Fish Tank Set Up Easy As 1-2-3

With a little help, you can set up a freshwater, saltwater, or brackish tank with ease. The world is your oyster!

An aquarium is a beautiful addition for both fish lovers and those who enjoy the tranquility of having an aquarium in their home.

Creating a fish tank set up at home isn’t complicated; Just follow some basic rules, and with a little attention, you’ll quickly have a beautiful ecosystem in your home.

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1 Planning Your Tank

The first step to having a successful aquarium is to correctly plan different factors like where to place the tank and what fish it will have.

It’s the perfect time to avoid all sorts of future problems, from improper tank mates to overpopulation or fish being kept in incorrect water conditions.

Space Availability and Tank Placement

The available space you have to set up an aquarium is a key factor in planning. I recommend choosing a medium volume size (somewhere between 40 and 70 gallons), because tanks of this size keep parameters like pH, ammonia, and temperature stable for longer. In other words: They are easier to care for.

There are some rules to follow when placing your aquarium:


  • Put it in a place that does not receive direct sun: The direct sun heats the water, causing fluctuations in parameter.
  • Place your tank in a not-too-busy corner: Too much movement outside the tank can scare and stress the fish.
  • Always support your aquarium on a flat, firm, and secure surface. Otherwise, your tank can develop cracks in no time.

1.1 Choosing Tank Type and Equipment

The aquarium hobby is not in itself a unique thing: There’s a multitude of aquariums, mounts, and niche types. Your fish tank set up process will reflect these differences. Here are some of the main ones:

  • Reef aquariums: Saltwater tanks with the presence of corals and other invertebrates.
  • Planted tanks: Densely planted freshwater aquariums.
  • Tropical Aquariums: Tanks for keeping animals tropical fish, which live in warm water (77 to 82 F).

When planning your aquarium, you have to decide what kind of tank you’ll have, along with it inhabitants: Will you keep tropical fish, invertebrates, corals, or plants? Or something else?

1.2 Freshwater or Saltwater?

Submarine Aquarium Photo

Submarine Aquarium Photo by © Fish

Despite having similar processes, freshwater and saltwater aquariums have some differences in terms of equipment. This is one of the first big decisions you have to make, since this will directly affect all your other planning.

Species that live in freshwaters, such as tetras and plecos, are NOT the same as those that live in marine aquariums, such as clownfish.

In addition, some equipment, such as the skimmer, is not used in tropical aquariums.

2 Aquarium Equipment

Freshwater aquariums are the most popular around the world. There are heaps of different brands and types of equipment. When setting up your aquarium, it’s best to use well-known brands such as Fluval and Hagen. This helps guarantee that your equipment will work perfectly for many years.

Here’s a list of equipment needed for freshwater aquarium set up:


  • Filter:      This is an imperative item for any tank. There are many types of filters on the market such as HOB, canister, and foam filters. All exhibit a similar efficiency; Use is differentiate by personal preference and also the liter of the aquarium. HOB works best in small tanks (around 14 gallons), while canisters are great for tanks around 50 gallons.There are also sponge-type filters: These filters are very efficient when used correctly, and work well in tanks below 20 gallons. I would strongly recommend Hagen Aquaclear as HOB Filter and Eheim Classic for canister.
  • Heater and thermostat:      These are essential items to maintain an aquarium properly. The heater will be responsible for preventing the water temperature from dropping, and keeping the temperature always stable. Among the major manufacturers, I can attest to the efficiency of Fluval and Hagen heaters.


  • Lighting:      Lighting can either be unnecessary or be the key to the success of the chosen assembly. In planted or coral reef aquariums, you should use specific lighting relative to the size of your tank. In other cases, the light will only indicate to the inhabitants whether it’s day or night. Aqua Illumination’s Hydra and Prime lines are great luminaires for reef tanks. For planted aquariums, the manufacturer Chihiros offers a great cost benefit.


