A Complete Checklist to Successful Freshwater Fishkeeping

Over the past years I have been helping a lot of people start their new aquarium, because this hobby is just so awesome. Keeping fish as pets is really enjoyable, but I understand it is hard for you to know how to get into it. So today I want to help you by walking you through all the thing you need to prepare in order to start a freshwater tropical aquarium.

Here is a list of all the essentials you need in order to start an aquarium:

  • Aquarium (bigger is easier)
  • Lid
  • Stand
  • Filter
  • Heater
  • Light
  • Timer
  • Power strip
  • Test kit
  • Tap water conditioner
  • Substrate
  • Driftwood
  • Rocks
  • Live plants
  • Thermometer
  • Fish net
  • Fish food
  • Hose for water changes
  • Gravel vacuum
  • A bucket
  • Towels
  • Finally: fish

Quite a list, huh?

I will elaborate, let me walk you through all the items one by one. I will explain why it is important to have. Let’s get into it!

Aquarium

First and foremost, you want to pick the right tank that is suitable for you.

Bigger is easier

You have several options, but generally it is easier to keep a bigger tank then it is to keep a small one. This has to do with establishing a balance in your tank.

Obviously a 55 gallon or a 200 liters aquarium does not fit a college dorm, but for a 20 gallon / 80 liters aquarium it is already much easier to find a place for.

Glass or acrylic

Tank are made from two materials, glass and acrylic. Most tanks that you find in the store are glass, and bigger tanks can be made from acrylic. I personally would go with glass.

Acrylic has the advantage that it is lighter and it does not break as easily, so it could be something to consider when getting a tank for children.

Keep in mind that acrylic needs to be supported throughout the entire bottom, instead of just the edges.

Longer or Taller?

When choosing an aquarium, avoid the small but tall tanks. Go with the wider tanks, because they have a bigger water to air surface.

When more water touches the air, it allows for a better gas exchange, which is good for the health of your fish.

Lid

A lid is an important part of your aquarium equipment, because it prevents fish from jumping out. It also mounts the lights that you have for your tank.

There are a lot of people that like to have no lid on their aquarium. You can of course choose to do so as well!

If you choose to have no lid, make sure that your fish are no jumpers, so you do not wake up to find less fish in your aquarium one day.

Stand

Next up, a stand!

I want to start with telling you this: do not place your aquarium on any cupboard or cabinet in your house. These fish tanks are super heavy. A 20 gallon tank can weigh as much as an adult male (obviously depending on the male’s weight as well). You do not want your stand to break due to the weight.

So it is safe to go with a dedicated aquarium stand or something that you are 100% sure off that it does not break.

What stand you get is all depending on the tank that you (are going to) buy. Chances are that the place where you buy the tank also sells the appropriate stand.

Filter

A filter has multiple functions in your aquarium, but the biggest one is converting ammonia that is produced by fish waste into nitrate. Why? Because ammonia is toxic and nitrate is not.

It does this by letting water flow past the so called filter media on the inside of the filter. Because of this, the filter also causes the flow in an aquarium.

What filter you are getting is depending on your aquarium and your personal preference. There are a lot of different options.

You can get a internal filter or a canister filter. There are more types of filters like a hang on the back (HOB) filter or an under gravel filter, which also do the job fine.

An internal filter is a filter that you stick to the glass on the inside of the aquarium. The advantage is that they are a bit easier to handle, as there are no tubes running at the back of the aquarium.

An external or canister filter stands below the aquarium. This means that there is an intake and an output sticking inside of the aquarium, and the filter pumps water out of the tank, through the filter and back into the aquarium.
These external filter have more space to put filter media, and have less things inside the aquarium. Therefore I personally prefer these filter. They are a little bit harder to clean compared to an internal filter.

Heater

Because you are looking to get a tropical aquarium, the fish that you are going to keep need tropical temperatures. To make sure that the temperature stays exactly right, all tropical tanks need a heater.

For different sized aquariums, different sized heater are necessary. This is because the heater should be able to get the water to a certain desired temperature and keep it there. This requires a lot of power.

If you are wondering how big of a heater you need, I suggest looking at my heater page. There I tell you what heater I recommend, and how many Watts you need for each aquarium size.

Lights

Let there be light! Lights are definitely important for your aquarium when you plan on keeping live plants. It also allows you to see your fish much much better.

Most of the aquarium sets that have a lid come with lights. If not, you need to buy them separately. Most tanks run on TL lights, but I am happy to see that this is slowly converting to LED lights.

How much light is always a bit of an experiment that requires trial and error. Start off with 8 hours per day and see how your tank is doing. Too much light will cause algae to grow so you will know soon enough if you have too much light for your aquarium.

Timer and Power Strip

These two things should definitely be on this checklist. There are people who do not have their aquarium lights on a timer. While this is definitely possible, it is so much more convenient to have the light turn on and off automatically.

