Best Freshwater Aquarium Setup – The Ultimate Step by Step Guide

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Teaching YOU how to Set-Up your aquarium the EASY way.

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However, there is one thing I use to set up all my aquariums to ensure I have beautiful algae-free tanks.

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The Ultimate Step by Step Guide To The Best Freshwater Aquarium Setup!


Use Our Easy To Understand Guides

it’s important that all beginners know that setting up an aquarium doesn’t have to be complicated! It can be effortless if you have the right information.

All my guides are made specifically for beginners and easy to understand to ensure your journey into the hobby of fish care is a pleasant one.

Below are some of my most helpful resources and guides to help you learn how to set up an aquarium properly.

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How To Set Up A Freshwater Aquarium

Having an Aquarium setup in your home is a great way to create a relaxing, peaceful environment. It can also bring in the bright colors of tropical fish in a natural way.

Before you start, it is important to understand how a freshwater aquarium should be set up. Beginners to the hobby should have a basic understanding of the equipment needed to run a healthy aquarium. As well as how to add water, plants, decorations, and fish to the aquarium.

Without a basic understanding of how to set up an aquarium, beginners may add fish too early, resulting in the loss of some or all of your fish.

What you’ll learn with Best Freshwater Aquarium Setup?

In this aquarium setup guide, you will learn exactly what’s needed for Coldwater or tropical fish. You will learn that maintaining a healthy aquarium can be easy and enjoyable as long as you follow some basic steps.

Try not to rush or skip anything. Read through the entire guide and follow each step in detail. You will be surprised how easy it is to maintain a healthy aquarium that looks great and lasts for years. This guide is organized into easy to follow steps. Everything you need to set up an aquarium will be covered.

Lastly, I want to say thanks for using our guide to set up your aquarium. This article is part of a large series of articles to help you understand the benefits, myths, cost, and steps you need to take to set up a successful aquarium.

Below are a few links to some of the main chapters in this series so you can skip ahead to the steps most relevant to you.

Now let’s get started on setting up your new aquarium.

Essential Aquarium Equipment For Beginners

Keeping fish is usually easier than keeping other pets, especially if you have set up your aquarium the right way. For the best freshwater aquarium setup, you need to have the following essential elements.

Below is just a brief overview of some of the equipment you’ll need. For more information please read Chapter#5 Essential Aquarium Equipment where we provide a detailed description of each item and if you really need it or not.

  • Tank – A 20 gallon aquarium is optimal for most fish and aquarium setups. Size can vary depending upon the fish and plants you want in the tank. But a tank lesser than 5 gallons is not recommended. Its material can be glass or acrylic.
  • Stand – A stand should be sturdy enough to bear the weight of the aquarium, as well as aesthetically pleasing.
  • Filters – Filters are crucial for keeping the aquarium clean and habitable for your fish. The most common filter types are power, canister, and sponge filters. The filtration rate is usually calculated in gallons-per-hour (GPH).
  • Filter Media – A good aquarium filter should have all three basic media types: mechanical, chemical, and biological.
  • Aquarium lid or hood – Lids are essential to prevent fish from jumping out, or things falling into aquariums. They also prevent evaporation, keeping room humidity in check.
  • Lighting – Lighting is essential for plants in the aquarium. For a fish-only aquarium, lighting is used for proper illumination of the tank and sometimes mimicking fish’s natural habitat.
  • Heater & Thermometer – Most fish thrive in a temperature range that is hard to maintain without a heater and thermometer for monitoring.
  • Air Pump – Air pumps provide the necessary diffusion of oxygen in the water. They also create currents in aquarium water, which some fish enjoy.
  • Substrate (Gravel) – Substrate is crucial for a plant and making fish comfortable. Some fish like to hide in gravel or feed from it. They also help mimic a fish’s natural habitat.
  • Plants – Plants help create a natural environment for fish and provide them places to hide, play, and keep active.
  • Decor – Decor helps to beautify your aquarium. Some decor elements also help fish to stay stress-free and active.
  • Here are a few more Popular Aquarium Equipment and Supplies

Water Quality Supplies

Keeping the water quality in check is crucial for the health and survival of your fish. Mostly, the water quality parameters you have to check are pH, ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite. In some cases, calcium, magnesium, chlorine, and phosphate levels should also be tested and maintained.

