How to set up and maintain a freshwater aquarium tank

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Hi all, this will be my first written guide on ebay. I know there are other guides on how to set up aquariums but we all have differing opinions/knowledge. Who knows, we can all learn a thing or two from each other. Hope this is helpful to anyone who is thinking about setting up a freshwater aquarium or wants to get back into the hobby. Know that having an aquarium requires time, money and dedication. But once everything is set up, it's incredibly rewarding to just kick back, relax and look at your aquarium and the fish thrive. If your looking for specific information, instead of reading this long guide just hold down CTRL and then press the F key and search for a keyword.

Here goes!!

Things to think about before getting an aquarium:

Do you have the appropriate settings for an aquarium?

Aquariums today come in many different sizes . You may want to keep a small desktop sized or a large one to proudly display in your family living room. Note that 1 gallon of water weighs approximately 8.34 pounds which means a 10G tank will weigh AT LEAST 83.4 pounds, not including the weight of the tank itself, substrate, decor, equipment, etc. If you don't think your table, desk or clothes drawer can handle the weight, DON'T PUT A TANK THERE. Its not worth the risk of a collapsing tank spilling gallon of water on your floor (not to mention your poor fish and all of that hard work!) The best thing to do is get an aquarium stand rated for up to your aquarium gallonage and shape. It looks more professional (in my opinion) and you can store all of your aquarium supplies and equipment on the bottom. Plus, it's a load of your mind knowing the tank is on a safe structure.

The perfect place to have an aquarium would be a low people traffic area and away from windows. Usually, fish can be startled and stressed when theres large moving objects (meaning you!) passing by every so often. Windows can blow cold drafts in during the winter and let the hot summer sun bake the tank causing water temperature swings, which is not good for the fish. Being near a window also allows sunlight to shine into your tank, causing rampant algae growth. But sunlight can be beneficial to live plants if you can keep algae under control.

Do you have the time to set up and maintain an aquarium?

A good amount of time is required when your setting up a brand new aquarium. Much of this is due to cycling of the fish tank (see below). Maintenance is relatively fast and easy after an aquarium is established. Don't think you won't be able to go on vacations or leave the house for a couple of days. Heathly fish are resilient and hardy. Fish don't have to be fed for as much as 1-2 weeks if necessary! Maintaining an aquarium includes gravel vacuuming (to remove fish poop and other debris), wiping of algae on glass, and then refilling of tank water. This would also be a good time to check equipment for problem and clean them for best performance. You'll have to do this at least once a week but it usually only takes 30 minutes and it keeps your fishy friends healthy and thriving. (see below for necessary maintenance equipment!)

Do you know which types of species and varieties of fish that you want?

Some fish require different care than others. Don't purchased fish before you've done research on them. What you want to do is find out the size of the aquarium you are getting first. Then, begin to have a stocking plan. If you look online, there are many helpful fish forums with members that are willing to help you stock your fish tank. A common mistake in beginners fishkeeping is buying fish in a fish store on a whim. When I was getting back into the hobby, I made the mistake of purchasing 2 Red and White Comets (a type of pond goldfish) and 2 Weather Loaches for a 20G aquarium. If you know a thing or two about these fish, you'll know that my 20G was totally inadequate. For one thing, a Red and White Comet can reach sizes of up to 2 feet and more. Many people buy goldfish bowls as well, which shouldn't be made anymore as they can't house ANY fish comfortably.

Do you know how to cycle an aquarium?

Many people think that fish can be added the same day an aquarium is set up or when they let their aquarium "run" for a couple of days. The truth is, this does nothing to prepare your fish and unfortunately, can lead to their early death. An aquarium is basically a piece of a natural environment. To simulate these natural environments, you'll have to build up a good biological filtration. A biological filtration helps remove harmful waste a fish produces, which will then ultimately be removed by you during a weekly water change. Beneficial bacteria help to break down waste to less harmful components. In a cycled tank, this is how it works: Fish will eat food and then poop it out. That poop will break down, decay and release harmful ammonia. But in a cycled tank, there will be benefical bacteria to eat that ammonia and convert it to nitrItes, which is still toxic to fish. Then another type of benificial bacteria will consume the nitrItes and convert it to a less toxic component called nitrAtes. The nitrAtes are then removed by you during a weekly water change.

