How to Set Up A New Aquarium For Beginners

Thousands of children, including my own, have or have had a goldfish (or some other fish) as their first pet. They are easy to take care of, and perfect for teaching young children responsibility. The children get the easy job of feeding their fish, and us parents get the job of cleaning out the tank/changing the water. Though a lot of kids will help with this part too.

f you have never had an aquarium, we are here to give you all of that information. There are a lot of essential (and not so essential, but helpful) items that you are going to need to set up your aquarium; filters, test strips, light, heater, and thermometer (decorations, books, water bucket, etc.) We are going to tell you what each of these items will do, to keep your fish alive.

Shopping for Supplies

Setting up an aquarium isn’t as easy as some people think it is. Yes, you can get the little fish bowl and put some rocks in the bottom for your goldfish and they can survive and the kids will be happy. But, we are talking about a full blown aquarium set-up so that you (or your children) can have many fish as pets.

There are a lot of things that you are going to need to purchase for this endeavor. Some are extremely essential and some of them, I consider optional. It all depends on your personal preference and how you want your aquarium to look.

Let’s dive into this long list of supplies that you will need to set up the perfect aquarium. I will include as much information as possible so that you are not left with any questions or concerns. They are fairly easy to set-up, there are just a lot of components that you are going to need to purchase. 

You can purchase most of your supplies from Amazon, or other big box stores. But, I highly recommend if you have time to spend just a little extra and going to Pet Smart, PetCo, or somewhere similar. This way you can get everything, including the fish, in one place.

Listed below, is the essentials to having the best aquarium set-up for your fish, and for your children:

  • Aquarium
  • Stand
  • Lid
  • Light
  • Filter System
  • Heater
  • Thermometer
  • Substrate
  • Fishnet
  • Water Conditioner
  • Ammonia Test Kit
  • Nitrate Test Kit
  • pH Test Kit
  • Siphon (vacuum)
  • Algae scrubber
  • Water Bucket
  • Decorations
  • Books


There are many shapes, sizes, and styles of aquariums out there. In the end it is what you can afford and what fits with the size of the room you are placing it in. The following information is a suggestion and what we chose for our kids. 

A lot of people will choose a 10 or 20 gallon aquarium for their new critters. Our family chose a 20 gallon, to make sure we had plenty of room for the 5 fish that were going to go into it. If you have the space, larger is better. The shorter, longer aquariums will provide more swimming and growing area for the fish. The taller, skinnier (or weird shaped aquariums) are fine for 1 or 2 fish, but anymore than that and it will get crowded and the fish will not have enough room (although it will look like they are fine). 

There are a couple of other options for the aquariums; you can do a glass one or you can do one that is made of acrylic. We chose the glass tank because I do not believe they had the acrylic available years ago. If you have rowdy, hyper children (or boys) I would suggest the acrylic style. If they get rowdy enough to knock it off of the stand, it isn’t going to shatter.

Aquarium Stand

You should purchase a stand that fits your tank and is made to support an aquarium. Some people, like myself, will try to use an old coffee table or television stand. But, this isn’t always the best or safest thing to do. Some of the stands that you purchase are not sturdy enough to handle a 20 gallon fish aquarium.

If you, or your spouse, is the handy-man type, there are many plans online for building your own aquarium stand. You could have something completely custom, that no one can buy anywhere else. If you purchase the stand, the general rule is to buy a genuine aquarium stand. Per gallon of water your aquarium will weigh 10 pounds. So, a 20 gallon aquarium can weigh close to 200 pounds when full.

Lid (Hood)

You can purchase a plastic lid or a glass lid. Some of your kids will come with the lighting assembly, and in this instance, they are called hoods. The glass lid is going to fight a lot tighter on the aquarium which will aid in reduced evaporation and protection of the light assembly itself.

The plastic lid is going to cost you less and of course weigh less than the glass lid but they do not break as easily. The glass lids are also going to be easier to clean and depending upon where you set up the tank, they will give your fish more natural light.


As we mentioned above, the light will sometimes come packaged with the lid. There are a variety of light options for you to choose from. Some are going to be more beneficial for certain fish, so make sure when choosing your lighting source, you make sure it is safe and beneficial for the type of fish you are going to have in the aquarium.

Here is a list of the different types of lighting systems that you can purchase separately from the lid:

  • Halogen
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent
  • Mercury Vapor
  • Metal Halide
  • Light Emitting Diode (LED)

The fluorescent lighting is going to be cheaper to run and is much cooler. LED’s are the next most popular, they will not heat the water and are also inexpensive to run. 


This piece of equipment is the most important out of any others on the list. I strongly recommend getting the best filtration system that your budget will allow. This is going to keep the water clean and will aid in keeping your fish alive and well. So that you do not have to have the dreaded fish funeral.

It is suggested that you purchase a system that has a power filter and a bio-wheel. A 20-gallon tank should be paired with a filtration system that has a flow rate of 80 gallons per hour. In simpler terms, that means that you are filtering your water 4 times per hour and it is highly recommended. 