Not only do you not have to do this yourself this way, it also allows you to exactly determine how many hours of light your tank is getting.

Also, as you probably already have noticed, there are a lot of things that need to be plugged in. The filter, heater and light all need a power socket. Especially if you plan on adding an air pump (for bubbles) and a water pump (for additional flow) in the future.

Therefore you need a power strip.

Test Kit

Especially in the first few weeks, you need to be able to see if your aquarium is doing well. The main indicator of this are the water parameters. Water parameters like pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate are all somewhat scientific but really indicate how your tank is doing.

To get an insight in these values, the only way is to test them using a test kit. You can buy a kit that has tests for all parameters like the API Master test kit. This has everything you need with clear instructions on how to measure your water. You can check it out on Amazon here.

Now that you have the ability to measure the values, you need to know what it means. I wrote an article on the desired water parameters which you can read here.

The reason why I said that the parameters are important at the beginning is because your aquarium has to fully cycle before you can add fish. This means that a colony of beneficial bacteria must grow in your tank, so that it has the capability to convert the toxic ammonia into less toxic nitrite and finally into safe nitrate at the end.

I also wrote an article on when to know if your cycle is completely done, which you definitely should read when you are a beginner. This is the link to that article.

Tap water conditioner

This is important and should definitely be on this list as one of the core thing you need to get.

Now this is depending on where you are from, and what tap water you have at your disposal, but often the tap water contains a lot of chlorine and chloramine. Bad news for our fish…

Both chlorine and chloramine are toxic to our fish, so we need to remove this from the tap water before we add it to the aquarium. For more information on this, I recommend reading my article called “Dechlorinate your Aquarium Water for Fish and Plants”. This is the link.

Substrate

Now that we have all the technical equipment out of the way, it is time for decorations. The first thing you need to choose is your substrate. There are a lot of different colors, mixes and sizes available to us.

While a lot of it is up to personal choice, there are some guidelines that you need to keep in mind.

For your fish, a darker substrate is more calming compared to a lighter one. This is because really white and bright substrate reflects the aquarium lights.

Also, I do not have good experience with trying to grow plants in bigger gravel. The roots do not really seem to attach themselves.

Finally, the substrate can be depended on what fish you are planning to keep. If you plan on keeping the really popular corydoras catfish, a bottom feeder, you want to steer clear of sharp and big substrate. They prefer fine sand, because they are constantly searching through it for food.

Driftwood

Next: driftwood. It is so cool to go to the store and look for driftwood!! It comes in so many shapes and sizes. Also different varieties.

I remember buying my first piece of driftwood in the store. It had an awesome shape. BUT when I got back it was way too big!! That is something I want you to be aware of because I heard it from more fishkeepers: driftwood looks smaller in the store.

So yea, grab a measuring tape and let your creativity flow.

Rocks

With rocks and driftwood, you can create some stunning looking tanks. When it comes to rocks, it is almost the same as with driftwood.

I sometimes buy my rocks at the garden center instead of at the pet shop because it is way cheaper there. This is something I would recommend you to do as well, but you need to be a little bit careful with what rocks you buy.

The rocks should not influence your water parameters, because it might become dangerous for your fish. Also, some rocks really stain the water.

So if you have the chance, buy them at a fish store because you know for sure they are compatible for an aquarium.

Live plants

Something that makes your aquarium 200% more cool is to add live plants. They are beautiful to look at, and it is nice to see them growing. They also help you clean your aquarium because the consume nitrates and phosphates while growing.

Now they can also be rather difficult to keep, so I recommend sticking to one of these 6 plants that I recommend for beginners. They are low tech, meaning they do not need complex CO2 installations to grow properly.

Learning to grow plants also requires some trial and error.

Something you do need to buy when doing live plants is plant fertilizer. This can be liquid plant fertilizer or root tabs. This depends on what plants you are getting, so remember to ask this to the store employee when buying them.

Thermometer

I think it is a good thing to keep a close eye on the temperature of your aquarium. Although it should not change when the water has reached the desired temperature. For buying a thermometer it does not have to be anything fancy. This thermometer on Amazon would do the job perfectly and is not that expensive either.

Fish net

Seems obvious but do not forget. Tip: it is super difficult to catch a fish with a net that is just small enough. Better to buy one size bigger.

Fish food

It would be best to already know what fish you are getting at this point, so you can buy the fish food accordingly.

There are different kinds of food, and I think that it is best for a fish when you feed it a somewhat varied diet. Not just the same flakes every day. I recommend that you get a combination of the 4 types of food below.

  • flakes
  • pallets
  • frozen food
  • live food

What I do is I feed my fish flakes once per two days, together with the pallets. The difference between them is that the pallets are algae pallets that sink (those are for my bottom feeders and my algae eater). This is the standard food that they always get.

