Many studies have shown that owning an freshwater aquarium can provide health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. The softly bubbling sounds produced by aquarium equipment can also help lull you to sleep at night. Beyond the health benefits it can offer, a freshwater aquarium can provide an aesthetically pleasing addition to your home and allow you to become the proud owner of many different types of fish.
Setting up and caring for a freshwater aquarium can be as simple as purchasing a small desktop kit or as complex as establishing a 100-gallon tank that includes multiple tropical species. Below are some basic tips on selecting an aquarium that meets your time constraints and maintenance requirements. When you are ready to set up your perfect aquarium, be sure to ask the staff at your local aquarium or pet store for their advice to ensure your chosen fish live happily.
Choose Your Freshwater Fish
Before you hit the aquarium aisle at your local pet store, put some thought into the types of fish you want to keep. Are you satisfied with a simple betta in a small desktop tank? Or do you hope to care for a large tank of exotic tropical fish? Consider the amount of space you can devote to an aquarium—and the amount of time you will commit to aquarium maintenance.
Not sure which type of fish you want? Take a look at some of the following species that make good choices for new aquarium keepers (note that this is a very small sample of appropriate “beginner” fish):
- Rasboras: The many different types of the peaceful, schooling rasbora come in sizes ranging from tiny (neon green rasbora) to large-ish (scissortail rasbora), with many in between. The more popular harlequin and lambchop varieties grow to about 2 inches and are stocked by most pet stores.
- Tetras: This is another species of small schooling fish that comes in many varieties, including the popular neon tetra, cardinal tetra, and Congo tetra. They prefer living in groups so plan to keep at least six. Tetras get along well with rasboras and other peaceful community types of fish.
- Common Goldfish: While goldfish can grow quite large (up to 12-14 inches), they are also hardy and have easy care requirements. Keep in mind that this species requires about 30 gallons of water per fish. This species can accept fluctuations in water hardness and pH, but the tank water needs to be changed frequently. Common goldfish do best with their own species, as they will try to eat anything—fish or plant—that they can fit in their mouths.
- Bettas: Looking to start small with a tank? The betta might make the perfect choice. This species can live on its own in a 5-gallon tank with a gentle filter or can co-exist with other peaceful fish in a 10-gallon or larger tank. Don’t put more than one betta in a tank—there’s a reason they’ve earned a reputation as a fighting fish!
Select a Tank Type
While having an idea of the type of fish you want to keep can help guide you to the best type and size of tank, space concerns and maintenance tasks can also influence your tank purchase. Below is a brief description of the features of common tank types used for a freshwater aquarium:
- Desktop tanks: The compact designs of these tanks take up much less space but can hold a limited number of fish. Some models include built-in filters and lights.
- Standard tanks: Small, medium, and large versions of aquariums are available in most pet stores, made of glass or acrylic. Keep in mind that larger tanks require strong stands to support the weight of the tank’s water. The varying sizes can accommodate varying amounts of fish, depending on the species.
- Kits: These typically include a tank along with one or more additional aquarium component, such as a filter, hood, lamp, water additive, or fish food. Sometimes the filter and light are built into the tank. If you’re looking for a way to ensure you buy the appropriate equipment for your tank, a kit makes a good beginner’s choice.
Add a Filter, Light, and Heater to Your Aquarium
A tank is just the start of your aquarium setup. If you’ve opted for a standard aquarium that does not come with additional equipment, you will likely need to purchase some (or all) of the following to properly care for your fish in a freshwater aquarium:
- Filter: The filter helps remove impurities using multiple types of media. Mechanical filters strain the tank water to catch debris, fish waste, and uneaten food. The biological filter media helps encourage healthy bacteria to break down ammonia and nitrites, while the chemical filter media removes toxins that can lead to water odor and discoloration. Most power filters fit over the edge of the tank and come in sizes designed for specific tank capacities (e.g., 10-gallon, 20-gallon, 50-gallon, etc.). For very large tanks, an external canister filter may be a better option.
