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Setting up an Aquarium (Fish Tank), and How to Maintain it

Updated on May 16, 2015
Salt Water Tank
Salt Water Tank
My Fresh Water Tank with Cichlids
My Fresh Water Tank with Cichlids

Figuring out what kind of Environment...

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, all out fancy salt tank or nice sort of fancy fresh water tank. I've worked in a few aquarium stores and a big mega pet store. I can get you squared away with something you'll be proud of, but not break your bank. This stuff can get pricey!

Salt tanks require a lot of maintenance. Everyday you have to check a level of chemical, or PH, salinity etc. You cannot decide to move decorations once they are in (unless you are perfect at not upsetting anything in the tank), and if you see yourself moving within the next 5 years, I'd say no to salt as well. Oh, and have I mentioned, the cheapest fish is 15-24 dollars? And that is on the cheap end.

Now, fresh water tanks are what I like. Personally, if you want colorful, pretty and not that expensive (who doesn't?), go with cichlids (sick lids) or tropicals. You can get a swimming rainbow (a school of colorful fish) and still have a little to splurge on tank pretties. The maintenance on the tank is not that bad either. The big mega store will try to tell you to do a water change every couple weeks. Don't. They are just trying to upsell you on the water conditioner... they only care about the dollar not the fish.

You can move the décor around as you please. I would refrain from moving it often, that stresses the fish out, but when you do water changes you can move the décor around till you turn a funny unatural color. Refil the water, and viola! A tank everyone can live with.

20 Gallon Long, 30 Gallon Filter, Thermometer strip. The heater is the last to go in.
20 Gallon Long, 30 Gallon Filter, Thermometer strip. The heater is the last to go in.

For Fresh Water, Tank Set up

If you want Cichlids and have the money for the set up, I would go with a 20 gallon long tank, or as large as you can afford comfortably. Tank color is up to you. I have a wood tank in my one room and the black standard in my living room. Keep in mind, you will need gravel (at least 2-3 inches for cichlids, they like to dig. Or 1-2 inches for tropicals), some decorations (I'll get into those farther down), a thermometer strip (they are like 2 dollars), stand, heater, filter. I like going the next size up. i.e. I have a 20 gallon I get the 30-40 gallon filter keeps the water cleaner. Finally the cheapest, Food. The prices are up to you. Cheap out and get generic brand items, or go big and get the fancy stuff. It all works the same. Just one costs a little better ^_^

If you want, find one of those mega stores. They usually have tank/stand starter combos on sale. It has everything but the rocks and fish. I may advise trading out the plants if they are the ones I put on my no list farther down.

And as tempting as it feels, if you start this tank from scratch brand new, do not take any fish home with you. You will kill them all. You need to set up the ecology first. And that is with any fish, even the tropicals.

Let's say you go with the 20 Long and got all the accessories. 30 gal Filter, heater, rocks, decorations, thermometer strip etc etc.

Place the empty stand and tank where you want it. Its easier to move to where you want it empty. A full tank 20 gallon tank with rocks décor and water is 200 + pounds!

Rinse your rocks. Either doing them in batches in your sink, and placing them in the tank, or the whole shebang, in a big bucket in the bathtub. Up to you.

After you got all of your rocks in place, space your plants around, burying that plastic root mass under the gravel just like planting a real plant. I would put tall in the back, medium height in the middle and the short ground cover spread around.

I'm not a huge fan of the sunken ships etc, but if you got décor, go ahead and find a spot you like and put it in, burying a little into the gravel, so your fish do not get trapped underneath. If its one of the décor that blows bubbles, hook up your bubble tube to it first then put it in, you do not have to hook it to the pump yet, but it will save you having to un-bury it again to hook it up later. Oh, and the bubble decorations do not come with the pumps, you'll have to buy one separate. Possibly even the tubes.

The top row, 3rd one in, and the bottom row, 2nd one in will tear fins. The rest should be ok, but run your fingers over them if you can. If there is sharp edges do not buy them.
The top row, 3rd one in, and the bottom row, 2nd one in will tear fins. The rest should be ok, but run your fingers over them if you can. If there is sharp edges do not buy them.
the middle plant will tear fins.
the middle plant will tear fins.

Plants you can and should not use

Since this is most likely your first tank, I would skip the live plants. They require upkeep, and honestly if its your first tank, I'd focus on the fish.