The majority of fish need the water temperature to be between 74-76 degrees, almost like the fish that you catch at the lake. If your room/house is at that temperature all year long, then you do not need to purchase a heater. But, who is going to have their house temperature in the mid 70’s when it is 100 degrees outside? Not us folks in Oklahoma, that is for sure!

The heating element is either going to be submersible or you can purchase a hang-on-the-tank style.

The submersible one, of course, is going to cost a little bit more money, but is well worth it in my opinion. I tried both styles and the submersible heated the water a little more effectively and evenly than the other style. 

You want to make sure that you use 5 watts per gallon for your smaller tanks and 3 watts per gallon for your bigger aquariums. If your house is kept cooler, you may need more watts per gallon. If you have a 40+ gallon aquarium it is wise to purchase 2 heating units. You have one at each end of the tank so that the water is heated evenly, instead of one end being warmer than the other.

Thermometer and Substrate

A crystal stick-on thermometer is all you really need. You are going to be sure to check your water temperature a couple times a day, especially if you adjust your heater/air conditioner temperature. As long as it is accurate, you can basically use any type of thermometer that you choose. 

Substrate is the gravel/rocks that most people will put on the bottom of the aquarium to add depth and color to the tank. It is preferred (suggested) that you use the dark-colored smooth gravel. I used to only use the colored rock and stones. It isn’t going to hurt or affect anything if you use the colorful stuff. No matter what you choose to use, make sure you rinse it off very well before you place it in the bottom of the aquarium. 

Maintenance Supplies

These next items are what is going to be needed to maintain your aquarium. These items are also extremely essential in maintaining the aquarium. As long as you properly take care of the water in the aquarium, your fish should live for a very long time. 

Water Conditioner

Before you can add any fish to your aquarium, you must remove all of the chlorine from the water. You want to find a water conditioner that will take care of, not only chlorine but also heavy metals and ammonia. Make sure to use it the very first time you fill your tank and also when you do your monthly clean up and water changes. Nothing will schedule a fish funeral faster, than chlorinated water. 

Test Kits

Testing kits are essential when you first set up your aquarium, just as the water conditioner is. You want to test the pH, nitrate, and ammonia levels. You can purchase a test kit separately or you can purchase test strips that will check for all of the above at one time. But, follow the instructions properly, and store them as directed or you could get an invalid reading. 

There are also in-tank monitors available, but these you have to replace every couple of months. So, unless you are purchasing exotic, expensive fish, these are actually not necessary. 


This is also called a gravel vacuum. This is extremely handy when it comes to your monthly cleaning and water changing duties. It also makes it a lot easier, so that the kids will be able to help you (and learn how) to clean the aquarium. 

If you have the budget for it, buy one that uses the water pressure from your tap. These are much easier to use to remove and replace the water. They are also great because they clean up the waster on the bottom of the tank that gets mixed in with the gravel. You are, however, still going to have to take out the gravel, wash and rinse VERY well and place it back in the tank. 

Algae Scrubber

Now, instead of an algae scrubber, we had what they call a ‘sucker’ fish. It will suck itself to the side of the tank, where the algae are trying to grow and it will keep it under control. If you do not want to go that route, you can purchase an algae scrubber or magnet to keep the algae from overtaking the aquarium. Use them, along with all the above, during the monthly cleaning or as needed. 

Water Bucket, Books, and Decorations

These items, I do not personally find as a necessity or essential. I used to use a large old bowl (or pot) to clean out the aquarium. But if you wish to purchase the 5 gallon bucket no one is going to judge you for it. 

If you are getting fish that are a little more expensive or exotic than the goldfish or beta, then by all means, buy books to make sure you are getting all of the supplies that are going to benefit them and keep them alive. Otherwise, I do not feel they are needed. Unless of course, you want to purchase them for the kids to learn about their fish.

The decorations are not essential either. You can get the ships, skull heads, plants, and a huge variety of other items to put on the bottom of the aquarium with the rocks/gravel, but I find it unnecessary. Depending on the size of the tank and the number of fish, it hinders how much space they have to swim and makes it harder for the kids to find/see the fish sometimes. 


No matter what type of fish you are wanting to purchase, make sure to get all of the essentials for that specific type of fish. If you are buying goldfish for your kids to learn responsibility, a goldfish bowl will work great, but they will have more room to swim and be healthy in an aquarium. You do not have to purchase anything big or fancy, you don’t have to break the bank for the essentials. Do some shopping around and get what fits your specific budget and needs. As long as you are not having a fish funeral every week, you (and the kids) are doing a great job! 

Setting up the aquarium is fairly easy, just time-consuming. Take your time and make sure to test the water temperature and for chemicals before you put little Nemo in the tank. Take care everyone, until next time. 


I'm passionate about fish pets and love sharing everything I learn about them.

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