How To Set Up An Aquarium For Tropical Fish In 13 Steps

Keeping tropical fish is a rewarding hobby and a great way to add a soothing attraction to your home. Tropical fish are mesmerizing, and an aquarium has many health benefits, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving focus. However, it’s important to set up your aquarium correctly to ensure the safety of your fish. Check out our guide on how to set up an aquarium for tropical fish to get started.

There are a few essential things you will need before you start setting up your aquarium for tropical fish. To set up your aquarium, you’ll need a tank, gravel, aquarium plants and decorations, a water filter, an aquarium light, a thermometer, and a few additional items.

1. Choose The Aquarium

Choosing the correctly sized aquarium is the first step in setting up an aquarium for tropical fish. When selecting an aquarium, it’s always best to go bigger, even if you only want to add a handful of fish to your aquarium. The bigger the aquarium, the more space your tropical fish will have to be healthy and thrive in their new home.

Larger aquariums dilute toxins better and cycle faster. The type of fish you have will also determine the aquarium size you’ll need. Larger species of tropical fish will naturally require more space, so this needs to be considered before purchasing your aquarium.

A general guide to correctly sizing your aquarium is using the simple rule of one gallon of water per fish kept in your aquarium. This guide should give you an indication of the size of the aquarium to purchase. Still, it also does not consider the fish’s growth rate, their requirements, and waste production. 

We also recommend using an aquarium stock calculator like AqAdvisor to create the optimal environment for your tropical fish.

Aquariums come in standard sizes, including:

  • Up to 10 gallons. For a single fish, a five-gallon tank will be sufficient, but you can increase this to 10 gallons for two fish. Smaller tanks, including fish bowls, are more likely to have waste and bacteria build-up. In addition, fish are confined to a small environment to swim, making them feel stressed. There are better-sized tanks for tropical fish, and you should avoid small tanks.
  • 11-20 gallons. Tanks 11-20 gallons can easily hold six fish, depending on the size of the tropical fish and the breed. Twenty-gallon tanks can also be considered small and are for small species of fish. 
  • 21-40 gallons. Aquariums that are 21-40 gallons can keep between 6 and 12 fish and will still be low maintenance with that number of tropical fish in the aquarium. Tanks closer to 40 gallons can be a bit more costly but will also give you the flexibility to add a few larger breeds of tropical fish like the Plecostomus.
  • 40 plus gallons. Aquariums larger than 40 gallons can showcase some of the most beautiful displays of tropical fish. Large aquariums require more cleaning and maintenance. They should also be placed on an aquarium stand to support the additional weight of the tank.

2. Choose The Right Location To Place Your Aquarium

Choosing the right location is vital for keeping your tropical fish happy. While there may be a couple of suitable places in your home, there are a few factors to consider when choosing the best spot for your aquarium.

Size Of The Aquarium

The size of the aquarium is the first determining factor that needs to be considered when looking for the best location for your tank. Not only does the space need to be big enough, but the space also needs to be able to handle the weight of the aquarium.

A gallon of water weighs 9 pounds; combined with the tank’s weight and all the decorative elements, this all can get heavy quickly. 

If you’re considering keeping a small tank, a table, desk, or cabinet will be sufficient. But, if you want to purchase a larger aquarium, consider using an aquarium stand that also provides space for storing all the equipment for your tank.

Accessible Water Supply

Your aquarium should be placed near a water supply. Tanks need regular cleaning, and you don’t want to walk up and down to clean and refill your tank. Placing your tank near a water source is especially important if you have a large tank that requires lots of water.

Aquariums also lose water through evaporation and require constant topping up. If your aquarium is conveniently close to a water source, it is much easier to top it up as required.

Avoiding High Traffic Areas

Aquariums are made from glass or acrylic, which means they are prone to get scratched or damaged if placed in a high-traffic area. Therefore, the best location for your aquarium is in a place that gets little traffic and won’t get damaged by people’s everyday movement in the home.

You also want to place your aquarium in a higher place with space around it to avoid anyone knocking it over or bumping into it.

