When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

How To Set Up Your Fish Tank For Comfort, Design, And Functionality

With so many benefits to raising fish, why would you want to keep any other pet? These creatures are known to improve your mental health, reduce stress and anxiety, and even provide other health benefits. There are so many different types to choose from that there is really no reason not to start raising fish today.

However, getting started can be a bit overwhelming. With so many options, how do you know which kind of fish to choose? To make matters even more confusing, there are multiple steps involved in getting your fish tank set up and ready to go.

Don’t make the most common rookie mistakes when you are setting up your fish tank. Instead, consider these tips to set up your aquarium for design, comfort, and functionality. Set up your fish tank a few days ahead of time and follow these crucial tips, and you’ll have a happy aquarium full of beautiful fish in just a short amount of time.

How To Set Up Your Fish Tank


Plan Carefully

How To Set Up Your Fish Tank

The first step in setting up your fish tank is deciding what species you will keep in your tank. While you shouldn’t rush out to buy these individuals just yet, you do need to decide whether you are going to maintain a freshwater aquarium, a saltwater habitat, or a breeding tank. Think about whether you want to have a small community tank or if you’d prefer a species-only aquarium.

You should also figure out what other kinds of creatures, if any, you will house with your fish. Do you plan on keeping invertebrates? What about plants? If either of these are true, you will need to plan accordingly. Sit down and make a detailed list of everything you hope to get out of your aquarium. Have a clear plan about how you will use your aquarium before you head to the pet store – otherwise, it will be all too easy for you to get overwhelmed.

This will also help you make sure you have enough space, time, and financial resources to care for your chosen species of fish. You will be able to figure out what kinds of conditions are needed and also ensure that you will have adequate room in your home for a large aquarium if necessary.

Scrub Your Tank

Scrub Your Tank

Now that you’ve planned out your aquarium and got the parts and pieces home, you just need to set it up. Don’t add any new water to the aquarium until you’ve ensured that it’s clean. There are several steps involved in cleaning your fish tank, none of which should be overlooked because a clean tank is vital to the health of your fish.

If you have purchased a brand-new tank, the cleaning process is simple and straightforward. All you need to do is take a damp rag and wipe down the surfaces of the tank so that it is not covered in dust or grime. You shouldn’t need to use any cleaning agents. In fact, you should never use any kind of soap or other detergents to clean an aquarium, because these can harm your fish even in minute quantities.

Remember, too, that any and all materials you use to clean or set up your tank should be new and used strictly for your fish tank. This will help any mishaps related to accidentally getting some chemicals or cleaning agents inside your tank.

If you have a used tank, the cleaning process is a little bit more involved. You will need to devote a bit of extra time to cleaning your tank, as you don’t want dirty water or diseases to affect your fish.

Start by removing any leftover debris from the aquarium. Using a small amount of vinegar and some paper towels to rub down both the inside and outside of your tank. Do not use paper towels if you have an acrylic tank, as this material can scratch very easily. Instead, you will need to purchase specialized cleaning cloths.

Either before or after you’ve finished cleaning your tank, you will need to make sure it is leak proof. This is absolutely necessary if you are using an old tank or one that you have just purchased secondhand, but you should do this even if your aquarium is fresh out of the box.

To ensure your tank is leak proof (without getting water all over your floor!) fill it with a few inches of water. Let it rest for an hour. Then, run your finger around the lower edge of the tank to make sure it is not leaking. If you find any, you can use a specialized aquarium sealant to reseal the tank and make sure no water escapes. Remember, you must use a sealant that is designed specifically for this purpose, as you don’t want any cleaning or sealing agents making your fish sick.

Position Your Tank

Set up fish tank


Once your tank is clean, you can move it into position. You should place your fish tank out of direct sunlight, close to a power source, and away from any intense drafts. The stand on which you place your tank should be strong and steady, as adding water to your tank can put a lot of weight on the rest of the aquarium.

You should try to get your fish tank into the perfect position before you fill it. Otherwise, you will have a lot of trouble moving it once it is full of water. It will be both heavy and awkward, so perfecting its placement ahead of time is vital.

When you think your tank is in the proper position, make sure it is level. This can be done in several ayes. The easiest way is to use a special spirit level, but if you don’t have one of these tools on hand, you can also just fill the tank with a couple of inches of water and eyeball it to make sure it is sitting level.

Add Substrate And Fill The Tank With Water

Once your tank is clean and in the prefect position, you can get your substrate and water ready to go. Each tank will vary when it comes to the type of substrate with which it is filled, so make sure you do your research ahead of time so that you know you are choosing the correct type.

Most people will decide on their substrate type by thinking about the types of plants, invertebrates, and fish they intend to keep. While many fish prefer a sandy bottom, others like a denser gravel substrate. Carefully research the species of fish you plan to keep, because a poorly selected substrate can injure your fish or make them very sick.

