How to set up a freshwater Aquarium


How to set up a fish tank

A freshwater aquarium is the perfect way for you, the (aquarist) to bring aquatic life to a home environment. Fish and aquariums are relaxing, entertaining and educational for children and adults as you can watch fish swim, feed and interact with their surroundings. Many have their own personalities just like dogs and cats! Freshwater aquariums are placed with the goal of creating ultimate aquatic environment.

Over the years technology has progressed significantly with aquarium equipment becoming easier to manage and extremely more affordable. One of the many questions we get asked is how to setup a freshwater tank for your home. This guide provides a step-by-step walk through on how to setup a 55-gallon aquarium tank and enjoy watching your new fish for the years to come.

If you have basic knowledge of aquarium, it is not at all difficult to setup a freshwater based one. An aquarist will need to perform maintenance work in his aquarium once or twice in a week. Setting up and running freshwater aquarium costs lots of money in the form of recurring expenses such as filter media replacement and food buying for fishes.

Recommended equipment:

  • 55-Gallon Aquarium
  • Aquarium Stand
  • Aquarium Canopy
  • Versa Top
  • 5 Bags Substrate
  • 200W heater
  • Vertical Thermometer
  • Hang On Back Filter
  • Deluxe Freshwater Test Kit
  • Water Conditioning Agent

Note: We are assuming you’re going to purchase or acquire a 55 gallon aquarium. This size is the most common and probably easiest size to acquire through third party sites or local retailers.  You can read our guide on Choosing a Fish Tank for more information.

Step One: Set up the aquarium and stand

You’ll need to decide where to put your aquarium .This first step might sound easy but it is one of the more important ones.

  • The temperature needs to be somewhat consistent—fish are animals and need stable temperatures just like us humans do. Is an area of your house drafty? Is it too hot? Avoid those areas if possible.
  • Be careful of sunlight—sun is central to making plants grow and one of the more common plants and (enemies) in an aquarium is algae. You’ll have to do more maintenance because of algae so try to find a nice wall location away from direct or indirect sunlight.
  • Flooring—can your floor support the weight of the aquarium and water? Each gallon of water on average weighs around 9 pounds and on a 55 gallon tank that is almost 500 pounds. You won’t want to move it once the tank has been setup, so pick a location that isn’t in the way.
  • The aquarium should be close to an outlet to power pumps, filters and lighting.
  • Give at least 4-6 inches of room between the back of the aquarium and wall as you will need space for cords, filters and things like these.
  • Make sure the aquarium is level.
  • Ensure that gravel is thoroughly washed before adding it to the aquarium
  • Aquarium stands can be purchased or built, but make certain construction quality.
  • 5-10 gallon tanks are popular among aquarium hobby beginners.
  • It is ideal to buy a tank with size somewhere between small and large(preferably with a size in between 20 and 55 gallons)



Common Aquarium Dimensions


Glass and Acrylic Aquariums

Glass aquariums don’t scratch easily, cost less and provide a good viewing area. Acrylic aquariums come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. As acrylic aquariums are much lighter than glass, it is very easy to move them. Acrylic based aquariums are picture perfect for decorations and they are much stronger than glass but they do scratch easily so if you decide on a acrylic aquarium be mindful of the risks.

Comparison of Aquarium Lighting Types

Lighting TypeCharacteristics
Fluorescent LampsProvides natural light spectrumEnhance fish colorsSupplies light energy for photosynthesis
Incandescent BulbsLess expensiveProduces more heat


Step Two: Add Substrate and Water

What is an aquarium without water? Water quality is important but not nearly as important as a saltwater aquarium. You’re welcome to use tap water but you’ll need to condition the water once you fill the tank. Before adding water into the aquarium, a user should make sure that it has no leaks. The next step is to fill filter reservoir with water, plugging it in and let the water circulate easily. It is better to install heater on the inside of aquarium tank and position it near filter mouth expelling water. Fully submersible heaters are rated for their ease of use, functionality and their feature of adjustable thermostat. It is recommended to use a plate while adding water to prevent gravel displacement. Gravel should be added to the aquarium after rinsing it with clean water. A plate or saucer can be placed in the middle of aquarium in order to avoid messing up gravels and plants. Water added to the aquarium must be dechlorinated and fish easily adapt to freshwater that has been decontaminated. It is good to add neutralizers to chlorine containing tap water.

Step Three: Install Filter and Heater

You need to decide what filter to use. There are a wide variety of options available to you. The most common are called under gravel or power filters that hand on the back of the aquarium. In most cases we do not recommend an under gravel filter for your aquarium because of maintenance issues down the road. This fish tank guide assumes you’re going to use a power filter.

