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How to safely set up an aquarium

Posted by Scott Stueber on Dec 1, 2020 9:00:00 AM

Tips for setting up your fish aquariumKids love having their very own pet fish to care for, and betta fish are a popular, easy-care choice. But for your family’s new pet to stay healthy and thriving, you must get the aquarium setup process correct.

In this blog, you’ll learn how to safely set up a tank for your betta and more.

1. Assemble What You Need

Start by gathering everything you’ll need for your aquarium:

  • Sand/gravel substrate
  • Lighting unit
  • Filtration system
  • Heater
  • Aquarium thermometer
  • Decorations
  • Plants

Note smaller tanks often come as starter kits that include everything you’ll need to get up and running, which can be the most cost-effective way to go. Just make sure you get an appropriate-sized tank. For example, I don’t recommend anything smaller than a five-gallon tank for betta fish.

2. Prepare the Aquarium

Even a tank that’s fresh out of the box will most likely be dusty. Take a clean, damp cloth and wipe the inside of the aquarium to remove dust and debris. Never use detergent or glass cleaner inside the tank, as residue could poison your fish.

3. Safely Position Your Aquarium

Now, decide where you’re going to keep your tank.

Make sure you use a proper aquarium stand that’s designed to take the weight of a fish tank and its contents, or choose a sturdy countertop or desk for a smaller aquarium. The tank needs to be level to avoid placing stress on the seals, preventing leaks or cracks.

Place the tank close to a power supply so you can plug in your filter, lights, and heater. The aquarium needs to be situated away from heat sources, drafts, and direct sunlight so that your fish don’t suffer temperature shock.

Always keep the tank away from doorways and open areas where running kids or pets could bump into it, or a carelessly opened door could damage the aquarium.

4. Prepare the Substrate

Wash the gravel substrate under running water to remove dust. When the gravel is clean, add it to the aquarium to a depth of approximately two inches.

5. Install the Filter And Heater

Now, fit the filter system and heater, but don’t turn them on yet.

6. Fill the Tank with Water

Place a saucer or upturned bowl on the surface of the gravel. Fill the aquarium with tap water that’s been conditioned, directing the flow over the saucer so that the gravel isn’t displaced. You can also use bottled water from a pet store to avoid having to use a conditioner, but that’s costly. Leave an inch or so below the fill line to allow for the water displacement that’ll happen when decorations and plants are added.

The nitrogen cycle is a complex chemical process that needs careful management within an aquarium's enclosed environment. You can read more about how the nitrogen cycle works and its importance to your fish's health here.

There are several different cycling methods for a new fish tank, all of which have pros and cons. A simple way of fishless cycling involves using dechlorinated tap water to fill your tank. You then need to add fish food, substrate from an established tank, or some pure ammonia to the water to kick off the nitrate cycle in your biological filter media.

Test the water after 10 days to ensure the levels of ammonia and nitrite are zero and the nitrates are at most 20ppm. You should also test the water for other chemicals and heavy metals before adding your fish. To start, add just one or two small fish so that you don't overload the biological filter.

7. Add Decorations

Rinse your tank decorations to remove dust and place them in the aquarium.

8. Add Plants

Living plants make a great addition to any freshwater fish tank, keeping the water clean and providing shelter for your fish.
Trim away dead leaves and broken stems, as per the supplier’s instructions, before adding the plants to your tank. Leave plenty of space between the plants so they’ll have room to grow.

9. Switch ON the Filter And Heater

Switch on the heater and filtration system. Adjust the heater to the water temperature recommended for your fish and plants.

You’ll need to allow the aquarium to cycle for ten days or so before you can safely add your fish. Use an aquarium water testing kit to check the levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates during that time. When ammonia and nitrite levels are zero and nitrates are at or below 20 parts per million (PPM), you can introduce your fish.

If you’re building a community tank, I recommend you start with just a few fish, and allow the biological filter to mature for a couple of weeks before adding more livestock to your collection. Of course, if you want a single betta fish, go right ahead and bring him home!

10. Set Aquarium Lighting

Fish don’t need lights at all! In fact, too much light is very stressful for fish. However, living plants do need light for photosynthesis. So, if you’ve planted your tank, you’ll need to give the plants eight to ten hours of light every day to mimic daytime and nighttime.
Some lighting units have built-in timers you can set. However, a standard light timer from your local hardware shop works just as well.

11. Maintenance

Once your tank is set up, you’ll need to maintain it. I recommend changing around 25% of the water every week and rinsing the filter media in tank water once a month to keep it clean and fresh. Clean the substrate with an aquarium gravel vacuum to get rid of fish waste, leftover food, and plant debris.

Final Thoughts

So, now you know how to safely set up an aquarium!
Before buying a tank, always research the needs of the fish species you want to keep and set the tank up accordingly. Once your aquarium is established, be sure to keep it well-maintained, and you can look forward to enjoying happy, healthy fish for many years to come.

Author Bio: Alison Page is Tankarium's expert contributor. She's an avid fish keeper and has over 35 years of experience. She started off with a simple 10-gallon aquarium setup and two goldfish called Mister and Missus, although she never actually knew which was which!

Topics: Pet Safety

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