You want to get into the aquarium hobby but you’re not sure where to start? These 12 steps should get you going in the right direction at least for now. It’s not as easy as going out and buying a tank, filling it with water and throwing some fish in. You could do that I suppose but your fish won’t last very long and you’ll have wasted your money. You probably want to avoid that so do some research first before you go out and spend money. You can read through this overview guide and then go some of the articles on this site for more in-depth info. So, the first step is to…
Choose The Right Fish Tank
The first step is to get an aquarium. Should you get a glass or acrylic aquarium? What size should you get?
Glass and acrylic aquariums both have their advantages and disadvantages. Glass is the cheaper option, but not quite as attractive and usually the only option is a rectangle shape. Glass is also heavier, but doesn’t scratch as easily. Acrylic, on the other hand, comes in many more options because of the way they are formed. They are very attractive and come in many different shapes and colors. Acrylic fish tanks do scratch easier, so you must take caution and use only acrylic friendly utensils to clean them.
As far as the size fish tank you should get, it’s really a function of how much room you have and how many and what size tropical fish you want to keep. I recommend getting at least a 25-gallon tank so the fish have plenty of room and the water will stay cleaner. You can go smaller, say a 10-gallon tank, but you should really limit the amount and size of tropical fish. Maybe 5-10 small tropical fish that don’t grow more than 3-4 inches and are not livebearers. When you have livebearing fish, the numbers go up in a hurry.
Choose The Right Substrate
There are many different options for aquarium substrate. The two main ones are gravel and sand. Some fish prefer sand, while others go well with a gravel substrate.
Sand requires more cleaning and maintenance because you will notice fish waste and other waste building up quite rapidly. Cleaning sand can also be more time consuming and require some patience. You have to be careful with sand substrate because over time pockets of waste can build up in the substrate and eventually explode in the fish tank spreading toxins which are not good for the fish. Sand substrate is preferred for certain species of fish that like to feed off of the bottom like plecos. Any sharp substrate can damage their feelers.
Gravel is a good option for many species of fish. I recommend getting the smaller size pea gravel which is nice and smooth. This type of gravel is easier to clean and there are some very attractive colors that look quite natural and give your fish tank a nice clean look. Plants also do better with gravel substrate with nutrients. You can combine the two with a nutrient-rich substrate on Amazon.
Other options are Lava rocks if you like the look, but I don’t and it has sharp edges that I don’t like. You can also go with no substrate, which looks terrible after a while in my opinion.
With any substrate, you will need to clean it first! You can do this with a garden hose and a plastic bucket. Put the substrate in a bucket and run the garden hose water on it until all the dirt is gone. See what different types of substrate look like before you decide.
Get Decorations and Start Aquascaping
For this, you can get a few rocks or wood or other do-dads online. It’s beneficial for the look of the tank and to have some hiding places for your tropical fish. Some species of tropical fish are territorial and like to establish a little home they can defend. Aquascaping is more advanced so you don’t have to get too sophisticated at first. Just make sure the rocks and/or decorations are cleaned off with bleach and dried. Experiment with placement until you are satisfied with the look. Look at some videos on YouTube on how to do this.
Choose The Right Plants
I recommend getting and using live plants in your new aquarium. Live plants will help with absorbing nitrates that build up in the water and generate oxygen for your tropical fish. You will want to start with easy beginner plants that will grow good with your lighting. If you don’t have healthy plants, algae will start to gather in your tank and can cloud your tank and make it look ugly.
Start off with some Anubias, Java Fern, Cryptocoryne (many varieties to choose from), Aponogeton Crispus, or Dwarf Aquarium Lily. All these plants are very easy to grow and require low light and nutrients. Planting these in your aquarium is a breeze. You just simply burrow them in your substrate and add some light and some plant nutrients and they will grow. Not too much light though because if they grow too fast, you will need to add CO2. You want to avoid that.
Here are my top 5 aquarium plants for beginners.
Choose a Fish Tank Filter
The fish tank filter is a really important piece of equipment for your aquarium. There are three types of filtration that the filter unit performs. Biological, Mechanical, and Chemical. Biological being the most important. The two main options for beginners are a hang on the back or power filter or a canister filter. There are other types, but these you will see most often and they both work well.
Hang on the back filters are just as the name describes. They hang on the back of the aquarium and have a long plastic tube that is submerged in the water. Water is sucked in through the tube and filtered through the housing in the unit. HOB filters are easier to maintain (clean and change out filters) than canister filters but aren’t as efficient at cycling the water in the tank. They also aren’t good at creating a flow of water through the tank. If you have a larger tank (50 gallons or more), I recommend getting two HOB filters or a canister filter. One nice feature of HOB filters is they create aeration on the surface of the water to create more oxygen exchange for your fish. HOB/Power filters are also the cheaper option.
Canister filters are usually kept in the tank stand with an intake and output tube from and to the fish tank. Water is sucked into the intake tube through the filter system and back out into the tank. Canister filters have more options for the type and amount of filter media you can use. They are more efficient at cycling the fish tank water. They require more maintenance and take longer to clean. They are also much more expensive than the HOB/power filters, but I found a good canister filter for under $50 here. It cycles 125 gph.
Choose Filter Media
You want to get a good media for your filter. When you are beginning, you will probably go with what comes with your filter unit, but it’s important to upgrade the biological media. You’ll want to get a good porous material like Biohome that has a lot of surface area for beneficial bacteria growth. This is important to filter out harmful toxins like ammonia from the fish waste.