Temperature Fluctuations

Water temperature can affect your tropical fish and even the health of plants in your aquarium. The best advice is to avoid temperature fluctuations by placing your aquarium where the temperature is likely to remain constant.

Avoid placing your aquarium in places with direct sunlight or open windows. If the temperature in your home is controlled, then most areas will be suitable for your aquarium.

Electrical Points And Safety

Aquariums require power for filtration, heating, and lighting. They must be placed in an area close to an electrical outlet. It would be best to take some safety precautions to protect your electrical outlets and the wires from potential water spills. 

Aesthetic Appeal

Aesthetic appeal is just as important when choosing the best place for your aquarium. You’ll want to pick a place where your fish can be admired, whether in a place where visitors can see your aquarium or just a cozy spot in your home. Your aquarium should be placed in an area where you can enjoy it.

3. Use An Aquarium Stand

An aquarium stand should be considered if you decide to have a larger aquarium. Specialized aquarium stands can be expensive but provide support for heavier tanks. An aquarium stand or table can be repurposed from existing furniture, purchased, or custom-built to support your aquarium.

When choosing an aquarium stand, you will need to consider the following:

  • What is the weight of the aquarium? Aquariums are made from glass or acrylic. Glass tanks usually weigh double the amount acrylic tanks weigh and will need a more supportive stand. Besides the tank’s weight, the substrate, water, décor, and fish will all add to the weight of the fish tank. This needs to be considered when choosing an aquarium stand.
  • Where is the support most needed? A glass and acrylic tank should be supported, especially if it’s a large tank. Glass is typically stronger and requires support along the edges. Acrylic is lightweight and flexible and requires the most support at the bottom of the tank.
  • Is the aquarium stand easily accessible? An aquarium stand needs to be easily accessible because you’ll likely be storing all of your aquarium equipment in the stand. If the stand is too big and takes up too much space, it can be difficult to access your aquarium for cleaning and daily maintenance of your fish tank.
  • How many accessories do you have? If you have many aquarium accessories, you’ll want a tank stand with built-in storage. 

4. Add Your Substrate Layer

Once you’ve chosen your tank, the location for your aquarium, and decided on a tank stand, you can add your substrate layer. Your substrate layer is the loose material that is placed at the bottom of your aquarium. This can be a layer of pebbles, sand, or any other loose material suitable for your aquarium.

Aquariums have a substrate for the following reasons:

  • Enhances the visual appeal of aquariums
  • It helps create a more natural and realistic environment for your tropical fish
  • Houses beneficial bacteria
  • Aquarium plants need substrate to stay rooted
  • Compliments the coloring of your fish

Types Of Substrates

There are many different substrates that you can use for your aquarium. These include pebbles, soil, gravel, and sand.

  1. Pebbles. Pebbles are the most common type of substrate used and come in various sizes. Pebbles are made from multiple materials, including glass, colored plastic, and river rock. Pebbles can leave big gaps, which means uneaten food and excrement can fall between them, making it harder to clean your aquarium.
  2. Soil. Soil is unlike the typical ground you find in your backyard. It is specifically manufactured to prevent it from disintegrating in water and provide nutrients to your aquatic plants.
  3. Gravel. Gravel is very similar to pebbles but a bit smaller in size. Gravel is a better option than pebbles because the gaps are smaller, meaning it’s easier to clean.
  4. Sand. Sand is not widely used in aquariums with tropical fish. Sand can still be used for tropical fish aquariums, provided the sand is a medium grain. Some aquatic plants and bottom-feeding fish prefer a sand substrate. Sand is also one of the easiest substrates to clean and offers fish a natural environment.

How Much Substrate Do You Need To Add To Your Aquarium?

Once you’ve chosen your substrate, you can add it to your aquarium. The general rule is to add at least a layer of 3 inches of substrate to your aquarium. This layer will be deep enough for plants to root and won’t be too heavy or difficult to clean.

You can add as much substrate as you feel is best for your aquarium, but the more substrate there is, the less space there will be for plants and decorations and the more cleaning you need to do to keep your aquarium clean.

5. Fill The Tank With Water

When filling your tank for the first time, it should be filled to one-third with room temperature water. After that, you can place a plate onto the substrate and pour the water into the tank to help keep the substrate in place.

