What sort of tank?
The vast majority of tanks are now the "frameless" variety: made of plate glass sheets joined with super-strong silicone adhesive, there is no longer any need for angle-iron frames to hold the weight of the water. Smaller tanks may also be made of moulded plastic or perspex, but this is not suitable for large tanks.
Whatever type of tank you decide on, there is one thing certain - buy the largest tank you can afford and have space for - if you choose a small tank you will very soon be wanting something bigger!

A full fish tank is incredibly heavy so you will also need something substantial to stand it on : purpose-made angle-iron stands are available to suit all standard tank sizes and are relatively inexpensive, or you may want to choose a complete cabinet setup, where your tank sits in a custom-built cabinet with cupboards below it to house or your aquarium equipment and paraphernalia and a matching hood with concealed lighting and access to the tank. My present aquarium is in just such a cabinet, a rectangular 180 litre (50 US gallon) tank with cupboards beneath it, replacing my former 130 litre (35-gallon) triangular corner tank, also built into a cabinet with cupboards.

I have also seen beautiful displays of tanks built into redundant fireplaces or old furniture : the main consideration being, wherever you decide to place your tank, it MUST be STRONG!!

My new 180 litre tank : concealed lighting in the hood, easy access for maintenance and feeding, and all the odds and ends associated with fish-keeping tidily concealed within the cupboard.

Having bought your tank, and its stand or cabinet or whatever, place it where you want it to go BEFORE you add anything to it. Water weighs 1kg. per litre ( approximately 8lbs per US gallon) so the water in my 180 litre tank, when full, weighs around 180 kilos, or around 400 lbs (which in good old British pre-decimal measures is just over 28 stones.) Add to that the weight of the actual tank, gravel and any decorations, plus the cabinet or stand, and you will see that it will be quite impossible to move once it is set up. In fact, even with only the gravel and very little water, you would be ill-advised to try to move it! Even a small tank, of say 24" (60cm) length and holding a mere 16 US gallons, will weigh almost 140 lbs..... need I say more?

A well-lit, well-stocked and well-maintained aquarium is a joy to behold and a worthy addition to any decor : place it where you will be able to get most enjoyment from it, but preferably not near a window - excessive natural light will give rise to excessive algal growth and the glass will be subject to unsightly and obscuring growths of algae. Far better to place your tank away from a window and provide controlled lighting through the aquarium hood. My tank has two 36" strip lights, one towards the back of the tank : a yellow-spectrum "sunlight" lamp, for optimal plant growth and the other at the front, with an element of UV light which shows the iridescent colours of the fishes to best advantage.


Filtration is the most essential factor of all to ensure the continued health of your fish. They won't mind if the lights aren't switched on, or if a bulb or striplight stops working, and providing the room the tank is in is kept warm, even heater failure is not immediately catastrophic. The water quality, however, is another matter. The fish live, eat and breathe in the same water into which they excrete and so that water must be purified in some way.

There are two basic methods of filtration, mechanical (in which particles are physically removed from the water) and biological (in which naturally-occurring water-borne bacteria are encouraged to remove harmful nitrates from the water.) Most modern filtration systems combine both methods. This can be achieved in two ways: by under-gravel filtration and by canister (either internal or external) filters, or even by using both.

Under-gravel filters are, as their name suggests, placed underneath the gravel before the tank is set up, and consist of a plastic plate or plates which more or less cover the bottom of the aquarium, and a vertical tube rising from one corner to house the air lift. The plates are then covered with a layer of gravel (2" minimum depth for it to work correctly) and so become invisible, and an air-lift is placed in or on the tube, either in the form of an airstone attached to a pump or a specially designed power lift pump. This serves to pull water UP the tube (and back into the aquarium) from under the plates, and so causes a current of water to pass DOWN through the gravel. Meanwhile, friendly nitrogen-fixing bacteria will develop in the gravel (especially if you are able to "seed" it with previously-used task gravel) and will remove harmful nitrates, produced by the fishes waste products, excess food and plant debris etc., from the water.

