Aquarium 101: Tips for Setting Up Your First Aquarium, Part 1

Originally published: 01/2006 by J Wynia

J's Guide to Aquariums
Despite my comments about the big nasty green in my aquarium, keeping fish has been one of the most rewarding hobbies I've picked up. I'm currently planning a larger (75 gallon) freshwater tank and doing so with the experience and research I've done with the smaller 20 gallon aquarium currently running in my basement.

If you've thought about keeping fish, but aren't sure where to start, there are some things that will prevent you from making beginner mistakes. I managed to avoid some of them, but still fell victim to my fair share.

Due to my inability to put a halt to rambling, this article will come in 2 parts. This first part covers background information and equipent to buy. Part 2 covers the fish and ongoing maintenance.

I'm sure you've got lots of questions: freshwater or saltwater, how big, how many fish, what kind of fish, etc. I'll get to most of that, but first I want to get all parental about a couple of things.

  1. Fish are living creatures and not inanimate objects. Many will live for years. They deserve you treating them well by housing them in good conditions.
  2. Under no circumstances will you be adding fish to your tank on the day you put water into it.

OK, the first one should be fairly obvious, but I still wanted to say it. The second isn't obvious because outside of the fishkeeping hobby, no one has ever heard of . . . THE NITROGEN CYCLE . . . Most fish articles will pound you about the head with information on the nitrogen cycle. This may seem like it's because fishkeepers are anal retentive geeks. It is. However, when you're caring for living animals, a little bit of anal retention isn't a bad thing.

The Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen Cycle in Aquariums
Drawing by J

While grossly simplified, the above image illustrates what goes on during the nitrogen cycle. Basically, fish (and other things like decaying food) produce ammonia. That ammonia is just as irritating to fish as it is to you. Just open a bottle of pure ammonia from the grocery store and you'll see what I mean. Since they have to swim in the very water that this ammonia is dumped into, you can see how this might become a problem fairly quickly.

Fortunately, our friends, bacteria come to the rescue. Turns out there is a bacteria that's pretty much everywhere already that really digs eating ammonia. And after a few days or so of ammonia building up in the water, they'll show up for the party and start munching.

UNfortunately, every living process that consumes something also produces some sort of waste. This ammonia eating bacteria is no different. It produces nitrites (note the second "i" as it will be an important distinction later). Great. No more ammonia, just nitrites. What? That's toxic to fish too. Crap.

Never fear, there just happens to be another bacteria living in your neighborhood that grooves on eating nitrites. And it inevitably produces waste as well, nitrAtes (see why I stressed the "i"?). So, since we all know Murphy was an optimist, this must mean that nitrates are toxic too. Well, they are, but not nearly as much so as the previous 2. They're OK enough that you can actually go a week or even a month (depending on a whole pile of variables) before it becomes any sort of problem.

In this case, however, the cleanup crew is you, with a bucket. You'll need to change out a portion of the water on a regular basis. The nitrates can also be removed via plant life through that miracle of life known as photosynthesis where the plants take in water, C02, light and nitrates and grow, while outputting oxygen that the fish need. Thus the circle of life is complete and Simba is happy. However, keeping plants AND fish alive at the same time isn't a task for most beginners in the hobby and I personally just deal with the water changes.

Getting Started

So, the nitrogen cycle lecture and visions of buckets of water across your house didn't scare you off huh? Think you're up to the task? Well, here's what you're looking for.

First of all, if you're anything like me, you buy a lot of stuff online. And, if you ARE me, you buy nearly everything online. Well, not for this project. See, glass tanks are big, heavy and fragile. That just happens to be the unholy axis of evil when it comes to UPS and FedEx. That usually leaves freight shipping via the unmarked white truck and ends up costing significantly more than the $6.95 shipping on your last DVD player. Also note that this is one category where eBay is pretty much "Pickup only" through all of the tank listings.

So, for the tank and other heavy items like gravel, buy it locally or the shipping will kill your credit card. If you have a local fish store (abbreviated in online forums as LFS), choose them over the chains (you know, PetSmart, PetCo, etc.). They usually are actually into keeping fish themselves and not only can help you with decisions you want to make, but they have healthier fish. The inhabitants of my tank that were purchased at World of Fish are all still alive, a claim which cannot be made for the decendants of Petco and PetSmart.

