Setting Up A Fish Tank: A Beginner's Guide

19 AUGUST 2019

This article was written by one of our resident pet experts, Gemma Radcliffe

Hands up if you've ever owned a goldfish! As a kid, you probably did - but now you've grown up, or maybe have kids of your own, and you've realised that there's more to owning a pet fish than popping it in a bowl and letting it be.

While fish - gold or otherwise - are often seen as easy to care for, they still have some requirements that begin right from the moment you set up your tank. But don't worry: it's nothing to stress about. We can help you set up your very own aquarium, from start to finish, so that the fish you choose will live a happy, healthy life.

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Part One - Choose your fish (and your tank!)

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While saltwater marine or reef fish can be incredibly beautiful, with their vivid colours and unique environments, they also require a lot of specialty care that may overwhelm first-time aquarium owners. For the purposes of this guide, we'll be looking at freshwater fish, including tropical fish - all of which can still be very pretty to look at as they swim among their new habitat.

You should consider not only the fish you like, but the number of fish you'd like as well. This will help to determine your tank size. A good starting point for a first-time aquarium owner however, is a tank between 75 litres and 190 litres (20-50 gallons), or one gallon per inch of fish-length. It's also worth noting that the larger the tank, the easier it is to work with as the impact of any changes you make in the future will be smaller and cause less stress to your fish.

Part Two - Get the essentials

It may look like quite the list, but the essentials for owning fish should include the list of fish supplies below:

Some optional equipment might include a light, which is particularly important if you intend to have live plants in the aquarium, pure ammonia if you'd like to complete the later cycling process without fish, and a tank glass scrubber.

Part Three - Clean and place the gravel

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Whatever your chosen gravel may be, make sure you clean it thoroughly. You can do this by placing the gravel in a bucket with water, sloshing it around, and emptying out the water - repeat this until the water runs clear. Once it's cleaned, you can place the gravel in your tank, but do so carefully: if you have a glass tank and dump a bucket full of pebbles into it, the glass is likely to crack or break completely.

Part Four - Fill up the tank and treat the water

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Time to fill it up! Grab a hose (or a nearby tap if your tank is small enough) and fill the tank. Don't worry if the water is a little cloudy: sediments will settle soon enough. You will also want to add the water conditioner at this point, to make sure your water is free of chlorine and other additives that may harm your fish. Every time you do a water change in the future, you will need to use your chosen conditioner.

Part Five - Attach your filter and heater

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Having chosen a heater and filter suitable for the size of your tank, now's the time to attach them both. There are several models that install in different ways, so make sure you follow the directions on the packaging of yours. Be sure to clean your filter material at this point too, in case dust has settled on it during storage. Now is also a good time to wash any ceramic ornaments or plants you wish to have in your tank, and pop them in.

Part Six - Switch on the heater

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Larger tanks may require more than one heater; however many you have, switch them on within the temperature range of 23·C and 27·C (make sure you check what makes your fish happy, though!). Most heaters will have an indicator light that will switch on to let you know that the heating element is active.

If you have also chosen an aquarium with a light installed, or perhaps already own a lamp that can shine on your tank, now is a good time to switch it on. Leave it on for no more than eight hours a day. Together with the heater, a light will assist in plant growth, as well as the growth of healthy bacteria within the water to support your fishy community to come.

Part Seven - Cycle the water

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This is a very important step - but we promise, it's going to make your aquarium feel like a mansion for your fish, helping them to live a longer and happier life.

In a nutshell, cycling assists in building up de-nitrifying bacteria. You see, your fish's waste and excess fish food produce ammonia, which is toxic to fish. Bacteria living in your filter media will help to transform this ammonia into nitrite... which is, unfortunately, also toxic to fish (argh!). Thankfully, a successful cycling produces good bacteria that transform nitrite into non-toxic nitrate, which leads to clean water and happy fish. It may sound stressful or difficult to pull off, but don't worry: the cycling process is mostly automated, and just requires some patience on your behalf.

You can approach the cycling process in two ways: either by buying and adding some hardy fish, such as barbs, to produce waste (and therefore ammonia) during the cycling, or you can go with a fishless cycle that requires adding pure ammonia on your own. If you choose to go with the first option, you will need roughly 1.5 fish per 38 litres/10 gallons of water in your aquarium. If you go with the second option, you'll need to get a little scientific, adding around 2-4pmm of ammonia to your tank water initially, followed by small amounts every few days. For the sake of your fish's wellbeing, we recommend a fishless cycle.

This is where your water testing kit will come in handy, as you are able to use it to test the water quality of your tank, with the ultimate aim of getting the nitrite levels to spike before falling to 0ppm.

Along the way, you will also need to change 10%-15% of your tank water every few days to further help lower the levels of ammonia and nitrite, especially if you have chosen to cycle with fish in the tank. If you are successful in the cycling process, your tank will be ready for your favourite fish to inhabit anywhere between two to eight weeks. Using your water testing kit, make sure the nitrite level has fallen to zero... and then you're ready to go!

Part Eight - Add the fish!

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Finally... you're ready for the best part: populating your aquarium with an array of lovely fish. If you have completed the cycling process correctly, you can feel free to add those fish on your wish list. Consider species such as the feisty betta (the "Siamese fighting fish"), the graceful angelfish or the huge colour spectrum of the guppy - all excellent choices for first-time fish owners - if you'd like a brilliant aquarium.

The syphon and hose you purchased can be used to clean the gravel within your tank on a regular basis, while a fish net will come in handy whenever you need to remove fish from the tank for whatever reason. Lastly, the high-quality fish food you purchased is going to provide your fish with all the nutrients they need to just keep swimming - just remember to feed them only what they can eat in two minutes.

And there you are: you're now a fish parent!

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