A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Fish Tank

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When it comes to how to start a fish tank, you may feel overwhelmed with the options and responsibilities.

Most of us had a fish bowl as children, or perhaps your parents managed a medium-sized tank. Yet, when it comes to investing in an aquarium of your own, you discover so many special requirements you never expected or heard of.

starting a fish tank for beginners

Things to consider include pH levels, nitrates, live food vs. fish flakes, certain fish requiring vertical swimming space instead of horizontal space, certain species being more territorial than others at certain times in their lifespans…

Because you must keep an eye on a range of components that are hard to control, starting a fish tank can be a hurdle. Indeed, there are many beginners who give up after a few tries because running an aquarium is harder than it looks.

With the right guide, though, starting a fish tank for beginners doesn’t have to be scary or daunting.

So, get comfortable, and let’s begin our foray into aquarium keeping.

How to Start a Fish Tank

The very first step in starting a beginner fish tank is choosing the actual tank. While it appears simple on the surface, it can be a challenge.

In choosing a tank, the two main things to consider are the size of the tank and the type of material it‘s made of.

Tank Size

Beginners tend to assume that starting out with a smaller aquarium is better, but this often isn’t the case.

This is because an aquarium is a system; you would need to keep a close eye on many different components that all depend on one another, like biomass, oxygen, and waste.

how to start a fish tank

All these components should be kept balanced to ensure a healthy aquarium; a larger aquarium can help you achieve this balance much easier.

As a rule of thumb, a starter fish tank should hold at least twenty gallons.

Glass or Acrylic

Fish tanks are often made from two materials: glass and acrylic. Both have their own pros and cons, but most aquarists will opt for a glass tank. This is because glass tends to be cheaper than acrylic, and much easier to acquire.

Acrylic fish tanks also scratch much easier compared to glass, which means that you would need to replace your glass tanks less often, saving you money in the long run.

However, note that glass tanks tend to be significantly heavier than acrylic; when setting up your aquarium, make sure that the weight of your tank is accounted for.

Other than weight and cost, there are also many other pros and cons to be aware of when choosing between glass and acrylic.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the type of set-up that you want and the amount of maintenance that you are willing to spend on it.

This site provides a comprehensive breakdown of the differences between glass and acrylic aquariums.


While often overlooked, where you put your aquarium will affect the quality of life inside your fish tank. Make sure that you set your tank on a flat, solid surface.

best fish for beginners

Other factors you would need to consider are the following:

  • Disturbances: Try to find a place where disturbances to your tank are minimized, including bumps and loud noises.
  • Temperature fluctuations: While there are ways to ensure that your tank is kept at a consistent temperature, it is also important to consider external factors affecting your tank’s temperature. Sources of cold or heat, such as air conditioners and radiators, should be kept far from your tank.
  • Stands: If you’re using a stand, make sure that it is sturdy enough to handle the weight of the tank. This is especially important if you’re using a glass tank, as glass weighs significantly more than acrylic. Also note that a full tank will be much heavier than an empty one.
  • Direct sunlight: Places with direct sunlight are some of the worst locations for an aquarium, as direct sunlight is one of the common causes of algae growth. It can also cause temperature fluctuations in your tank, and even discolor acrylic tanks.
  • Electricity: And lastly, remember that you will be working with large quantities of water. Keep your aquarium away from any electrical outlets. You may also want to put your aquarium near a water source, since maintaining a fish tank would require you to carry large amounts of water. On that note, try to leave ample space around your aquarium so that you won’t have a hard time during maintenance.

Other Gear and Equipment

Of course, aside from a tank, you will need other gear and equipment to make sure that your aquarium is as healthy as it can be.

When looking around in a pet store, there can be a lot of equipment that is available to you, and choosing ones that are essential can be a headache.

However, as a beginner, you would only need a few basic tools – namely a thermometer, filter, powerheads, lights, and test kits.

This guide can give you a deeper look into the necessary equipment for a beginner aquarium set-up and how to choose the right one.

Most notably, test kits are one of the most important equipment you would need when maintaining an aquarium. These kits ensure that the elements in your tank, like ammonia, pH, and nitrates, are at acceptable and healthy levels.

There are many kits to choose from; what you would need depends on your aquarium set-up. For beginners, a test kit that comes largely recommended is the API Freshwater Master Test Kit.

Fish and Plant Life for Your Beginner Fish Tank

After acquiring all the necessary gear and equipment, now comes the fun part: adding fish and plants. However, you will need to take a few more steps before finally introducing them to their new home.

Adding fish too early is a common (and expensive) rookie mistake.

Clean Your Aquarium

The first thing you need to do when setting up an aquarium is to clean it thoroughly. While you can use a damp cloth and some water, you can also use cleaning solutions and equipment designed to clean tanks.

