Angelfish and Discus in a planted tank.

Setting Up a Tank

In determining the necessary equipment to get started, you may want to think ahead about your future plans for the aquarium. For example: If you plan on eventually converting the aquarium to a cichlid tank, starting off with a slightly larger tank would save you having to purchase another in the future. Or: If you are expecting your fish to eventually breed, you may want a more powerful filter to handle the increase in bioload.

Although volumes could be written on each piece of machinery available to the fish hobbyist, we will briefly outline each with a few things to consider when choosing them for yourself.


Once you have determined the type of aquarium setup you would like to create or the species of fish you would like to keep, the next step will be deciding on the size and dimensions of the aquarium itself.

While custom or show sizes (extra tall, extra long, etc.) can be slightly more flashy, it is much cheaper and easier to find equipment tailored to standard sized aquariums. The most common, mass-manufactured sizes are 10 gal, 20 gal ,29 gal, 45 gal, 75 gal, 125 gal, 150 gal, 200 gal, 250 gal, and 300 gal. Whereas anything between 10 and 45 gallons is adequate for a non-aggressive, "community" set up, something 45 gallons or larger is necessary for the quantity of fish necessary for a diverse cichlid aquascape or a brackish set up. Many of your "oddball" fish (certain eels, catfish, knifefish, and others) can get several feet long and could require aquariums 300 gallons or larger.

Planning in advance and researching fish before a purchase can prevent the experience of a fish outgrowing an aquarium. Although fish can be slightly stunted by an aquarium which is too small or too densely stocked, it is extremely unhealthy for the fish. Moreover, it is a myth that fish will remain small if placed in a small aquarium. We have seen many circumstances in which hobbyists grew a fish in too small an aquarium, and many times the fish grew until it was unable to turn around.

There are things other than size you will want to consider when picking out the aquarium itself. Although, the brand of the aquarium is of little consequence, some aquariums are acrylic, some are glass, some are sold as complete sets (or all-in-ones). Acrylic is much lighter than glass and, therefore, easier to move from one part of the house to another. However, glass is much harder to scratch than acrylic and acrylic will need special “made-for-acrylic” scrapers and cleaners to keep clean. All-in-ones are often a little more expensive than buying all the pieces separately, but brands like Red Sea Max and BioCube have clean, simple profiles and are truly top-of-the-line setups.
Black Angelfish with Swordtails in a planted tank.

Aquarium Filters

The quantity of fish you can keep in an aquarium hinges more on filtration than the size of the aquarium (take note cichlid lovers). Filters will state the flow rate (the number of gallons of aquarium water flowing through the filter media each hour (GPH)) and the recommended maximum tank size. These numbers usually reflect that each gallon of your aquarium water should flow through the filter (or “turnover”) 4 times an hour (for example, a filter with a 400 GPH flow would be rated for a 100gal aquarium). However, if you want to heavily stock your tank (which may be necessary for cichlid communities, planted aquariums and large fish like Oscars and catfish), you will want to have you tank "turnover" a little more often (10 cycles per hour has been a personal goal).

Filters come in an array of styles and form factors. These are divided into two major categories. Canister filters often sit under or behind the aquarium with an intake and output pipe leading to the aquarium. These are often the hardest working, most customizable and easiest filters to hide, but can be a little trickier to clean. Hang-on-the-back filters (HOB), are exactly what they sound like. The filter hangs on the aquarium with an intake pipe in the water, the water gets sucked up through the pipe, pushed through a filter, and cascades down like a small waterfall back into the aquarium. These are usually significantly cheaper and easier to clean, but are slightly less efficient and, by design, must hide in plain sight on the back or side of the aquarium.

Because the filter is the "heart" of the aquarium, it is a good back-up to have a second filter on the aquarium should one go out. This is where we have a little tip: use one canister filter and one HOB filter. Two filters will get you much closer to the aforementioned 10 "turnovers" per hour, but why one of each? The HOB is easier to reach and, therefore much easier to clean. If the HOB filter is cleaned weekly, the canister will need cleaning far less often, resulting in far less work. Moreover, although activated carbon is a great all-purpose filter media, the canister is more customizable, meaning there are often inserts you can buy to address specific filtration issues.

