lids, but they are still more expensive than glass.
Some fish species, such as goldfish, Japanese ricefish and white cloud-mount minnows, can tolerate cooler temperatures. However, most freshwater fish prefer tropical, warmer temperatures between 74 and 80 degrees F. Therefore, if your home is lower than this range, you need to buy an aquarium heater to prevent your fish from getting sick. Plus, get a thermometer to help you determine if the aquarium heater is working properly or has been turned off.
An adjustable heater is preferred because it allows you to change the water temperature for keeping different species or treating sick fish.
As a starting point, select a fish tank heater with approximately 5 watts (W) of heat per 1 gallon of water if a) you need to heat the water up to 10degF above room temperature and b) you have a tank lid that retains warmth and prevents evaporative cooling. For example, if you have a 5-gallon betta fish aquarium that meets those conditions, you could get a 25W heater. You will need to get a 50W heater if the same betta aquarium is kept in an office or school classroom that has lots of air conditioning.
In general, it’s safer to err on the side of getting a heater that’s the next size up than a weaker one that constantly struggles to raise the temperature. The good news is that heaters can be purchased in a similar price range regardless of the size or wattage. Also, if you own a bigger aquarium that requires 200W of heat, for example, it’s a better to purchase two 100W heaters (rather than one 200W heater). This way, if one heater goes out, the second heater will continue to heat the aquarium. For more help on choosing the right aquarium heater, read the full article.
If you’re a fish keeping beginner, don’t let the internet convince you to start with a canister filter. They are harder to clean and maintain, and not necessarily the best. We typically recommend a hang-on-back (HOB) filter for people who have never kept a fish tank before. They are very easy to install and customize. Although sponge filters are an affordable and reliable option, they can be difficult to set up the first time. Many people also forget to install a check valve to prevent water from rushing into their tanks. Find out which fish tank filter is best for you in our article.
HOB filters are often supplied with disposable cartridges. You can replace these with a coarse sponge pad, which can be rinsed and re-used over and again.
Lighting is mostly a concern for those who are keeping live aquatic plants. If you have no aquarium plants, you can use a fish tank kit that already comes with a light or choose an appropriately sized aquarium hood with a built-in light. If you are growing aquarium plants, install an LED planted tank light with a power outlet timer to keep algae growth under control. For more help, learn about how to pick the best planted aquarium light.
6. Substrate and Decorations
Substrat is the material that covers the bottom of your fish tank. Some of the most common options include aquarium gravel, sand, and plant substrate. The substrate, rocks, driftwood, and aquarium decorations can sometimes be covered in dust particles, so rinse them in water to avoid getting cloudy water. Avoid using soap or other cleaning products to clean your aquarium decorations. The residue could be dangerous for fish.
Aquarium backgrounds are great to use because they hide all the tangled wires and tubing from view and prevent the fish from seeing any scary shadows on the wall behind them.
You can buy a fish tank background from the pet store, cut out a sheet of black trash bag or colored poster board, or paint directly on the rear panel of the tank. Because plants and fish stand out against a darker background, such as black, algae is not as obvious.
7. Other Aquarium Accessories
Many water treatment plants now use chloramine to disinfect tap water. This is a deadly chemical that kills fish and doesn’t evaporate as quickly as chlorine. Make sure to get a water dechlorinator to keep your tap water safe. Of course, your fish need something to eat, so try some of our favorite, high-quality fish foods. An aquarium water test kit is also very useful for determining if poor water quality is making the fish sick.
While all water conditioners do an adequate job of dechlorinating tap water, we like to use bottles that comes with a pump head for easy dosing without any measuring.
An aquarium siphon is a must-have if you want to save a significant amount of time with tank maintenance. You can vacuum the substrate with this hose and use a bucket for any fish waste that has accumulated. This tutorial will show you how to use it.
How can you start a freshwater aquarium for beginners?
1. Set up the aquarium stand or clean the counter space where the tank will go. 2. Rinse out any dust from the aquarium and accessories, and install the tank background. 3. Put the tank on the aquarium stand, and pour in the substrate. 4. Add decorations to conceal the heater and filter in the tank. 5. Fill the aquarium with room temperature water and dose the dechlorinator. 6. Plant the aquarium plants. This guide will show you how to set up an aquarium with live plants.
Partially pour water into the fish tank to support the plants leaves and insert roots into the substrate.
1. Turn on the equipment after you have installed the lid and the light. Wait 30 minutes before turning it on. (The heater needs time to adjust the water temperature. 2. You should wait 24 hours before you test everything to ensure that there are no leaks. 3. Start cycling the aquarium (e.g. These instructions will help you to grow beneficial bacteria and/or plants in an aquarium that is safe for fish. 4. Once the aquarium has a healthy ecosystem that can process fish waste, gradually start adding fish. Consider putting all new fish in a separate quarantine tank first to cure them of any diseases before they enter the main tank. For information on quarantine aquariums, read this article.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you set up a betta aquarium?
See our detailed instructions here. –
How do you set up an aquarium for goldfish?
Check out our fancy goldfish care guide. –
How do I set up a planted aquarium?
Check out our step-by-step guide.
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