How To Start A Fish Tank In 6 Quick Steps For Beginners

You are preparing to discover the natural wonder of the fishkeeping arena. Welcome to the fabulous world of fishkeeping! Setting the first fish tank and having the first fish in is exciting.

Fish as a pet is adorable, and they deserve the best care. In return, they furnish your life with more color and fun. An aquarium is a fascinating addition to any home or workplace, being a source of entertainment and stress relief.

All beginners search for guidance to make a smooth opening in the aquarium journey. But unfortunately, reliable resources are limited. No wonder you and many other enthusiasts are hovering over many questions and a little confused about how to start a fish tank!

When I was a newbie, I also pondered over ‘how things should be done, and over time being, I learned how to do that. Now I am sharing my experiences with you.

Newbies make the common mistake of jumpstarting this exciting hobby without proper research. In contrast, planning is the key to successful fishkeeping. You have to know your aim and curbs on the path.

Though starting an aquarium is a pretty easy task, you have to know the right steps. In this article, I’ve come up with six vital steps to start aquariums.

Tips no 1 on how to Start a fish tank

It is the first and the most crucial step that you should never miss out on. Resolve the type and size of your desired aquarium. Do you want to start with a small freshwater tank or a large Marine tank?

Well, saltwater aquariums are more precarious to manage. They require distinctive maintenance, additional equipment, and special lighting. Thus, saltwater aquariums are more challenging to keep than their freshwater counterparts.

If you think of a saltwater aquarium as the very first venture in the fishkeeping arena to start with, I’ll discourage you, as your inexperience can backfire. 

The aquarium’s size and shape should match your budget and the space available in your room for it. Many people prefer 5-gallon aquariums as their home showpiece, and in the market, you’ll find vastly popular 5-gallon tanks. 

But for the fish to attain their best performance, I prefer a larger size. Start with at least a 10-gallon tank. Many species of freshwater fish are nicely compatible with 10-gallon aquariums. 

Tips no 2 on how to Start a fish tank

Yes, fish selection is also vital. As a newbie, the benchmark of your fish selection should be, picking hardy fish. If the first lot of fish doesn’t survive, first-timers may get so disheartened that they end up buying no more pets. Such a woeful finishing of a story even before it starts! 

I don’t want you to be a loser like them! Find a list of fish suitable for beginners that are hardy enough. And pick those who are easy to care for. Fish that don’t require any special attention or care can be the best mates in your aquarium journey. 

If you plan to make a community tank, simply pick peaceful species. Don’t choose a fighting fish for a community aquarium. For instance, if you select an aggressive fish like Betta, you’ll have to build a single Betta fish aquarium. 

Don’t bring fish all the fish home at a time, but get only a few as starter fish. And a valuable tip to always remember is never to jam the aquarium with too many fish. 

Know more about the fish selection: 

Arranging the right accessories for the aquarium is very, very crucial. If you sequentially put a list of the essential aquarium accessories, the aquarium filter will be at the top, followed by the heater, lighting, and substrates. Live plants have some vital uses, and then decors, which many people may consider ‘nice-to-have’ only.

Tips number 3 on how to Start a fish tank

A Three Stage Filtration System

An effective aquarium filter is unreplaceable to maintain a healthy aquarium. In recent days befitting filters are available with many aquarium kits. But if you have to buy one separately, be sure it is adequately sized for the aquarium.  

A standard filtration system should have three separate stages mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration. Be sure the filter media for your sorted-out filtration system is readily available in the market.  

There are several types of aquarium filters on the market, and to make your selection easier, I’ve reviewed and listed the best items in every category only for you. 

You can select any type, but make sure whatever you select is suitable for your tank size, bioloads, etc.

The second most important item is an aquarium heater. Most tropical fish require a steady temperature from 74° to 80° F. Fish are susceptible to bacterial and fungal infection at low water temperatures. 

When picking a heater, determining its capacity is crucial. The most straightforward rule of thumb is 2.5 watts per gallon, at least. That means a 25-watt heater is a minimum requirement for a 10-gallon tank. 

Lights and substrates are indispensable to establishing a beneficial natural cycle in aquariums. From an aesthetical perspective, an aquarium without lighting is unimaginable. I’ll suggest investing in simple LED lights at the start.

