How To Set Up a Freshwater Aquarium

Fish tank with different kinds of fish

A beautiful freshwater aquarium can add color and life to your home or office.  Setting up an aquarium is not difficult, but there are decisions to be made.  Here are some steps you can take to start up your very own aquarium.

  1. Before you buy anything, ask yourself a few preliminary questions.  What is your budget?  Do you have the necessary space for the aquarium?  Note that a gallon of water weighs around 8.33 pounds--this might be a consideration if you are planning on placing the aquarium on an upper floor.  Will you be keeping fish only, or are you planning to grow aquatic plants as well?  Your answers to these questions will determine the type and size of aquarium you will be able to use.
  2. Do some research through books, the Internet, and visits to your local aquarium store.  Make note of fish that you may want to keep.  Check with a reliable resource as to the compatibility of the fish you're planning to put in your aquarium.  Some fish have very specific water requirements, while others are incompatible with certain species.  For example, goldfish are a cold-water species and generally cannot be kept in the same tank as tropical fish, which usually require water that is 78-82 degrees Fahrenheit.  Remember, you haven't bought anything yet!  The success of your fish depends on your careful consideration prior to purchase.

  3. Next, you'll need to decide on your aquarium setup.  This will be determined by such factors as the amount of space available in your home and the number and size of fish you're planning to keep.  Although it may seem wise to start with a relatively small tank (10 gallons or smaller), there are many advantages to a larger tank for the beginner.  A higher volume of water is more forgiving of common beginner mistakes; for example, if a toxin should enter the water, it will be more diluted in a bigger tank, and will likely cause less harm than the same amount of toxin in a smaller tank.  Furthermore, stability is easier to maintain in a bigger volume of water.  A larger tank will also allow for a larger quantity of fish.  Many beginners start out with tanks between 20-30 gallons.  In any event, be sure that you have the space necessary for your tank.  You'll need to make some space around the tank for maintenance.
  4. At this point, you'll also need to choose a filter system, lighting, decorations, heater (for tropical fish), and other accessories.  Carefully research your options.  Many aquarium systems are available in a complete kit; these offer limited customization, but usually cost less than buying the individual components separately.  There are three primary types of filtration: mechanical, biological, and chemical.  Most filters offer more than one of these types.  As for lighting, fluorescent lights cost less to operate, and they run cooler, so they're less likely to inadvertently raise the water temperature in your tank.  Some live plants require specific lighting, so be sure that you're aware of these criteria when you choose your lighting.  Tank decorations can be fun and colorful, but they also serve a purpose, as some fish feel more secure when they have plants or structures to hide in.  When buying a heater, make sure that it has adequate power for the size of your tank.  Other accessories you may need include a thermometer, nets, water conditioner, gravel/sand, gravel vacuum, and several buckets for water changes.
  5. Once you've figured out the setup you want, it's time to purchase everything and place it in your home.  An aquarium stand is a very important accessory.  Although you might be able to use a table, nightstand, or something else that you already have, an aquarium stand is recommended, as it is designed to manage the weight of your tank evenly, which prevents damage to the tank.

  6. Now it's time to aquascape.  Place the gravel and sand on the bottom, along with the decorations and any plastic plants.  Fill the tank with treated tap water.  To avoid disturbing the layout of the gravel or sand, you can place a saucer at the bottom of the tank and pour the water into the saucer slowly.  You'll want to install your thermometer and heater at this point, as well.  Don't add fish yet!
  7. It's best to setup the filter and heater and let them run for at least a few hours to ensure reliability
  8. Next, you'll need to establish your biological filter.  An aquarium is an ecosystem in which substances cycle.  In this case, fish waste causes ammonia.  The accumulation of ammonia is deadly to fish, so the aquarium's survival is based on the presence of microorganisms that consume ammonia and turn it into nitrites.  For the next step in the cycle, other bacteria consume the nitrite and turn it into nitrates, which are far less harmful to fish health. 

    A brand new tank has none of these beneficial bacteria, so they must be grown in a sufficient quantity to support the life that you'll be keeping in the tank.  This can be done in one of several ways.  Several products are available that contain live bacteria cultures which you put into your tank.  Alternately, you can start the nitrogen cycle by placing an ammonia source (either fish that will create ammonia or actual chemical ammonia) in the tank and allowing the bacteria to reproduce.  This process can take several weeks or months, but is crucial to the long-term viability of your aquarium and cannot be ignored.  If you lack the patience, many people have had great success with the bacteria starter products.  For more detailed information on this topic, consult a book or do a web search (search for "aquarium nitrogen cycle" or "fishless cycling").

  9. After your tank has cycled, add fish slowly, and in appropriate quantities.  Some fish need to live with other fish of the same species, while others are exactly the opposite.  Don't overstock the tank, as it may cause the cycle to crash.

Wise planning is the key to starting a successful aquatic community.  Once it's up and running, you'll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor.  Beware though--the aquarium hobby is highly addictive, and soon you may start thinking about your next tank.


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