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So, You Want to Set Up a Fish Tank?

Some Things to Think About and Have in Mind BEFORE You Buy Your Tank

(The First Tank Guide)

Setting up your first home or office aquarium should be easy, fun, and exciting. By taking a few steps and planning ahead, you can make your first aquarium a joy!

Here are some step-by-step tips for getting started in the fastest growing hobby in the world, fish keeping. These 11 steps can help you to avoid many common mistakes and get you into a fish tank that you can not only live with, but be proud of and enjoy.

  1. Determine what kind of fish you want to keep.
    The first thing you should do when you decide to keep fish is determine what kind of fish you want to keep. Different kinds of fish will require different care, different conditions, different space, and different equipment. If you get your equipment before you decide what kind of fish you are getting, you may find yourself with inappropriate or unusable equipment or insufficient space for the fish you really want to be keeping in your aquarium.
  2. Research care and compatibility of those fish.
    This should involve your first purchase in the aquarium hobby - a book. It is very important to learn about the fish you want to keep. This will let you know what conditions they will need, what equipment you will want, and how to set up your fish tank. When you research your fish, you can determine how big they will get and thereby determine the size of the fish tank you will need to keep them happy and healthy (1" of healthy mature fish per gallon of water for small fish, 1" of fish per 3 gallons of water for large or messy fish, more than that for marine fish - that's about 5cm of fish for every 8 liters or so for small fish, and around 5cm of fish for every 24 liters or so for larger fish). Also, this will give you a chance to learn if the various fish you have selected are compatible with each other. If different fish's care requirements, size, or temperament are too different, they will not be compatible and should not be kept together.
  3. Determine space.
    Now that you know a little more about the fish you wish to keep, you know how large of a fish tank you will need. Look through your home and select a location for your new aquarium. How much space can you allocate to the fish tank and accessories? Remember to account for space between the fish tank and the wall for filters, tubing, and/or cords.
  4. Determine budget.
    How much can you afford to spend on your aquarium? If this is your first fish tank, how much can you afford to spend on a new hobby that you are not sure you will be pursuing long term?
  5. Select equipment.
    Visit your local pet store and determine what equipment is available and how much it will cost. If you do not see something that you will need for your system, ask about placing a special order. See if you can get a price (or at least an approximation) before committing to an order.
  6. Evaluate budget/space constraints.
    How does your budget compare to the cost of the equipment you will need? Can you get a fish tank large enough for your fish that will fit in the space available in your home? You should address both of these questions, and then evaluate your fish selection, your space constraints and your budget compared to the new information you now have. Can you spend more? Is it a little more or a lot more? How close are you to fitting the appropriate fish tank into the space available in your home? Is another location available in your home? How committed are you to getting the fish you selected? Is one fish pushing your set-up into a different price bracket? Is that fish even available in your area?
  7. Purchase equipment.
    Once you have reevaluated your fish selections, space limitations, and budget, it is time to purchase equipment. If you need to special order anything, do so early, as it may take a considerable time to get equipment by special order.
  8. Setup equipment.
    Now that everything is home, clean it all off and get ready to go. Expect to spend a couple of hours setting everything up if this is your first fish tank. Fill your fish tank with water once all of your equipment is set up, and let it settle for a day or so so you can make sure that everything is working properly and that nothing leaks.
  9. Select starting fish.
    During the first day ir so, while the fish tank is running without fish, you can go back to your list of fish and select a few starter fish. These fish should be hearty, inexpensive, relatively small, and something you want to keep in your fish tank in the long run. You only want to select 1" (about 2.5cm) of fish per 10 gallons (about 40 liters) of water, but this time (and only this time) you can use the size the fish are when you get them to determine their impact. This is because your fish will not grow significantly in the 6-8 weeks it will take the fish tank to cycle.
  10. Cycle your fish tank.
    Over the next 6-8 weeks, you must be patient. Be very diligent with fish tank maintenance, be absolutely sure not to over feed, watch your fish's behavior closely, do extra water changes as necessary, and DON'T ADD ANY MORE FISH. Until your fish tank has finished cycling, you should only stick with your few select starter fish.
  11. Maintain your fish tank.
    Once the fish tank has finished cycling, feed and observe your fish daily. Check your filters at least twice a week. Perform a 10-15% water change every week, and scrub for algae at the same time. Every month, check all hoses, fittings, clamps, cords, lights and other miscellaneous equipment. This may sound like a lot, but a couple of minutes a day could tell you months in advance of a disaster. Water changes usually take under 30 minutes for a fish tank, including checking all equipment and scrubbing for algae! Most people find their aquariums to take under 2 minutes a day to keep everything in good order.

Now you are ready to venture into the exciting world of fish keeping. Whether you just want to keep goldfish, or if you want to delve into the world of exotic tropical reefs, these 11 steps will get you started on the right foot.

Check out these pages to help you get started with your first fish tank:



"I am blown away by the quality and thoroughness of the info provided on your site. I plan to have [the First Tank Guide] added to the recommended sites thread, in my local aquarium society's forum."
March 15, 2010
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"Thank you sooo much for your reply Keith. I feel I'm finally speaking to someone who knows what they are talking about which is such a relief [...]. I've been so confused by so much conflicting advice."
February 12, 2013
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