How to Set Up a Fish Tank

What aquarium setup is right for you?

As with many things in life, one person’s definition of “ideal” will differ from another’s. With an aquarium, it not only has to be ideal for the hobbyist (and family), but the tank also needs to be ideal for whatever fish and/or invertebrates you want to keep. In this article, I will talk about different ideal aquariums, from those for first-time hobbyists to advanced ones and for freshwater and marines.


What’s Ideal and What’s Not

When it comes to fish and aquariums, one person’s ideal could very easily be another’s horror show. For example, across from my desk here, I have a 300-gallon heavily planted freshwater tank with a 125-gallon sump. For me, that is an ideal tank. Good friends were over last week, and the wife’s take on the tank is that it is frightening having that much water on the second floor of the house—and she is much happier with the 20-gallon setup we gave them a few years ago.

The “ideal” aquarium basically has a few limitations. These include space available, dollars available, time the hobbyist wants to devote to the aquarium, and the attitude of the spouse/intimate other (from here on I will use “spouse” to encompass both) about fish tanks in general and the “ideal,” in specific. A couple of examples for illustrative purposes:

  • You want a 265-gallon reef tank, with all the encompassing doodads and gadgets. Your spouse wants a nice end-table-size tank that looks like it is part of the furniture, and given that you travel a lot, the tank has to be able to go on its own for days at a time.
  • Your spouse wants a flashy marine reef tank like they saw on a TV show but will only let you spend $150 on the complete setup.
  •  You know that you will be moving in a year or less, so perhaps it is best to limit yourself to a 20-gallon freshwater setup for now.  

Your First Aquarium

When you decide to get your first aquarium, the first thing to do is to define where the aquarium will go in your home, how much money you will spend on it, and who will take care of the tank. With those guidelines in mind, the next thing to do is to find a good local fish store. This can be an independent or one of the big box stores.

Talk with friends who have fish tanks, and find out where they go. Attend a meeting at your local aquarium club. Don’t start by surfing the web, as you will be overwhelmed. When you go to chat with your local fish stores, don’t go on a weekend day; they will be very busy and won’t be able to spend the time you want them to with you. Drop-in on a Wednesday, late afternoon or evening—store traffic should be slow, and the staff will have more time to speak with you.

Clown Fish

Amphiprion ocellaris clownfish are widely captive-bred. Photo by Anita Ritenour/Flickr

Explain to the salesperson that you are a first-time hobbyist, and define the limitations of your venture—space, money, time, etc. If the store is one you should patronize, the salesperson will spend time helping you get started in our wonderful hobby. If they bring a 10-gallon starter kit to the counter for you and tell you that everything you need to know is in there, find another store.

It used to be the case that the recommendation was to start with a freshwater tank, and when you get your sea legs under you, advance to a marine tank. That is no longer necessary. We now know enough about keeping a marine tank that a first-time hobbyist can be successful with his or her first tank being saltwater; if fact, the first-timer may be more successful because marine fish are more expensive and folks seem to pay more attention to a marine tank.

What NOT to Start With

Before moving along to the options for you, please allow me a quick mention of what NOT to start with.

  •  Don’t start with a male Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) kept in a little bowl on your desk. Bettas are, in fact, very tough fish and will persist for a fair amount of time that way—but they need more space (at least 2 to 4 gallons) and a heater. Room temperature is not good for male betta. So, get a small tank and a small heater if you want to start with betta.
  •  Goldfish in a bowl as first-time fish are a disaster. Goldfish get big, produce a lot of waste and need a real aquarium with a good filter. They do not need a heater and will be perfectly fine at room temperature, so get them the size tank required to meet their needs.    

Ideal Aquarium Options

Please let me suggest some options for ideal aquariums—both freshwater and saltwater. 

