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Setting Up A New Freshwater Aquarium:

Aquarium: The Beginning:

Many people decide that they want to have an aquarium. Keeping fish is a wonderful experience if you know how to keep them properly and you are willing to do the work that is involved in creating and maintaining a healthy artificial environment. That is what a fish tank is… it is an artificial environment that is 100 percent dependent upon you the fish keeper to keep in healthy.

Having worked in a local fish store for years and years I could relay to you many of the horror stories that were presented to me by customers who ‘wanted’ a fish tank and met with dismal failure. I thought I would instead write a series of hubs that talked about the basic how-to philosophies that beginner fish keepers may find useful. I will say right up front that keeping fish is not for everyone and not everyone is able to keep fish. Fish are much more difficult then dogs or cats and fish and children do not usually mix well. I will get more into that later!

The Planted Tank:

This is a good example of one type of fish tank that I used to keep. The heavily planted tank is very beautiful and that beauty comes with a price. It takes a great deal of maintenance to keep a heavily planted tank looking beautiful. I will follow up this hub with a how-to set up a planted tank article for those of you who may be interested in the planted tanks. For now, however, I am going to write about the basic of how to set up an aquarium.

Components of A Fish Tank:

The components of a fish tank are fairly straight forward:
•Tank and Stand
•Air Pump/Bubbler (optional)
•Heater (very important)

Any tank over ten gallons should be purchased with a stand. Water is very heavy 8.33 lbs per gallon and a 55 gallon tank with gravel, etc will weigh between 500 and 700 lbs. Do not trust household furniture to hold the weight of a fish tank. People have been seriously injured when the supporting structure of a fish tank has given way. The resulting 500-700lbs of a 55 gallon tank coming down on you can kill you. Fish tank stands are designed to hold the weight of a fully decorated fish tank. I would also caution that a ten gallon tank never be put on a fish tank stand without securing the stand to the wall. Children are strong enough to pull those over on themselves.

The above list of components is pretty much mandatory if you want to keep fish healthy and for very long. I have watched people buy a bare tank and take it home, come back two days later complaining because the fish they bought at Petsmart died. So what kind of filer do you have? We don’t have a filter. Well that is why your fish died. If you can not afford to put a fish tank together properly, do not get a fish tank. I would recommend buying a kit which should come with everything listed on this components list. The exception may be a heater and that should be purchased at the time you buy your kit. This equipment is very important. Consumers spend more money replacing dead fish then they would spend to just set up the tank properly. I know I may be sounding a bit harsh here but if you want to be successful at keeping tropical fish, then you MUST be willing to do this properly.

The Hard Questions:

One of the first questions that the consumer will need to answer is what kind of fish do I want to keep. This should be asked and decided long before the thought of buying a fish tank comes up. Responsible fish keepers do their research and make several trips to the fish store before they buy anything! Keeping fish is nothing like keeping a cat or a dog. There is a great deal of thought that needs to go into this decision.

There are three basic kinds of freshwater fish. Those three basic kinds of fish are: Community fish which get along with everyone else (mostly), Semi aggressive fish which may be nice one day and bad the next, and the Aggressive fish what are capable of inflicting great harm, killing, or destroying other fish and tank mates.

The reason why this question must be answered first (before you buy a tank, etc.) is that the type of tank and how it is going to be set up is going to be very dependent upon what kind of fish you want to keep. Because fish tanks are artificial environments, you the fish keeper must create the environment that is most appropriate for the type of fish that you are going to keep. A community tank is usually very different from an Aggressive tank both in terms of water conditions/parameters and decoration, etc. Cichlids( aggressive,) for example, like to dig and re-decorate their tank to suit their environment. Some community fish and many gold fish can not tolerate a lot of current so special consideration will need to be made to make sure that the filter is not too strong that the fish suffer from it.

Determine how much money you can really afford to put into this hobby. This is a hobby that will continue to cost money each month. Not specifically a lot of money but food, electricity, and filter supplies, etc. You want to buy the biggest tank you can for your money. I say this not because I want to sell people the biggest tank we have, but because larger tanks are usually easier to care for then are smaller tanks. This is because the volume of water in a larger tank is more forgiving then the volume of water in a smaller tank. There is a trade off though in cost. A larger tank will cost more to maintain.

The next hard question is, Do you have time to take care of the fish tank? Maintenance needs to be done monthly and every week sometimes twice a week depending on the fish tank. I would expect to spend 1-2 hours per week taking care of the fish tank. This need to be done every week. If you travel a lot for vacation or for work keeping a fish tank may not be a good idea for you at this stage of your life.

Setting Up A Fish Tank:My plan is to write a separate hub that deals with setting up a fish tank for each of the three types of fish we discussed earlier (Community, Semi-Aggressive, and Aggressive.) The following information is literally how to set up a fish tank. This includes decorating it, etc.

