How to start a freshwater aquarium – the beginner’s guide

Freshwater aquariums tend to be very attractive while being affordable for most beginners. No wonder you have jumped on the fishkeeping bandwagon, but it seems you could do with some help. So, here's an article focused on how to start a freshwater aquarium.

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Core elements of an aquarium

There are three main elements of an aquarium –

  • the inhabitant (fish),
  • the enclosure (tank), and
  • the support setup (elements like filtration, heating, lighting)

Any aquarium setup is incomplete without these three primary components.

The inhabitant (fish)

You have got some beautiful choices for freshwater fishes in the market. Ranging from small Neon Tetras to large Pearl Gouramis, you have got options in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But before you make your mind, educate yourself about your preferred species; its behavior, food habits, compatibility with other species (if planning a multi-species aquarium).

The enclosure (tank)

A fish tank is the only thing that holds your little aquatic garden. You want it to be charming while providing ample space to your aquatic buddies. Also consider other factors like available room space, the intended fish population, and aquarium design.

The support setup

The support setup includes all the system and elements that help to sustain life in the aquarium. The following systems and components provide support to the aquatic life in the aquarium:

  • The filtration system
  • The heating system and thermometer
  • The lighting setup
  • The substrate layer

The filtration system

Aquarium setups have stagnant water. This water in time collects all the fish wastes and other harmful substances which require cleaning. Thus, every aquarium setup needs a filtration system for removing impurities from the water. The market is full of various filtration systems differing by capacity, mechanism or structure. A basic guideline for determining if a filtration system is suitable for a tank: the volume of water handled per hour by a filtration system should be equal to 3-4 times the amount of the water in the tank. This Aquarium Filtration article is an excellent place to learn the basics of aquarium filtration.

The heating system and thermometer

Most freshwater fishes can live in water temperatures ranging from 77 to 86 °F. In some cases, you will have to invest in a heating system along with a thermometer to maintain suitable water temperature for your aquatic buddies. As usual, there is a variety of heating system available in the market. Do not just go for cheap ones to save money. Purchase the best heating system to avoid the headache of untimely breakdowns.

The lighting setup

The lighting setup in an aquarium also contributes to health of your fishes. LEDs setups are the most popular ones in the market for their energy efficiency and luminosity.

Make sure you invest wisely on a good quality filtration, heating and lighting system. These systems are crucial to ensure that your fishes stay healthy.

The substrate layer

The substrate layer forms the foundation of your fishes’ home. The base layer comprises of either gravel, small rocks or sand. For beginners, we would suggest you steer away from sand for the moment. Most of your décor pieces and play structure for the fishes are situated over the gravel bed. You can incorporate live or artificial aquatic plants, designer rocks, small housing structures which add to the appeal.

Sequential step to starting a freshwater aquarium

  1. Start with cleaning the tank and gravel with warm water. Avoid the use of soap or any other cleaning additives.
  2. Arrange the gravel inside the tank, forming a proper river bed.
  3. Install the filtration system. If you have opted for an under bed filtration system, you might have to lay the pipe structure first before constructing the bed.
  4. Install the heating system. Set the thermometer as far as possible from the heating element.
  5. Set up and secure the lights for the aquarium.
  6. Put the filter cartridge in place and prime the filtration pump with water.
  7. Switch on the filtration system and heating system.
  8. Allow the water to cycle in the tank for some time.
  9. Examine the water quality once again after cycling. Perform the needed corrections to make the water suitable for fishes.
  10. If the water quality is good, introduce the fishes. Else, start over again until you make the aquarium water suitable for the fishes.


  • Avoid using soap and detergents for cleaning any aquarium elements.
  • The aquarium water needs cycling for at least for 24 hours (considering a mid-size 20 to 25-gallon tank). Vary the cycling time based on the tank size and the water conditions. The key is to maintain a stable and suitable water for the fishes.
  • Do not introduce the fishes right after the cycling process is complete.
  • Do not introduce a large number of fishes simultaneously. Put them in batches separated by some days or weeks to avoid drastic water condition changes.
  • Check compatibility between species before buying multiple fish types.
  • Never overfeed the fishes. Only provide the amount that the fishes can consume within five minutes.
  • Clean the aquarium (gravels, filters) periodically, but one section at a time. Do not clean the entire tank in one go.
  • Use water from a clean source. De-chlorinate the water before cycling and introducing the fishes.
  • Maintain proper water temperature in the tank.

As a beginner, understand every aspect of the buying and maintaining a freshwater aquarium. You will be better able to deal with problems instead of running for help when an issue arises. Educate yourself about fishes, their food habits, behavior and compatibility with other fishes. Study the different support elements like the filtration and heating system, know what's best for your preferred aquarium setup. Consult the pet shop if you have any queries. With a little bit of patience and perseverance, you will learn the art of fishkeeping, and soon be a master.

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