Venturing into the world of aquariums offers the opportunity to experience a small slice of the world that most will never get to see otherwise. From the rivers of South America, to the lakes of Africa, to the reefs of Australia, there are complex and fascinating ecosystems that we can bring into our homes. While I expect most of our readers are well-versed in at least some aspect of fish keeping, we all began somewhere, so we will try to share some of our experience to help newcomers as they enter this exciting hobby.

Choosing what kind of setup to begin

There are almost as many different setups as there are fish keepers, and deciding what your goals are and which direction you want to head in is often the best first step to take. The most obvious question is do you want a freshwater or saltwater tank (or be a rebel and go for a brackish tank)? There is no absolutely right or wrong answer to this question. Many people will advise beginning with freshwater because most freshwater fish are more forgiving of less than ideal husbandry, but there are certainly a number of successful marine keepers who started with saltwater and may have never kept any freshwater fish. For the scope of this article, though, we will focus on setting up a freshwater tank and will address beginning a marine tank another time.

Focusing in on beginning a freshwater tank, the next thought process should be trying to figure out a general idea of what kind of fish you want to keep. Do you want to keep a variety of small, peaceful fish that can be more or less mixed and matched together? Perhaps you want large, impressive fish that would eat those small fish if given the opportunity? Maybe you want a tank with the brilliant colors of many African Cichlids? What if you wanted an aquarium that looks like an underwater garden with just a few small fish to complement aquatic plants? Choosing a general direction to head will save time, effort, and potentially money by getting it started on the right track to meet your goals. This is also a good time to start doing research to avoid the common mistakes of first time aquarium keepers.

Buying your first aquarium

Once you have decided on setting up your tank, the first obvious question is what aquarium to buy? What size do you need? Acrylic or glass? A standard rectangular tank, a bowfront, a corner tank, or something more unique? The good news is that most of these questions come down to personal taste, and there won't be much (if any) difference in actually keeping fish in a rectangular glass tank as opposed to a bowfront acrylic tank. I have heard a number of people express concern over the prospect of the silicone seams of a glass tank leaking, but the reality is that most new aquariums (and many used aquariums) are made with high enough quality materials that you won't have to face this issue for decades if you take care of the aquarium properly.

The one decision you do want to take care in making is what size aquarium to begin with. Many people have the misconception that the overall amount of work and effort involved in keeping aquariums scale up in relation to their size. This really isn't true, and in many cases is the opposite of reality. In practice, because of the extra water in a larger tank, any potential pollutant (whether from an external source or as a result of biological waste) is much more diluted, leading to a much more stable tank with healthier fish. It's not until you start getting into very large tanks, which I would define as tanks more than 100 gallons, that you start having looking into some of the potential challenges of large aquaria such as the ability of a floor to support the weight of the tank, the increasing filtration and heating requirements, and the physical challenges of reaching into the tank to adjust decorations. Even on the small end of the very large tanks (such as tanks from 100-250 gallons), these are challenges are fairly easily overcome. My advice is always to take a good look at where you are planning on putting the tank (and at your checkbook) and go with the largest aquarium your space and budget allow. Almost everybody who stays in the aquarium hobby eventually wishes for a larger tank, but few ever wish they had chosen a smaller one.

Along with the size tank chosen, you are going to need a suitable stand to put the tank on that will support the weight of the aquarium. A good rule of thumb is to estimate ten pounds for every gallon of water the tank holds. This estimate will factor in the weight of the water, the tank itself, and the rocks and decorations inside the tank. Small tanks (I wouldn't risk more than about ten gallons) may be able to be supported by furniture, but a stand made specifically for aquaria would be the best choice. These range from relatively cheap welded iron stands to beautiful (but pricey) furniture quality stands. Storage area underneath the tank is always extraordinarily convenient, but choose the stand that you like the look of and meets your budget.

Preparing your tank

Once you have your tank and stand purchased and in place, it is time to pick out everything else to go with it before introducing any life. First on my list is always some sort of substrate, which is chosen largely based on what you are keeping, and a little bit on what you find attractive. For most fish from South America or Asia, which is the majority of the freshwater fish available, inert aquarium gravel is sufficient. Simply pick out what gravel you like the look of (tip: most fish develop the best colors when kept with darker gravels), whether that is a naturalistic brown or something brighter and more colorful. For African cichlids, I would look for a substrate made out of crushed coral or aragonite, which will help buffer the pH and elevate the water hardness to levels closer to those of the African lakes from where these fish are native. If you are planning on growing plants, you might look into one of the specialized planted substrates which will provide nutrients for the plants. There is a small group of hobbyists who will keep their aquarium with no substrate at all, but for the beginner, the benefits offered by some sort of substrate make it highly advisable to at least start your foray into fish keeping with it.

