Complete Aquarium Checklist for Beginners

Reef fish in a saltwater fish tank

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Fish are often thought of as simple, no-fuss pets. While it's true that fish often don't require much care and keeping, setting up an aquarium can be a much larger project than many anticipate. An ill-kept aquarium can be deadly to fish so it's best to learn as much as you can before purchasing any pets to go in it. Below you'll find a handy checklist as well as detailed explanations of what to look for when buying your first aquarium. 

Supplies Checklist

__ aquarium
__ stand
__ hood/lid
__ light
__ filtration system
__ heater
__ thermometer
__ substrate
__ fishnet
__ water conditioner
__ test kit: ammonia
__ test kit: nitrite
__ test kit: pH
__ siphon
__ algae scrubber
__ water bucket: 5 gallon
__ reference book(s)
__ decorations

Goldfish being scooped from tank with a net
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Essential Pieces 


Larger is better, but keep in mind the space you have available. A 55-gallon tank is not practical for a dorm room. However, almost anyone can find a place for a 20-gallon tank. Avoid tall thin tanks and stick with shorter longer tank, as they provide more swimming space and surface area for air exchange. Glass aquariums are preferred by many, however, acrylic tanks weigh less and because they don't break, are preferable for children. Remember that acrylic tanks require support along the entire bottom surface, not just the edges.


Aquariums are heavy, figure 10 pounds per gallon of water, so plan accordingly. A particle board bookcase is usually not sturdy enough to hold anything more than a very small aquarium. Stands can be pricey, but if you are handy with a hammer and saw you can make your own for a fraction of the store price. Check out these do it yourself stand plans.

Lid or Hood

Tanks are sold with lid separate from the light, or the lid and light may be joined into one unit referred to as the "hood." The lid portion covers the tank and serves to prevent fish from jumping out of the tank. It also reduces evaporation, and protect the light from getting wet. If the lid is combined with the light, it is often made of plastic, which is less expensive, weighs less, and is not as easy to break. Glass lids are easier to clean, provide a tighter cover, and allow more outside light to enter the tank.


Although the aquarium light is often packaged with the lid, you may have the option to purchase the light separately. Light options include incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, mercury vapor, and metal halide. The best option for a beginner is the fluorescent light, as it costs less to run and is much cooler. Ask if the bulb is included with the light fixture, and if it isn't, be sure to purchase one.

Filtration System

The filtration system is a critical piece of equipment. Although there are many styles available, a biowheel system is highly recommended. The size of the filter must match the size of the tank. Choose a filter with a flow rate that filters all the water in your tank at least four times each hour. For example, a 20-gallon tank should have a filter with a flow rate of at least 80 gallons per hour (GPH). When it's borderline, always move to a higher flow rate.


Most fish require a temperature of about 77 F. Unless your house remains in that range all the time, you'll need a heater. Aquarium heaters come as hang-on-the-tank or submersible models and may have a numerical setting or simply an up and down setting. Go for the submersible with a numerical setting. It will cost more but they are worth it. As for size, a rule of thumb for wattage is to use 5 watts per gallon for smaller tanks and 3 watts per gallon for larger tanks. However, the room temperature does affect the wattage needed. When in doubt, refer to the heater guide under the reference links.


The liquid crystal stick-on thermometers are inexpensive, easy to read, and generally accurate enough for general use. If you plan to breed fish or keep delicate fish, you should opt for a thermometer that goes in the water.


This is the material that lines the bottom of the aquarium. Generally, a small, smooth, dark-colored gravel is preferable. Get one pound of gravel for each gallon of water.


Choose a medium-sized, good quality net. Better yet, get two nets. Catching fish is easier with two nets, and it's always wise to have a spare net on hand. You never know when you may tear or misplace one of your nets.

Man performing reef tank maintenance
Filtration. vgajic / Getty Images

Maintenance Supplies

Water Conditioner

Unless the water is aged it must be dechlorinated before fish can be safely added. Choose a water conditioner that will take care of chlorine, ammonia, and heavy metals.

Test Kits

Testing water in a newly set up tank is critical. You should have kits to test for ammonia, nitrite, and pH. Multi-test strips will do as long as you follow manufacturers directions and store them properly. Recently, in-tank testing monitors have become popular. These are placed inside the tank against the aquarium wall and continuously monitor the water chemistry. Generally, these products are only good for a month or two, so take care to replace them regularly.


A siphon tool is necessary to vacuum the gravel and to do water changes. There are simple types that use gravity to siphon, and more sophisticated models that use water pressure from your tap. If you can afford it, purchase the tap run models as they are much easier to use.

Algae Scrubber

It's a fact of life that algae will grow in an aquarium eventually. An algae pad or scraper is an important maintenance item. Another option is the algae magnet. You'll pay a little more, but the convenience is worth it.

Water Bucket

Doesn't everyone have one? Yes, but if it has had soap or other chemicals in it, the residue could be lethal to fish. Purchase a brand new one to use only for aquarium maintenance.

Reference Books

Pick up a good all-purpose reference book or two to complete the package. For experienced fish keepers, a fish atlas is a good option.

Teenage girl testing the water of a home aquarium
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