Starting a fish tank for beginners

beginners aquarium set up

Starting a fish tank for beginners that have never had a fish tank before. Everything that you need to know, do and buy is explained here.

Which type of aquarium setup do you want?

There are 3 basic aquarium setups

beginners aquarium set up
beginners aquarium set up with plants

1. The tropical freshwater tank. This is the most common. This is an aquarium that uses tap water or other freshwater source and a heater to maintain the tropical temperatures needed. There are a wide variety of colourful fish and plants available to populate this type of aquarium.
2. The cold-water tank. This is less common put still popular. By far the most common fish for this aquarium is the goldfish. With the growth of fish keeping there has been a wider availability of other cold-water/temperate fish (besides goldfish) that do not require warm water or a heater. Some of these fish are quite colourful.
3. The marine tank. This is a heated aquarium that uses seawater instead of tap water. You don’t need to take trips to the sea to obtain seawater. You can actually buy a sea salt mix and add it to tap water to make your own seawater. Most marine fish in the hobby are reef fish. Reef fish are the most colourful fish available. Maintaining a marine tank is much more difficult than the other two and is not recommended for beginners.

beginners aquarium
Setting up a beginners aquarium

Beginners should choose either the cold-water aquarium setup or the tropical aquarium. Both are as easy as each other. The tropical aquarium is more colourful and allows you to have more fish in the tank but does require a heater.

Where to place your aquarium

Where not to place an aquarium

1. Do not place near any heat source such as a fire or a radiator.
2. Do not place near a window that has any sunlight.
3. Do not place near a draughty location.
4. Do not place in a location that has a lot of disturbances such as people walking by or banging doors.
You need to place the aquarium near a double electric socket. Place the aquarium in a location where you can observe it comfortably and you have easy access to the top of the aquarium for maintenance.

beginners fish tank cabinet and hood
beginners fish tank cabinet and hood

Essential equipment for the beginner’s fish tank

Glass aquariums are recommended for best viewing. Plastic tanks are available but scratch easily
Buy a as large a tank as you can reasonably afford. A 2ft/60cm tank is the recommended minimum size.

You need a heater for a tropical aquarium. But no heater is required for goldfish or temperate fish.

Lighting is needed so that the plants can grow and you can see the fish clearly. Good lighting can bring out the colours of your fish.

aquarium water test kit
aquarium water test kit

Ammonia and nitrite test kit is essential for a new aquarium to test for fish waste build-up.
 
Filter – a canister or even a sponge filter is necessary for biological filtration to break down fish waste. A sponge filter will need an air pump to power it.
 
Fish food. A good quality fish food that is made for the type of fish you keep. Remember some fish are carnivorous, some are mainly herbivores, while most are omnivores.
 
A syphon and bucket to remove water easily from an aquarium is a necessity. You can also use the syphon and bucket to return fresh water to the aquarium in a way that does not scare the fish.

beginners coldwater fish tank
beginners coldwater fish tank

Plants. Plants help remove fish waste(manure) from the water and provide a healthier more natural looking environment for the fish. You can choose from floating plants, rooted plants and non-rooted plants such as moss balls.

It is not essential to have gravel or sand but most people prefer it because it gives a grounding to the aquatic scene. Plants can be potted in pots with soil topped with gravel for better growth.

A thermometer is essential for a tropical aquarium to check if the heater is heating the water to the ideal temperature for your fish. This varies depending on which species you have. However, there is a range of temperatures that fish tolerate.

A hood. This prevents excess evaporation, heat loss and stops fish jumping out of the aquarium.

equipment for beginners aquarium
equipment for beginners aquarium

How to set up your fish tank

A fish tank when filled with water can get heavy so it needs a floor that can support it. Most floors in modern houses do this with ease. You can place an aquarium on a fish tank stand or a cabinet. A fish tank cabinet is preferred because it has been designed to support the weight of a tank of water. Home furniture can be used as long as the top surface is straight and has vertical support in the middle which will prevent the cabinet from bowing. If you buy a larger tank then a proper fish tank cabinet or stand is a must.

The stand or cabinet has to be level under load. The floor might not be level so use a spirit level on top of the aquarium and adjust things until the aquarium is sitting level. Before filling the aquarium use a cushioning material underneath the tank, ie between the tank base and the top of the cabinet. Polystyrene foam is ideal and helps distribute out any unevenness.

