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How to Properly Set Up an Aquarium in Your House (10 Steps)

Cool aquarium built into dining room wall

Fish tanks offer many benefits. It’s a fun project. Kids love them. They can look great in your house. You learn about marine life. It’s no surprise many households have an aquarium somewhere, whether a freestanding, built-in style or any of the other types of fish tanks you can get.

If you want to set up a fish tank, there are a few steps you must take to do it properly. It’s not quite as simple as putting everything in your tank and adding the fish straight away. This guide will talk you through the most important steps, and how long you have to wait to add fish (it’s longer than you might think!)

Related: Popular types of aquarium fish | Types of Koi Fish | Types of Betta FishTypes of Aquarium Filters | Fish Tank Cleaning Tools

Step One: Plan the Tank

Chart showing the steps for planning a new aquarium in your home

It’s really important that before you buy anything, you decide exactly what you want from your fish tank.

It’s probably best to look at the type of fish you want to keep first and work from there. The fish you want will determine which other fish you can keep, and more importantly the size of the tank you’ll need.

If you’re choosing a small tank, its often more tricky to squeeze everything in than it is a larger tank so you can use a piece of paper to plan out where you’re going to put everything.

Step Two: Buy All Your Equipment

Chart setting out the main equipment needed for an aquarium in your home.

Once you’ve planned on which fish you want, do some research into those species and find out what tank size you’ll need and the other equipment you’ll need for them.

Most people choose tropical freshwater fish to start with so you’ll most likely need a heater, a filter and a thermometer.

Other decorations and plants are down to personal preference.

Step Three: Clean the Tank

Related: 13 fish tank cleaning tools

If the tank is new, you’ll just need to run a damp cloth over it to remove any dust that has built up while it’s been stored.

If you’ve bought a used tank you should use warm water and white vinegar to clean the tank.

Always have a set of rags and a bucket that are new and only used for the tank. Never use household products on any of your fish equipment.

Here’s how much of a difference cleaning the fish tank can make:

Here’s a photo of a dirty, unwiped aquarium:

Dirty fish tank (not cleaned)

Here’s the same aquarium wiped clean:

Aquarium after it's been wiped clean

Step Four: Clean the Substrate and Decorations

Substrate is the material that sits on the bottom of the aquarium.

Most substrates are quite dusty so will also need washing.

The easiest way to do this is to empty the substrate into a bucket, and keep running water over it until the water is running mostly clearly.

You can do the same with any decorations you’ve bought.

Aquarium with substrate placed onto the bottom

Step Five: Add the Substrate

It’s important to have the tank in position before you start filling it because the weight rapidly increases once the water is in, and it becomes tricky to move about.

Once everything is clean it’s time to get your tank in position and fill it with substrate.

Most people choose to have one or two inches of substrate, again, this will depend on the species of fish you want to keep. Some prefer a finer deeper substrate, others prefer a shallow coarse substrate.

Here’s a photo of an aquarium with the substrate added to the bottom:

How much substrate do you need in your aquarium?

It depends on the size of your fish tank. Here’s a chart setting out how much substrate to put into your aquarium based on gallon size:

Chart for how much substrate needed for aquarium by gallon size

Step Six: Add the Water

This step is really simple: add the water to your tank. Keep count of how many gallons of water you’ve added so you know how much de-chlorinator to add once you’ve finished.

To stop your substrate from being disturbed, you can place a saucer or bowl directly onto the substrate and tip the water into the bowl/saucer.

Here’s a photo illustrating how to properly poor water into an aquarium.

Photo showing how to properly pour water into an aquarium

Step Seven: Install the Equipment

Now that the tank is full of tank, it’s time to install the equipment. Most filters and heaters are really simple to fit, just follow the instructions on the pack.

Always make sure any electrical components are installed properly before turning them on at the power supply.

Here’s an illustration of a fish tank with a regular filter:

Illustration of a fish tank with filter

Regular fish tank filter

Here’s an example of an aquarium with an under-gravel filter:

Aquarium with an under-gravel filter

Aquarium with an under-gravel filter

Step Eight: Add Plants and Decorations

Fish tank with beautiful plants

This is where it starts getting fun! All the nitty gritty stuff is done, and you can start bringing your tank to life.

You could add freshwater plants which will help to oxygenate your water, or you might want to take the easier option and just have artificial plants.

You can also add stones, driftwood and caves, or there are a whole host of plastic ornaments available in pet stores.

Step Nine: Cycle the Tank

This is the step that most people skip completely. It’s really important to cycle your tank properly to establish good bacteria bed which will convert the fish’s ammonia into less harmful compounds.

This process normally takes around 4-6 weeks. You can buy kits to test your ammonia, nitrites and nitrate levels in the take.

You’ll notice that the ammonia and nitrite levels should spike and come back down; this is a good indication that your tank is fully cycled.

Step Ten: Add the Fish

Your tank is now complete, and while it can be tempting to add all your fish at once – don’t!

Just choose a few fish at a time to add, and try to choose hardy fish like guppies.

It’s important not to overstock your tank; there are plenty of calculators available online to check your stock levels.

Add your fish in small groups over the next few weeks until you have your desired stocking level.

Here’s a chart setting out the more common types of fish for a home aquarium.

Chart setting out the more popular types of fish tank fish

7 Cool Aquarium Ideas in the Home

Below are some examples of some very cool fish tanks in various homes.

1. Aquarium in the Kitchen

Aquarium in the Kitchen

2. Large Fish Tank Built into the Dining Room Wall

Large Fish Tank Built into the Dining Room Wall

View of built-in aquarium in dining room wall from the kitchen

Great room with dining room that has a built-in fish tank

3. Built-in Wall Aquarium Behind a Home Bar

Built-in Wall Aquarium Behind a Home Bar

4. Floor-to-Ceiling Aquarium as a Room Divider

Floor-to-Ceiling Aquarium as a Room Divider3D Rendering Design

5. Large Aquarium as Room Divider in Great Room

Large Aquarium as Room Divider in Great Room Large mounted aquarium separating the living room from the dining room
6. Built-In Aquarium in the Living Room
Built-In Aquarium in the Living Room

7. Fish Tank Built into the Wall in Modern Apartment

Fish Tank Built into the Wall in Modern Apartment

Aquarium built into the kitchen cabinets

Aquarium built into the kitchen cabinets