Freshwater options include:

  • Starter kits
  • Goldfish tank
  • Species tank
  • Planted tank with shrimp    

Saltwater options include:

  • Starter kits
  • Fish only with live rock (FOWLR)
  • Reef tanks
  • Specimens in “cube” systems    

Freshwater Aquarium Starter Kits

Ever since I had my stores back in the last century (I may be old, but I got to see the cool bands), the standard aquarium starter kit has been a 10-gallon tank. These are marketed, especially by the big stores, purely on price, and they make it pretty inexpensive to get started with keeping fish. However, the failure rate with these 10-gallon starter kits is pretty high. They often do not have a heater, and unless you limit yourself to cold-water fish—danios, white clouds, etc.—a store may sell you fish that need a heater.

If you are going to start with a 10-gallon tank, please make sure it has, or that you add a heater. Better yet, go for a 20-gallon tank setup. Yes, it will be more expensive than the 10-gallon starter kit, but you will have twice as much water and, therefore, there will be twice as much forgiveness of mistakes that all first-time fishkeepers make.

If you want to keep live plants, be sure to tell the salesperson, to make sure the aquarium light is sufficient to grow live plants. Gravel and ornaments are completely your choices, just don’t put anything into your tank that you did not get from the store, such as beach or river stones, pieces of wood, etc. Items collected from nature may have unwanted life forms hitching a ride on them and then wreaking havoc in your tank.

Goldfish Tank

Goldfish are beautiful, and they have been kept by hobbyists for thousands of years. They come in many lovely shapes and colors, and they will do fine at room temperature without a heater. However, goldfish grow quickly, and they will eventually need 5 to 8 gallons of water per fish. They also tend to be really messy, and the best filter for a goldfish tank is an outside canister filter or at least a hang-on-back (hob) filter. Clean the filter often—just the mechanical portion (floss or sponge).

Use either number two gravel or fine sand. Large-size gravel will allow food and detritus to slip between the grains and make a big mess. Hard-leaved plants are best—Anubias spp. and java ferns are ideal. And finally, do not start with the small, cheap “feeder” goldfish. These fish are very stressed, and if they do survive, they will get big—like 6 inches or more in a year or so. Stay with the fancy varieties—orandas, ryukins, telescopes, etc.

Species Tanks

After most hobbyists have kept their first tanks for a while (a “while” could be a week or a year or anything in between), they usually get the disease called MTS—multiple tank syndrome. A good friend of mine at United Pet Group (the parent company of Tetra, Marineland, etc.) told me that 50 percent of all first-time fishkeepers do not have their tank after a year—but that 60 percent of those who do still have their first tank will have started at least one more tank. This is where species tanks start appearing. A hobbyist decides that he/she really likes one kind of fish and wants to start a new tank just with those fish. A couple of examples of species tanks include:

  • Cardinal tetras. There is a photo on page 49 of one of my 65-gallon tanks, which features a large school of cardinal tetras in a densely planted tank. There are also some catfish, a few sumo loaches and lots of shrimp for algae duty. I run this tank on two simple air-driven filters, one box filter with bio-pellets and floss, and one a sponge.
  • African cichlids. These fish are hardy, beautiful and active. They require hard water with a high pH, but this can be achieved with limestone rock and/or additives. Africans also need to have excellent water movement and filtration. This is best achieved with an oversized canister filter with split water returns to the tank.
  • Angelfish. My favorite fish. There is nothing more beautiful than a good-sized tank—say a 55-gallon aquarium—with a school of angelfish. They will pair off and breed, and they are simply a lovely sight. 

Planted Tanks With Shrimp

I think all tanks should have live plants, and all of my tanks, except where I have breeding angelfish, have live plants. If you keep big cichlids, including Africans, or fish that eat plants voraciously, you may want to rethink keeping live plants. The two things to think about with a planted tank are:

  1. Substrate. There are many excellent substrates available specifically for plants, and they make growing plants easy, as they provide both the anchor and nutrients.
  2. Lighting. Plants need enough of the right light, and there are LED lighting fixtures in the aquarium industry that will grow gorgeous plants. Where 2 to 3 watts per gallon is usually recommended for T5 or T8 fluorescents, plants will do very well with 1/2-watt of LED lighting per gallon.

