How to Start an Aquarium - Ultimate Beginner Guide

You want to start your very own aquarium? Or have you ever wanted to do so? If the answer is yes, then you have come to the right place. This is the ultimate how to start an aquarium beginner guide! I have been fascinated with fish keeping since the very first aquarium I received as a present from my parents.

I truly recommend this hobby for every person out there. Not only aquariums will become the main focal point in any room because of their beauty, but they also provide great benefits for your health as well. It is a very rewarding hobby overall. And that is the reason why I wish to share my knowledge with every person who has the wish to start their own aquarium.

You probably have heard stories about people starting their aquarium and fish dying pretty soon, right? That is because of the lack of knowledge. But nowadays, you can find everything you need online. This guide is here so that your fish will live happy lives from the moment you introduce them into your tank.

Choosing a new aquarium

Puzzled fish question mark

The first and the most important step about setting up a new aquarium is choosing the tank and the necessary equipment. Ar first, this may seem like a very easy and straightforward thing to do, but you must do your research before you select an aquarium of your liking. Important things to consider are your budget and the aesthetics of the aquarium. But that largely depends on the end goal you hope to achieve. And depending on the end goal, you will need to choose the right equipment for the job. Below you will find a list of things to consider, before buying your first aquarium.

Tank Size and Shape

First of all, you need to decide, what size tank you wish to purchase. The size depends on the following factors.

Small vs big aquarium

As a beginner, you might think that the best choice would be to go with a small starter aquarium to understand if this hobby is for you. Which is all good and fine, and you can do that. It’s something I recommend as well for beginners. But do note that smaller fish tanks are harder to take care of. Yes, that’s right. Big aquariums are usually more beginner friendly than the small ones, although there are many small starter kits for beginner out there.

That is because in a smaller aquarium you have much smaller ecosystem that will change rapidly, when something goes wrong. In a larger aquarium, it will take longer for the environment to become deadly, if something goes wrong. And because of that you will need to pay more attention to your small aquarium and do more maintenance work than you would do for bigger aquariums.

But I consider smaller aquariums to be great learning experience if you are really ready to be responsible and devoted to the hobby, as the risk is higher, but so is the reward. You will work around your aquarium more and thus learn more in the process as well.

Find a place for your aquarium

Important thing to do before choosing an aquarium is finding a suitable place for it. Make sure it will fit wherever you intend to put it. And, if you are going for a quite large aquarium, you might want to purchase a special stand for it. It is important to place the aquarium on even surface. These stands are very durable, they will have no problem holding the tank and usually will come customized, so you can even run filtration devices and tubes through it. It also provides a good place where to keep all your aquarium equipment.

Your new aquarium should be placed in a place where there is constant temperature all the time. That means, do not put it near windows, where sun can shine on it or near thermal devices.

Do fish care research

Aquarium fish research

This is the most important step when trying to figure out, which aquarium is the best fit for you. It should be the best fit for your fish as well. Do your research about different fish you wish to add to it beforehand.

If you wish to go with a small aquarium starter kit, then you might want to check out this article - Best Freshwater Fish For Small Aquariums.

To choose what fish you can add to your aquarium, see what are their environment requirements:

  • The minimal fish tank size for species

  • Recommended temperature

  • Recommended pH levels

  • Fish compatibility

Depending on the size of the fish and their activity levels, there is a lower limit of what is the recommended aquarium size for the fish to be happy. Different fish have different water temperature requirements. You will never be able to put tropical fish together with cold-water fish (Most freshwater fish come from tropical environments). Some fish are more sensitive to temperature changes, some are more hardy, but you should aim to keep fish that have compatible recommended water temperature ranges together. Another important thing to note is pH level. Same rules apply as with temperature. You can browse around our website and you will find this information about many different fish species.

Another important thing to note - what type of character does a fish has? Oh, yes, fish can have many different characteristics, as it turns out. But overall, it is most important to evaluate if the fish is friendly and a great community fish or aggressive and territorial. In most cases, you will have no problems with most of the community tank fish, but if the fish is more aggressive, you should research with what other fish can you put them together.

Activity levels of fish should be noted as well. Some are very active, while some are more passive and enjoy the passivity and will get stressed, if there are fish going around the tank like crazy. Also, a rule of thumb for community fish tank - if the smallest fish can fit in the mouth of the bigger fish, it well get eaten eventually.

Aquarium Equipment

All aquariums need a filter, despite some people saying you can do without one. Just don’t. Something will go terribly wrong sooner or later. If you are a complete beginner, the best choice would be buying an aquarium starter kit, where all the equipment is already included. If you are not going for anything fancy, than that equipment will do fine.

When choosing a filter, again, you need to do research about the fish you are going to take care of. Some fish like more current, some don’t, so, before buying a filter, find out how powerful it is and how much current does it produce. This is especially important if you intend on keeping very small fish, as they will struggle against the current created by the filter.

