• Sebby

How To Set Up A Freshwater Aquarium

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Table of contents:

  1. Introduction

  2. Step 1: Plan out your tank

  3. Step 2: Researching and buying equipment

  4. Step 3: Prepare the tank

  5. Step 4: Install the equipment

  6. Step 5: Add decorations, substrate, and water

  7. Step 6: Cycle the tank

  8. Step 7: Conclusion


Fishkeeping has many health benefits, including reduced stress. This is one of the reasons that fish are some of the most popular pets in the world!

Fish tanks come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. In this article, you will learn how to set up your tank so that your fish can live a long, happy life.

Step 1: Plan out your tank

Planning out your tank is the first step in tank set-up, and it is one of the most important steps.

Choose your tank type

You first want to determine which fish species you want to keep in your aquarium. In this step, you will choose whether you want to do a larger community tank with a number of different types of fish or if you want to do a smaller species only tank that highlights one fish or invertebrate in particular.


Next, you want to do a little research on the tank requirements for the fish or invertebrates that you want to keep in your tank. You will want to research what the water parameters for these creatures are, what equipment you will need, and what plants and decorations would work well in your tank. Another thing that is important to research is if the different fish and invertebrates you plan on keeping are compatible. Try to stay away from fish that are fin nippers if you are getting a fish with bigger fins such as a betta. Also, it is important to make sure that the water parameters of the fish that you are buying and the ones that you may buy in the future are compatible. An example of fish with incompatible water parameters are discus versus goldfish. Then, you want to plan out where you are going to put the tank and find or make a stand if you aren't buying a kit that has one.

Step 2: Researching and buying equipment

Buying Equipment

Now, you have determined which fish and/or invertebrates you will be keeping in your aquarium, you have to buy the equipment.

Here is a shopping list of the basic things you will need to start up a tank for most aquarium creatures:

  • Tank

  • Heater* (Except for cold water fish)

  • Substrate

  • Fish food

  • Fish Supplements* (To diversify your fishes diet)

  • Fish

  • Water Conditioner

  • Bottled Beneficial Bacteria*

  • Water Test Kit (To make sure the nitrogen cycle is complete and your water is clean)

  • 5-gallon bucket

  • Strainer* (Optional for gravel)

  • Gravel Vacuum (For tank maintenance)

  • Glass Cleaning Tool (EX: Aquarium safe sponge or razer blade)

  • Plants and decorations

In the long run, you will need:

  • Vacation food or someone who can care for your fish while you are away

  • Replacement filter media


For specific fish or inverts, this list above may not contain everything that they need so make sure you research if there is any special equipment that your future friend needs. There are two ways to go about buying the equipment for your tank, the first is to buy a starter kit that has everything you will need (except for gravel, fish, and decorations). The second is to buy everything on its own. For a beginner, I would recommend buying a starter kit that gets good reviews just so you don't have to go through the hassle of choosing all the equipment yourself.

Where to buy?

In the aquarium hobby, where to buy fish equipment is a question that is constantly being asked. I believe the best option is to support your local fish store. If you don't have a local fish store, then you can buy your equipment online or from a chain pet store.

Step 3: Prepare the tank

Check and clean the tank

Now that you have gone out and bought all the needed equipment for your tank, you are all ready to start setting your underwater world up. Before you fill the tank with water, you are going to want to take a damp cloth and wipe down the inside and outside of the tank. NEVER USE CHEMICALS OR SOAP TO CLEAN YOUR TANK! THIS WILL KILL YOUR FISH! All the equipment, such as buckets and sponges, should never be used for anything but the fish tank and should be animal and/or food safe. The next thing that you want to do is fill the tank with a few inches of water and leave it for about an hour so you can make sure your tank doesn't have any leaks. If your tank has a leak, it's fine, just patch it up with some aquarium sealant from your local fish store!

Position the tank

Once you are done cleaning the tank, you will want to position the tank in a way that you like on the stand in the place that you decided on in the first step. Do not put your aquarium in direct sunlight as this will lead to excess algae growth. Double-check that your stand is stable and sturdy because a fish tank weighs about 10 pounds per gallon when full. Try to get your stand as level as possible and be sure it is where you like it because once full, it is difficult to move.

Step 4: Install the equipment

The next step in this guide is to install the equipment such as the filter and heater for your tank. You want to read the instructions and make sure that you set up each item properly. If you don't set them up the right way, this could harm or kill your fish. The bigger the tank, the bigger the equipment that you have to install which could take longer. Through and through this step is fairly simple to complete and you will be ready for the next one in no time.