  • Under gravel filters have best uses with substrate that is coarse (if you were planning on using sand then you should not use an under gravel filter). Under gravel filters need a strong air pump to work efficiently. If you do not regularly vacuum the gravel, the filter will not work and vacuuming can become quite a chore.
  • Power filters hang on the back of the aquarium and are a combination of a physical filter (floss) and a chemical (carbon media). The guts of the device are usually housed in a convenient device that looks nice and more importantly out of sight. You need to pick a power filter that will circulate enough water for the size of the tank. For example, if you had a 55-gallon aquarium you would need a power filter that is 275 gallons per hour (GPH), which equates to 5x for every one gallon of water.
  • Install the heater on the inside of the tank. Usually suction cups or magnetic clips are included to attach the heater.
  • We would recommend using drip loop on power cords to be extra cautious

There are two types of heaters, namely submersible and non submersible. Submersible heaters have advanced thermostat and it can function in a horizontal or vertical position. It allows the heat to be distributed more evenly. Non submersible heater hangs on the back of the aquarium and it is less expensive compared with submersible heaters.

Step Four: Decorate

Freshwater aquariums utilize plants, driftwood and other decorations very commonly. Plants in the home aquarium should match with the fish and putting random objects in the tank just doesn’t make sense. You also need to keep in mind that roots of the aquarium plant should be submerged in the gravel, not the leaves or stems. In some home aquaria, certain plants should be fastened to fishing line or neatly cleaned rock.

Recommended Decorations

  1. 4 Mopani driftwood pieces
  2. 3 foreground plants
  3. 2 variety packs
  4. 3 marine land
  5. Artificial plant multi packs

Points to Remember While Decorating Your Aquarium

  • While adding decorations, leave a lot of free space for fish
  • Rinse all plants with clean water
  • Place background plants with special stones
  • After filling aquarium and filter with water, plug them in using a surge protector
  • Wait at least twenty four hours for water temperature to stabilize before adding fish

Step Five: Cycle

Cycling of aquarium tank should be completed before any type of fish is added to the tank. It is necessary to monitor all water parameters including pH, high pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate during water cycling process. Aquarists use ammonia removers to remove ammonia and nitrates from their home aquarium tank. Water changing and physical removal of bad chemicals are normally performed to reduce nitrates. If a new tank is being used, water tests should be continued on a periodical basis.

Step Six: Adding Fish

It is a good idea to check compatibility charts for freshwater fish before selecting them. Guppies or mollies are the best fish as far as an aquarium hobbyist novice is concerned. If too many fish are put in the aquarium on the same day, the water will not be able to cycle adequately. Valuable information regarding freshwater aquarium fish selection can be obtained from the book “The Simple Guide to Freshwater Aquariums” written by David Boruchovitz. Fish needs to be released into the home or community aquarium only after properly acclimatizing. Many aquarium hobbyists place canopy and light fixture before adding fish into their aquarium. We recommend that beginners should stick to peaceful fish and combinations of fish that get along well.

When ammonia and nitrite levels return to zero, next batch of fish can be added to the aquarium. Alert, active, and colorful fishes with well shaped fins are preferred by aquarium hobby fanatics.

List of Suggested Fish

  • 3-6 bottom dwellers
  • 1-3 algae eaters
  • Danios
  • Tetras
  • Barbs
  • Rasboras
  • Angels

Cherry barb, sparkling Gourami, neon tetra, green swordfish, platy, common hatchet fish, Siamese fighting fish and goldfish are other popular varieties of freshwater aquarium fish.

Other Important Points to Remember

A good rule of thumb for determining total weight of an aquarium is nine pounds per gallon of water.

A good rule of thumb for the amount of gravel is 1 to 1.5 pounds of gravel per gallon of water.

Never ever use soap or detergents for washing fish tank as soap residue left behind will be harmful for tropical fish.

Tetra Aquasafe is best for removing chlorine and chloramine.

Fish tank should be at a good height for comfortable viewing

It is sensible to buy pH test kit during an aquarium setup

Maintenance Instructions

Fish tank will not survive long without regular maintenance. If an aquarium is properly maintained at periodic intervals, it will look wonderful, attractive and superb.

Daily Maintenance

Check the temperature of the tank to ensure that it is at appropriate level for fish. Remember they are pets (or animals) like stable water temperatures they don’t like to be to hot or cold. Remember to check the filter for debris and to make sure it’s still running in a consistent manner.

Weekly Maintenance

Regular water change ensures that tank will stay fresh and fish healthy. Cleaning algae of the aquarium glass will keep fish tank look clean. Good vacuuming once a week is suggested since it will allow the filter to function more efficiently.

Monthly Maintenance

Filter cleaning will rinse bio filter with water to clean them from clogs. Regular cleaning of cover glass will eliminate dust on the outside and the accumulated calcium deposits.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Using too small tank
  • Adding fish too soon
  • Adding too many fish at once
  • Keeping incompatible fish
  • Overfeeding
  • Insufficient filtration
  • Not testing or changing water


Frequently Asked Questions

1) What to I feed my fish?

Processed foods, dried foods, frozen foods, live foods and other fresh foods

2) How do I ensure my aquarium is a success?

Understand the nitrogen cycle

Perform regular maintenance of your filter

Properly treat water before adding it to tank

Take the time to learn basic water chemistry

Keep the pH of tank’s water stable

Avoid adding chemicals with lower pH

Properly acclimatize fish before adding them to tank

Perform regular water changes


We hope that this guide served as a comprehensive resource in setting up a freshwater aquarium on your own.



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