Once you know the type of substrate you are going to use, you need to figure out how much of it to apply. This is generally done based on aesthetic preferences – ideally, you should have about one pound of substrate per every gallon of water. This will produce a bed that is about an inch thick. If you desire a thicker substrate, shoot for two pounds per gallon, which will create a two-inch bed.

When you purchase your substrate, don’t assume that you can purchase substrate pound for pound to match the desired thickness. Different substrates have different weights, so the exact weight that you need will vary.

Before you add substrate to your tank, you need to clean it thoroughly. Substrate can often be purchased prewashed, but you should still rinse it so that it doesn’t cause any residual cloudiness in your tank. In addition, substrate can contain contaminants that you don’t want infecting your fish or other aquarium inhabitants.

Rinsing your substrate before adding it to you rank is, therefore, imperative. This is easy to do. All you need to do is place small portions of substrate into a large container before filling it with ice cold water. Take your hand and swish the substrate around in the bottom of the bucket. Rinse until the water strains through your fingers and is mostly clear.

If you are using gravel as a substrate, you might want to do so outside with a hose. This will make your task quicker as well as more efficient. Pour the water out of the bucket and spray continuously until the water is transparent.

Some substrates, like gravels that have a powder coating, are difficult to clean in this manner. Instead of seeing the water grow clearer, you will find that it instead becomes cloudier. Try to eliminate as much dust as possible – you don’t have to get it perfectly clear. Making gentler motions with your hand will prevent the water from becoming too disturbed, and you may be more successful in cleaning your substrate in this manner.

Once your substrate is rinsed, you can place it in the bottom of your tank. Place thin layers on the bottom of a tank, laying down small amounts at a time. This will reduce the likelihood of you scratching the tank. You can pour the rest of the gravel in once you have a solid layer down, but don’t throw it all in at once.

Don’t think you need to place all of your gravel in a perfectly level layer, either. There may be some portions of the tank where you want to raise the soil somewhat higher. For example, if you need to bury the roots of plants, you will need to have slight mounds to support root development. Aquarium gravel is often layered in slopes, with highest mounds at the back of the aquarium and the lowest at the front.

Once your substrate has been placed in the tank, you can fill it with water. A small tank of less than twenty gallons can be filled quickly, but with larger tanks, you will need to make some special considerations.

Before you get started, have a clear idea of whether you are going to be maintaining a saltwater or freshwater tank. If you are filling a freshwater tank, you should start by placing a bowl or saucer on the bottom of the tank. Place the saucer in the most convenient location and slowly begin to pour the water into the container. The water will slosh out over the sides of the saucer, but this is what you want – the initial barrier formed by the saucer will prevent your gravel from being disturbed.

Once your tank has been filled with water in this manner, you will need to add a dechlorinating agent. These can be purchased at most aquarium stores, or even online. Follow the instructions that are detailed on the bottle of the agent. The directions will provide you with the ratio in milliliters per gallon, giving you an idea of how much chemical to add per 20 gallons.

If you are managing a saltwater tank, you will need to take some alternative steps. Water for a saltwater tank must first be filtered through reverse osmosis. You can use a special treatment for this or buy water that has already been filtered. You must also use a dechlorinator.

Prepare your saltwater using the ratios prescribed on a pre-made salt mix. Make sure you add the right amounts of salt, as you want to ensure the proper environment for your fish. Then, follow the same steps listed in the freshwater tank set up guide to prepare your tank.

Once you have filled your tank with both water and substrate material, you can add your equipment. While you won’t usually need a lot of fancy equipment, it’s worth bearing in mind that most tank setups will require at least a filter.

Filter installation procedures vary depending on the type of filter you have chosen, as well as the specific brand. You likely will have chosen either an internal or external filter, the former of which is much easier to install. All you have to do is assemble the parts and place the filter on the back of the tank. The wire will hang outside the tank to reach some sort of power source.

You should be able to install your filter without much extra assistance needed, but if you have any problems, you can consult the instructions that will be included in your packaging. Remember that if you’ve decided to purchase an under gravel (or underwater gravel) filter, you will need to install this before adding any water to your tank.

Make sure your filter is properly placed and installed correctly before you connect it to the power supply. Know that your choice of filter will affect how well it functions. An external filter will have more space for different types of media, and will also be better at filtering the water. External filters usually rest within the stand, somewhere below or behind the tank. These filters carry water outside of the tank and into the filter before returning it to the tank. You should make sure all outlet and inlet channels are straight and clear, with no kinks in the tubes so that the water can be filtered effectively.

Some external filters will need to be filled with water before they are plugged into the power source. This is because the system needs to primed, a process which helps move water through the filter. After you install your filter, you will need to install your heater if you are maintaining a saltwater or tropical tank.

Heaters are easy to set up and usually come with a set of instructions of their own just in case. These usually have dials on top to help you select the appropriate temperature. They will also have lines indicating how deep to submerge the unit.

