Fresh Water Fish Aquarium Setup Guide

Congratulations on considering a new fish tank. This is a wonderful hobby and full of rewards like no other. The beauty of a healthy clean fish environment can make one proud and eager to show off to your friends and family.

It is important to do your research and weigh out all your options before beginning your fish tank setup. You must have patience and follow the steps as closely as possible. Moving too fast and introducing your fish to their new home before it is ready is the most common mistake that can happen.

Through our experiences, we have compiled some important considerations to make your experience as smooth as possible. Follow the steps below and you should have success.

Choosing the Right Fresh Water Fish Tank

There are many different sizes, shapes, and materials of fish tanks that are available to choose from. The tank size can correlate to the type of fish you will have as pets.

When selecting the right fish aquarium, it’s vital to consider the size and location. A larger tank generally offers more stable water conditions, but it’s essential to place it away from direct sunlight to avoid temperature fluctuations and excessive algae growth. If possible pick a location that is close to a water source and a drain.

The material of the tank, whether glass or acrylic, has its pros and cons, with glass being more scratch-resistant but heavier.

The shape of the aquarium, from traditional to bowfront, impacts both aesthetics and maintenance ease. Initial and ongoing costs, future stocking plans, and equipment compatibility are crucial considerations.

Above all, remember that an aquarium is a living ecosystem, and the choice should accommodate its inhabitants’ well-being and the owner’s ability to maintain it.

Essential Aquarium Equipment

Filtration Systems

The filtration system is crucial in maintaining a healthy environment for the fish and other inhabitants in a freshwater aquarium. Proper filtration helps remove physical debris, breaks down harmful substances, and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria, which in turn aids in the nitrogen cycle. The main types of filtration systems for a freshwater aquarium are:

  • Mechanical Filtration
  • Biological Filtration
  • Chemical Filtration
  • Undergravel Filter

When setting up a freshwater aquarium, it’s often beneficial to employ a combination of these filtration methods. The exact combination and the type of filter will depend on the tank’s size, the inhabitants’ needs, and the aquarist’s preferences and budget.


Heaters are critical components of many freshwater aquarium setups, especially when keeping tropical fish species that require stable and warm water temperatures.

The types of aquarium heaters are as follows:

  • Submersible Heater: The most common type is wholly submerged in the tank.
  • Hang-On Tank (HOT) Heater: Partly submerged in the tank with controls outside.
  • External/Inline Heater: Installed outside the tank, typically as part of the canister filter system.
  • Undergravel Heater: Heating cables are placed under the substrate.
  • Filter Heaters: Integrated into the filter system, heating water as it passes through.
  • Pad Heaters: These sit under the tank and are designed for small tanks or betta bowls.

The typical wattage is based on the size. The values are:

  • 5–20 gallons: 25–100 watts
  • 20–50 gallons: 75–200 watts
  • 50–100 gallons: 150–300 watts
  • Above 100 gallons: 250–400 watts or multiple heaters
Our Pick

Submersible Aquarium Heater

300W aquarium heater is suitable for 40 to 55 gallons aquariums,Length – 11 inch,voltage 110-120V, power cord is 6ft, please choose the right wattage aquarium heater according to our size chart.


A stable temperature is crucial for the health and well-being of aquarium inhabitants. Fluctuations can cause stress and increase vulnerability to diseases.

The following is a list of the common thermometers.

  • Stick-on (LCD) Thermometers: Adhered to the outside of the tank. Less accurate but gives a general temperature range.
  • Floating/Glass Thermometers: Float in the water or are suction-cupped inside. They offer a more accurate reading than stick-on types.
  • Digital Thermometers: Feature a probe inside the tank connected to a digital display outside. They are highly accurate and easy to read.
  • Submersible Thermometers: Completely submerged in the tank, offering a digital or analog reading.
Our Pick

Fish Tank Thermometer

No Probes or Messy Wires in water: The backside temperature sensor stick on the outside glass of the fish tank prevents water infiltration and electronic Oxidation, Classic Red+Black compact design with a Large Crystal Touch Screen makes it easier to read the temperature far away, stands out among other Fish Tank thermometers.


Aquarium lighting is vital not just for showcasing the beauty of your fish and decor but also for maintaining the health of your aquarium’s ecosystem, especially if you have live plants, corals, or certain species of fish that require specific light conditions.

The following are some lighting options and considerations:

Fluorescent Lighting (Standard & Compact)

  • Standard Fluorescent Tubes: Older technology but still widely used due to its affordability and range of color options.
  • Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL): More efficient and brighter than standard tubes; they come in various color spectrums to support plant growth or enhance fish colors.
  • T5 High Output (HO): High-intensity fluorescent tubes suitable for planted tanks and some low-light coral setups.