Basic aquascaping for your beginner’s aquarium

Find a picture of an aquarium that you like online and try to replicate it. When you place the gravel in the aquarium slope it from the back to the front. Place tall or bushy plants at the back and sides of the aquarium. Leave the front and middle of the aquarium plant free except for the occasional specimen plant. Place heaters, filters and other equipment behind bushy plants.

Setting up sequence for a beginner’s aquarium

Once the tank has been properly located and set up level, you are ready to start putting it together. A suggested sequence is as follows.
1. Wash your gravel or sand by placing some in a bucket then running water from a tap into it. Dust will come out with the water flow. Swirl it with your hand until all the dust has gone. Then place the cleaned gravel/sand in the aquarium. Then put the next batch of gravel/sand in the bucket and repeat until all the gravel/sand that you need is in the aquarium.
2. Half fill your aquarium with water. Smooth out the gravel/sand again. It usually gets disturbed when you add water to the aquarium.
3. Place your potted aquarium plants in the aquarium. Add fertiliser to the roots of the plants.
4. Place all the equipment and any decorations in the tank.
5. Fill the tank to the top.
6. Switch on all the equipment.
7. Place on the lid and turn on the light.
8. Add dechlorinator to the water.
9. Check the temperature and adjust the heater to get the required temperature
10. After 24/48 hours add a couple of fish.
Do a 10% water change every day. The new water needs to be dechlorinated and at the same temperature as the tank water.
11. Daily check the ammonia and nitrites. They will rise as the fish keep pooping and urinating. If the ammonia/nitrite levels go too high, do an extra water change.
12. When the ammonia/nitrite levels start to drop add another 2 fish.
13. Check the levels again and keep doing the water changes.
14. As the levels drop again and again add more fish. Only add more fish when your aquarium can cope.
15. After 6 weeks the aquarium should be stabilised.

starter fish for beginners
starter fish for beginners

Choosing the fish for a beginner’s aquarium

You need to research to find which fish is tough and won’t die easily. You need to avoid fish that are aggressive to other fish. And make sure you don’t buy fish that grow very big. Make sure you have a few alternative choices, because the particular fish you want might not be available. Do an internet search for fish that you like the look of that fits the previous choices.

How to buy the fish for a beginner’s aquarium

Child choosing fish in aquarium storeNow, you know what fish you are after and they are available. Do you just hand over your money? No! You must go to the fish shop’s tanks and have a good look at the fish in the tank. A tank with dead or sick fish is a big no no. You need to observe the fish. Are they active? Do they have fins extended. Are the colours bright and clear? Make sure there are no missing scales, no spots and no bits of fungus growing on them. Don’t buy a fish with split fins or cloudy eyes. When you approach the tank and pretend to feed them at the top of the aquarium, the fish should all rush to where you put your hand.

Select one fish at a time and ask the shop keeper to net the particular fish that looks good to you. Remember to not get excited and buy just a couple of fish at a time.

When to add the fish to your aquarium

Add the first 2 fish 24 to 48 hours after the tank has been filled up. To add fish to the tank from the bag. Do not just throw them in, but put the closed bag in the water and wait 15 minutes for the bag’s water to match the tank’s temperature. Then you just plop the fish in.

Then do daily ammonia/nitrite tests and daily water changes. As the fish eat they poop and urinate into the water. This pollution is cleaned up by bacteria in the filter. But, it takes time to build up enough bacteria. That is why you need to test the ammonia/nitrite levels. When the levels start to fall, add a couple more fish. If the ammonia/nitrite becomes too high then do an immediate water change of 25% and add dechlorinated water at the same temperature.

Cycling the beginner’s aquarium

This is critical to keeping your fish alive for any length of time. Fish waste builds up in water which slowly poisons the fish. Luckily when fish waste appears in water, bacteria start to grow that feed off this waste and neutralise it. However there is a time lag of several weeks before the bacteria can grow enough to cope with all of the fish waste. Most cycling bacteria grows inside a filter on the sponge material. The filter needs a good flow of water to feed the bacteria, which means you occasionally have to squeeze off the excess mud off the filter to stop it becoming clogged.

