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How to Start A Freshwater Fish Tank

Updated on October 17, 2017

Freshwater aquariums are a great beginner hobby for adults and children alike. Freshwater tanks require less maintenance and cost less to start up than a saltwater tank, or even a simple reptile tank.

This article will go into detail about some of the common mistakes beginners make and how to avoid them. We will also discuss how to properly set up a fish tank and when to add your fish to keep your loses at a minimum.

50 gallon tank
50 gallon tank | Source

Freshwater Tank Equipment:

  • Tank with hood/lid and lights
  • Heater
  • Filtration System
  • Aquarium water testing kit (API Master is HIGHLY recommended)
  • Gravel or substrate
  • Decorations and plants
  • Fish food
  • Nets, scrubbers, 5 gallon bucket, and other cleaning supplies

How to Start a Freshwater Tank:

Despite common belief a larger tank will actually be easier to care for. Why? It's simple, the larger the aquarium, the better chance the aquarium has to replicate nature. The larger your tank is the more area and water you have to deal with. Larger tanks are better able to handle slight changes in pH and other chemicals compared to smaller tanks. Where a small 10 gallon tank might re-cycle with a slight bump up or down; the larger 50 gallon tank will have more water to dilute and re-balance out without causing your tank to go through a mini cycle.

Rather than starting small and working up to a larger tank, if your pocket book can afford it I would start big. Below are 8 easy steps to ensure proper set up of your new freshwater aquarium tank.

  1. Level the stand: It is extremely important to make sure you stand is completely level. The stand you will be placing your aquarium on needs to be level to ensure even weight distribution and to prevent the tank from cracking.
  2. Clean out the new aquarium, gravel, and decorations: Always use lukewarm water and a cloth when rinsing out any aquariums. Using soap can seriously harm your fish, as residue can remain in the sealant or on the glass. If you are trying to use a used tank you can use Rydyt from Python Products if you are looking to use something more than water.
  3. Fill the aquarium: You will want to start by only filling the tank 3/4's full with tap water. At this point add your filtration system. Follow the instructions on the filter box to ensure you are installing your particular system correctly.
  4. Add the heater: You will also want to add the heater before completely filling the tank, however, don't plug it in just yet. The heater needs to sit for at least half an hour in the water to prevent thermal cracking. You also do not ever want to turn your heater on, unless it is completely submerged in water.
  5. Decorate: Prewash and add all of your decor and plants (live and/or fake) to your aquarium.
  6. Finish adding the water: As a general rule the water level should be an inch from the top of the tank.
  7. Add water conditioner: This is also the time to add in any other additives being sure to following all instructions on each bottle.
  8. Turn on the filter and heater: Monitor your temperature with a thermometer for the next 24 hours. I always like putting the thermometer in last to ensure the best suction. This way I don't have to go in and adjust or restick the thermometer to the glass.

You will need to filter your tank for at least 42 hours before adding any fish to your aquarium tank. The water pressure, and chemicals in the water need time to equalize and settle before you can add any new fish to your tank. For a fresh water tank it is not necessary to filter longer if everything in your tank is clean and working properly. However, your tank will still need to cycle through the nitrogen cycle, so you will need to decide if you want a fish in or fishless cycle.

The Nitrogen Cycle:

This process is boring and tidious, however it is an incredibly important set up stage. For those that don't completely understand the cycle, a series of mini cycles and fish losses could be in the very near future for your aquarium.

There are two ways to start and complete the nitrogen cycle. The first way is to use a couple very hardy fish and wait it out until the fish have completed the cycle. This is not a sure way to cycle any aquarium and could result in a loss in some or all of your fish.

The best way to complete the nitrogen cycle is by first cycling the tank without fish. Depending on size of your tank, type of ammonia used to start the cycle, and how fast the benefical bacteria multiply, this process can take 2 weeks to 2 months, or even longer to complete.

You are going to want to purchase an API Freshwater Master Test Kit to get the most accurate readings of your tank's water. I love this kit, because it comes with so many tests. You will only need to buy this product once, and it will last you for a few years. This test is one of the most reliable tests I've come across for testing your water.

Fishless Nitrogen Cycle:

Step One: Introduce ammonia into the tank. This can be done in a variety of ways, but I like to use fish food. I find that fish food breaks down rather quickly and is easier to work with than using straight ammonia. By testing the water you will be able to see and keep track of the rising ammonia levels.

