How to Successfully Set up a Fish Tank

Essential items include a tank, a filtration system, a heater and thermometer, lighting, and substrate.

Aug 25, 2023By Natasha Elder
aquarium essentials what you really need

Setting up an aquarium is an exciting experience. Well-maintained tanks are beautiful and provide the space they inhabit with a sense of tranquillity and wonder. However, as a beginner, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the range of aquarium equipment and the seemingly endless number of accessories available on the market.

Don’t take the bait. You don’t need a million bucks to set up a stunning aquarium. You just need the basics. Today’s article will explore the essential items you’ll need to successfully set up your aquarium – and save you from having to filter through the many items you don’t!

A Fish Tank or Aquarium

large fish tank empty
Image credit Grab Cad

First things first, you’ll need a tank. This is the first and most important part of any aquarium for obvious reasons. You won’t get very far without one.

The tank will be made from aquarium-grade glass or acrylic. Glass tanks are cheaper and hard to scratch, but the tank will be heavier, and more easily broken, and the scratches are permanent. Acrylic tanks are more expensive and scratch easily, but the scratches can be buffed out, and the tank will be a lot more difficult to break.

The size of the tank you choose should suit your available space as well as the breeds of fish you intend on keeping. You may be surprised to discover that for beginners, bigger is better. This is because larger tanks make it easier to maintain a well-balanced aquarium and provide greater stability for the ecosystem you’ll be creating. In super simple terms: bigger tanks are more forgiving. The less water there is, the more the fish will pick up on any changes (or mistakes!)

A Filtration System

aquarium filter mechanical tank
Image credit: Kol Pet

Next, you’ll need a reliable filtration system. This will prove to be essential for maintaining a healthy aquatic environment as it is responsible for removing debris, excess waste, and harmful chemicals from the water. If your tank’s water is not constantly being moved and cleaned, your aquarium will not be able to support life.

There are three types of filtrations, and your tank needs them all. These are biological, mechanical, and chemical filtration.

Biological filtration is the filtering of toxins that come from fish waste, and this is the most important type of filter. Mechanical filtration is the filtering of physical debris like plant leaves, uneaten food, and so on. And chemical filtration, most commonly activated carbon, is used to help rid tanks of medications once it has served its purpose and for the purification of tap water before it’s placed in the tank during water changes.

A Heater and Thermometer

water heater aqueon minibow aquarium
Image credit: FishLAB

Whether you’re opting for saltwater or freshwater fish, you’ll need a heater to keep them happy and healthy. Tropical fish need a consistent water temperature, which is why so many tank fish die when released into the wild.

A heater with an adjustable thermostat is a must-have to maintain the temperature your fish needs. While the exact temperature will be determined by the breed you choose, most tropical fish need a temperature of 78F. A heater will make this possible, and a thermometer will help you know that the heater is doing its job properly.

The caveat to the above is linked to the type of fish you’re going to keep. If you are exclusively planning on keeping cold-water fish, you can get away with not having a heater. Examples of cold-water fish include:

  • Goldfish
  • Koi
  • Clown killifish
  • Cherry shrimp
  • Barb fish (rosy, Odessa, and gold varieties)
  • Loaches (black lined, stone, and Ticto varieties)

Appropriate Lighting

aquarium lighting led tank
Image credit: PDPics from Pixabay

Proper lighting is crucial for any aquarium. This is especially true if you’re going to have aquatic plants in addition to the aquatic creatures that will call your tank ‘home’. Lighting serves two purposes: showing your fish off and giving your tank plant life.

Without proper lighting, you won’t be able to properly view and enjoy your fish. Simple. More importantly, if you plan on keeping plants in your tank (which is recommended), they will need light for photosynthesis.

While fluorescent lighting is suitable for most tanks, LED lighting is becoming more and more popular. This is because LEDs are energy-efficient, customizable, easy to use, long-lasting, and produce very little heat. Admittedly, LEDs do cost more than other lighting types, but, in this instance, the pros outweigh the cons.


black substrate fish tank soil
Image credit: Gabriele Proietti Mattia on Unsplash

And finally, let’s discuss the importance of substrate in your aquarium. While often not given a second thought, a substrate is an aquarium essential. Most people think its purpose is purely decorative. That’s not the case. A substrate performs three vital functions: it ups the aesthetic of your tank, sure, but it also acts as a filtration medium, and it provides a secure attachment point for plant roots.

The substrate refers to the material that lines the bottom of your tank, be it gravel, sand, or special aquatic soil. Remember the biological filtration mentioned earlier in this article? The substrate is a key player in this process, as it provides healthy bacteria with a perfect home so they can go about the biological filtration process.

In addition to aiding filtration, a suitable substrate is crucial for the survival of any live aquatic plants. It serves as their biological base, providing essential nutrients and an appropriate environment for root growth. Different plants need different substrates, so it’s important to properly research the specific requirements of your plants to ensure you pick a substrate that will optimize their health.

Natasha Elder
By Natasha Elder

Natasha is a mother, a wife, a writer, and a serial cat owner. Though she is currently in mourning, her heart not ready for another feline family member just yet, she has always lived life with four paws beside her. She loves – you guessed it – cats, as well as creatures of the fluffy, scaly, and finned variety. Natasha longs to meet Sir David Attenborough one day and is passionate about responsible pet ownership