top of page
  • Writer's pictureStewart Kessel

What do I Need for My First Aquarium

Updated: Jan 8

Hints & Tips For Success

Are you thinking of setting up your first freshwater aquarium? Want to benefit from the therapeutic calming nature of keeping fish? But don’t know where to start?

Well, firstly, you have made an excellent choice. But before you start, do your research. Jumping straight into setting up a tank and keeping fish can lead to many easily avoided and in some cases, costly mistakes. Be aware of what is involved and ensure you have the time to commit, and your reward will be a genuinely enriching pastime.

Let me help you on the way by giving you a list of essential start items, together with some hints and tips for success.

Aquarium & Cabinet

Your choice of fish and style of set-up will dictate the minimum size of the aquarium. As a beginner, don’t be fooled into believing a small aquarium is best - the reverse is true. Bigger is better to help maintain a stable environment.

As a beginner, the smallest suggested aquarium size would be approximately 60cm x 30cm x 30cm or approximately 50litres. Remember, this will not be suitable or large enough for all livestock species. Research stocking levels before deciding on your aquarium size.

The fish tank itself will be either glass or acrylic. There are advantages to each, but glass is more common in the UK.

Glass Pro: Greater range of size options, cheaper

Con: Heavier, poor impact-resistance

Acrylic Pro: Reduced weight, greater transparency when high thickness required

Con: Significantly easier to scratch

For beginners, on balance, I would suggest a glass aquarium is best, given the choice of available sizes and its superior resistance to scratching during maintenance.

For those who desire a glass aquarium with higher clarity, they should consider tanks made from low iron glass. These attract a premium price but have noticeably improved transparency, especially with thicker gauge glass.

A wide range of styles for your aquarium and cabinet are available. Much of this is down to your taste and perhaps matching the décor in the location of your aquarium. However, take care of aquarium dimensions. Tall aquariums may have the same volume as longer, shallower, aquariums, but are challenging to clean and are not suited for all fish, e.g. fast swimming shoaling fish.

Aquariums may be hooded or rimless (open-topped). The later is popular with aquascapers to be able to view planted tanks from above. However, they are prone to greater water evaporation and are not suitable for fish that are prone to jumping.

Most aquariums require a mat under the glass bottom to protect the base from damage due to an irregular surface. If your aquarium has a floating-base, i.e. a rim or legs purposely keeping the base pane elevated, then a base mat is not required or advised.


An essential piece of equipment that is required to maintain aquarium water quality. Some starter aquarium kits will come supplied with or have a built-in filter. If not, buy a slightly overpowered filter for the aquarium capacity, rather than underpowered.

There are numerous filter types, but broadly they are either internal or external to the aquarium.

Internal Pros: Cheaper to purchase and run, easy to work on and maintain

Cons: Can be unsightly, generally only mechanical filtration

External Pros: Mechanical & biological filter media, more efficient, less unsightly

Cons: More expensive to purchase and run, less suitable for smaller aquariums

Be sure to read our specific guide on filtration and the best choice for an aquarium filter.

Heater Thermostat

Fish are poikilothermic, that means their body temperature and hence metabolism is controlled by their surroundings, i.e. water temperature. For this reason, you must keep your fish at their recommended natural temperature range.

The design of most aquarium heaters and thermostats is such that they need to be within the aquarium. However, there are external filters that incorporate a thermostatically controlled heater element, and also inline heaters which as the name suggests are placed in the return filter pipework. These options are generally more expensive but do offer a more ascetically pleasing aquarium layout.

If you are setting up an aquarium for cold-water species, you may not require a heater thermostat. But be sure that the room temperature does not drop too low at night. If it does, then a heater thermostat set at a suitable low temperature may be a sensible precaution.

Read our guide to aquarium heaters and thermostats to learn more about the different options available, including devices that can link to your smartphone and alert you to any issues!


The heaters discussed above are either set at a fixed temperature or have an adjustable thermostat to select the required temperature for your aquarium inhabitants. Either way, you still require a good quality thermometer to monitor your aquarium water temperature.


Again, your aquarium may come fitted with an aquarium light. If not, you will need to make a choice based on the style of your aquarium. For example, pendant lighting may best suit a rimless aquarium. If it is a planted aquarium, then it is crucial to consider the intensity of light, as well as its spectrum.