As already mentioned, most freshwater fish are tropical, so you will definitely need a heater to keep the water in optimal temperature. And also a thermometer to monitor the temperature and a water testing kit to check the pH levels and the overall quality of water from time to time. Some starter kits come with these included, some don’t.

Aquarium Decorations

Aquarium decorations theme

Decorations can be real plants or fake plants and other objects. It is important to understand the needs of your fish before choosing decorations as well. Some fish enjoy a natural and fully planted tank, some fish enjoy the freedom of swimming space, so they may prefer if there are less decorations or they are located at the edge of aquariums. Many fish need decorations because they like to swim through and around different obstacles for fun. But most fish need hiding places - places where they can hide from everyone and be at peace. Those can be big plants or decorations that contain caves. If you are looking for ideas to decorate your tank, here are some Cool Fish Tank Decorations.

Choosing the correct substrate is also something you need to research with accordance to the fish you wish to have. It is even more important, if you are going for a live planted fish tank. Depending on the plants, you will need different types of substrate.

Setting Up Your First Aquarium

After you have done your research and have received everything mentioned above, it is time to set-up your aquarium. Do note that you must do this before receiving your fish. If you put fish into your aquarium straight away, they will die for sure.

First thing is to make sure that the aquarium perfectly fits the place of your choice for it. Be sure that is is very stable and can hold heavy weight, as full aquariums usually are quite heavy. Also make sure that the surface is level and so is the aquarium when you place it there.

Cycling the tank

Nitrogen cycle graphic

The reason why you cannot put your fish straight into the aquarium is because of nitrogen cycle. You can read more details about nitrogen cycle in Common fish keeping mistakes article. This is probably the most difficult topic to grasp, when getting into fish keeping, but we have all been there.

So how do you perform the cycling of the tank? I will tell you about the most simple and beginner friendly fish tank cycling method.

First, you need to create an environment where ammonia could be produced. The most simple way to do this is by dropping flake fish food into an empty tank that is filled with water. Amount of the flakes dropped should be the same as when regularly feeding your fish. It should be repeated once every 12 hours. After that, the waiting game begins. As the flakes begin to decay, ammonia is going to get released into your aquarium.

Second, you will need to test your water with a testing kit every few days. You will want to keep your ammonia levels at 3ppm (parts per million). If ammonia levels are below that, then add more flake fish food to maintain it at 3ppm (Ammonia levels should always be kept at 0 after the fish have been added to the tank). Do this for a week.

Third, you need to start testing the water for nitrites, once the week of ammonia testing has finished. When you detect nitrites in your fish tank, you can be sure that the nitrogen cycle hs begin successfully. Continue to add flake fish food and keep ammonia at recommended levels just like you did before.

Fourth, by now, if you have been doing the previous steps for some weeks now (usually somewhere around 4), you should start noticing that nitrite levels are starting to drop. That is a good sign and you can start testing for nitrates. You are nearing the very end now.

Keep monitoring the water and once you see that ammonia and nitrite levels have dropped to 0, the cycle is complete. Check for nitrates one last time and, if nitrates level is above 40, do some water changes to bring it down.

Fifth and last, clean the substrate in your aquarium using a siphon or hose, because decaying food may have been trapped there and that can release unwanted ammonia into your tank eventually. Now your aquarium is ready for the first fish to be released into it! Best approach would be to acclimatize the fish and not add too many fish at the same time. Add the hardiest fish first, if possible and the rest after a week or two.

Yes, cycling of the tank can feel tedious and take some time, but you do not wish for your fish to die, right? There are other methods how to cycle a fish tank, for example, using used filter media with good bacteria, but this is the simplest and most beginner friendly method of all if you are starting your first aquarium. During the process of cycling your fish tank, you can do more research about the fish you want and think about how you are going to decorate it.

Maintain your aquarium

If you have followed closely to the steps provided, you are ready to become a great aquarist! Only thing that remains is regularly feeding your fish and doing maintenance of your aquarium every now and then. We have written a step-by-step article about how to clean your aquarium by yourself - How to Clean a Fish Tank at Home. You will be really pleased with the end result, I can guarantee it!

Additional Fish Keeping Resources

If you are looking for a starter fish tank, we have checked and reviewed the very best beginner friendly tanks on the market - Best small aquariums under 10 gallons.

Looking for something more impressive? No problem, see - Best Big Aquariums.

For fish tank decoration ideas - Cool Fish Tank Decorations.

Worried you won’t be able to feed your fish regularly? Then get an automatic fish food dispenser - Best Automatic Fish Food Dispensers.

Learn how to clean your aquarium correctly - How To Clean An Aquarium.

Read about 8 most common fish keeping mistakes - Common Beginner Fish Keeping Mistakes To Avoid.

If you are looking for hardy fish that can adapt to different environments and are more forgiving - Best Freshwater Fish For Small Aquariums.

Looking for new fish? See - Tropical Fish List For Your Aquarium.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends, maybe you will find a companion in this hobby amongst people close to you. Also, be sure to share your tips in the comments below.