There are two ways to begin the cycle in a new aquarium. One is a fish cycle and the other is a fishless cycle. A fish cycle would use a couple of extremely hardy fish to start the production of ammonia. I don't like this type of cycling because it causes unnecessary harm and discomfort to the fish. The build up of ammonia and nitrItes causes stress, irritates their skin, burns their gills and such. I prefer the fishless cycle, which uses no fish. Well then, where will the ammonia come from? You can add fish food or household ammonia (check the ingredients, don't just use any brand of ammonia. Some contain fragrances and surficants, chemicals that are deadly to fish) and add it to your tank. This will give a food source to ammonia consuming bacteria. Search online for "fishless cycle" for more detailed information. Cycling of an aquarium usually takes 3-4 weeks. I know its hard to resist adding fish, but you must wait until the cycle is done! Once your cycle is finished, you are ready to slowly add fish!

If you'd rather not wait that long, look for a product called Bio-Spira. It's actually a refrigerated packet that contains all of the necessary bacteria. Your tank cycles in a few days and your able to add your fish the first day you add the Bio-spira! Downside is that its a bit expensive (a packet that cycles up to 30G's may cost $15-$20)

What you will need to set up an aquarium:

When I first got back into the hobby, I was overwhelmed by the amount of products and brands available today! But after asking questions (always ask questions, no matter how "dumb" they are!) and doing a little research myself, you start to know what to look for and it gets easier. What I learned is not to skimp money and buy low quality products. They may seem great for the first few days but eventually you will get some major problems. Always aim for the quality stuff and you and your fish will appreciate it. They get the job done and last much longer. This doesn't mean you can't find great deals! Know what and where to look for them and you can save money at the same time. Fish forums are a great place to hang around. Not only can you give and receive help, but theres always a couple of people looking for those great deals and posting them for everyone to get. 

I'll list the basic stuff everyone needs/should get when first starting out as well as suggest a few recommended brands:

Tank - There are many different sizes not to mention shapes available on the market today. Size wise, its best to go as big as you can. The larger the aquarium, the easier it will be to maintain. Why? Because the more water volume there is, the larger the room for error will be. Diseases/sickness' will not spread as fast and temperature will remain more constant. Cost wise although it sounds a lot more expensive to get a larger aquarium, it really isn't that much more. Plus a larger aquarium gives you access to more and more different species of fish. Find out whats the largest aquarium size your willing to get, and work from there.

Note that aquarium shape matters as well. For example, lets use the standard 20G High tank. It's dimensions will be 24x12x16 (surface area is LxW which = 288 square inches). Theres also the 20G Long, which is 30x12x12 (surface area is LxW which = 360 square inches). Although both contain the same volume of water, a 20G Long will allow for certain species of fish which need room to swim that wouldn't be compatible in a 20G High tank. Don't fret about this though. Most aquariums you see are the standard size and shape.

Some good aquarium tank brands to consider are All-Glass Aquarium, Perfecto, and Oceanic (to name a few).

Filtration - Adequate filtration is necessary for a healthy aquarium. They encourage water movement, filter out debris and help keep the water clean. There are many types of filtration available such as power filters (the ones that hang on the back of your aquarium, a.k.a HOB's), canisters filters, internal filters, undergravel filters and sponge filters. A good filter offers all three different types of filtration. First one is called mechnical filtration. This is basically your filter pad trapping big pieces of floating debris and waste. Second is chemical filtration. It is the use of a chemical medium to remove harmful properties from the water. A good example of chemical filtration is the use of carbon. If you have used medication to treat fish and want to remove it from the water, you insert a filter pad with carbon in it. This is also a good way to get that musty smell out of your aquarium's water. Third is biological filtration. This is where good bacteria grows and helps to remove ammonia and nitrites from the water. In fact, your filter will probably have the highest concentration of "good" bacteria. The most popular form of filtration would be a power filter. They are relatively cheap, easy to set up and offer all three types of filtration.

