How to Set Up a Fish Tank and Keep It Clean

By PetMD Editorial on Feb. 11, 2016
How to Set Up a Fish Tank and Keep It Clean

Setting up an aquarium can seem intimidating at first, but once you get your feet wet, you’ll see that they are much easier to get started and maintain than you might have thought.

With a good routine—plus a little elbow grease—you can operate an attractive freshwater aquarium with relative ease.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to set up a fish tank and keep it clean as well as some answers to common questions about fish tank maintenance.

Before You Start Setting Up the Tank

First, you will need to decide which type of fish you want. Some great starter fish for beginner fishkeepers include mollies, platies and tetras.

Once that decision is made, you can acquire the proper equipment and tank for your selected species of fish. But hold off on purchasing your fish until your tank is already set up. Creating a habitable environment with safe water conditions can take a lot longer than you think.

To help your fish thrive, follow these steps for setting up the perfect aquarium environment for them.

Easy, 10-Step Guide for Fish Tank Setup

Select a permanent spot for your fish tank in your home before starting the setup process. Once it’s set up and full of water, the aquarium will be too heavy and delicate to move.

The best spot for a fish tank is out of direct sunlight and free of drafts.

Step 1:

Rinse the tank with warm water, wiping it out with a paper towel if necessary. NEVER use soaps or detergents of any kind; they’re very harmful for your fish.

Step 2:

Thoroughly rinse off your chosen substrate (gravel, aquarium rocks, sand, etc.) and any other tank decorations with warm water.

Use a colander to rinse the gravel and rocks until the water runs through clear and free of debris.

You can then add layers of substrate to your clean fish tank. Be careful when moving the substrate around, as gravel, rocks, and sand can scratch the tank. Add a little extra substrate in areas where you plan on adding plants so their roots have room.

Your plants and decorations will be added later.

Step 3:

Fill your tank 1/3 of the way with room-temperature, aquarium-specific water from a clean bucket.

There are two types of aquarium-specific water you can use:

  • Pre-treated, fish-safe aquarium water by the jug/bottle from a pet store

  • Tap water that’s been treated with a conditioner like Tetra AquaSafe or Tetra EasyBalance PLUS

These products remove chlorine as well as certain other harmful chemicals and heavy metals. 

To add water without upsetting the freshly laid substrate, you can place a plate or flat object inside your tank and slowly pour the water onto that.

Step 4:

Set up all your aquarium equipment. Add and turn on your filtration system. Connect your airline tubing from the air pump to any bubble bars or air-driven decorations that you may have.

Step 5:

Aquascape with any live or artificial plants as well as decorations you want to include. Ideally, these can be arranged to hide your air/plumbing lines and filtration equipment.

If you opt for live plants, make sure that the water is warm enough before planting them in the gravel to avoid shocking the roots and killing the plant.

Step 6:

Finish filling the tank with aquarium water, leaving some space between the water surface and the lid (especially if you have fish that are prone to jumping).

Step 7:

Initiate the process of establishing your biological filter. “Cycling” a tank refers to the colonization of beneficial bacteria (nitrifying bacteria, purple non-sulfur bacteria, etc.) on specially made media.

Cycled media remove dangerous ammonia and nitrite. Central to the process is the addition of “fuel” for the microbes. For this, you can use an aquarium-specific, ammonia-based concoction. While it was once common to add a cheap, hardy, starter fish as an ammonia source, the practice is now frowned upon as unduly cruel.

The length of cycling time is dependent on many factors, so continue to conduct water tests once a week throughout the process as to be certain the biofilter has completely stabilized (i.e., until ammonia and nitrite have risen and then fallen back to nondetectable levels).

Typically, this process will take 6-8 weeks.

Step 8:

Position your submersible heater in an area of strong water flow. Then, place an in-tank thermometer on the opposite side of the tank as far away from the heater as possible.

This will help to ensure that the whole tank is maintaining the correct temperature.

Step 9:

Plug in and turn on the air/water pump(s), filter, and heater. Let your setup run for 24 hours before adding any fish (this provides time for the temperature to stabilize and for you to make any necessary adjustments). 

Step 10:

After waiting 24 hours, you are ready to introduce your fish to their new home. You should start with only a few fish (the general rule is 1 inch of fish per gallon of water). You can then add to your population slowly (over the course of a few weeks or months).

To add your fish, start by floating the fish bag in your tank water; this adjusts differences of temperatures between the tank water and the transport water. After about 15 minutes (when the temperatures have equalized), gently pour the entire contents of the bag into a clean bucket. (NOT straight into the tank yet.)

Add approximately a quarter cup of tank water to the bucket every minute or so until the transport water has been diluted with tank water by a factor of at least 5x.

At this point, it is safe to scoop each fish up from the bucket with an aquarium net and carefully release them one by one into the tank. Discard the wastewater in the bucket (do NOT add it to the tank)!

Tips for Cleaning and Maintaining Your Fish Tank

Cleaning your aquarium isn’t nearly as complicated as setting it up. A 25% water change performed every 2-4 weeks, or a 10-15% water change every week, is recommended for most systems.

It’s not advised to remove your fish when cleaning unless absolutely necessary; removal will stress them and can make them sick. If necessary, gently remove your fish with a net and place them in a large bucket with some of the original tank water.

Prior to draining any tank water, turn off the heaters, pumps, and filters and remove all the decorations, such as artificial plants. Wash decorations in warm, clean water and set them aside.

Using an aquarium gravel cleaner, vacuum the gravel until you’ve removed about 1/3 of the water from the tank. Again, always make sure to replace the old water with fresh, pre-treated water that’s the same temperature as the old water.

Purified water is ideal, as it contains fewer of the dissolved nutrients that are responsible for runaway algae growth.

Common Questions About Fish Tank Maintenance

Here are some quick answers to frequently asked questions about fish tank maintenance.

Q: How do I get rid of algae in my fish tank?

A: Algae is bothersome and grows in every aquarium, but you don’t have to wait for your regular aquarium cleanings to get rid of it.

Tools such as simple scrapers or magnetic scrubbers can be used to gently scrub the algae off your tank walls. Since nuisance algae blooms frequently following events such as over-feedings, it is important to exercise restraint when feeding your fish.

If these unwanted algae persist, increase the frequency of water changes.

Q: How often should I rinse my mechanical filter sponges/pads?

A: As often as possible!

Mechanical filtration accomplishes little or nothing if the entrapped particulate organic matter is allowed to rot in place. In addition to the practices suggested above, this helps to control algal growth and maintain water clarity.

Q: How many fish can live in a 10-gallon tank?

A: It depends on many factors, including the species and size of fish you plan on buying.

For small, slim-bodied, schooling fishes such as Neon Tetras, White Cloud Mountain minnows, and Danios, a good rule of thumb is to add 1 inch of fish per gallon of water.

Other fishes might require considerably more space per specimen depending upon their activity level, eating habits, territorial tendencies, and so on.

In order to avoid spikes in ammonia, it’s preferable to understock the system and never add more than a couple specimens at a time.

By: Kenneth Wingerter, Advanced Aquarist

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