How To Set Up A Fish Tank: Your Ultimate Guide

Fish tank

Pets are good for our health and having fish in your home or office can help lower stress levels and add a sense of peacefulness to any space. It is easy to find a fish tank to fit in any home or office space since tanks come in so many different sizes and shapes. You can even order a fully customized aquarium. 

While the sizes and shapes of fish tanks vary, what doesn’t is the way you set them up. You need to adequately prepare the fish tank so fish can become acclimated and live a long and healthy life. 

Unfortunately for too many fish, their owners do not set up their tanks properly. Knowing how to set up a fish tank can save you time and money. Setting up a fish tank is not something that you should on a whim. You should think about it and plan before you start your shopping. These eight steps will guide you through the process.

Step One: Take Time To Plan

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Fish, like all pets, require food, water, and cleaning. Adding one to your home isn’t something you should take lightly. Before buying a tank and filling it full of fish, you should do some research. 

You should consider where you are putting the tank and how much space is available. Since tanks need filters and those need motors, you will need to put the tank near an electrical outlet. You will also need to consider whether you should put the tank near a window, as direct sunlight can wreak havoc on the water and its pH levels. 

You should also consider what type of fish you want to put in the tank. Are there certain species that you want to have? Are you going to breed them? Do the fish you want need similar water conditions? Are you selecting saltwater or freshwater fish? 

Once you determine the type of fish and the size of the tank, you should also research the accessories and equipment you need. Are you planning on adding live plants? What type of filter will your tank need? Where are you going to put all of the accessories? You should make a plan and build a list before visiting your local pet shop. 

Don’t forget about your budget, both for money and time. If you are brand new to fish tanks, then it might be wise to start small. You will be surprised how much time you need to clean the tank and how much money outfitting a fish tank costs. You might even want to consider buying a used aquarium versus purchasing a new one. 

Fish tanks can be incredibly heavy. So, before buying one, consider the strength of the table, counter, or shelf that will be holding the aquarium. Tanks are heavy on their own and the weight of the tank multiples when you fill them with water.

Step Two: Buying And Preparing The Tank

two white fish resting on a fish tank floor

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After you’ve bought the tank, you will need to get it ready for the fish. You cannot just fill it with water and plop the fish into the tank. 

Whether the tank is brand new or used, you will need to clean it. New tanks can get dusty, and you never know what stores may have kept in them before selling them. You should not use soap, bleach, or detergents in your tank. Use vinegar and paper towels to clean your fish tank. Clean the inside and outside. 

After cleaning your tank, it is a good idea to see if it leaks. Put about an inch of water in the tank and leave it on your kitchen counter. This way, if it leaks, you will not damage other surfaces. If the tank leaks, you will notice water on the table or around the bottom edge. Then, buy some sealant and make your tank watertight. 

When your tank is clean and watertight, put it in its spot. Notice if any direct sunlight lands on the tank and if the place is strong enough to hold it. Check if your aquarium is level, too. You certainly do not want the tank to fall or water to spill out.

Step Three: Buy And Clean The Substrate

two fish in a blue aquarium

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Fish need substrate and some fish need more than others. You should figure out what you need based on the size of the tank and the type of fish. 

One pound of substrate in one gallon of water will be one inch thick. Multiple the pounds by the gallons of water you have and you should be able to determine how much substrate you need. 

Even if you buy the substrate prewashed, you should wash it before adding it to your tank. The substrate can be dirty and dusty so your tank will be cloudy if you do not clean the product before putting it in the water. 

You can clean the substrate in a few different ways. If your substrate is large enough, you can put it in a strainer and run it under tap water. Another way is to use a bucket filled with cold water then with your hand, swirl a small amount of substrate in the bucket. 

Once your substrate is clean, put it in the tank and level it out.

Step Four: Fill Your Tank With Water

There are different steps if you have a saltwater tank or a freshwater tank. 

With a freshwater tank, you should run your water through reverse osmosis and a dechlorinator before putting it in the tank. Doing this will ensure that your water is safe for freshwater fish. 

If you have a saltwater tank, then you will need to prepare the water with the correct ratio of salt mix to water. ensure

If you pour the water into your tank, it will disrupt the substrate. The best way to prevent this is to place a bowl in the bottom of the tank. Then, pour the water directly into it. When it is full, tip it gently, so the water flows without disrupting the substrate. 

