Complete Aquarium Checklist for Beginners

Reef fish in a saltwater aquarium

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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 (gravel vacuum)
__ algae scrubber
__ water bucket: 5 gallon
__ reference book(s)
__ decorations/plants

Goldfish being scooped from tank with a net
Will Robb / Getty Images

Essential Pieces 

Aquarium

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 use with children in the household. Remember that acrylic tanks require support along the entire bottom surface, not just the edges.

Stand

Aquariums are heavy, figure 10 pounds per gallon of water capacity, so plan accordingly. A particle board bookcase is usually not sturdy enough to hold anything more than a very small aquarium. Be sure to use a real aquarium stand designed to hold the weight of an aquarium. Most aquarium warranties are void if the aquarium is not placed on an appropriate aquarium stand. There are plans available for making your own stand, if you are handy with a hammer and saw.

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 protects 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 aquarium.

Light

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, metal halide and Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs. A good option for a beginner is the fluorescent light, as it costs less to run and is much cooler. The LED lights are becoming more commonly available and are the best choice as they use little electricity compared to other bulbs, so are inexpensive to run and don't heat the water. Check to see 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. It keeps the water quality clean to keep the fish healthy, so get the best filter you can afford. Although there are many styles available, a power filter with a biowheel system is highly recommended. The size of the filter must be appropriate for the size of the aquarium. 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. For bigger aquariums, canister filters are the best choice of filters.

Heater

Most fish require a temperature of about 74 to 77 degrees 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; colder climates may need more watts per gallon. For aquariums over 40 gallons, it is a good idea to get two smaller heaters and put one at each end of the aquarium, rather than one larger heater. This provides better distribution of heat throughout the aquarium.

Thermometer

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.

Substrate

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. Rinse the gravel before placing it into the aquarium.

Fishnet

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. Handle length should be proportionate to the size of your aquarium, so that you don't have to stick your hand into the water when catching fish in a large aquarium.

what you need for your first aquarium illustration
Illustration: The Spruce / Bailey Mariner

Maintenance Supplies

Water Conditioner

Unless the tap water is aged it must be dechlorinated before fish can be safely added into the aquarium. Choose a water conditioner that will take care of chlorine, ammonia, and heavy metals.It should be used in the tap water when filling the tank and when doing your regular monthly water changes.

Test Kits

Testing water in a newly set up aquarium is critical. You should have kits to test for ammonia, nitrite, and pH, at a minimum. Nitrate, hardness, alkalinity and chlorine tests are also available. 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 aquarium against the tank 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. Maintaining proper water quality is the most important part of keeping aquarium fish healthy.

Siphon

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 to remove water and then replace it. Monthly water changes are made much easier to do when using gravel vacuums. They clean the waste off the bottom of the tank while removing water for the partial water change. Be sure to add dechlorinator when adding the tap water back to refill the aquarium.

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. This allows you to clean the algae off the inside of the glass by using a magnet on the outside, so you don't have to put your hand into the aquarium. 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. Label the bucket "For Aquarium Use Only" with an indelible marker for safety.

Reference Books

Pick up a good all-purpose aquarium reference book or two to complete the package. For experienced fish keepers, a fish atlas is a good option. These will tell you about the natural habitat, life history and breeding practices for the fish species you chose to keep in your aquarium.

Decoration/Plants

Decorations for your aquarium will vary based on personal tastes. Do you want mermaids and divers? Shipwrecks? How about caves and natural rock work, or to duplicate the look of an ocean coral reef? All of these are possible with decorative items from your local fish store. Be sure anything placed in to your aquarium, whether rocks, wood, or other decor items, are safe for the fish, and are thoroughly rinsed before adding them into the aquarium. Many fish prefer to have a place to hide, especially when sleeping, so having rockwork caves in the tank, or decor with big holes in them, will make the fish feel more comfortable.

Plants are one of the best decorative items to add to an aquarium, and they are functional too. Live plants help remove ammonia, nitrite an nitrate from the water. They provide a hiding place for the fish, and also food for herbivorous species. Plastic plants are also available to give your aquarium a natural look, without requiring the lighting and care that live plants take.

Teenage girl testing the water of a home aquarium
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