A Beginner’s Guide To Starting A Family Fish Tank

A family fish tank is an excellent way for the family to bond and start a hobby together. In addition, an aquarium is a great way to begin implementing responsibility that won’t break the bank or take hours. It will be the perfect family activity if everyone has their duties.

It can be overwhelming for a beginner who has never started a fish tank or aquarium before and does not know where to start, or what it entails. However, with a beginner’s guide to starting a family fish tank, we’ve outlined what you need to know and how to get started. You will look like a pro and have your aquarium set up in no time.

I. Starting A Fish Tank With Your Kids

There are many things to consider when starting a family fish tank. The initial cost will be higher than just getting a dog; the maintenance after the initial expenses is not too bad. However, the thrill of having a fish tank, with the peace it brings to a space, is a reason to adopt this hobby with your family.

First, you will have to decide whether you want to start a freshwater or saltwater fish tank. The water type will depend on the fish you are looking at, and the maintenance differs between the two.

A saltwater aquarium requires a size of at least 30 gallons to start with, as smaller tanks will compromise the saltwater composition. Unfortunately, these fish are also pricier, and you will have to do intense research to require information on which fish can be partnered with and ensure they like the same temperatures. The process of cleaning a saltwater fish tank can also be more intensive. (Find out what can make it harder to maintain a saltwater fish tank.)

A freshwater fish tank is the best option for beginner aquarists looking to start the hobby. With a freshwater fish tank, you can create a smaller aquarium, get away with fewer costs, and less maintenance. In addition, keeping the water clean will ensure fast mating, and these freshwater fish are usually more forgiving of mistakes a beginner aquarist may make along the way when setting up a new aquarium.

You will want to talk to your children and get them to understand how to look after their new fish. They will have to see them as pets, not just decoration. They must realize that the fish need their help to keep their environment clean, and their tummies full, to ensure they are healthy and thriving. 

Thirdly, you will all have to decide together as a family where you want to display your aquarium. The best placement will be out of direct sunlight, away from air conditioning or open windows, and not near loud noises such as a television or video game box. A bedroom might not be a great idea as the other family members will get jealous.

A Beginner’s Guide To Starting A Family Fish Tank

A. Rules When Starting A Family Fish Tank

Rules are not fun, but they are usually necessary for anything we approach, including raising fish. You can make rules fun by adding colored cardboard next to the tank with directions written on it. If you are creative, create a song or rhyme with your kids so they can remember the rules. 

Rules to follow when starting a fish tank:

  • Never put your hands inside the tank – the fish do not like humans touching them
  • Never throw foreign objects into the tank – the fish might get sick and die
  • Ask permission to feed the fish
  • We all help to clean the tank each week
  • Don’t knock on the glass – you can scare the fish

B. A Beginner’s Guide To Starting A Family Fish Tank: Supplies

The most exciting part of starting a fish tank with your family, other than getting the fish, is the outing to get all the supplies. Beginners should start with less fish to get the hang of it first. Don’t start too small, but you can always get an even bigger tank later with fancier pumps, lighting, and plants.

First, you should consider which fish tank or aquarium you want to start with. A 30-gallon tank would be ideal. If you already know you will like having a fish tank, then start bigger as you can quickly run out of space. On the other hand, if you have limited space, you have many smaller options among the nano aquariums.

You will also need to choose between a glass or acrylic tank. Glass is better for beginners, as it is cheaper and comes with a rim that evens the tank. Acrylic tanks are more expensive and ideal for more significant volumes of water (you can try this when you upgrade to a larger aquarium).

The stand for your fish tank. Remember that the frame supports your fish tank’s entire weight evenly. You can buy a stand with the aquarium, so you know the structure can hold the whole tank – this is the safest option. If you have a solid surface, like a table or stand at home, ensure it is sturdy and robust enough to hold the tank. 

Cover or lid for the tank. Fish tanks do not come custom-made with a lid, but experts recommend getting one, especially if you have your aquarium in a bedroom or confined space. A cover is best to keep the water temperature consistent and prevent too much water evaporation. 

Light is necessary to see the fish at night, enhancing the calmness of an aquarium, and the plants in a freshwater fish tank need the light to photosynthesize. So opt for a LED light for your plants, with a built-in timer to switch it off periodically; this will reduce algae growth.