That essentially means that your first stop will be to find your LFS and take a look around. Leave your wallet at home and just go to look. For those of you who are single and broke, this can also be a free date that beats the $10 some large city aquariums charge to look at fish for a couple of hours. See what fish you enjoy and make sure you check out the price tags on them as well. That large lionfish is certainly interesting to look at, but is both poisonous and will run you $80, plus requiring a saltwater setup. The platies and guppies sitting across the room from them are only $2 and not only live in freshwater, but breed like the survival of their species depends on them alone.

Now, normally I'm a cheapskate just like lots of you. I look for the deal, the cheap way to get started and the fastest way to get started. I say that because, well, that's what I did and I regret it. Below is what I'm recommending for someone who is looking to get started with a semi-serious aquarium. The whole setup comes in cheaper than an iPod and will last longer than the battery does on the little white brick. However, this list is driven by ease of use, enjoyment and health of the fish and compromises on price in some areas over that cute little 10 gallon tank that has Sponge Bob on it.

If you're willing to deal locally and look around, you can get a similar setup for under $100.

The Shopping List

Where it matters, I've included specific name brands and models to make the shopping easier.

  • The Tank - 55 gallon plain glass tank, not in a kit. If it doesn't come with a hood and light, you'll need those as part of this bit too. I'll explain why I chose this size after I'm done with the list.
  • The Filtration - Penguin 350B Power Filter. This is $35 online (there are some cheaper places, but I've had luck with these guys). This filter is easy to maintain, hangs on the back of the tank and has a BIO-wheel, which gives you compact bacteria-growing power.
  • The Heater - brand isn't as important here as that it's stainless steel (or anything else not glass) and 300W power. Should run about $20 online, more in the stores. When you do water changes, if you don't remember to shut the heater off, it can crack the glass.
  • Gravel - the fish geeks call this "substrate". Try to resist the urge to get the neon green stuff and get a fairly neutral color. This is one of those things that isn't easily changed down the road and your choice here will live with you for a long time. Get enough to put about 2 inches in the bottom. How much that is will vary by the size of the bits of gravel themselves.
  • Stand - wherever you're going to put this tank needs to be able to support a LOT of weight. The water alone is going to weigh nearly 450 pounds. This means that the TV trays you got for Christmas aren't up to the task of holding this bad boy up. And, given the consequences of failure (55 gallons of water on your carpet), think carefully before using existing furniture. If you're buying a dedicated stand, get one specifically rated to hold a 55 gallon tank. These range in price like other furniture but there are usually some options in the $50-100 range.
  • Air pump and airstone - Get a battery operated air pump (I learned that lesson when my power went out for 4 days), some tubing and at least one air stone. These are fairly cheap.
  • Thermometer - get one that is a regular thermometer (red alcohol in a tube) that floats or sticks to the inside of the tank. Do NOT get the cool-looking color-changing sticker that goes on the outside. They are hard to read and eventually quit working altogether. Yet, nearly every tank I've seen has one of these, dead and stuck to the side, it's black background and white blank stare mocking the owner.
  • Test strips - time to play chemist. You're going to need testing strips or kits for: ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH and hardness. Don't buy too many of the ammonia or nitrite ones as you won't need very many once your tank is established.
  • Dechlorinator - speaking of chemistry, the water coming out of your tap has been courteously filled with chlorine and a few other chemicals, that, while they keep you from getting things like amoebic dysintery, mess with your fish in bad ways. Get a bottle of dechlorinator to clean out the chlorine in any water you add to the tank.
  • Scrubber on a stick - you can get one of the magnetic floating cleaners too if you want, but you're still going to need one of these to make a quick swipe of the inside of the glass every once in a while. A thin film builds up and no amount of algae eating fish or magnetic floaty things compensates for actually running a scrub pad along the sides to make the glass clear again.
  • Decorations - this is probably where you're going to have the impulse to buy more than you need. That's why I put it at the end. Make sure you've taken care of everything else on this list BEFORE you buy a single decoration. Everything else ensures that your fish have a safe, clean, healthy environment. If they have that and are a little bored, they can wait until your next paycheck. Besides, decorations can be swapped out easily later, which isn't the case for most of the other stuff. Don't put anything in your tank that isn't foodsafe and I'd just steer clear of anything that isn't sold for aquarium use directly until you know what's going on.

OK. By now, you're probably wondering why I am pushing for a big, 55 gallon setup. It's not just because it's fun spending other people's money. Not just. Actually, it's because, while a 10-20 gallon tank appears to be the good beginner's choice, "start small" and all that, those smaller tanks are actually HARDER to keep fish alive in than the bigger ones. That means that the smaller your tank is, the more likely you are to fail.

