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Robyn's Steps to a First Tank Page

Last Updated: 2/21/14

Animated Bubbles

A page for beginning freshwater aquarists

Tips for setting up your first freshwater aquarium

So you think it is easy?

This is just a guide. The exact order need not be followed in some cases. Some steps can be altered. Advanced aquarists could skip steps or add others. Never base your decisions on one person's views (like mine). The key to a good first setup is research and taking your time. If any aquarists think I should alter or add any steps, please e-mail me. I am sure that I forgot something. I did not make this too simple (it is not written for "dummies") because it would take 100 pages to explain in detail. Please e-mail me if you do not understand something on this or any other of my pages. The only "stupid" person is one who does not ask a question about something he/she does not understand. There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers!


1. RESEARCH: Read this web page and my other relevant web pages. Buy a general aquarium book and read it cover to cover. This is the most important thing you can do so that you know what you are getting into. Be sure that you understand the nitrogen cycle (there are many different views on this topic so learn a number of them and choose the one that appeals to you).

2. Figure out the main goal of your tank. Is it to house fish, plants, or both or is it a complete ecosystem?

3. Decide what types of fish, other animals, and plants you would like to keep. Be sure these are fish that you feel confident that you can take care of well. Number them in order of how much you want them. Some fish are very hard to care for properly. Avoid very large fish, sensitive fish, and rare fish when starting out. Do you want other animals like shrimp, crabs, frogs, snails, invertebrates, etc.?

4. Find out everything you can about the species of animals and plants you would like to keep. Learn the water parameters they prefer (pH, hardness, temperature, salinity, etc.), how large they grow, and their behaviors. Search the internet under the common and scientific name. Buy magazines and books with information on those species.

5. Looking around your home, decide where you could put the tank. Think about whether too much natural light would hit it causing algae problems. Think about whether the floor could support the weight of the tank. Think about whether it is near electricity and water (SUPER important!). Think about whether you will be able to enjoy it in that spot.

6. Decide the size of tank that you want. Larger is better as long as you have room, money, time for setup and maintenance, and the floor will hold it.

7. Buy pH and hardness test kits and test your water. Also, find out if your water has chlorine, chloramine, or none of these. You can call your water provider for this information or test it yourself with chlorine and ammonia test kits.

8. Now, looking at the size of tank you can have and the pH and hardness, see if you can keep the plants and fish you would like under those conditions. Do those fish get along with each other, with the plants, at that pH and hardness? How many of each of the species of fish that you want can live comfortably in the size tank on which you have decided? For example, if you wanted discus (not a good beginner's fish anyway) but can only have a 20 gallon tank or the pH is 9 (advanced aquarists can tinker with pH but beginners should not) and super hard, forget it. Or, you might want both an oscar and danios which would not work since the danios would be eaten. It may be disappointing, but you may have to alter your plans. The animals and plants that you take-in will depend on you for a good, comfortable life. Maybe in the future you can have the animals and plants that you cannot accommodate now. Half of the fun of keeping aquariums is planning for the future.

9. Now that you know what species you want and their needs, decide what equipment you will need. To help with this, you might want to order some free catalogs from pet stores. You need not buy from them but will get an idea of what supplies are available. See my fish source page for phone numbers to call for free catalogs. Think about filters (box, hang-on, canister, undergravel, etc.), heaters, lighting (incandescent, fluorescent, metal halide, etc.), gravel, buckets, nets, ornaments (fake plants, plastic things, etc.), air pumps (and associated tubing, air stones, gang valves, check valves), backdrops, decorative rocks and driftwood, timers (to run the lights), thermometers, water vacuums (Python tubes vacuum and change water easily), test kits (pH, hardness, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, etc.), water additives (de-chlorinators, liquid bacteria, salts, lots more if you have a salt water tank, etc.), and so much more! If it is a saltwater or fancy freshwater tank, then you also may think about reverse osmosis machines, CO2 injectors, UV sterilizers, ozonizers, foam fractionators, protein skimmers, chillers, hydrometers, wet-dry filters, wave makers, etc.

10. Go to the local aquarium store and peruse the tank choices. It does not hurt to visit a number of stores. Pick the best tank for quality and price as well as the size you want. Buy the tank and stand. Bring them home and decide if they look good in their location, and they are what you want. You can always return them.

11. Buy the things mentioned in Step 9 on which you have decided. Read ALL writing (on the product and manuals) with every item you buy. It is essential that you follow manuals for proper and safe operation of the equipment.

12. Rinse off the gravel and place it in the bottom of the tank.

13. Add any heaters, ornaments, air stones, backdrops, driftwood, rocks, etc. that you have chosen.

14. Fill with water most of the way. Add any live plants. Hook up the filter and get it going. Fill the tank to within 1-2 inches of the top. Put on the lid. Plug in the lighting, heater, and anything else you have. Add the correct amounts of de-chlorinator, liquid bacteria, and any other water additives (like pH or hardness changing chemicals).

15. Let everything run for a few days with no living animals. Be sure the temperature is correct. Test the pH and hardness to see that it is okay for the fish you want.

16. If everything works, then you can go buy fish! Only buy a few at a time.

17. Empty the new fish with the store's water into a bucket. Pour in some of your tank water. Gradually pour more in until the fish are in about 2/3 your water. Be sure to keep the bucket covered when not working as fish may jump. If they seem ok, then net them into their new home (do not get any store water into the tank).

18. Watch the fish for any immediate problems. Again be sure all the equipment is working.

19. Test the water for pH, ammonia, and nitrite every few days for the first few weeks.

20. Do 20-50% water changes every week (others recommend less frequent changes but this works best for me). Feed the fish as much as they will eat in 5 minutes, a few times a day. See my sections on aquarium maintenance for more information.

21. After a month if all goes well, you can buy a few more fish.

22. Enjoy! Start planning your next aquarium!

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