How to Setup a Freshwater Fish Tank the Right Way

How to Setup a Freshwater Fish Tank the Right Way

Written by
on November 30, 2019

I was in junior high the last time I had a fish tank.

And now, jumping back into the hobby, I learned some things the hard way. My first attempt at setting up a freshwater tank happened earlier this year. I crashed and burned so bad I gave the aquarium, fish, tank and light all back to the pet store in complete frustration.

Yikes! What happened?

We’ll get to that. After the dust settled, I decided to give it another go. If you’re interested in starting up a freshwater fish tank and you’re new to the game, this post is going to help you sidestep some proverbial land mines.

What Size of Tank & Stand?

The first problem? I started with a 10 gallon setup. Don’t do that. Get nothing less than a 29 gallon. More length for bottom dwellers and more height for other types of fish.

Believe it or not, the actual aquarium is one of the lease expensive parts of this undertaking. Petco often sells them for a buck a gallon. And you can pick up a metal aquarium stand for around sixty bucks brand new. Here’s a link to one similar to what I have (remember, none of my links are affiliate links):

Imagitarium Brooklyn Metal Stand

The above stand is simple, clean and has adjustable legs which is a big deal. You want your tank level, and other cheap stands just don’t give you that option.

What Type of Filter?

Your main options (worth considering) are canister and over the tank filters. Canister filtration may be a primo method (and very quiet), but they require a lot of setup. Plus they’re harder to clean and cost a lot of money.

For most freshwater fish tank setups, an over-the-tank filter does a good job for much less cash. Are they as quiet as canister? No. But they are pretty dang quiet if you get the right one.

Filter Brand to Purchase

I recommend Marineland® for your fish tank. Aqua Clear is another good brand, but I tried an Aqua Clear, and they’re way too loud for my taste. Plus, the pump part of an Aqua Clear can be twisted off, and if that happens, you have water dumping onto your floor at the rate of the Niagara Falls. Trust me, I accidentally did that. No bueno. Marineland filters are quiet, cost effective and just work.

Here is my Marineland Penguin 150 with the top covers removed.

Marineland Penguin models feature slide in coal-based filters, and a BIO-wheel that helps your tank’s ecosystem by nitrifying bacteria growth and eliminating toxic ammonia and nitrate. The BIO-wheel might look “dirty” but that’s exactly how it’s supposed to look. Get your filters off Amazon — WAY cheaper.

Tip: Since I setup my tank, Marineland has introduced a new version called Penguin Pro. Definitely get that version! About the same price off Amazon and even quieter.

Filter Size

Pet stores will tell you to purchase the next size up from what you need for your fish tank. So I took that advice too far. For my 29 gallon setup I sprung for the Marineland Penguin 350, rated for up to 70 gallons. I thought, “Hey, major filtration right?”

Bad choice. Too loud and too much flow.

But hey, at least my theory was sound. I returned the mega-filter and got the Marineland Penguin 150 rated for up to 30 gallons. It’s not larger like the pet store recommended, but I don’t have the cash for canister, and I’m helping filtration another way. How? It’s called a planted tank.

Planted Fish Tanks

If you were like me as a kid, you crammed a bunch of plastic plants and painted rocks into your aquarium. Then dumped fish into a world that was more fake than The Truman Show. This is not the way to go.

Why a Planted Tank is Better

Live plants in your aquarium help create an eco system like God designed in nature. For example, you feed your fish. They miss some of the food and it sinks to the bottom and begins to deteriorate. This creates ammonia. Not good. But with a planted tank, the plants absorb some of that leftover food, and then turn that into healthy things for the tank. An aquarium with no plants can’t do that.

Planted tanks have a more oxygen rich environment, and since they’re absorbing some of the bad, it can cut down a little on water changes.

The Nitrogen Cycle

For those of you (like me) who think you can put clean, filtered water into your new tank and immediately dump in fish, well… Think again. They could die on you. Why? It’s call the nitrogen cycle, or cycling a tank.