Think of it like this. If you get a test back in school and you got 5 questions wrong, how badly did you do? If there were 8 questions, you failed miserably. If there were 200, you aced the dang thing. The same is true in your tank. If you do something that results in a spike in a bad chemical, in a 10 gallon tank, you're likely to kill all of your inhabitants. In a bigger tank, you're more able to correct the problem before you send your fish to sleep with the mobsters.

Also, because the tanks are sized in all 3 dimensions, they don't get that much bigger between sizes on any one dimension. The 75 gallon tank I'm getting soon is actually 4' long, just like most 55 gallon tanks. It's just deeper and taller. As a result, if space is your primary concern, you can frequently go up in size without taking up any more of the dimension that you're really constrained on. I have room for the extra 6 inches deep that the 75 gallon tank is, but not for a 6 foot long tank that the 90 is.

The other reason is that if you get bored with your 20 gallon or just want to get fish that can't live in a tank that size, you still have the tank full of fish to deal with. Most of the fish I've got in my 20 gallon would be food for the fish I'll be putting in my 75 gallon. I am going to just run both tanks, but not everyone has that option. And, if history is any indicator, unless you either just don't have the space or get bored, you're going to want a bigger tank eventually. Buying the biggest you can to start out minimizes that problem.

Well, there's your list. At this point, I'd recommend taking the trip to the LFS, adding up the costs of the list, seeing how much space you have and generally pondering whether to go forward with this setup.

Part 2 will cover setting it up, adding fish, how it works and maintaining it.

