Fish Tank Setup

image of fish tank setup

Updated on 5/03/2020

Hello, I’m Jason White with Setting up your new aquarium is a fun and exciting project. I get it. It’s my passion too!

I began keeping freshwater fish and African cichlids over 20 years ago and I what I've learned is that having a proper fish tank setup will keep your fish healthier and the experience more enjoyable for you as well. Let's dive in!


7 Simple Steps

Step 1: Choose the right spot.

Fish tanks need to be located in the right area of your home or office to thrive. For large tanks (200+ gallons) be sure that the floor can support the weight. One gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. 

  • Avoid direct sunlight
  • Use a sturdy stand
  • Avoid drafts and heat sources

Step 2: Create your shopping list.

Gather everything you need for your tank set up. Consider the type of fish you want, their behaviors and the aesthetics you want to achieve.  

  • Tank big enough for the mature fish?
  • 1-2 gallons per inch of fully grown fish
  • Find an aquascape for inspiration
  • Buy a high quality filter

Pro Tip: Have a planted tank? Here's how to get more out of your lighting system and grow better plants...clear fish tank tops rob your plants of valuable light output by reflecting a large percentage of light energy away from your tank (light passing through a panel of glass on the top of your tank). If your fish do not normally exhibit a jumping behavior, ditch the top. Hatchetfish, for example, are top feeders and will launch out of your tank without notice so keep a cover on those guys. However, most other fish should be okay without a top. If you experience jumping here are some of the basics to check: aggressive tank mates and few safe hiding places, low oxygen saturation, water pH or temperature out of range.

Step 3: Get started with assembly.

Now that you have all the equipment and supplies, let's assemble the goods.

  • Place fish tank on stand
  • Check with bubble level
  • Unpack equipment
  • Add media to filter

Step 4: Add substrate and rocks.

Substrate (i.e. sand, gravel or rocks) is both decorative and benefits the ecosystem of your fish tank.

  • Rinse substrate in dechlorinated water
  • Add 1 to 3 inches of substrate to bottom of tank
  • Use the "rule of thirds" when installing decorations
  • Place small clean bowl on top of substrate (for when adding water)

Note: The rule of thirds refers to a composition technique that visually divides the view in the front of your aquarium into evenly divided quarants (in simple terms, think of a tic-tac-toe pattern). The rule of thirds is an easy technique to aquascape your tank. Simply place the largest or most interesting tank decoration in one of the intersections of the imaginary tic-tac-toe pattern. Then, add decorations (e.g. rocks, plants, etc) around that visual focal point. For more clarification, do a quick Google search for "rule of thirds." It's super easy once you understand the concept.

Pro Tip 1: Odd numbers of decorations generally look better and more natural that even numbers of decorations. For example, I would opt for three tall green plants in the tank rather than four.

Pro Tip 2: To add more visual depth to the aquascape, add the substrate to the bottom of the tank (sand, gravel, etc). Then with a flat edge grade the substrate from low to high...meaning, add about 1/2 to 1" of substraigt at the front of the aquarium and have it gradually rise to the back of the aquarium (thin at the front and thick at the back). This will give an optical illusion of a deeper aquarium when viewing from the front. Try it. It works!

Step 5: Install filter and heater.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions for installing the filter and heating system. Consider using a GFCI protected electrical outlet for safety. Form a drip loop so water will not wick along the cord and into the electrical outlet. 

  • Install with easy access in mind
  • Position heater for on/off light visibility
  • Protect surfaces from water damage
  • Drip loop ALL electrical cords
  • Do not plug into the electrical outlet yet

Step 6: Fill'er up.

Now it's time to add the water! Protect the area around your tank from spills with plastic - trash bags work great. Be sure to add water dechlorinator and closely follow the manufacturer's instructions for treating the water.   

  • Aim the stream of water into the bowl (Step 4)
  • Go slow and check for leaks around the tank
  • Turn on equipment and lighting
  • Allow 1 day for the water to come up to temp

Step 7: Slowly add fish.