- Heater/thermometer: Some species of freshwater fish come from tropical climates and prefer water that remains warmer. To maintain a proper temperature in your aquarium, you will likely need a heater and a thermometer. External and in-tank versions are available for both heaters and thermometers.
- Hood: As the name implies, the hood covers the top of the tank to prevent fish from escaping, other over-eager pets from sticking their paws in, and water from evaporating. Many hoods also include the necessary electrical components to house a lightbulb. Designs range from simple covers to adjustable hinged versions.
- Light: A fluorescent light bulb is ideal for most freshwater aquariums, allowing you to view your fish. If you gravitate toward a more lushly planted aquarium, you may want to investigate a halide bulb. Keep in mind that a halide bulb likely will require a specially designed fixture and may produce excess heat. Other options include LED lamps (providing benefits such as energy efficiency and long life) and incandescent bulbs.
- Stand: As mentioned previously, a large aquarium typically needs a strong stand to support the weight of the tank water. Stands come in many different styles and types, made of wood or metal (or both!), and can also include shelves and cabinets for storage.
Don’t Forget you Freshwater Aquarium Maintenance
Additional tank accessories can help make maintenance chores quicker and easier. Consider these items when purchasing the items for your freshwater aquarium:
- Air pump: Most filters circulate the water throughout the tank to remove waste products, but the addition of an air pump can also oxygenate and circulate the water by creating a stream or curtain of bubbles.
- Gravel vacuum: This makes tank cleanup easier by allowing you to remove waste that has settled into the gravel at the bottom of the tank.
- Algae pad: Available in versions for either a glass or acrylic tank, these pads remove algae and other substances from the sides of the tank without damaging it.
- Net: The safest way to move your fish when performing tank maintenance. Nets come in various sizes.
- Water test kit: These kits typically provide the necessary items to measure water pH as well as levels of ammonia and nitrate.
Prepare the Water
Once you’ve selected the best tank for your chosen fish, it’s time to prepare the water. Ensure that you know the best water conditions for the types of fish that will live in your aquarium, and consider using these water additives to achieve ideal conditions:
- Ammonia and chloramine remover: This additive helps neutralize these harmful elements in the tank water when first setting up the tank or changing the water.
- Chlorine and heavy metal remover: Like the additive above, this helps neutralize harmful chlorine from tap water when first setting up the tank or changing the water.
- pH conditioner: This will help you increase or decrease the tank water pH.
After the tank is up and running, you may want to use some of these additives to keep the water clean:
- Clarifier: This conditioner helps eliminate elements that cause cloudy water.
- Algae remover: Keeps water clean by controlling algae blooms.
- Beneficial bacteria: Healthy live bacteria help maintain the health of the tank by supporting the breakdown of wastes.
Bring in the Fun Stuff!
With your tank equipment up and running, it’s time to add the décor to complement your aquarium vision! The aisles at your pet store likely will offer many varieties of the following:
- Substrate: Gravel, rocks, and sand in a range of colors, sizes, and textures are available, all designed specifically for aquarium use.
- Backdrops: You can add a background to the back side of the tank to create a fun scene, or you can decide not to use one so you can view the tank from all sides. Backdrops work well when an aquarium is placed in front of a wall to create a sense of depth.
- Ornaments: The sky is the limit with the types and designs of aquarium ornaments. Choose from whimsical resin objects (a pirate’s treasure chest or Spongebob’s Pineapple) to natural (rocks and driftwood). These objects provide interest and can help you create a theme—and they also provide a place for fish to hide. Please note that when adding ornaments and items to your tank, you make sure that they will not alter the condition of the tank water and harm your fish.
- Artificial plants: While you can certainly add live plants to your aquarium, plastic and silk fake plants made specifically for aquarium use provide a lush look without the maintenance. Artificial plants also give fish places to hide.
Freshwater aquarium keeping is a rewarding hobby that provides health benefits and adds a touch of nature to your home. With some guidance from an experienced aquarium or pet store professional, you can set up a tank in a day and enjoy your fish for many years to come.