The substrate is the bottom bed material. It significantly affects the water chemistry of the aquarium and the well-being of the tank inhabitants. Gravel and sand-type substrates are well-liked choices among aquarists.

I won’t suggest sands for my newbie friends, as it requires a little more stringent maintenance. So gravel is the better option for you. Standard gravels are available in the market. Two pounds of gravel per gallon of water will be sufficient. 

Having live plants in aquariums is an excellent idea. Live plants establish a healthy aquarium environment, but at the same time, it requires additional care and effort.

As a beginner, you can have a few plants that are easy to care for. Java Moss is an excellent choice for beginners, as it is almost impossible to kill and doesn’t require a high-tech aquarium with intense lighting. One or two potted small plants or small Marimo moss balls are also lovely, and they will be easy to handle. 

But, if you want to start with a fish-only aquarium, it’s also not a bad idea. After a few months of stabilization, add live plants. Before starting with plants, check this article for your planting guide.

After arranging all the necessary accessories, the next step is to set up them all. There are some sequential works for setting up your first tank.

Tips no 4 on how to Start a fish tank

Use fresh water to rinse the aquarium tank, decors, and substrate materials. Especially cleaning the substrate material (sand, rock, or gravel) is a bit tricky. Ensure no dust and debris remain present in the bottom matters. Otherwise, they can cause cloudy aquarium water later on. 

Do not use soap and detergent as they are toxic to fish. 

Choose an even surface to place the tank, set the tank stand, and place the tank on it carefully. Adjust and level the tank carefully, as an unbalanced tank is risky. You can add one or two inches of water to confirm whether the tank is balanced or not.

Avoid placing the tank near an outside window, as direct sunlight and outdoor dust can cause several troubles.

First, fill the tank with the bottom materials, then install the filtration system and the heater sequentially. Other items such as lights and decors will come in the next step.

When installing the filter, heater, and lights, follow the manufacturer’s instructions in the letter.

Use fresh potable water for your aquarium. If you use tap water, ensure it is free from chlorine compounds.

Fill the tank with water slowly. First, fill half of the tank and check for any leaks. If everything is okay at the mid-stage, proceed further slowly. If any leakage is found, it is better to get the tank replaced. It is not wise to accept a repaired leaky tank.

Have you ever heard about the nitrogen cycle in a fish tank? It is a biochemical process that takes place in aquariums and is significantly decisive for healthy aquariums. Well, let’s explore a little deeper into this process. 

In aquariums, biological wastes are unavoidable, and they come from fish poops, rotten food leftovers, and dead plant matter. Organic scraps decompose to form acutely toxic ammonia.

The presence of a trace amount of ammonia can kill your fish. But a nitrogen cycle helps the fish tank get rid of ammonia by converting it into nitrates, and some beneficial bacteria catalyze the full process. 

It usually takes 6 to 8 weeks to establish a mature nitrogen cycle in a newly built aquarium. So, this cycling process is time-consuming, as you have to allow adequate time for growing a colony of beneficial bacteria. 

There are three methods of cycling a fish tank. The first one is traditional with fish, and the other is fishless cycling. The third option is cycling with plants, but I won’t suggest this method for beginners.

Tips no 5 on how to Start a fish tank

In a traditional cycling process, fishkeepers add some hardy fish to an immature aquarium. Fish wastes produce ammonia and promote growing bacteria colonies naturally.

This process imposes tremendous stress on fish, and often newly bought hardy fish die. You’ll be surprised to know that the starter fish are sometimes named suicide fish. People actually bring them to sacrifice!

I never feel good about killing poor animals. Otherwise, you have to be super diligent with maintenance during this time, and a minor mistake can kill your fish. So, in my opinion, this process is not actually feasible for an inexperienced hobbyist.

Fishless cycling is advisable for newbies, but it requires patience. You’ll have to wait at least four weeks with an empty aquarium to have the first fish.

For cycling a new fish tank without fish, you can directly add household ammonia fish feeds to produce ammonia to initiate the cycling process.

Dosing household ammonia and bacteria seeds with meticulous care is an excellent way of starting the cycling process. Household ammonia is readily available in DIY stores and pharmacies.