Read Aquarium 101, Part 2


Beth on 1/12/2006
I've always wanted a nice aquarium, and I'm getting some new furniture next week which would free up a lot of space for one. Unfortunately I rent a house right now, and I'm sure within the next couple of years I'll probably want to buy a home or at least rent a bigger place, so the idea of trying to move the fish sounds like a bad one. Have you ever had to move an aquarium? Is it unhealthy for the fish?
J Wynia on 1/12/2006
Understandable, but not as big a deal as you might think. I actually have moved mine from one side of the room to the other and a couple of weeks ago took in some fish for a friend who took his tank down and the fish came 35 miles in Minnesota January weather without any ill effects. I'll add this to part 2, but basically, you just move the fish to a clean bucket or buckets (cleaned with water and bleach, but no detergent) with dechlorinated water. If you're just moving across the room, etc. they'll be fine in there for an hour or 2, but I'd still drop in the airstone powered by the battery air pump and depending on temperature, the heater as well. If you're going by car or like you might in a full move, you'll probably want to power the heater and air pump via the lighter socket in the vehicle. It's pretty much going to have to be the last thing you pack up, but you can pack up the decorations, etc. the day before. Then, just drain the tank down to just above the gravel (lots of good bacteria in the gravel) and make sure your filter stays wet as well and move it along. For a longer trip (say by truck across the country) you'd need to find a way to change the water in the bucket regularly and I'd probably use a rotating bucket setup with lids. Overall, you're just after keeping the fish in warm (76-80F) water that's clean and got plenty of oxygen for the duration of the move and making sure your bacteria enriched surfaces stay wet. Otherwise, it's not too bad to move.
J Wynia on 1/12/2006
I also just fixed the missing quote that managed to obliterate something like 5 paragraphs of the article.
vickie on 1/22/2006
i just purchased a corner pentagon shaped aquarium , at the flea market . it is missing lid /cover any info on where i can purchase one also filter too ? not sure how many gallons. it is big thanks .
J Wynia on 1/22/2006
You're going to need to know the number of gallons for a number of reasons: how many fish it can handle, the size of the filter, how much heat it needs, etc., so it's geometry time. The volume of any cylinder-type shape is the area of its base times its height. To get the area of the base, you'll need to calculate the area of a pentagon. This will also help you find a cover or have one made. Because you're not talking about a rectangle aquarium, you're likely going to either be searching eBay or visiting your local glass shop. Once you have the measurements of the top, you can have them make a hinged lid out of acrylic or glass that will fit. Take the area times the height and you'll have the cubic volume. Depending on where you live, you'll probably want the numbers in cm for the volume calculations, but possibly inches for the glass shop. Once you have the volume in cubic centimeters, you can either look up the European information on filtration for the number of liters you have or use one of the online conversion sites to convert it to gallons. Once you have that, you can start looking at filters. Because of the shape of a pentagon aquarium, you are actually at a disadvantage due to a smaller surface area, which is going to reduce the number of fish it can handle for the number of gallons you have. You can either just live with that restriction or you're going to have to go into advanced aquarium setup with a sump (tank underneath your main one hidden inside the cabinet) to get more surface-air interation, which is where the fish get their oxygen. I still highly recommend getting a BIO-wheel based filter because they have such a high bang for the buck ratio, but they may not fit well on the shorter sides of your tank. You can buy filters at the place I linked to in this article. All of them have the gallon capacity listed.
Morgaine on 3/12/2006
any tips on how to set up an aquarium for a figure 8 puffer fish and what to feed it?
BR on 3/25/2006
Thanks for the info. Very informative. I did a walk through at my LFS yesterday and had some basic questions answered. I did not buy. I came home and decided to research some more and came across your information. I am now rethinking getting an Aquarium. My wife has a "Phobia" of seeing anything die esspecially animals including fish. I want an Aquarium but she is "DEAD" against it. I am looking to minimize my chances of killing any fish and was planning on going with a small tank thinking smaller the better and easier to keep. But managing a large tank seems like the way to go if I decide to move forward. Thanks again. Any thoughts on my situation please feel free to comment. FYI My wife make me change the channel when nature shows are on because she hates seeing the gazelle get eaten.
Morgaine on 3/25/2006
is your tank supposed to be cloudy the first couple of days after u set it up?
J Wynia on 3/25/2006
For those asking questions, also make sure you read Part 2 of this article. I don't have any information for you on the puffer fish as I keep freshwater fish only at this point. On the keeping fish alive problem, you definitely maximize the chances of keeping them all alive go up with every gallon bigger you make the tank. However, you ARE going to lose some. It's pretty much a given. Totally healthy fish just die on occasion. And, none of them really live 40-50 years. If the conviction is absolute, with no possibility of compromise, you're probably not going to make it happen. However, you can do the hobby responsibly and keep happy healthy fish. The water will get cloudy as a bacterial bloom happens, which is a natural part of establishing the cycle. They usually start when you have a spike in ammonia and will get cloudy as you have a subsequent spike in nitrite. The water will clear up as both of those readings drop to zero.
Robert Dolliver on 6/27/2006
First off GREAT Article. I wish I read it before I got the ball rolling. But I still didn't get fish yet so, no real damage. The only errors are that I threw in some water treatment before running a test. But, after talking to a lady at the LFS she said that the water here in Sacramento clear 0 in all categories. Oh yeah and I bought decorations before I got all the other parts, ooopppss. First off I would have liked a little more detail in the article of what BioSpira is I didn't know I was looking for some real live culture that is kept in the fridge. I kept looking for the stuff all over in the dechlorinator area. Of course I went to the mega pet stores first (Pet Smart and Pet Co) as these are closer and easier to get to. However they never heard of BioSpira. Also you didn't talk about using "dirty water". The lady at the LFS suggested we ask for some dirty water when we buy the fish and put that in along with the BioSpira. As this will help the fish adjust better. Okay enough with the constructive criticism I have a few REAL questions. 1. I was given an older 60 Gal Tank. It is a MetaFrame Brand, but it's not the stainless steel looking one with the slate bottom everyone talks about in the forums. It just has a "oak look" frame. When it was given to me it had no hood. It had a light but I assume the glass top broke. I bought a All-Glass Deluxe Full Hood with Light . I got it home put it together and it doesn't fit correctly. It turns out the top frame also needs this center piece that 2 holes sticking out. I found a broken adjustable plastic bar that goes there. My question is, do you know where I can buy one of these? Is this a common part or am I stuck trying to build something myself? Well this is long enough to start... :oP