Instead of testing the water once it’s added to the tank, you can use a water conditioner to de-chlorinate it. There should be no soap, bleach, or other substances on anything used in the tank or to fill the tank. This can be extremely harmful to your tropical fish.

6. Add Plants To Your Aquarium

Aquatic plants create a vibrant and natural environment for your tropical fish. There are thousands of aquatic plants. While some fish eat and can uproot plants, tropical fish don’t usually destroy living aquarium plants.

When adding plants to your aquarium, you need to keep a few things in mind. Aquatic plants need fertilizer, light, and a substrate to grow correctly. Plants in your aquarium should also be placed with enough space between them to make sure your aquarium is manageable.

How To Set Up An Aquarium For Tropical Fish

The Best Living Aquarium Plants

Plastic plants may be aesthetically pleasing and low maintenance but don’t offer any other benefits. Fish need plants; they use them as shelter and a place to breed. Aquatic plants also produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and ammonia. There are many easy-to-care-for aquarium plants, including:

  • Moneywort
  • Water sprite
  • Java moss mat
  • Anubias gold coin
  • Scarlet temple
  • Dwarf baby tears
  • Java fern
  • Pearl weed

7. Add Decorative Elements To Your Aquarium

Adding a few decorative elements to your aquarium can create a homey space for your fish and enhance the aquarium’s look. A few decorative elements you can include in your aquarium are driftwood, caves, ships, bridges, statues, and bubble makers.

Decorative elements can be natural or artificial. It is always advisable to use aquarium-approved decorative elements so avoid harming your fish with chemicals typically found on most decorations. Add a few decorations, but ensure there is still enough space for your tropical fish to swim.

Items that should not be added to your aquarium as decorations include glass, corals, and shells, wood not purchased from an aquarium store, and ceramics.

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8. Test And Treat The Water

In a new aquarium, water testing is necessary. Without testing the water, your fish can die due to a rise in ammonia and nitrates. Once your aquarium is established, regular water testing is also required to keep your fish healthy.

The best way to test your aquarium’s water is by using a test kit. Test kits can test various things, but you mainly need a kit that will test the ph, ammonia, and nitrate level. If you use municipal water in your tank, your aquarium should also be tested for chlorine.

Most tropical fish prefer a pH of 6.8 to 7.8, but some may require a specific pH level. The pH of the water will gradually increase over time, and it’s best to make regular water changes to combat this. Tropical fish must also be kept at a temperature between 75° and 80°F to be comfortable.

9. Place Your Water Filter In The Tank

After the aquarium’s water has been tested, conditioned, and ready to add your tropical fish, you can place your water filter in the tank. An aquarium filter cleans the water of debris, removes the build-up of ammonia and nitrates, and aerates the water in your tank.

Filters clean your tropical fish aquarium in one of three ways mechanically, biologically, and chemically.

  1. Mechanical filtration. A mechanical filtration system pushes the water through a strainer to get it clean. The strainer can have different materials, including sponges, filter pads, or aquarium gravel, that help clean the water.
  2. Biological filtration. Biological filtration uses bacteria and other microorganisms like plants and fungi. Biological filtration also takes place when you cycle your aquarium’s water.
  3. Chemical filtration. Chemical filtration removes toxins from the water through an activated carbon filter. The carbon filter needs to be changed regularly, and a cubic inch of activated filter carbon provides filtration of 2 gallons of water for a month.

10. Place The Thermometer And Heater In The Tank

In a tropical fish aquarium, there is a heater and a thermometer. A thermometer is essential in a tropical fish aquarium. It helps you keep track of and measure the temperature of the water. A water heater keeps the water suitably heated for your tropical fish.

Choosing A Thermometer For Your Tropical Fish Aquarium

Beginner aquarium owners often keep the thermostat too close to the heater in the aquarium. This causes incorrect readings and should be avoided.

The best place to keep a thermometer is on the opposite side of the tank where the heater isn’t fitted. This thermometer position will provide you with a more accurate water temperature reading.