Clean, filtered water is not ready for fish. Fish need the eco-system God created in nature. They need a tank with beneficial bacteria that absorb harmful things like ammonia, etc. You can Google this to learn more about it, but here’s a way to get your tank going:

  1. Add the substrate and water
  2. Start the filter (healthy bacteria grows in your media)
  3. Add the live plants (I have around 11 live plants in my 29 gallon tank)
  4. Add a little bit of fish food to get the process started
  5. Add an additive to help jump start the positive bacteria
  6. Optional: I added a couple drops of Young Living’s DiGize which is an enzyme. Not a required step, but I did it.
  7. Wait about a week.
  8. Test your water (most pet stores can do this if you bring a sample)
Here is a water test kit from Tetra that measures ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, chlorine, etc.

Type of Substrate

Substrate simply means the fish tank gravel. On my first crash and burn, I purchased normal old painted rock. Not the way to go for a planted tank. Your plants need real stuff to anchor their roots in and receive nutrients from. You could go hard core and use real sand or dirt, but I decided to use Carib Sea Planted Substrate. Two bags are perfect for a 29 gallon tank.

Type of Light

The other thing you must have for a planted tank is a light that gives plants the type of light they need. After researching a bit, I decided on the Finnex Planted Full Spectrum light. Love it! Has a remote, multiple modes to mimic early morning, noon, afternoon, etc. You can manually set each mode, or just tell the light to be on auto pilot, and it goes through the morning to night cycles automatically.

The Finnex Planted Tank light with remote and 24 hour schedule.

Plant Food

And finally, even though plants get a lot from the light, they still need more (unless you’re using actual soil or some type of substrate with heavy nutrients). The good news is that plant food lasts FOREVER and costs hardly anything. Seachem Flourish is what I currently use for my tank.

Co2 Supplementation

Plants needs carbon dioxide. It’s just how nature works. It’s part of photosynthesis. The good news is that for most plants, you don’t have to worry about this. I don’t mess with it at all, and my plants are fine. But when you purchase your plants, just know that some “carpet” types need Co2 in order to grow, so avoid these unless you want to spend the cash on all of that.

Water Heater

Most tropical fish need water up around 75-80 degrees. If it drops to even 70 it could kill them. Talk to your local pet store about the best heater for your tank, or at least go with a reputable brand. I’d recommend getting an in-tank thermometer to verify your temperature. And having two small heaters could be safer in case one fails on you.

A simple thermometer will help you know what your heater is working correctly.

Keep seasonal weather changes in mind too. For example, your tank might be sitting comfortably at 77 degrees upstairs in the summer. But then you’re away for a weekend and it’s winter. Guess what? Dead fish if the tank heater can’t keep up.

Type of Fish

Finally, right? Oh my goodness. It seems like it’s taken us forever to get to the entire point of a freshwater fish tank — The fish! As easy as it would be to run to the pet store and start selecting fish like candy at Halloween, you really need to take some things into consideration…

Fish Temperament & Size

You need to know how freshwater fish will get along with each other. And with that, how many you need of a certain kind. For example, neon tetras are a schooling fish. You need 5-6 at a minimum in the tank or they’ll be stressed out. Cory catfish? Same situation. I don’t care if there are only 4 of them in the tank at the pet store. Don’t do this at home.

Here’s an example of my angel asking me for food.

Fish personalities matter too. Some fish are just gonna swim around and look pretty (Gouramis). Others are going to beg you for food every single time you get near the tank (Cichlids). Other fish will recognize you and have personalities (Oscars).

Some fish can be pretty territorial. Most are going to get a lot bigger than they are at the pet store, and you need to think ahead.

The Amount of Fish

Everyone suffers from the same syndrome with a new fish tank. I call it the sardine-tank-syndrome. “How many fish can I put in this thing?”

Some pet store employees are gonna say stuff like, “An inch of fish per gallon.” And that means calculate the final size of the fish when it’s full grown. But this math isn’t always good. IMHO you don’t want to pack your tank out. Your fish need breathing room. They need to be non-stressed and comfortable.