J Wynia on 6/27/2006
BioSpira is a liquid broth of live bacteria. I buy it at World of Fish in Minneapolis, and haven't seen it in any of the big box retailers. I tend to shy away from dirty water as a seed as you can't tell what *else* comes along for the ride. I don't want to bring any disease, etc. to a new tank. Sorry, I don't know where you could buy that particular piece. The replacement parts market for this stuff isn't very robust.
Robert Dolliver on 6/27/2006
You don't happen to know atleast what that thing is called do you? This would help me with my research.
J Wynia on 6/27/2006
Are you talking about the cross-brace in the middle of the top of the tank or something on the hood itself?
Robert Dolliver on 6/27/2006
Yes maybe it is a cross brace, it is in the middle top, it runs the dpeth of the tank (about 12"), it appears to insert into the tank frame, there are 2 holes for it, and it is adjustable. But it is just a piece of plastic I don't think it does to much but hold the hood from falling in the water. So is this a cross-brace?
sarah on 10/24/2006
heya...ive had a turtle in an aquarium for the last two years, i recently upgraded to a 500 litre tank (sorry i havnt the faintest idea about gallons) to accomadate his growing size and decided he needed some "friends". So one archer, two gourami's and four butter bream later i have decided to set up the original 100 litre tank for my new found interest in aquarium fish. i bought a book and a few magazines and discovered an entirely different side to maintaining an aquarium...a complete dialect of fish speak i couldnt get my head around...until i came across your article, kudos for laying it down straight. is there a difference between a planted aquarium and just an aquarium with plants? can you recommend a good magazine/book for the very green novice?
Danimal on 2/9/2007
I have found something that I believe is one of the MOST helpful and MOST entertaining thing a fish lover could find. It's called: ############### # PetFishTalk # ############### It's a weekly internet talk show that encodes every weeks episode and posts them as podcasts and MP3's. They talk for 1.5 hours every Wednesday about fish in aquariums, fishbowls, and ponds while taking calls and emails from people worldwide. I have learned an UNIMAGINABLE amount about the tropical fish keeping hobby. I recommend you give it a try. Just search google for
Sandi Righter on 3/3/2007
Regarding the cross brace for the tank that is missing it, Simply measure the size of the opening or the depth of the tank plus enough width to hold the seperate 4 halves of the glass lid peices. Then go to a local glass shop, tell them you are using it to hold aquarium glass tops in place and they will cut it using strong enough glass for Cheap. I always have my aquarium tops custom made at a glass shop and it is a LOT cheaper than buying parts or those"All Glass" brand tops . My tanks all have two back peices of glass, two front peices and a divider in the middle to rest them on. You can ask your LFS if they have plastic hinges for between the glass or little plastic handles to put on the front peices so you can lift them up easier. Or just use suction cups and forget the hinges if you want to spend less money. Sorry so long, but I hope this helps.
DanDingo on 4/18/2007
Hey man, I have just got a big new 4' tank! I love it! And I have some cichlids in it and a shark and a large pleco. But since I have set it up I have noticed the water is taking its sweet time to settle! The water still appears cloudy. I have a filter that does about 2000l/hr, don't know what that is in gallons. But I am worried! My Jaguar Cichlid and my Firemouth Cichlid appear to have swollen tummy's, I think its dropsy. I don't want to stress my fish too much but I think I need to do a full water change. Can you recommend anything for me to do? Those are fish I really like and I don't want to lose them! It took me ages to find my beautiful jag! Please help me as I really enjoy keeping my fish and I want the water to be clear, and the fish to be healthy! When I set it up I waited until the temp was right and I treated the water with the tap-water stuff. I look forward to a response! Thanks you very much!
Kristen on 8/19/2008
Hi - okay, so I have a 20 gallon tank with 5 goldfish in it - things are going fine, but I am able to get a 100 gallon tank next (we are moving and have the space for one) - I'm just going to go ahead and go big....question is, does Petsmart sell good tanks?? I don't need a really really fancy one, don't want to spend tooo much money - but what should I get? All glass, there are acrylic too? And what about a bottom under the gravel filter? Are these good? Any recommendations? I know a lot about the tank is personal preference, I kind of like the longer thinner ones,but anyone have any preferences in the length/depth of tanks? I know goldfish are dirty little creatures, so I want to keep this tank (size-wise) forever. All five of them are about 3 inches each so far. And they are all commons. THanks, any ideas would be greatly appreciated!!
Naveen on 11/29/2009
Hi J: This article is very well written and answered all my queries as an amateur aquarium enthusiast! Great job buddy.
J Wynia on 4/11/2010
You need lights, but I don't put too much time an energy into choosing them. All of my setups came with lights and I never bothered to change them. It's possible to go overboard, but I'd err on the side of too much rather than too little, myself.
Dabears312 on 4/10/2010
Dear J, I was wondering why you didn't mention anything about buying a light. Do you not recommend it or something?And another thing, since I am stationed in japan and the conversion rate is so horrible I was not planning on getting a 55 gallon tank. But I still managed to buy everything else on your list ( to a T ) is it possible to over do it with the equipment. Counting on you buddy! Thanks
blog comments powered by Disqus
Or, browse the archives.
© 2003- 2015 J Wynia. Very Few Rights Reserved. This article is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. Quoted content or content included from others is not subject to that license and defaults to normal copyright.