Beginners Guide to Successful Fishkeeping

Aquarium Guides: What aquarium beginners need to know when starting an aquarium

Your Window to Another World

Welcome to the world, the art, the experience of fish keeping.

Each year, thousands of new fish keepers discover the natural wonder of aquariums. Fish keeping provides them, and now you, have the unique opportunity to not only observe another world, but to create it as well. In the process, you’ll learn about aquatic creatures and observe their behavior firsthand. And there is nothing quite like an aquarium to generate an appreciation and respect for our environment.

Fun, easy and instructive, an aquarium is a singularly beautiful, always fascinating addition to any home or office … a welcome source of entertainment, education and relaxation for the entire family.

Be sure to check out our guide for buying your first fish tank! Best Fish Tanks For Beginners 2017 – Which One to Choose?


Fish As Pets

Think of your fish as pets and you’ll agree, they deserve the best care and attention you can provide. They rely on you to keep their environment healthy. A healthy aquarium is relatively easy to achieve and maintain, but it will not happen by itself. It depends on you.

In rivers, lakes and oceans, water is cleansed and filtered naturally. In an aquarium, it’s a different story. In order to keep aquarium water clean and healthy, you must help. This means taking care not to overcrowd the tank or overfeed the fish. It means changing some of the water regularly, cleaning the gravel bed and providing the proper filtration.

Sound like a lot? It’s really not. In fact, it only takes about 30 minutes a week.

In addition to your aquarium, filter and lighting, here’s a list of what you need to get started:

  • Gravel: Coated or pre washed is ideal.
  • Decorations: Only those designated for aquariums (e.g., live or artificial plants and ornaments).
  • Water Conditioner: De chlorinates tap water to make it fish-safe.
  • Net: For transferring fish.
  • Gravel Washer: For water changes and cleaning.
  • Fish Food: Consult your dealer for a recommendation.

Setting Up Your Aquarium

Handle With Care
Never attempt to move a full or partially full aquarium.
Never lift an aquarium with wet hands.
Never attempt to lift aquarium by grasping upper edges or frame.
Always grasp and carry an aquarium from underneath, supporting the bottom at all times.

Preparing Your Tank
Using a damp cloth, clean your tank inside and out prior to setup.
Never use soap, detergents or cleaning agents.

Choosing A Location
Always place an aquarium in a location designed to support its total weight.
An aquarium filled with water and gravel weighs approximately 10 to 12 pounds per gallon.
Always place an aquarium on a flat, level surface and make sure an electrical outlet is near.
Never place an aquarium near a heat source or air conditioner.
Never place an aquarium in direct sunlight. Full or even partial sunlight can cause excessive algae growth.

Adding Gravel
Add 1.5 to 2 pounds of gravel for every gallon of aquarium water. Be sure to rinse the gravel thoroughly (water should drain clear) before adding. The gravel bed should slope gradually to the front of your aquarium.

Filling Your Aquarium
Pouring a stream of water directly into your tank will disturb the gravel bed. We recommend that before adding water, you place a clean dish on top of gravel and gradually pour the water over the dish. The stream is gently deflected without displacing gravel.

Always fill your aquarium with water at room temperature. Cool water produces condensation, which gives the appearance of leakage. If condensation does occur, simply wipe surface with a clean cloth until temperature stabilizes.

Always treat water with a dechlorinator before adding it to your aquarium. Do not add plain, untreated tap water — it can kill your fish.

A Word About Decor
Once the aquarium is half full, you can add aquatic plants (live or artificial) and/or decorative rocks or ornaments. Before adding any of these items, be sure to rinse them thoroughly. When placing plants, it’s a good idea to locate larger ones to the rear of the tank, smaller ones toward the front. This ensures an open swimming area for your fish. When all ornaments and plants are in place, continue filling the aquarium to within an inch of the top rim.

Total Three-Stage Filtration

 A healthy, successful aquarium requires the proper filtration. Three stages are necessary.

Mechanical Filtration traps solid debris such as uneaten food and fish waste. Filter cartridges are an ideal source of both mechanical and chemical filtration.

Chemical Filtration uses media (activated carbon) to adsorb (attract and hold) dissolved pollutants that can cause water discoloration and odor.For mechanical filtration, there’s a poly fiber pad to trap dirt and debris. For chemical filtration, each cartridge is packed with premium activated carbon.

Biological Filtration is the third type of filtration. It depends on a culture of beneficial oxygen-loving bacteria to eliminate toxic ammonia and nitrite that accumulate in aquarium water. The bacteria culture biologically changes the ammonia and nitrite into nitrate, which is removed with once-a-month partial water changes. Beneficial bacteria will grow naturally on many surfaces within the aquarium (including gravel, decorative rock and plastic plants) and will provide biological filtration.