  • Substrate:      This is another item that may be either nonexistent or a vital piece, depending on the aquarium set up. Always choose the substrate with the animals and plants you want to keep in mind. For example, if you’ll have fish known for feeding on bottom rocks (such as kissing gourami) then take care to not leave any rocks with sharp edges they could hurt themselves on. If you want a planted aquarium, use fertile substrate, if you have bottom fish, sandy substrate, and so on. The best substrates for freshwater aquariums are from the ADA brand, with special emphasis on Aquasoil Amazonia. For marine aquariums my favorite is the CaribSea Arag-Alive Fiji Pink Sand.


  • Decor:      Decor will depend on the fish and flats you will want to keep. Some people like naturalistic looks with plants, rocks, and natural roots. Others don’t mind having plastic plants and colored stones.


  • Tests:      Super. Duper. Important! The only way for you to know the chemical parameters of your water is to carry out tests for pH, ammonia, etc. Some aquariums (such as reef aquariums) require a range of specific tests, such as the number of minerals in the water. Others, like a typical tropical aquarium, require a basic test kit with only tests for ammonia, nitrate, pH, chlorine, and hardness. The API Master Test Kit is a great choice to have quality tests for your aquarium.

2.1 Saltwater Aquarium Equipment

Aquarium Equipment

Aquarium Equipment Photo by © Victorrass88

Marine aquariums don’t differ much from the equipment of a freshwater aquarium, but may require a little more equipment.


  • Skimmer:      It’s like an extra filter. It works by removing proteins from the water, keeping the amount of organic material available in the water stable for longer. This avoids problems with ammonia spikes and too much organic load interfering with water quality. Among the different skimmers, I’d certainly recommend the NYOS Quantum line; It’s a standout product, but has a high cost. Among very good and affordable skimmers I can recommend Bubble Magus BM-Curve and Reef Octopus Classic.


  • Water:      Don’t go throwing just any saltwater in your tank! To make saltwater you need two essential items:
    • Pure water:      = Water without mineral content, similar to distilled water. You can install a filtration system in your home or choose to get it directly from aquarium stores. The water must be pure because any salt content can change the final chemistry of the saltwater. Among the many manufacturers of RO (reverse osmosis) filters, I really like APEC Water Systems Ultimate RO-Hi.


    • Salt:      Salt is an artificial compound that contains different salts and minerals, imitating seawater. It’s a vital element for the maintenance of marine animals. There are several types of salt mix, and they all yield similar results I recommend you try out the main brands and find the one that suits you best. Among my favorites are Red Sea Coral Pro Salt and Red Sea Salt, Tropic Marin Pro Reef, and Reef Crystals by Aquarium Systems.


  • Lighting:      If you want to keep corals, clams, and anemones, you need specific lighting. I’ve been using Zetlight’s UFO line for many years. I also really like Maxspect’s Razor line.
    Temperature control: In marine aquariums, the temperature must be around 75 F so it’s necessary to have a cooling system such as coolers or chillers in addition to a heater. Always opt for precision heaters such as the Marineland Precision Heater and EHEIM Precision.


  • Decorations:      In marine aquariums, it’s common to use decorations and substrates of limestone origin. Due to their chemical composition, these rocks donate their hardness to the water, keeping the pH and hardness stable for longer.

2.2 Other Items and Equipment

Aquarium Siphon Photo

Siphoning Aquarium Gravel Photo by © Gavial31

But wait, that’s not all! There are a few more important items that are also essential in fish tank set up and aquarium keeping:


  • Water conditioner:      This is a product responsible for removing harmful substances such as chlorine, heavy metals, and chloramine from the water to be placed in the aquarium. Always use a good quality one, like Seachem Prime.


  • Capture nets:      A vital item to capture fish quickly and with minimal stress. A tip that I always give my clients is to have nets of different sizes, because this makes it easier to capture different species. Boyu Fish Nets never disappointed me.


  • Food:      Get specific foods for the fish you want to keep. Rather than feeding the same dry food day in and day out, always have one more type of food on hand, like live foods like bloodworms and flake food. This way you guarantee dietary diversity for your fish, keeping them healthy. Make sure to use high-quality foods like Hikari First Bites, Tropical RedMico and JBL Krill Premium.


