A Beginner’s Guide to Setting up an Aquarium

So, you’re thinking of getting some fish? Excellent choice. They are wonderful pets to have and a great source of entertainment and relaxation. 

Many believe they are easy to care for, and although this isn’t entirely untrue - it’s essential to get the basics right to make the whole experience enjoyable for everyone! 

We’ve created a complete guide for beginners, which will tell you everything you need to know about setting up your first home aquarium. 

How to set up an aquarium for beginners

Before we get started, here are some answers to frequently asked questions regarding setting up an aquarium. 

What is an aquarium? 

An aquarium (or fish tank) is a watertight container designed to house water and aquatic life. 

Typically, they are constructed of acrylic or glass and silicon and are typically sealed on 5 sides with an open top for access. They can also come in more unusual shapes, such as cylinders and spheres. 

An aquarist is the owner or keeper of the aquarium and its inhabitants. Aquariums typically contain fish, amphibians, reptiles, turtles, invertebrates, and plants, and they can come in any size. Small domestic aquariums generally start at around 10 litres and are only suitable for housing small fish or invertebrates, such as shrimp. Large, commercial aquariums, such as the Kuroshio Aquarium in Okinawa (Japan), can be as large as 7,500,000 litres and house oceanic monsters, such as Whale Sharks.  

The difference between an aquarium and a fish tank

Aquariums and fish tanks can be the same thing in everyday speech. But, when we investigate the words further, we can take more in-depth meanings from the names. 

A fish tank, as the name suggests, is a tank (or receptacle) that contains fish only. Think of your classic goldfish tank which would typically contain some gravel, an ornament, and a couple of goldfish. 

An aquarium, by contrast, suggests that the transparent tank holds water with multiple life forms in it, including any combination of fish, amphibians, reptiles, turtles, invertebrates, and plants. Therefore, an aquarium (by nature) is a self-contained ecosystem with creatures and plants which can live together.  

The term ‘Aquarium’ is also used to describe one or more fish tanks at a single location. This may be in a house (i.e., a collector with multiple tanks), a shop that sells fish to the public, or a public display with many tanks, such as a sea life centre.  

Factors to consider when setting up an aquarium 

Power points

The first thing to consider when setting up an aquarium is the power points. You are going to need them so make sure there is a socket handy or get one installed by a qualified professional. 

Think about the equipment you’re likely to use and make sure there is an appropriate number of sockets. Extension leads can be used providing they are located in a safe area away from the water. Typical items which need a power supply include a light, a filter, and an air pump. Additional items may also include power heads, wave makers, protein skimmers, reactors, and return pumps

What’s more, ensure electrical wires aren’t a tripping hazard and can’t be accessed by pets. Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that pets can (and will!) chew through cables, which can be fatal to the animal. The resulting power failure can also be fatal to the fish. If you have a curious/hungry animal, such as a cat, make sure your aquarium is covered to stop any accidents. 

Access to the aquarium 

Make sure you can access all parts of the aquarium if required. This is particularly important for cleaning and maintaining the aquarium. If you are struggling to reach a certain area then you may need some additional equipment such as tweezers, scissors, algae magnets, and algae scrubbers on sticks.

The positioning of your aquarium

Ensure that your aquarium isn’t in direct sunlight. This can cause havoc with algae blooms. It is best to have the aquarium in a shady spot so you can manually control the levels of artificial light. This will ensure your aquarium looks fantastic with a lower level of maintenance. 

Maintaining your aquarium

Think about the practicalities of cleaning the aquarium. Make sure you have easy access to water for cleaning and water changes. Even experienced hobbyists spill water from time to time – it is much more practical to have an aquarium situated on a solid floor, such as wood or tile, rather than on a carpet. Water can ruin carpets whereas hard floors can be simply mopped clean. 

Remember the volume of your aquarium. This is particularly important when adding treatments or additives to the water. It is much easier to get help and advice if you have this information to hand. 

Learn how to test your aquarium water. Aquarium water test kits are simple to use and can provide you with solutions to problems. While shops will also test your water you cannot rely on them round the clock. It is great to have the ability and knowledge at home.

Caring for your fish 

If you’re planning a holiday then make sure you have provisions for the fish. An automatic fish feeder will routinely feed your fish a small amount of their selected dry food.

These are adjustable and can be adapted for the majority of fish tanks. If you’re looking for something less technical, holiday blocks may be the answer. Holiday blocks slowly release food and nutrients into the aquarium water which will keep your fish happy for up to 14 days. It is always a good idea to plan ahead if you’re going away!

