Setting up your first tank can seem a little daunting. That is why I created the “What To Purchase ” checklist to make sure that you don’t miss anything. I hope that helps out. One thing I did want to note, is that in this hobby, quality goes a long way. When I’ve cut corners on doing something right, I end up paying more in the long run. So I suggest buying the right gear the first time and it will last you forever. As the saying goes "The cheap comes out more expensive".
First things first; get your stand situated on a flat surface. Make sure that the stand is level aswel. It might be wise to anchor the tank to a wall if you have young children, or hyper furry ones running around the house. You do not want to tank to tip over, that is for sure. Most local fish stores or major retails sell stands made out of particleboard. These are not ideal in the long run as they will breakdown over time getting wet from the water changes you will be doing. If budget permits, go with treated wood, or metal stand. But if you have a limited budget, the particle stands will last you a few years before they start showing wear and tear. Also, make sure the tank is not near any windows that are going to be receiving direct or bounced light. It makes regulating light difficult and can lead to algae.
Tank, Substrate & Hardscapes
Once your stand is in place and level, you can set your tank on it. Some tanks will require a foam mat underneath them. If your tank needs a mat it will be supplied with it. Most of the tanks that require a mat a rimless glass tnks, with no black rim at the top or bottom. Some tanks come with a black frame and support at the top of the tank. Never remove this support or the frame as the tank is not designed to run without a support system.
Once the tank is in place we are going to add the substrate. Some substrates you’ll want to rinse, some you won’t. Just read the directions on the packaging to make sure. If you need to rinse your substrate a household strainer can be great for this. You can add some of the new substrate into the strainer, run some water over it in your sink or with a garden hose, and dump the rinsed substrate into a clean bucket. Just make sure you rinse till the runoff is clear. You don’t want the excess fines getting into your tank as it will cloud your water and take many water changes to make sure it all is removed.
Now as we are thinking about the substrate, it is wise to also take into consideration the hardscape (large rocks) or driftwood that we might be adding. Again, make sure that we rinse those as well, but what we are going to want to do is add about one-quarter (¼) of the substrate into the tank, then we add our hardscape and/or driftwood, then add the remaining substrate. This will help lock in the hardscape so things are sturdier as they tend to settle when we add water.
At this point, we will want to fill your tanks with water almost to the point where the water level hits the top of the substrate, but no more. We also want to make sure we do not disturb or agitate our substrate as much as possible. I generally grab a small dinner plate and have the water flowing in at a slow rate, hit the dinner plate. This will help diffuse the harsh stream of flowing water and make sure we do not kick up any fines that might have been leftover from rinsing, or move the substrate out of place. Once the planting is over we can add die free paper towels, or even disposable grocery store plastic bags to help not disturb the substrate. Just make sure they are clean and you’re not going to be introducing a foreign chemical into the water. The goal is to not disturb the substrate anytime you're filling your tank. Overall, filling the tank with a little bit of water will make planting easier for us, but again, make sure you do not go above the substrate level and add any dechlorinators if you are using tap water.
Prepping and Planting Plans
From here we are going to want to prep our plants. I have had the best luck with tissue cultures, or cups, as they are kept in submerged type environments and transition very well into tanks. Some plants are growing emerged, which look nice when they first go into the tank, but then die back and have to adjust to thriving submerged. The alternative to culture cups are simply clippings from a local fish store or another hobbyist. Since they are already submerged, they do not “melt” back as they are accustomed to being submerged. Regardless of how you get your plants, you need to rinse them of any clear gel, take off any wool and metal ties, and cut back the roots so they are only around 2” long. This will encourage the plant to spread new roots after planting. With the tissue culture cup plants, you want to break the plants up into 5-10 smaller sections and plant them individually with about 1-2” inches between planting. This will allow the plants to mature and have enough room where they are not fighting for light or nutrients. Push the stems, or roots down far enough so that the plant does not lift out of the substrate. Aquascaping tweezers are great because when we use our fingers, it displaces a lot of the substrate and makes it difficult for the root to grab onto the substrate. Make sure you have done a little homework on your plant selection as some plants have rhizomes which are NOT to be planted under the substrate. See our plant selection guide. As part of your design, it is wise to consider how the plant will mature in size and where it might be best to plant it in our space. It’s generally wise to plant lower carpeting plants in the foreground, compact but leafy plants in the middle ground, and bushier tall stem plants in the background. Now this is entirely up to the designer and no one should tell you what you like, however, I do recommend gathering a bunch of inspiration images off of the web to plan your design then keep them handy to remind you of your vision while you’re planting.
Adding Equipment and CO2 System
Now that everything is planted, we need to add our equipment to the tank. This is where you’d install your heater which either suctions cups to your glass if it's going in your tank. If your filter is a canister, I like to have the intake on one side of the tank and the outflow on the other side. This will create a good flow of water through your tank circulating nutrients and Co2. However, if you have a hang on back filter feel free to put it anywhere it does not visually detract from the tank. Toss in any powerheads you wish to install to increase water flow, and most importantly, we need to setup your CO2 system. Your CO2 system should include in this order, your canister (paintball, 5-10lb, etc) a regulator with an electronic solenoid. The electronic solenoid will need to be plugged into a timer that will turn your C02 on 1-2 hours before your lights come on. How long the C02 needs to run before the lights come is determined by how efficient your diffusion rate is. But to continue, from the regulator you’ll have some tubing run over to check value, then into your bubble counter if you choose to run one. The check valve between the regulator and bubble counter will ensure no water flows back into the regulator as that can potentially damage the needle valve. Also, a bubble counter isn’t needed, it's more of a visual indication that your CO2 is running. I think they are helpful in the beginning while you’re learning how a CO2 system works. From the bubble counter, you’ll tube over to your method of diffusion. For example, your inline diffuser, ceramic disc and/or atomizer. You can read more about designing your Co2 setup in our Guide to CO2.