If you plan on getting very colorful fish, I myself like the natural look. I get all green and brownish maroon natural colors. They have fluorescent pink. That is not natural to me. I do not want the plants and rocks to detract from the fish. I have black gravel, and the natural river rock in my tanks, the black really makes the fish colors pop!

I avidly advise you to not use the comb looking plants. They are cheap for a reason. They can snag your fish's fins, and tear the bejesus out of them. Very bad if it's a fancy finned fish you got for its pretty tail... Those do not repair.

I suggest fabric if you can afford it. If not either get the plastic plants I have said are ok (in the pictures), or save up, and get them when you go back for the fish. The fabric look real and they are gentle on fins.

Natural wood is awesome. This is native habitat for most fish, they will feel right at home.
Natural wood is awesome. This is native habitat for most fish, they will feel right at home.
The ruins come in all sizes, and almost all of them are ok to use. They add a unique flare to the tankm allow the fish a place to hide, and will not hurt them. If you go this route, pick what you want.
The ruins come in all sizes, and almost all of them are ok to use. They add a unique flare to the tankm allow the fish a place to hide, and will not hurt them. If you go this route, pick what you want.
If, you must do holes. Notice these holes are huge and there are several incase the fish gets turned around and lost inside. It can still find its way out, and not die.
If, you must do holes. Notice these holes are huge and there are several incase the fish gets turned around and lost inside. It can still find its way out, and not die.
If your hole fettish is not appeased, you can get something like this. Many different shapes and sizes. I would get the ones that are made out of the sandy looking material. But these resin ones are just as good.
If your hole fettish is not appeased, you can get something like this. Many different shapes and sizes. I would get the ones that are made out of the sandy looking material. But these resin ones are just as good.

Decorations do's and don'ts

Again, I'm a naturalist. I like big rocks and the artificial branches (just so bark doesn't muddy up my water).

Regardless of what décor you get, be it the little cave, or the octopus holding the 'no swimming' sign, keep these tips in mind:

Either no holes or huge holes:

Look at the size of the fish you are getting.
In the mega pet store (I think you know which one I'm talking about ^_~)
they have the tanks set up, youngest on the bottom medium in the middle and adult full grown on top. Most of the time. Sometimes the bottom tanks are where they have the unique fish, but its mostly tiered by size with most of the fish.

Look at the largest the fish gets, make sure that your cave, or sunken ship etc, has big enough holes to allow the fish to enter And come back out. I usually opt for no holes. Its just less worry about losing my fish that way.

After decorating

You have a few options.

If you have well water you do not have much work ahead of you. If it is municipal water... You need to let the water sit for and hour per gallon to de-chlorinate it. It can sit in the tank to do this, and beings that you have a 20 gal L there is more surface space to de-chlorinate faster. Yes, you can use the water conditioner the pet store person up sold you. But the less chemicals in the tank the more happy your fish will be. I get a bottle of aquarium salt. NOT table salt. Aquarium salt. And do not listen to the bottle. I sprinkle a teaspoon Max. no matter how large the tank is. Less is better... Remember that. The salt acts as a natural antibiotic and fish love it. They will find granules, and swim all around it and rub themselves on it to put their fishy sliminess back in balance. But you don't want to put a lot .. because remember... this isn't a salt tank.

After filling your tank rearrange the decorations if they got swooshed around when you dumped the water in. Then get your heater in place (I like the opposite end of the tank from the filter, and thermometer strip) You want the heater away from the thermometer strip to get a true tank reading. My fish love the low 70's. My tank is at 72, 70-75 is at the highest you should go. When you first put your heater in, to not play with knobs or buttons on it. If its in the water like it should be, go ahead and plug it in then leave it alone.

Make sure you rinse your filter cartridge out in your sink first, there is a lot of charcoal dust on those things and its like smog to the fish. Give it a rinse till you stop seeing that black water coming off of it.

Plug your filter in, and put a glass of water into the filter chamber. That will get it going and make it quiet. If it sounds funny wiggle the motor arm. Usually the tube that goes from the tank to the filter. Wiggle and lift it a few times and see if that gets it quiet. If not, unplug and start again. But usually just a wiggle works.

