How To Set Up A Freshwater Fish Tank

It has never been easier to get an aquarium up and running.

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An aquarium can be a soothing addition to any room, and they are now easier than ever to set up and maintain. All photos by John Virata
John Virata

There are many reasons to have a fish tank. Watching fish swim about and interact can be fun and educational at the same time. Studies have shown that aquariums can have a calming effect on the body, lowering blood pressure and heart rates.

Setting up a fish tank in past years was a challenge for some, but with the introduction of all-in-one solutions, it has never been easier to get an aquarium up and running. In this guide we will show you, visually and informatively, how to set up a freshwater aquarium. It really is easy!

For this guide, we went with a Top Fin Revival 5 gallon aquarium. It came complete with a glass tank, a small hood, integrated lighting and a mechanical filtration system with media. It did not come with a heater or gravel. A heater is important if you are going to keep tropical fish, and while some folks have bare tanks without gravel, in my opinion, gravel makes a tank more aesthetically pleasing. Plus, certain fish like to hide under gravel. For the 5-gallon Revival, we will add just a few fish.

A word of caution: Don’t buy your aquarium supplies and fish at the same time and expect to just add water and fish to your brand new tank on the same day. You first must condition your water to remove chloramines and other impurities and you also have to cycle your aquarium, which we will discuss later. Let’s set up the Revival 5 gallon aquarium.

Step 1. Rinse Tank And Add Gravel

Natural gravel is more aesthetically pleasing than fluorescent and other unnatural substrate.

Rinse the new tank and add gravel. The tank may have some manufacturing or packing dust in it. A simple rinse out of the tank will remove any. You can then add gravel after it gets a rinse as well. Keep in mind that the more gravel you add, the less water you can add to the tank, so that 5-gallon tank can quickly hold much less if you add too much gravel.

Step 2. Install Aquarium Heater

The Aqueon Aquatic Flat Heater is a 15-watt, fully submersible heater ideal for up to 10-gallon tanks.

If you’re going to keep tropical fish, you’re going to need a heater. Most, if not all all-in-one aquarium setups, do not ship with a heater. This is unfortunate, because a heater is one of the most important pieces of hardware to successfully keep a balanced ecosystem in your tank. There are, thankfully, a variety of heaters that support a range of aquarium sizes and aesthetics.

While flat heaters can be attached to sides of the tank with the included suction cups, I chose to bury the heater under the gravel for a more streamlined look.

For this application, I went with an Aqueon Aquatic Flat Heater, a 15-watt, fully submersible heater that is ideal for up to 10-gallon tanks. I chose this heater because of the capability to bury it under the gravel, so the only thing showing is the electrical cable. The temperature is not adjustable, but is designed to keep the water between 78 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the room temperature.

Step 3. Filter Setup

Drop the included filter media right into the slots in the hood. This aquarium kit has the filter built into the hood, which also creates a soothing waterfall effect.

The filter pump is built into the hood of the aquarium. You simply attach the included intake tube to the pump, add the filter media in its appropriate location on the hood, and hang the hood from the back of the tank.

The filter pump sits just below the filter media in the hood.

The Revival 5-gallon aquarium is the first aquarium I have seen in many years of fishkeeping that has its filter media built into the hood of the tank. This is ideal for first-time fish keepers because it makes changing the filter easy. There is a cover that you remove to access the filter media and you simply pull the media out and replace it with fresh filter media. It takes all of about 10 seconds to accomplish.

Step 4. Add Water, Water Conditioner And Decor

Gently add water into the tank prevents a depression in your finely arranged gravel. You can also place a bowl on the gravel to deflect the water.

Tap water contains chemicals that are toxic to fish, so you have to remove those chemicals. It’s called conditioning. You can buy water conditioner at your local fish store or pet store. They all do the same thing: remove chlorine and chloramines. You can add your decor before or after you add the water. It’s more of a preference.

It is very important that you add water conditioner to your tap water to neutralize chloramines and other additives that are dangerous to fish.

I added the decor — a small bridge, a temple and some faux bamboo — after the tank was filled, only because I like to place the decor with water already in the tank so I can move the decor around until I am happy with the positioning. I also added live Amazon sword plants. In addition to serving an aesthetic purpose, decor also provides an area where a fish can go to hide and relax.

Step 5. Cycling Your New Tank

Cycling your aquarium gives it a chance to develop beneficial bacteria.

Before you add fish to your new tank, you have to cycle the aquarium. Cycling let’s the tank go through a process called the nitrogen cycle. The water in the tank essentially goes through a chemical change, making the water safe to add fish. There are several ways you can cycle your fish tank, and there are many commercial solutions to help you achieve this. I went with a product called Microbe-Lift Special Blend. It is essentially a bottle of beneficial bacteria that you add to your conditioned water. Once I added the Microbe-Lift, I ran the tank with the filter for about 4 to 5 days before I added fish. This ensured that the tank was cycled.

Step 6. Add Your Fish

A bridge, a temple, faux bamboo, and live Amazon sword plants give the tank a natural look.

Adding fish is the final step in setting up a freshwater fish tank. It is the most anticipated step for new fish keepers, and it is also the most fun because you get to choose what species of fish you get to add. Since this tank is just a 5-gallon aquarium, your choices are a bit limited, but you can still find cool fish that will live comfortably in such a small tank. The key is to do your research.

Most bigger pet stores have signs on the tanks that tell you the minimum size aquarium that can accommodate the particular fish in those tanks. That is a good guide to follow as a start, but by no means should you rely solely on it. Your local fish store employees are generally the best at telling what you should and shouldn’t add to your tank. For example, certain tetra species, such as the Serpae Tetra, have a reputation for being fin nippers, so if you add a shoal of Serpae Tetras in with several Angelfish, you are inviting trouble, as those tetras will be constantly nipping at the long, flowing fins of the Angelfish, which will stress them out.

The tank has plenty of hiding spots.

For this 5-gallon tank, I went with a pair of guppies. Guppies are a hearty, small fish that will do well in 5 gallon tanks. They will have plenty of room to swim around, they look good and they are very easy to care for. For a clean-up crew, I added four ghost shrimp. Bottom dwellers, they do the same thing that a Corydoras catfish would do in a larger aquarium. I went with ghost shrimp because they are interesting to look at (their bodies are clear, so when you feed them, you can see the food in their stomachs), it is fun to watch them swim, and they are expert scavengers, able to see fish food in the water column as well as on the gravel. They are a fun species, and the Guppies won’t bother them.

Step 7. Enjoy Your New Tank

So now that your new tank is set up, you can enjoy your fish. This particular tank is designed for beginners. It is super easy to set up and maintain, the tank is glass, which I think is much better than plastic, and because the LED light runs on a separate AC connection than the filter, you could add a timer to the light system if you wanted to give the tank light on a timetable.

Have fun and come back and use the search tool on if you have any more questions regarding aquariums and fishkeeping.

Here are some links that may be helpful to those new to aquariums and fishkeeping:

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Freshwater Fish