The heater should be placed on one side of the tank, with a thermometer on the opposing side. This will help to make sure your heater provides consistent heat. Other equipment that may need to be added, like stones, air pumps, and light fixtures should be added at this time. Saltwater aquariums also usually require protein skimmer and additional specialty equipment.

Add Decorations

Once you’ve installed the main components of your tank, you next need to add any decorations and plants to your tank. A heavily planted tank will require more work than a sparsely planted one, but whichever option you choose, you will need to do some planning to ensure that the plants and decorations you select mesh well with the needs of your aquarium inhabitants.

It might be best to sit down and come up with a plan for how you intend to decorate your fish tank long before you begin the process. This will help you develop a clear idea for how our tank will look, and will also help you avoid overwhelm in getting started. Try to follow the plan as closely as possible when you are setting up the tank.

What’s even more important than following a plan is that you ensure all of your plants and equipment are clean before you introduce them to the tank. Make sure they are not dusty and have not been exposed to any contaminates, either environmental or chemical, before you place them in your tank.

Keep in mind that some plants, like Anacharis, do much better as background plants. They will grow taller and can quickly overshadow your smaller plants in the front, so it’s a good idea to research the best potential placement for your plants to help make your tank as healthy and visually attractive as you can.

When planting, it’s also important that you do your research regarding planting guidelines. While some plants can have their roots buried directly into the substrate, others will need to first be attached to driftwood.

Begin To Cycle Your Tank

You may think that, once your filters, substrate, equipment, water, and decorations are added to your tank, all you will need to do is add your fish. Think again. While your tank might look like its ready, your work is not quite done.

You must cycle your tank before you can add any fish. Also known as the nitrogen cycle, the cycling process is important because it helps build up beneficial bacteria in your tank. These bacteria serve as a biological filter for your fish, and they can only be acquired through the process of cycling.

Some aquarium stores will tell you that you only need to cycle your tank for a few days before you add fish, but it’s better to do so for longer. This will help the bacteria convert any ammonia in your tank into nitrites, which can then be converted back into nitrates. Nitrites and ammonia are both toxic to fish, so you must run a full nitrogen cycle in order to allow these bacteria to flourish. Nitrates are still somewhat toxic to fish, but only minimally, and can be removed later through water changes.

If you have a freshwater tank, you should start the cycling process by first adding ammonia to the tank. You can purchase this at most aquarium stores for just a few dollars. There will be clear instructions on the bottle, but basically you just need to add a certain dose either once a day or all at once in the very beginning.

You should conduct tests each week to check the levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates in your tank. Watch for spikes, and once the levels reach zero, your tank is cycled and ready for fish.

This can take some time (up to a week), but if you’re feeling impatient there are a few ways to speed things up. You can add filter media from a tank that is already established, helping to introduce good bacteria from another setting. You can also increase oxygen content or water temperature.

If you have a saltwater tank, the process of nitrogen cycling is a bit different. You will want to start with a live rock, which isn’t technically alive, but is a breeding ground for bacteria. You can purchase these at a fish store.

Select a light rock, which has lots of crevices in which the bacteria can hide. Place the rock in the tank as quickly as possible so the bacteria don’t die in the air. Usually, these bacteria rare enough to jump start the cycling process, but if your tank isn’t cycling fast enough, you can always add liquid ammonia as with the freshwater process.

Cycling a saltwater tank can take up to eight weeks. Check your nitrite and ammonia levels regularly and you can add fish once they reach zero.

Add Your Fish

The final step in setting up your tank is adding your fish. You can add these gradually, beginning with a few at a time. You should avoid adding more than one fish for every ten gallons. Add a few more over a period of weeks or months.

This will allow your fish to become appropriately acclimated. Once they have adjusted to the tank, they will be used to the water temperature, pH, and salinity, and will therefore be more likely to thrive.

It’s not a bad idea to quarantine new fish in a separate fish tank for a few days. This will help you monitor them to make sure they aren’t exhibiting any symptoms of illness or infection.

Otherwise, acclimating your fish is easy. You should start by turning off all aquarium lights and dimming the overhead lights in the room in which your fish tank is housed. Then, place your bag of fish in the water. Let it float for about fifteen minutes before cutting it open. This will adjust the fish to the temperature.

Cut the bag open and roll it down so that an air pocket is formed. Slowly add half a cup of water from the aquarium to the bag, and do this again every five or six minutes. When the bag is full, you can then use a net to remove the fish from the bag and place it in the aquarium.

Watch the fish carefully over the next few hours to make sure it is adapting well to the new conditions.

Enjoy Your New Fish Tank

Setting up your fish tank may sound like a lot of work, but believe us, it’s worth it. These steps don’t take long and can be split up over several weeks so that you don’t have to carry them out all at once.

The most important (and final) step in setting up your tank? Sit back and enjoy it! You’ve worked hard, and you’re in for years of enjoyment in owning your fish.

Leave a Comment