In integral parameters, pH levels should be maintained for the fish’s comfort. Ammonia and nitrite are toxic to the fish and responsible for most fish losses. Nitrate is not as toxic, but a heavy buildup is still a red flag.

Basic supplies to clean your aquarium

A clean aquarium is imperative for your fish’s health. One of the best ways to keep your aquarium water clean is through partial and full water changes. For that, you’ll need:

  • Gravel Vacuum or Siphon – Gravel is the most commonly used substrate for aquariums. Cleaning an aquarium with gravel as a substrate requires a gravel vacuum or siphon. It’s simply a plastic tube attached with a pipe to drain the water. It helps clean the fish waste and leftover fish feed from the substrate.
  • Algae pad – Algae pads are used to scrub clean the algae buildup from the glass walls of your aquarium.
  • Fish Net – Many water changes require you to take the fish out of the tank. The cleanest way to do it is by using a fishnet to transport the fish.
  • Bucket – Whether you are siphoning off the gunk from your gravel, or simply changing the water, a bucket is an important part of your aquarium cleaning supplies.

Picking The Right Tank Size

The size of the tank you choose depends a lot on your fish and your aquarium setup. The general rule of thumb for choosing the right tank size is one gallon of water per one inch of fish. Though it doesn’t account for the impact, the fish will have on the tank environment and the surface area of the tank. A thicker two-inch fish might produce more weight than a thin 3-inch fish.

Important factors to consider while choosing the right sized tank are capacity, surface area, number of fish, their current size, the size they will grow to, and whether or not you are planning a planted fish tank. The amount of waste that fish produce also matters. The right tank size will keep your fish happy and healthy, while a small tank might stress them out.

An example of how the tank size can affect the fish’s health and lifetime is Goldfish. Kept in a bowl, they stay tiny, hardly growing two inches and living for around five years. But in the right tank size (usually 20 gallon aquariums or bigger), they can grow up to 12-16 inches and live up to 25 years.

When it comes to selecting your tank it’s not only the size that matters. Tanks come in more shapes than just your standard rectangular tank. There are many unique tanks available such as bowfront, corner tanks, cylinder, hexagon and many more.

So make sure you consider not only the size but also how the shape might impact your fish.

Further reading: Use Our Aquarium Size Chart To Compare The Most Common Tank Sizes And See Chapter#4 To See How Much Is A Fish Tank.

Selecting The Right Location For Your Aquarium

The location of the aquarium also contributes to the fish’s health. If you set your aquarium by a heat outlet or directly under an air conditioner, you might offset the temperature of the water inside and stress out the fish. Similarly, too much light entering the fish tank might diminish the impact of an aquarium’s own light, and adversely impact the aquatic plant growth.

Aquariums should be placed in places where they are always in view. The location should also allow sufficient freedom to feed the fish and clean the tank. Close proximity to windows and doors should also be avoided.

Further Reading: Parent’s Guide: Fish Tank In A Toddlers Room – Safety Tips, Set Up & Recommendations

Fish Tank Habitat – Coldwater or Tropical?

In aquarium setup, the habitat you plan depends mostly upon your fish and your plants. The closer you replicate the natural environment of your fish, the happier they will be. The two most common freshwater aquarium habitats are cold water and tropical.

Learn more about Coldwater vs Tropical fish here.

Goldfish and Koi are coldwater fish. An aquarium to accommodate cold water fish doesn’t usually require a heater, but it needs to be kept away from direct sunlight and heating outlets. Coldwater fish are happy in water temperatures around 60 °F, but temperatures below 50 °F and above 68 °F are not recommended. Coldwater fish are usually hardy and easy to care for.

Tropical fish like Guppies and Bettas are much more extensive in variety than coldwater fish. The ideal temperature for a tropical fish aquarium is between 75 °F and 80 °F. Maintaining this temperature requires a heater and a thermometer. With tropical fish, there are a lot of options to choose from, and their exotic look makes them perfect for aquariums on display.

