How to Set up the Perfect Aquarium

If you plan to set up a tank for new fishy friends, this article is perfect for you. There is a lot more to developing a thriving aquarium than just filling it with water and adding fish. 

This article will outline all the key steps in setting up a gorgeous, thriving tank full of happy creatures. You will learn how to choose the right fish and contents for your aquarium and the importance of cycling your tank before adding any fish.

Planning the Tank

This is a crucial step that is often neglected. Before you go out and buy a whole lot of equipment and a tank, you should figure out what your tank is going to look like and what species you want to keep. 

Consider the needs of the animals you want; each one will have unique living and feeding requirements that need to coincide with your tank. Once you decide what will stay in your aquarium, you can choose how to decorate it and what equipment you need.

Some popular types of aquariums include goldfish tanks, saltwater tanks, and mixed community fish. Below is a list of things to consider when choosing your fish.

Goldfish are overall tough fish but do not do well in heated water. They also produce a relatively large amount of waste, so be sure you have a good filter.

Community fish get along well with most other fish and generally are not high maintenance. Although you can keep them alone, most do better in schools, providing a more interesting tank. 

Betta fish live in swampy waters and do not move around much. Because of this, they thrive in clean, oxygen-rich water.  

Determine the size of the tank you will need and plan how your decorations and equipment will fit into it. Saltwater tanks should be at least 30 gallons, and the best size for a freshwater community tank is around 20 gallons. Goldfish can require anything from 20 to 100 gallons depending on the maximum size of the species.

It would be best if you also decided whether you want real or fake plants in your aquarium. Plants can improve water quality and be an excellent addition for the fish, but they require more maintenance. The types of plants you choose might have an impact on the substrate too.

Ornaments and Substrate


The first thing to put into your aquarium is the substrate. The type of substrate you use will depend on many factors. This includes the types of fish and plants in your tank and what look you are trying to achieve in your aquarium. There are many substrates to choose from, like sand, gravel, stones, pebbles, glass pebbles, and many more. 

When deciding on a substrate, the most important thing to keep in mind is your fish. 

Freshwater tanks often have gravel or stones as a substrate. They are easy to clean and create a more natural look and feel for many freshwater fish species. Natural rocky substrates are quickly becoming more popular than glass pebbles, and for a good reason. Glass pebbles can be a stunning color pop for your tank and are not necessarily bad for your fish. 

There are a few small problems with glass pebbles. Glass is smooth and does not provide enough surface area for good bacteria and algae to grow. Another possible problem is that over time they will erode just like gravel. The pebbles develop sharp edges, and small chips of glass can be a danger to your fish. Because of this, you will need to change them as soon as they show signs of eroding. 

A soft, sandy substrate is suitable for bottom-feeding fish and certain species that like to hide in the sand. Fish such as eels, knife fish, and plecos spend most of their time on the bottom, and a rocky substrate will damage their bodies. Sand can also give your tank a desert or sea look, which could be just what you need. 

There are a few problems with choosing sand as a substrate. You should commit to gravel washes of your substrate regularly, as doing this with sand can be a tedious process. Sand also tends to be collected with your wastewater and will need to be replaced more frequently.


The next thing to decide on is the plants you will include in your aquarium. As mentioned above, you can either choose real or fake flora. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. It all depends on your experience, resources, and fish. 

Plastic plants are popular because they are more colorful and lower maintenance while still offering creative hiding places. Fake plants are a splendid choice for beginners, as they do not require any extra equipment. Just be sure to rinse them regularly with clean water.

However, real plants are always preferred because they boost the water quality and provide something for your fish to nibble on. Plants use nitrogen to grow, and this element is precisely what you filter out. A lot of nitrogen enters the water through fish waste products, and having plants in your aquarium can help filter these waste products out. 

Plants use carbon dioxide to photosynthesize (which helps stop a CO2 build up in your tank) and produce oxygen. This allows for higher quality water. However, dead leaves and plant matter release nitrogen as they decompose. Be sure your plant is healthy, and you remove dead matter as soon as possible.


Decorations for your tank can be anything from a cool rock to an expensive pet store ornament. The first thing to consider is space; how much can you realistically put into your tank? Keep in mind what fish you have. Do they like lots of dark hiding places? Do they need a large area of the substrate to be bare? 

It is generally recommended not to add driftwood or coral into your tank as unwanted hitchhikers can be dangerous to your fish. However, some fish species require driftwood as an essential part of their diet. Including driftwood pieces can increase the algae population in your tank, which is good for algae eaters. It is best to treat driftwood without chemicals, such as with heat or repeated rinses. Better yet, buy pieces of driftwood from a local or online supplier. 

You can not just go adding any household item to your fish tank, though. Many metals are toxic to fish and corrode underwater, and paint will chip off and poison your sea critters. Always avoid adding decorations with sharp edges. 

