The Ultimate Guide to Setting up a Fish Tank Correctly


In the United States, 70% of American households owned a pet in 2021. But if you don’t yet own a pet, consider setting up a fish tank.

When it comes to buying a fish tank, there are a lot of factors to consider. You need to decide what type of fish you want, how big the tank needs to be, and whether or not you want a filter. Once you’ve decided on all of these things, it’s time to set up your tank.

Fish tank setup doesn’t need to be a complicated process. So long as you understand what you’re doing, you’ll be setting up a fish tank in no time.

So, if your next hobby is freshwater fish, keep reading because here’s what you need and what you need to do. It’s the ultimate guide, after all.

Freshwater Tank vs. Saltwater Tank

Once you’ve decided you want the majesticness of a beautifully kept fish tank in your house, you’ll need to decide what type of tank you want. You can choose between two equally rewarding options: a freshwater tank or a saltwater tank.

As unglamorous as it sounds, the type of fish tank setup you select will largely depend on your budget. Typically saltwater tanks will be heavier on your pocket than their freshwater counterpart. This is because you need to buy things like live coral to make the environment of your reef aquarium as close to its natural habitat as possible.

Furthermore, if you’re a beginner at fishkeeping, freshwater fish will be a hardier option for you to start with (sadly, you’re bound to kill a few in your first year; please don’t throw them down the toilet).

Once you complete your fish tank setup, you’ll want to fill it with fish; otherwise, it’s just a glorified tub of water. Saltwater fish will cost a lot more to buy, with some fish costing significantly more than others, depending on their age and biological breed.

Types of Beginner Freshwater Fish

So now that you’ve decided you’re saving a marine tank for when you’re more experienced let’s talk about some freshwater fish choices that are best for beginners. You can get so many types of fish, so we’ll give you five of the more well-known ones.

  • Guppies
  • Tetras
  • Neon Tetras
  • Angelfish
  • Gourami
  • Zebra Danio

An important thing to remember is that some fish can’t be housed with other fish. We don’t mean putting saltwater fish into a freshwater fish tank (they’d die), but rather some freshwater fish are known to attach to other fish and eat them. Here’s an example of a few fish that can live peacefully with one another:

  • Otocinclus Catfish: These fish are excellent at eating algae, should be kept in small schools, and are peaceful
  • Tetras: These are schooling fish which means they need to be kept in groups of eight or more
  • Guppies: Guppies are energetic fish, so skip them if you’re looking for a tank that’s calmer
  • Cory Catfish: Bottom feeders that help the ecosystem of your tank and should be kept in schools of 6+
  • Zebra Danio: Another schooling fish (7+); these are energetic and super hardy, so they’re especially great for beginners

You can keep all of those fish harmoniously in the same fish tank. The following fish are not recommended to be kept together in the same tank:

  • Bala Sharks: A peaceful schooling fish that grow very large, so they need a massive tank to live in with their school
  • Angelfish: These beautiful fish grow up to become somewhat aggressive, so they should only be kept with bigger fish or exclusively other angelfish
  • Barbs: If you have fish with delicate fins, like bettas and guppies, barbs will eat them, causing harm to your other fish
  • Gouramis: Gouramis need a lot of space because they can become very territorial and aggressive
  • African Cichlids: These stunning fish need to be kept exclusively with their own kind, and they require some skill to keep

Equipment Needed

Alright, you’ve decided on what fish to keep; now, let’s get into the equipment. This can be costly, so start with the essentials and expand later. The essential kit you’re going to need includes the following:

A Tank (Glass or Acrylic)

Your tank size will depend on where you will keep it, but a good starting point to test the waters is a 10-gallon tank. However, if you want to get one size or two bigger, it reduces the need to upgrade later on if you enjoy fishkeeping.

Tank Lid

Next, you need a cover, which you should not skip. For instance, the lid serves several purposes, such as:

  • Keeping the fish inside the tank
  • Keeping dust and debris from getting into the tank
  • Reducing the amount of water loss through evaporation and heat loss
  • Holding the tank light

Heater and Thermometer

A non-negotiable item is a heater. All fish have an ideal water temperature, and a heater will help you maintain that temperature. This keeps your fish from becoming ill. You also need a thermometer to tell you the water’s temperature, which you must check daily to ensure your fish aren’t living in ice-cold water.