If your system features Marineland’s patented BIO-Wheel® technology, a culture of bacteria will grow on its surface. The bacteria will thrive — because as the BIO-Wheel rotates, they are nourished by exposure to the larger amount of oxygen in the air. This is “wet/dry” biological filtration.

Heat, Light, Electrical

A heater may be used to maintain water temperature in your aquarium. Most tropical fish require a constant water temperature between 75° and 80° F. Goldfish and certain other cold water species are the exception to the rule. They can exist quite comfortably without a heater.

Lighting brings out the natural colors of your fish and is essential for live plant growth. There are many different types of aquarium light fixtures available. Your dealer can help you select the appropriate light fixture for your individual needs. An aquarium hood or cover is always a good idea because it helps keep fish in and airborne pollutants out.

Important Note: To avoid excessive algae growth, limit the lighting of your aquarium to 7 to 10 hours per day. It’s relatively easy to plug your lighting fixture into a standard timer.

Before plugging in your heater, hood or any other electrical equipment, take special care to read all written safety precautions in your owner’s manual(s) and be sure to use a drip loop. Use a GFCI-protected outlet whenever possible.

Before You Add Fish…

When creating a new aquarium environment, patience is vital to success. Allow your system to operate for at least 24 hours before adding fish.

Begin by talking with your dealer about what fish are best suited to your aquarium, what fish are compatible with one another and how many would be appropriate.

When You Add Fish…

Add only a few recommended fish at first, gradually introducing more over the next four to six weeks. Choose only fish that appear active and healthy. And take special care not to overcrowd your aquarium. Fewer, healthier fish are better than an over abundance of stressed-out fish.

Make sure the water your fish enter is approximately the same temperature as the water from which they leave. To equalize the two temperatures, float the transport container (usually a plastic bag) in the tank for about 15 minutes. Then, at five minute intervals, open the bag and add a small amount of aquarium water. Finally, after 15 minutes, gently net the fish and place it in the aquarium. Do not add bag water to the aquarium. Let the fish swim from the net into the tank. The less traumatic the transport, the better.

Feed your fish twice a day — only what they will eat in about five minutes.

Taking Care of Your New Aquatic Environment

A properly maintained aquarium filter means cleaner water and healthier fish.

You will need to replace your filter cartridge and perform a 25 percent water change every two to four weeks. You also need to vacuum the gravel thoroughly to remove any waste buildup. The easiest and most effective way to accomplish both a water change and a gravel cleaning is with a standard, siphon-operated gravel vacuum.

Water that appears cloudy, yellowish or smells bad is telling you that your aquarium water needs changing and a new filter cartridge immediately. If the problem persists, it may be because you have too many fish — or because you’re overfeeding them. Bring a sample of your water to your dealer for testing.

When replacing water in an aquarium, be sure to treat it first. Most tap water contains chlorine or chloramines, and adding untreated tap water to your tank could seriously harm your fish. Be sure to check with your dealer for the water dechlorinator that works best with your local tap water.

Always replace old water with new water of approximately the same temperature to avoid shocking your fish.

Set aside an assortment of buckets, sponges and towels to be used only with your aquarium. This will help prevent the introduction of harmful pollutants into the system.

And always unplug electrical equipment before performing aquarium maintenance of any kind.

Hard, flat surfaces are ideal. Cabinets are popular and are a requirement for larger, heavy aquariums. For smaller aquariums (30 gallons or less) any sturdy, reinforced furniture with a flat surface can suffice.

Be sure that the chosen aquarium location can support the electrical requirement (lights, filter, and heaters). Is there a PowerPoint nearby? If not, is it possible to conceal an extension cord? The less electrical wires, the better. Water and electricity do not mix well together. Keeping your setup simple with a single power board and powerpoint is ideal.

Below is an aquarium equipment check list. You may have purchased none or all of the items below. We will cover each of the items in further detail down the page, including recommended products.

