By choosing the right kind of aquarium, equipment, plants, decorations and optional accessories we lay the basis for the healthy conditions in our fish tanks. It is up to us the hobbyist to set up the closed environment in such a way that our fish can thrive.

This section will cover all the basics of setting up your aquarium in order to reach your goal.


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All kinds of materials can be arranged to give shape to the interior of the aquarium. You can elect to set up a natural Biotope tank or go with a completely whimsical set up with castles and all types of air powered objects. However you decide to aquascape, there are a few materials used in the tank that have important uses other than aesthetics.
Gravel or substrate, sand, stones caves, driftwood, roots and plants all play a part in the health and well being of an aquarium and its inhabitants. I will discuss them here.

      • Quartz gravel and river sand along with most gravels available at the pet store are usually fine to use as long as they don’t contain calcium and the fish you plan to keep have no special requirements.
      • An average size of one to three millimeter is good. The choice of color is up to you and is available in all shades of the rainbow. I prefer the natural stone over the dyed colors.
      • A note of caution, some gravel can raise your pH and you will never be able to lower it, always test a small sample by placing some gravel in a cup and covering it with household Vinegar, if it bubbles its calciferous and will raise your pH, don’t use it. Trust me on this as I had a plant tank that I could not maintain below pH 7.5 and was going crazy as to why, it was the gravel and all is fine now.

    Substrate for a plant tank is set up differently, first you should put down a layer of fertilizer or Laterite and then cover with your normal gravel. All gravel should be thoroughly washed prior to being placed in the aquarium.



    • You can build caves and entire structures out of rocks. Rocks provide fish with shelter, places to hide and places to lay eggs.
    They also can be used as territorial boundaries, which is essential to many fish. Use only Calcium free rocks like Granite, Slate, Sandstone and Lava. You should build any rock structures directly on the tank bottom, before you add the gravel to prevent any anaerobic bacteria beds from forming.


    • Driftwood and roots make great hiding places for fish. They can also serve for a place to put your plants that don’t live in the substrate, like the Java Fern. They can also provide a source of roughage for the Corydoras and other

Mailed Catfish.

    Roots and driftwood also tend to soften and lower the pH of the water. One word of caution, most livebearers prefer their water on the Alkaline side so too much driftwood could be detrimental to them. The best place to get your driftwood or roots is from a supplier who can guarantee their source, as the process of curing your own is not easy and most wood from the forest would just rot in the tank.


    • The true beauty of an aquascape is brought to life by the use of plants. Whether plastic or live to create a “complete aquarium” all the decor should be complemented by the use of plants.
    • Plastic plants today come in all shapes and sizes and come so close in look to live plants its sometimes hard to tell them apart. When decorating with plastic plants please try to keep in mind what type of plants would be growing in nature. For more information on the care and use of live plants, please visit my separate section dedicated to

aquarium plants

    , here you will find a large list of plants and what they need to thrive.




Here I will give a general guideline and time frame for setting up the aquarium once you have acquired all the needed components. This list is not written in stone and should only be used as a starting point.

  1. Place the rock structures in the tank, make sure that they are placed in such a way that they won’t fall and possibly crack the bottom glass.
  2. Add the substrate. For tanks with different types of fish use the appropriate grade and type gravel. For tanks with live plants,
    • First put down a one inch layer of Clay type soil with fertilizer.
    • Top with an additional one and one half to two and one half inches of gravel.
    • For the top layer use prewashed gravel or rinse until the water runs clear.


  3. Install the filter. Locate the water intake and outflow as far apart as possible, for good water circulation. Add any bubble walls and airstones. Fill the filter with water.
  4. Install the heater. Don’t plug it in yet.
  5. Install any other optional equipment: power heads, thermometer, air devices etc.
  6. Place the driftwood and roots in such a way that they don’t interfere but hide the in-tank equipment.
  7. Add the live or plastic plants, if using live use fast growing types at first.
  8. Pour the water into the tank so as not to bother the material already installed. Either;
    • Pour the water onto the rocks or wood.
    • Use a plate to disperse the water.


  9. Install the top and lighting.
  10. Plug in and turn on all the equipment.
  11. Run the tank and adjust the water and temperature to the fish you plan to keep for at least a couple of days.
  12. Finally add the fish, slowly and remember the Nitrogen cycle.


A few simple precautions and things to look for when you go out to purchase new fish can save you a lot of frustration later. I will list some things to keep in mind here.

  • Before you buy any fish try to find out some information on it. Find out what water conditions it prefers; pH, Hardness etc. Find out if it has any specific dietary needs. Find out how it interacts with other fish.
  • Make sure your tank meets the conditions you researched.
  • Make sure the fish looks well fed, its stomach well rounded. Ask the dealer to feed the fish, so you can see him eat. Trust no one!
  • Don’t worry to much about color. Fish in the dealers tanks rarely show off their true colors.
  • Check the fishes health, no clamped fins, no white fungus, no panting or rubbing. The fish should be active and alert.
  • Never buy a fish from a tank with sick fish in it. Check the filtration, some use a central system, which means the water in one tank is the same as all the others.
  • Make sure you don’t submit the fish to a wide temperature swing on the way home, hot or cold.
  • Combine species only with the same water and temperature needs.
  • Combine species only with the same food needs.
  • If your fish are territorial move the aquascape around a little to give your new fish a chance to claim his area.
  • Don’t over crowd the tank!

Acclimating the new fish

    Let the plastic bag your new fish is in float on the tanks surface for about fifteen minutes to equalize the temperature. Remove the bag and open it into a small plastic bucket. Add some tank water to the bucket. Continue adding water ’till the bucket is about half tank water and half fish store water. Then net out the fish and let as much of the water drip off the net as possible. Release the fish to the tank. Never dump the bag into your tank, you don’t know what’s in its water! Keep a close eye on the fish until your sure its settled in. That’s it.


Here is a general listing of chores that have to be done regularly on your fish tank. They are not written in stone and are meant only as a starting point. As you gain experience and your tank matures you will develop your own system of maintaining your tank. I will give you a basic schedule here.


  • Observe your fish, are there any signs of disease or Parasites? Are any fish being bullied?
  • When your feeding are all the fish eating? Don’t be afraid to skip a day feeding, your fish won’t starve.
  • Check your equipment. Check temperature. Check filter flow and cleanliness.
  • Remove any dead fish or plants.


  • Do a partial water change about 25% will be fine. Remember to have the water the same temperature and pH.
  • Clean the glass in and out. Clean the top and light fixture.
  • Vacuum a small portion of your gravel.
    Note: if you have a gravel cleaning syphon you can do this when you change the water. If you do the 25% change with the vacuum, once a month your entire gravel bed will be cleaned.


  • Change your filter top layer and carbon.
  • Thin out and cut back plants that need it.
  • Clean the filter and impeller as per the manufacturers instructions.
  • Perform all your water test to see “what’s” going on.
  • Check your food supply.


  • Change your florescent light bulbs.
  • Clean all your tank decorations.
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