There are a few types of aquarium thermometers that you can add to your aquarium. These include glass thermometers, stick-on thermometers, and digital thermometers.

  • Glass thermometers. Glass thermometers are fitted inside the aquarium but are vulnerable to being cracked or broken. Glass thermometers also get dirty.
  • Stick on thermometers. Stick-on thermometers are placed outside a tank and provide a reading based on the water inside the aquarium. However, these can be unreliable due to fluctuating air temperatures.
  • Digital thermometers. Digital thermometers provide the most accurate readings but are battery-operated, and the batteries will need replacing occasionally.

Choosing A Heater For Your Tropical Fish Aquarium

Keeping a stable temperature for your fish will be less stressful for them, and ensure they are kept at a comfortable temperature. Some fish prefer cooler temperatures, but tropical fish like to be kept in temperatures between 76° to 80°F.

In most cases, you’ll need a 5-watt heater per gallon of water in your tank. A 5-watt heater will work, provided your aquarium has a lid, and you need to heat the current temperature to 10 degrees more than the room temperature. This rule does not apply when making the water warmer than the above conditions.

Many aquarium heaters can be left on throughout the day. These have a thermostat that reads the temperature of the water and automatically switches off once the temperature is reached.

11. Add The Tank Light And Close The Tank

Creating the perfect environment for your tropical fish includes choosing the proper lighting. Most tanks have overhead lighting, but some may have other lighting systems. Two of the most widely used lights for aquariums are incandescent lighting and fluorescent lighting.

Incandescent lighting is not the best option for aquariums; they don’t produce enough light or heat and are mainly used in small aquarium environments. But incandescent lights are more cost-effective than other types of light and come in various colors.

Florescent lighting is the most widely used aquarium lighting. It uses a ballast and is a tube-like light that effectively illuminates your aquarium. This type of light needs frequent replacing but is also relatively inexpensive.

You can also acquire an aquarium hood with built-in lighting.

Once you have prepared your aquarium light and tank lid, you can close the aquarium to prep it for its first cycle.

12. Cycle Your Aquarium

Cycling your aquarium for tropical fish is essential in creating the perfect environment for your fish. Cycling establishes beneficial bacteria which regulate the nitrogen and ammonia in the tank. To begin cycling your aquarium, ensure the tank’s water is over 70°F but not above 77°F.

Once the water temperature is ideal, you can close the lid of your aquarium and wait for the beneficial bacteria to build up. This natural method of cycling can take from 10 days to 2 months. The water will also need to be tested regularly to monitor the ammonia and nitrate levels. It’s important to note that ammonia must be added in trace amounts to the tank as this will not build up naturally.

You could purchase a bacterial cultures kit to reduce the time it takes to cycle your aquarium. Introducing a bacterial cultures kit will speed up the cycling time, and your tank will be cycled in just seven days.

To speed up the cycling process, you can raise the water temperature slightly and add air stones and an excellent aerator to increase the amount of oxygen in the tank.

13. Add Your Fish To The Tank

Once your aquarium has completed its cycle, you can add the tropical fish to their new home. To add your fish, take the sealed bag it was purchased in and allow it to float on the surface of the aquarium’s water. Then open the bag and add some of your aquarium water to it. Next, close the bag again while keeping it in the aquarium. This gives the fish time to adjust to the new water.

Related Content: How Long Can Fish Stay in Bags From Pet Stores?

Once the bag has been floating for 10 minutes, you can transfer the fish to the aquarium. The bag should be discarded along with all the water inside the bag. Your fish will now be free to swim around in their new home. The lights in the aquarium should be turned off during this time to allow your fish to adjust.

Some of the most beginner-friendly tropical fish to include in your aquarium are:

  • Angelfish
  • Loaches
  • Bettas
  • Tiger barb
  • Swordtails
  • Zebra danios
  • Molly
  • Redtail sharks
  • Silver dollar
  • Catfish
  • Harlequin rasbora
  • Cherry barb
  • Platy

Closing Thoughts

How to set up an aquarium for tropical fish doesn’t have to be stressful. Gather your tank and supplies and follow these steps to create the optimal tank environment for tropical fish.

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