6 Aquarium Tips for Beginners

Alrighty, let’s grab a mixed bag of Angelfish, Bettas, Guppies, and an Oscar from PetMartCo® and slap those puppies in a 3 gallon Tetra Kit tank. I mean, that’s what the picture shows on the box, right? WOAH! Slow down, Hoss. Let’s rewind a bit and go about this a different way.

So you’re thinking of getting into the aquarium hobby, but you don’t really know where to begin. That’s OK. I’ve brought together what I think are the 6 most important things to keep in mind when getting started. I wish I had this list at the beginning…


1. SAFETY

As they say, “Safety First.” It works for the construction site and in the fish room. You must keep in mind that most aquariums involve a combination of water and electricity in close proximity to each other. It is critically important that you practice basic fire and electrical safety strategies.

Create Drip Loops – Anything electrical that is in or near your aquarium has the potential to get wet. If water splashes onto your filter’s power cord, gravity will cause it to run down the wire. If that wire leads directly to an outlet, you’re going to have a bad time. You should always create what is called a “drip loop” in your electrical cords. It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. You simply allow your cord to hang down in a “U” shape between the outlet and the appliance. This way gravity will cause the water to collect at the bottom of the “U”, and prevent it from climbing up towards the outlet. You should also create drip loops in your air hoses for the same reason.

Here is a simplified illustration of what a drip loop looks like. Notice how the power cord hangs down, forming a “U” shape before plugging into the power outlet.

Use Check Valves – If you are using an air pump in your aquarium, check valves are a must have piece of safety gear. A check valve is an inexpensive piece of equipment that attaches to the airline between your pump and airstone or sponge filter. It allows air (and potentially water) to flow one way, but not the other.

It’s not a common occurrence, but it is possible for water to be pushed or sucked up an air line and create an accidental siphon. If you’ve ever used or seen someone use a hose to clean the gravel bed in an aquarium, you’ve seen the power of a siphon at work. If a siphon occurs, your aquarium can completely drain through your air line. A soaking wet floor is already a disaster, but because pumps generally run on electricity, this creates another potential for fire or electrocution. Save yourself this nightmare by buying a check valve.

Check Valve Tip: Put your check valve as close to the top of your tank as possible. That way if water does back up into the line, it won’t sit in the line but instead flow back into the tank.

Here is a generic aquarium check valve next to a US quarter for scale (I was all out of bananas).

Unplug It – Anytime your body goes into the water or you are doing any kind of cleaning or maintenance in or around the aquarium, shut off the flow of electricity to your electrical equipment. This includes heaters, filters, lights, and power strips. Assume that any one of those pieces of equipment can break, get wet, or fall into the water at any time, because they absolutely can. I have been zapped by a faulty heater before, and it’s not something I want to experience again.

Go Above and Beyond – You’re probably getting it by now, keep water away from electricity. If you have all the usual equipment (heater, filter, lights, etc…) then you probably have these plugged into some kind of power strip. Make sure your power strip is located somewhere safe from splashing and dripping. Do not keep your power strip in the lowest point. What I mean is if water ever leaks or spills from your aquarium, it will tend to collect at the lowest point it can find. Make sure your power strip is not at this location. Keep your power strip elevated from the ground, attached to the wall, or best of all, keep it secured above and away from the aquarium altogether.

Smoke Alarms and Fire Extinguishers – After you’ve done everything else, don’t forget to make sure your smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are charged and working. You’ll want to make sure your extinguisher is designed to be used on electrical fires. If you are buying a new extinguisher, check the label. It should tell you what kinds of fires it can be used on.


2. WATER

OK, now that you’ve been traumatized, let’s get back to it. The most important factor to think about when setting up your first (or any) aquarium is the water you are working with. Will you be using tap water or well water? Is your water soft or hard? Is it low pH, high pH, or relatively neutral? Is there chlorine in the water? These are all important questions to consider. The answers to these questions can make the difference between a happy aquarium and a sad aquarium.

Know Your Water – You might be thinking, “how do I know what’s going on in my water?” The best way to find out is to test the water itself. If you don’t want to start by buying an expensive water testing kit, then try bringing a sample of your water to your local pet store. Most places that sell fish will be glad to test your water and tell you what’s in it. You can also call or Google your local water provider. Water utilities are required to make public what is in the water they service.

If your house is connected to well water, you’ll still want to have your water tested. Well water can contain high levels of various kinds of metals and minerals. Some of these can be beneficial to your pets, but metals like copper can be toxic in high enough concentrations, especially for invertebrates like shrimp or snails.

If you are unsure what pH or water hardness is all about, check out the article I’ve written on Water Parameters.