Cycling your aquarium

Setting up a maintenance routine

Once the tank has cycled, perhaps after 6-8 weeks then you can start to relax and reduce the water changes to 10% every week. Water changes help reduce the level of nitrate that is produced by the cycling bacteria. In nature, fast growing plants and algae would normally utilise nitrate, which is a fertiliser. In the aquarium we need to dilute the nitrate because we normally have too many fish compared to nature.

beginners tank fish feeding
beginners tank fish feeding

Every day
Feed the fish and do a fish count every feeding time. If any fish are missing then search the tank and remove the dead fish otherwise it could rot and pollute the tank. At the same time, check that all fish are healthy, active and with fins spread. Check for any parasites, any spots or any fungus and treat the fish when they are sick. At the same time check the temperature is right.

Once a week
1.Do an algae scrape of the front of the aquarium. It is better for the health of the aquarium if you do not scrape the side and back panes of the tank. If you are a meticulous person then you can also scrape the side panes as well but leave the back pane alone. Syphon 10-20% of the water into a bucket and sift the syphon through the sand/gravel to disturb any food or fish droppings that are trapped in the gravel. Pour away the bucket of water but be careful not to pour away any accidentally syphoned gravel. Wash this gravel and put it back into the aquarium.

2. Next, mix up a bucket of water with hot and cold tap water until it is the same temperature as your aquarium. Add your dechlorinator to the bucket of water. Then add this water to your tank. Top up your tank until full again.

3. Check there is a good flow from the filter. If the flow is slow then squeeze the excess mud from the filter and throw the mud away. Do not wash the sponge with tap water because that will kill the nitrifying bacteria on the sponge. Just squeeze the sponge by hand and then wash your hands.

4. Check your plants. Prune any dead bits and remove any dead plants.
5. Sit back and relax and enjoy your aquarium. You have passed the hardest stage of fish keeping. Now everything becomes easy and should be a more relaxed routine.

Alternative coldwater aquarium fish

round tailed paradise fish

Choosing alternative cold water aquarium fish

round tailed paradise fish
round tailed paradise fish a true coldwater fish from China

Making a coldwater aquarium beautiful used to be a problem because there weren’t enough coldwater aquarium fish to choose from. However, with the better availability of temperate fish and exotic species this is no longer an issue. Here you can choose from the best cold water aquarium fish species listed below. With the wide range of coldwater aquarium fish available these days, you can make your coldwater tank look just as enticing and beautiful as a tropical aquarium. There is no need to immediately associate coldwater tanks with dull, uninteresting fish—even if you have to do some searching for them, there are a number of excellent species available for these tanks.

With the right choices, you can have a coldwater tank that looks just as good as a tropical one. The truth is that a home aquarium is not actually a coldwater tank but rather a temperate water tank with temperatures the equal of most warm temperate waters.

Some alternative cold water aquarium fish species and how to choose

rainbow shiner group
The beautiful and very active rainbow shiner is a coldwater aquarium fish

Your choice of fish should show the same bright assortment of colours that makes tropical fish keeping such an attractive hobby. One of the best ways to approach your coldwater tank is by holding it to the same standards as you would a tropical one, but without buying into cliché fish choices such as goldfish.
 
If you spend some time looking for the right combination of coldwater fish in terms of colour, size, temperemant and water conditions, you can create a very impressive tank. Keeping various species from different parts of the world such as Chinese gobies and American red shiners together can help create a varied and lively atmosphere in your tank.

Coldwater Aquarium fish species worth considering include:

• White Cloud Mountain Minnows
• Golden Barbs,
• Whip Tail Catfish,
• Empire Gobies,
• Argentinean Pearl,
• Japanese Medaka – Rice Fish,
• One Sided Livebearer,

white cloud mountain minnow pair
white cloud mountain minnow male and female

• Rainbow Shiners,
• Emerald Shiners,
• Macropodus Ocellatus, (Round tailed paradise fish)
• Black Bullhead Catfish,
• Bloodfins,
• Banded Charcidium,
• Common Loaches,
• Two-Spot Barbs,
• Bengal Danios,
• Red-Tailed Goodeids,
• Sunset Platies,
• Pygmy Sunfish,
• Mudminnows,
• Chinese gobies – rhinogobius (eg rhinogobius zhoui or r. rubromaculatus)
• rosy barbs