Now that everything is planted, we will want to fill the tank. Again, it is wise to diffuse the flow of water into the tank, I generally do this a dinner plate, household strainer, clean plastic bags, die free paper towels. Whatever will keep the substrate from getting kicking up and potentially pulling your plants up. If you are using tap water there is a great tool to help you fill and empty your tank through a siphon system. It attaches to a garden hose spigot or household sink (generally speaking) and uses your water pressure to fill and drain your tank. Well worth the money versus carrying buckets around the house. Once filled, again, if you are using tap water make sure that you add de-chlorinator like Seachem Prime to neutralize chlorine.
Choosing the right filter plays a big role in the success of your livestock and the clarity of your tank's water. Too little filtration can result in ammonia spikes and the death of livestock, too much filtration, well, nothing happens. So I think it's always better to have too much than not enough filtration. When choosing a filter it is a good idea to choose a filter that provides 10x turnover of your water volume an hour. That is what most pro aquascapers recommend. For example, if you have a 20-gallon tank, you’ll want to choose a filter that turns over 200 gallons per hour. Most filters rate their gallon per hour by their pump, however, once you put everything that needs to go into filter, the gallons per hour are cut down dramatically as the filter's contents inhibit water flow. And the longer one goes without servicing their filter, the worse the water can get. So choose a filter that is going to be more than enough volume turnover to support your growing and thriving livestock. I tend to like canister filters as they can be put underneath the tank making the quitter. And most of the intake and outlet pipes are under the water's surface so they don’t splash water, or make additional noise.
Lastly, I want to make a note about what to put into your filter. The two major things that go into a filter are mechanical filtration in the form of sponges, biological filtration in the form of a porous material like generic ceramic rings. These two topics subjects are why I like canister filters. Mechanical filtration removes big chunks of organic material, like fish food that gets stuck up, plant matter like dead leaves, things of that nature. If you are using a hang on back (HOB) filter, it’s a good idea to get something that can be easily removed so you can clean off any debris that might build up. Things like rotting food, or plant matter, and cause an increase in ammonia that can be avoided by simply washing it off with tank water. The problem with HOB is they can not fit a lot of sponges cause them to clog quickly reducing flow. From there you’ll want to load up as much biomedia as your filter can fit, again, a canister filter will fit FAR more biomedia than a HOB. This will help ensure beneficial bacteria has a place to thrive. From there you can add what is considered chemical filtration but I find that one can overdo it with chemical filtration. Tanks will achieve a balance on their own if you let them. Things like active carbon, phosguard, purigen, all serve a purpose and are to be used as a tool, not a crutch. With proper maintenance and filtration, one doesn’t need chemical filtration on a daily basis unless they are solving an issue. However, most of these issues are removed when remineralizing our own RODI water.
In summary, shoot for a filter with 10x your tank's volume turnover per hour. Have your water first come in contact with filter sponges, your mechanical filtration. If you have the room, put finer and finer sponges to get your water crystal clear! Then have your water come in contact with as much biomedia as possible. And lastly, only if your tanks "needs" it, you can add chemical filtration. But remember that chemical filtration can sometimes only be a band-aid. Make sure you are addressing the problem you’re having with your water quality.
Heaters are a touchy subject as some hobbyists don't use them. My response to that is it's always better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it! I have lived in California my entire life and probably could get away with never using a heater. But not all of us have weather that sits around 75°F most of the year. Just make sure you do your research and find out what is going to make your livestock thrive. Most tropical tanks run around 74°F or 23°C. Having your tank too hot or cold can cause stress on your livestock, however, it's generally better to side on too cold than hot. Having the tank be slightly cooler will also help keep algae at bay and cellular activity slows in cooler temperatures. Something like your basic suction cup heater inside the tank can work fine. If you are wanting to see less equipment in the tank, you can run an inline heater off your canister filter, or some canister filters now have built-in heaters for a cleaner look inside the tank.
From there, if you have not already you can install your light. Some lights sit directly on to the tank while others have special legs. Some lights have such a high output that they are suspended over the tank so they can be adjusted to the perfect height. You can read more about this in our lights section. With everything that is plugged into your tank, make sure that there is some slack, or what we call a drop line which is essentially a dip in the cord so in case water runs down it, it does not run directly into your wall socket or power strip.
Things to buy
I know it can seem like a lot, so here is a little checklist to make sure you don't forget any equipment.
Tank (may come with pressure mat)
Hardscape (Rock or wood)
*Aquascaping Tool (Something like tweezers can help with planting hard to reach places)
*Syphoning kit (drains and fills/connects to the faucet)
Filter (canister or hang-on-back HOB or in-tank)
*Powerhead (For circulation, but make sure fish are large enough to not get caught in the blades)
Bubble Counter (no needed but helpful)
CO2 grade tubing
*Not needed, but helpful