Freshwater Getting Started Guide

The most important part of getting into the aquarium hobby is buying the correct equipment, tanks, stands, and other various requirements before you'll ever think about what inhabitants you want to keep. We have created an article that is devoted to just letting you know the various options out there, what their benefits and drawbacks may be, and lastly how to properly set up an aquarium so that you will never lose any inhabitants.

Before we talk about any equipment, we will suggest that you understand what the nitrogen cycle is, what types of cycling there are for saltwater aquariums, and how to properly go through a full cycle. Please read the following article below to fully understand why many aquarium shops, people, and sometimes booklets are incorrect on how to properly prepare an aquarium before adding in any inhabitants.

Aquarium Tanks & Stands

When selecting an aquarium tank size to get, everyone will always say the bigger the better. Now, you might be thinking this is just because you can have more fish, invertebrates, and it'll become a showpiece in your house or room. Ironically the bigger you go the easier it is to maintain a healthy aquarium since you will have to do fewer water changes and as a new person to the hobby, you will have more room to slack on certain aspects. However many people cannot afford to go for the biggest tank that their aquarium store sells, so the most common starting tank sizes include 26 gallons (98.4 liters) bowfront, 20 gallons (75.7 liters) long, and lastly the 10 (37.8 liters) gallons size. Anything smaller might seem very tempting to get, however you will only be limiting yourself to keeping invertebrates such as shrimp or the common Siamese fighting fish (known as the Betta fish).

Many "all-in-one" kits might seem like the perfect choice when trying to find a reasonable price on an aquarium set since most contain a filter, heater, thermometer, and sometimes fish food or water conditioners. Sadly, a lot of the all-in-one kits will have some sort of flaw, whether it be a highly overpowered filter, an underrated heater, or in rare cases a lighting system that is under quality and very poor. If done correctly, you can always buy the proper equipment without ever needing to upgrade for around the same price (if not a little more) than these all-in-one kits.

After you pick out your tank size, now comes the part of figuring out if you want to buy a stand manufacturer, make your stand, or use a piece of furniture as a stand. Before you try one of these, please be aware of how heavy water truly is (and the tank will be even heavier since you will have a substrate, decorations, filter, heater attached, and more to weigh it all down). As an example, 10 gallons (75.7 liters) aquarium fully setup can weigh around 100 pounds (45.7 kilograms) and some setups may not support the whole aquarium evenly creating stress on pieces of glass or joints unequally.

Essential Aquarium Equipment

Now that you have selected your aquarium tank and a stand, we move on to the more essential equipment that will act as the life support system for your inhabitants. Making sure to correctly get the right equipment the first time is vital since in some cases getting the wrong (under-powered or worse overpowered) items can lead to high death rates.


There are tons of different types of filters, all that make promises to do various stages of chemical, biological, and/or mechanical filtration with various types of filter media. Many people think that a filter does the same thing as another type, and while they are somewhat correct they are not fully. You have to remember that fish normally live in an open environment in which their waste is diluted very quickly (if not right away), and by keeping them in an aquarium we are taking that open ecosystem and creating a closed environment. Turning the toxins at were discussed in The Nitrogen Cycle and breaking them down so that they do not harm the inhabitants while also keeping the water clean of any debris, excess food, or various materials as well. When selecting a filter you want to get one that has double the filtration capacity as the aquarium size (in the example we want a filter rated for 40 gallons if we have a 20 gallons tank). We are going to break down the various categories of filters into their main groups to explain how they work, what they look like, and a rough price estimate on them.

One major thing that many shops, people, and booklets get wrong is when to replace the filter media. Many manufacturers will state that you need to replace all of the media in a given time frame however, this is very dangerous and harmful to your aquarium. The only time that you should replace any media is when it is falling apart into pieces otherwise if you need to clean it only do so with the aquarium's water and make sure to limit the time it is left out in the air to as little as possible. If required to change any media, leave the old media inside with the new media so that all of the beneficial bacteria can migrate from the old to the new. If you do not do this or change all of the media at once you will have to repeat cycling your aquarium all over again, which depending on stocking levels can be very dangerous and time-consuming and lead to man deaths.

Undergravel Filters: A plastic grid is placed on the bare bottom of the aquarium, and then covered by a gravel-based substrate. On one end (or sometimes in the middle of smaller tanks) there is a plastic tube that leads up to the top of the water column in which an air-stone is placed inside. This creates a suction, so that all of the water is then forced into the gravel, down to the plastic grid where the beneficial bacteria is, and then recycled and placed at the top of the water column. Sadly, this is a very old-school filtration method as it requires you to never change (or clean) any of the gravel regardless of how much debris, fish waste, or excess food is laying on the top. Since this filtration method is outdated, we would avoid using this in any aquarium regardless of size unless required to do so. These types of filters only allow for biological filtration to occur and are commonly a little bit more than a sponge filter's cost. These require very little maintenance as any changes will harm the number of beneficial bacteria living in the plastic grids.

