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Beginner to Fish Keeping - Part 3: Aquarium Setup

Online Aquarium Fish Magazine | Beginner to Fish Keeping - Part 3: Aquarium Setup

Setting up the Tank

At its surface, this part is pretty easy. Follow the directions of whatever equipment you have, and set the tank up. Be sure to rinse everything you purchased, but do not use any cleaners. It's advisable to put the substrate in before putting the water in. Decorations should go in last, as the water will push them around when you fill the tank.

If you use municipal water, be sure to buy some sort of water conditioner to remove the chlorine and chloramine from the water. These chemicals' purpose is to kill off any bacteria in the water, and will work its magic on the nitrifying bacteria. They will also damage the gills of your fish, probably killing them quickly. If your city uses chlorine, you can also condition your water by aging it, letting it sit out for 24 hours or so. The chlorine will evaporate during this time. This will not work with chloramine, however.

If you have your own well, you may still want to use a conditioner that neutralizes heavy metals, which may be present in your water. Even if they aren't concentrated enough to harm you, they may be enough to harm your fish.

The Cycle

This is the point where the most fish are lost. The nitrogen cycle of your tank is a period where the nitrifying bacteria colony sets itself up. Fish produce waste in the form of ammonia. One type of bacteria consumes this ammonia, and produces waste in the form of nitrite. Another type of bacteria consumes the nitrite, and produces waste in the form of nitrate. The end result is that you want no ammonia and no nitrite in your tank.

To test this, you will need a water testing kit. The variety that uses vials of liquid is more accurate than the little test strips. Some fellow aquarists have had experiences where the test strips have been entirely wrong in a test.

The number one mistake that beginners make is to buy a bunch of fish and toss them into the tank. The fish produce ammonia faster than the bacteria colony can grow to handle, and the fish die of ammonia poisoning. Some very hardy fish have a chance of surviving this process, but it likely shortens their lifespan and is very uncomfortable for them. It is much better to carefully cycle your tank. There are several methods of doing so.

With Fish

In this method, buy a couple of very hardy fish, such as zebra danios, and introduce them to the tank. This is NOT the preferred method, and this author considers it cruel to the fish.

With Ammonia
Use an eyedropper to put 5 drops of ammonia per 10 gallons of water into your tank. Keep doing this daily until you get nitrite readings. After that, put 3 drops of ammonia per 10 gallons in daily. Continue until you get nitrate readings. At that point, do a 30% water change and you're ready to add fish.

With Fish Food
Put a few flakes of fish food into the tank twice a day. As it decomposes, it will release ammonia, feeding the growing colony. Continue feeding the tank until you get nitrate readings.

With Raw Fish
Drop a 2"x1" chunk of raw fish or shrimp into the aquarium. As it decomposes, it will release ammonia. Remove when you get nitrate readings, do a partial water change, and add fish.

With Gravel/Filter Media from an Established Tank
This method is this author's favorite method of cycling a tank. If a friend has an established tank and is willing to part with a bit of filter media (or gravel, if you're using a UGF), you can add it to your tank, add some fish food, and you should get nitrate readings in a couple of days. The biggest downside of this method is that there is a possibility of introducing parasites from the established tank into the new tank. If the established tank is healthy, however, this isn't likely.

With Bio Spira
This author has tried to keep brand names out of this guide, but in the case of Bio Spira, it is a necessity. There are many products that claim to have nitrifying bacteria, but these bacteria are not the aquatic variety, and will be harmful to your tank in the long run. As far as this author knows, Bio Spira is the only brand of nitrifying product that contains the aquatic bacteria. The product is expensive, and is made more so by the fact that it must be shipped express and packaged in a way to keep the heat out. Bio Spira claims to be able to cycle a tank in 24 hours, and the experience of some fellow aquarists seems to support this claim.

During your cycling process, test your tank's water once a day. Once you get to the point that your tank is producing nitrate readings, you are nearing the end of the cycle. At this point, it is a matter of opinion, as well as a matter of the hardiness of the fish you are adding to the tank, as to when to add the fish. In this author's opinion, it is safe to add one or two hardy fish, such as zebra danios. If all of your planned fish are more sensitive, it is probably best to wait until your nitrite readings are nearly zero.

This may seem like a lot of work to put fish in a tank, but the wait is definitely worth it. Aside from dying directly of ammonia or nitrite poisoning, there is a greatly increased possibility of your fish suffering from other diseases, as the stress of high ammonia and nitrite levels weakens their immune systems as well as damages their gills.

Introducing the Fish (or other Critters)

Once your tank is a ready home for its future denizens, it is time to purchase them. This author will not go over how to choose particular animals, or which ones are better for keeping in an aquarium, at least not in this article. However, one must take care when picking fish. Obviously sick or injured fish run the risk of contaminating a tank, and stand a good chance of dying. Still, there is something to be said for rescuing fish, as long as one knows what one is getting into.

Your fish will come in a plastic bag, most likely. This is actually better for fish than a hard-sided container, as it allows the fish to bounce off of the sides during the ride.

The intended result is to keep the fish in the bag for as little time as possible. To this end, plan your trip around getting the fish, and make sure that the fish going into the bag is the last thing that happens before you go to the register to pay, and that the pet store is the last stop before you head home. If the trip is going to be long, bring a cooler with some sort of soft material you can pack it with to keep the bag from rolling around.