Don’t Fight Your Water – Some fish prefer soft water with low pH, like Tetras or Angelfish, while others prefer hard water with high pH, like Guppies or African Cichlids. Once you know what’s coming out of the tap, choose fish that will naturally do well in your water. Unless you are dead-set on a specific fish, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to create a water situation that’s not natural to your area. After you have gained a bit of experience and would like to experiment a bit, then you can try playing with different kinds of water and fish.

Dechlorinate Your Water – If you are using municipal tap water, chances are high there is chlorine in it. Utilities use chemicals to keep bacteria and other microorganisms under control. Those same chemicals will irritate your fish, kill your beneficial bacteria, and make keeping an aquarium more difficult for you. You can buy dechlorinating solution online and at pet stores. It’s worth the small investment. Get used to using it every time you do water changes or top-offs. Some folks will say you don’t need to worry about things like chlorine in tap water. Those folks have been lucky so far.

If you are on a really tight budget and would prefer not to buy a dechlorinator, you can outgas the chlorine in your water by letting it sit overnight in a bucket before adding it to your tank. This isn’t always ideal, because not all chemical additives will leave the water this way, but it does take care of chlorine.

Here are a few examples of water conditioners/dechlorinators. I don’t have any preference.

3. EQUIPMENT

As you progress in your aquarium keeping career, you’ll probably experiment with different kinds of equipment and accessories. You might even rebel and do away with all of it! As a beginner you want to stick with the basics:

The Tank – When it comes to picking out your first aquarium, you should get the biggest tank you can afford and can fit comfortably in your home. I don’t say this because I think everyone should have monster-sized fish tanks like the King of DIY. I say this because generally a larger aquarium is easier to maintain than a smaller one. The reason for this is because a greater volume of water changes more slowly than does a smaller one. If the temperature, pH, ammonia levels, etc… begin to change, any negative effects will happen much faster in a smaller aquarium. You also have more flexibility in stocking choices with a larger aquarium.

You should notice that I said to get “the biggest tank you can afford” not “the biggest tank you can purchase”. Bigger tanks come with a bigger price tag. Please don’t go into debt buying aquarium equipment. You should also keep in mind where you are going to put your new aquarium. Pick a size that is as large as you can reasonably fit in your home.

I would suggest starting with something like a 20 or 30 gallon. They are fairly common, and most stands you’ll find in pet stores fit this size range, which leads me to the next important piece of equipment…

Aquarium Stand – This may not seem like a very important piece of the puzzle, but water is heavy. One gallon of water weighs 8.34 lbs. A 20 gallon aquarium, not including the weight of the tank itself plus the substrate, will weigh approximately 167 lbs, and 30 gallons weighs approximately 250 lbs! That’s no small thing. You don’t want that much weight being supported by something like a particle board IKEA end table. Proper aquarium stands are designed to support tremendous weight. Don’t cheap out on the stand or you may regret it.

Water Filter – There is much controversy in the online fish community surrounding proper filtration. I say, as a beginner just stick to the basics. Starting out, a properly sized Hang-On-Back filter should provide all the filtration you’ll need. If you are starting out with an aquarium kit, they usually come with some kind of filter. This should be perfectly adequate to get you started. You can play with different kinds of filtration as you gain experience.

Before adding fish or other pets, always allow your tank to properly cycle beforehand. If you aren’t already familiar with the Nitrogen Cycle or what it means for water filtration, read my articles about The Nitrogen Cycle and Aquarium Filtration.

Aquarium Light – Many aquarium kits come with some lighting. You have some flexibility here, depending on if you intend to keep live plants or not. If you don’t then just about any kind of light will do. Keep in mind that using bright lights or leaving your lights on day and night can quickly result in algae growth. For my tanks, I use an Aqueon Floramax Plant Growth Fluorescent bulb on my 5.5 gallon tank and a basic daylight LED bulb in a desk lamp for my 3 gallon cube (pictured at the top of this page). Whatever lighting setup you choose, it’s a good idea to buy a programmable timer, so you can set a consistent and reliable photoperiod for your aquarium. For example, lights on during the day, off at night.

If you are planning to keep live plants you will want lights that provide an adequate color spectrum and brightness. The lights that come with aquarium kits tend to be too dark for all but low-light plants. This is to prevent the growth of algae. Proper plant lighting is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested in reading more about aquarium plants, including proper lighting, I suggest you pick up a copy of “Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants” by Peter Hiscock.