Another important consideration is to think about what type of fish you would like to have within your aquarium. This is because fish have different requirements and while we can attempt to generalise, many fish have preferences with regard to substrate, layout, temperature, pH, carbonate hardness, and light levels. For this reason, we would always advise you to do your research and try to match their natural environment for the greatest levels of success.  

After all, carefully managed water parameters are key to success. And remember, we are keeping water as opposed to fish. If the water is good, then the fish will be happy. For more information on water chemistry and the nitrogen cycle, please refer to our previous blogs: 

  • Understanding the nitrogen cycle
  • A guide to water hardness in ponds and aquariums

  • Finally, you will need access to aquarium supplies such as water treatments and medicines - so check where your local stockist is. 

    What do you need to set up an aquarium?

    To set up an aquarium you will need the following:

    • Substrate - this comes in different styles and size grades. It may be soil, sand, gravel, or pebbles. It is placed at the bottom of the aquarium as a decorative feature. 
    • Ornaments - you can use natural decorations, such as rocks, or aquarium ornaments. 
    • Heater - this only applies if the fish you are planning to keep require warmer water. Do your research beforehand. You should always place a thermometer in the tank to track the temperature of the water. 
    • Lighting - some aquariums come with them while others don’t. This is particularly important if you’re looking to grow live plants. Fish do not have a biological dependency on light, however, it is also useful for viewing purposes. 
    • Dechlorinator / water conditioner - once the aquarium is full of water, you will want to use a dechlorinator solution to make the water safe for fish. 
    • Good bacteria - this is a liquid containing live bacterial colonies which help mature aquarium filters more efficiently. This is very important for the filter system once fish have been added to the aquarium and will help stabilise Ammonia and Nitrite spikes. 
    • Cleaning equipment - gravel cleaners, sponges, algae magnets, and aquarium glass cleaners to ensure you are readily prepared for cleaning the tank when the time comes.
    • Fish food - all fish require feeding, so this is essential. Make sure you have aquarium food in, which is suitable for the species you are planning to keep. 
    • Aquarium water test kit - we recommend that everyone learns the science of keeping fish by testing their own water. You will have much greater levels of success if you understand the basics of water quality. 
    • Bucket or drip tray -  this is handy for water changes and when cleaning filters. 

    How much does it cost to set up an aquarium?

    Setting up an aquarium needn’t be expensive. There are aquarium kits that contain all the equipment you need in the box to get going.  See our top picks below!  

    • Fluval Flex – contemporary curved front aquarium for increased viewing. Neat rear filter area. The kit comes with a colour-change aquarium light, a powerful filter, and a return pump. You will need to add your own heater and decorations. The estimated set-up cost is £134.99.
    • Juwel Primo – a traditionally shaped rectangular aquarium, available in 3 sizes. The Juwel Primo comes with a light in the hood/cover, a powerful filter, and also a heater which makes it ideal for tropical fish and marine fish. You will need to add your own decorations. The estimated set-up cost is £139.00.
    • Betta Lifespace – this is a very basic aquarium, however, the set-up comes complete with a light and filter in the aquarium hood, gravel, ornaments, a fish net, and a thermometer. You would just need to add a heater if you’re looking to go Tropical. The estimated set-up cost is £79.99.

    If you’re looking to buy aquarium equipment separately, then we have outlined cost estimates for equipment below. As you will see, it is often more cost-effective to buy a kit from a reputable manufacturer.  

    The sky's the limit when it comes to aquariums. You can obviously spend much more than we have outlined by going larger and adding specialist equipment such as protein skimmers, reactors, advanced lighting or wave makers.

    A step-by-step guide to setting up your aquarium 

    Setting up an aquarium needn’t be difficult. It is a fantastic hobby and adds a focal point to any room in your house! 

    We would always recommend reading the manufacturer’s instructions after unboxing to familiarise yourself with the product. However, while aquariums come in a variety of shapes and sizes, setting them up generally follows a standard series of procedures. 

    See below for our easy-to-follow step-by-step guide that’ll ensure you have your brand-new aquarium set up in no time! 

    1. If your aquarium comes with a cabinet, build it! Ensure you follow the instructions carefully using glue, screws, and bolts where required.