A Heater. Water that sits at room temperature is typically too cold for the fish, and the heater will warm the water to the correct temperature for the fish to thrive. You will need 5 watts for each gallon of water you have, and you should have a lid; otherwise, the watts will need to be increased. Opting for a stronger heater instead will ensure it heats the water correctly and doesn’t struggle.

A thermometer. You have to ensure the temperature of the water is regulated, as this plays a significant role in your fish’s health and well-being. By adding a thermometer, you can be sure that the water is at the precise temperature, and you will know if your heater is switched off or has run into a problem.

A filter. The filter is necessary to keep your tank clean, and the water is moving. The best filter for a beginner is a Hang On Back (HOB) filter. It is easy to maintain, clean, and customize. A cheaper filter is the sponge filter, but it can be tricky to set up, and you will need a check valve to ensure there is no overflow. 

Other supplies for cleaning/ water quality. These products may include a water conditioner, freshwater concentrate, or salt. All these come in handy to get the density and quality of the water perfect for your fish. Ask your local pet shop for recommendations. Also, you can look into an air stone or air pump later on for more oxygen generation when you add more fish.

Gravel and decorations. You have to cover the bottom of your tank with substrates. Opt for coated gravel or pre-washed to ensure there is no residue left that could harm your fish. Always rinse your decorations with water as these might gather dust in the shop. You can purchase a gravel washer to clean the gravel during cleaning cycles, removing all the algae and dirt.

A background for your fish tank is also a great idea. A backdrop hides the tubes and filters, and cables that hang behind the tank and will make your fish stand out more. Also, go for a darker background; this will enhance the colors of your fish.

High-quality fish food is necessary if you want to keep your fish healthy. However, the food you buy will depend on the fish you buy, so best you buy the food at the same time you buy the fish.

II. How To Set Up A Fish Tank

There is more to setting up your first fish tank than filling a tank with water and adding the fish! You need to set up your tank and let the filtration system do its job before you can add the fish. Then, there are specific steps to follow and things to double-check to ensure your tank is ready to house some fish.

A. The Tank Setup For A Beginner Family Aquarium

The first step in setting up your fish tank would be ensuring all the parts are clean. Any residue on any parts might cause your fish to get ill or die, so best ensure everything is clean. Do not clean with soap, only with water, or you can do a 50/50 dilution of water and vinegar. 

Wipe the fish tank clean on the inside and outside, all the ornaments, and drain the gravel in water to ensure it is clean. If you buy a second-hand tank, you must follow extra measures to ensure it is clean. An acrylic tank can scratch easily, so you need specific cloths to clean it.

The second step will be to ensure you place the fish tank where you would want it, on a stand or solid base. There should be no movement, and all four corners should be stable. When you add the water later, the tank’s weight will increase significantly, and you won’t be able to move it easily.

The third step is to add the background. Add the backdrop and position it as you like. Ensure the tank is far enough from the wall to ensure enough space for the cables and filter.

The fourth step is to check for leaks. The checks are essential as you will have to return the tank to the shop if it has any leaks. Fill with a third of water, wipe the edges dry, and watch the tank closely. If you see any bubbles or water running down the edges, return it to the shop. If the water level is still the same after an hour, you can proceed to set up the tank.

The fifth step is installing the filter, but do not switch it on or plug it in. There are no set steps to follow when installing the filter. Each manufacturer has its manual to install the filter accordingly.

The sixth step is to add the gravel and substrate. A good rule is to have a one to two inches bed of substrates at the bottom. You can add one pound per gallon of water to measure this out. 

Thus, if you have a 10-gallon tank, you will need 10 pounds of gravel for a 1-inch thickness and 20-pounds for a 2-inch thickness. Of course, some fish require a deeper bed of substrates, so better find out first what the fish you have in mind would like.

Step number seven is to fill the tank further. Add the water by placing a saucer on top of the gravel and slowly pouring the water on it with a cup; be careful not to splash it. Adding the water is a delicate step, and you should take your time to ensure the gravel and ornaments stay put. Use room temperature water for better results.

Step eight will be adding the water conditioners and salts as the manufacturer instructs. These additives improve the electrolytes of the water and prevent parasites from invading. Adding the de-chlorinator to the water is also crucial, as regular tap water will kill your fish straightaway.