Equipment Check List

  • AquariumAn aquarium of at least 20 Gallons is recommended for beginners. Larger aquariums are generally more stable.
  • Aquarium gravelGravel should be course enough to allow water flow but fine enough to encourage nitrifying bacteria. Creek Stones, coarse sands, and glass gravel are excellent choices. Avoid calcium & limestone based substrates.
  • Aquarium filterYour aquarium filter should be rated to turn over at least 3-5x the aquarium volume every hour. Use the Volume Calculator below to work out the required GPH. For smaller aquariums, Hang-on-back filters are perfect. I recommend the Marineland Penguin Power Filters for their higher flow rate, reliability & ease of use.
  • Replacement filter mediaEnsure you have plenty of replacement filter cartridges. They will be replaced more frequently in the early stages of your aquarium. They will keep your water clear and debris free.
  • HeaterA heater is essential to limiting disease. It also allows the keeping of tropical fish. EHEIM Jager heaters are widely regarded as reliable heaters at an affordable price point. Use the calculator to determine your required wattage and read down the page for more information.
  • Other decorations (such as fake or real plants)
  • Aquarium Water Test KitA good quality test kit is very important. It will allow you to test for cycling before introducing fish. It will also alert you to toxic aquarium conditions and save your tanks inhabitants. The Freshwater Master Test Kit is a high quality test kit that allows you to test from PH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. Your LFS can test your water but not if they are closed or a distance from your house.
  • Fish foodA quality fish food will result in brilliant, brightly colored fish. Fish should be fed at least twice a day, purchasing in bulk will provide the best value. Use a mixture of color enhancing flakes and frozen foods for more variety.
  • Aquarium VacuumThe vacuum is the heart of your maintenance team. It will clear faeces and debris from the gravel. This will reduce nitrates & stress on your fish. If you are like me and hate spilling water over the floor & carpet get the Python No Spill Vacuum and never look back.
  • Fish netFish nets are useful for removing dead plant matter, excess food and moving your live fish.
  • Aquarium Glass ScrubberThe aquarium glass scrubber is essential. Always give your glass a quick clean before showing off your aquarium to friends and family.
  • 5-gallon bucket

Cleaning the Gravel

  • Once you have chosen the tank’s placement it is time to begin setting up the aquarium. Take your purchased gravel and pour it into a bucket. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT YOU WASH THE GRAVEL. Many beginners forget to properly wash the substrate. This can lead to your brand new tank being cloudy for weeks on end.
  • Take a hose with high pressure and spray the gravel/substrate directly in the bucket. When the bucket is filled vigorously wash the gravel by moving your hands in a circular motion. After a few minutes remove the dirty water in the bucket while keeping the gravel at the bottom. Repeat this process 4 to 5 times until the waste water is visibly clearer. Some substrates may continue to cloud the water after cleaning. This is nothing to be alarmed about. Fine and silty substrates will naturally settle in the aquarium over time. The cleaning process is beneficial in removing dust from storage and transport.

Placing the Substrate

  • Gently place the cleaned gravel into the bottom of the aquarium. This will help avoid damage to the bottom glass and stiring any excess finer particles. A smaller scoop or bucket can assist in this process. The substrate should then be smoothed with your hands to create an even base at least half an inch thick. It is recommended to form a slight slant from the back of the aquarium toward the front. This gives the aquarium a nice perspective and the perception of a greater depth.

Filling up the Aquarium

  • Fill up the tank with a hose pipe, (note if it is a small tank or you do not have a tap nearby you will have to use buckets).
  • Use a water de-chlorinator after filling. Although there are no fish, chlorine and chloramines can build up over time. You will need a high quality dechlorinator for the life of your aquarium. It is a sound initial investment as you will need to use it every time you do a water change. Seachem Prime, API tap water conditioner, Tetra Aqua Safe & Kent Detox are all some of the most popular choices and each will do an excellent job.

Choosing the Right Heater & Filter

    • Choosing the correct heater and filter can be difficult. Use this calculator to calculate necessary filter flow and heater wattage you will need for your aquarium.


Filter Material

  • Gently clean out the filter material under the tap or in a bucket. As they have been stored in a warehouse or shopfront they contain dust and debris you don’t want in your tank. If your filter contains a carbon packet in wool, be careful not to rip this open.
  • Also wash and clean any rocks and ornaments you will be putting into the tank. You will be surprised how much dust and dirt comes off, you don’t want that in your tank.
  • Place the material back into the aquarium filter. If it is a hang-on filter you will need to manually fill up the resovoir to start the filter working. Hang-on filters have a handle on top of which allows changing of its flow rate. For cycling put it at the maximum.
  • Do the same for a canister filter and ensure the baskets are closely stacked and the top is tightly locked in place to prevent leaks.

Heating and Lighting

  • Two heaters are generally reccomended but in a smaller aquarium you can use one if there is a lack of space. A heater that will comfortably fit inside the aquarium is a good choice. Within reason higher wattage heaters are better as they will save power and put less strain on the heater.
  • Stick the heater to the glass in your aquarium where there is good water flow and the least visibility. Turn it on by rotating the temerature knob anywhere between 74 and 80 degrees (23 to 27 celcius). An orange light should turn on while the heating element is active. This will help with the cycling process.
  • Choose an appropriate light for the aquarium. Place the light on or above the tank and set a timer for no more than 8 hours a day.
  • Enjoy your tank as it begins the process of building bacteria to support your eco-community!