Canister filters, whether internal or external, work in broadly the same way. They act as both mechanical and bacterial filters since they contain a filter medium, or several types of filter, which clean solid, visible particles from the water and also provide a medium on which the "friendly" bacteria can grow. The tank I have recently purchased has an integral internal filter in which the different filter media are placed in easily removable baskets and the water is drawn through them by means of a powerhead pump and returned to the aquarium as a water jet (thus also adding the water movement which most fishes like.) The individual filters are bacteria-hosting sponges of varying grades, from coarse to fine, a carbon filter and a fine "floss" filter to remove the finest suspended particles. The filters are designed to be cleaned or replaced at varying intervals - the floss replaced weekly, the carbon monthly, the bacterial (fine) filters cleaned and half replaced every two or three months, and the coarse bacterial filters cleaned every six months and replaced only if absolutely necessary. This means that, once established, the bacterial colony will always be in place to do its job.

For more detailed instructions on filter maintenance, click here.


Tropical fish come, by definition, from areas of the world with a warm climate, and the majority will thrive at a temperature of around 75° Fahrenheit, although fish from equatorial regions may require the water a little warmer, in the low 80's. A few degrees either way will not be catastrophic - many fish dealers run their tanks warmer than recommended, it makes the fish livelier and more attractive to would-be purchasers, but it also raises their metabolic rate and, if kept permanently at this temperature, would shorten their lifespan. (My tanks are always run at 75° and have been for many years.)
Unless you live in the tropics yourself, or keep your central heating running extremely high, you will need some way of heating the water in the tank to keep it at this temperature. Aquarium heaters are readily available and easy to install. Most come with an integral thermostat which will usually be preset in the factory to this 72°-75°F temperature and need nothing more than fixing to the back wall of the tank, plugging in to the electricity supply and switching on (but don't switch on until after you have added the water!). The latest internal filters also incorporate a heater, so reducing the technical expertise needed for setting up a tank to almost zero. In conjunction with thermostatically controlled heating you should also buy a thermometer - these are extremely cheap and give a quick check to see that the heater is functioning OK : they come in a variety of styles, from internal floating glass ones to liquid crystal strips which stick to the outside of the glass and show the internal temperature by easily visible colour changes. Choose whichever you prefer - they all do the same job.


Landscaping (or should that be aquascaping?)
The first requisite with which to decorate your tank is gravel. If you are going to use an under-gravel filter you will naturally need to install it before adding the gravel to the tank. Choose a small to medium sized smooth gravel: colour choice is up to you and may be subject to availability, but remember that artificially-coloured gravels will detract from your fish, and some fish species prefer a darker background. That said, I have chosen a natural gravel for the base of my tank, in shades of brown, buff and grey. Whatever gravel you choose, it needs to be washed thoroughly in running water, until the water coming off it remains clear. Taking the time to do this now will save you a lot of heartache later on. Tip it carefully into the tank - any bit which cling to the glass will soon fall down once the water is added. Smooth the gravel roughly, so it slopes towards the front and is banked a little higher at the back and sides - this gives an illusion of depth, and also helps you when it comes to cleaning out debris etc. as any fallen leaves and leftover food scraps will naturally collect in this lowest part.

The back of the tank can be left plain or covered with one of the commercially-produced "backdrops" which can be bought by the foot or metre from any aquarists' supplier - simply affix to the outside of the tank with sellotape and make sure it's pulled across tightly. There are many designs available and the choice is entirely up to you.

Landscaping can make or mar your tank - there are lots of aquarium ornaments available - sunken ships, treasure chests, even underwater "waterfalls" of air-driven fine sand, but do remember that the chief decorations of your tank will be the fish. Rocks or logs look good, and give the fish somewhere to hide - if they are artificial there should be no problem, but stones, rocks and driftwood collected "from the wild" need to be soaked at length and scrubbed thoroughly - without soap! - to remove any minerals or toxins which might leach into the water. If in doubt, buy your decorations from a dealer.

Unless you are planning to keep fish which require a particularly specialised environment, plants will play an important role in your tank. Not only will they make it look more beautiful and give the fish somewhere to feel safe and secure - and something to nibble on - they will also, through the process of photosynthesis, release essential oxygen into the water. Suitable plants are dealt with in more detail on this page, but in general, plant the taller specimens towards the back and sides and the shorter ones further forwards, keeping the front and centre clear so you can enjoy seeing your fishes.

Rocks as a backdrop, tall plants at the back of the tank with smaller ones beneath, and gravel, rocks and stones in the foreground, all serving to show off the fish in this mixed community tank.