Setting Up A Fish Tank:

Placing The Stand:

Placing the Tank on The Stand:

Air Stones and Bubblers:

Setting up the Filter:

Adding Decorations:

Partially Filling The Tank:

Adding the Heater:

Placing The Stand:

Find the spot in your home where you want the fish tank to be. Do not put it near a window. Too much natural light will case the algae to bloom and you will spend hours and hours fighting the algae every day. The fish tank should be placed next to an inside wall away from windows. The stand should be placed about 5 inches from the wall. There will always be something back there that you need to get… usually a fish! Remember that once the fish tank is filled with water they are next to impossible to move without draining it.

It is VERY important that the stand be level. Gravity has a funny way of breaking fish tanks when the stand is not level. The constant pressure from gravity pushing down on the glass will cause the tank to shatter. Keeping the tank level will help prevent the forces of gravity from working. Use wooden shims (available at a hardware store) to level the stand. A bubble level works just fine too. Remember to check the level of the stand as you fill up the tank with water.

If the floor in the area is significantly uneven then do yourself a favor and find a new location. The stand should be placed away from heating and A/C vents. The continual fluctuations in temperatures may cause the tank to leak. The goal would be to place the tank and stand in a spot that has a consistent temperature range.

Placing The Tank On The Stand:

The tank should be placed on the stand so that it is evenly supported by the stand. The edge of the stand is where most of the support is for the tank. Make sure that that tank sits on the stand evenly. Some stands have a lip that defines the edge and some do not. Any part of the tank that is not supported is likely to start leaking over time. This is why it is important that the stand be made to fit the tank. I have seen many instances where people bought a tank and the stand was too small or too wide and the tank was not properly supported. The result is a leaky tank. Nobody wants to get up in the morning and discover that 50 gallons of water leaked out of your fish tank all over your floor. Make sure the tank is supported by the stand.

Setting Up Your Tank:

SET up the air lines: If you are going to use an air pump and air-stone or bubbler as part of your decorating scheme, then now is the time to place the air line hose. Use small suction cups to anchor the air line hose to the glass. This will keep it in place since anything with air in it wants to rise to the top of the tank.

Add The Gravel: Once the air line and bubbler are in place, then add the gravel to your tank. TIP: rinse the gravel in a bucket to make sure it is clean of grit and also to make sure that the color is not going to bleed all over the tank. Not all colored gravel is color-fast. Sometimes the color will bleed and that dye will stain all of the silicone in your tank and many of your ornaments too.

Once the gravel is in the tank, place a small dish or shallow bowl on the top of the gravel. It is now time to start to fill the tank with water. Pour the water slowly onto the dish or into the bowl so that is slowly overfills and does not disturb the gravel (much). Once the tank is about 1/3 full, add in the remaining decorations and plants and fill the tank until it is 1/2 full.

Attach the heater to the spot where you want it. The heater should be about 1 foot from the filer. The heater needs to be in a location where the water is somewhat active but not constantly flowing. A heater in a quiet corner will warm the water around it and turn itself off. This is why the heater should be near the filter but not directly under it. This will allow the heaters thermostat to accurately read the water temperature.

Now it is time to set up the filter. Follow the manufactures suggestions. For the sake of this article it is assumed that the filter will be a piggyback filter or a hang on the back filter. It is important to prime most filters so take a few cups of water and fill up the filters reservoir. Anytime a filter is running is must have water in it. It does not take very long to burn up the motor in a dry filter. Once the filter is in place, fill the tank up and plug in the heater and the filter. Make sure everything is working. Let the gadgets run for 24 hours and then recheck them. Use a thermometer to make sure the heater is working properly. Most tropical fish like to be in a range of 78-82 degrees F.

Once all of the equipment is in place it is time to put the top and lights on the tank. Because we are talking about putting an electrical fixture above a tank of water, I am going to suggest you follow the manufacturers suggestions on installation. This is because there are several types of hoods (tops) and many kinds of lighting systems form tanks. Not all of them are installed in the same way.

The Finished Product:

Congratulations you have assembled, decorated and filled your fish tank. It is however, NOT time to get fish yet. Brand new fish tanks are a death trap for fish. Yes, that is what I said. The water in the fish tank at this point is perfectly balanced chemically, but when you add a fish or several fish the chemical balance of the water changes. The tank needs to go through a CYCLE which is actually a horrible word for the process. The reality is that the tank needs to Balance. There are many ways to Cycle a fish tank and there are many horror stories out there of how the cycling of a fish tank has gone wrong. I am not in the habit of disputing all the wealth of information that is out there on the internet about how to cycle a fish tank. I will however, share with you the method I have always used. I will also add that I have never lost a fish during with this cycling method.

