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Essential Equipment for a Freshwater Aquarium and Gravel Vacuuming

Updated on April 15, 2013
Having the right equipment is the first step to a successful freshwater aquarium.
Having the right equipment is the first step to a successful freshwater aquarium. | Source

Purchase your essential aquarium equipment directly from Amazon

Determining the essential equipment for your new aquarium is the first challenge you’ll face as a newcomer to the fishkeeping hobby. Equipment abounds for every imaginable setup, so it can be tough to know what you actually need, and what is just nice to have for an attractive aquatic environment.

This hub assumes that you’re starting with an empty tank and have to start from scratch. You may decide to buy a pre-assembled aquarium kit, but it’s still important to know what should be in it and why.

Tank hoods

You may or may not actually need a hood, depending on the type of fish you plan to put in the tank. Some may be fine without one, while others will readily jump out if the tank isn’t covered. That said, the hood does help protect the aquarium from debris and household pets getting into the water, and also acts as a housing for top lighting.

The hood also helps regulate your water temperature by reducing the air exchange between the tank and the room where it’s set up. This ensures that the aquarium is less susceptible to changes in room temperature, and helps reduce the amount of energy used to run the tank heater. Sudden or severe changes in temperature can stress your fish, so this is an important component to continued aquarium health.

Aquarium lighting

You have a number of choices in your aquarium lighting. Most likely, your hood already has a built-in light. Aquariums can look great with just this light, though you have the choice of the type of bulb you put into it.

Some fixtures can take incandescent bulbs, which are inexpensive. However, bear in mind that this light will probably look yellowish compared to a fluorescent light. The lifespan of the bulb tends to be shorter compared to fluorescent lighting, and the bulb will run hotter. In very small tanks, the heat from an incandescent bulb can be enough to increase the temperature inside the tank, which may be dangerous for your fish.

Fluorescent lighting is by far the most popular form of top-lighting. It’s a little more expensive than incandescent, but cheaper than LED or other lighting options. You can get fluorescent bulbs in a wide range of sizes, and even different colors. A white or blue light can create a nice underwater atmosphere for your aquarium.

While it’s a little more expensive, you can create stunning aquatic displays with underwater lighting. Many pet stores and aquarium suppliers offer waterproof LED lighting to create displays in different colors and lighting angles. For an example, check the Amazon links to the right of this hub for an underwater volcano that uses LED lighting and bubbles to mesmerizing effect.

Bettas are among the most popular freshwater aquarium fish

The endless variety in Betta Splendens makes them one of the most sought-after aquarium fish in the world
The endless variety in Betta Splendens makes them one of the most sought-after aquarium fish in the world | Source


The amount and type of filtration you’ll need varies widely by the size of your aquarium and the type of stock. A favorite for aquarists at all levels is the HOB (hang on back) filter. This filter provides both mechanical and biological filtration, while also facilitating oxygen exchange by causing movement on the surface of the water. With a HOB filter, an aerator is often optional.

In the Amazon links, you’ll find one of the choice brands in HOB filters, the Marineland Penguin. These are a great choice for high-quality, long-lasting filters. However, many pet stores have Aquatechs and Whispers available at a low price, which might be ideal if you’re just starting and not sure how far you want to get into the fishkeeping hobby.

Undergravel filters and canister filters are also popular choices for your filtration. The undergravel filter can be difficult to install in an existing aquarium, but is as simple as setting inside the tank during setup in a new one. Canister filters have the added advantage of being stored inside an aquarium cabinet, so you don’t even have to see it. Larger canisters can even be attached to multiple aquariums if you’re not concerned about cross-contamination.

You may be able to use a sponge filter for very small setups, such as 1-5 gallon tanks for single specimens or small community fish. The sponge filter does a decent job of mechanical filtration, though it’s not a top choice in most aquariums. If you plan to raise fry or young shrimp, this is an option that will allow for moderate filtration without the danger of sucking babies into the internal workings of the filter.