Set your lid up and plug in your light and give it a test run. Looks good doesn't it? I knew you could do it! ^_^

Plecostomus. Aka pleco, aka sucker fish. They eat algae and grodies. And sometimes cucumber ^_^
Plecostomus. Aka pleco, aka sucker fish. They eat algae and grodies. And sometimes cucumber ^_^

When do we get to the fish?

Good question. Patience pays.

Let your tank set running with the filter, and the heater for a few days, no fish, that gives you the ability to tweak the heater if its too cold or hot, and let the water adjust. Also lets the filter get anything that may have been in the water, out.

To make the tank perfect, I would get a couple gold fish. Just one or two. Let them live in the tank for around a week. They are like the canary in the coalmine. And their natural biology ( I don't want to get gross...but its what makes fish, fishy.) Will get the good bacteria, enzymes and ecology of the tank going in the right direction. Much better and cheaper (like 0.50 for 2 fish or cheaper if you get the small ones) than all those whacky chemicals the sales person is trying to sell you.

The only chemical I ever like in my tank is this stuff called stress-zyme. An I use it minimally, less than what the bottle says. I usually use a 2 or 3 second squirt all around the tank and then I put the bottle up. Only when there is fish in the tank.

By your next paycheck, if the gold fish are fine, Go get your fish. If the gold fish are not fine, do a partial 1/4 tank water change, and try again for a few days with new goldfish.

Lets assume the gold fish are fine.

Picking your fish:

With Cichlids either pick African or South American. Not both.

Tropicals, I would keep to the same aggression level through the whole choosing process. And I would try to go semi-aggressive and down. The aggressive guys like to swim around eating fins and its not pretty.

Keep the fish to a minimum. Remember, they grow, and to be happy they need a school, but plenty of room to swim. I like the inch of fish rule. For Tropicals, 1 inch of adult fish per gallon. So for a 20 gal L, that's 20, 1 inch adult fish.

There is a cheating way to do this. Read the tank labels on the fish. If its a bottom only swimmer you can get a few, mid swimmer get a few, top swimmer, get a few. that way you have fish on all levels of your tank, and they have room to swim happy. I still wouldn't go over 20-25 fish though. That's a lot to feed.

Honestly, In my 20 gal L I have 10 fish. Cichlids are a little different with the 1 in fish rule. They need 2-3 inches per gallon because they get larger than tropical.

Oscars, which are cichlids, I would only get one or 2 then a plecostomus and call it done. Oscars can get as large as music records. And I would get them at the same time. They get territorial against new fish.

Regardless of what you get. You need a tank cleaner. Either some sort of catfish, or my favorite a plecostomus. They are more efficient than a catfish. If that was a tongue-full. It's pleco for short.

Do Not Get A Snail!

As cute as they look. One snail.... where do I begin. Snails do not need a "buddy" to have babies. One snail can turn into 100 snails in a month. They destroy everything in the tank. If you see little black moving specks in your tank and can tell they are snails... Still got those gold fish? they eat baby snails. I would go get a big gold fish immediately. And, put a slice of zucchini in the tank, with a weight on it. The snails will gravitate to the zucchini. Give it a day, you can either toss the snail covered zucchini in the trash, or toss it in the woods and let the snails live.. Up to you.

Let the bags sit for at least an hour.
Let the bags sit for at least an hour.

Bringing your fish home

Let the bags of fish float in the tank for at least an hour before you let them go. It regulates the temperature in their little bag so its not an OMG shock if the water is a different temperature.

After the hour, gently let them go in the tank. Then, use a little of that stress-zyme if you picked some up.

Wait till tomorrow to feed them. It won't hurt them. They will be too scared to eat right now anyhow and they are busy picking their territory, and exploring.

Feeding your fish

Do not listen to the food container, and do not listen to the sales person. They are only out to get you to buy more food. Over feeding leads to water changes, and that leads to stress on the fish and then that runs your wallet dryer than your tank.

I feed my fish once a day, every other day. So. Once, usually in the morning. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and leave the weekends for them to forage anything they missed during the week. Tuesdays and Thursdays would not hurt. The fish store will tell you 3 times every single day... That does a few things.. A. Uses up all your food. B. Requires more filters to be bought because... well... what goes in must come out... and C. Your fish life cycle faster. So the fish store's top priority is to keep you in the store buying things.. not caring about the fish or your wallet.