Water Heater & Thermometer – Many aquarium kits come with a heater. If you are planning to keep cold water fish like White Cloud Minnows or Goldfish, you probably won’t need one. However, if you want to keep tropical fish, it’s a good idea to have one. If you are buying a heater separate from the aquarium itself, I suggest you pick one that either has a programmable thermostat or automatically maintains a preset temperature. There are some heaters available that just run continuously regardless of what temperature your water is at. These can be risky, especially in smaller aquariums, which can easily overheat. Always remember to shut off your aquarium heater when doing a water change. If your heater is exposed to the open air, it can burn itself out.

The second important piece of equipment in regards to heating your aquarium is a simple thermometer. Your heater may not produce heat to the exact temperature it is designed for. You’ll want to be able to know what your actual water temperature is. This is handy when doing water changes as well, so you can match the new water temperature to the water in your tank.

Side Note: You should avoid putting your aquarium in a location where it will receive direct sunlight. Not only can the bright light from the sun cause your aquarium to overheat, it can cause an algal bloom.

Air Pump & Air Hoses – All aquarium air pumps are effectively the same. Some are noisier than others, which is something to consider. If you have a large tank, you’ll want a larger pump. This is not because more water needs more bubbles, but a larger pump will be stronger, and more able to push air deeper underwater.

As I mentioned above, you’ll want to get a check valve for your air hose. These are very cheap, and you can find them in pet stores or online. They can be bought singularly or in packs of 3 or more. I like to get the multiple packs, because I’m always dreaming of the next tank (sigh).

As far as air hoses go, pumps usually come with some, but depending on your setup, you might need a longer one. It’s a good idea to pick up a coil when you’re buying the pump.

Hoses , Buckets, and Nets (oh my!) – You won’t believe how many cups and buckets you’ll begin hoarding. There are all kinds of uses for water-tight vessels. Buckets are critical for water changes, even if it’s just for a place to put wet hoses and nets while you work. I have a 5 gallon bucket, two 2-gallon buckets, a 1 gallon pitcher, and an arsenal of sour cream tubs. Remember, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Hoses come in handy too. If you are lucky enough to be able to keep your aquarium close to a sink, you can run a siphon hose from your tank to the drain. This also makes it easier to refill the tank. Even if you don’t have a nearby sink, you’ll still want to get a gravel vacuum for tank maintenance. The size you’ll need will depend on the size of your aquarium.

Finally, you’ll want at least one net that is a suitable size for your aquarium and pets. Sooner or later you’ll need to take your pets out of the aquarium either to move them to a new home or simply get them out of the way for cleaning. Those little devils can be hard to catch! Cory from Aquarium Co-op has a great instructional video on how to catch fish with a net.

Basic Water Test Kit – Like it or not, you’re going to need one of these and know how to use it. How will you know when to do a water change without knowing when the levels of this or that are too high? If your fish get sick, it’s going to be easier to work out what’s wrong if you know what’s going on in the water. If you ask someone why your tank is having problem A or problem B, the first thing they are going to ask you is, “What are your parameters?” It’s hard to diagnose problems without information. Get a test kit!

If you are confused about what I mean by “parameters” you should read my article about Water Parameters.

Here a couple test kits that I like to use. You can buy “Master Kits” which test for more parameters.

Miscellaneous Bibs and Bobs – There are a bunch of other things that you’ll collect as you grow into this hobby. Here is a quick list of a few things you might find useful along the way:

  • a “fish” towel for spills
  • long tweezers, great for those hard to reach places
  • algae scraper
  • plain cotton thread or gel super glue, because sometimes things just need to be tied down
  • yogurt, sour cream, etc… containers. Good for temporary fish holding container, etc…
  • a toothbrush or package of cotton swabs for scrubbing those small spaces
  • white vinegar for cleaning things, without leaving soapy residue
  • a turkey baster, yes you read that right. It’s great for puffing water around to clear debris, sucking up fish poo, and a whole lot of other unexpected things
  • a box or caddy to store everything in

4. STOCKING

Okay! Now we’re getting to the good stuff. You’ve bought the equipment, cycled the tank, organized your yogurt tubs, and you’re now ready for the big day. What fish are you going to choose? Are you looking to create a community tank with many different species, or are you going to keep just one or two species? Did you go for the big tank or a small one? Do you have live plants or not? These are all factors that should be considered before purchasing fish or invertebrates.

It’s not going to be easy, but my recommendation is to start by just going to the pet store and look at the fish. Don’t buy any. Look at the fish that are available, go home, and Google them. The first thing you should do before bringing home any fish is research, research, research. Find out what water they prefer, what other fish they can be kept with, how many you should have of a particular species, what kind of food do they eat, etc… You might discover that the innocent looking Goldfish might actually try to eat those Neon Tetras. Don’t waste all the hard work and effort you put into preparing the aquarium because of some easily avoidable mistake in stocking choices.

