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Setting up your first Aquarium

Angelfish guides

Seriously Fishy’s guide to shopping for your first tropical aquarium.

When you’re thinking about setting up your first aquarium its handy to have a list of what you will need.  So what we’re going to go through here is exactly that.  We’ll cover everything you need to get started up and include a few handy tips and hints of what to look for.  So let’s get to it.


Shopping for Your First Aquarium

The first thing you’re likely to start looking for is an aquarium itself.  The first decision you are likely to encounter is; what size to get?  There are lots of sizes to choose from for your first aquarium, from tiny desktop aquariums to huge custom-built indoor pools.  There seems to be a common misconception that a smaller tank is easier to maintain, but really this isn’t the case.

Whilst it may be a little or a lot, quicker to do water changes on a smaller aquarium you will need to do them more often.  This is because any waste produced by your fish will be less diluted and your water will become toxic very quickly.  So bigger is always better, but clearly it needs to fit in your house.  It’s also important to remember that any aquarium less than 45 litres/10 US gal isn’t big enough for any fish.

Even at that size, you will only have space for one Betta.  Something that may affect your decision is, ‘what fish do you want to get?’  The fish that you are interested in keeping will likely dictate the size of aquarium you require, so research those fish, check the minimum size, add a bit to that number and you have your aquarium size.

Chances are you will only want a bigger one once you’re up and running anyway, so go as big as you can.

What is the best brand of aquarium?  Most reputable aquarium manufacturers build aquariums to a great standard, so that’s the important thing here.  Check that the company who makes the aquarium is reputable.  If you’re buying new or used, read some reviews online of the products you are looking for.  This will usually give you a fairly accurate idea of the quality.  If you are buying new then you will likely get some warranty to cover you if anything does go wrong.  Some of the top brands that mass produce aquariums are:




Aqua one

Any of these brands are pretty safe choices in my opinion and most of them make aquariums up to 4 or 5 feet in length.  Many will also come as a full set up, which can be handy, but there are always upgrades to be done.  My personal favourite of the above would have to be Juwel.

If you’re looking for something bigger as your first aquarium, then it may be worth looking for a custom build.  These can, surprisingly, work out cheaper to buy than a ready-made aquarium, but do remember you will need spare funds for all of the equipment.  Two companies to look at for a custom-built tank in the UK are:

ND aquatics

Predator aquatics

Of the two, ND is the more expensive, but I cannot fault the quality of their aquariums.


ND Aquatics 5x2x2




Once you have picked your first aquarium, you’ll need to look for something to keep it clean.  That comes in the form of a filter.  Again there are hundreds to choose from and your choice will come down to the size of the aquarium you have chosen.  Many ‘aquarium kits’ will come with an internal filter, this may well do the job and most are selected particularly for the aquarium that they are sold with.

So if you’re going for a kit, then you may already have this sorted.  My preference though would be to opt for an external filter.  In general, they are more powerful, hold more media and leave your aquarium to be its full size, rather than losing swimming space to an internal.

Filters are usually rated by their power and often have a recommended aquarium size.  Power will be rated either by litres per hour (LPH) or gallons per hour (GPH), it’s important to remember that this rating is tested whilst the filter is empty, once media is added it will slow down a bit.  It’s also worth noting that the recommended aquarium size is usually a maximum, so if this figure is the same size as your aquarium, bigger would be safer.

When you are shopping for a filter, in most cases it’s best to look for a filter that will cycle the entire contents of your aquarium at least 5 times an hour, so if your aquarium is 200 litres then you’re looking for a 1000 LPH filter or larger.  This enables a good flow in the aquarium meaning none of the water stays still and becomes stagnant anywhere in the tank.  Like with the tank itself, bigger is better, until your tank looks like a washing machine on full spin then you may have gone too far.

Anything between 5 to 10 times the tank volume per hour should be pretty safe for most aquariums unless you have slow swimming fish like a Betta, who cannot swim in strong currents.

If your first aquarium is quite large then it may be difficult to find a filter powerful enough to achieve this, so to increase flow you could add a wavemaker or powerhead to increase flow.  This will just ensure that dirt and debris won’t evade the filter for too long.