New aquariums and filters NEED time to establish beneficial bacteria. Only add 3-5 fish at first and WAIT for your tank to fully "cycle" before adding any more fish. Otherwise, the risk of killing fish is high. Your local fish store can check a water sample for you - often times for free. 

  • Acclimate new fish to temp by floating bag in tank for 30 min
  • Open bag and add 1/4 cup of tank water every 1 min for 10 min
  • Remove fish from bag and place directly into your tank
  • Discard fish bag and the water in it

Pro Tip: If you don't want to wait 3-5 weeks for your tank to fully cycle, you can speed up the process by adding beneficial bacteria to your new fishwater aquarium. Buy a bottle of Fritz Zyme 7 and add to the water. This will quickly jump-start the cycle process so you can start adding the fish you want sooner...likely within 1 week but double check your water before adding more fish.  

New Fish Tank Setup Essentials

Below is a guide of recommended products for your new fish tank setup with a primary focus on African cichlids. However, these tips apply for almost any freshwater fish tank setup. I personally use or have tried all of these items that I'm recommending.

These are staple items that you may consider having readily available for both a new or established freshwater fish tank.

What you will need:

Water Change Tip

Here's a way to save a bunch of time and make your life a whole lot easier when doing your weekly 25-50% water change. Grab a 50 ft Python no spill clean and fill system. Don't forget the dechlorinator! I've been using Seachem Prime for over 10 years. This is a must for all freshwater aquariums.

Recommended Heaters

Thermocontrol water heaters by Eheim. I’ve found these heaters to be very precise and reliable. Don’t buy a cheap heater. You have too much to lose. I’ve relied on Eheim to maintain the temperature in my tanks for years. 

Choose the right heater by tank size:
 EHEIM e75  (15-25 gallons)
 EHEIM e100  (25-40 gallons)
 EHEIM e150  (40-50 gallons)
 EHEIM e200  (55-100 gallons)
 EHEIM e300  (100-200 gallons)

Recommended Canister Filters

I’ve owned both Fluval and Eheim for many years. I generally prefer Fluval for aquariums 55 gallons or larger because:
1. Fluval filters have quick disconnects for the hoses which makes servicing much easier.
2. Fluval filters can hold a little more filter media and the design has removable trays which makes servicing much easier.
3. Hoses are black which blends in with dark aquarium background colors. This is in contrast to Eheim which uses their green brand color for the hoses and water return tube which, in my opinion, doesn’t look as nice against most aquarium background colors.

Why I like Eheim classic canister filters - Eheim filters are:
1. Well made
2. Very quiet
3. Practically last forever

Fluval Brand Filters
Go all out with the Fluval G Series (includes an integrated heater)

The tried and true Fluval FX series:
Fluval FX6  (75-125 gallons)
Fluval FX4  (55-75 gallons)

Pro tip: on my 200 gallon aquarium, I run two FX6 filters.

Eheim Brand Filters
EHEIM classic 250 2213  (30-55 gallons)
EHEIM classic 350 2215  (55-75 gallons)
EHEIM classic 600 2217  (75-150 gallons)

I run the Eheim 2213 on my 29 gallon neon tetra tank and have been very happy with its reliable performance.

Summary: Both companies make great filters. For a fish tank setup under 55 gallons, I would go with the Eheim classic. Otherwise, grab a Fluval.

Recommended LED Lighting

Bang for your buck - you can spend much more but the Current LED is the best value that I know of. I really like the Current USA LED light for freshwater aquariums. The light color spectrum will enhance colors and make your fish tank setup look great. 

High-end - if you are comfortable with spending more and generally prefer only the best consider Kessil LED lights. I've used this style of Kessil and they are well made, capable of high output and are feature rich. Kessil's freshwater line is great for planted aquariums and cichlid tanks. This turnkey Kessil lighting kit includes everything you need. You'll get a completely tunable system with full control over the color range, output and time (including dawn and dusk modes). Sweet! If you really want something special, this is it my friend. I don't know of a nicer lighting system that will make colors pop and display a dazzling shimmer effect like this one.


image of new cichlid tank setup

Saltwater Tank Alternative

African Cichlids (image above) are some of the most colorful freshwater fish available and an excellent low-maintenance alternative to a saltwater aquarium. There's a reason why several of my customers have switched from a saltwater setup to a cichlid tank. If you have space for an aquarium of at least 55 gallons, cichlids will add vibrant colors to your space.


