How to Set Up an Aquarium

If you’re considering starting an aquarium, there are a few things you need to consider before you get started. Here’s a quick guide on how to properly set up an aquarium.

Clay Gilliland, March 11, 2022. Flickr.

In fishkeeping, we seek to create a system where nature can reach a state of balance.

There are many elements (components) to a(n) aquarium (system). The three parent elements of the system are the livestock, the fish, critters, and plants; the hardscape, the non-living physical environment; and the equipment, the tank, filtration, and temperature control. All these elements contribute to the balance of the system you will create.

This article will guide you through everything you need to consider to set up an aquarium, step by step.

Setting up the Tank

  1. Clean the tank. Rinse the aquarium with tap water and dry it with a paper towel.
  2. Add the substrate to the aquarium. Add at least 2 inches of substrate.
  3. Place the rocks and driftwood in the aquarium. Take your time because making changes in the future will be difficult.
  4. Spray the substrate with water and add the plants to the aquarium. Make sure you don’t let the plants dry up. Keep spraying to maintain moisture.
  5. Install the filter, heater, and airstone.
  6. Fill the aquarium with water slowly to avoid displacing your plants and hardscape.
  7. Turn on the lights and let the aquarium cycle.

The Tank

Consider the size, shape, and material of your aquarium.

The size of the aquarium is determined by the amount of space needed by the intended dwellers and, second, the aquarium’s location.

The larger the aquarium, the more fish you can keep. Certain fish require different amounts of space to be happy and healthy—the rule of thumb is 1 gallon for every inch of fish in the aquarium.

Use our aquarium volume calculator to determine the dimensions you need.

A common issue in fishkeeping is overcrowding, which causes stress in fish.

Choose the right location.

Your tank should be located:

  • Away from loud noises; to avoid stress on the fish.
  • Out of direct sunlight; to prevent the proliferation of algae.
  • On an aquarium stand. Furniture can be the wrong place to put an aquarium because it cannot be leveled, increasing the risk of the tank breaking.

You have two choices regarding tank material: acrylic and glass.

There are advantages and disadvantages to acrylic and glass aquariums:

Glass aquariums are more prone to breakage but offer better clarity and are less likely to scratch.

Acrylic aquariums are typically more expensive than glass but are much lighter and more shatter-resistant.

The Substrate

Consider and choose among the three substrate types: gravel, sand, and soil.

  • Gravel is the most popular type of aquarium substrate. It’s appealing and easy to clean and maintain.
  • Sand is also appealing but is tougher to clean.
  • Soil is best if you plan on having many plants. Soil can be more challenging for a beginner aquascaper due to issues regarding the tank’s cycling and algae.

The Equipment

Water Maintenance

A filter will help clean the water by removing waste and toxins.

There are two main types of filtration systems: mechanical and biological:

  • Mechanical filtration systems remove particles from the water
  • Biological filtration systems use beneficial bacteria to break down waste products.

Common filter media types include ceramic media, activated carbon, and foam.

Other equipment to consider:

  • A heater is often necessary for an aquarium because fish are ectothermic, meaning they rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature. For example, tropical fish are used to warm water temperatures in their natural habitat. If the water in the aquarium is too cold, over time, the fish can become sluggish, stop eating, and have a weakened immune system, making them more susceptible to disease.
  • Lighting is essential for both functional and aesthetic purposes. Mainly, lighting provides a natural daytime cycle for the fish and sustains plant life in planted aquariums. It can also accentuate the features of its inhabitants and scape.
  • An airstone will add oxygen to the water and create a pleasing bubbling effect.


Plants are beneficial in an aquarium because they provide a place for fish to hide and help keep the water clean.

Some easy plants to grow in an aquarium are Anubias, Java Fern, and Hornwort.

Floating plants are great for creating shelter and hiding places for fish. Species like Salvinia help absorb high amounts of ammonia from the water column.

There are many ways to design the hardscape of an aquarium. One way is to choose rocks and driftwood that complement your chosen fish and plants.

Stones used for aquascaping include Seiryu stone, Ohko stone, Frodo stone, Elephant skin, Kei stones, Koke Stones, Manten stone, Pagoda stones, Unzan stone, and Yamaya Stones.

Water Treatment

You have three treatments to consider:

  • A water conditioner helps to make tap water safe for fish by removing harmful chemicals.
  • An aquarium cycle starter can help you jump-start the nitrogen cycle in a new aquarium. This is important because the nitrogen cycle breaks down ammonia and nitrites in the water, which can harm fish.
  • Aquarium plant fertilizers provide nutrients that are essential for plant growth. These nutrients include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which plants need in large amounts.

Acclimatizing the fish

A fish needs to be acclimatized to changes in temperature, pH, and other water parameters. If fish are not acclimatized to the new conditions, they will risk entering a state of shock.

Maintaining the Aquarium

Ensure you maintain your aquarium to keep your fish, critters, and plants happy and healthy.

  • Regularly clean your filter media, and replace it every few months.
  • Water changes should be done every week using conditioned or aged water.
  • Test the waters regularly to check all levels are within range.
  • Add a plant fertilizer to the aquarium at least once a week.
  • Keep your aquarium clean and tidy by trimming the plants regularly.
  • Lastly, stay in control of the algae before it gains control over you.

Closing Remarks

Fishkeeping should be fun; your aquarium doesn’t have to look professionally done to be enjoyable. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes and try different ideas. You will become a better fishkeeper with time and experience. That said, do your best to keep your fish in the best possible health. If you have any questions or comments, or share tips about setting up an aquarium, feel free to write in the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to set up an aquarium?

Low budget, I would say about $100. In the medium range, I’d say 300-500$.

How to set up an aquarium for a betta fish

Good question. An article will come soon.

How to set up an aquarium for tropical fish

Use lots of plants and get a heater if you live in a cold location.

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