Step Two: Once the beneficial bacteria is created it will start to convert the ammonia into another toxin known as nitrites. Both of these are toxic to freshwater fish and it is important to test the water after about a week or two to understand how much ammonia and nitrites you have in your water. Once the bacteria starts breaking down the ammonia you will start to see the ammonia in your tank fall and the nitrites rising.

Step Three: Once the nitrites get established another bacteria will begin to form and convert the nitrites to nitrates. Nitrates are only harmful in large quantities so it is important to start doing water changes once you have an established nitrate number. Again by testing the water you will be able to see how quickly the nitrites are being turned into nitrates, by watching the nitrites go down and the nitrates go up. When you have tested the water and your results are 0 ammonia, 0 nitites, and some amount of nitrates you can assume your tank is fully cycled.

Once you have completed the three main steps of the nitrogen cycle you are ready to add fish. You will want to continue monitoring the tank levels with an API kit or something similar. The bacteria will do the work of converting the ammonia (created by fish waste and leftover food) into nitrites, and the nitrites into nitrates; however, it will be up to you to remove the nitrates. The only way to get rid of nitrates is by dilution. Meaning you need to keep up with water changes. If you have live plants, they will also help keep the nitrate levels under control, but you will still need to do water changes to keep the levels in check.

Common Mistakes Beginners Make:

Now that we know how to begin our fish tank lets take a look at some of the common mistakes to avoid when preparing to start a fish tank aquarium. Remember size does matter when talking about fish tanks, and the bigger the better as it will be easier to manage.

The next few points will greatly increase your chances at having a beautiful fish tank with fish that will last for years.

  • Adding fish to soon: A mistake that most people make is usually trying to add them the same day they set up their tank. Some people may get lucky and not lose very many fish, however most will lose at least half if not all of their fish if they put the fish in too early. The only time I see this working out, is if the fish is known to be hardy so they can survive through the nitrogen cycle.
  • Adding too many fish at once: This has the same effect as adding fish too early. Adding too many fish will not allow the bacteria colonies to set properly causing your fish to die off. Adding a few hardy fish to start, is the best way to level bacteria colonies, as well as level off nitrate and ammonia levels if you are choosing to do a fish in cycle. Every couple of weeks you can add fish to build your stock. A couple weeks is enough time to allow the chemicals in the water to settle without having to recycle.
  • Overstocking: Is a very common mistake. As a general rule "an inch of fish should have a gallon of water". This is what you will hear in most pet stores, however this is extremely outdated information. Most people will also use this rule on the size of the fish they are purchasing right now without regards to what the fish's adult size is. There are so many other factors that need to be considered when stocking; for example what level your fish will swim in, adult size, and how aggressive or peaceful they are. All of these factors come into play when it comes to how many fish you can put into your tank.
  • Keeping incompatible fish: Many new tank owners want to choose fish that look nice together, or that appeal to them without properly looking at what those fish need to survive. Putting two incompatible fish in the same tank could result in fights, or one or more fish dying due to wrong water and pH conditions. As well as watching out for compatible fish, it is important to know what part of the tank each breed of fish is going to swim in most. Many fish will swim primarily in the top, middle, or bottom section of the tank. If you purchase all bottom swimmers, not only will your tank look empty but it can become overcrowded and force you to keep a lower number of fish than if you were to purchase fish that swam at each level in the tank.
  • Overfeeding: Fish only need to be fed what they can eat in 5 minutes. The rest of the food will sink to the bottom and create waste. If you are overfeeding and noticing your levels are starting to rise it is okay to stop feeding your fish for a few days, as they will not suffer.
  • Wrong filtration: There are several filtration systems that you can choose from. Whether you choose from an air filtration system or a simple hang on back filter; finding the right filter for your tank is simple. If you're unsure which size to get, opt for the bigger size always. Over filtration will not harm your tank water, however under filtration definitely will harm your fish as it will not be able to keep up with the demands of the byproducts of the fish. It is also important to remember that you do not want to change your filter media every 2 weeks. By disposing of your filter media, you are getting rid of all the beneficial bacteria and you will continue to cause mini recycles. All that is need is a good rinse of your filter media, until it is no longer usable. At that time it is a good idea to let the new filter run with the old for a week or so to establish the bacteria to the new filter. This will keep the bacteria in your tank and not cause you to have a mini cycle.

These steps and tips are meant to help any new and beginner fish aquarium hobbyists. Fish tanks are a very relaxing and soothing addition to any room and children will love them! Enjoy your aquarium and experiment within the guidelines of keeping fish to create your dream aquarium.


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