Substrate For A Cichlid Tank

Did you buy some Texas Holey Rock for your cichlid aquarium? This CaribSea Aragamax substrate looks great and the color compliments your Texas Holey Rock. Unlike fine sand, the coarse texture of this substrate prevents migration and stirring up in the water which could cause damage or annoying noise in your filter. For a clean marine-like look, grab this one.

For a darker color substrate than the Aragamax, I recommend the CaribSea African Cichlid substrate. This one has a nice salt and pepper coloration.

If you want a bright white substrate CaribSea has a nice coarse white sand for African cichlid tanks.

How much substrate to buy: I recommend 1-2 lbs of substrate per gallon of water that your aquarium holds. (e.g. grab three 20 pound bags of substrate for a 55 gallon aquarium)

Aquascape pro tip: to add more visual depth to your aquascape follow these simple steps when adding the substrate to your new fish tank setup: 1. Add your rinsed substrate (in dechlorinated water) across the bottom of your aquarium. 2. With your hand or flat edge, grade the depth of the substrate thinner at the front (about 1 inch) and thicker at the back. This gradual rise, from front to back, will give the visual illusion of more depth.

Best African Cichlid Food

Dainichi brand fish food is regarded by many to be the best food available in the world. I agree. They manufacture using a special process and only use the best ingredients available. My African cichlids have absolutely thrived with this food and the male cichlids display deep saturated colors. These are my favorites.

Dainichi Color Supreme - enhances the color and luster of your cichlids.
Dainichi Veggie FX - Prevents bloating and enhances the color and luster of your herbivore cichlids (Excellent for Tropheus & Mbuna)
Dainichi XL PRO - Perfect for Frontosa and other carnivorous and omnivorous cichlids.


Live Fish - African Cichlids

Ready to stock your tank? Here are a few good deals and interesting fish that I've come across. This is a great option if you don't have a local cichlid fish store near you or if you prefer the convenience of having doorstep delivery. They would make an excellent addition to a new cichlid tank set up. Note that I have not purchased fish from these breeders before, however, the breeders have excellent reviews. See for yourself...

Assorted Mbuna cichlids (25 count) - great price!

Assorted Peacock cichlids (5 count) - vibrant colors

Eureka Red Peacock cichlids (6 count) - a favorite

OB Red Zebra cichlids (pair) - super cool looking!


Cichlid Breeding

Get ready for some fun! I love caring for baby cichlids. You've probably noticed that African cichlids can be prolific breeders.

Once the female is "holding" just keep an eye on her, watch some YouTube videos on how to strip eggs and use an egg tumbler. Get an inexpensive egg tumbler and small air pump to run the tumbler. My thought is that if you don't save the babies they will just be fish food within minutes of the female spitting out the fry.

Here's what you need...

Fish breeding egg tumbler

Air pump - this small Tetra Whisper is all you need

The nano tank below would make an excellent fry tank to raise the babies in. It has a small footprint of only 6" x 17" so it's easy to find a spot in your the way, the stylish aesthetic is wife approved ; )


Bonus - My Favorite Nano Tank

I can't say enough great things about this 5 gallon Fluval Spec V Aquarium Kit. Seriously, it’s a fantastic little setup and very inexpensive for what you get. This simple fish tank setup is fun for the kids and great for the office too. Can you tell that I like this one? Ha ha. I’ve had this Fluval Spec aquarium for several years and it’s the right size for a few tetras, a betta, shrimp or baby fry. Additionally, if you add a live plant and only keep 1-3 fish, like I did, a water change is only needed every couple of months. Yep...super simple.

Want more space? Here's a really nice 15 gallon aquarium option will similar features, style and convenience - the Fluval Flex 15 gal


More Resources

Want to learn more about cichlids? Checkout this helpful guide to help you set up an African cichlid tank