  • At this point you will have to “CYCLE” the tank. This will promote the build up of de-nitrifying bacteria and is essential to setting up your new aquarium.
  • It is important to monitor the aquarium during and after the cycle. This can be done with your own freshwater test kit. Most aquarium stores will also test your water for a small fee. If you do decide to test yourself, my recommendation is the API Freshwater Test Kit. There is a link to this test kit in the checklist above. A good quality test kit will be used through the life of your tank. It can alert you to early disaster and is an excellent investment that will end up saving you money.
  1. Determine what kind of fish you want to keep.
    The first thing you should do when you decide to keep fish is determine what kind of fish you want to keep. Different kinds of fish will require different care, different conditions, different space, and different equipment. If you get your equipment before you decide what kind of fish you are getting, you may find yourself with inappropriate or unusable equipment or insufficient space for the fish you really want to be keeping in your aquarium.
  2. Research care and compatibility of those fish.
    This should involve your first purchase in the aquarium hobby – a book. It is very important to learn about the fish you want to keep. This will let you know what conditions they will need, what equipment you will want, and how to set up your fish tank. When you research your fish, you can determine how big they will get and thereby determine the size of the fish tank you will need to keep them happy and healthy (1″ of healthy mature fish per gallon of water for small fish, 1″ of fish per 3 gallons of water for large or messy fish, more than that for marine fish – that’s about 5cm of fish for every 8 liters or so for small fish, and around 5cm of fish for every 24 liters or so for larger fish). Also, this will give you a chance to learn if the various fish you have selected are compatible with each other. If different fish’s care requirements, size, or temperament are too different, they will not be compatible and should not be kept together.
  3. Determine space.
    Now that you know a little more about the fish you wish to keep, you know how large of a fish tank you will need. Look through your home and select a location for your new aquarium. How much space can you allocate to the fish tank and accessories? Remember to account for space between the fish tank and the wall for filters, tubing, and/or cords.
  4. Determine budget.
    How much can you afford to spend on your aquarium? If this is your first fish tank, how much can you afford to spend on a new hobby that you are not sure you will be pursuing long term?
  5. Select equipment.
    Check out our shop for all of your aquarium needs
  6. Evaluate budget/space constraints.
    How does your budget compare to the cost of the equipment you will need? Can you get a fish tank large enough for your fish that will fit in the space available in your home? You should address both of these questions, and then evaluate your fish selection, your space constraints and your budget compared to the new information you now have. Can you spend more? Is it a little more or a lot more? How close are you to fitting the appropriate fish tank into the space available in your home? Is another location available in your home? How committed are you to getting the fish you selected? Is one fish pushing your set-up into a different price bracket? Is that fish even available in your area?
  7. Purchase equipment.
    Once you have reevaluated your fish selections, space limitations, and budget, it is time to purchase equipment. If you need to special order anything, do so early, as it may take a considerable time to get equipment by special order.
  8. Setup equipment.
    Now that everything is home, clean it all off and get ready to go. Expect to spend a couple of hours setting everything up if this is your first fish tank. Fill your fish tank with water once all of your equipment is set up, and let it settle for a day or so so you can make sure that everything is working properly and that nothing leaks.
  9. Select starting fish.
    During the first day ir so, while the fish tank is running without fish, you can go back to your list of fish and select a few starter fish. These fish should be hearty, inexpensive, relatively small, and something you want to keep in your fish tank in the long run. You only want to select 1″ (about 2.5cm) of fish per 10 gallons (about 40 liters) of water, but this time (and only this time) you can use the size the fish are when you get them to determine their impact. This is because your fish will not grow significantly in the 6-8 weeks it will take the fish tank to cycle.
  10. Cycle your fish tank.
    Over the next 6-8 weeks, you must be patient. Be very diligent with fish tank maintenance, be absolutely sure not to over feed, watch your fish’s behavior closely, do extra water changes as necessary, and DON’T ADD ANY MORE FISH. Until your fish tank has finished cycling, you should only stick with your few select starter fish.
  11. Maintain your fish tank.
    Once the fish tank has finished cycling, feed and observe your fish daily. Check your filters at least twice a week. Perform a 10-15% water change every week, and scrub for algae at the same time. Every month, check all hoses, fittings, clamps, cords, lights and other miscellaneous equipment. This may sound like a lot, but a couple of minutes a day could tell you months in advance of a disaster. Water changes usually take under 30 minutes for a fish tank, including checking all equipment and scrubbing for algae! Most people find their aquariums to take under 2 minutes a day to keep everything in good order.

Now you are ready to venture into the exciting world of fish keeping. Whether you just want to keep goldfish, or if you want to delve into the world of exotic tropical reefs, these 11 steps will get you started on the right foot.