How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (2022)

Keeping fish has proven effects in reducing stress and improving mental health, so it’s no surprise that more and more people are choosing to keep them in their own home.

With a huge variety of tank sizes to choose from, and a wealth of fish in all different shapes and colors, there is something to suit everyone who wants to venture into the world of aquariums.

In this article, we’re going to explain how to set up a fish tank including: preparing the tank, installing the equipment, cycling the tank and acclimatizing fish.

Unfortunately, it’s common practice for fish stores to sell fish to customers who have only had their tank set up for just a few days, this article will explain the importance of setting your tank up properly and carrying out a full cycle before adding any fish.

Step One: Plan your Tank

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (1)This is the step that most people miss out, yet it is the most important one if you want to have a successful, thriving aquarium.

Before you even begin to look at tanks, or equipment, you need to decide what species you would like to keep in your tank.

Otocinclus: Oto Catfish Care Guide ...

Is it going to be a large community tank, a smaller species only tank, or a breeding tank?

The type of fish and invertebrates that you decide to keep will determine the size of your tank, the water conditions within the tank, the equipment you need, and the types of plants you need.Sit down and make a plan about exactly what you want from your tank. Once you know the species you want to keep, you can move on to buying the tank and the right equipment.

If your tank is small, you might want to use a piece of paper, the same size as the bottom of your tank and plan out where you want your plants and decorations to go to ensure you have enough space.

Step Two: Prepare the Tank

Once you’ve purchased all your equipment, you’re ready to set it up.

Before you start adding any water you need to make sure the tank is clean. If you’ve bought a new tank you’ll just need to use a damp cloth to wipe off any dust it’s gathered.

Never use soap or detergents to clean your tank.

It’s important to also remember that any equipment you use for your tank (e.g. cloths and buckets) should be new and only ever used for your tank so you don’t get any household chemicals or other products in your tank.

Cleaning a Used Tank

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (2)

If you’ve bought a used tank you’ll need to give it a bit more attention. Remove any debris from the tank, and use vinegar and kitchen roll to clean the tank. Clean both the outside and the inside of your tank.

(Video) How To Set Up A Fish Tank Aquarium Step by Step (EASY BEGINNER)

Be careful doing this if you’ve bought an acrylic tank. Acrylic can scratch extremely easily, so you’ll need specific cleaning cloths for an acrylic tank.

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (3)

Once you’ve cleaned your used tank you’ll need to check it is leak proof. To do this, fill it with a couple of inches of water and leave it for an hour. Run your finger around the bottom edge to see if there are any leaks.

If you do find any, you can use an aquarium sealant to reseal the tank.

Positioning Your Tank

Now it’s time to get your tank into the right position. Make sure you place it somewhere out of direct sunlight, and near a power supply.

You also need to make sure that the stand you’re putting your tank on is suitable and strong enough – putting water in the tank can add a lot of weight to the whole tank.

For example, a 50 gallon tank weighs around 100 pounds when empty, and once filled weighs around 600 pounds.

This is another good reason to have you tank in the correct position before filling it, because it will be very difficult to move afterward filling.

Once your tanks in the correct position, you need to make sure it’s level. You can do this one of two ways. You can either use a spirit-level, or you can fill it with an inch or two of water and see if it’s level by eye.

Step Three: Add the Substrate and Water

Your tank is now clean, in the right position and level. Now it’s time to prepare your substrate and add the water.

The type of substrate you choose is down to your personal preferences, but will sometimes be determine by the type of fish and plants you want to keep. For example a lot of Catfish need a sandy substrate.

The amount of substrate you need depends on how thick you want it. A good rule of thumb to follow is 1lb of substrate per gallon of water; this will be enough to make a 1” thick bed. If you want it thicker, 2lbs per gallon will create a 2” bed of substrate.

You can use the table below as a guideline:

Aquarium Size in Gallonslbs of Substrate Needed
10 Gallon10-20
40 Gallon40-80
50 Gallon50-100
75 Gallon75-150
90 Gallon90-180
125 Gallon125-250
150 Gallon150-300

Remember different substrate weighs different amounts so the weight you’ll need varies.

Washing the Substrate

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (4)

Although substrate normally comes prewashed, it will most likely be very dusty and need to be rinsed so it doesn’t cause your tank to be really cloudy.

You’ll need to rinse the substrate before you add it to the tank. You can do this by putting small amounts in a bucket and fill it with cold water. Use your hand to swirl the substrate around and carry on rinsing it until the water is running as clear as possible.