In general, I like to keep it simple when it comes to living plants, and I suggest the following:

  1.  Only keep plants that do well in your water conditions. E.g. vals love my tanks, but I can’t grow sag for all my life. My water is very soft and acidic.
  2.  I like plants that only require medium light and no carbon dioxide injection.
  3.  I do not add any plant additives. My many friends who own local fish stores hate it when I say this because they sell many additives for planted tanks. I keep lots of fish in my planted tanks, and I don’t try to grow anything fancy, so the poop from the fish is plenty for the plants.    

Saltwater Marine Starter Fish Tanks

The equipment and our knowledge have both improved so much that it is easy to keep a marine tank as your first aquarium. There are a number of packaged nano tanks that will do well with a few soft corals and one or two tiny blennies or gobies. These very small tanks usually do not contain any heater or any protein skimming, so the livestock has to be very limited. Your local fish store will be able to tell you how to keep a marine nano as a starter tank. 

There are, however, a variety of excellent, larger-packaged marine tanks. These larger tanks include—in addition to better lighting—a heater, some water movement pumps, small mechanical filtration (usually just a thin piece of sponge) and a protein skimmer. With all of those items, a packaged marine kit can be an excellent starter tank. I have had great results with all of the Red Sea models. The most important key to success with a first marine tank is to buy only aquacultured fishes and invertebrates. These tend to be heartier and have not undergone the stress of specimens taken from the wild. Fortunately, there are plenty of aquacultured fish around, with more coming out all the time.

FOWLR (Fish Only With Live Rock)

This is the most popular type of marine tank, and a FOWLR tank will do very well if you follow a few guidelines.

  1. Get the biggest tank that you can afford. Select a tank within your budget and make sure you are willing to devote the money, space and time to its maintenance.
  2. Use the amount of live rock that your store recommends. This can be a combination of dry-base rock, which will start the coral formations and will eventually become colonized by good bacteria, and cured live rock. It is important to emphasize that the live rock, while it will have living things on it, has been cured at the store. When you pick up a piece of cured live rock, it should have a nice “oceany” smell and should not have any hint of a bad smell.
  3. The protein skimmer is the most important piece of equipment. Get a good one that is oversized for your tank and easy to clean
  4. Provide plenty of hiding places for fish that need to hide. You need at least two “bolt holes” for each fish that likes to hide—the more, the better.
  5. Be very careful introducing fish into the tank. Quarantine all new fish for at least two weeks. Watch introductions carefully for the first few hours.

Reef Tanks

For many hobbyists, a reef tank is the ultimate ideal aquarium. The notion of having a “slice of the reef” in your living room can be very alluring. Beautiful fish, interesting corals, clams and other invertebrates—what could be better? We surely have the knowledge and the products necessary for maintaining a true reef aquarium. The LED lighting is available to provide all the light that a reef tank needs, but there will always be a few diehards who will go to their graves clutching their metal halides. We have the proper foods for corals and other inverts as well as for all of the fish.

A reef tank is well within the sight of any dedicated fishkeeper. I stress the word “dedicated,” as a successful reef tank requires lots of time and a fair amount of money. You need to monitor all of the parameters of water chemistry regularly, at least two or three times a week, and be prepared to add the requisite additives to keep the parameters where they should be, either by hand or using dosing pumps. Different foods need to be fed sparingly but often. Reef tanks are gorgeous, but I sincerely urge you to think it through before you make the commitment. Make sure you are ready.

Specimens in Cube Systems

There are plenty of very interesting fish and invertebrates (both fresh and marine) that cannot be kept together in a large tank with other animals. Some potential inhabitants that come to mind are the many varieties of freshwater shrimp and crayfish, marine goby/shrimp pairs, mantis shrimp, etc.

To keep a variety of animals in a single place and system, there are “cube systems” available. These started out being for marine wholesalers and retail fish stores, but now they are available for hobbyists. The systems consist of a number of levels of individual cubes, all tied together to the same filtration/heating system in a sump below. Water is pumped up and into all of the cubes and then returns to the sump. These are very nice systems if you want to keep a variety of small animals.

Aquarium Plants

Not to be facetious (which is one of the few words in the English language that has all of the vowels appearing once only and in the correct order—aeiou), but it can be argued that fish do not need any plants. After all, go into any local fish store and take a look at the tanks that they sell their fish from. I can pretty much guarantee you that those tanks will not have any live plants in them. Live plants in-store tanks will get destroyed in the process of catching the fish, and the fish will eat them anyway. 