Do not get those vacation or weekend feeders. They look like little chalk blocks.. or compressed food. The fish do not know to eat them, and by the time they figure it out, you're back, and the water needs a complete change because the weekend feeder destroyed your tank.

Just leave them be. They can go for a week or so without food. Sounds crazy I know, but they know how to forage their tank for any food that they didn't get to when you feed them normally.

As for food. I'm a pellet or granule person. But if you have to have flake.. do not surface feed it. Dip it down into the water before letting it go. You do this so your fish doesn't swallow a bunch of air. Not sure if you've seen upside down swimming gold fish.. but its because the store wasn't feeding them right and they got a lot of air in them.. and it makes them float instead of them swimming around right.. it can't be pleasant for them. If it gets very bad it can kill them. that's why I like the little granules. Feed a small pinch per 5 fish. Any food. But.. If you can only afford flakes (I am not judging, I've had to scrimp on flakes too) Just do yourself a favor and put it under the water before letting it go.. In the big fish store, we would put the flakes in a big pitcher and mix water into it and use a turkey baster to feed the fish. (That's large scale feeding, for one tank you only need your fingers... or mix the couple pinches of flakes into a juice glass with a little water and pour it in, if you don't want to have to wash your fingers).

As a treat, or to amuse your children, the fish like to nibble on romaine leaves, and thin green zucchini slices.

Water Changes and basic maintenance

Keep a couple milk jugs around with water in them. I keep mine under the tank stand.

Once a month or so... if you forget you may be doing your tank better favor. (I tend to just let the water naturally evaporate out. so every couple months)

Take either one of those fancy tank syphons or a cooking pot, and take a 1/4 of the tank water out and replace it with new water. Use the water out of the jugs if you remembered to do that. Then refill them for next time. The water is already room temperature then and does not stress the fish. I would find a large hard decoration or a part of the tank that won't swish all over to pour the new water.

If you use a syphon get down into the gravel and "vacuum" it. Stab the gravel with the syphon (being careful not to catch your fish in it) until the water in it's tube comes out a lot cleaner than it started. Repeat in a few places, It does not have to be perfect. A little uush actually keeps the ecology straight.

Use a little squirt of the stress -zyme then you're done. wait till a few hours to feed your fish if its the day to. I pick a non feeding day.

The only time you want to do more than a 1/4 is when you have an extremely grody tank. or a lot of deaths. Each death causes the ammonia level to go up.. and can hurt the other fish. (one fish won't hurt, more fish will)

If your fish look like they are having labored breathing.. They will be flapping their gills a lot and mouth gaping.. you may want to do a half tank change.. or at least more than a 1/4.

Changing the filter.

The package, and probably the salesperson told you every couple weeks... guess what that does? Just uses up your wallet.. I wash mine. Rinsing it under hot water until it's clean (the white filtery material might be a little discolored). NO SOAP!

Rinsing the filter is actually better for the tank. The tank needs its uush.. the ecology of the tank will thank you. I buy replacements. I usually get the multi pack when I buy my filter because I never remember what filter to get by the time it comes around to replace it lol.. So getting them WITH the filter... That cuts out some time and guessing. (at least write it down somewhere if you can't afford both at once.. I know filters can be pricey)

I replace filters without rinsing on a couple occasions.

  • If your tank gets ick
  • An algae bloom (your tank basically looks like someone dumped a green kale smoothie into it.
  • Excessive deaths (whatever is killing them off could be stored in the filter and a rinse might not get it)
  • Its been a few months. New one seems like a good idea
  • The filter is just so grody I don't feel like messing with it.


Aquarium salt. Its not just for salt tanks.

Again, I do not use as much as it says. I use a tsp to a tbsp sprinkled all over the tank. Initially to start the tank I put a small handful. After the water changes, I use the 1 tbsp (i have a large tank, a 10 gal I'd only use a tsp ). It keeps the fish's skin free of parasites and keeps that fish slime in check. Makes them happy. I got a big thing of the salt and still only have maybe 1/2 used at most since 2006 lol. A good reputable fish store will have little drink cup looking containers in their tanks that has a lot of salt and some rocks on top, maybe a lid with a hole in it. If you notice the fish swimming above it, they are conditioning themselves.

I hope this helped ^_^

Any questions please let me know ^_^


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