When adding decorations from nature, make sure to clean it thoroughly and treat it for pests. Also, consider that some minerals are not suitable for your fish, and adding shells might add excess calcium to your freshwater system.

Preparing the Tank

  • Make sure there are no cracks or chips in the glass
  • Clean the inside and outside with an alcohol swab 
  • Set the tank on a stable, level platform.
  • Rinse substrate and ornaments in warm water
  • Add substrate 
  • Fill the tank to about ⅓ full. Try not to disturb the substrate
  • Add a water conditioner to dechlorinate the water
  • Connect the air pump to any air outlet in the tank
  • Add plants
  • Add the rest of the water
  • Install the filter and cycle the tank
  • Install heater and thermometer
  • Plug in the equipment and monitor the tank for a day or two   
  • Water treatment and equipment

Treating the Water in Your Tank

The most important treatments to add to a new aquarium are water conditioners and biofilters. Water conditioners are a safe product that you add to the water in your aquarium to dechlorinate it. Chlorine in water can be extremely harmful to your fish. 

Biofilters are systems that control pollutants in water with microbes that eat them. Products are available to add these beneficial bacteria as well as filtration systems containing the bacteria.

Once your fish settle in, you should replace 30% of the water weekly and test pH and pollutant concentration. If you cycle your tank before putting the fish in, the ammonia and nitrogen levels in the tank should not get too high during cycling with the fish. However, it is good to test regularly and have ammonia treatments and aquarium salt at hand to balance levels if needed. 

pH is also something to keep in mind when testing water quality. Some species of fish prefer a lower or higher pH than your normal pure water. Blackwater treatments are a great way to lower the pH in your tank, though increasing it can be difficult. 

Adding crushed coral to your freshwater increases its buffering. This is a longer-lasting solution than popular products like pH UP. Be sure the coral is not adding too much calcium to your tank.

Equipment Must-Haves

Filters are a vital part of your aquarium. There is a wide range of products you can pick to suit your needs. From biofilters or biofilter products to run of the mill aquarium filters, your fish will thank you either way. Harmful chemicals such as ammonia are present in fish waste products. This waste builds up in the water and eventually kills your fish if it is not filtered out. 

Very few fish in the aquarist trade do not require heaters, and most of these are of tropical origin. Unless you live in a warm area, most will need an aquarium water heater. You will also need to install a thermometer as far away from the source of warmth as possible to monitor the temperature of the entire tank. 

Your fish need some sort of airflow in their tank. Introducing air into the water increases oxygen saturation, and if the saturation is too low for too long, your fish will die. There are a few ways you can do this. Waterfall filters comb the waters and create bubbles on the surface when the liquid mixes. 

These air pockets reach deep and provide oxygen throughout the environment. Air pumps connected to a pipe can blow bubbles to the bottom of the tank. Pumps are included in fun decorations to make it seem like they’re breathing, or as if a volcano is erupting. 

A hood or canopy for your tank is not always necessary, but it can make your life easier. Some fish species are known to jump out of aquariums. Snails and slugs will also escape without a lid. Covering your aquarium will ensure the water stays clean and warm for longer, and it will stop the water from evaporating. 

It is also unnecessary to have a net on hand, but it can come in very handy when clearing debris from your tank or trying to catch fish to take them out.

Tank Cycling

Cycling a fish tank helps you ensure your aquarium can process ammonia and other waste products without killing your fish.

Fish-in Cycling

It is often difficult to wait for the tank to go through a full cycle before adding your fish. If impatience gets the better of you, it is possible to cycle the tank with sea critters present. 

Only add a few fish at first, feed them sparingly, and then gradually increase their food intake. It is best to add a biofilter or biofilter product to increase the population of beneficial bacteria in your aquarium. Be sure to test the water daily. 

Once ammonia or nitrate starts building in the tank, do a partial water change. You know the cycle is complete, and the tank can handle all the waste from your fish when you can feed a normal amount without a significant increase in waste products.

Fishless cycling

This fairly new technique involves placing an ammonia source such as fish food in an empty aquarium. This method has proven tricky for beginners, but if you are determined to do it, then be sure to add enough beneficial bacteria to the tank.

Plant cycling

This method is probably the best as it includes no danger to your fish and turns your tank into a thriving underwater ecosystem. To cycle your aquarium like this, you should focus on growing plants in it first. Include all the right lighting, fertilizers, and substrate to help them grow. Studies have shown* that plants are more effective at consuming waste products than many beneficial bacteria. 

You know the cycle is complete when the plants or algae start to show new growth. New growth proves the plant is effectively converting ammonia and nitrates into new growth.


Setting up a thriving aquarium is not as easy as throwing fish into a tank. There are so many things to consider and add to build the perfect home for your fishy friends. In this article, you have learned how to set up any type of aquarium with happy fish and plants. 


Johanan Viljoen

Johanan Viljoen