Sponge Filters: A sponge that has suction cups is placed on the bottom of the sidewalls of the aquarium's glass. The sponge surrounds a plastic tube, where an air-stone is placed and creates a suction so that any debris is sucked into the sponge where the beneficial bacteria live, and the water is recycled at the top of the tube. This might sound very similar to how an under gravel filter works however, this has many advantages over it. These types of filters are most commonly used in quarantine setups, fry-only aquariums, and also in invertebrate-only aquariums. These types of filters only allow for biological filtration to occur and are most common very cheap as they are small and easy to set up. These require the most maintenance over time as when the sponge gets clogged with debris then its usage is very little to even none.

Internal Filters: A filter that is fully submerged in the aquarium's water that inside contains various types of filter media, most commonly it will contain a sponge, a carbon pad/beads, and also will contain bio-beads where the beneficial bacteria live. The intake tube can be in various locations per product, and it sucks all of the debris instead where it is slowly broken down by the beneficial bacteria and sometimes by the propeller that sucks the water in. The output can also be in various locations per product however, normally allows for a type of spray bar to be added. These types of filters allow for chemical, biological, and mechanical (however this all depends on the product exactly) and are a little more than hang-on-back filters as they take up more space inside of the aquarium as they are designed to be submerged at all times. These require some forms of maintenance over time if the propeller starts to slow down, the media gets too dirty, the intake gets clogged, or other causes.

Hang-on-Back (HOB) Filters: A filter that is placed outside of the aquarium which hangs on the glass with an intake tube that is placed inside of the water and the output is a small downslope that slides (or depending on the water level can be a waterfall) into the water column. These filters contain various types of filter media, most commonly they will contain a sponge, a carbon pad/beads, and also will contain bio-beads where the beneficial bacteria live. These types of filters allow for chemical, biological, and mechanical (however this all depends on the product exactly) and are the most common types of filters that you will see various levels of aquarium keepers have. These require some forms of maintenance over time if the propeller starts to slow down, the media gets too dirty, or other causes.

Canister Filters: A filter that is normally placed inside of the aquarium stand, in which two tubes (one of the intake and the other for the output) are connected to their respective plastic parts that are suctioned inside of the aquarium's water. Inside contains various types of filter media, most commonly it will contain one to three types of different consistency-based sponges, a carbon pad/beads, and also will contain bio-beads where the beneficial bacteria live. These types of filters allow for chemical, biological, and mechanical and are the most powerful, maintenance-free (most require any changes of filter media for years), and quietest filters on the market. Sadly these are also the most expensive type of filter due to their design, and how much water they clean through daily.


There are many different types of substrate to choose from, however, whether it is sand, gravel, pebbles, glass gems, to anything else they all break down into about two different categories; sand, gravel, or soil. Below we will go over all of the choices, and what substrate is the best for your specific needs including a list of positive and negative aspects.

Sand Based: Having a sand substrate is one of the most natural-looking substrates out there since it allows for you to be mimicking the ocean but instead of it being saltwater you have freshwater. There are many different colors of sand that you can buy now, instead of just the natural-looking tan there is pink, blue, green, red, purple, black, white, gray, and almost any other color combination that you can think of. Depending on what types of fish and invertebrates you are keeping, sand might become a requirement to have as your substrate. When first using sand and filling up your aquarium, you must do so very slowly and over a plate (or some other covering to make sure that you are not just pouring it on the sand directly). The downside to this is that you will end up with a very cloudy water column, due to the fine grains of sand you must not turn on any filters since you will risk damaging the propellers, any type of debris can be seen laying on the sand, it's hard to clean since any movement will create another small cloud of sand for a few minutes to hours, and lastly the sand will need to be mixed (or poked) to release any buildup of trapped gases.

Gravel Based: Having a gravel substrate is one of the most common substrates that many fish keepers have, as it allows for you to have a natural look (if you go with pebbles) or it can allow for you to create wild themes with the limitless color combination of rocks. The most common downside to gravel is that you may be unable to keep some types of fish and invertebrates, as their mouths might get damaging when looking for food or their legs might get stuck (and by their movement across the gravel) get smashed. Another massive drawback to gravel is that all of the debris including fish waste, excess food, and more are stuck beneath the lowest layers of the gravel. This results in more toxins being released into the water column, and therefore sadly will require more maintenance in keeping the gravel clean using a gravel vacuum.

Soil Based: Having a soil-based substrate is one that is only used when the aquarium keeper wants to have a planted setup. Since many plants do require additional nutrition that cannot be found through the natural fish waste but while allowing for the aquarium to still maintain either a low maintenance schedule (addition of only fertilizers to the aquarium to keep plant growth) or a high maintenance schedule (addition of CO2, fertilizers, high out lighting setups, and more are required for vibrant plant growth). The main advantage of using this would be the fact that any live plants that are placed within the soil will grow to their maximum possible size and color due to them having access to all of the required nutrition. Since many different types of soil-based substrates can appear to be the size of either gravel, pebbles, and some as sand it can be like the grain size's substrate. The only difference that may occur is when actual garden soil is used as a substrate with either a layer of sand, gravel, pebbles, or nothing on top to prevent the soil from floating. When the substrate is only soil there will be additional requirements that are major downsides such as having to mix up the soil as while it breaks down inside of the water it will release pockets of gases that may be toxic to inhabitants if they are not released frequently.