If you have a lot of gravel to clean, you might want to consider doing this outside with a high pressure hose. Keep pouring the water out of the bucket, and spraying again until the water is clear.

Some substrates (e.g. powder-coated gravels) don’t do well being washed this way and the water just gets more and more cloudy. Just try to remove as much dust as possible and use less vigorous hand movements.

Now your substrate is clean you can add it to the tank.

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (5)
(Video) How to set up a fish tank.

Start off adding just a thin layer to make sure you don’t scratch the bottom of your tank, and then you can pour the rest in.

When you pour the rest of your gravel in, think about whether there are any areas you’d like raised a bit higher, perhaps to bury the roots of plants into.

It’s common to see aquarium gravel running in a slope, from the highest point at the back of the aquarium to the lowest point at the front.

Now your substrate is in, you need to fill the tank up with water.

Adding Water to the Tank

If you are only using a small tank (less than 20 gallons) carry out step four and five before adding water.

Now, the way to add water varies depending on whether you are setting up a freshwater or saltwater tank.

The photos we are following are of a freshwater set-up, so we’ll take a look at how to do that first.

Adding Freshwater

To prevent your gravel or sand from being disturbed as you pour water in, you can use a saucer or a bowl.

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (6)

Place the saucer wherever is easiest to tip the water in, and slowly start pouring your water in.

When the tank is full, you’ll need to add ade-chlorinator to the water. Follow the instructions on your bottle. It usually gives you the ratio in ml’s per gallon, for example, 1 ml of de-chlorinator per 20 gallons.

Adding Saltwater

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (7)Before you add any water to your aquarium, you need to prepare it first.

You need to use water that has been through reverse osmosis (you can either buy RO water or use treatments); also make sure you’ve used a de-chlorinator too.

To prepare your saltwater use a salt mix and follow the instructions on the packet to ensure you add the right amount.

You can then follow the step above to add the water to the tank.

Step Four: Install the Equipment

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (8)

Your tank is full of water and substrate, now it’s time to install the equipment.

At a bare minimum, most set-ups require a filter.

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (9)

All installations of filters vary depending on the brand you’ve chosen. You will either have opted for an internal or an external filter.Internal filters are relatively easy to install, start off by assembling all the parts. The filter needs to go on the back wall of your tank, and the wire needs to reach a power supply.

Here is a video of a small filter being fitted to a tank; it’s likely that there will be a specific YouTube tutorial on your brand of filter if you do need any extra help.

(Video) Beginners First Aquarium - How to Set up Your First Fish Tank

If you’ve chosen an underwater gravel filter you’ll need to install that before adding the water.

Always make sure the filter is properly installed before you turn it on at the power supply.

The tank in our example uses an external filter. External filters have space for more forms of media and filter the water more effectively.

External filters usually sit within the stand, below the tank. An external filter carries the water out of the tank, and to the filter below to clean in, and then sends it back to the tank.Always make sure that the inlet and outlet tubes are straight with no bends or kinks so the water can travel out of (and back) into the tank freely.

Most external filters need to be full of water before you plug them into the power supply – this is called priming the system, which gets water moving through the filter.

Once you’ve installed the filter, you need to install the heater (if you’ve chosen a tropical or saltwater set up). Most heaters are pretty self-explanatory and come with a dial on the top to choose the right temperature. They also have a line which shows you have far to submerge the heater.

Always place your heater on one side of the tank, and install a thermometer on the opposite side to ensure your tank is heated consistently throughout the tank.

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (10)

If you’ve bought any other equipment which needs installing, such as air pumps, stones and lights, you should do this now. If you’re setting up a saltwater aquarium you’ll also need to install your protein skimmer and any other equipment you’ve purchased.

Step Five: Add Plants and Decorations

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (11)

Now you’ve finished setting up all the operational parts of the tank, you can focus on making it look how you’ve envisaged. You might want a heavily planted tank; you might want a very natural looking tank with some large stones, driftwood and just a few plants. Or you might want to create a theme based on a movie.

Whatever you choose, make sure you follow the plan you made at the start of this process to help with the layout of your tank.

Rinse each item to remove any dust before putting them in, and then place them in the appropriate place.

When you’re positioning your plants, you’ll find that some plants, such as Anacharis do better as background plants and some do better in the front. Always carry out research into the placement of plants to make your tank as visually appealing as possible.

When it comes to planting them, you’ll also need to make sure you follow the advice for each species. Most plants can be buried straight into the substrate, however some plants such as Java Fern, need to be attached to driftwood before putting them in the tank.