  • Densimeter/Refractometer:      For saltwater aquariums, you need to have a meter called a hydrometer. Using this, you’ll know if the salinity level of your aquarium is outside the ideal indices (1023 to 1026). Neptune Salinity and Neptune Apex Aalinity Module are top-of-the-line products. Red Sea Refractometer is also a good choice.


  • Additional items:      In some cases, other products may be needed to correct and stabilize water parameters. Alkalizers and acidifiers are the most commonly used for hardness and pH correction. I prefer to stick with well-known brands such as Seachem Acid Regulator and API Proper pH 7.0.


  • Siphon, buckets, and drying cloths:      These items will help you carry out the maintenance of your aquarium, such as cleaning and changing the water.

3 Setting Up the Aquarium

Once you’ve decided the kind of aquarium you’ll have and whether it will be saltwater or freshwater, and you’ve purchased the equipment and studied the animals you want, you’re ready to start in the aquarium hobby.

Assembling the equipment in an aquarium is simple. Follow the set up instructions that come with the tank, stand, substrate, decor, filter, and other items that you purchase.

One tip is to get your equipment from specialized stores and local aquarium stores (rather than big box places) as the sellers will be happy to answer your questions and help you determine how to proceed correctly.

3.1 Filling Your Aquarium With Water

Once you have the basic set up finished and you’ve placed the filter, substrate, decorations, and equipment, it’s time to add water.

  • Freshwater aquariums:      Fill with a hose or bucket. You can use either purchased water in gallons or straight from your home tap. Always use water conditioner such as Seachem Prime, API Tapwater Conditioner, e Aquaeon Water Conditioner.
  • Saltwater aquariums:       If you have an R.O. (Reverse Osmosis, which leaves pure water passing it through membranes) or I.D. (Deionization Filter, similar to R.O., but purifies water through ionic resins), separate the water in a bucket and mix it with the artificial salt. Follow the recommendations on the salt package for the correct mixture and ratios.

After filling your aquarium with water, test it! Carry out tests on your water using a kit like API Master Water Test Kit to check if parameters such as pH are within the ideal for the fish you plan to keep. If necessary, proceed with any corrections.

Be sure to add the heater and any other components you may have not added yet. But don’t put the fish in yet!

The next step after having your aquarium working perfectly is to be patient and wait for the period called cycling.

3.2 The Cycling Period

Cycling Tank Photo

Cycling Tank Photo by © Rafael Ben Ari

Cycling is a vital part of the process of making an aquarium life-supporting.

Cycling is nothing more than the amount of time needed to establish different colonies of bacteria responsible for keeping high quality water. This is the amount of time needed for them to settle and thrive. This fixation occurs on all surfaces of the tank, especially in the filtration system.

In freshwater aquariums, this process lasts from 14 to 32 days. During this time you should proceed with tests (at least weekly) of ammonia and pH. When the ammonia is close to 0 and the pH is stable, your aquarium can support life.

In saltwater aquariums, this process is similar but takes longer to complete. You should wait around 3 months before adding fish and corals. I know it can be tough to wait, but it’s better to do it right the first time and keep your fish alive. As the saying goes, “Do it right, do it once.”

When cycling is complete, proceed with an extensive water change (about 80%).

Don’t skip cycling. I know it can feel frustrating to have to wait, but remember that these animals are at your mercy in captivity. Don’t risk it. “Do it right, do it once.”

4 Populating Your Aquarium

By this point, you’re just two steps away from completing your fish tank set up and being able to add fish, corals, shrimp and whatever other animals in the aquarium that you had planned. These steps are called quarantining and acclimatization, and they’re absolutely necessary.

4.1 Quarantining Animals and Plants For the Aquarium

The moment you’ve been waiting for: The last part in tank assembling. By now your aquarium is already set up and cycled, and you’ve had enough time to read and learn about the fish and plants you want to keep.

Ideally, you should quarantine any animals or plants before placing them in your new aquarium.