Some good filter brands to consider are Marineland Penguin/Emperor, Hagen Aqua Clear, Eheim canisters, Tetra Whisper (to name a few).

Heater - If your going for a tropical fish aquarium, a heater is necessary. Most tropical fish enjoy a temperature between 76-78F. Some like it warmer between 80-82 depending on your species of tropical fish. Heaters not only warm the water but they also keep the temperature constant, important to fish because they are extra sensitive to their environment. Not all fish require heaters. Goldfish, for example, are considered 'cold water' fish and prefer water temperatures between 60-70F.

Some good heater brands to consider are Marineland Visi-Therm, Ebo Jager, Hydor and Eheim (to name a few)

Decor/Ornaments - Decor and ornaments is your way to personalize the look and feel of your aquarium. This includes driftwood (fake or natural), resin ornaments and fake plants. They also serve the purpose of sheltering certain fish/bottom dweller which would be vulnerable in the open. Decor can make your fish feel more safe. As odd as it sounds, this will encourage them to swim out in the open instead of hiding in the corner or at the back of the tank if they feel safe.

Lighting/hoods - If your not going with live plants in your tank, then lighting is completely optional (if kept in a room with access to natural sun light). Then again, don't you want to see your little buddies? The most basic of lighting includes incandescent lights and fluorescents. Incandescents are cheaper and gives you a higher wattage (good for plants) but produce more heat and consume more electricity. Fluorescents are a bit more expensive but offers the widest variety of lighting options. Plus, it saves electricity. Hoods are a good thing to have. They prevent your fish from accidentally jumping out and slow down the evaporation of your aquariums water.

Gravel/substrate - Gravel comes in a variety of colors and sizes. I like the more natural colors (brown, black, white). Smooth gravel is also a good thing if you want to add bottom feeders, which is more gentle on their skin. Some substrates comes with nutrients packed inside which is beneficial to growing live plants. Sand is also a good substrate many people use but a little more tricky to clean with.

Plants - You can get fake plants (silk, plastic) or live plants. Live plants require more care but give your aquarium a more natural look. Plus, they remove nitrates from the water! (doesn't mean they replace the good old water changes by any means) Many fish will enjoy plants, it gives them something to play in and gives them a hiding place making them feel more safe.

Water conditioner - Your tap water contains chlorine, chloramines, heavy metals and such. They are meant to clean the water and make it safe for human consumption. When first filling up your tank with water or doing a water change, always add a dosage of water conditioner. It helps to treat tap water and make it safe for your fish. Follow the directions on the bottle, the dosage level is different for each brand. It does not hurt to overdose, but you'll be wasting it.

Some good water conditioner brands to consider are Seachem's Prime, API Stress Zyme, Tetra Aqua Safe, Kordon's Amquel (just to name a few)

Thermometer - Monitoring your water temperature is important. Too much of a deviation in water temperature stresses fish out. Thermometers can either be the ones that use a suction cup to hang on the inside of your tank, ones that stick onto the glass, or a digital one that uses a probe.

Freshwater Master Test Kit - A test kit is used for testing your tap water or aquarium water. It is important to have when your first setting up your aquarium. You can monitor your pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrates during the cycling phase so you know what the progress of your cycle is. After your cycle is complete, you won't need to check the water parameters so often. I still keep mine in case theres a problem with the fish since I can check to see if its my water quality thats the problem.

Don't buy those test strips you dip into the water for fast results, they are notoriously inaccurate. Instead, opt for a liquid test kit, like API's Freshwater Master Test Kit, which contain all of the necessary testing reagents, including test tubes, instruction booklet and a color chart.

How do I set up my aquarium?

There are many ways to set up an aquarium, some people do things differently than others. Usually, this is how it goes.