Number nine will be to install the heater. The type of heater will determine where you need to install it. Submerging heaters need to be as close to the filter intake as possible, while heaters hanging vertically – are as close to the filter’s output as possible. Wait 30 minutes before plugging the heater to ensure the internal thermometer has the correct, current temperatures. 

Step ten is to install the thermometer for you to keep an eye on the temperatures. The heater has its thermometer, but when it malfunctions, you won’t know it until it is too late. Install the thermometer as far away from the heater as possible to ensure it picks up the temperatures of the water and not that the heater is expressing.

You can add and install additional equipment like lighting, and the lid, wait 30 minutes and turn on all the systems. Well done, you successfully set up your first fish tank. You can ask your little hands to wash the ornaments with a water/vinegar dilution and pass you the installation equipment. Helping will make them feel part of the process and the excitement of starting a family fish tank.

B. The First Cycle Of Your Family Fish Tank

After you set up your tank and everything looks like it is working, it is crucial to let your tank run a complete cycle before you add the fish. The process is necessary to kick start your filtration system, existing of three parts:

  • Biological filtration – good bacteria must circulate through the tank to remove unwanted ammonia and replace nitrites with nitrates.
  • Chemical filtration – removes pollutants through activated carbon sent through the filter.
  • Mechanical filtration – the system must also remove the solid, visible debris or waste you can see in the water.

After you run the cycle for 48 hours and the water is clear, it is safe to start adding some marine life to the fish tank.

III. Which Fish Make Good Pets For Beginners?

There are a lot of fish to choose from, but it’s simplest to start with a few recommended for beginners. These fish are not too sensitive to slight changes in their environment such as water temperatures and pH levels.

Fish NameColorSizeTraits
Betta FishRed, green, purple, or blue3 to 4 inchesLong, delicate fins that can tear easily on sharp ornaments; like a big tank and little flow
Goldfish (the long-bodied variants)White, orange, gold, and black8 to 14 inchesThey need a lot of water, about 20 gallons per fish. Their waste is also more than what they eat.
Neon Tetras fishRed, white, blue, or silver with a bright turquoise stripe1 to 1 and ½ inchesThey love to exist in groups, don’t take up much space, and need plants to hide behind.
ZebrafishHave white and black stripes and shines under an LED light2 inchesThey like to travel in a school, are easy to feed, and do not need much heat.
Platys and MolliesFor beginners, black molly or red platy3 inchesLive-bearing fish = reproduce internally, meaning you might buy a fish that is pregnant. They are easy to care for and feed.

A. How Many Fish To Start A Family Fish Tank?

Depending on which species you choose, it’s advised to start small and build up your fish population later. Another tip would be to start with one type of fish, especially if you have a small fish tank. On the other hand, suppose you started with a giant aquarium; you can begin adding one kind of fish and do your research on which fish can co-exist with your first type of fish.

Some fish species want to be in a school, and others don’t mind being alone. Some freshwater fish need cooler water, and others need warmer water. Another consideration would be the food, as some might eat the same flakes or pellets, whereas others need particular food. It’s always a good idea to ask your local pet store owner or research the different species with your kids. 

Visit websites, look at pictures and make a table of what each fish needs in terms of food, temperature, water, and tank size. This fun exercise for the family can help determine what fish to introduce to the family fish tank.

B. How To Add Fish To The Tank?

You’ve finally got to the step where you can go to the shop and buy your first fish or two! The store usually hands you the fish in a bag filled with water. You will need to get it out of the bag as soon as possible, and there are specific steps to acclimatize the fish to your fish tank at home and make sure they are happy.

  1. Place the bag in your fish tank at home – keep it like this for 15 minutes.
  2. Take one cup of water out of the bag, add a cup from the aquarium, and leave the bag again for 15 minutes.
  3. Repeat step two a second time and wait 15 minutes again.
  4. Slowly take the fish out of the bag with a net, place them in the tank, and let them get out of the net by themselves.

If you have other species, add a new fish to a quarantine tank (separate tank) or follow the same steps each time. In the end, a quarantine tank is a great idea to look after ill fish, add in new fish, transport fish to another tank, or sell them.

