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Related FAQs: Freshwater Set-up FW Set-Up 2

Related Articles: General Freshwater Aquarium Set-Up Checklist by Bob Fenner, Treating TapwaterAquascaping, Freshwater Livestock, Freshwater Maintenance

Setting Up Your First Freshwater Aquarium

By Ronni Marcum

Do wait on bottom feeders, algae eaters...

 It seems like everywhere you go you see an aquarium. The Oriental restaurants, the hairdresser, even that oil change place down the road. You're inexorably drawn to these tanks and often find yourself lost in the peaceful beauty of them while ignoring the conversations around you. After much consideration, you've decided to take the plunge and get yourself one of these stunning attractions. You load the kids in the car and head off to your local fish store only to find yourself in mental overload because of the selections of fish, tanks, filtration, decorations, foods, medications, and everything else on the packed shelves. Dejectedly, you head home, your visions of stunning beauty going down the drain. Don't fret; you can still have that tranquility in your home or office. Just plan ahead and know what you want and need to be successful in your venture. 

The first thing you're going to need is a tank (well duh, you knew that!) and a stand strong enough to support it. Your tank can be anything from a half gallon jar to a thousand gallon monster. Knowing what you plan to keep in it will help you decide. If you just want a single Betta, a half to five gallon tank is ideal. If you want a couple of Silver Arowanas a much larger tank is in order. So before you can buy your tank, you need to select the species of fish you want. 

The basic rule for keeping freshwater fish is one inch of fish per gallon to gallon and a half of water. No, this does not mean you can get yourself a ten gallon tank and put five 2 inch Oscars in it. This rule is based on the adult size of the fish you are keeping. It also changes for larger fish and depends on the aggression level and spawning tendencies of the fish. If you want lots of bright colors and don't mind some aggression, go for African Cichlids. If you want lots of motion in a peaceful tank, go for Tetras. If you want oranges and whites and blacks and don't want to mess with a heater, choose goldfish. 

Research to see how big the fish you've decided on will get. A very good place to do this is www.fishbase.org If they're a non-aggressive fish that stays fairly small (.5'-3') you can stick with the above rule. If they're an aggressive fish that gets medium sized (3'-8') you can do two things, either put one inch per gallon or one inch per several gallons. Crowding these fish more than non-aggressive species cuts down on the aggression levels because they don't have room to develop their own territories. On the down side, they may not grow to their full size and may never display their full colors. If they're a fish that gets large and messy then you should go with one inch per several gallons. 

Once you know what fish you want and have researched their size to determine the tank size they need you can then start planning the other items you'll need. Number one on this list is an appropriate stand to hold your tank. Once the water, gravel, filtration, decorations, and everything else are added to your tank, it's going to weigh at least 10-12 pounds per gallon of water. You're going to need a very strong stand so you don't end up with a disaster that kills all of your fish, breaks your tank, and floods your house. Also keep in mind that many rentals have limits on the size of the aquariums you can keep. This is because of floor strength and the risk of flooding. So be sure to check with your landlord before buying anything. And if you're the homeowner, remember that many tanks will have to be placed in basements (or ground floors if you don't have a basement) so they don't do structural damage. Your stand can be anything from a true aquarium stand to a strong piece of furniture that you found at a local auction. Make sure it doesn't have any wobble to it and that it's level. The tank should not hang over any edges; if it does it's not providing the proper support and you will need a bigger stand. 

Most tanks come with a fluorescent light hood that is suitable for most freshwater applications. If you want to keep live plants you will probably need to upgrade at least the bulbs. Or you can go the full route and upgrade the entire light fixture by ordering a completely new hood or by ordering a retrofit kit and placing it in the existing hood or building a DIY hood. 

