Setting Up a Tropical Fish Tank for the First Time

If you are new to aquariums, especially saltwater aquariums, you may want to take some time to research the steps you need to take to set up a healthy environment for your fish and other water creatures. Doing so will ensure a habitat that is able to support your life forms when you add them to the tank and avoid heartbreaking losses.

A new aquarium requires true hard work. If you are new to setting up a tropical tank, or you simply need a refresher for a new tank, this is the perfect article to help you get started. These basic steps will have you getting your new fish settled into their new home in no time.

What Defines a Tropical Aquarium?

Defined simply, a tropical aquarium is an aquarium designed to house and protect tropical fish. Tropical fish can be of either the freshwater or saltwater (marine) variety, but what they have in common is the inability to live or thrive in cold water.

This means you need to take a little bit of extra care when preparing your aquarium for the addition to new fish as water temperature control can mean the difference between a healthy, happy fish population or the death of anything new you add.

What You Need To Build Your Fish Tank

Nice tropical setup for a tankNo matter what size tank you plan on having when setting up a tropical tank, you need a few very specific things in advance:

Aquarium: Be sure to choose an aquarium size that will comfortably house the types of fish you plan on having. Most stores can help you with space various species need and how many you can have.

Lights: Lighting is important, especially if you have live plants. Know the lighting option differences and choose which is best for your needs.

Filter: Filters are a must-have to help get rid of waste and avoid dangerous build-ups in the water.

Heater: Heaters are a MUST HAVE for tropical tanks. Be sure to know what temperatures your fish species thrive at and then keep your tank at the correct temps.

Air Pump: Although not needed, these create bubbles and aerate the water. It is a fun effect and adds to the overall health of the water and provides a gentle flow. An air pump for your fish tank is not mandatory, but it does help create a nice environment for your fish.

Substrate: Depending on the type of fish tank you are setting up, you will need a substrate for the tank bottom. This helps filter impurities and waste, and in the case of marine life, is actually a ‘living sand’ important to the tank ecosystem.

Decor: Most people want some sort of decorative touch added to their tank. Be sure to choose products that don’t overwhelm the size of the tank.

Water Conditioner: Conditioner is what can help clear out impurities prior to adding fish, as well as taking care of any possible issues that may arise after adding fish. Before adding any fish in the tank, you’ll need to treat your tap water with a water dechlorinator. When choosing a water conditioner, look for a product that detoxifies and removes harmful chemicals like ammonia and nitrite.

Filter Starter Bacteria: There are healthy bacteria that will make your water clearer and your fish happier. Add these to help create the perfect environment and naturally clean your tank. Make sure that you understand that you need beneficial bacteria to build up in your fish tank, we’ll go over this down bellow.

Water Test Kits: Water health is crucial to overall aquarium health. You will want to test the water regularly for problems, so you can quickly amend them.

Background: Depending on where you place your new aquarium, you might want to consider adding a background image.

Leveler: Your aquarium needs to sit on a level surface to prevent any cracks on your tank.

Fish Net: The fishnet will help you add fish in a tank with precision.

Thermometers: An aquarium thermometer will allow you to monitor the temperature of the water in your tank. This helps to control the number of oxygen levels that your aquarium tank has to prevent fish from suffocating.

GloFish Aquarium Kit Fish Tank with LED Lighting

GloFish Aquarium Kit Fish Tank with LED Lighting

Although buying all the accessories for your fish tank is a much satisfying process, buying a complete fish tank kit would reduce the overtime of you getting your first tank up and running.

This aquarium kit comes with a 20-gallon fish tank. What’s so great about this product is the fact that you won’t have to worry about purchasing accessories. It comes with a few multi-packs of artificial plants and an anemone that can actually glow once your install the LED blue light.

As far as lighting goes, the kit comes with an integrated LED hood light capable of giving plenty of illumination when needed. It also brings a special LED blue light that transforms your tank into a glowing palace. Combining this kit with a glowing background and gravel will be the perfect set-up for any fish.

Steps To Set Your Aquarium For The First Time

Setting up a new tank is a ton of fun! The best part is when you add your fish, but you need to practice patience leading up to this moment to ensure you have created the best environment possible.


You want to wash everything. Gavel, decor, the aquarium itself… These all need a good rinse to get any chemicals from the packaging removed. If you are using live sand, follow those directions carefully.

Install Your Background

Before you fill the tank with any water, turn the tank around and get it prepared for the installation. We strongly recommend acquiring the SeaView Aquarium Glue, which is a very effective non-toxic adhesive solution. Apply a tiny light coat of the adhesive to the background. Make sure you install it on the outside part of your fish tank.

Add Gravel and Accessories

Now is by far the best time to start adding the gravel or the preferred gravel floor or substrate that you choose for your tank. Accessories are going to be based on your taste. It is always great to give your tank an artistic and unique look. The aquarium will serve as a decorative element to your room.