The next vital piece of equipment is some sort of filtration mechanism. The old standard is an air powered undergravel filter, but filtration technology has advanced to the point that these filters, while capable of supporting your fish, are not generally recommended anymore. Depending on the size tank chosen, there are a number of good quality filters that either hang on the back of the tank or sit underneath the aquarium with hoses channeling the water to and from the tank. Another popular choice for larger tanks are sump filters that are usually plumbed with PVC pipes to holes drilled in the aquarium itself. Each of these filtration methods has its advantages and disadvantages (that can fill more than one article by itself), but a quality local fish store should be able to give good advice as to which filter to choose. The bottom line is to choose a quality brand with enough power to handle the volume of water in your aquarium.

Because many of the fish available come from tropical environments, a heater should be used to keep the water at an appropriate temperature, most often in the upper 70's. The largest exception to this are the numerous goldfish varieties which prefer cooler water and will handle room temperature with no problem. You can find heaters that hang on the back of the tank or that can be completely submerged under the water. Hang on the back heaters do have a risk of overheating and cracking if the water level evaporates below the heating element, so I generally recommend choosing submersible.

The final piece of equipment you should pick out is some sort of light for the aquarium. If you are looking for good plant growth, you should look into a fairly powerful light (in addition to the other needs for successful plant growth). Otherwise, dimmer lights, such as the wide range of relatively low powered LED lights currently being offered, still allow you to see the fish well without supplying as much extra light to nuisance algae.

Decorating and filling your aquarium

While there may be some chemical or behavioral impacts from certain decorations you put into the aquarium, decorations are, for the most part, there to make you happy. Be aware that some decorations (rocks that slightly dissolve in water) may raise the pH of the water, and some (such as driftwood and Indian Almond Leaves) may lower the pH or stain the water a tea-colored brown. I would also recommend against putting objects not specifically made for aquariums into your tank as they may leach toxic chemicals into the water. Otherwise, choose what you (and your fish) would like. Many African cichlids are native to areas with a lot of rocky caves, so trying to recreate such habitats will often result in comfortable and unstressed fish. Fake (or live) plants offer cover and security for many small fish, though most cichlids will try to pull these up out of the gravel.

Once all of the equipment is ready, it is time to fill up the tank. While the specific chemistry and quality of the water is variable and a huge topic on its own, there is one absolutely vital consideration before introducing the water to your fish. Ensure that the water has no Chlorine or Chloramines. These are both chemicals used to sterilize tap water and kill any organism that may make the water unsafe for human consumption, but they are equally toxic to fish. Chlorine does dissipate out of water within a couple of days, but Chloramines, which are comprised of Chlorine and Ammonia molecules bonded together, can take weeks or months to naturally break down. Unless you are absolutely certain about what is in your water, the safest bet is to use a commercial de-chlorinator that neutralizes both Chlorine and Chloramines. By and large, these are very safe even if there is no Chlorine present, and they are difficult or impossible to overdose.

Stocking your aquarium

When you have everything prepared in your tank, it is time to add fish. Without getting too much into the details of the Nitrogen Cycle, know that beneficial bacteria will develop that will help to break down the biological waste created by all of the living organisms in the aquarium, but it takes time for sufficient numbers of bacteria to grow to handle a full stocking. It is also possible to overstock your tank to a point where the bacteria simply cannot keep up with the volume of waste produced. You can utilize a fishless cycle method to grow enough bacteria before you put any fish in, but if you don't want to wait, you can slowly introduce fish to your aquarium. I would recommend starting with only 10-20% of your total potential tank load and waiting a few weeks before adding additional fish. In the meantime, read up on the Nitrogen Cycle and either make friends with your local fish store who can do water tests for you or learn to test your own water while you wait for the inevitable ammonia spikes to fall.

While there are many nuances to every aspect of fish keeping, these general guidelines will at least get you started in the right direction. Everybody who gets hooked on the fish hobby (no pun intended) soon realizes that you will never stop learning how to improve the care you give to your aquariums. Welcome to the wonderful world of fish.