Proper filtration is extremely important for a successful aquarium. There are many different types available, internal provided by undergravel filters and powerheads, hang on the back styles, or external canister filters. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. Undergravel filters (UGF) are for the most part maintenance free and have no long-term costs unless a powerhead goes out. Once in a while you have to take apart the powerhead and clean the impeller but this takes less than two minutes and is extremely easy. The drawback to these is that dead spots are created in your filtration by the placement of decorations, your live plants root to the UGF and some plants won't grow with them, you have to use a medium to course gravel or they will plug, and if you have fish that like to dig (like most Cichlids) they will constantly be digging up your UGF plates. External canister filters don't clutter your tank with a bunch of tubes and unsightly powerheads, they allow you to use a finer substrate like sand, and they can be hidden in your stand but are rumored to malfunction and leak, they can be noisy, and you have to replace the filter media fairly frequently. Hang on the back filters are pretty quiet and easy to take care of and they do allow you to use a sand substrate but you do have to periodically replace the inserts for them to keep working properly. These inserts can be found at most fish retailers, online, and even at some discount stores. The inserts are inexpensive and easy to replace without putting your hands in the tank but they usually need to be replaced every 2-6 weeks depending on the fish load in the tank. Everybody you talk to will have a different favorite when it comes to filtration. Pick the one that works the best for you; just make sure that you have enough filtration on your tank. Your filter should turn over your tank volume at least 3-4 times per hour, more is better, especially if you have very messy fish. 

Heating is necessary for all tropical fish. Your tank should be maintained at a consistent 76 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 78 being ideal for most species. Goldfish are not tropical and their tank should be kept at around 70-72 degrees. Heater watts will depend on the size tank you have, check the heater package to see what size is recommended for your tank size. The easiest ones to regulate the temperature on are the ones that have the external regulators. A heater with a metal housing can prevent breakage. You will also need a thermometer. The most accurate are the ones that float in your tank. 

Next, decide what kind of substrate you want. Brightly colored gravels are available at every fish store and they provide visually stimulating substrates for your tank. If you want a more natural look you can get natural colored gravel at your LFS also or you can go to your local farm supply store and get some crushed granite, sold as grit. The crushed granite has a bluish grey color and is available in several different sizes. It provides a very nice natural look and is extremely affordable, especially compared to commercial aquarium gravel. Some people use plain masonry/builders sands as a substrate with good results. Again, there are advantages and drawbacks to all of them. The commercial substrates are often colored and once in a while a bad batch gets sent out. When this happens, the color can leach into your system and kill your fish. This is a pretty rare occurrence but it does happen. It's also believed by many breeders that the bright or light colored substrates can have a negative impact on your fish's happiness and that fish do better with darker substrates. Very light colored substrates seem to grow algae faster. This could be because of light reflection or simply because the algae and dirt show more. The crushed granite will occasionally get areas of brown algae that are fairly noticeable. Again, this could be just because it shows up more against the color of the substrate. Sands tend to pack down and don't remain 'soft' while gravels can be harder on your bottom dwelling fish. Once again, it comes down to what you personally want in your tank. Whatever you decide on, your substrate should be two to four inches deep which works out to between one and two pounds per gallon of tank volume. 

Now you can pick your decorations. If you want live plants, these should be added after your tank is fully cycled. Artificial plants, artificial driftwood and rocks (real or artificial) can be added immediately. If you want artificial plants you can choose between silk and plastic. The silk tend to look more real but there are more varieties of plastic. Many fish like to hide in the plants so plastic can tear their fins or cause other physical injuries although these things don't happen often. Silk can fade with time. Make sure your rocks are aquarium safe, certain things like geodes are dyed and the dyes can leach into your water and kill your fish. It's best to purchase your decorations directly from a fish retailer but if you want silk plants, these can be safely purchased at a craft store. There are many polyresin rocks and logs available now that look so real you can't tell the difference. Most fish stores and online retailers carry these, shop around for the best price. When placing your decorations, place taller decorations in the back of your tank and shorter ones in front. Be sure to leave lots of open area for your fish to swim through. If using real plants, make sure to place them in the appropriately lit areas depending on their needs. Be sure to fully research all plants before purchasing them. Many plants that are sold as aquarium plants are not really suited to being fully underwater and will die rapidly. Some great beginner plants are Elodea, Hornwort, Anubias, and Java Fern. Plants like Anacharis, Hygrophila, Cryptocoryne, and Crinum 'Onion' plants can also be fairly hardy. Plants like Duckweed and Java Moss are hardy but can rapidly become pests because they can take over an entire tank, literally smothering all other plants. A CO2 injector is recommended for planted tanks but is not absolutely necessary. If your local stores don't carry the plants you want, they can be mail ordered from many online retailers. 