LED (Light Emitting Diodes) Lighting

  • Advantages: Energy-efficient, long lifespan, produces less heat, customizable color options, and intensity controls.
  • Types:
    • Clip-on LEDs: Suitable for smaller tanks or supplementary lighting.
    • LED Bars or Strips: Flexible, can be used for both freshwater and marine tanks.
    • LED Pads/Panels: High-intensity options suitable for coral reef tanks or densely planted freshwater setups.

Air Pumps and Aeration

Proper aeration is essential for a healthy aquarium, ensuring that the water is oxygenated and that there is proper gas exchange. Always ensure that the chosen aeration system aligns with the specific needs of the aquarium’s inhabitants. Proper oxygenation is vital for the well-being of fish, plants, and beneficial bacteria in the tank.

Here’s a breakdown of recommended air pump and aeration options for fish aquariums:

Air Pumps

  1. Tetra Whisper: Known for being quiet and efficient, the Tetra Whisper line offers a range of sizes suitable for tanks from small to large.
  2. Fluval Q Series: These are powerful and provide consistent airflow. They are available in different sizes to accommodate various aquarium volumes.
  3. Hygger Quiet Mini Air Pump: Designed for smaller tanks, it’s energy-efficient and operates with minimal noise.
  4. Active Aqua Air Pump: Available in multiple outputs, it’s suitable for larger tanks or systems that require multiple air stones or devices.
  5. Marina Cool Air Pump: Designed for smaller tanks, it’s compact and quiet.
  6. Eheim Air Pump: Renowned for reliability and quiet operation, Eheim offers adjustable flow rates and comes with diffusers.
Our Pick

Silent Aquarium Air Pump

160GPH Large Air Volume Fish Aerator, Adjustable Oxygen Pump for Fish Tank up to 200 Gallon

Aeration Options

  1. Air Stones:
    • Basic and effective way to introduce bubbles into the tank.
    • Come in various shapes and sizes, from basic stones to decorative figures.
  2. Bubble Wands or Bars:
    • Produce a curtain of bubbles, providing aeration and a decorative effect.
  3. Sponge Filters:
    • Powered by air pumps, they provide both mechanical and biological filtration.
    • Excellent for breeding tanks or tanks with small, delicate fish.
  4. Venturi Systems:
    • Often integrated into some powerheads or external filters, these draw air from above the waterline and mix it with water outflow to aerate the tank.
  5. Ornaments:
    • Many aquarium decorations, like action figures or treasure chests, can be connected to air pumps. When air is pumped into them, they might move or produce bubbles.
  6. Diffusers:
    • Often used in planted tanks with CO2 systems, they can also be used to diffuse oxygen in some specialized setups.
Our Pick

Aquarium Electric Power Sponge Filter

Filter with a powerful motor, no need air pump, Work more efficiently and energy saving. The internal Submersible is very quiet, Noise is less than 30db, and Selected high-quality motors, have a longer service life.


The substrate is an integral part of an aquarium’s environment, influencing not only the aesthetics but also the well-being of the tank’s inhabitants. Here’s a breakdown of popular substrate options for a new fish aquarium:


  • Types: Aquarium sand, play sand, pool filter sand, and specialty sands like aragonite.
  • Pros: Preferred for tanks with burrowing fish (like corydoras catfish) and live plants that need fine substrate. Creates a more natural look and prevents food from sinking too deep.
  • Cons: Can compact over time, which can lead to anaerobic pockets. Can be stirred up easily, clouding the water.


  • Size: Ranges from coarse to fine.
  • Types: Regular, coated, or epoxy-coated (which reduces the chance of the gravel affecting water chemistry).
  • Pros: Ideal for most freshwater tanks, especially those with artificial plants. Good for fish that don’t dig.
  • Cons: Food and waste can get trapped between large grains, necessitating regular vacuuming.

Marbles or Glass Gems

  • Pros: Decorative, often used in display or breeding tanks.
  • Cons: Not ideal for plants. Gaps between marbles can trap uneaten food and waste.

Crushed Coral or Aragonite

  • Pros: Ideal for African cichlid tanks or other setups requiring higher pH and hardness. Slowly release calcium and carbonate to buffer water.
  • Cons: Not suitable for fish or plants that prefer acidic conditions.

Cycling and Stabilization

Cycling and stabilization of a newly set up fish aquarium are critical steps to ensure the environment becomes suitable and safe for aquatic inhabitants. Remember, patience is key so never rush the cycling process. The well-being of your fish depends on it. Here’s a guide to help you through this process:


  • Ammonia Source: Add a pure ammonia solution or raw shrimp.
  • Testing: Use a test kit to monitor ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels.
  • Duration: Can take anywhere from 2-6 weeks. You’ll know it’s complete when ammonia and nitrites are zero, but nitrates are present.

Speeding Up the Cycling Process

  • Bacterial Supplements: Products like Tetra SafeStart or Seachem Stability contain beneficial bacteria to accelerate cycling.
  • Seeded Filter Media: Using filter media or substrate from an established tank can introduce beneficial bacteria to the new setup.