Make sure to only use cleaning solutions specially designed for fish tanks. Do not use soap, detergents, or other chemicals when cleaning out your tank, as they can leak into your tank and harm your fish.

You may also need to deal with scratches, especially if you have an acrylic aquarium. A few wipes with a damp cloth should do the trick, otherwise, you can use solutions intended for cleaning up aquarium scratches.

Here’s a video showing an example of how to clean your aquarium.

Add Substrate

After you have cleaned your tank, adding the substrate in your aquarium is your next step. While it is possible to keep an aquarium without substrate, it can be harder to maintain.

Plus, substrates can make your aquarium look nicer. There are also many functions that a substrate provides to ensure that your tank is balanced, healthy, and clean.

When choosing a substrate, there are many options, including make, size, color, and shape. Thankfully, there are several choices on the market, and you are bound to find the right one for you.

The type of substrate that you need will depend on the type of aquarium you have, as well as the look you want to achieve.

Treating Water

While it may seem tempting, you can’t just add water into your tank and plop your fish in there. Water needs to be treated for it to become a suitable environment for fish.

How you would need to treat your water would depend on the needs of the fish that you’re planning to keep.

To treat water, you will need to use a test kit, and ensure that all the parameters are within a healthy range. After treating your water, make sure to let it stand for at least a day before adding anything else.

What are the Best Fish for Beginners?

Freshwater or Saltwater

Picking out fish is perhaps the most exciting part of setting up an aquarium. You probably have a few species in mind already.

In choosing fish for your tank, the biggest question is: should you choose freshwater fish or saltwater fish?

For many reasons, a freshwater set-up is the better fish tank setup for beginners. While both tanks have their own pros and cons, freshwater tanks outweigh its saltwater counterparts in terms of cost and maintenance.

Freshwater fish are considered to be the best fish for beginners mainly because they tend to be cheaper than saltwater fish; they are also hardier, which means that it is easier to take care of them.

While it’s not impossible to start out with saltwater fish, it can be a disheartening hurdle. Saltwater fish make up for their fussiness and cost in their aesthetic appeal: they tend to have vibrant colors that cannot be found in freshwater species.

However, since they’re harder to care for, you may run into a lot of problems or even have to start all over with your tank.

When you’re a complete beginner, it’s much better to be familiar with a freshwater tank and then keep a saltwater tank as a goal to work towards.

fish tank setup for beginners


And of course, you should consider the size of the fish you want to buy. You need to ensure there’s enough space to include all your fish.

You will also need to consider other factors:

  • Juveniles: You may want to buy juvenile or baby fish, but doing so may cause problems if you don’t plan for it. Baby fish will grow, and it’s a good idea to look up their size in adulthood to make sure they have ample space once they reach that age.
  • Space for swimming: There may be enough physical space for the fish, but is there enough space for them to swim around? Fish who feel too crowded may be aggressive and can experience a decline in their health. Before buying fish, look up their behaviors, whether they need lots of space to move or places to hide it, or if they’re territorial and need their own corner.
  • Other plants and décor: Plants and décor will also take up space in your aquarium. When buying fish, it is important to keep in mind that they will not be its only inhabitants and that they will also add to the total space occupied.

Aquarium Maintenance

Regular and constant checks on your tank’s status are needed to ensure that your fish are living in optimal conditions. While it is a hassle, it’s a guaranteed way to avoid mishap, be it diseases or algae.

Maintaining an aquarium consists of check-ups, cleaning, and water testing. These are done on a regular basis, to ensure that your tank is functioning as it should.

The frequency of check-ups, cleaning, and testing would differ from tank to tank. While there are many guides about how to maintain your aquarium, you should also keep an eye out for any improvements to ensure that you’re maintaining your tank as best you can.

Dealing with Algae

Maintenance is important if you want to avoid one of the most common issues aquarists face: algae.

Rigorous maintenance can keep this nuisance at bay, as well as a few set-up tips to give yourself a bit of a boost.

Understanding how and why algae forms can help you avoid it. Simply put, algae forms when there are too much nutrients in the tank; they use these excess nutrients so that they can grow. Therefore, depriving them of excess nutrients is key in stopping their growth.

This can be done by adding plants that use up the excess nutrients (that would have otherwise gone to algae) and to minimize waste in your aquarium.

Lessening the amount of light will also deter algae growth, since they need sunlight to thrive. Lastly, you could add algae-eating fish in your tank to remove any excessive growth.

Your New Aquarium

When keeping a tank, a balance must be achieved to ensure that your tank thrives and grows. As a beginner, you will make mistakes, and you may have to start over a few times.

However, once you have learned enough and gotten into the swing of things, you will find yourself an owner of an aquarium that you can be proud of.

Here’s a video showing a freshwater tank setup.

Do you have any tips on how to set up a beginner fish tank?

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