Further Reading: Here’s a great aquarium idea for you: Setting Up Your First Amazonian Aquarium

Freshwater vs. Saltwater Aquarium

There is a lot of difference between freshwater and saltwater aquarium setups. Freshwater fish are hardier and can survive in a varied range of conditions. For example, in a freshwater aquarium, most fish can survive pHs between five and nine, though ideally it should be kept between 6.8 – 7.5. While a saltwater aquarium needs to be strictly maintained between 7.8 – 8.4 because above and below that pH, fish will start to get sick. pH levels depend greatly on the species, as well.

Saltwater aquariums and fish also cost relatively more. The setup and maintenance of a saltwater tank are also relatively harder than freshwater aquariums. But beginner fish enthusiasts can start a saltwater tank; it’s not an impossible prospect.

Saltwater fish tanks are also more prone to algae growth compared to freshwater tanks. The range of the plant you can get for a saltwater aquarium is also relatively limited.

Six Easy Steps to the best freshwater aquarium setup

Setting up your first freshwater aquarium is easy if you have all the necessary equipment ready, and are clear about the type of aquarium setup you are going for.

Then, you need to follow these six steps:

  1. Wash the substrate. Whether its gravel, aqua sand, or another substrate, proper cleaning is essential. Gravel is cleaned by washing it in a bucket until the water in the bucket starts getting clear. Sand is washed differently. After cleaning, lay the gravel/substrate about an inch deep. For certain plants, you will need a thicker layer of the substrate.
  2. You can do aqua-scaping and set up the decor at this point, but do not introduce plants just yet. Fill one-third of the tank with water at room temperature. Add any plants you have prepared, larger ones in the back, smaller ones near the front. Then fill the tank. Make sure to de-chlorinate the water in the tank.
  3. Install your filter. Clean the filter media as directed by the manufacturer before installing the filter. Some filters might need priming.
  4. Install heater and thermometer. Make sure the thermometer is as away from the heater as possible, so it gets an accurate enough temperature of the water. Proper lighting setup is also important if you have a live plant.
  5. Now the important step of cycling and waiting. An important part of any habitable aquarium is the presence of helpful bacteria that helps breakdown waste and food. Proper cycling ensures that the tank has enough good bacteria present. It prevents the buildup of harmful substances (ammonia, nitrite, etc.) present in the water.
  6. The average time for cycling is six-eight weeks. The choice of filter, plants in the aquarium, or the use of artificial and natural ammonia, all contributes to the cycling process. Cycling can be done with and without introducing the fish. But for delicate tropical fish, it’s better if they are added after a healthy nitrogen cycle is established in the tank.

Further reading: A Complete Guide to Setting up Your 10-Gallon Planted Tank

Here is a great video that goes over some simple steps to set up your aquarium.

Easy Live Plants For A Beginner Aquarium

If you’re a beginner trying your luck with Shrimp, try these live plants that are perfect for shrimp and any aquarium. Plants are great for aesthetics, improved oxygenation, or as props for your fish to hide and play. Whatever the reason, plants give your tank a beautiful, natural look. But like fish, they need proper care as well. The right substrate, adequate lighting, some fertilizers, and most importantly, the choice of right plants – All these factors contribute to a good planted aquarium setup.

Plants are usually divided into the foreground and background types. Some easy plants for beginner fish keepers are:

  1. Java Moss
  2. Amazon Sword
  3. Hornwort
  4. Anubias
  5. Java Fern
  6. Dwarf water lettuce (floating plant)
  7. Pygmy chain sword

Looking to try a planted tank read one of my guides first:

Buying Tropical Fish

Fish are the centerpiece of your aquarium setup. And with tropical fish, you have a wide variety to choose from. If you are planning to introduce more than one species of tropical fish, make sure that they are compatible with each other, and don’t overcrowd the tank. Different species require different treatments; some are bottom feeders; some prefer stronger currents than others; some might hide in a plant while other species might eat from them.

