Fishing for tips on how to set up your first tropical aquarium? You’ve come to the right place.
If you’ve never kept fish before, or if you’ve only ever kept coldwater fish, this tropical fish guide will walk you through the process of setting up an aquarium for tropical fish, and the equipment you will need.
First thing’s first:
Step 1: Do your research
We know it’s tough to resist, but there’s a lot of preparation you need to do before you get to the exciting part of buying your tropical fish.
Budget – You first need to agree on a budget, as there are many different price brackets involved in keeping fish. You can do it on a budget or go all out and get the most high-end equipment, so it’s important to find a price point you’re comfortable with and use that as a guide.
Test your water – You need to test the PH of your water at home before you choose your fish. This is because the level of acidity in your tap water will determine the types of fish you will be able to keep. You can easily test the PH of your water at home using a simple water test kit.
Research fish breeds – Once you know the PH of your water, you can start researching the ideal types of tropical fish for beginners that will be best suited to that water type. As you’re just starting out, it’s best to choose fish that are fun and easy to care for to begin with, and then you can move on to the more demanding breeds as you become a more experienced fish keeper.
Step 2: Choose your tank
The size of your tank will largely depend on the amount of space you have available, and also on your budget. Smaller tanks are often sold as ideal for beginners, however if your space and budget allows, we would recommend getting a mid to large size tank. This is because larger tanks are more stable in terms of water chemistry and temperature, with changes happening more gradually meaning there is a lower risk of things going wrong.
Tanks of around 80-100 cm in length are an ideal size for your first aquarium setup. Aquariums that come with a built-in cabinet underneath are also great for storing external filters, food and cleaning accessories.
Step 3. Choose your lighting
Lighting is essential for maintaining a healthy fish tank. Aquarium lighting has an important effect on the physiology and behaviour of your fish, as well as improving their general wellbeing. Lighting also provides vital energy for any plant life or other photosynthetic organisms living in your tank.
Having a well-lit tank also means you can properly appreciate the beauty of your new aquarium and its inhabitants, so it’s important you have this ready to go before you begin adding any fish or plants to the tank.
Some aquariums come with lighting tubes already fitted into the aquarium lid. However, if you’re not putting a lid on your tank, or if you wish to upgrade or change your lighting you can choose from a wide range of LED, metal halide and fluorescent light fittings. Fluorescent and LED lighting is relatively cheap to run and ideal for beginners, whereas metal halide lighting is generally used by the more advanced fish owner with larger aquariums due to its more intense light output.
Step 4: Choose a filter
An aquarium filter is an absolutely essential piece of kit, and your fish won’t stay healthy for long without one. Filters remove harmful toxins, debris and other wastes from the water, ensuring they don’t build up and cause damage to your aquarium life. There are two types of aquarium filter setup you can choose from: Internal and external.
Internal filters are more commonly used by beginners, and particularly by those with less available storage space around the aquarium. Internal filters, as their name suggests, sit fully submerged inside the aquarium, and are usually attached to the side of the tank using suction cups. Internal filters work by drawing water from the tank using an internal pump, before feeding it through the filter media and then returning the clean water to the aquarium.
External filters are designed to be kept outside of the main aquarium, and are usually kept in storage cabinets beneath the tank. As they do not need to be kept inside the aquarium, external filters tend to be larger and contain a wider variety of filter media, therefore providing a more thorough level of filtration. They work much in the same way as internal filters, drawing water from the main aquarium through pipes and feeding it through filter material before returning it to the aquarium.
If you have available space and budget, we would recommend an external filter simply due to their more advanced designs, but an internal filter will keep your aquarium water perfectly safe and healthy, and are ideal for beginners just starting out.
Step 5: Choose a heater & thermometer
Unlike coldwater fish such as common goldfish, tropical fish require warmer water in their aquariums to keep them alive. For this, you must install a fish tank heater to heat the water to the appropriate temperature and maintain it there.
Remember, different types of fish require different temperatures to stay healthy, so make sure you build this into your research back in step one.
Aquarium heaters come in many shapes, sizes and price points to suit different tank sizes, fish and budgets. There are two main types of heater: Submersible and external, and all come with safety features to ensure your fish and personal safety are not at risk.
A thermometer is also a very important addition to your beginner’s equipment kit, as it ensures you can keep a close eye on your water temperature. Temperature shouldn’t shift by more than a degree or two on a daily basis, and your thermometer will ensure you can make any necessary changes should anything go wrong.
Step 6. Buy water conditioners
Did you know that your tap water contains chlorine, chloramine and heavy metals? These can be very harmful for your fish, so you must add water conditioning substances to remove chemicals and impurities like these from the water and keep your fish healthy.
You can also buy other additives such as salts, stress coats and clearing solutions to add electrolytes, reduce fish stress and clear cloudy water.
Step 7. Choose your substrate
Now you’ve got all your essential technical equipment, it’s time to move on to aesthetics. The substrate is what covers the floor of your aquarium, and is usually made up of gravels and pebbles. You can have some fun with this element of your aquarium setup, as there are lots of attractive colours and combinations to choose from. Alternatively aquarium sand offers another attractive option.
Make sure you wash your gravel, pebbles and sand to rinse away anything nasty before you add them to the tank.
Step 8: Choose your aquarium decor
There is more fun to be had when choosing the decor for your aquarium, as you can get really creative. You can choose aquarium backgrounds to add the illusion of extra depth to your tank, and there is a world of different ornaments and artificial plants to choose from. Decor and plants add stimulation for your fish and make for a very attractive aquarium.
Try not to get too carried away, however, or you risk overcrowding your tank and reducing the quality of life for your fish. You should also make sure you wash any new decorative additions to the aquarium, especially if you’re introducing an object that has not been specifically designed for aquarium use.
You can also choose to add real plant life to your aquarium. If you choose to do this, make sure you research each individual plant’s needs in terms of light, water conditions and compatibility with fish.
Step 9: Cycle your tank
Cycling your tank is a very important step in setting up a new aquarium, and one that many people tend to ignore. Not cycling your tank before adding new fish can lead to a phenomenon called ‘New Tank Syndrome’ (NTS) which can be harmful and even fatal for your fish.
The fish tank cycle is how the biological filtration deals with waste produced within the aquarium, such as ammonia. Biological filtration relies on friendly bacteria which converts ammonia into less harmful nitrates, but brand new tanks do not have these bacteria. If you add fish to the tank straight away, the filter media may not be able to handle the sudden increase in toxins, and this can lead to NTS.
The best way to cycle your tank is to add a very small amount of fish food to the water each day, which releases ammonia into the tank as it decomposes. You can also add pure ammonia, though this is harder to get hold of. Do this for around a month to build up a good level of friendly bacteria in your filtration, and then…
Step 10: Add your fish
…The time has finally come for the most rewarding part of setting up your brand new tropical aquarium, adding the fish!
Once again, try not to get too carried away and add too many fish at once. You may have cycled the aquarium, but adding too many fish can still overload the filtration system.
Your best plan of action is to visit your local pet shop or aquarium specialists and get their first-hand advice on which fish to choose and how many.
Now all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy your beautiful tropical fish.