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General Freshwater Aquarium Set-up Checklist 


by Bob Fenner


             Though you may have a general, good idea re what it takes to put together a working freshwater set-up, its always nice to be able to check ones notes with another like-minded individual. Here is a list of tools, materials and a Standard Operating Procedure for such an operation.  

A Plan; Good Idea:

            It is best to have what you need to have on hand in writing before actually starting a new aquarium. Having/using such a checklist will save you time and frustration from missing a crucial step or part. Feel free to simply print ours here or adopt, adapt, amend it to your particular purposes. Do realize that there are many roads to Rome, that is, several avenues/options one can take in setting up and maintaining a captive aquatic system Those variations exist that cater to different types of livestock, what one wants to spend up front, how much time/effort you elect for maintenance  At the planning stages, its best to keep an open mind in sorting through what you want to keep in the way of livestock (how big it gets for instance), and what your options are in terms of tank shape, lighting, filtration you will find there are several.

About Livestock, Livestocking: Ideally you will/would have a good idea of what sorts of life you'd like to keep their compatibility, food preferences, relative growth and likely maximum sizes before you started your actual buying of your tank and gear. Selecting not just healthy specimens, but species that can and will get along with each other in the sorts/quality of water you're able to provide fed the foods you'll want to handle is critical to your success. Do peruse aquarium books, the Net for information (its there!) re these issues and don't overcrowd your system. You and your livestock will be much better off having more room than too little Trust me here and get as big a system as space, your budget will allow. Larger tanks are much easier to take care of, and much more forgiving should something go wrong (electrical outage, overfeeding).  


Set Up: Gear; Necessary and Optional

            Tank: These are almost always made of all-glass or acrylic and come in many shapes and sizes. There are pros and cons of both types of material. Glass doesn't scratch as easily, acrylic is much stronger, clearer Glass tanks don't generally require as much retrofitting to add gear to, but acrylic can be easily cut

            Tanks can be more standard in profile; that is, more low/squat; or show higher and more narrow. By and large the more standard a tanks profile the more livestock one can stock, and easier it is to work on, aquascape. However, show tanks are showier Do pay attention to the stated dimensions of available tanks, and plan on having some room around the sides and back for easy access and cleaning.

Bear in mind that with water in them, your system is going to weigh in at about ten pounds per gallon requiring strong support.


            Aquarium Stand & Other Support: If you go intend to set your aquarium on something other than a purposely made commercial stand, make sure it is strong, planar AND level. Of course your floor must support all this evenly as well You may find that placing one piece of cut plywood under whatever you use, possibly shimming this to level, helps spread the force evenly over your floor.


            Lights/Lighting: This is a huge category that along with filtration modes may leave your head spinning. Basically there are two ways to look at lighting; aesthetic and functional The first being what you like to look at, the second what you might need to have your livestock do what you want to do. If you don't intend to house live aquatic plants, almost all freshwater systems can be illuminated to your desire.

            Having a lighting system of some sort is almost a necessity, as you wont be able to enjoy your livestock and display without and the fishes, non-fish livestock do appreciate some light regularity.

            Do peruse your suppliers offerings here, from an initial cost of purchase point of view and one considering ongoing operation. Energy and lamp replacement costs can be considerable And you may well find that a simple Normal Output to Boosted Fluorescent route is best for your purposes. For very large, deep systems, ones with a good deal of live plant material, higher output fluorescents (Compacts, T5s) to metal halides may be called for.


            Gravel/Substrate: Few tanks are set up bare bottom nowadays, with gravel adding decorative, biological filtration, and behavioral plusses for you and your livestock. Here again there are a few stock options. Natural versus not, epoxy-coated or no Depending on the make up of your source/tap water, and the types of livestock you intend to keep, you may be better off going with a natural variety, as many of these are useful in buffering water against too-rapid chemical changes. For folks who intend to keep a good deal of live plants, a finer grade and good depth (a few inches) may be called for. Otherwise, many types of rooted plants can be individually potted, placed. As a rule of thumb about a pound per gallon is good to get a system going though for looks, I personally prefer a bit more Not to worry, as more substrate can be added at any time.


            Filtration/Aeration/Circulation: This is the area of most confusion, debate and outright avid opinions in the hobby of aquarium keeping. How do you keep your water clean is the question answered by filtration? There are many ways to look at, approach the subject Selectively adding, removing things is what filtration is all about What sorts of things? Particles? Chemicals? Biological matter? Yes to all the above. How can this be achieved filters of all sorts!

            Box Filters Sponge Filters are simple in-tank devices that sieve out materials either by air-lift (using an air pump, tubing, possibly a gang valve for distribution and check valve to prevent back-siphoning), or submersible pumps or powerheads to push/pull water through their media. Box filters require regular (weekly most likely) checking and changing of their filter floss and carbon, and sponge filters a periodic removal, gentle squeeze-cleaning to keep functional.

