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How to Setup a Freshwater Fish Tank: Part 1

November 30, 2019
How to Setup a Freshwater Fish Tank: Part 1

I was in junior high the last time I had a fish tank.

And now, jumping back into the hobby, I learned some things the hard way. My first attempt at setting up a freshwater tank happened earlier this year. I crashed and burned so bad I gave the aquarium, fish, tank and light all back to the pet store in complete frustration.

Yikes! What happened?

We’ll get to that. After the dust settled, I decided to give it another go. If you’re interested in starting up a freshwater fish tank and you’re new to the game, this post is going to help you sidestep some proverbial land mines.

What Size of Tank & Stand?

The first problem? I started with a 10 gallon setup. Don’t do that. Get nothing less than a 29 gallon. More length for bottom dwellers and more height for other types of fish.

Believe it or not, the actual aquarium is one of the lease expensive parts of this undertaking. Petco often sells them for a buck a gallon. And you can pick up a metal aquarium stand for around sixty bucks brand new. Here’s a link to one similar to what I have (remember, none of my links are affiliate links):

Imagitarium Brooklyn Metal Stand

The above stand is simple, clean and has adjustable legs which is a big deal. You want your tank level, and other cheap stands just don’t give you that option.

What Type of Filter?

Your main options (worth considering) are canister and over the tank filters. Canister filtration may be a primo method (and very quiet), but they require a lot of setup. Plus they’re harder to clean and cost a lot of money.

For most freshwater fish tank setups, an over-the-tank filter does a good job for much less cash. Are they as quiet as canister? No. But they are pretty dang quiet if you get the right one.

Filter Brand to Purchase

I recommend Marineland® for your fish tank. Aqua Clear is another good brand, but I tried an Aqua Clear, and they’re way too loud for my taste. Plus, the pump part of an Aqua Clear can be twisted off, and if that happens, you have water dumping onto your floor at the rate of the Niagara Falls. Trust me, I accidentally did that. No bueno. Marineland filters are quiet, cost effective and just work.

Here is my Marineland Penguin 150 with the top covers removed.

Marineland Penguin models feature slide in coal-based filters, and a BIO-wheel that helps your tank’s ecosystem by nitrifying bacteria growth and eliminating toxic ammonia and nitrate. The BIO-wheel might look “dirty” but that’s exactly how it’s supposed to look. Get your filters off Amazon — WAY cheaper.

2020 Update: Marineland has introduced the Penguin Pro.

The Penguin Pro features a submersible pump and more media options. Definitely the way to go, and I just switched on my own aquarium. I compare the two filters in my Setting Up A Freshwater Tank: Part 2.

Planted Fish Tanks

If you were like me as a kid, you crammed a bunch of plastic plants and painted rocks into your aquarium. Then dumped fish into a world that was more fake than The Truman Show. This is not the way to go.

A 29-gallon tank with eleven beautiful plants.

Live plants in your aquarium help create an eco system like God designed in nature. For example, you feed your fish. They miss some of the food and it sinks to the bottom and begins to deteriorate. This creates ammonia. Not good. But with a planted tank, the plants absorb some of that leftover food (along with other pollutants) and turn that into healthy things for the tank. An aquarium with no plants can’t do that. I talk more about this in Part 2.

Type of Substrate

Substrate simply means the fish tank gravel. On my first crash and burn, I purchased normal old painted rock. Not the way to go for a planted tank. Your plants need real stuff to anchor their roots in and receive nutrients from. You could go hard core and use real sand or dirt, but I decided to use Carib Sea Planted Substrate. Two bags are perfect for a 29 gallon tank.

Type of Light

The other thing you must have for a planted tank is a light that gives plants the type of light they need. After researching a bit, I decided on the Finnex Planted Full Spectrum light. Love it! Has a remote, multiple modes to mimic early morning, noon, afternoon, etc. You can manually set each mode, or just tell the light to be on auto pilot, and it goes through the morning to night cycles automatically.

The Finnex Planted Tank light with remote and 24 hour schedule.

Water Heater

Most tropical fish need water up around 75-80 degrees. If it drops to even 70 it could kill them. Talk to your local pet store about the best heater for your tank, or at least go with a reputable brand. I’d recommend getting an in-tank thermometer to verify your temperature. And having two small heaters could be safer in case one fails on you.

A simple thermometer will help you know what your heater is working correctly.

Keep seasonal weather changes in mind too. For example, your tank might be sitting comfortably at 77 degrees upstairs in the summer. But then you’re away for a weekend and it’s winter. Guess what? Dead fish if the tank heater can’t keep up.

You’re Ready for Part 2

SWEET! With these items in place, you’re ready for Part 2 where we discuss water filtration in detail. Trust me, I didn’t understand it when I first got started, and it cost me. Let me save you from learning the hard way!

Written By
Kyler Boudreau

Kyler experiences life with his wife Sandi and his daughter Journey. He is an independent filmmaker ( and designed a CRM for network marketers (

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