Of course, if you are ordering your fish, they will be delivered. Try to be home when they will be delivered, but leave instructions to set the box in some sheltered area (if you have bushes along your house, between them and the house is a good choice), in case you aren't home. Plan on introducing between one and three fish at a time, give the nitrifying bacteria a week to catch up on the waste increase, and introduce one to three more.

There are a couple of different ways to actually introduce your fish.

The most simple method is to simply float the bag for about ten minutes, to adjust the temperature in the bag to the temperature of the water, and then move the fish into the tank. This method is very stressful to the fish, as there is more to the water than just temperature. The immediate change in water chemistry will be a shock to the fishes' system.

The other method is to add small amounts of the new tank water to the water from the bag in order to acclimate the fish more fully. This can be done in a couple of different ways. The bags can be floated, with the tops rolled over to create a sort of float for the bags, and small amounts of tank water poured in the bag every couple of minutes. Or the fish and bag water may be put in a container (this author uses one of the water change buckets) and add small amounts of water every couple of minutes. Just make sure that the bucket is small enough at the base that the water covers the fish, or the change will be just as stressful as dumping them in the tank.

A variation on this method is to use an acclimation kit. An acclimation kit is nothing more than a tube, some method of attaching the tube to the aquarium, and an adjustable outlet. This allows a steady drip of water to be transferred from the aquarium to the container. Just be sure to watch that the container doesn't fill too much, or the fish may leap out.

Once you've acclimated the fish, it's imperative that you not dump the water into the tank. First of all, this ride would be similar to a trip through rapids to most fish. Second, the water from the bag potentially contains parasites and diseases that you do not want to introduce to your aquarium.

Instead, use a net to move the fish, one at a time, to their new home. There are, inevitably, a few types of fish that do not do well with nets, but most of these are not good fish for beginners, anyway. In those cases, it is best to quarantine the fish (more on this in a moment) to be sure that it is not ill, and then move it in a small container, transferring as little water as possible.


When you get new fish, it is a good idea to quarantine the fish in a separate tank for a week or more in order to verify that the fish is not ill. This tank may be spartan, though it should have the basic amenities of a good aquarium (filter, heater, air stone if necessary). For smaller fish, many pet stores sell tiny 1-5 gallon aquariums that are too small for a permanent home, but make excellent quarantine and hospital tanks. These often are full setups, including a filter (though not usually a heater).

Quarantining may not be necessary when the fish are the first inhabitants of an aquarium. However, after anything other than plants are living in an aquarium, you will be playing Russian Roulette with your fish if you add fish directly from the store.


There are going to be certain supplies you will need to keep your tank happy and healthy. The most obvious supply you're going to need is Food. There are many different types of food out there. Flakes and pellets are the most common. When getting pellets, make sure that they are the proper size. It's better to get pellets that are too small than too big. Overly large pellets can choke a fish, or can get lodged in the intestine. As with many other things, you get what you pay for. Flakes are cheap and filling for a fish, but are mostly filler. If you are looking for high quality food, your best bet is probably frozen and freeze-dried foods.

One big warning: If you are buying carnivorous fish such as piranhas, it is best not to feed them "feeder fish." These are guppies or goldfish that are kept with hundreds of their kind in an under-cleaned, under-filtered, and under-fed tank. Nearly all of them will be packed with disease, and they are not very good for your fish, as their bodies have already used up all available nutrients in an attempt to keep them alive.

In addition to food made specifically for fish, there are many other things that your fish will likely eat, depending on its breed. Carniverous fish will likely love all sorts of worms, including the kinds sold in bait shops. Herbivores and omnivores will love nearly any vegetable you can think of. The harder vegetables should be softened a bit by parboiling them (get some water boiling, take it off the heat and drop the vegetables in). This author has fed his fish skinned peas, parboiled zucchini, slices of cucumber, spinach, and lettuce. Vegetables can be left to float, attached to the wall of the tank with a clip made for this purpose, or weighted down to the bottom of the tank, depending on the eating preferences of your fish.

Water Testing Equipment has already been covered, but it is a very important supply, and cannot be forgotten. Be sure to test your water frequently. Once everything is stabilized, once a week, or at least once a month, the water should be tested.


Actually, medication is on the list of things that you don't necessarily want to have on hand. Most antibiotics have a limited shelf life, and it would be better to purchase them as you need them. There are a few exceptions. It is this author's opinion that, if you are getting a betta, it would be best to have a betta-safe fin-rot cure available, as many bettas are poorly treated prior to purchase, and are susceptible to fin rot until they have a very stable home. Also, if there is no nearby store where medications are available, it may be best to keep a supply of a "treat-all" type medicine stored in your fridge, as your fish may not have the days it would take to order fresh medicine if they get sick.

You're almost there. You have enough information to give you a head start compared to how most people leap into the aquarist's hobby. The next (and final, in this series) article will cover the actual care of the fish and aquarium.

About the Author

Sam started keeping fish when I inherited a tank from a friend's girlfriend. Have since purchased three other tanks, each with an entirely different setup and type of fish.

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