Aquarium Heaters

Although you can buy glass or more resilient ceramic heaters, they both work essentially the same. Tropical fish live in tropical water, and your heater will heat and maintain your aquarium at a designated, "tropical" temperature. These usually range from 5 to 300 watts and should have the maximum recommended aquarium size on the package. Although these recommended numbers are accurate, you may want to think about getting a slightly larger heater if your aquarium is by a window or you live in an area with a colder climate.

The greatest advice we can give with regards heaters is, have two in the aquarium at all times. If a heater goes out without warning on a cold day or night, it can likely kill an entire aquarium in hours. Even having a smaller back-up IN THE TANK, will significantly slow the cooling process so you can catch it in time. Almost everyone who has been in the hobby for years has a story about a tank "crashing" due to a malfunctioning or unplugged heater. They are cheap online. Pick up a back-up.

Air Pumps and Bubblers

Fish can't live long in a stagnant bucket. They breathe oxygen like you and I; the oxygen is just dissolved in the water and filtered out by the fish' gills. The more fish you have, the more oxygen your aquarium needs. Bubblers increase surface turbulence and air contact with water, thereby dissolving more oxygen into the aquarium itself. There is diversity in both the air pump itself in the air stones (which help further dissipate the oxygen into the water), but they are all fundamentally the same. The only thing you may want to keep in mind is the air pressure necessary to get bubbles to the bottom of a deep tank. Anything deeper than 30" may need a higher-powered bubbler.
A beautiful planted tank with several Neon Tetras.

Aquarium Lighting

There are entire books and blogs dedicated to the diversity of aquarium lighting. Much of this is for saltwater reef setups and planted aquariums -- both require very specific lighting -- but for community and cichlid setups, the issue is much simpler.

LEDs, T5 and Power Compact (PC) lighting look amazing, but are much more expensive than traditional fluorescent lighting. Metal Halide and High Pressure Sodium lighting is high-energy, high-output, high-heat and overkill for anything not involving coral or plants. LEDs are a personal favorite. Whereas, fluorescent bulbs usually need to be replaced yearly, LEDs will last up to 10 years. They are extremely bright, low-energy (think electric bill here), full spectrum (for plants), and make fish colors stand out and look amazing. They also often have "moonlight" settings -- dim, blue lights invisible to the fish for nighttime viewing. Fluorescent lighting is the tried and true, "classic" standard for aquarium lighting. For anyone on a budget, the tradeoffs are hard to justify for the five-fold increase in pricing from fluorescent to LEDs.


Sand or gravel? The answer is purely one of personal preference, but each substrate has its advantage. Gravel is generally cheaper and easier to find in bulk (for large aquariums). Because gravel is a coarser media, uneaten food and fish waste mostly falls between the cracks and rests on the glass bottom of the aquarium. There is an upside and a downside to this: The aquarium usually looks cleaner than it really is, but a gravel vacuum will be necessary to clean the fallen waste from below the gravel. Sand, on the other hand, looks fantastic when clean, but must be cleaned often to keep its appeal. Food and fish waste falls visibly to the bottom and will begin to pile wherever the water current is weakest -- the aquarium will look dirtier than it really is. The waste can be removed by either a fine net or gravel vacuum.

Aquarium Decor

Plastic pagodas and bubbling treasure chests? A natural aquascape of driftwood and rocks? Or a stark and bare tank for breeding? There are endless options when decorating an aquarium (or "aquascaping"). Again, this is a matter of personal preference at its purest. Plastic decorations resembling anything from tree stumps to caves to dragons to realistic plants are readily available online and at many aquarium shops. Lacerock, lava rock and Texas Holey Rock are a few popular natural stones, chosen for their overhanging shapes and abundance of caves. Floating driftwood and sinking Malaysian Ironwood are favorites as well -- as long as they are rinsed or boiled previously to remove tannins (a harmless "tea-like" extract from wood which can turn aquarium water yellow). Again, there is no right way to decorate an aquarium, so have fun!

Do note: many rocks and pieces of wood found hiking, fishing, etc. can make for beautiful decorations. Please use your own discretion when adding anything to your aquarium as chemicals, algaes, bacterias, fungi, and parasites can be unintentionally introduced to the aquarium. We would never add anything from nature without first bleaching or boiling (preferred) the decoration.