Quarantine is nothing more than a period of isolation, where you observe if the fish carries or has any disease (and see if plants have any pests).

This step is carried out using small aquariums (around 10 gallons) as quarantine tanks and is strictly adhered to, with great care and maximum water quality.

This is because it’s a SUPER important step. Quarantining prevents accidentally introducing a bacteria or illness to the aquarium that could wipe out the tank’s entire population of inhabitants! So yes, it’s important. You’ll see people in the hobby skip this step. Don’t. You’ll see them on forums later trying to solve the problems it caused.

The average period in which we maintain the quarantine is around 15 days. That’s enough time for the appearance of any illness, ailments, bacteria, etc to emerge and become apparent.

After the quarantine, you can populate your aquarium by acclimatizing the animals.

NOTE:      The golden tip here is to insert the inhabitants little by little. This way you allow the bacterial colony to adapt without being overwhelmed. If that happens the water quality will quickly degrade, causing the tank to need more constant water changes and cleaning.

4.2 Acclimatization

Acclimatization is an absolutely necessary process when populating your aquarium, and not doing it is an unfortunately common habit. Acclimatization is the opposite of simply releasing your fish from direct transport into the main aquarium (eg, abruptly changing the animal’s environment).

It can be tempting for people to skip this step of fish tank set up, but please don’t! Just because animals can’t speak doesn’t mean they don’t feel. Help keep them happy and healthy by acclimatizing them. We’ll show you how below! 🙂 


4.3 Adding Plants and Animals by Acclimatization

To acclimatize the fish properly, you must equalize the water in the aquarium with the water contained in the transport container. This is done by letting the container float inside the aquarium for a while, to equalize the temperature.

After about 15 minutes, you should gradually swap the water in the container for the water in the aquarium. Take a little off every 10 minutes. When the transport place is filled with aquarium water, discard the water and, with the help of a net, insert the fish into the aquarium.

Plants can simply be planted directly on the substrate. Some aquarists plant the plants in pots and bury them in the substrate. If you’re dealing with sensitive plants, it’s recommended to proceed with acclimatization.

Now that your aquarium is working perfectly, mounted, cycled, and populated, the next step in your new hobbyist life is to keep the tank in an optimal condition at all times.

5 Maintenance


Equipment Photo by © Kateryna Dyellalova

Once you have a completed fish tank set up, maintenance is simple. It should preferably be performed weekly in freshwater aquariums or every other week in saltwater tanks.

Maintenance includes:


  • Partial water changes:      Around 30% in saltwater aquariums and 30 to 80% in freshwater tanks.


  • Cleaning decorations and glass:      Use aquarium glass cleaners, such as Seachem Algae Scapers, and JBL Algae Magnet to keep the windows algae-free. The decoration should be removed and preferably cleaned with a soft sponge, using the aquarium water to rinse.


  • Siphoning:       This is an essential part of the process in which, through a siphon and with the help of gravity, you remove the dirt accumulated in the substrate along with the water.


  • Equipment cleaning:       Filters should be cleaned monthly. In order to not kill the bacteria present in the filtering system, always use the water removed from the aquarium to perform the cleaning.
    • Cleaning the filter is easy:      Disassemble it, rinsing the biological media in water that you removed from the aquarium. Change charcoal and other chemicals as necessary and remove the pump to clean the impeller. The pump can be washed under running water without any problems.


  • Optimal Feeding:      Start by feeding your fish with just a pinch of feed. If they’re still hungry, offer some more. This way you avoid food leftovers in the water, which actively contributes to pollution in the aquarium.

5 Wrap Up

At first glance, fish tank set up and caring for an aquarium seems like a complicated task, but it’s simple and intuitive. Follow the steps and tips in this guide to easily set up your aquarium.

Acclimatization, quarantine, and cycling may seem boring and just a time barrier between you and the aquarium of your dreams, but they’re vital steps for a tank to stay healthy for many years to come.

Once you get into the aquarium hobby, you can never get enough! Read about the species you want to keep, avoid impulsive purchases, and have the patience to carry out all the steps that are important for a perfect aquarium.