rosy barb males
rosy barb males

• odessa barbs
There are quite a few different elements to take into consideration with these alternatives. Any one of them is more interesting and exotic than keeping a stereotypical goldfish tank, but the right combination can really shine. Some of these, such as the White Cloud Mountain Minnow, are very popular as alternative coldwater aquarium fish, while others are more unusual choices.
Barbs are a great choice because of their colour assortments and generally good community behaviour and activity levels. The two-spot and golden barbs can grow very colourful when properly taken care of and offer a uniquely exotic appeal to any tank they are a part of. Sunset platies are a great choice as well—people rarely expect to see any species of platy in a coldwater tank.
The two species of catfish presented above make fine additions to larger tanks: the whip tail does best in a small group of similar individuals, and the black bullhead is large; with a dominating presence in any tank.

Argentinian pearlfish male
Argentinian pearlfish male

Argentinean Pearls, especially the males, tend to feature bright, ornate spotted colouring that looks fantastic in a variety of environments. If you want to give your tank a tropical look with coldwater fish, these are a great choice, especially when combined with other coldwater fish with bright colouration and ornate markings like theirs.
As always, fish compatibility needs to be taken into consideration when making your choices: Barbs and gobies tend to do well in a variety of community tanks, and catfish will spend most of their time in the lower depths of the water avoiding other fish. Sunset platies, as an additional example, should be kept at a ratio of two females to each male in order to minimize harassment.

Coldwater fish in a coldwater tank: is a chiller necessary?

Naturally, one of the advantages to the coldwater tank setup is the fact that you do not need to keep a heater. However, some aquarists from hotter climates who keep coldwater tanks insist on the use of a chiller to prevent their tanks overheating.

Advantages of the coldwater aquarium

Round tailed paradise fish
Round tailed paradise fish

The fish mentioned above will do well in an unheated tank, temperate water temperature, eliminating the need to buy a heater, for the most part. For most aquarists, the primary appeal of these species and of this tank type is the fact that there is no need to keep an expensive temperature control tool on twenty four hours a day, and all of these species will thrive in temperate waters kept anywhere within the normal range of room temperature.
As an added benefit, these fish tend to be very tolerant of temperature changes, so if you live in an area with cold winters and hot summers, you may still find that your fish are capable of thriving without your intervention. This saves time, money, and electricity while providing you with all the benefits you would otherwise have with a heated tropical tank. This actually better mimics the fishes natural environment with warm days and cool nights and seasonal temperature changes.
Not having to heat your aquariums saves you having to buy a heater and pay for higher electricity bills and not worrying about a broken heater or power outs. Another advantage is that you can expand quite easily. A breeding tank set up is no problem. Any water tight container and a filter and your away. Also growing-on, breeder tanks can be set up as they are needed in the same way.

Rhinogobius Zhoui male
Rhinogobius Zhoui male

Also not having a heated tank means that you can have an open topped aquarium(no hood) because there is less evaporation. However care still has to be taken with jumpers. Perhaps a glass cover should be employed to prevent fish committing suicide. With an open top and temperate temperatures, the aquarist can then consider mini water lilies and floating plants.
One thing you have to consider is the aquarium plants. Most plants do okay at lower temperatures however some will not. A little bit of care in the selection of your plants will let you avoid plants that don’t thrive. On the other hand you can obtain plants from the coldwater and pond section of your local aquarist.

Where to buy coldwater fish

Often, the best way to purchase coldwater fish is online. Local aquarium stores and fish shops will often provide several species of coldwater fish alongside their more popular tropical ones, but the selection is often limited. In order to get your coldwater aquarium looking colourful and bright, you will need to do some searching to find the right fish.
Local classifieds in which you can find nearby fish breeders can also be of great help. Often, you can find rare or exotic species being raised only a short distance from your home. This gives you an easy opportunity to get your hands on some good alternative species that can give your tank the special, unique appeal that you are looking for.

One note of caution : Many fish stores keep these temperate fish at tropical temperatures. It might be a mistake to put these fish into a cooler aquarium overnight. Acclimatise them to the cooler temperatures slowly over time.