The Three Step Basic Guide to Start an Aquarium

starting an aquarium

How to start an aquarium? Be it a saltwater aquarium or freshwater aquarium, the question hits every individual when they are on course to set up their aqua land.

Hence, here we are, to help you answer the question of ‘how to start an aquarium.’

Every aquarium setup involves various elements. The type of tank to buy, the fish they want, the filtration system; the to-do memo contains a long list of things that you need to purchase and install for the aquarium to function correctly, which can be overwhelming.

So, let’s keep things simple.

There are three significant elements to any aquarium setup –

  • the inhabitant (fish)
  • the enclosure (tank), and
  • the environment (water along with other accessories like filtration, heating system)

These three elements combine to form a perfect real-life aqua environment replica. Now, let’s look at each of the elements in detail.

The inhabitant (fish)

Choosing fish is the easiest of the choices you get to make in the process. Depending on your preference, choose a fish that matches your liking. You mainly get two options in freshwater and saltwater fishes. However, the individual categories have a massive number of options. That said, saltwater fish species will require more care as compared to their freshwater counterparts. It is one of the numerous factors that you should keep in mind before making up your mind over a particular finned buddy.

The best way to do this? Consult your local pet shop. They are capable of providing every bit of information and help you guide through to make the selection that best fits your circumstances.

The enclosure (tank)

You get numerous options in the type of tank you want for the fish. These enclosures serve two purposes:

  • Add charm to your aqua land.
  • Provide a suitable environment for the fishes to live.

Fish enclosures come in different shapes, sizes, and material. You can choose between 25-gallon rectangular/square or an L-shaped tank, or you could opt for a 30-gallon double bullnose. Apart from shapes and sizes, you can have your tank built from glass or acrylic. Refer to this article to get some ideas for your custom enclosure.

When choosing your fish tank remember that it contributes to that overall wow factor of the setup.

The environment

The environment involves all the things that your buddy fish will interact with either directly or indirectly. The environment comprises of elements like the tank bed (built with gravel and rocks), plants (artificial or live), filtration system, heating system, decors and play structures (hollow spaces).

The tank bed forms the base of the aqua setup, supporting all other installations. It is typically constructed with rocks or gravel, giving out that natural river or ocean bed impression.

You get two options for the type of aquatic flora. You could go with the artificial ones for that aesthetic look of aquatic greenery. Alternatively, you could grow live ones to help in sustain the living environment.

River and oceans do not need a filtration system for removing impurities from the water as it is a natural process. Also, water is mobile in these natural water bodies. All these luxuries are not possible in your aqua land set up; hence, you have to rely on a filtration system to do that job. It is vital to install a filtration system to remove pollutants from the water which are toxic for the live fishes.

Heating systems are optional depending on the type of fish you choose to own. Some fishes might require a particular water temperature to sustain while most fishes do fine in the water at room temperature.

That was some info about the elements. Now let’s jump into the subject matter.

Guidelines on how to start an aquarium

Choosing a fish type

It's exciting to have so many options as pets, but we suggest you take a step back and assess everything accurately. Visit a pet shop. Educate yourself about the fishes as much as you can. Remember you have to invest time in feeding, cleaning and maintaining the setup; fishes can’t do that themselves. Factor these elements along with its beauty while settling on a particular fish. You would not want a fish that demands frequent cleaning when you prefer a low maintenance fish.

Choosing a tank

Selecting a tank (concerning its size/volume) largely depends on the type of fish you want. A general rule is to allow about 25 square inches of surface area per inch of adult fish's length (excluding the tail in measurement). Some fish species grow in length and shape when they mature while some do not. Referencing the adult fish size in the equation eliminates the risk of overcrowding the aquarium space while also ensuring that the baby fishes have sufficient space to move around when they grow up.

Surface area and footprint of the tank in relation to the selected fish hold utmost priority. Once settled upon these variables, you can choose between various shapes and materials.

Standard tank shapes comprise of rectangular, hexagonal, pentagonal or cylindrical structures. However, you are not limited to these designs. You can customize the tank shape based on the intended space for the aquarium like an L-shape or a triangle end.

When it comes to the material of the fish tank, you have to choose between glass and acrylic. Each has its charms and flaws. Glass structures are on the heavier side of the scale as compared to the acrylic figures. Have a look at each of them and decide on your tank material that best suits your taste and need.

The environment setup

As stated earlier, you have to look out for quite some things to provide the best conditions for the fishes to live.

First and foremost, choose your option for the tank bed. Pick either between rocks or gravel.

Then, assess your filtration and heating configurations. The filtration system is one of the critical components that help ensure the tank remains clean, and the fishes stay healthy. Don't skimp on investing in an apt system. As a general rule, opt for a filtration system that can filter three times the volume of water in the tank per hour. Remember, you can never over-clean but can under-clean.

Finally, incorporate some decorative elements like artificial plants or ornaments to fill the space. Be sure not to step over the line with the decorations; it can compromise space for fish movements.

The step-by-step process to starting your first aquarium

  1. Cleaning the gravel/rocks

Wash the gravel and rocks. Do not use soap or detergent; it is harmful to your aquatic buddy/buddies. Also, use a strainer or a container with holes for cleaning so that the water drains out easily. Wash them until you get clear water draining out of the strainer. Then, place them inside the tank.