Mechanical filtration is really just getting the particles out of the water, so get a good floss material like a filter sock or the standard filter pad.
Chemical filtration is not as critical, but usually, you will have a carbon filter for that. Should work just fine.
Biological filtration is the most important type as it gets rid of the toxins that can kill your tropical fish.
Get Aquarium Lights
Aquarium lighting can get quite technical and probably more complex than need be. Many experienced hobbyists really get into it, but just keep it simple. Some prefer fluorescent and some prefer LED lights, but a lot of fluorescent light people are making the switch to LED for energy efficiency. You want to get lighting that both shows off the color of your tropical fish and has a light range that is beneficial for plant growth.
LED lighting is all the rage now and has come a long way. Powerful enough to grow plants and enough color options to bring out any color you wish. Another nice thing about LED lights is that they are programmable. You can set them up to mimic night, dawn, daylight and dusk. A really nice feature. They are also a more energy efficient option.
Fluorescent lighting has been around for a bit longer and doesn’t have as many options as the LED lights do. The fluorescents you see will probably be the compact or T5 size specifically for fish tanks. Make sure to get a plant growth light and a higher Kelvin light for aesthetics. Fluorescents are generally cheaper, but LEDs can be inexpensive as well. Fluorescents need to be changed at least once a year, where LED lights last much much longer. Should you get fluorescent or LED?
I recommend that you have a timer for the lights, so you don’t forget to turn them off. Lights should be on an average of 8-10 hours.
Choose an Aquarium Heater
It’s important to keep the tank water at a constant temperature for the comfort of your tropical fish. Some species require a higher temperature than others and some species don’t mind just room temperature. So do some research on the type of fish you want to keep and the temperature they prefer.
You’ll want to get a high-quality heater with auto shut-off because the cheaper ones tend to go bad and can cause serious trouble. Keep in mind that no heater is perfect and all of them will fail at some time. That’s why it’s important to monitor the temperature of the water with a separate thermometer. Here is my Guide to Aquarium Heaters.
Cycle The Fish Tank
Believe it or not you can’t just throw some substrate and water in your tank and then throw the fish in. You’re going to need to do some prep work and cycle your tank. This is about a 2-4 week process for a new tank. You can speed this up by taking biological media from an established tank, but chances are you don’t have one.
The main thing is building up enough beneficial bacteria in your filter media to absorb all of the harmful ammonia and nitrites from fish and other waste. This takes some time. After you’ve put substrate plants and water in your tank, you’ll want to start running the filter and adding a bacteria and ammonia primer to the water. You add ammonia because there are no fish yet so you need to be sure that the filter is doing its job. Once there are enough bacteria built up to absorb the harmful ammonia you can gradually add fish. You know if there is enough bacteria by testing the water for a zero ammonia reading and zero or near zero nitrite reading.
Choosing Your Tropical Fish
For your first run, pick some fairly hardy tropical fish. They are much easier to keep and can tolerate mistakes like if your aquarium heater fails or you forget to feed them. Hardier fish can tolerate temperature change, colder temperatures and go some days without food.
Some good starter tropical fish are Neon Tetras, Guppies, Bettas, or Danios. If you want to mix species, make sure that they are smaller community fish. Community fish are not very aggressive and usually small, so not so much waste is produced. Don’t mix predatory fish with community fish or you’ll be having fewer fish in the tank.
There are many varieties and colors of community fish to choose from so pick your favorites and get the right lighting to bring out their colors.
Food For Your Fish
Don’t just get regular fish food for your tropical fish. They need a nice variety. Try and get some frozen shrimp and brine as well as some spirulina or seaweed. They can even eat some human food like cucumber, kale, broccoli, and zucchini. Stay away from fruit, its too acidic for them. Some species like Bettas will eat non-oily fish meat as well. In fact carnivore fish need more protein than an omnivore.
Most tropical fish are omnivores meaning they eat both meat and plants. Some are carnivores meaning they need meat in their diet. Some are herbivores or algae eaters. You may want some algae eaters to feed off algae in the tank.
Equipment You Will Need For Your Aquarium
In addition to the necessary stuff like filters, heaters and such you will need some other tools for properly taking care of your aquarium.
Aeration pump – This is a separate pump that you hook up a tube that goes in the fish tank with an air stone on the other end. The pump pumps air through the air stone which creates bubbles that float to the surface. It helps to aerate the water creating a good oxygen exchange at the surface.
Cleaning Kit – A cleaning kit with various brushes will be really handy for cleaning out filter parts and the tank itself. A magnetic algae scraper is a must for getting algae off the inside of the tank.
FishNet – Every once in a while you will have to remove some fish. Trying to catch them with your bare hand is almost impossible. A fishnet makes it much much easier.
Extra Heater – It’s good to have a back up to your main heater in case the main heater craps out.
Water Primer – When you go to change the water in the tank you will most likely use tap water to replenish it. The problem with tap water is it generally has chlorine in it. You will need to treat the water with a chemical like SeaChem Prime to get rid of the chlorine. It also gets rid of ammonia and nitrites in case you have a spike.
Water Test Kit – You’ll need a good test kit for testing the water periodically. The best one out there is the API master water test kit.
Substrate Vacuum – It’s essential to vacuum your substrate regularly to clean up any leftover food and other fish waste. If this builds up over time eventually you will get ammonia spikes which are not good for the fish.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these basics should get you going. If you have questions or comments please leave them below.