A Beginner’s Guide to Aquarium Living

While fish are fascinating to watch and somewhat low-maintenance compared to other "pets," the truth is they take a lot of time and work to maintain. Before you take the plunge into a home aquarium, here’s a basic list of things you’ll need to make your underwater friends feel at home.

What Do I Need?

  • Tank

    They’ll need a place to live, and 20 gallons is the smallest size tank recommended.

  • Stand

    One gallon of water weighs about 10 pounds, so make sure the large, flat surface you choose is strong enough to handle the weight capacity of a full tank, plus gravel, attachments, etc.

  • Hood or Lid

    It’s important to keep your tank covered, so the fish won’t jump out. Some tanks will have a simple lid, while others will have a cover that incorporates the lighting; this is called a hood.

  • Lighting

    • Incandescent Lighting

      Inexpensive and versatile, incandescent lighting was once the most popular choice for aquariums; they are not energy efficient, however. It is also difficult to regulate the tanks temperature with the excess heat the lights emit which makes them an excellent choice for tanks with plants because of this excess heat.

      Incandescent lights are available in different colors and a variety of different bulb strengths. They can be easily made into a custom hood making them a popular choice for smaller aquariums. They are cheaper initially; however, the long-term cost is more expensive because of the energy requirements. These lights also burn out frequently.

    • Fluorescent Lighting

      There are three different grades of fluorescent lighting: power compact fluorescent, normal output (NO), and very high output (VHO).

      Normal output or standard, fluorescent lights are the perfect choice for fish only aquariums and those just starting out as aquarium hobbyists. They are usually found in hoods that come with aquariums and can fit just about any size aquarium. No special fixtures or ballasts are required for these lights, but their initial cost can be a bit expensive.

      Very high output fluorescent lighting provides three times the light of a normal output light. It is usually used for deep aquariums that need light to penetrate all the way down such as coral reef aquariums. In order to work properly, they require specific ballasts, which tend to be on the expensive side.

      Power compact fluorescent lighting offers similar results to that of VHO, but they do not require specialized ballasts, which reduces their cost. A major advantage of power compact lights is the ability for many of the different bulbs to fit in an incandescent socket.

    • Metal Halide Lighting

      Metal halide lighting is an excellent choice for tanks with plant life because they produce a lot of heat. Metal halide also brings out the color in tropical tanks. However, they require special ballasts and fixtures and use quite a bit of energy.

      Choosing aquarium lighting is a very important yet difficult decision. However, knowing the purpose of the lighting and the size of the tank can go a long way in alleviating any frustration.

  • Filtration System

    Proper filtration will keep the water clean and safe, sustaining the life of your fish. Experts recommend using a system that will cycle all the water in the tank approximately four times per hour. Stock up replacement filters so you’re always prepared.

  • Heater

    It’s important to maintain a comfortable water temperature for the comfort of your fish. Most tropical fish require a temperature in the range of 75°F - 80°F; other breeds may differ. An aquatic thermometer, separate from the heating system, will help you keep tabs on the degrees.

  • Gravel

    Also called substrate, gravel provides a place for bacterial colonies to live, helping filter fish waste and keeping the water fresh. It also provides a nice environment for your fish, a place to lay eggs, and a bed for live plants, if you choose to have any. Use a pound of gravel for each gallon of water in your tank.

  • Fish Nets

    In addition to moving your fish, nets make skimming waste and excess food much easier. Keep at least two medium-sized nets on hand, to make moving your fish easier, and in case one becomes misplaced or torn.

  • Water Conditioner

    If you plan on using regular tap water to fill your tank, it will need to be dechlorinated to make it safe for your fish. A water conditioner will also remove ammonia and other unhealthy substances. You should also regularly check your water for ammonia, nitrites, and pH level with the right test kits.

  • Cleaning

    It’s not enough to change and filter the water. Useful tools for cleaning your tank include nets, siphons, algae scrubbers, vacuums, and five-gallon buckets.

  • Food

    Don’t forget to feed your fish, at least twice a day. You can save money and time by buying in bulk; just don’t overfeed them.

  • Decorations

    Natural or synthetic; plants, wood, or Besides looking nice, decorations provide a more natural environment for your fish, helping them feel more protected and at home. Whether plants, rocks, wood, or ornamental, be sure to use decorations that have been approved for underwater use, whether natural or synthetic. Begin with a solid dark, background, which will not only comfort the fish, but also hide unsightly wires, pipes, and so on.

Which Fish: Freshwater or Saltwater?

When we think of fish, it might be easy to assume that they’re all pretty much the same. That is hardly the truth. Aquarium fish come in two basic categories: tropical, or freshwater; and marine, or saltwater. So which one should you choose?

The first thing to keep in mind that setting up a freshwater aquarium is much less expensive than setting up a saltwater aquarium, which requires additional equipment. Marine fish tend to be more expensive than their tropical counterparts, but they also tend to be more brilliantly colored. Changing the water in a freshwater system requires less work than in a saltwater system, although live plants and rocks used in saltwater provide excellent natural filtration. You can also opt to modify your saltwater system to a reef system, for an even more natural and brilliant environment; that will also require more advanced, higher-priced lighting.

While both have their pros and cons, ultimately the decision between freshwater and saltwater is up to you. Weigh the individual importance of time, cost, looks, and convenience. Whichever type of aquarium you choose, you will sure to be immersed in a fascinating hobby.

  • Published:
  • Updated: 11/26/2018: 7:29:50 PM ET