The Basic Way To Cycle A Fish Tank:

The goal of cycling a fish tank is to build up a colony of beneficial bacteria in the tank. The job of the bacteria is to help consumer anything that is about to decay in the tank. Nature uses the chemical Ammonia to break things down on a molecular level. Ammonia and Nitrite (both forms of nitrogen) are deadly to fish. When you set up a fish tank the chemical values of both Ammonia and Nitrite are at zero (unless your tap water contains traces elements of either.) When you add a single fish to a brand new fish tank, the water chemistry will start to change and the Ammonia value will begin to increase. As Ammonia ages it converts in to Nitrite and then in to Nitrate. (nitrate is basically harmless to fish in small doses.) Those are the three components of the Nitrogen CYCLE.

The goal: To introduce beneficial bacteria to the fish tank and keep the chemical levels in a safe range.

To Achieve This Goal: Feed the fish tank one pinch of fish food every day for five days. At the end of the fifth day, do a 50 percent water change. It is PROBABLY time to add fish. CAUTION: Take 1 cup of water with you when you go to the fish store. Ask them to test the tanks water and explain to them that it is a new fish tank. If the water chemistry is in a safe range then you can add fish. If it is not, then let the tank set for a few more days. DO NOT get suckered into buying all of those chemicals they are going to want to sell you. The tank is going through a natural process and it will correct itself. Adding chemicals to this process only delays the inevitable. JUST BE PATIENT!

The Process: After introducing food to the fish tank the normal process is that the Ammonia levels in the tank will rise. The older Ammonia will convert to Nitrite, and the older Nitrite will convert to Nitrate. Then the chemical levels will return to normal. When the chemical levels return to normal, than you can add fish. Fish should be added in slowly and in small numbers. If you add too many fish at one time you will start the whole cycling process all over again.

Adding Fish To Your New Aquarium:

WARNING: Not all species of fish belong in a new aquarium. Some species need a tank environment that is well aged. I would not put: Neon Tretra, Angelfish, Discus, Clown Loach or any kind of Bottom Feeder/Plecostomus in a fish tank that is less then 3 months old. For Discus I would not add them to a tank that is less then six months old. These species of fish and many others can be very sensitive to water chemistry.

To add fish to a new tank follow this guide: 1 inch of fish for every 10 gallons of water to a maximum of 5 inches of fish. To be clear: A ten gallon tanks gets 1 inch of fish. The rule of thumb for keeping freshwater fish (NOT GOLDFISH) is 1 inch of fish for every gallon of water. So WHEN a tank is established a 10 gallon tank can hold 10 inches of fish. Every 3-5 days fish can be added to the tank. Each time you want to add fish, have the water tested to make sure it is still safe.


Once you have added a few fish it is a good idea to watch their behaviors. Most community fish are happy little piglets who swim about in a playful manner. When introduced to a new tank, the stress level of the fish will rise sharply. They may hide for a day or so and this is perfectly normal behavior. Within a week they should come out at feeding time and continue their social behaviors.

Warning Signs: New Tank:

If the fish are swimming at the top of the water and gasping: Do a 30% water change. The tank is probably toxic to them. Have the water tested the next day. You may have to change 20-30% of the water every day for several days until the chemicals return to normal.

If the fish are laying on the bottom not moving: Change 20% of the water. It may be that the water is toxic. Test the water. Look at the fish carefully. If you see tiny white dots on them that look as though someone sprinkled them with salt then they have a disease called ICH. Easily treated with medication and a 2-4 degree increase in the temperature of the water.

ICH: it is not uncommon for fish to come down with ICH. ICH (IKKK) is a parasite that is present in tap water and many fish carry it in their gills. It is opportunistic and waits for a drop in temperature to activate. High stress and the trip from a fish store to home is enough to set off ICH. The good news is that it is treatable. the API brand of called SUPER ICH CURE works well. AVOID MELAFIX and PIMAFIX as I have never found them to cure much of anything. The key with treating ICH is the raise in temperature… up to 4 degrees should do it. You may also want to add a very little amount of aquarium salt to the water. Salt is not going to help cure your fish but what it does do is helps the fish extract oxygen from the water. Warmer water holds less oxygen. For salt to be therapeutic the amount of salt in the water would need to be almost lethal to the fish.

Being A Happy Fish Keeper:

I have kept fish for probably 15 years. I have kept almost every kind of fish imaginable with the exception of Octopus and Stingrays. My experience is in both Saltwater fish keeping and Freshwater fish keeping. At one time was very much interested in breeding special/rare and hard to breed fish. I have a little bit of background in genetics and chemistry but most of what I have written here is based off of my own experiences.

Fish can bring a great joy to a home, but they take work. If you are willing to do the work, then you will have happy fish and a great experience with keeping fish. The best piece of advice that I can give anyone is to be patient. Do not over stock your tank too soon. Add fish slowly and set up a hospital tank for new arrivals. I hope that you have enjoyed this article and I will be posting additional articles that are more specific to particular fish and fish keeping. Keep in mind that I am happy to answer questions.


I am always happy to share my knowledge with readers. Feel free to ask questions in the comment section below.

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