Some of my top recommendations for filters are:



All Pond Solutions

I have owned filters of all of these brands and have so far (touch wood) yet to have a problem with them.

You can learn More about filtration here.


Fluval FX5




The next step in building your first aquarium is choosing the right heating system.

If your intent is to keep tropical fish, you will require a heater for your aquarium, most tropical fish require constant temperatures of around 25ºC and some are preset to this temperature.  Others are adjustable that you can set yourself.  Heaters are usually rated for the size of aquarium that they will heat, these numbers tend to be pretty accurate, so always get one that is rated just above your aquarium’s size, but not too much over or it may overheat the water, particularly if it ever malfunctions.

If you have opted for a larger aquarium (400 litres plus), it can be a little difficult to find a heater big enough.  In these cases, it’s better to get more than one heater than one high powered one.  For example, my living room aquarium is around 600 litres, a 250W Eheim Jager heater is rated up to 600 litres, instead I have installed 2 150W Eheim Jager heaters, one at either end of the aquarium.

Setting up this way means that there is a more consistent temperature across the whole aquarium as the heating is located at both ends.  It’s also a kind of fail-safe, if either heater malfunctions and gets stuck on, it will have less power to overheat the tank so hopefully, I will notice before any damage is done.

Always look for a reputable brand with your heater too.  Whilst it can be very tempting to go for a cheap option, this piece of equipment can do serious damage to your aquarium if it malfunctions.  I have heard horror stories recently of heaters exploding and blowing the side of the aquarium open.  Clearly we never want that to happen.

My favourite heaters so far ar the Eheim Jager, they are reliable, simple, and can be easily calibrated if the temperature reading is slightly out.


Eheim Jager 150W




Don’t forget to choose the perfect lighting for your first aquarium.

Lighting isn’t an absolute necessity, your future fish won’t care much if they never have a light on the aquarium as long as they get a little daylight.  Really though, we want a good view of what we have living in the underwater world we have created, right?  So with that in mind, lighting becomes a necessity for us, rather than our fishy friends.

Most aquarium manufacturers have now switched up to modern LED lighting.  LED’s are great, they are bright, controllable and use less electricity.  Many LED lights come with the ability to control them, some have this feature built-in and some need an external controller.  There is a whole range of controls available, from simple dimming, to colour changing, to storm simulation.  Most of these are pretty useful as you can have your lights fade on in the morning like sunrise and fade to blue in the evening to simulate the moon.

Again, the fish won’t care all that much, but it’s great for us to watch.  Storm simulations are nothing but a gimmick or party trick I’m afraid, all it will do is cause your fish stress, so don’t add that to your ‘must-haves’.

Some recommended light systems from me are:

Aquaray (high end)

Zetlight (middle of the road)

Nicrew (budget but good value)


zetlight moonlight blue



Everything else

Everything else is down to a combination of personal preference and the needs of your fish.  Some fish require a sand substrate, some require lots of hiding places, so research the fish you want and do some ‘informed shopping’.  There is a wide range of aquarium decor to suit any taste so you should be able to find internal decor to suit you and your fish without too much trouble.  The only additional necessity is quality food to feed your future fishy friends.

The only other things you absolutely need for your first aquarium are, a good water testing kit and a bottle of aquarium safe ammonia, these will help you get through cycling and make sure your aquarium is ready for fish!


So have fun with the shopping and don’t forget that your new aquarium needs to be cycled before you add your fishy pals.


All the photos in this article are of my own tank, just so you can see that I use the kit I recommend. Send your personal recommendations for equipment in the comments!

About the author

James @Seriously Fishy

I am a fish keeping enthusiast with over 20 years experience. I currently keep American Cichlids (CA) which are my favourite fish to keep so far. I started Seriously Fishy as I noticed a large volume of people on various web pages looking for help with Aquarium basics. I created the first Seriously Fishy book to solve the issue in 28 pages, that led to the Seriously Fishy UK fish forum and blog.

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