The compatibility of fish and your aquarium setup should coincide with each other. Five of the most common tropical fish are Neon Tetra, Zebra Danio, Guppy, Cory Catfish, and Cherry Barbs.

Preparing your Freshwater Aquarium for Fish

Let’s take a closer look at how to prepare your freshwater fish tank.

The Nitrogen Cycle

Helpful bacteria is a crucial part of any aquarium. And the nitrogen cycle is the key to establishing a helpful bacterial colony. The nitrogen cycle has three steps.

First, fish waste and leftover feed decompose into ammonium and ammonia. Ammonia is poisonous to the fish.

Thankfully, there is a natural process that a bacterial colony (comprised of Nitrosomonas bacteria) is formed that converts harmful ammonia into nitrites. But nitrite is almost as bad for fish as ammonia.

Here is where Nitrobacter comes to aid. It’s a bacteria that breaks down nitrite into nitrates – Still harmful, but only in large quantities. A regular water change keeps the nitrates levels in check.

There are two ways of cycling a tank, fish-in and fishless cycling.

Fish-in cycling requires the addition of one or two fish in the beginning, and changing water frequently before any significant ammonia buildup. Less fish means less waste and feed to produce ammonia. But the bacterial growth will start. You’ll have to wait a few weeks before fully stocking your tank. Every two-day testing and liberal use of conditioner is also required.

Fishless cycling means you will be staring at an empty tank for weeks. But on the bright side, you won’t have any problems introducing fish in your cycled tank. Since stocking the aquarium might still spike the nitrogen content, you will have to keep testing water frequently for the first few weeks after the introduction of fish.

Further Reading: For a more detailed look at the nitrogen cycle please read Chapter #6: How To Cycle Your Aquarium as well as The 24-Hour Rule: Why Wait 24 Hours to Put Fish in a Tank?

Introduction of Fish to your Aquarium

Once you are done with the aquarium setup, you get to the most interesting part of adding the fish. Regardless of the species, it’s important to acclimate the fish. Dim the lights in the tank and in the room to create a less stressful environment for the fish. The bag in which the fish came in, let it float in the water for 10-15 minutes (equalizing the temperature).

Open the bag, fill a small cup with your tank’s water and add it into the bag and let it sit for 15 minutes. Do it twice and then check the pH of the bag. If it’s the same as your tank, you can add the fish. If not, keep filling the bag with aquarium water. Don’t add any bag water to your tank.

It’s easier if you break your choice of fish into two parts, your centerpiece fish and community fish.

Centerpiece fish – The biggest and most beautiful fish should be your centerpiece fish. For a small freshwater aquarium, only one or two centerpiece fish will be enough. If they are aggressive, it’s better if you don’t go for a communal tank. If they are peaceful in nature, you can stock your tank with other fish. Bettas and Angelfish are beautiful but aggressive, while Dwarf Gourami and Dwarf Cichlid play well with other species. Most of these will thrive in a 20 gallon aquarium or bigger.

Community Fish – These are fish that don’t mind other species. They are usually smaller and docile. Some excellent community fish are Catfish (Cory or Ota), Neon (Blackskirts, glowlight, and Tetras), Rainbowfish (Dwarf and forktail), and guppies.

Ideas for Stocking – Stocking should be done according to fish compatibility and aquarium setup. Some stocking examples are (For a 20 Gallon aquarium):

  • 1 Dwarf Cichlid pair, 8 Neon Tetras and 6 Dwarf Cory fish.
  • 8 Danio-margaritatus and 6 Corydoras
  • 6 Guppies (four female, two male), 10 Rasboras (or Tetras) and 6 Cory Catfish (any subspecies)

Need some stocking ideas? Please check a few of my articles;

Further Reading: Or check out our Aquarium Fish section for even more ideas.

Food & Diet for tropical fish

Like all other animals, fish can be divided into three categories, depending on what they eat: carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores. They all have different digestive tracts, and you should know your fish before finding the right feed.

The most common feed for tropical fish is usually dry food. It can be pallets, flakes, and granules. Depending on the type of fish you have, the dry food can be high in protein matter for carnivores, or well balanced for omnivores.