Maintaining Stability After Cycling

  • Avoid Overstocking: Introduce new fish gradually, not all at once.
  • Regular Testing: Monitor water parameters regularly to ensure ammonia and nitrite are at zero and nitrates are at acceptable levels.
  • Routine Maintenance: Conduct regular water changes (typically 10-20% weekly or biweekly) and vacuum the substrate. Clean filters but ensure not to wipe out beneficial bacteria (rinse filter media in removed tank water, not tap water).
  • Watch for Signs of Stress in Fish: This can indicate water quality issues. Symptoms include erratic swimming, gasping at the surface, faded colors, or hiding.
  • Avoid Overfeeding: Feed fish what they can consume in 2-3 minutes to prevent leftover food from decaying and increasing ammonia levels.

Introducing Fish and Plant

You should always do your research and choose compatible fish species that can live together. Since this is a community tank you should only add fish that are known to commonly exist.

A consideration for your fish species should be the algae eaters. These types of fish are beneficial to help keep your glass and substrate clean.

Always properly acclimating fish to their new environment before releasing your fish. The newly added fish need to adjust to the water temperature. The best practice is to leave the fish in their bag and have them float in the water for 30 minutes before releasing.

As far as plants (live or artificial), these are something that should be considered. The live plants can enhance water quality, while artificial plants will provide cover for your fish to hide.

You should also consider adding moss balls that will improve the water conditions.

Maintenance and Care

  • Regular water changes to maintain water quality
  • Do periodic water testing with a water testing kit
  • Have cleaning tools available: siphons, scrubbers, and brushes
  • Monitoring fish health and behavior
  • Understanding pH, hardness, and alkalinity
  • Understand the nitrogen cycle and how to keep it in check
Our Pick

Aquarium Test Kit

Freshwater Aquarium | Fast & Accurate Water Quality Testing Strips for Aquariums & Ponds | Monitors pH, Hardness, Nitrate, Temperature and More

Our Pick

Aquarium Fish Tank Cleaning Kit

Algae Scrapers Set 5 in 1 & Fish Tank Gravel Cleaner – Siphon Vacuum for Water Changing and Sand Cleaner (Cleaner Set)

List of Common Mistakes

Avoiding these common mistakes can lead to a healthier, happier aquarium environment for both the fish and you!

  1. Not Cycling the Tank: Skipping the nitrogen cycle process before introducing fish can lead to toxic levels of ammonia and nitrite, harming or even killing the fish.
  2. Overstocking: Adding too many fish to a new tank or choosing species that grow too large for the tank’s capacity can lead to stress, disease, and poor water quality.
  3. Overfeeding: Giving fish more food than they can eat results in uneaten food, which decays and negatively impacts water quality.
  4. Neglecting Regular Maintenance: Failing to perform regular water changes, filter cleanings, or tank inspections can lead to a buildup of harmful substances and potential equipment malfunctions.
  5. Improper Water Chemistry: Not monitoring or adjusting the water’s pH, hardness, and other parameters to suit specific fish species.
  6. Using Tap Water Without Treatment: Directly using tap water without dechlorinating can harm fish, as most municipal water contains chlorine or chloramine.
  7. Not Quarantining New Fish: Introducing new fish directly into the main tank without a quarantine period can introduce diseases.
  8. Ignoring Compatibility: Mixing aggressive fish with peaceful ones, or combining species with different environmental needs.
  9. Not Researching Fish Needs: Not all fish have the same dietary, environmental, or care requirements. It’s essential to understand each species’ needs before purchase.
  10. Choosing the Wrong Substrate: Some fish prefer sand, while others are fine with gravel. The wrong choice can impact fish behavior and health.
  11. Poor Placement of Equipment: For instance, placing heaters or thermometers in low-flow areas might not give accurate readings or distribute heat evenly.
  12. Inadequate Filtration: Using a filter that’s too small for the tank or not cleaning it regularly.
  13. Incorrect Lighting: Using the wrong type or intensity of light, or leaving lights on too long, which can stress fish and promote algae growth.
  14. Not Having a Lid: Some fish are jumpers and can leap out of an open tank.
  15. Using Medications Without Diagnosis: Adding medications without understanding the actual problem can harm fish and disrupt the tank’s biological balance.
  16. Ignoring Small Signs: Overlooking early signs of disease, stress, or equipment malfunction can lead to bigger problems down the road.
  17. Over-reliance on Store Advice: While many pet store employees are knowledgeable, it’s always best to do your research and gather information from multiple sources.
  18. Impulse Buying: Purchasing fish, plants, or equipment on a whim without understanding their requirements or compatibility with the current setup.


Setting up a fish aquarium is an awarding time. Take your time and follow directions on all the components and recommendations and you should be fine. Always remember to stay on top of the maintenance and you should be able to keep everything running smoothly.

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