Achieving optimum lighting for your aquarium is essential to give the best visual appearance of your fish, help grow plants, as well as avoiding situations where too much light leads to algae issues.

LED lighting now predominates where fluorescent tubes and high-end halide lighting units used to be more common. LED lamps may cost more to purchase than dedicated aquarium fluorescent tubes, but they have a considerably longer life span. There is a wide range of styles and wattages from which to choose. Do your research and select one that meets your specific aquarium needs. In this instance, do not be tempted to purchase a higher intensity unit than is required, unless it is controllable, i.e. you can adjust its output.


Gravels and sands are decorative cosmetic substrates and don’t offer any nutritional source for growing plants, but if properly maintained, can provide a place for beneficial aquarium bacteria to multiply. They come in many different sizes and colours to suit different tastes of aquarium set-up. So, you can achieve a natural look with pea gravel or a themed effect with one of the brightly coloured gravels.

When keeping bottom-dwelling fish that enjoy burrowing into the substrate to find food, the texture and sharpness of the gravel choice is an important consideration. Sand substrates are better in these circumstances.

Beginners should avoid substrates that affect water chemistry like coral sands that contain large amounts of calcium. Generally, these are unsuitable for most freshwater aquarium set-ups.

Consider using plant tabs and liquid plant fertilisers to help plant growth. Alternatively, if you want a planted aquarium then look to use a specialised planted aquarium soil substrate. Although more expensive, they offer a better route to success for lush plant growth. Some are in the form of a complete substrate and used on their own. Others must be ‘capped’ with another substrate, such as decorative gravel to avoid nutrients leaching out too quickly.

Aquarium Décor

A large variety of very different objects are available to decorate the internal space of your aquarium. Natural aquarium-safe woods, rocks, large pebbles, resinous ornaments just to name a few can form the aquarium hardscape.

As with gravels, you must ensure that any rocks or pebbles do not contain limestone or heavy metals that will adversely affect the aquarium water chemistry. Most hardwoods are aquarium safe but may leach tannins that discolour and slowly acidify the water with time.

Resin-based aquarium ornaments come in many designs, some to imitate rockwork, others sunken galleons, submarines, treasure chests or even cartoon characters for the younger fish-keepers.

Be bold with your hardscape and create lots of interest and places for your fish to swim and shelter.

It down to personal taste but often a more natural look will bring out and compliment the best colours in your chosen fish.

What Next?

The next article in the series looks at a step-by-step guide to setting up the aquarium, but what else do you need to purchase before starting?

Water Conditioner (de-chlorinator): You will learn that water straight from the tap for the vast majority of us is unsuitable to use directly in your aquarium. A good quality water conditioner to neutralise chlorine and chloramine, and to bind any trace heavy metals, is required to treat water before adding to the aquarium.

Source of Ammonia: When setting up a new aquarium, you will need to complete a fishless cycle to establish the filter before adding livestock. Liquid ammonia to feed the aquarium beneficial bacteria whilst cycling is the easiest method to achieve this when following our simple step-by-step guide.

Water Testing Kit: A good-quality aquarium water test kit is necessary to chart to the progress of the tank cycle. As a minimum, you will require a test kit for ammonia (NH3), nitrite (NO2) and nitrate (NO3). However, test kits for pH and calcium hardness KH are also advisable.

Fish Net: Although you will not have any livestock for a while an aquarium fish net is used for many things including removal of floating plants and other debris from the aquarium water.

Water Syphon: A simple length of hosing will suffice, but a dedicated dual aquarium syphon and gravel cleaner will help make maintenance and water removal easier.

Bucket: For use during routine aquarium maintenance. You need something to transport the water, and you should have one dedicated to the aquarium to avoid any potential for contamination.

Wait I hear some of you say. You have not recommended an aquarium air pump. Well unless you have chosen an air-driven filter, given sufficient water circulation around the whole aquarium from your internal or external filter, an air pump is simply not required.

Be sure to read the next article in the series entitled Step-by-Step Set up of your New Freshwater Aquarium to be one step closer to installing the aquarium of your dreams.

Author: Stewart Kessel CChem, MRSC

Advert Disclaimer: When you buy through links on our site, we earn an affiliate commission. Thank you, this helps pay for the site & helps keep it user friendly with minimal adverts.

318 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Feature Article

bottom of page