Every tank needs a filter; the most recommended one for beginners is a hang-on-back (HOB) filter. This freshwater fish tank filter is easy to clean, set up, and customizable. However, remember they need to be cleaned every month at least.


If you want your fish to have a sense of night and day for their own cycle, you also need lighting if you’re keeping live plants in your tank (which is recommended.) You can attach a timer to the lights so they come on and turn off at specific times of the day. Remember, the light has to fit the hood, so ask your local aquarium expert for advice if you’re unsure.


The substrate is an integral part of setting up a fish tank. You’ll have seen this substrate, typically gravel, at the bottom of all aquariums. This substrate can come in many other types, such as:

  • Sand
  • Pebbles
  • Soil
  • Water-changing substrate

You can also use several substrates in layers, which has benefits, but whichever you choose, your substrate needs to stabilize your live plants when planted.

Underwater Plants

Underwater plants are essential for your tank, especially if you have a heavily-stocked tank. Live plants can help your tank ecosystem by removing carbon dioxide build-ups. Furthermore, live plants absorb nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia from the fish waste in the tank. If these compounds are left to build up, they can hurt your fish.


Fish tank setup is only fun if there’s something to decorate it with. But aside from making you feel like you’re a super designer on Queer Eye, some decorations also double as a hiding space for your fish. When threatened, fish need a place they can retreat to and hide. These hidey-hole places are necessary for your fish; otherwise, they’ll become stressed.

Fish Tank Setup: Step-By-Step

Once you’ve gathered everything, it’s time for the fun part: putting it all together. Let’s look at the fish tank setup process step-by-step so you can get started.

Step One: Prepare

Prepare the area the tank will stand. You want to ensure the surface you choose can support the tank’s weight once filled with water, fish, and everything else. You also want to gather enough water to fill your tank, which you must treat with a water conditioner before using.

Step Two: Add Gravel

Once the tank is in place, add your substrate. You want this layer deep enough to plant your aquarium flora securely.

Step 3: Install Filter

Next, you want to set up your tank’s filter according to the instructions that it came with. If you chose a HOB filter, this step shouldn’t take long.

Step 4: Install Heater and Thermometer

Install both the aquarium heater and the thermometer. You need to set the temperature on the heater before installing it, so remember this step.

Step 5: Add Prepared Water

Now is the time to carefully add the treated water. Add this slowly and carefully to avoid disturbing your substrate, especially if you’ve layered them. Fill the tank up to an inch below the trim.

Step 6: Plant Your Plants

Plant your underwater plants into the substrate and ensure they’re secure. Otherwise, you’ll find them floating around the tank in no time. Additionally, think about your layout, planting them in groups, and other ways to make it interesting for the fish.

Step 7: Install Light and Lid

Add the lid and install the light inside it. You can also set your timer if you bought one to use. Wait to turn anything on yet until everything has adjusted to room temperature.

Step 8: Wait And Check For Leaks

Now you wait 24 hours to check if there are any leaks. If there are none, you can proceed to the next step. If there are leaks, take the tank back to the shop.

Step 9: Perform a Nitrogen Cycle

Now you want to cycle the tank. This means making it into a safe environment for the fish. This nitrogen cycle can be done in several ways, and you can read more about how to perform it in more detail here.

Step 10: Add Fish

Finally, it’s time to add your fish. Do this slowly and consider quarantining new fish before adding them to the main tank. This way, you can see if any fish have illnesses they could pass on to your existing fish.

Welcome To Your New Hobby

Fishkeeping can be a rewarding hobby to have. Fish tank setup requires minimal equipment and doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Ensure you have the essentials such as the tank, substrate, plants, decorations, filter, heater, thermometer, and decorations. Take time to research which fish you can keep together to ensure a peaceful tank that lives in harmony with one another.

If you’re ready to get started with your new fish tank, visit our site today and see what we have on offer. We have experts waiting to assist you with your aquarium needs.

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