In addition to this I like to give them frozen food twice a week. This includes frozen bloodworms and frozen brine shrimp. This food is less expensive than I initially thought, but I guess that that is depended on where you live.

Finally, every time I go to my local fish store I take some live daphnia (water fleas) with me, because I love the way that my fish go crazy for them. It is so weird that the fish become WAY more active when I feed them live food compared to flakes and frozen food.

You know what, I think that feeding my fish is the part of keeping them that I most enjoy. This is also part of the reason why I give them a varied diet, it is so much fun to feed them.

Hose for water changes / Gravel Vacuum

Now that we almost have everything to keep your fish successfully, the last thing is to prepare yourself for doing water changes. Water changes is the maintenance that you have to do regularly, where you take out about 25% of the water of your aquarium and replace it with new water from the tap.

To do this, you are going to need a bucket to move the water from your tap to the aquarium. You are also going to add the tap water conditioner that we talked about earlier to the water in the bucket first.

To get the water out of your aquarium, you are going to need a hose of about 2 meters / 6,5 feet (depending on the size of the tank) to start a siphon and to siphon the water into the bucket.

To clean the gravel, and especially to clean all the fish poop and uneaten food from the gravel, you need a gravel vacuum. I talked about this extensively in my article “What fish will eat the poop in your aquarium?” (the answer is none). If you want you can check out that article here.

A gravel vacuum makes doing water changes so much easier, so that is why I put it on this list. There is one on Amazon for around 10 dollars right now. Keeping in mind that you have to do water changes for as long as you have an aquarium, I think that is a heck of a deal. You can find that one here.

Finally: Fish

That was it, the list of essential things to get to start keeping fish. Now it is time to choose some fish. But what should you do to prepare your tank for fish?

Setting up the tank

This is straightforward. Choose a good spot to place your tank on a stand. Make sure it is somewhere where a lot of people are passing often, such as directly next to a door. This increases the chances that someone is going to bump into it one day, which is not desired.

Also, make sure you do not place your tank somewhere where there is direct sunlight hitting it. When there is direct sunlight hitting the tank, algae will grow rapidly and you will find yourself cleaning the algae from your tank way more often than you would like.

Let the tank cycle

This is something that a lot of beginner fish keepers forget, and I do not want you to be one of them. Your tank needs to be cycled before you can add fish. This takes about 6 weeks if done correctly.

What happens during the cycling stage is that beneficial bacteria start to build in your filter. These bacteria are able to convert ammonia into nitrate, which is not toxic at low concentrations.

To cycle the tank, you can already add everything, just not the fish. You can already add live plants, substrate, rocks, wood. It is especially import to add the filter and turn it on, as that it what is essentially cycling.

To see if your cycle is done, I recommend reading my article I wrote especially for this question. Check it out here.

Choose what fish you are going to add

Another common mistake that a lot of beginners make, is that they immediately add all the fish they want to their new tank. You guessed it, that is too much for a new tank to handle. It is called overstocking your tank.

When choosing your fish, you need to make sure that the fish you choose can live together. Ask your local fish store for help on this one, because I do not know what fish you can choose from there.

In general, a freshwater tropical community tank consists of schooling fish, bottom feeders and one display fish.

A really popular combination can be:

  • 10 rummynose tetras
  • 5 corydoras catfish
  • 1 bristlenose pleco
  • 2 pearl gouramis

But there are so many fish to choose from, so head on out to your local fish store and see what they have.

Add the fish to your new aquarium

So you got home with your new fish, and you want to add them to your already cycled, new aquarium. What you need to do is first temperature acclimate them. This means that the fish need to gradually adapt to the temperature of the tank, because it most likely is different from the temperature of the bag that they are in.

To do this, but the bag of fish in the aquarium. Yes, the entire bag. No, do not cut the bag open first, just let it float in the aquarium.

Now you wait 15 minutes.

After that, take the bag out and cut it open. Now it is key to not dump the entire content of the bag in your aquarium. Why? Because we do not know what is in the water of the fish store, and we do not want that water in our new tank.

Take a bucket and a net, and pour the bag into the bucket through the net. This way, you have your fish in the net. Now you can add the fish from the net into your aquarium.

And remember not to overstock your new tank immediately, because the bacteria in your tank might not be able to handle all the ammonia. Therefore we should also regularly measure the water parameters when we just added fish to a new tank.

References:
Banner photo – Author: Ranjith-chemmad Licensed under CC4.0 No Changes Made

Bart Sprenkels

I have been keeping multiple aquariums since I was 18 years old. Just like many of you, I started with two goldfish but quickly learned they were not suitable for aquariums. Later, I switched to a tropical community tank and I also have two pet musk-turtles in a bigger aquarium. You can read more about me here.

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