In many cases, the standard lighting fixture that comes with your aquarium will do just fine for viewing the inhabitants. If your aquarium did not come with a lighting fixture then there are many to choose from based on your needs. The most common ones being sold currently are LED lights, in which the LEDs last almost a lifetime and are very bright. Other fixtures include higher light ratings which will provide the most benefit if you plan on growing any live plants inside of your aquarium. With any type of light, we would suggest that you make sure that you do not leave it on for more than 10 hours a day at a time, as having it on any longer will increase the chances of algae growing exponentially.

Some lighting fixtures come with moonlight, or a very dim blue light to be used during the night. Sadly, like all animals in this world, they require a night cycle of pure darkness. Leaving the lights on and never turning them off can do serious damage to your fish, including them being very sluggish all of the time, never truly eating when you place food inside of the aquarium, and worse it can lead to death. If you do wish to use the moonlight feature, we would suggest turning it on about an hour before you turn on the main lights in the morning and then leaving them on for an hour after you turn off the main lights at night.

Aeration & Air Pumps

Many people believe that to keep anything inside of your aquarium, you must use an air pump with some form of an air-stone or bubble wand. Sadly this is very incorrect, as the bubbles of air in the water are not adding any oxygen into the water column. Instead, they are creating water surface agitation which allows for the gas exchange between your water and the air inside of your room. In most cases having a filter that creates a big enough ripple effect on the top of the water surface is providing enough surface agitation for the gases to be exchanged safely.

If you live in an area where the power goes out often, it is not a back idea to get a battery-operated air pump to provide the surface agitation until the power is restored. Another factor to have in mind is that if the power does go out often, lowering the temperature of the water in your aquarium will allow for more oxygen to be stored (the higher the temperature the less oxygen is stored inside of the water column).

Heaters & Thermometers

Having an adjustable heater is something that is highly recommended since you can maintain the temperature throughout the whole aquarium by moving the switch from one degree to another. This is since many preset heaters, or always on heaters do not turn off when they reach a specific temperature (unlike adjustable ones) and you can cook your inhabitants to death. Since there are many different manufacturers, we suggest that you read the product's back packaging to know the specific watts you need for your aquarium size.

Thermometers are another highly important piece of this puzzle, as although you may have an adjustable heater in most cases they are off anywhere between 0-5 degrees. Since this is a big range, making sure that you have a liquid-based thermometer is very important as the strip-based ones are very inaccurate and cannot show what the specific temperature is (only the range it is in).

Decorations & Plants

Decorating your aquarium can be one of the most creative, and also challenging parts as there are endless ways to do it. Many people use plastic or acrylic aquarium safe objects, rocks, driftwood, and almost anything that will not be harmful to any inhabitants. When you first select something to place inside of your aquarium, make sure that you rinse it over hot water to remove any dirt or dust that might have collected on it. Then, peel off the sticker on the bottom (if there is one) and place it inside your aquarium. Sometimes you will see algae growth on these decorations, or a weird type of fungus-like growth on them. Sadly this is very common, and in most cases is completely harmless and will go away on its own without requiring any effort from the aquarium owner. Dealing with driftwood and rocks can be slightly different, mostly driftwood will be the biggest issue people have.

Most pieces that are exposed to the air for a long period will not sink right away, regardless of the size of their weight. It can take anywhere from a few hours to months before it will sink on its own. Another issue that people have is that driftwood will release something called tannins, a natural yellow dye that is completely harmless but will make your water appear light to dark tea color. A common way to avoid this would be to boil the piece of driftwood in a large pot for a few hours, making sure to not let any water boil over. This will dramatically reduce the tannins release making sure that your water will stay crystal clear for years to come.

When it comes to fake plants or live ones, it mostly depends on the aquarium and stocking levels. Plastic and silk plants provide the needed real look, however, the advantage of keeping live plants is that they will help reduce the toxins that the fish release and use them as nutrition. Most inhabitants can tell the difference between a real and fake plant, as they will release their eggs or fry onto/near the plants since it will provide natural protection against various elements. If you are looking into keeping live plants, the most important thing is to make sure that you have the correct lighting for your plant's requirements, as having incorrect lighting will slowly make the plant die or it will stunt its growth. For further information about care with live aquarium plants, please read the species profiles for each type of plant you want as it goes over in great detail what plants need, how to grow them successfully, and also beginner plants that require little to no care.

Food & Feeding

There are a variety of different types of foods from living, flakes, pellets, wafers, to even freeze-dried options out there. On top of that factor, there are tons of different brands that all have their range of ingredients that are combined in specific amounts. Since we do not promote a specific brand of food, make sure that you read the back labeling for the ingredients. Unlike in other types of animal food, the order in which the ingredients are listed is their pure concentration to the other ingredients. You want to look for food that does not have the first three ingredients listed as any type of fillers in most cases, you will see that two of the three are not fillers which is still a good brand. If you see any food that has all of the three as fillers then you will want to stay away from that brand, since it does not have that much nutritional value.