Finally I want to suggest that you start small. Don’t go out and buy 30 fish all at once. Start with a few. See how they fit into your aquarium. Are they getting bashed around by the filter outlet? Do they look uncomfortable or sickly? Is your tank not really as prepared as you thought it was? Better to find out with a couple of fish instead of a couple of dozen fish.

Are you looking for some fish ideas? I’ve written a helpful article about easy beginner nano species for smaller aquariums. Check it out. Who knows? Maybe you’re more of a shrimp person.

Liveaquaria.com has a helpful table that shows compatibility among some common fish species. This chart is by no means set-in-stone gospel. Some truly bizarre combinations are possible with hard work and dumb luck. Again, as a beginner, it’s best to start with the basics. As you gain experience, you might want to play with some riskier combinations.

5. FISH FOOD

For starters, basic flake/granule food is perfectly fine for most species to survive on. It is usually vitamin enriched, and captive raised fish are very familiar with it. Buuut, if you want your pets to thrive, consider diversifying their diets. Try freeze dried bloodworms, baby brine shrimp, veggies, floating food, sinking food, and even live food. Don’t be afraid to splurge a little, because even expensive fish food is still pretty cheap.

Some fish are a little more picky. Some are naturally more herbivorous, some are carnivorous.  Most species you’ll encounter are willing to eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths. Research what foods your fish prefer and choose your fish accordingly. For example, Scarlet Badis (dario dario) really prefer hunting live food. Some can be made to eat dry food, but it’s not always easy. Unless you are willing to provide live food every day, you should avoid a fish like the Scarlet Badis.

Whatever food you end up choosing for your fish, be careful how much you put into the water. We love our pets, and we tend to overfeed them. Not only will your fish get an adorable pot belly, all that extra food could begin rotting and causing all kinds of problems. Feed sparingly at first. Give your fish how much they can eat in two minutes. Feed them small amounts a couple times a day instead of a whole bunch all at once. You might consider getting a programmable food dispenser. That way your fish get the same amount of food every day.

After a while you’ll probably have a large collection of fish foods. Try out different kinds and see what works best for you.

6. MAINTENANCE

Most will agree that this is their least favorite part of owning an aquarium. Sooner or later you are going to have to clean the filter, change the water, vacuum the gravel, or something else you really don’t want to do. You must do it anyway.

Changing Water – Check your water parameters and keep a consistent water change schedule. You might find you need to change 50% of your water every week, or only 25% every two weeks. It all depends on the bioload on your tank and the water you are working with. Whatever schedule works for you, stick to it!

Gravel Vacuuming – If you watch your fish for a while, you’ll notice pretty quickly that they poop… a lot. That stuff has to go somewhere, and it usually finds its way under the gravel substrate. After a while it will collect and build into a stinky, ammonia factory. Use a gravel vacuum as part of your water change routine to clear out the gunk. Don’t be afraid to dig in there!

If you are keeping live plants in your aquarium, fish poo can be a good source of nutrients. This is a little beyond the scope of this article. You might consider reading my article on Aquatic Plant Nutrition.

Cleaning the Filter – Whether you have a sponge filter, Hang-On-Back, or canister filter, you’re going to need to clean it out now and then. Your filter is home to an important colony of beneficial bacteria, so you don’t want to clean it too well. A quick way to clean your filter media is to rinse it with aquarium water during a water change. If you are using a sponge filter, take it out of the tank, and squeeze it out in the bucket with your discarded tank water. You’ll see a cloud of dark, stinky debris fill up the bucket. Imagine, all that material was clogging your sponge! You can do the same with a bag of filter media from a canister filter or the pads from a Hang-On-Back. Swish them around the bucket and give them a squeeze. When you’re done, just put them back in the filter or tank.


Final Thoughts

If you absorb only one thing from this guide, let it be, “research is key.” It’s easy to get excited about buying that new fish or fancy lighting array, but always do a little research before diving in. Seek out people who have been in this hobby for a while, and ask their advice. In my experience, people love sharing their knowledge on a topic they are passionate about. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think it’s a silly one. Better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own.

In the spirit of research, here I have listed a few great resources to help you continue your investigation. Good luck!


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2 Replies to “6 Aquarium Tips for Beginners”

  1. Thanks for this very detailed article, Cubby! My husband and I love scuba diving. So we decided to take a bit of the ocean in our home as we couldn’t go diving as much after our son is born. Being a diver, we were always told that safety is the most crucial thing anyone should consider when beginning a project. When safety comes first, everything else should follow smoothly. We’ll be sure to use your article as a reference when we finally get set up. Cheers!

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