            Undergravel Filters are plates that lie under your gravel substrate that use this material as their actual filter media (along with beneficial microbes that live there). These are likewise powered either by air lift or pump mechanisms. Though this technology has its detractors, UG filters do work, though they too require regular maintenance. Its a good idea to purchase a gravel vacuum and be prepared for doing regular water changes using this, spreading the used water on your indoor, outdoor plantings no matter what filtration gear you employ.

            Power Filters: Either hang on the back, inside the tank, or canister types utilize electrically-powered pumps to move water through their contained filter media. These are the most popular varieties of freshwater aquarium filtration for their ease of use, maintenance and quiet. Do look over your options carefully here in terms of purchase and operational costs and sizing to your tank and livestock. Strictly speaking you cant over filter a system, though a handful or more turn-overs per hour of your aquarium volume should be adequate.

            You do want to have complete circulation and aeration of your system, so adding a powerhead or submersible pump/s might be a good idea, or a simple to decorative bubbler, an airstone or wand with its pumping, distribution source.


            Heater & Thermometer: There are good submersible and hang-on heaters that will prevent your water temperature from vacillating too much too soon. Even if you have a large tank (that wont fluctuate too much with ambient conditions) or are keeping cool/coldwater animals only, like goldfish, I encourage you strongly to invest in a good heater. For smaller tanks (lets say under forty gallons), one of about 5-8 watts per gallon should do. For larger tanks, a few less watts per gallon are the rule, using two or more individual heaters to provide thermal homogeneity.

            Thermometers come in outside, hang-on, floating, and stick-on formats Some are a bit more accurate and precise than others generally indicated in their price.            


            Decor: Spans the gamut of your imagination. Do keep in mind that you want to use materials that are not too sharp (to avoid cutting you or your livestock), and that are either chemically non-reactive or ones that will influence your water (e.g. harder, more alkaline softer, more acidic) per your livestock's preferences and tolerance.

Having decorations like plastic plants, artificial undersea ruins, treasure chests and the like does help in several ways. Having such habitat helps break up the physical environment, greatly reducing negative behavior in your livestock and it looks good to boot!


            Water: Though you'll likely be using your tap to fill the tank, do make a note to purchase what you'll need/want to render the treated source water safe for your needs. A dechloraminator is a must to have on hand, and you may find that you'll want to pre-treat, chemically modify and store your new water ahead of actual use Once again, depending on the make-up of your source water, the needs/preferences of your chosen livestock and what you intend to do with them.


Water Quality Test Kits: For most FW set-ups a simple master test kit of the most important aspects of water quality is all one needs. Ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and pH will likely give you all the windows you'll require to determine what is going on with your water.


            Electrical Matters: Just how many electrical items will you be plugging in here? Lets see, there's the lighting, a pump or two, heater Likely more than you have close outlets to accommodate. Do get and use a purposeful, vertical mountable power strip that either includes Ground Fault Interrupter Circuitry, or make sure your aquatic electrical items are otherwise wired to/through a GFCI circuit.

Consider the fancier such outlet strips that incorporate timer devices to aid you in keeping your lights on a regular schedule if this is your wish.


            Maintenance Gear: What? Already? Yes, I encourage you to go ahead and get this from the get-go. You'll need food/s, a net for sure, and a good gravel vacuum possibly a fancy variety with a long hose and fill-drain sink connection, unless you intend to lug a designated bucket about and at least one good scrubber for use during your regular maintenance. There are numerous other gadgets you can consider here tongs of all lengths for folks who wish to keep their hands dry gloves for the same purpose And have you thought of getting a book on aquariums? The Internet is fine for asking questions That is, IF you know enough to know what to ask about. Consider a good general reference for perusal, reference.  


Set Up: Tools 

            Level: A carpenters or spirit level will serve to help you determine how level your support, tank are. Another good gauge once the tank is in place is a small bit of water to judge whether it coats the bottom evenly.            

            Fish Bucket/s:  Dedicated plastic containers for washing gravel, possibly filter gear, making water changes. Aquatic life and soaps, detergents do NOT mix. You want to label and carefully keep this aquarium only gear in a safe place.

            Plastic Scooper: Once again, a dedicated, though likely kitchen-intended piece of gear for scooping gravel, placing on same while re/filling the tank to prevent disrupting the gravel and decor.



            Setting up and having a beautiful thriving freshwater system is not a matter of intense scientific understanding, hard work or artistic verve but simply a matter of understanding a few underlying principles, taking ones time to sort through a finite number of options, making a workable plan that fits your lifestyle and space available and executing against that plan. Take your time in deciding what sorts of livestock you intend to keep and its needs for space, lighting, filtration, water and decor, and fit as large a system as you can in a prominent place in your home or business. Easily done and the rewards are many.         

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