  1. Rinse out new tank and clean in your bath tub. Never use soap or detergents. Always clean with just water. If you want to disinfect, add a small amount of chlorine to the water and then rinse out throughly afterwards. Test fill the tank with water to check for leaks and to see if its structurally sound. Then empty the water out (never move an aquarium with water, even if partially filled as you can drop it due to the shifting weight of the water and its not good for the seams). Take this time to also rinse and clean your gravel and other equipment.
  2. Place empty aquarium on appropriate stand or a flat, structurally safe surface. Start adding your cleaned gravel to the bottom. Place decor in the desired areas. Install filter and heater (but don't plug them in yet). Set the desired temperature on heater thermostat. Install the thermomter as well. Don't add live plants at the point. Live plants will begin to absorb nutrients in the water and since your starting the cycle of your water, you don't want the plants consuming and competing with the bacteria for food. Wait until the cycle is complete, then add live plants.
  3. Begin to slowly fill with water until full. Plug in the filter, which should automatically start. Same goes for the heater.
  4. Place lighting and hood on top. Verify that everything is working and looking good. Tidy up loose cords. Add appropriate dosage of water conditioner.
  5. Let it run overnight and check the next day to see if the water temperature is correct. If everything looks good, begin cycling your fish tank!

Maintenance equipment

If you have multiple tanks, its best to buy seperate equipment for each tank to minimize chance of cross contamination (for instance, if you have sick or diseased fish in one tank). If you can't afford this, then just throughly wash in water (or bleach solution water) to clean and disinfect after every use.

  1. Gravel Vacuum - Used to vacuum your substrate and remove aquarium water, fish poop, organic waste and other debris accumulated on the substrate. You'll also need a large bucket for the water your vacc'ing out. A great gravel vac is called the Python. Its basically a long hose that connects straight to your faucet outlet and uses running water to create a siphon. To refill tank, just flip a switch and begin fillin tank back up. No more carrying around heavy buckets of water!
  2. Algae scraper - Usually a pad to help scrape algae that covers the glass. If you want a more natural look, then leave the algae there. It is not harmful to the fish, just unsightly to many people.
  3. Water conditioner - Used to make tap water safe for your fish. Add in your aquarium during every water change
  4. Fish net - Used to gently catch fish if necessary. Also good for catching floating debris and uneaten fish food before it spoils in the water.

My Maintenance Routine:

This is my aquarium maintenance routine. You don't necessarily have to follow it or you may have your own style. It doesn't matter. As long as you clean your aquarium, it's fine!

  1. First, I start off by wiping algae and cleaning the glass.
  2. I shut off my heater and filter (optional).
  3. Because I don't have that convenient Python gravel vac, I use the old bucket hauling routine. I start the siphon in the gravel vac by pumping it in the water.
  4. I gravel vac as much substrate as possible. You wouldn't believe how much stuff accumulates in a week! Don't worry about areas you can't reach. Once every month, you can move decor to get those spots. Just get all the areas you can.
  5. I siphon off at least 30-40% of the water. By doing this, I am removing waste such as nitrAtes, phosphates and other things that would normally accumulate. Remember that fish eat, drink and go to the bathroom in the water they are in. Wouldn't you want it to be clean?
  6. With my giant 12G Rubbermaid container filled with new, conditioned water, I slowly refill the tank again.
  7. Once full, I dose liquid plant food for my live plants.
  8. I turn on the filter and heater once again, and wipe down anything that got wet.
  9. Im done with my once a week, aquarium maintenance! It took less than half an hour of my time and my fish tank is looking cleaner and healthier than ever. If my fish could talk, they would thank me! I clean my tanks once every week. Sometimes im busy or I forget (which can happen to anyone) and they are cleaned out once every two weeks. Fortunately, I have live plants that help me absorb some of the waste. It should be no longer than once every two weeks though. Waste accumulate very quickly.

Whew! Im just about done with my guide. I believe I've included all the basic information needed to set up a freshwater aquarium and maintain it. If you think I missed an area or want to revise something, please don't hesitate to contact me via eBay, same thing applies to comments or questions! Check back on my guide from time to time as I will be updating information (or spelling errors....). And if this guide of any help to you, please vote YES on the bottom! Thank you and have a great day!

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