    2. Find a suitable location for your aquarium. This is an incredibly important step and one which should not be overlooked! The aquarium should be on a flat, structurally strong surface that can take the weight of the fish tank. And remember, 1 litre of water weighs 1 kilogram. Work out the overall volume of your aquarium, add the weight of the glass and you’ve now got the overall working weight. That’s right, they are heavy when full! If your aquarium comes with a cabinet this will be specified to the weight of the aquarium.

    3. We don't recommend putting your aquarium in an overly sunny spot in your house as this can lead to algae and temperature issues.

    4. We are now ready to install the electrical equipment. Once again refer to the manufacturer’s instruction manuals where appropriate.

    5. You will need to install fish tank lights if using. These are generally fitted on an arm or extendable bracket which is mounted on or near the glass. Aquarium lights can also be factory fitted in aquarium hoods, which means you will be able to ignore this step. Once the light is in place you can plug this in to test if the light is working correctly. If you are using app-controlled lighting such as a Fluval Aquasky or Aqua-Illumination Hydra, this is a great opportunity to install the relevant app on your phone or tablet and programme the lights accordingly. 

    6. Next up is the filter. If using an internal filter, you should insert the media and sponges to begin with. This should then be placed in the aquarium. They are normally attached to the glass using plastic suckers or hooks. Pick a discreet spot - we generally recommend placing internal filters in a rear corner. If using an external filter, once again insert the media and sponges into the relevant areas of the filter. Connect the relevant pipes up paying careful attention to o-rings, gaskets, nuts, and jubilee clips. Do not over-tighten anything - finger tight is best and will reduce the possibility of damaging equipment. If you have followed the instructions carefully you shouldn’t have any issues with leaks. Do NOT turn the filter on yet.

    7. If using a heater for tropical fish or marine fish, then this should be placed in the aquarium now. We recommend putting heaters in designated spots (i.e. in filter chambers) or adjacent to the internal filter, so the flow will evenly distribute the heat. Do NOT turn the heater on yet.

    8. Now for the fun bit! Styling and decorating your aquarium. This all starts with the substrate (i.e. the substance on the bottom of the aquarium such as aquarium sand, aquarium gravel, pebbles, or aquatic soil. Please ensure that you don't use substrates from third parties which aren’t aquarium safe, as these can be harmful to fish. If you are using a dusty substrate such as sand or natural gravel, we would recommend washing it beforehand. We would recommend a substrate depth of around 1”- 2”, depending on the size and scale of the aquarium. Too much substrate can become difficult to clean and can cause bacterial issues in the aquarium.

    9. You should now carefully insert your hardscape. By hardscape, we are referring to ornaments, rocks, and wood. Take your time and ensure that rocks and wood are stable and secure as they can fall over once the aquarium is filled with water. 

    10. Follow this up by placing aquatic plants (if using) in the desired locations. These should be inserted into the substrate or attached to wood/rocks with glue or nylon.

    11. Now, it’s time to fill the aquarium with water. Do this as gently as you can. We would recommend pouring the water onto something such as a small plate or plastic tub to decrease the impact of the water moving anything out of place. This will also help keep your aquarium water cleaner! Take your time and fill it to the appropriate level. Finish this step by dechlorinating the water with an aquarium-safe dechlorinator or water conditioner.

    12. Once the aquarium is full, it is time to turn the heater and filter on. Start with the heater, plug it in, and set the temperature accordingly. Use an aquarium thermometer to monitor the temperature of the aquarium water. 

    13. If you happen to be using an internal filter, all you’ll need to do is plug it in. If you’re using an external filter, you’ll need to prime the filter and wait for the canister to fill before plugging it in. Then, simply check everything is working as it should be - and you’re done!

    14. Once the aquarium is up to the correct temperature, you’re now ready for fish.  

    Find everything you need to set up your aquarium with Complete Koi 

    Here at Complete Koi and Aquatics, we have a plethora of aquarium products in-store and online for beginner and advanced hobbyists. We have everything you could possibly need to set up a fish tank. It is extremely rewarding and can quickly become an obsession. 

    Advice costs nothing, and our highly trained staff at Complete Koi and Aquatics are experts in the field of aquariums. So, if you have a question about setting up a new aquarium - click here to get in touch today.


     Shop aquarium equipment at Complete Koi today

    For more information and advice on aquatics, check out the rest of our blog… 

    How to Care for Ponds in Winter  | Keeping Tropical Fish: How to care for Guppies | Keeping Tropical Fish: How to care for Silver Sharks

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