After you have a layer of water over all of the substrate, you can stop using the bowl and fill the tank with a hose or bucket.

Step Five: Add The Filter And Other Necessary Equipment

white fish with orange head

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You will need to add a filter to keep the water clean. Filters can be put on the inside of the tank, the outside of the tank, and under the substrate. You should be able to find a YouTube video about installing the filter you chose. Do not turn on the motor until you have it properly installed. 

If you are planning on having tropical fish or saltwater fish, you will need to install a heater, too. After installing the filter, you won’t have any problems installing the heater. Set the heater with the dial at the top. 

Put the thermometer as far as you can from the heater for warmth throughout the tank.

Install the rest of the necessary equipment, especially if you have a saltwater tank.

Step Six: Decorate The Tank

small fish tank with fish trying to escape

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Once you have installed the necessary equipment, the next step is to make the tank look nice. Place your plants, driftwood, and other items. Some aquarium owners set up their tanks with themes so they can show off their favorite sports teams, colleges, movies, or collections. 

Like all of the other items, you have placed in the tank, clean each item first. Many could be dusty after spending time on pet shop shelves. 

Before placing live plants in the tank, research the best way to plant them. You might need to submerge some in the substrate, and some do better when placed on driftwood. Some are better background plants, and others you can put in the foreground.

Step Seven: Run The Tank Through The Nitrogen Cycle

fishes on a fish tank surrounded by green plants

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Do not leave the tank sitting without the filter running. It is vital that you run the water through the filter before putting fish in it. This first tank cycle is called a nitrogen cycle because the screen will collect bacteria that is beneficial for fish. It also changes nitrites into nitrates. Both are bad for fish, but nitrates less so. 

During the nitrogen cycle in a freshwater tank, you should add ammonia to it. Read the instructions prior to dropping it into the tank, as there can be several steps for different brands. As you run the tank through the nitrogen cycle, check the levels to see how much ammonia and nitrites are in the water. Once these levels reach zero ppm, your tank is ready for fish. 

In a saltwater tank, bacteria builds up on a live rock that you add to the tank. Stones with nooks and crannies are better for this process as more bacteria hides in those spaces. As soon as you bring the rock home, put it in the tank to get the bacteria to start building up in the tank. It might take up to eight weeks before the tank is ready for fish.

Step Eight: Acclimate Your Fish And Put Them In The Tank

fishes on a fish tank with white stones on the tank ground

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After all that time getting the tank ready, it’s finally time to add the fish. Like the nitrogen cycle, acclimating fish takes time. You should not add too many fish at first so that they have room to move. 

Some fish have problems with changing water, so they do not like being moved from one tank to another. There is a good chance that the aquarium the fish were in at the store has different makeup than the one at your home or office. 

To protect your fish from stress, keep your fish in the bag and place it in the tank, allowing it to float. Then, cut the top and open the bag, so air develops to keep the bag afloat. Then, put a half cup of tank water in the bag. Repeat this until the container is full. Then, with a net, take the fish out of the bag and put it in the aquarium. 

The fish should not have problems in the tank if you follow the acclimation steps correctly. However, watch the fish you added to be sure they survive the process. 

If you already have fish in the tank, you might not want to add any new fish because they can introduce disease to the current residents. Some aquarium owners will have a second tank with the same water where they can keep new fish in quarantine until they have become acclimated and proven to be disease-free.

Final Thoughts

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Setting up a fish tank can be a real test of patience. While you might want to go to the pet shop, buy everything, and get the fish in the tank, this is not the ideal way to set up an aquarium for the long run. 

Instead of getting it done in a few hours, you could spend up to two months getting the tank ready before you even add the fish. Taking time to do it right will help your fish live a long and healthy life. 

While all of the steps are vital, it is crucial that you consider a few of them as the most valuable. Research before you buy. Once you’ve purchased a tank, put it exactly where you want it and be sure it is out of direct sunlight.  Properly install your equipment and learn how the plants and accessories can affect the tank. 

Run the tank through a full nitrogen cycle before adding fish. Acclimate your fish before submerging them fully into the water.

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