Start with adding five drops of ammonia per ten gallons of water daily. Analyze water regularly with test kits. As soon as test kits detect nitrites in quantifiable amounts, reduce the ammonia dosing to two drops daily. Keep dosing ammonia until test kits detect zero ammonia and nitrite.

The entire process can take three to four weeks, while bacteria seeding enhances this process outstandingly, reducing the time requirement. Prepared bacteria boosters are available in aquarium shops and online sites.

As I said before, some people add fish feeds to an empty tank instead of ammonia. It is not at all a bad idea. Rotted foods produce ammonia, and ultimately the result is the same.

This method includes live plants in the new aquarium. Cycling with plants can be fishless and with fish. Besides having plants in the tank, all other things are similar to the previous two methods.

Having live plants in your first aquarium since the cycling phase isn’t a bad idea. But I suggest new aquarists for simple fish-less cycling.

Keep performing water tests during the cycling process. Remember, three critical measures in a cycling process are; ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels in the water.

In a fully cycled tank, the ammonia and nitrite level comes to zero, and the nitrate level rises. Below 40 ppm nitrate level in the water is a safe condition to add fish.

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Tips no 6 on how to Start a fish tank

Overstocking is a common mistake by beginners. Disregarding the urge to have various colorful fish is somewhat hard to check! Isn’t it?

But overstocking is dangerous for new fishkeepers. An overstocked aquarium is harder to maintain in a healthy state. Water quality deteriorates rapidly to toxicity buildup, resulting in fish deaths.

The same mistake I made when I bought my first aquarium. It was a typical 20-gallon home aquarium, and there I put a total of 14 fish having various sizes and colors. 

Within a couple of days, I observed cloudy aquarium water. I performed a water change, but bad luck, half of my fish died in a week! I had to seek an expert’s opinion at that time.

Experts advise a rule of thumb to keep one inch per gallon. For instance, if you have a fish 5.5 inches in length, the rule implies that roughly the fish alone will require an entire five-gallon tank.

If you are buying a juvenile fish, it will grow bigger in the aquarium. Always consider the length of an adult. There is a bizarre aphorism by experts about fish stocking; estimate how many fish are suitable for an aquarium, and take less than that! If you want to know more detail, read my article on how many fish per gallon (beginners stocking guide).

Extra tips on how to Start a fish tank

A systematic approach to maintaining the aquarium is efficient, and it will lessen your hassle. You can keep a log of the daily, weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly undertakings necessary.

For instance, your daily checklist will cover feeding the fish, observing their mood, temperature checking, etc. The weekly activity may include partial water changes, siphoning gravel, etc.

In the bi-weekly and monthly schedule, you have to perform little extensive tasks like filter media changes, water testing, scraping glasses, etc.

I suggest fishless cycling for the new tank. In that case, you have to wait till the tank is fully cycled. Typically it takes 6 -8 weeks.

On the other hand, if you want to add fish to a new tank and go cycling with fish, you still have to wait at least 48 hours after setting up the tank and filling the water.

If you use tap water in the aquarium, it is better to use an aquarium water conditioner. You can add household ammonia additives to initiate the cycling process. No other chemical is really essential other than the ones mentioned above. 

It depends on many things, such as; how large an aquarium you intend to make, what type of accessories and decors you want to have, and the fish species you plan to keep.

If you wish to start with a simple 10-15 gallon freshwater aquarium with common beginner’s fish, it is possible to complete the whole setup within 300 – 500 USD.

Once you start this fascinating journey, you’ll find everything quite easy. Fishkeeping will never be humdrum. Fish are colorful adorable pets for bring charm to your life. They don’t demand much supervision and commitment.

Fishkeeping is a pleasing hobby! In a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 34% of fishkeepers considered fishkeeping to be a rewarding hobby. This percentage was the highest of all pets, followed by birdkeeping, which was 22%.  

The hands-on experience is gold, and only a piece of bookish knowledge is worthless. Still, you need resources to assist your aquarium journey. I have got a list of 30 aquarium blogs you may find useful for gathering information. 

One site I should specifically mention. Tropical Fish Care Guides’ is a great resource to help beginners avoid the biggest mistakes and teach them how to look after tropical fish the right way.

Sujit Modak

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