Step Six: Cycle the Tank

You’ve finished setting up your tank! Whilst it may look ready for fish, you’ll need to be patient and wait until your tank is cycled before you can add any. This is known as the Nitrogen Cycle. Most fish stores recommend leaving your tank only for a few days before adding fish, this is not advisable.

Cycling the tank means you are building up a bacteria ‘bed’ in your biological filter which is essential for the health of your future fish.

Firstly your filter will grow a culture of bacteria which converts ammonia into nitrites. Then it will culture bacteria which converts nitrites to nitrates. Both ammonia and nitrites are toxic to fish so it’s important you run a full cycle to allow these bacteria to develop.

Nitrates are still toxic to fish, but only in high levels, which is why it’s important to carry out regular water changes to remove them.

(Video) How to set up an aquarium | Fish tank setup step by step

We always recommend cycling your tank without fish, so they are not exposed to any of the toxins.

Freshwater Cycling

To begin the process, add some ammonia into your tank, this is readily available in almost all fish stores and only cost $2-$3. Follow the instructions on the bottle; some recommend that you add a large dose at the start, others recommend adding a certain dose per day.

Carry out tests on your tank once a week to check the levels, you’ll see the ammonia and nitrite levels spike and then start to drop. Once they reach zero (0ppm), your tank is fully cycled.

To speed up this process you can:

  • Add filter media from an established tank.
  • Increase the water temperature.
  • Increase oxygen levels (use an air pump or stone).

Saltwater Cycling

The most common way to cycle a saltwater tank is using live rock. Whilst the rock isn’t actually alive, it is referred to as live rock, because this is where the bacteria build up.

Always choose rocks which are light – this means it will have plenty of tiny nooks and crannies for the bacteria to build up. Always transfer the rock from wherever you’ve bought it to your tank as quickly as possible to prevent the bacteria dying off.

You might find that the dead bacteria is enough to kick start the cycling process, but if not, you can follow the same step as in the freshwater step above and use liquid ammonia to start the cycle off.

This whole process takes around 6-8 weeks. Once you’ve checked your ammonia and nitrite levels are at 0ppm, perform a 50% water change to remove any build of nitrates.

You are now ready to add fish!

Step Seven: Add Your Fish!

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (12)

This is the step you’ve been so patiently waiting for! You’ve probably invested quite a lot of time and money into your setup and are excited to introduce fish to your tank.

You need to make sure you add your fish slowly over a period of a few weeks (or months); the amount you can add depends on the size of your tank. Start off by adding no more than one inch of fish per 10 gallons.

You then need to acclimatize your fish. The purpose of acclimation is that fish are sensitive to any changes in their water, so moving them from one tank to another should be done slowly. It’s likely that the water they are currently in is slightly different to your tank temperature, pH and salinity parameters.

If you want to be on the safe side, you can quarantine fish in a separate aquarium for a couple of weeks to observe them. Some people like to do this to ensure they are not showing signs of disease.

To acclimatize your fish, follow these steps:

  • Turn off the aquarium lights and dim the lights in the room.
  • Float the bag for 15 minutes to allow it to adjust to the temperature.
  • Cut the bag open at the top, and roll the bag down creating an air pocket so the bag floats.
  • Add ½ a cup of water from your aquarium to the bag.
  • Repeat every 4-5 minutes until the bag is full.
  • Discard half of the water from the bag (not into the aquarium) and add ½ a cup of water again, every 4-5 minutes until the bag is full for a second time.
  • Using a net, slowly pick up the fish and remove it from the bag, adding it to your aquarium.
  • Discard the water in the bag.
  • Observe your new fish over the next 24 hours period to ensure they are settling in well, and eating properly.

How to Set Up a Fish Tank in 7 Easy Steps (13)


Hopefully you now feel confident enough to set up your first fish tank.

Whilst this might sound like a lot of steps, each one shouldn’t take too long and they can be split up over the period of a few days or a week in you don’t have one big chunk of time.

If you take just five tips away from this article they should be:

  • Plan out exactly what you want from your tank before you buy anything.
  • Always place the tank in its permanent position before filling it.
  • Make sure your equipment is properly installed before switching anything on.
  • ALWAYS ensure your tank is fully cycled before adding any inhabitants.
  • Acclimatize your fish slowly so they don’t become stressed.

Do you feel ready to set up your tank now? Let us know about your set-up, and any difficulties or successes you’ve had in the comments section below…

(Video) Beginners Guide to The Aquarium Hobby Part 3: How to Set-up an Aquarium Step by Step!


