If you sought out this article, the odds are high that you are new to the hobby. As such, I will be covering the basics of setting up an aquarium assuming the use of a hang on back filter that you would commonly find within an aquarium kit. If you have opted for a different type of filter, the information below will still mostly apply, just with minor variation.
It is incredibly easy to set up an aquarium since all that is required is water, a container capable of holding that water, and fish. It becomes a little more complex when you desire to keep those fish alive for more than a day. You see, the fish in the aquarium hobby are used to living in vast lakes or rivers that stretch on for miles. When we take these fish and put them into our aquariums they are placed in just a fraction of the amount of water they are used to. This is where we come in.
In a normal lake or river, water is constantly being rotated and fresh water is introduced on a fairly regular basis. The way we as hobbyists replace these natural occurrences is by running filters which move the water, allowing oxygen to be reintroduced. Filters also cleans the water by running it through media which is hosting beneficial bacteria, converting ammonia (which would normally hurt the fish) and turning it into nitrate.
Equipment – Essentials
- Water Tight Aquarium
- Aquarium Filter – Rated High Enough For Your Tank Size
Equipment – Highly Recommended
- Aquarium Lid
- Slows the evaporation of water and loss of heat from the aquarium
- Aquarium Heater
- Most tropical fish require higher temperatures than that which we keep our homes
- Aquarium Thermometer
- This is essential to check that your heater is functioning properly
- Gravel or Sand Substrate
- A bare bottom aquarium is unattractive and shows the build up of debris. Substrate hides this will housing additional beneficial bacteria
- Plants or Aquarium Decor
- In addition to improving the appearance of your aquarium, plants and decor also break the line of sight of the fish, reducing aggression
- Aquarium Light
- This allows plants to grow, fish to be seen, and creates a day and night cycle your fish will sync with
- pH Test Kit
- Without knowing at least the pH of the water you use, you may harm your fish by putting them in water that is either too alkaline or too acidic for them to handle
- Used to remove the chlorine, which cities often put in their water, before it comes into contact with your fish and burns their gills
Steps To Set Up An Aquarium
Find a Suitable location
The first essential task when setting up a new aquarium is to find a location that can handle its weight. Water on its own weighs approximately 8 pounds per gallon so when choosing a stand, you must pick one which can handle that weight. Additionally, when you add substrate you will add approximately a pound per gallon which will add to the total weight considerable. For small tanks this is hardly an issue, but as an aquarium gets larger this weight must be taken into account. When tanks begin to reach 120 or more gallons, you will even need to consider if the floor on which the stand rests can support the weight. I personally have never had a tank over 120 gallons, so this is something I would consult an architect or engineer for unless you wish to take the risk on your own. You also want at least 5 inches of space between the aquarium and the wall for wiring, filters etc.
One important, but not essential thing to consider is where in the house to place the aquarium. The more often you see the aquarium the more likely you are to notice odd fish behaviors, the growth of unwanted algae, or that a piece of equipment is beginning to fail. That means an aquarium at eye level is better than one near the floor, and one in the kitchen or living room will perform better than one in a basement.
Add Substrate And Water
The quantity of substrate depends entirely upon the volume of your aquarium. The standard ratio of substrate to water is one pound per gallon of water. If you anticipate adding plants to your aquarium it is best to double this quantity to allow room for the roots to spread. Before adding the substrate it is important to rinse it thoroughly. While in the bag, the substrate crashes into itself and creates a dust that clouds the water. The best method to remove this is to pour the substrate into a 5 gallon bucket and fill it with water while stirring the material. After mixed, pour this water out then repeat this process until the water runs clear. Once complete, the substrate can be scooped out of the bucket and placed into the aquarium. At this point, the aquarium can be filled half way up with water.
Before we fill the aquarium entirely with water, it is best to place the decorations inside. These are important so that the fish are not constantly within each other’s line of sight. By creating several raised areas with either plants, rocks, or aquarium decorations you can section off your tank into several distinct areas so that if a fish does become dominant, there is a place for your fish to retreat to. Just remember to rinse these decorations off first so as to not introduce dust or debris into the aquarium. After your decorations are in place, fill the remainder of the tank with water.
Install Filter And Other Equipment
Once full, it is time to install the filter, heater, and thermometer. Hang on back filters are easy to setup and as their name suggests, simply hang on the back of the aquarium with the large water storage area on the back and the slender snorkel inside the water. This snorkel should be extended as deep into the water as possible, but kept an inch above the substrate to prevent any from being pulled into the filter. After properly placed on the tank, scoop water out of the tank and completely fill the water storage area in the back of the filter until water overflows back into the tank.
The heater should be installed next, either vertical on the back wall of the tank, or horizontally near the bottom. Regardless of the direction you choose, ensure the heater rests on the same side as the filter so that the heated water is evenly distributed through the tank. Now, place your thermometer on the opposite corner in order to guarantee the heat is evenly spread throughout the aquarium. At this point, dechlorinator should be added to the water. City municipalities often add chlorine and/or chloramine to ensure water does not grow bacteria or algae before it gets to you. Unfortunately this same chemical that keeps our water clean also burns the gills of our fish, ultimately killing them. If you live in the country or obtain your water from a personal well this step may be possible to avoid, but if you follow the recommended dose, there is little downside to its use. This will need to be done anytime you add water that has chlorine/chloramine to the tank. Now that both the heater and filter are installed it is time to plug them in to mix the dechlorinator throughout the aquarium.
Cycle The Aquarium
At this point, you will want to begin cycling your aquarium. Because this is a more involved step it is explained in detail here. The basics of this process involve establishing beneficial bacteria within the aquarium before adding any fish. These bacteria carry out the nitrogen cycle, turning ammonia into nitrite, then nitrate which is much safer for your fish. This is often a step that is quickly covered by less reputable pet stores by saying “just let the aquarium sit for a day” but trust me when I say you will want to follow this process carefully as it is the most important step of all. If done correctly, your odds of success increase many fold.
Final Steps And Thoughts
While waiting for your aquarium to cycle, you will want to keep the lid on your aquarium and keep track of the water’s pH. A neutral pH of 7.0 will be habitable to most fish and you can adjust this by adding various chemicals to your water based on the results of your test. Once the filter is fully cycled, I always perform an additional pH test, and take a trip to my local pet store to see what stock they have and get advice for first time fish. You will want to choose hardy fish to begin with, and can start to add more difficult fish as you learn more and get a handle of the maintenance required to upkeep the aquarium. Keep in mind that patient aquarists are the most successful aquarists and it is best to add fish to your tank slowly, and never fill it to capacity immediately.