  1. Filling the tank with some water

Now, fill the one-third of the tank with water at room temp. Do not directly pour water over the gravel/rocks as it will displace them. Instead, place a bowl on the gravel layer and pour water into the bowl to avoid disturbing the gravel bed.

  1. Install heating and filtration systems

Start installing the filtration system. If it’s a submersible one, place it inside and secure it properly so that it does not come loose. If dealing with an external pump, secure the pump at its designated space and route the pipes from the pump to the base of the tank.

Then, install the heating system, if required. Set the thermometer as far as possible from the heating element.

  1. Decorate the tank

After setting up the filtration and heating system, decorate the tank with ornaments and plants.

  1. Fill the rest of the tank space with water

Fill the tank with more water until it reaches the required level. Do not fill up to the brim. Leave some air space between the water level and tank cover.

  1. Stabilize the water

After filling the tank with water, run the filtration and heating system. Install the filter cartridge and prime the pump before using the filtration system. Install the heating element near the water flow.

Run the system for 24 hours. Then check the temperature and pH levels. Ensure the conditions inside the tank are stable. Continue the process until the water condition becomes stable.

  1. Introduce fishes

The last and the most exciting part, introduce the fish/fishes into the tank. Use a net to transfer them to the tank. Do not pour them into the tank; it could shock them. You want to make themselves comfortable in the new environment, not anxious.

After following the above seven steps, you should have your aqua space ready.

Now, here are some common mistakes that people commit when fishkeeping.

Common mistakes while starting an aqurium

Preferring a small tank

Sometimes people opt for small size tanks, maybe because of limited available space or especially if they are beginning their fishkeeping journey. It is a big no-no. Small fish tanks are easy to clean, but there's low scope to rectify your mistakes. If something goes wrong in the tank, the conditions inside the tank will change rapidly, posing a risk to the lives of fishes. Even if you are starting, at least go for mid-size tanks (30-gallon capacity) to smoothen your learning curve.

Early introduction of fishes (too soon or too many or both)

It is hard to resist the beautiful sight of fishes moving around in your new aqua space, but don't be tempted to put the fishes into the tank immediately after setting it up. Perform a proper ‘cycling' of the tank, running all the equipment while checking for any problems. Ensure that the water condition is suitable (via a test kit or getting it tested at the pet shop) before acquainting the fishes to their new home.

Compatibility of fishes

Fish species differ from each other based on their looks, survival conditions and behavior. So, ensure that the fishes you plan on keeping together are compatible with each other to avoid accidents.


Never have a large number of fishes confined in a small tank space. Not only will they be deprived of oxygen, but also have limited space for movement - factors contributing to their poor health and untimely deaths.


Also, never provide more food in the tank than the fishes can eat. As a general rule, put the amount of food that they can consume within five minutes. Leftover food matter causes waste and is harmful.

Neutralizing and testing the water

Even after introducing the fishes, do keep a regular check of the water quality maybe twice a week. If you find any anomaly, consult the pet shop for a practical solution.

Inapt filtration

Always invest in a good filtration system with high capacity and efficiency. Compromising on the filtration system leads to poor water condition which threatens the life of your aquatic buddies.

Irregular or improper cleaning

Despite the filtration system, you still have to clean the tank regularly to avoid pollutants settling in the tank, especially on the gravel bed. Make it a habit to clean the tank periodically to prevent risk to fishes' health.

Lastly, some FAQs to calm down that fretful mind of yours.


  1. What type of filter to use?

There are broadly three means (biological, mechanical and chemical) and eight forms of filtration systems. Each filtration system has their strengths and weaknesses. The type of filter to use will depend on the nature of the fish, tank size it is going to handle.

  1. What is the best food for fish?

There are herbivores, carnivores and omnivores among the fishes. That said, most freshwater fishes eat dry or frozen foods. Consult your dealer for the best diet for your fish.

  1. What is the duration of cycling the tank?

A tank needs to be cycled at least for 24 hours and a maximum of one and a half week when dealing with a mid-size [20 to 25 gallon] platform. Cycling should be only done until the water conditions become stable and can sustain the fishes.

  1. The tank water looks cloudy/discolored. What to do?

Initially, the tank water might discolor and look cloudy when cycling due to bacteria growth. This cloudiness should, however, go away after some time. If that is not the case, perform partial water changes and get the water tested to know what's the cause. Start over the process if needed.

  1. What size of tank to pick?

We recommend picking the largest size possible that is within your budget and fits perfectly in the intended space. It will provide headroom for adding more fishes or for accommodating fishes' growth. With smaller sizes, you will have to clean the tank more frequently and might have to invest further to upgrade to a larger size if planning on expanding the fish community.


Starting an aquarium is simple as long as you know what you want and what you are doing. We covered the basics of an aquarium setup; how the inhabitant (fish), the enclosure (tank) and the environment together form the perfect aqua theme. Further, we learned what to look for in each of the elements based on our needs. Finally, we had a step-by-step walkthrough along with some common mistakes and FAQs.

We hope this article aided you in the best of ways possible.

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