There is a difference between fish that need plants and fish that need vegetable matter in their diet. No fish really need plants, but many need vegetable matter in their diet. Fish that need plant matter in their diet can be kept healthy by feeding them prepared foods that are heavy in plant matter and offering them vegetables as a regular part of their diet. Blanched zucchini, romaine lettuce, and nori from an Asian foods store will meet their vegetable needs. Feeding plant matter to fish that require it is easy and should always be done.

My unbiased, and correct, view of live plants is that any tank looks better with live plants, and the fish will do better. Every tank I have (and I have many), except tanks for breeding angelfish, is densely planted with live plants. Some fish really do need live plants. These include most of the small schooling fish, such as tetras, rasboras and the like. These fish need the safety of a thicket of live plants to retreat into or leaves floating on the surface that they can hide under. The more places for fish to hide, the safer they will feel and the more they will be out in the open where you can see them. 

Many fish need vegetable matter in their diet, and while those fish are very pleased to be able to chomp on live plants, it will be difficult to keep soft plants with these fish for any length of time. Bunch plants, such as Egeria spp., Cabomba spp., will have a tough time keeping up their growth if there are fish such as silver dollars, mollies or clown loaches in the tank.

Live plants offered for use in aquariums vary greatly, and I would divide them into four groups. 

  1. Fairly delicate plants that do not do very well in aquariums. These include most of the plants you see in those beautiful Amano planted aquariums, which by the way, have a few small fish and lots of algae-eating shrimp. Planted tanks like these are, to me, not really fish tanks; they are plant tanks with a few fish.
  2. Average aquatic plants that will do well in an aquarium. These include Valisneria spp., Amazon sword plants, crypts, java ferns and whatever bunch plants, such as Egeria, Cabomba, and Hygrophila spp., that do well in your water.
  3. Tough plants that will grow, albeit slowly, in the presence of fish that are known, plant devourers. Plants such as Anubias spp., Bolbiltis spp., etc.
  4. Plants sold for aquariums but are not true aquatic plants and, therefore, will die soon if completely submerged. The biggest offenders here are bamboos, “Brazilian” sword plants, purple crinkle, sanderianna and the like. These plants will stay intact for a while underwater, but eventually (in a few weeks), they all just melt away.

Lots of fish need vegetable matter in their diet, but this is different from needing live plants in their aquarium. For fish like mollies, platies and swordtails, silver dollars and loaches, if there are soft live plants in their aquarium, they will happily chomp down on them. To keep them equally happy, and in better shape, it is best simply to feed them a variety of dry prepared foods that are high in the vegetable matter (especially spirulina algae), and offer them pieces of blanched Romaine lettuce, zucchini or melon rinds. 

Key Principles of Fishkeeping

As I hope you can see from this article, the number of different ideal aquariums is only limited by your constraints of space, money, time and living arrangements. Please allow me to leave you with some general principles of fishkeeping that apply universally.

  1. Understand the nitrogen cycle. It drives the entire world—and especially the world of keeping animals in glass boxes of water.
  2. Give your fish plenty of space. Remember that the specimens you buy at your local fish store are usually juveniles. Know the adult size before you buy that cute little oscar or Hypostomus plecostomus.
  3. Water quality is king. Test the tank water parameters at least once a week, and keep a record of those parameters.
  4. Provide excellent filtration—mechanical and biological. When you clean the mechanical filter, try not to disturb the biological one.
  5. Do regular partial water changes—20 percent once a week is great. If you can only do it every other week, change 30 percent.
  6. Quarantine all new fish and inverts for at least two weeks, but three is better.
  7. Feed your fish and inverts a variety of foods, twice a day, whatever they will eat completely in three minutes. Your fish should always be looking for food. Skip feeding at least one day a week.
  8. Finally, spend lots of time looking at your tank(s). After all, that’s what you got them for, isn’t it? Learn what each fish and each tank normally looks like; that way, you will recognize any problems quickly, before they become serious. And please support your local fish stores.