How do you set up a fish tank for the first time? ›

Put the tank on the aquarium stand, and pour in the substrate. Place the filter and heater in the tank, and add decorations to hide the equipment. Fill the aquarium with room temperature water and dose the dechlorinator. Plant the aquarium plants.

What size tank do I need for 7 fish? ›

One Inch Per Gallon

The most widely known rule for stocking a tank is the one inch of fish per one or two gallons of water rule.

How do you set up a freshwater tank? ›

You're going to want an aquarium light so you can enjoy them even with the room lighting nice and

Can I add fish after 24 hours? ›

You can actually add a fish 24 hours after setting up the aquarium. However, you can't do it safely unless you also introduce beneficial bacteria to the system.

How do I fill my fish tank? ›

Fill your tank approximately one-third full with room temperature water from a clean bucket. Pouring the water onto a plate or saucer sitting on the gravel will help keep the gravel in place. Add a water conditioner, like Tetra® AquaSafe® Solution, to de-chlorinate the water. Chlorine is fine for you, not your fish!

What should I name my fish? ›

Popular Fish Names
  • Swedish.
  • McFish.
  • Puff Daddy.
  • Floater.
  • Wave.
  • Chips.
  • Bob.
  • Flotsam.
19 Jun 2022

Can I use tap water for my fish tank? ›

Ordinary tap water is fine for filling up the aquarium as long as you let it sit for several days before adding fish (the chlorine in the tap water will kill the fish). You may also purchase dechlorination solutions at our store.

How long can a fish stay in a bag? ›

On average, fish can survive for 6-9 hours in a sealed plastic bag as long as other conditions are met. It is strongly encouraged to only keep fish in a bag for a few hours at most, though.

How many fish can I add at once? ›

Adding too many fish to an aquarium at once can destabilize the water chemistry and can cause the nitrogen cycle to stall. As a good rule of thumb only add up to 3 fish at a time to your tank.

How big is a 4ft tank? ›

Glass Tank 4ft Standard 48X14X20"

What fish is easiest to take care of? ›

These creatures tend to have low maintenance needs and are relatively easy to take care of. In particular, guppies, zebrafish, goldfish, mollies, neon tetras, betta fish, and suckerfish are just some of the easiest fish to take care of in a community aquarium.

Why is my fish tank cloudy? ›

Often, cloudy water doesn't appear the instant an aquarium is set up. Instead, it appears days, weeks, or even months later. The cause is usually due to bacterial bloom. As the new aquarium goes through the initial break-in cycle, it is not unusual for the water to become cloudy or at least a little hazy.

How full should a fish tank be? ›

Recommended Waterline

You should generally fill the tank up to an inch below the trim because the water column and aeration system will create bubbles that splash the surface. When the waterline is too high, water may splash outside of the tank.

How long do I let tap water sit for fish? ›

Tap water should be safe for fish species that prefer slightly acidic water conditions, but the fish must be introduced into the tap water slowly. This can be done by adding the water to a bag containing the fish and leaving it for about 20 minutes, before fully introducing the fish into the tank.

How long should water sit before putting fish in? ›

When setting up a new aquarium, I strongly recommend aging the water in the tank for at least one day or more. Use a water treatment, and you have the best of both worlds. But remember, aging the water doesn't start the nitrogen cycle. That won't kick in until you add fish to the tank.

Is my tank ready for fish? ›

When Is My Tank Ready for Fish? Your tank is ready to add fish when your ammonia tests are quickly dropping over the course of a day, and your nitrite level has risen and subsequently dropped back to 0ppm. Once you reach this point, you are ready to add your first fish.

How often should I add water to my fish tank? ›

If your tank is heavily stocked, bump that up to 20 percent each week. A lightly stocked tank can get by for two weeks, but that should be the maximum length of time between water changes as you do not want to place any stress on your fish.

How do you set up a fish bowl? ›

How To Set Up A FISHBOWL The RIGHT Way! | No Filter - YouTube

Is my fish a boy or girl? ›

You can determine the sex of your fish by inspecting its gonads (reproductive organs), which are located towards the top of the gut cavity. Mature female fish will have orange ovaries and male fish will have white testes (see photos above).

Can fish change sexes? ›

Researchers have identified more than 500 fish species that regularly change sex as adults. Clown fish begin life as males, then change into females, and kobudai do the opposite. Some species, including gobies, can change sex back and forth. The transformation may be triggered by age, size, or social status.

