How To Setup A Fish Tank For Beginners

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Setting up a fish tank has been proven time and time again to bring anti-stress benefits and entertain many. 

In this article, I’m going to walk you through how to set up a fish tank.

Let’s get started!

Planning Your Tank

The most important step in creating a successful, thriving aquarium is to plan ahead.

Before picking out your tank, equipment, and decorations, you need to have an idea of which types of fish you want to keep.

Do you want to keep larger, more aggressive fish, or do you want a community tank with peaceful fish?

Determining the type of fish you want early on helps you decide on the size of your tank, the water temperature needed, and equipment you need. Once you know exactly what fish you want, you can then move on to buying the tank and necessary equipment.

If you want to keep more fish, you’ll need a bigger tank. Keeping one or two fish? You can opt in for smaller tanks like the Hygger 5 Gallon Fish Tank.

Preparing Your Tank

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

It’s important that you wash the tank before installing any equipment or decorations. Make sure to scrub down any area that has dust and NEVER use soap or detergents when cleaning as they can be harmful to your fish.

Make sure any equipment you use for your aquarium(e.g buckets and rags) will only be used for the aquarium. This helps limit the amount of household chemicals exposed to the fish.

Cleaning the Tank

Even if you purchased a new tank, it’s important to get rid of any potential harmful bacterias with a thorough cleaning.

Remove any debris from the inside of the tank and use vinegar and kitchen rolls to clean both the inside and outside of the tank.

For those with an acrylic tank, be careful as acrylic scratches easily.

After you’re done cleaning the tank, it’s time to check for leaks. Fill your tank with a couple inches of water and leave it for an hour. After an hour has passed, run your finger around the bottom edge to see if there are any leaks.

If you find a leak, use an aquarium sealant to reseal the tank.

Positioning Your Tank for Success

Now it’s time to find a good position to put your tank. Make sure to keep the tank out of direct sunlight and near a reliable power supply/outlet.

Aquariums are also very heavy so make sure wherever you put it can support a lot of weight. Initially a 50 gallon tank without water weighs just over 100 pounds but when filled weights over 600 pounds! 

Once you’ve found a good location for your new aquarium, it’s time to level it. There are two main ways you can do this. The first way is to use a spirit level. The second way is to put a inch or two of water in your tank and see if it’s level by eye.

Adding the Substrate and Water

By now your tank should be clean, in the right position, and level. Now it’s time to add the substrate and water.

The type of substrate is for you to choose, but can sometimes be either helpful or harmful to certain fish. For example, a lot of catfish thrive on sandy substrates rather than rocky ones.

For the amount of substrate you need, you can go by the formula of 1lb of substrate per gallon of water. This will create a 1” thick bed inside your aquarium. For a thicker bed, use 2lb of substrate per gallon of water. Here’s a table for references:

Tank SizeLb of Substrate Needed
10 Gallons10-20
20 Gallons20-40
50 Gallons50-100
75 Gallons75-150
100 Gallons100-200

Cleaning the Substrate

Although most substrates come prewashed, they will still be dirty and cause your tank to be murky/cloudy.

To prevent this from happening, you’ll need to wash the substrate in small portions in a bucket full of cold water. Use your hand to swirl the substrate until the water becomes clear again.

For larger amounts of substrate, you can use a pressure hose outside and pour water out of the bucket until the water becomes clear.

Keep in mind that some substrates such as powder coated gravels don’t do well being washed and will cause your tank to be more cloudy. Just do your best to remove as much dust as possible.

Once you’ve cleaned your substrate you can now add it to your tank.

Start by forming a thin layer inside the tank before adding the rest to prevent scratching. As you’re adding the substrate in, think about adding “hills” for plants and other areas you would want raised a bit.

A common strategy fishkeepers use is to create a running slope. To do this, have the highest elevated point of substrate in the back and lowest point in the front.

Once you’ve finished adding all the substrate in, it’s time to add water.

Adding Water

To add water, you’re going to need a saucer or a bowl.

Place the saucer wherever is easiest to tip the water in and start pouring the water. The reason we use a saucer is to prevent the substrate from separating. After you’re done adding water to the tank, add a dechlorinator in the water to kill all bacteria and pathogens.

Setting Up the Equipment

Once your tank has a substrate and water added, it’s time to set up the equipment.

Setting Up The Filter

At the bare minimum every tank needs a filter.

The exact installation process depends on the brand you’ve chosen. You will have either opted for an internal or external filter.

To install an internal filter, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on assembling all the parts together. You then place the filter in the back wall of your tank and near a power supply and plug it in. 

In most cases, you’ll be able to find a Youtube Tutorial for your exact filter, so be sure to check that out.

For installing an external filter, place the filter near or under the aquarium stand and follow instructions on configuring the parts together.

Most external filters need to be filled with water before plugging them in. This is called priming the system.

Like Internal Filters, you’ll most likely be able to find a Youtube Tutorial for your External Filter.

Setting Up The Heater and Thermometer

Once you’ve installed the filter, it’s time to install the heater and thermometer. Installing a heater is pretty self explanatory, you simply stick the heater to one end of your aquarium.

Be sure to keep the heater and thermometer on different ends of the aquarium. Doing this ensures that your tank is being heated properly.

If you’ve purchased any other equipment such as a lighting fixture or air pump, be sure to install them now.

Adding Plants and Decorations

Now that you set up all the operational parts of the tank, it’s time to make the tank look exactly as you planned.

Whether you planned on a heavily planted tank with many decorations or a minimalist tank with one or two decorations, it’s important you plan where to put them. You don’t want to be moving the decor constantly when you add fish so now’s the time to shape up the environment for good.

When adding any item, be sure to rinse any dust off to prevent bad water quality.

For live plants, you’ll need to follow advice for each species. Some species like being planted directly into the substrate and others such as Java Ferns prefer to be attached to driftwood.

Cycling The Tank

You’ve got everything setup with the tank looking beautiful and stunning, the only step left is to cycle the tank. Allowing your aquarium to go through the Nitrogen Cycle is probably the most important step ensuring a long and healthy tank.

Cycling your tank means you’re building a bed of bacteria in your filter to combat the deadly toxins your fish produce. 

Essentially, without letting your tank “cycle”, you’re causing fish to live in their own filth, which will cause stressed, unhappy fish.

For cycling your tank, I recommend you check our beginners guide on how to cycle a fish tank

Adding Fish!

This is the step we’ve all been waiting for, ADDING FISH! You’ve probably invested quite a lot of time and money into your tank and are excited to add fish.

A common mistake many beginners do is add too many fish at once. It’s important you add your fish slowly over the period of a few weeks or months. Be sure to start off by adding no more than one inch of fish per 10 gallons of water.

For adding them, be sure they are acclimated to the water when you release them. The purpose of acclimation is to keep them from shocking.

Below is a video on how to properly acclimate your fish:


Hopefully you feel confident enough to set up a fish tank of your own.

Although the steps seemed long, they can easily be split up over the period of a few days or weeks if you don’t have too much time to allocate to fishkeeping.

The main takeaways you should have from this article are: 

  • Plan exactly what you want before buying
  • Place the tank in a permanent position
  • Cycle your tank before adding fish
  • Acclimate your fish and add them over the course of a couple weeks
Photo of author
Hey there, my name is Gunnar Kennedy. I'm a fishkeeping enthusiast who's been in the hobby for over a decade now! I love sharing new ideas and helping others care for their aquatic friends!

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