Aquarium Setup Checklist (Do not waste money)

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There is so much to think about and decisions to be made when you first set up a freshwater fish tank.

Below is a handy freshwater aquarium setup checklist with detailed explanations to help you list equipment you need to purchase.

Aquarium Equipment List 

  • Aquarium
  • Stand
  • Hood or lid
  • Lights
  • Heater (not needed for cold water fish)
  • Filtration System
  • Substrate
  • thermometer
  • Fish Net
  • Airline Tubing
  • Air pump

Aquarium Maintenance Supplies

  • Water Conditioner
  • Fish Food
  • Water test kit
  • Algae Scraper
  • 2 x water buckets
  • Gravel Vacuum
  • Decor and plants

A lot of these items are once off purchases and also bear in mind that some starter kits include a few pieces of equipment as well.

I have added these to the aquarium setup checklist so that you can budget for these things.


As mentioned before, a 20-gallon tank is the perfect size when first starting out.

If you have the space and can afford a larger tank then go bigger.

Stay away from tall thin tanks as they are difficult to clean and they limit the amount of fish they can house because of the small water surface area.

A short longer tank is the way to go as they allow the fish more space to swim in and have a good amount of surface area for air exchange.

Glass vs Acrylic Aquarium

When considering glass vs. acrylic aquariums, there are pros and cons to both.

Glass tanks are heavier but they are more scratch resistant and also have less visible distortion.

Acrylic tanks are lighter but scratch very easily. They can also turn yellow over time.

Most fish keepers prefer glass aquariums so if in doubt, rather go for glass.

Aquarium Setup Checklist


A fully stocked and operational fish tank is very heavy and as such a stand for your aquarium to rest on is a vital part of the aquarium setup checklist.

The calculation is roughly 10 pounds per gallon of water capacity.

A desk or table will not be suitable and you risk losing everything if it collapses.

I highly recommend that you purchase an aquarium stand because they are designed to hold the weight of your fish tank.

I like the stands or cabinets that have a shelf built in.

This is convenient to store food and fish tank accessories.

You get some really stunning stands or you can go with the plain steel ones.

Hood or Lid

A hood or lid is needed to avoid fish from jumping out of your tank.

You can either buy a hood without a light or you can buy one that already has a light installed in it.

Another reason to buy a hood is to reduce evaporation.

If a tank does not have a hood or lid then the water evaporates a lot faster and you will need to top up the water on a more frequent basis.

Most lids are made from plastic but you can also get glass lids.

I am not a fan of glass lids as they are heavy, can break, and produce condensation on the underside of the glass.

There is, however, one advantage of a glass lid and that is that they allow a lot more natural outside light into your aquarium.


Lights illuminate your tank so that you can see and enjoy watching your fish. It helps to bring out their color and fish become more active when the lights are on.

More importantly, proper lights that promote plant growth are needed if you intend on decorating your tank with live plants. 

The plants need to photosynthesize just like your typical garden plants.  They will rely on the aquatic lights for energy just like the garden plants rely on the sun.


Heaters control the temperature of the water in your fish tank.

You will be able to set it to the desired temperature that your fish require and the heater will keep the water temperature constant.

A heater is not needed for a cold water fish tank unless your room temperature takes a nose dive resulting in the fish tank water becoming too cold.

Then you will need a heater to raise the temperature and avoid losing fish.

Filtration System

Filters perform various functions in your fish tank.

They help to move the water around the tank so that there is no stagnant area where debris can pile up.

A filter keeps the water free from toxins thereby keeping the water nice and clean.

They help oxygenate the water when they create surface agitation.

More importantly, filters are used to house biological media where beneficial bacteria can grow. This is essential for a healthy tank.


The substrate is the gravel or soil that is found at the bottom of a fish tank.

It is more pleasing to look at a tank that has some sort of substrate instead of a bare glass bottom.

Bare glass bottoms are usually found in hospital and breeding tanks to make maintenance a lot easier.

Aquarium soil is best for planted tanks to supply nutrients to the plants.

If you are not planning on creating a planted tank then a substrate consisting of gravel is just fine.

Gravel comes in various colors and fineness.


Thermometers read the temperature of the water and display it for you to see.

A heater can malfunction and either stop working or overheat the water.

A thermometer will show you what the temperature of the water is so that you can take immediate action if needed.

Fish Net

They will be times when you need to either catch a fish or remove a dead fish from your tank.

A fishnet will help you to do this. They come in various sizes so you should purchase the appropriate size net for the size of your fish.

They can also be used to remove bits of debris or anything else you need to remove from the tank.

It is best to avoid putting your hands in the tank as much as possible. You could, by mistake, contaminate your fish tank with chemicals like soap or lotion.

Airline Tubing

Airline tubing is used to connect an air pump to either an internal corner filter or to a bubbler like an air stone.

Air Pump 

The pump supplies air via tubing to an air stone or bubbler.

You can purchase a single-outlet pump or a pump with two outlets.

Rather go for the one with two outlets so that you will have options later on.

Water Conditioner

The water conditioner will need to be bought on a regular basis.

Tap water will have added chemicals like chlorine and chloramine to make it safe for us to drink.

These chemicals need to be removed from the water before you add it to your fish tank.

This is the function of water conditioners.

Fish Food

The type of food will depend on the species of fish that you are planning to keep.

You can purchase a general community tank fish food if you want an assortment of community fish.

Bottom dwellers like cory cats need food that sinks and some species of fish thrive on frozen food.

Water Test Kit

Part of your weekly maintenance schedule should be to test the fish tank water.

Testing for Ammonia, Nitrites, PH, and Nitrates and making sure the levels are important for water quality.

Algae Scraper

Algae accumulate on the fish tank glass. This is normal.

You will need a scraper to remove the algae from the glass without scratching it.

You cannot just use anything because scratches on the glass are distracting and unsightly.

2 x Water Buckets

These water buckets must be marked for fish tank use only. 

Never allow them to be used for any chemicals or household products.

I suggest 2 buckets because it makes it a lot faster and easier when it comes to water changes.

You can fill up two buckets at a time.

Gravel Vacuum

Debris and uneaten food accumulate on the substrate of the tank.

A gravel vacuum is used to remove these elements during a water change.

Decor and Plants

Buy the tank decor like caves, ornaments, and plants when you purchase the tank. 

These items need to cycle with the tank so that beneficial bacteria can grow on them.

Do Not Buy Fish Right Now

You must never buy the live fish at the same time as the tank and equipment.

The tank first needs to be set up and cycled before adding any living creatures.

Do not listen to the Pet Store workers as they are just wanting to make a sale.

The fish will die if the tank is not cycled first.

Setup Costs

I have set up some examples and prices for tanks that I personally would buy.

Here is the link for fish tank setup costs.

Next Step

Once you have purchased everything that you need you will need to set up the tank.

Photo of author


Irma Bense is the founder of She has over 42 years of experience in keeping fish.She has kept both freshwater and saltwater fish through the years.She has extensive knowledge in breeding numerous species of fish from Show Guppies, Cory Catfish, German Blue Rams to Apistogrammas.You can learn more about Irma on the 'About' page.

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