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The Easy Freshwater Aquarium Guide

The Right Steps To Set Up An Aquarium

We all love to look at videos and images of these perfectly balanced aquariums and think to yourselves, how does this owner do it? It looks so amazing! And the answer to that is quite simple. Years of experience through trial and error. But the truth is anyone at any stage within the hobby can produce such results. By following a few simple and logical rules and measurements. This is where I come in, I've been in the hobby since my mid teens and have even had the advantage of working in an aquatic fish store. Therefore I have all the essential tips and tricks to creating that self sustaining aquarium, which will leave you stunned at your own efforts. In the process I will tell you all that you need and save you from those extra costs and purchases that you will probably never use.


Table of Contents

  1. Tank Size
  2. Substrate & Decoration
  3. Lighting & other necessities
  4. Filtration (biochemical & organic)
  5. Cycling Period
  6. Adding Fish
  7. Maintenance

1. Tank Size

There are a variety of different sized tanks out there, and sometimes you cannot resist the cute little ones due to convenience. But I am here to tell you a rather odd truth, the bigger the tank and higher volume of water that it can hold, the easier the maintenance and variations in options. Even so costs can obviously be an issue for some, so I would recommend nothing smaller than 10 gallons (approximately 38 liters). Unless of course your planning to keep a single species, like the fighting fish (Betta splendens) or cherry shrimps (Neocaridina heteropoda), which would still thrive in tanks bigger than 2 gallons (7.5 liters).

2. Substrate & Decoration

Before deciding on the specifics maybe do your research and see what type of biotype you would like to mimic. Or even what kinds of fish you would like to keep, though generally most beginners start with the tropical setup due to its easy and large range of species.


There are a variety of substances that you can purchase, but the best both for you and your fish, would be the natural dark 2mm to 4mm gravel (no bigger or smaller) or natural sand. Reasons being that it does not reflect the light, this is stressful for the fish and general helps to create a feel of a tank that is nice and tidy even though you have not cleaned it for sometimes and fishy waste is floating all over the place. Just imagine it all on a bright blue substrate.


Once again you have a large range of choice but if you are going for a natural touch, do not go for ornaments that take too much attention off your species. Therefore stick to rocks, sandstones and driftwoods. Nothing really looks better than some well-placed stones and driftwood, and if you are fortunate and have a keen eye you may not even need to pay for it.

Both rocks and wood can be treated by being placed in boiling water for duration of 15-20 minutes. Furthermore to help the wood sink, leave it underwater for a few weeks so that all the oxygen bubbles can eventually surface saving you the hassle.

These "decorations" makes ideal hiding spots for your fish and invertebrates, making them feel safe, meaning reduced stress and increased chances of survival. Therefore are essential for any sized fish to feel safe in the early days in your tank, and for some species throughout their life.

3. Lighting & other necessities

Based on my guide you are going to need some form of lighting to sustain your plants, but it does not necessarily mean that you need to purchase lighting. If you can place your tank where it receives natural light at least 6-8 hours during the day then by all means do so. If you are starting off fresh purchase one to two bulb lighting that covers the length of the entire tank, it all really depends on what kind of plant species you will be choosing but I would recommend the hardier species which I will list later on. For the hardier species a single bulb light will suffice, if everything else in your tank is sufficient.

Other necessities:
- Nitrate test kit
- pH test kit
- Siphon vacuum gravel cleaner
- 1-2mm pellets & fish flakes (really depends on your choice of fish)
- Neutral regulator which keeps your water at a pH of 7 (optional)
- Water treating solution that removes chlorine, I recommend (Seachem -Prime)
- Water heater
- Freshwater salt (not to be mistaken by cooking salt)

I found all these items on ebay for a reasonable price but still have a browse for bargains at your local fish store.

4. Filtration (biochemical & organic)


This is the area where I would recommend you do not cut corners, an effective and sufficient electronic filter is a must when you want clear water and floating fish waste to a minimum. I myself use a canister filter for my 300 liter tank, but for the smaller tanks a decent sponge filter will do the job as long as regular maintenance is undertaken. The sponge or the media kept within these filters are where majority of the bacterial culture populates. These bacteria help to turn ammonia into the final product, nitrate which assist the nourishment for your plants.
One particular media that I would stay away from or ideally keep close attention to is carbon bags, these a sold as an effective filtering media. What they usually forget to tell you is that they begin to re-release the harmful chemicals initially absorbed back into the water after there are completely saturated.

Another is the under gravel filter, it should only be used as a secondary filtration. Do not forget air bubbles, use your filters to inject air into the water or if you cannot purchase an air pump (which I find unnecessary) and ideally you want your filters turnover cycle to be 2-3 times greater than your water volume.


Natures filters! Plants are the ideal friend to a fish keeper because not only will they help you sustain that balanced element they save you money through reduced water changes and if you are lucky like me, you can make a few extra dollars when they take over your tank.

- Java Ferns (Microsorum pteropus)
- Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana)
- Anubias (Anubias nana)
- Anacharis (Egeria densa)
- Wisteria (Hygrophila difformis)

All are low light, slow growing and therefore low maintenance plants that will leave you feeling unstressed, since you will not need to worry about nitrate overloads in your tank.

5. Cycling Period

After adding the substrate, decoration, filter and water use the water treating solution and leave the tank for a week or so for cycling, this is the period where your water will be unclear and foggy due to lack of bacteria. If you are really keen to add fish, make sure that they are the hardier breeds and that you have at least one or two plants in the tank (no guarantees). And remember keep feeding to a reasonable level, if you over feed there may not be sufficient bacterial growth to convert the waste level and your plants will not always be at their peak due to shock. So in simple terms take things very slow if you want to save yourself from problems later on. Most of the testing will happen in the early weeks make sure you watch for fluctuating pH levels and if so use the regulator.


6. Adding Fish

Adding fish is the most exciting part of the hobby, but by far the most difficult since many of the problems hobbyist face are when they lack knowledge about fish habits, needs and comparability. So I will tell you never purchase a fish without your own research and there is more than enough information and knowledge floating around for you to do so. Make use of forums and fish keeping websites, and obviously books. I will provide readers with links and titles in the future.

When picking fish make sure that they are active, aware and lack signs of disease, and if there a little shy that does not always make them a bad choice. It just shows that they are either a shy breed or that their current living conditions do not suit their needs but you will know all this if you do your research. Never add the water they come in with, and let the bags float in your tank for 15 or so minutes.

Lastly never overstock your tank until you are sure that your setup will handle it and wont create large chemical fluctuations which will destroy the balance you have worked so hard to obtain.

7. Maintenance

This is once again really dependent on you and your awareness of the state of your tank, but I myself vacuum my gravel and clean my canister filter once a month. I never actually change the water, and water lost is due to the vacuuming & vaporization. I feed my fish once every second night and they do not seem to mind at all, they are quite happy and healthy and have been since 2009.

During the life of my tropical tank I have only had one death, and that was due to my fish fighting for dominance. Keep in mind that every time you add fish you are risking adding disease into the tank.

And finally just like any other living thing, they thrive on love and attention..

More information to come!

Poll Time!

Find it useful? Leave a comment!

Nel on June 25, 2018:

Very good information tanks

Ashley on July 30, 2012:

Thanks for the info! Great help. Just starting out and looking forward to becoming a PRO aquarium hobbyist in no time! :P

Lub chu Dan.

Eiddwen from Wales on November 29, 2011:

A very well informed and interesting hub.

I now look forward to reading many more by you.


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