Do fishes sleep? ›

While fish do not sleep in the same way that land mammals sleep, most fish do rest. Research shows that fish may reduce their activity and metabolism while remaining alert to danger. Some fish float in place, some wedge themselves into a secure spot in the mud or coral, and some even locate a suitable nest.

Do fish see water? ›

Fish can't see the water around them. Similar to the human brain, their brains have omitted the information they don't need to process in order to see their surroundings. So, just like you can't see the air around you, fish can't see water either.

What water is best for fish? ›

If you want to be sure your aquarium water is free from mineral and chemical contaminants, deionized water is a great choice. Deionization is ineffective against bacteria, but it does filter some contaminants that even reverse osmosis systems cannot catch.

Why is my fish swimming crazy? ›

Fish Swimming Erratically: If your fish is swimming erratically, he could just be playing or exercising. If your fish does it this consistently and seems unhealthy, the cause may be poor water quality.

How often do you feed fish? ›

You should feed your fish two to three times daily. A few flakes per fish is sufficient. The fish should eat all the food in two minutes or less. Overfeeding can cloud your water and harm your fish.

How long can my fish go without a filter? ›

A fish live without a filter for a maximum of seven days and a minimum of three days. A filter helps clean the water over and over again, so the toxins in it don't settle down.

How long before you can put fish in a new aquarium? ›

In the beginning, only add a couple of small hardy fish. Wait until both the ammonia and nitrite levels have risen and then fallen to zero before adding more fish. It usually take about 3-6 weeks for a new aquarium to go through the initial nitrogen cycle, so fish should be added only a few per week during this time.

How long should water sit before adding to fish tank? ›

Tap water requires not less than 24 hours to dechlorinate. In some cases, it can even take up to 5 days for the chlorine to evaporate from your water fully. How long your water needs to dechlorinate fully will depend on the level of concentration of the chlorine and the volume of your water.

How many fish should I start with? ›

In most cases, only two or three fish should be introduced to a tank initially. Once the nitrogen cycle is established and the tank is stable, additional fish can slowly be added. However, the same rule applies when adding the next round of fish. Moderation: you must add only a few at a time.

Why is my fish tank cloudy after 1 day? ›

The cause is usually due to bacterial bloom. As the new aquarium goes through the initial break-in cycle, it is not unusual for the water to become cloudy or at least a little hazy. It will take several weeks to several months to establish bacterial colonies that can clear waste from the water.

Can you put fish in right after water conditioner? ›

How long do you have to wait to put fish in the tank after conditioner? As a general rule, you can put fish into the tank 15 minutes after adding the water conditioner. If the tank has proper flow, 2-5 minutes can be enough; however, for larger tanks with improper circulation, you may have to wait for about 30 minutes.

Is tap water safe for fish? ›

Municipal/Tap Water

Most municipalities treat drinking water with either chlorine or chloramine for disinfection purposes. Chlorine is extremely toxic to fish and needs to be completely removed before the water comes in contact with fish. Chloramine is chlorine bonded to ammonia, both of which are detrimental to fish.

How long is tap water safe for fish? ›

One of the chemicals that will harm a fish most is chlorine. Always let tap water sit for 24 hours so the chlorine has a chance to evaporate. Or you can treat the water with another chemical if you're not able to wait.

What fish can survive in tap water? ›

If you are looking for a fish that really wants tap water, it should be the guppies. There are so many varieties of this fish, and most thrive in tap water. Also known as million fish or rainbow fish, it is said to be the most widely distributed aquarium fish species.

Why is my fish swimming crazy? ›

Fish Swimming Erratically: If your fish is swimming erratically, he could just be playing or exercising. If your fish does it this consistently and seems unhealthy, the cause may be poor water quality.

What should I name my fish? ›

Popular Fish Names
  • Swedish.
  • McFish.
  • Puff Daddy.
  • Floater.
  • Wave.
  • Chips.
  • Bob.
  • Flotsam.
19 Jun 2022

What fish is easiest to take care of? ›

These creatures tend to have low maintenance needs and are relatively easy to take care of. In particular, guppies, zebrafish, goldfish, mollies, neon tetras, betta fish, and suckerfish are just some of the easiest fish to take care of in a community aquarium.

Can I use bottled water in my fish tank? ›

Yes, you can use bottled water in fish tank. But before putting it in your aquarium, do a quality check to know the number of minerals in it. Bottled water that has been purified a lot usually lacks important minerals. Your fish needs a balanced amount of essential minerals for survival.


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