Water Temperature

Most of the freshwater fish you can purchase at a pet store are tropical fish. However, that doesn’t mean they all like the same temperatures. Angelfish are happy at 80-82. Panda Corys want around 73-75 while other Corys can go up to 78. If you don’t have the right temp your fish might not float to the top dead, but they’re not gonna be healthy.

What Did I Decide?

You already know that I have a 29 gallon planted tank. Here are the fish I have and important things to know about them:

1 Angelfish (Entertainment)

Freshwater angelfish are technically cichlids, which means they have more personality (like begging you for food) but they can also be a bit opinionated and territorial. For a 29-gallon tank, one angelfish is just fine. Can you do two? As long as you start them together young. But they are okay being alone.

My angelfish coming up for food. They beg like puppies!

1 Bristle Nosed Pleco (Clean Up Crew)

Most are familiar with algae eaters. A common one is the pleco. However, normal pleco get HUGE and a 29 gallon tank is way too small for them. A bristle nosed pleco stays small, and is also an algae eating machine! My albino bristle nose is part my tank clean up crew and eats algae off everything from the glass to plant leaves.

A bristle-nosed pleco who is part of my tank clean up crew.

1 Nerite Snail (Clean Up Crew)

Another form of algae attack are nerite snails. An important note: These snails will not spawn into hundreds of tiny snails like some types of snails. They are hardy, and flexible with temperatures.

2 Cherry Shrimp (Clean Up Crew)

Shrimp are also great algae eaters. I have a cherry. Another good one is the Amano. You need to have cover for these guys to be happy. They will also help keep algae in your tank at bay, and are able to pick algae off of places the pleco is just too large or heavy to get to. Example: small plants leaves.

Technically I could have more fish than this. However I like having an un-crowded tank which means happier fish and less cleanup work for me on a routine basis.

ICH Warning: What is ICH? I found out the hard way. It’s a parasite that freshwater fish can have. It’s also called white spot disease as that’s how it shows up on your fish. Up to 60% of fish at pet stores could have it, and you won’t know it unless they get stressed.

So what do you do about it? There is treatment you can purchase from the pet store. I got a bad case of it on my first tank setup this year, and this was part of my crash and burn. I’d purchased fish from two different pet stores, and one of them was infected and it spread. Not good!

The only way to avoid ICH completely is to have a small 10-gallon setup that you place new fish in for a quarantine period. But that’s a lot of time, money and hassle for most people. I recommend getting your fish from one place, and have treatment ready so you can hit it fast if needed. Upping the water temp to 80 can also help kill the parasite off.

If you see white spots, act fast!

Tank Maintenance

Even though the clean up crew helps keep algae at bay, I still have an inexpensive cleaning kit from Topfin that allows me to scrape algae off the glass if the pleco, snail and otocinclus don’t keep up. In addition to algae, I do regular water changes.

Wait, what? Water changes?

Yes. Water changes are part of a healthy fish tank — Something I didn’t do as a kid, much to the demise of my fish. But if you have a planted tank, you’ll have to do water changes a little less since the plants absorb harmful things in the water that an all plastic tank cannot.

Water changes are key and should be done monthly! It’s easier than it looks.

I use a simple gravity-fed vacuum for my water changes. It allows me to vacuum up a lot of waste from the substrate while doing a water change. How much water should you change? That depends on how many plants and fish you have. I only take out probably 4-5 gallons max when I do a water change on my 29 gallon tank, but my tank only has 3 fish, a snail and a shrimp.

Would I Do Anything Different?

If I was doing this all over again, I’d get a 55-gallon fish tank minimum. The 29 is really nice, but you’re still limited to how many fish you can put in there. If I had a 55-gallon I could have more than one angel fish, a school of tetras, etc. With the larger tank I’d also study up and really design the landscape of the tank more with not just live plants, but wood, etc.

Having a planted freshwater fish tank has been a lot of fun! If you’re about to jump in, I hope this writeup has proven helpful — Enjoy your new underwater world!

Written By
Kyler Boudreau

Kyler experiences life with his wife Sandi and his daughter Journey. He is an independent filmmaker ( and designed a CRM for network marketers (

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