It would help if you fed your freshwater fish once a day, enough for them to eat for 3 to 5 minutes continuously. Feeding too much can lead to many problems: overfed fish are unhealthy and can get sick; leftover food and extra waste also contaminate the water and block the filters. When you test the water quality and see lower pH levels, it could be because you feed your fish too frequently.

The only exception to this rule is herbivore fish. Their stomachs are tiny and need small feeds more frequently throughout the day. The same goes for fry or not fully grown fish. Most fish need 16 to 24 hours to digest their food, and feeding once a day is perfect for the fish’s health and the tank’s maintenance.

IV. How To Clean Your Family Fish Tank?

Some people do not like cleaning a tank each week and do not even consider starting a family fish tank. However, it is no trouble – if the whole family works together, you will get it done in no time. Sure it will take practice to get it done quickly and sufficiently, but before you know it you’ll be managing it in 30 minutes per week.

You will have to replace 25% of the water each time you do a water change. The essential factor here is that the temperature of the new water should be close to that of the tank’s water. So take your thermometer to measure the fresh water, and add hot water to get the correct temperature. Also, remember to add the water conditioner first before adding it to the tank.

Keep the cleaning products (cloths and brushes) for your fish tank aside and only use them for the tank. Using the same ones for the tank will ensure that no harmful residue enters your fish tank and harms your fish. Clean everything first before you start cleaning the tank.

You will need to use an algae scraper to clean the inside of the glass and a water siphon to clean the gravel of unwanted substances and algae that can infect the fish and the water. In addition, you can use a specific cleaning spray outside the tank (available at any pet shop or online). Follow the filter manufacturer’s guidelines and clean accordingly. 

How To Know When There Is Something Wrong With The Water?

The water will tell a story about something wrong in the tank. However, if you stay on top of the cleaning routine and set out specific times to test the pH levels and temperature of the water, you can eliminate most problems.

There are a few things that could happen, but luckily if you know what to look out for, you can understand how to fix them.

  • Murky water can mean a range of things or everything combined. Debris, tap water minerals, or residue from the gravel – perform the 25% water replacement, suction the gravel, and add water clarifiers
  • pH levels changing can point to debris build-up as well. Best to feed less, perform the 25% water replacement, and increase circulation slightly.
  • A spike in Ammonia levels may suggest that you are overcrowding the tank as the nitrifying bacteria is too little for the amount of fish – perform a 25% water replacement, do not suction the gravel, and add extra nitrifying bacteria.
  • If the water is green, it can show overpopulation, too much food, too much direct sunlight, and too much algae growth – remove the direct sunlight, and clean the tank more frequently.

V. Mistakes Beginner Fish Tank Owners Make

There are a few common mistakes that beginner aquarists make that can ruin their progress and run down their spirit. Be aware of these things, and your family fish tank will be guaranteed success.

  1. Starting too small – you can run out of space quickly; start bigger instead to ensure there is a better water-to-fish correlation.
  2. Adding fish too quickly – your fish tank should first undergo the initial filtration cycle to prepare the water for the fish. Adding the fish too early will lead to sick or even dead fish.
  3. Adding too many fish at a time – the nitrogen cycle takes 4-6 weeks, and you should only add a few each week. The best would be to keep the same fish for six weeks and then add a few.
  4. The filtration system is under the standard – the filtration system will make or break your aquarium. Ensure you budget for a high-quality filter and maintain it correctly.
  5. Overcrowding your aquarium – each fish and species have specific water needs. The rule of thumb for the ratio is one gallon per inch of fish. 
  6. Overfeeding the fish – overfeeding can lead to intoxicating the water and, in turn, have a terrible effect on the fish.
  7. Adding fish that cannot co-exist – will kill each other and increase the stress of those not killed yet, leading to an environment opposite to what we want with an aquarium.
  8. Failing to test the water – you won’t know if the pH levels and temperature is on par, and you may lose fish or struggle with sickness.
  9. Not changing the water – if you don’t change the water by 25% at a time (two to four times a month), you might fail to start a successful fish tank.


We hope you enjoyed our beginner’s guide to starting a family fish tank. You should now have a better understanding of how to set up your first fish tank, choose your fish and help them thrive. We’re sure your family will love their new fish for a long time to come.

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