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How To Set Up an Aquarium for Beginners

When setting up a new aquarium for beginners this article gives solid guidance in ensuring the greatest chance of success with setting up your tank and getting it safe for fish. Whether you want to know how to set up a small fish tank or how to set up a large fish tank the information presented here will guide you in the right direction. This article is for setting up a freshwater set up. So here we go to help you with a new fish tank set up for beginners.

What Supplies You Need to Start a Fish Tank?

To start off you are obviously going to need a few things.

  • This might sound silly but I am going to say it. You need an aquarium. Okay now assuming you have an aquarium you will need a solid stand to place the tank on. Aquariums become very heavy when filled with water and other objects. A shaky stand is a dangerous stand, make sure you have this covered correctly before you fill the aquarium.


  • An aquarium hood is a good idea so fish don’t jump out and objects don’t accidentally fall in. this isn’t a necessary item if your lighting is attached without sitting on the hood. As a beginner though I would put a hood on top if at all possible.


  • A light bright enough to light up the whole tank but not so bright that it heats up the water. If your aquarium lights are LED you won’t have to worry about them heating the water. Chances are the aquarium you purchased came with a light included.


  • A filter is required to ensure your tank is biologically right for the survival and long life of the aquariums inhabitants. Make sure you have a charcoal insert as well as a foam insert to put inside the filter.


  • A heater is required unless you want to be extremely limited to the varieties of fish you can own as a pet. Make sure to read the directions on placement of the heater. Is the top supposed to be outside of the water or can the whole heater be submerged? When purchasing fish do your best to purchase fish that thrive in the same temperature water.


  • Aquarium gravel and decorations. The decorations are not required to set up the tank unless you get fish that like to hide. I would get some decorations such as fake plants or small structures the fish can hide in. for the aquarium gravel you really must put this in the tank. I wouldn’t place the gravel more than an inch deep anywhere in the aquarium.


  • The reason for this is because the fish droppings, extra food and algae will build up in the gravel bed and you will have issues with high Nitrite and then high Nitrate levels which can be disastrous for the fish and ecosystem. In my tanks I don’t place more than a half inch of gravel anywhere unless I need it a bit deeper to hold structures in place. It just catches everything floating in the water. You will find your tank mush easier to keep clean if you have a shallow gravel bed.

Where to Place Everything in the Aquarium

  • The first thing to do is place the rinsed off gravel on the bottom and spread it around evenly. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You might find some of the gravel moves around when you fill the tank with water.


  • After the gravel is in feel free to place any decorations keeping in mind to place these items away from the glass of the aquarium. The reason for this is it makes it easy to clean when there are not objects leaning against the glass. You won’t disturb the objects and hopefully the fish.


  • Now place the heater into position. It is very important to follow the directions of the manufacturer on placement. DO NOT PLUG IN HEATER UNTIL THE TANK IS FILLED WITH WATER as this might damage the heater.


  • Time for water. When I fill a new tank with water I put my free hand down into the tank close to the gravel with my palm facing upwards and pour the water into my palm. This usually helps keep the gravel in place. Once there is a few inches of water I pour into a corner of the aquarium or onto a small structure to help spread the water around before it hits the rest of the water.


  • We can’t forget about the filtration system. I am assuming you have an external filter that hangs on the back of the tank. If you have an internal filter make sure you put it into position before water is added to the tank. If you have an external aquarium filter you can hang it on the back of the tank now. Place your filter medium inside according to installation instructions.


  • If you don’t have a filter yet I would recommend an Aqua Clear filter for your first aquarium. I have always had good luck with these filters. I will include an Amazon link here for your convenience to check these out. Aqua Clear Filters. This Aqua Clear Power filter is good for aquarium sizes ranging from 5 to 20 gallons. I always try to purchase a filter that has my tank size in the middle of the range.


How Long Does it Take For a New Fish Tank to Cycle?

Something that you might not be aware of if you are brand new to owning fish and setting up aquariums is that the water needs to be conditioned before you can safely put fish in the tank. You can purchase an aquarium water conditioner for reasonably cheap that will jump start the aquarium and speed up the process however this does not ready the filtration system for a fully loaded fish tank.

  • Let’s start with conditioning the water with a purchased product that mostly comes in liquid form. What a conditioner will do is neutralize tap water elements such as chlorine, heavy metals and chloramine. When you first fill your tank you would add this based on the products specifications. This will also prime your aquarium filters bacteria system. If you are interested in speeding up having your aquarium ready to be at full capacity of fish I am going to provide a link to Amazon for a product I have used and trust.
  • It is called Tetra Aqua Safe Plus. It is smart to have this product around for small water changes for when your tank has been up and running for more than a few months. Conditioning your water like this will allow you to place a couple of fish in the tank the first week. I do not recommend putting any more fish into the aquarium until after at least four weeks. I explain why next.
  • Whether you decide to condition the water at the beginning of set up or not this is probably the most important part of the process. What sets your aquarium up to be biologically ready is time running the filtration system. The time I am suggesting is a full four weeks before you fully load up the tank. By running the filter for this long and having no more than a couple of fish your filtration system is actually growing bacteria and filtering out deadly ammonia.
    • The ammonia turns into what is called Nitrite which is also deadly (if Nitrite levels get out of control). The bacteria in the filter will then convert the Nitrite into Nitrate which is not deadly however can cause issues in your aquarium. Once your tank has been running for four to six months and if you start noticing that algae is starting to get out of control that is because the Nitrate levels are too high. A quick fix for that is to clean the filter media and or give the tank a small water change.

That is all you have to do to have an aquarium start up successfully. if you have any questions regarding this I would be more than happy to try and answer them for you.


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