Fill Half Way

Fill your tank halfway with water after adding your gravel. If you run the water down the side, it won’t disrupt your gravel or sand. Marine tanks may be using special saltwater as well, so be sure to follow directions.

Add Filter and Heater (Decor Also)

Once half-filled, smooth out your substrate and add the filter and heater where you want them. If you have decor, add this as well.

Fill Tank, Test Water, and Allow to Sit

Finish filling your tank with water and test it. Testing for impurities and pH is a good way to know what you are starting with. Let your water sit for 12 to 24 hours as well.

Test Water and Add Conditioners and Bacteria, Let Sit

Test your water again and add conditioners or bacteria to help create a healthy water environment. Allow your filter to run and move the water to help it mix up. Let it run for 12 to 24 hours.

Test Water and Make Sure Temperature is Correct

You seriously cannot test the water enough. Don’t make the mistake of not reading it and accidentally add your fish to toxic water. Also, be sure your temperature is where you want it.

Acclimate Fish

Never just dump the fish in. Always add them IN their plastic container with their original water to allow the water to come to tank temps gradually. After a few hours, you can add a bit of tank water to their water to help them get used to the new freshwater slowly.

The Nitrogen Cycle Explained

How the Nitrogen Cycle WorksTo help you understand better how to treat your aquarium water, you need to learn how does the nitrogen cycle works. Also, learning this process will help you provide a better environment for your fishes.

  1. First is the introduction of nitrogen to your tank. This process starts when you add fish food into your aquarium.
  2. Once your fishes eat all the fish food, then comes the second stage, which is the ammonia produced by fish excrement.
  3. Then comes stage three, which is Nitrosomonas bacteria, which is the process that converts ammonia to nitrite.
  4. On stage four, the Nitrobacter bacteria converts nitrite to nitrate, which is a bi-product of ammonia, and it less harmless for your fish.
  5. Stage five would be the process of controlling these substances, and it can be done with water treatment, allowing algae growth or the replacement on your tank’s water if necessary.

Most of the time, your water filter system will help breakdown ammonia and nitrite. Something else to consider is allowing algae growth on your tank. This will help control the environment on your aquarium because they have the ability to absorb nitrate and ammonia. Once the nitrogen cycle it’s completed, there will be good bacteria established on your aquarium, and your fish will have a healthy biological environment.

Make sure you understand that this cycle keeps on going as long as your aquarium is up and running. Sometimes this cycle can be disrupted. Here is where you’ll need to come in a maybe treat or clean the water on your aquarium if necessary.

The good bacteria will build upon your filter system or on your substrate. We found some outstanding filter options from what we think is one of the best out there, head over to They have some outstanding resources when it comes to the filtration system of your fish tank.

Before you add fish to the tank, you want to test the water. There are plenty of water test kits available, which can help you determine if there are any high levels of ammonia or nitrite in your tank.

It is always good to start with hardy species of fish like the famous guppy or platy fish. This type of fish will resist the nitrogen cycle process when you are trying to set up your fish tank for the first time.


Cleaning your tank would be something that you learn once you start your learning curve. We suggest starting small until you understand the essential elements that are needed to provide a healthy environment for your fish. Here’s some of the questions that come up for first tank step-ups:

Can I Use Tap Water For My Fish Tank?

Using tap water is fine as long as you treat the aquarium water with a special water conditioner. Make sure that you try not to use cold water to fill up your tank. If you fill up your tank with cold tap water, then your heater is going to have to work too much to get the water to the desired temperature.

How long does a tropical fish tank take to set up?

If you decide to purchase all of the equipment separated, just getting all the pieces will probably take you two to three weeks. Adding that time together with what the nitrogen cycle takes, it could run you up about 4 to 6 weeks to get a tropical fish tank up and running with really low levels of ammonia and nitrite. However, purchasing an aquarium kit could help you save a week of your time.

Can I place my fish tank in direct sunlight?

It is crucial that you understand that you should avoid placing any tank or aquarium on direct contact with the sunlight because it can overheat the aquarium water, and the oxygen levels on your tank can be drastically reduced. Having an aquarium with low levels of oxygen can cause your fish to suffocate.


Your starting fish should be any of the hard species. It takes time for your aquarium filter system to help with the process of the nitrogen cycle. You can place a fish in tank once you have low levels of ammonia in your tank water. Also, remember that the good bacteria will live either on the gravel floor or in your filter system.

Now you are prepared to set up any tank for fish on your home. We always recommend starting with a hardy fish to get your feet wet when it comes to putting together fish tanks. Decorations of any other accessories like gravel a plant would be something you choose according to your taste.

Last Updated on 03/09/2020 by Karen Snow

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