Whatever type of filter you choose bear in mind the load the filter will be taking. Most smaller tropical fish at an appropriate stocking level will require a 4x turnover per hour (if you have a 50G tank, for instance, this means you need a filter that is rated for 200G per hour) and larger fish like Oscars and goldfish need a 10X turnover per hour (rated for 500G per hour for that 50G tank).

Aerators for your aquarium

The bacteria that make your aquarium water livable require oxygen. Most fish also absorb the oxygen they need from the oxygen dissolved in the water. Water that doesn’t have livable levels of dissolved oxygen is stagnant, and will likely end up with dead fish and out-of-control algae.

In order to ensure adequate dissolved oxygen in the water, the surface has to be agitated regularly. If you chose a HOB filter, it’s already doing that. Even an undergravel filter will agitate the water to some degree. Otherwise, you will need an aerator to ensure proper gas exchange. Air hose usually has to be bought separately, as well as a check valve to ensure that water won’t come back up the hose if the aerator loses power. In addition, you can buy air stones that help distribute the bubbles into attractive displays.

Aquarium heat and temperature monitoring

Some fish, such as goldfish, prefer relatively cold water. For these fish, a heater can be harmful as it alters the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. However, for the vast majority of freshwater aquarium fish, you will need a heater. It’s important to note that bettas also need heaters, despite prevailing myths about their ability to live with virtually no accommodations. Please see the links section below this hub for a detailed article dedicated to betta care.

Heaters come in a range of power, so it’s important to know how many gallons your aquarium holds and how many degrees above your average room temperature it will need to maintain. Some heaters have built-in thermostats, allowing them to adjust to a set temperature. Others have dials that allow you to turn the heat up or down, but it’s a trial-and-error process to get the temperature right. Finally, there are the type that are not adjustable, and simply heat to a factory pre-set temperature. These usually heat to 76 or 78 degrees, which is the approximate temperature for most popular tropical aquarium fish.

Regardless of the type of fish you have in your aquarium, you need a thermometer. So many factors can impact your temperature, producing problems that may not have an apparent cause if you don’t have a thermometer. You can get a sticker to put on the outside of the aquarium, or a floatable thermometer to put inside. Generally, the ones inside will be more accurate, but also a little more expensive and often visible in the internal landscape. Stickers may be off by a couple of degrees, especially if the room temperature changes dramatically, but are accurate enough for most “easy keeper” fish. The sticker also won’t reflect changes in water temperature as quickly as the internal thermometer because the glass has to cool before the sticker changes.

Other essentials

You may not think food is necessary right off the bat, considering that you can’t buy fish for the tank until it’s properly cycled. Fishless cycling (the only humane method) can be done in a number of ways, and one of the easiest requires a small amount of fish food.

In most cases, you don’t actually need decorations for healthy fish, but it will make your aquarium look better. Some types of fish do require decorations in order for them to stake out territory, or to have enough cover to behave naturally.

Water conditioners are a must for your aquarium, as are testing kits. Strip tests are easy to obtain in most pet stores, but are less accurate than a quality liquid test. These tests will help you determine if your tank is properly cycled, and can greatly aid diagnostic attempts in future troubleshooting. The water conditioner will neutralize chlorine and potentially harmful metals in the water, and may also include ingredients to promote the fish’s natural slime coat. Slime coats protect fish from bacteria, fungus, and abrasive damage from handling.

Finally, you’ll need a way to clean your aquarium. While you could go the old bucket-and-hose approach, a good vacuum tool is well worth the money. To the right, you’ll see a link to the Python No Spill Clean & Fill, which is this author’s absolute favorite vacuum tool. The Python attaches to your sink, allows you to suck water and debris out of the aquarium, and then offers a way to quickly and easily replace the water. In my own retail fish house, I do partial water changes on dozens of tanks every week in about an hour with this tool.

Ensuring your aquarium is ready for fish and adding the right ones


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