Place the rocks, logs etc. roughly where you think you want them to be then have a look at the effect through the front of the tank - it will be a lot easier to move them around at this stage, so you can get an effect you like. Many fish like to be able to hide away for some part of the day, so you might consider constructing a shelter or cave for them (but make sure it's stable and won't fall down : you can even glue them together using the same sort of silicone adhesive as that which holds the tank together.)
Bury the roots of your chosen plants up to their crowns (where the stems emerge) in the gravel, being careful not to damage them; unrooted plants may be weighted with strips of metal sold specially for the purpose as "plant weights" but be careful not to bruise the delicate stems. Many plants are now sold ready-planted in small pots or baskets, and these can be buried in the gravel as they come, and are less liable to be dug up by any catfish you may have.


Now you are ready to add the water. Assuming you are planning a non-specialist or community aquarium, ordinary domestic tapwater will be fine (and if you are buying your fish locally, they will probably be accustomed to the local water anyway.) If you want to use rainwater collected in a water-butt, make sure it is uncontaminated - if in doubt, don't use it.

The easiest way to fill the tank will be with a hosepipe, but you may have to resort to a watering can or even buckets. If you are using a hosepipe, stand a jam-jar or similar sized container upright on the gravel, away from the plants and decorations if possible, and place the end of the hosepipe into that : run the water in gently so that it overflows from the jar and doesn't disturb the plants, gravel or decorations. If you have to use a watering can or bucket it is best to protect the plants etc. with a sheet of strong brown paper : place a plate or shallow bowl on the paper in a clear area of the tank, being careful not to crush any plants or dislodge any decorations, and pour the water in as slowly and carefully as you can.

When the tank is three-quarters full you can probably remove the jar or plate and paper and check that the plants are still secure and the rocks and logs undisturbed. Continue to fill the tank slowly and carefully: many tanks have a water level marked on them; if not, consider whether you want the water level to show or whether you want it to reach the base of the hood. DON'T fill it so full as to touch the lights, as you will short-circuit them, electrocute your fish and probably cause severe damage in the process. In fact, don't connect anything up to the electricity supply just yet.


To aerate or not?
This is a much-debated topic amongst fish keepers. In theory, the oxygen in the water - which the fish need to breathe - is absorbed from the air at the surface of the water and also released into the water by the aquarium plants when they photosynthesise during hours of daylight (or tank-light.) A good collection of healthy, growing plants is the best means of ensuring well-aerated water for your fish. At one time, an air-stone delivering a curtain of bubbles up the back wall of the tank was part of standard aquarium equipment. There is no scientific reason for this - the bubbles produced do not get absorbed but simply burst at the surface, but even so, my fish seem happier if I have an air-pump running to create a bubble curtain - and so I have an airstone in my tank.


Now - plug in and switch on all the aquarium equipment and ensure that the heater, filter, pump and lights are all working satisfactorily. DON'T be tempted to add any fishes at this stage. Let the heater do its job and bring the water to the correct temperature, let the filter clarify the water by removing the inevitable dust particles etc. from the water, and let the plants settle into their growing positions. If you can bear to, leave the tank for at least two weeks before you even think about adding any fish. During this period, switch the tank lights on in the morning and off in the evening, exactly as you would if there were fish in the tank - this will encourage the plants to establish themselves. This period will also allow dissolved chlorine etc., used in the treatment of domestic water, to disperse naturally - chlorinated water is harmful to fish and if you do have to use "un-aged" water, treat it with a commercial dechlorinator, available from your aquarists' supplier.

After two weeks have elapsed, and if the water is clear and the plants are beginning to grow well, you can introduce your first fish - their waste products will "kick-start" the biological filter and get the whole system going. Choose something hardy - two or three specimens of one of the Corydoras species and a small shoal of one of the hardier tetras - I started my present tank off with two albino Corydoras aeneus and six Red-eye Tetras Moenkhousia sanctaefilomenae. If these fish show no problems, after a week add a few more fish and build up gradually until it is fully stocked - don't feel tempted to go over the recommended limit; the system will be unstable for the first six weeks or so, so be prepared to rescue the fish and have the water quality checked if you suspect anything is wrong. Don't add any valuable or delicate fish until you are quite sure that everything is OK.

Home Page ~ Sitemap ~ Index of Fishes ~ Aquarium setup ~ Maintenance ~ Links