So finally, here is a checklist of all items you will need before you begin to set-up your tank. More info on a few of these is given later in this article:

1) Tank with light

2) Stand

3) Filter

4) Substrate

5) Heater

6) Decorations (these can be added later if desired)

7) Dechlorinated water

8) Bacterial start (ask your LFS for this, it should be free as it's just very dirty water from one of their existing tanks)

9) Ammonia and Nitrite test kits (unless you want to take water samples to your store to have them tested)

10) A net to catch your fish 

OK, you have your stand, tank, filtration, lighting, and decorations on hand and you know what kinds of fish you want to get so now you can set-up your tank! Follow these steps for a successful set-up; 

1) Rinse all items with cool water until the water runs clear.

2) Get your tank and stand into the location you want it. Unless it's a very small tank, this will be its permanent home so make sure you like the location! The tank must be situated near an electrical outlet.

3) Place your filtration system and heater into/on the tank but do not plug them in.

4) Add your substrate.

5) Add the bacteria start that your LFS hopefully provided

6) Fill the tank half way with water. If your city uses chlorine in its drinking water, you will need to use a commercial dechlorinator (available at your local fish store) to remove this as it is deadly to all fish.

7) Add your decorations

8) Fill the tank the rest of the way with dechlorinated water.

9) Plug in the filter and heater.  

Your tank is going to look very murky at this point but it should clear up overnight. Let it run with no fish in it overnight. Make sure the temperature is adjusted correctly and that all devices are functioning properly. Now you can go to your fish store and get yourself a few hardy fish to help cycle the tank. The cycling process is the initial stage your tank will go thru while the good bacteria are getting developed so the tank can maintain itself. The ammonia and nitrite levels in the tank will go up so frequent water changes must be performed during this period. During this period you will need to test your ammonia and nitrite levels no less than every other day, daily is better. Water changes need to be performed daily or every other day, these will help keep the ammonia and nitrite levels from getting too high. Adding the bacteria start that your store provided and a few hardy fish will help speed this process up. Feeder goldfish are generally used for this as they are quite tough. The cycling process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Feed sparingly during this time. Once your ammonia and nitrite levels read zero for several days you can remove the goldfish and begin adding the fish that you picked out oh so long ago.  

These fish should be added slowly so you don't overload your system and restart the cycling period. So add just one or two new fish to begin with. Always be sure to acclimate them before adding them to your tank. To do this, place the unopened bag in your tank and let it float for about twenty minutes. Then open the bag and add about one cup of aquarium water and let the bag set for another five minutes. Repeat this step until the bag is nearly full. It is then safe to add these fish to your tank. And always remember; never add the water from the bag to your tank. This water is extremely dirty. Net the fish out of the bag and place them gently in the tank.  

At the same time you get these fish, you can also get one or two more and place them into a quarantine tank. This requires you to have a second tank called a quarantine or QT tank. Now don't get scared and give up just yet! Your QT tank can be something very simple. A QT tank that is roughly one quarter the size of your main tank is recommended but even with a larger tank most people can get by with something as simple as a 10 gallon tank with a basic filter, light, and heater. Your QT tank does not need to have a substrate or any decorations and does not need to be set-up all the time. If the stand for your main tank is big enough, the QT tank can be kept right in there, even when it's running. When you are going to be adding new fish, set-up the QT tank a day or two before. Use water and filter media from your main tank. Leave the new fish in this tank for at least two weeks so you know it doesn't have any diseases that could infect your main tank. At the end of two weeks, take the fish from your QT and place them in your main system. You can then add one or two more to the QT and let them stay in there for a couple of weeks. Repeat this process until you have your main tank fully stocked. You can then take down the QT and store it until it's needed again. QT's are very necessary in case you get a sick fish. The fish should be immediately placed in the QT for a couple of reasons: to prevent the spread of the disease to your other fish, and to make medicating easier. It's much easier and safer to medicate a small quarantine tank with just the sick fish than it is to medicate your larger main tank with some healthy fish too. 

Once your tank is up and running, the main maintenance things you'll need to do are occasional water changes and changing of the filters if you're not using UGF. You will also want to perform regular water tests to make sure your water quality stays good.  

Water changes should be done at least once a month; to do this, use a siphon tube or gravel vacuum (available at your local fish store) to siphon out part of the tank water and also the rotten food and feces from the bottom of the tank. Then replace the water with fresh water. Be sure that any new water added is the same temperature and has been dechlorinated! You can do bi-weekly changes of 15% of the water volume or monthly changes of 25-35%. 

And finally, you can sit back and enjoy your own little slice of tranquility!

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