The most popular type for your tropical fish will be a live feed. But it’s costly and hard to manage. Frozen feeds provide an enjoyable alternative. Herbivores and omnivores sometimes eat algae and munch on aquatic plants.

Aquarium Disease prevention

Even the best freshwater aquarium setup is susceptible to disease if not cared for properly. The best practices to keep a disease-free aquarium include:

  • Keeping a clean tank. That involves water changes and filter media cleaning.
  • Use a fish net to remove the fish and wash your hand before handling feed or cleaning.
  • Never overfeed your fish. It makes them lazy and the tank more polluted. Use the best feed according to your fish’s species.
  • Ensure proper filtration, circulation, and right levels are maintained at all times.
  • Reduce all stress factors, add decor or a plant for fish to hide, and make sure your fish swims around a lot.
  • Isolate any fish showing signs of disease and remove any dead fish as soon as you can.

Keeping Your Aquarium Clean with regular Maintenance

Your fish can benefit greatly from a regular cleaning and maintenance routine, which should include:

  1. Weekly partial water changes.
  2. Regular cleaning of the substrate using a vacuum or siphon.
  3. Keep a visual check on the behavior of the fish, especially in a community aquarium.
  4. Scrub the glass walls.
  5. Monthly water tests.
  6. Replacing and cleaning of filter media.

Going away for awhile? make sure you know How To Feed Fish While On Vacation – Tips For Owners & Fish Sitters

Checking Your Water Quality

It’s prudent to check your water quality periodically. But if your fish are stressed, sick or dead, immediately do a water quality check to find the cause. A sudden change in pH, abnormal chlorine presence or buildup of nitrates can really harm the health of your fish. Partial water changes are usually enough to keep the water healthy, but you may need conditioners to offset excess buildup of an unwanted substance.

The Importance of Water Flow

A good filter and additional pumps usually take care of water flow in an aquarium, so fish keepers often don’t pay it much mind. But water flow is essential for a healthy aquarium. It enables necessary gas exchange (oxygen coming in, CO2 going out), keeps the water moving for proper filtration, disperses any toxic buildup to the whole tank, which dilutes its effect and maintains a uniform temperature throughout the tank.

Controlling Algae

Algae can sprout even in the best freshwater aquarium setup. Three elements that promote algae growth are stagnant water, extra light, and excess nutrients. So if you are overfeeding your fish, aquarium gets too much light, or water changes are less frequent, algae can start to grow.

Having plants and algae-eating fish helps prevent algae buildup. You should also scrub the walls as soon as you spot any algae.

Algae is a big topic so we wrote a bunch of stuff about it to help you out. Check out these articles for more help:

The Best Freshwater Aquarium Setup Tips

By now, you must have a good idea about how to plan and maintain the best freshwater aquarium setup. If you follow the instructions given, you will probably have no problems starting up your first freshwater aquarium. Some additional tips to help you are:

  1. Community tanks may prove hard for beginners.
  2. Gravel should never be sharp or too small if your fish are bottom feeders.
  3. Try to understand and mimic the store water condition of the fish you are buying.
  4. Choose the healthiest and liveliest looking fish at the store.
  5. Do complete research, read whatever you can before planning your aquarium.


Q: How long does it take for a new fish tank to cycle?

A: Generally, it takes six to eight weeks for fish-less cycling. If you are seeding bacteria or adding ammonia, the duration may shorten. With the fish-in approach, it takes somewhere between two to four weeks. Some additives and methods can expedite the process.

Q: What is the best filtration system for a freshwater aquarium?

A: The best filtration system should have all three filtration media of adequate quality and a decent flow rate. Penn Plax Aquarium Cascade Canister Filter is one of the most revered canister filters. For Hang-on-back power filters, you can choose one from Aqua Clear filters.

Q: What is the best fish tank for beginners?

A: There are many elements to consider, but a 20 gallon glass aquarium would be best for a beginner fish keeper. It’s enough capacity for most beginner fish, and glass will be easier to clean.

Need more help? Check out one of the books on my list of the 5 Best Tropical Fish Books Successful Fishkeepers Own