Step 5: Add decorations, substrate, and water


For this next step, the first thing you should do is rinse off your substrate. If you are rinsing off gravel, then take a colander, pour your gravel into it, and rinse it well with a hose or in your sink. You can also poke holes in the bottom of the bag of ravel and cut off the top. Then, rinse water through the bag until the water coming out the bottom is clean. When rinsing sand, put your sand in a bucket, fill it with water, agitate it with your hands, pour the water out, and repeat until the water you are pouring out is clear. Now that the substrate has been rinsed, you can add it to your aquarium. I would recommend at least 1 pound of substrate per gallon, but no more than 2 pounds of substrate per gallon. I like to spread my substrate with my hands and create ripples in it to give it a more natural feel. I put around 1-2 inches of substrate throughout my tanks.

Plants and decorations

The next thing that you will do depends on whether you are going to have live plants or fake plants. Please note that you should wash all of your decorations, even live plants, before putting them into the tank. For a beginner, I would recommend starting off with fake plants and then slowly transitioning into live plants. If you decided to go with fake plants, place their bases down in the substrate, and use your hands to cover the base completely. Make sure that all of your fake plants are securely placed in the substrate. If you choose to go with live plants then you are first going to want to fill your tank halfway and then plant the live plants. Some plants have roots, and some don't, so you may need to look into how to plant your specific plants and if they need root tabs and/or liquid fertilizer. Then, you can add your other decorations where you like.

Add water

Now, you are finally ready to add water. To fill your tank, you are going to want to take your bucket and fill it up with tap water. Then, you will want to place your hand or an upside-down bowl in the tank. Next, you will pour the water on top of your hand or the bowl so that it doesn't disturb the decorations or the substrate. Once your tank is full of water you want to add the proper amount of water conditioner. The ratio is usually something around 1 ml per 2 gallons, but you should always read the dosing instructions on the bottle. After all of these steps, you are ready to begin the nitrogen cycle.

Step 6: Cycle the tank

This step is by far the most important step of all because it makes it so that you can add your fish and they can live a happy, healthy life. The nitrogen cycle, simply put, is the cycle where bacteria in your tank breaks down ammonia, a harmful substance to fish, which comes from uneaten or rotting fish food and fish waste. From there, the ammonia is turned into nitrites, which are also harmful to your fish. Then, the nitrites are turned into nitrates, which aren't as bad for your fish and are absorbed by live plants or taken out when you perform a water change. Most big box stores tell you to set everything up, wait a few days, and then add fish, which is not the right way to do it. Instead, you can start cycling your tank with some bottled beneficial bacteria and then you add some food as a source of ammonia for the bacteria to break down. Another way to do it is a fish in cycle where you buy fish when you get the tank and add them to provide ammonia for the cycle. This way is not recommended and it is better to cycle the other way. Once you have seeded your tank using one of these methods, you can test the water often with the water test kit. At first, the ammonia will spike and then go down, then the nitrites will do the same thing, and once you see the nitrates doing the same thing, you know that your tank is cycled and you should perform a 50% water change to remove the extra nitrates. Please know that it is important to keep your nitrates at <20 ppm (particles per million). If the nitrates go over this number, perform a water change.

Step 7: Adding fish

By this point, you are probably dying to get your fish and now you can! Just be sure to take it slow and not add too many fish at once, because that will crush all the hard work you did cycling the tank. I would say adding about 1 inch of fish per 5 gallons is a good start. When you get home from the fish store, you won't be able to just dump the fish in, you need to acclimate them first. To acclimate fish, I simply float the bag for about 15-30 minutes and then net the fish in. I know that I will get a lot of comments about this saying that it is not the right way to do it, but this is how I do it and it works very well. When acclimating, never dump the water from the bag into the tank to prevent contamination. If you don't acclimate your fish, the shock of the water temperate will stress them out which could lead to their death.


To sum up this whole article, here are the main points:

  • Plan out your tank and research the fish or invertebrates that you are getting

  • Wipe down your tank and make sure it is one a level, sturdy surface

  • Install the equipment properly

  • Wash what goes into your tank especially your hands

  • Cycle the tank

  • Always acclimate fish

I hope you enjoyed this article! Comment below or message me if you liked this article or if you have suggestions for future articles!

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