Beginners guide to building your first freshwater aquarium setup

Are you completely overwhelmed with how to start your very own freshwater aquarium setup ? Never fear, we are here to help 🙂

We hope this page will provide you with the knowledge and confidence to start your freshwater aquarium. Below is a step by step guide for you to follow to get started. Please click on the links (highlighted in blue) to read more about each step.


Aquariums come in all shapes and sizes, new or old. No matter which tank you decide to go for you must first give them a through wash. This can be done with a strong salt water solution. Salt is a great cleaning product plus, any residue left in the tank won’t cause problems with your fish or coral. One very important thing to remember, Never use detergent or soap to clean your fish tank as the chemical may eventually contaminate your water and harm your fish or coral.


 As excited as you may be to get started with your aquarium setup, this is a crucial step, so try not to rush. Begin by placing the soft matting supplied with the tank on top of the cabinet. In instances where a matt was not supplied then you can use polystyrene. Gently place the tank on top of the matt. Check to make sure your tank is level by using a spirit level. You should check the tank left to right and front to back. If your tank is slightly uneven, you will need to make small adjustments. You can do this by adding wooden fillers under the cabinet. It is important to get this part right because not only does an uneven tank look terrible but it could cause your tank to fall over! Make sure you leave room at the back of your display for any wires or pipes. Always leave a gap anyway – just in case you decide to upgrade your filtration system at a later date.

We have provided a few great examples of stands and cabinets but most people buy the tank and stand together as a package. However if you are looking for more information then click here.



Place the gravel in a bucket and run warm water constantly through it as you mix the gravel with your hands. As soon as the water runs clear (while mixing with your hands), it will be safe to add to your aquarium. You should add the gravel before any other features, like rocks and ornaments. It is important to never use detergent or soap to clean the gravel or anything else you put into your tank. Place the gravel into the bottom of the tank and spread it out so you have a nice slope. You want the gravel about three inches thick at the back sloping to two inches thick at the front. This will encourage any uneaten food to roll down to the front, so you can easily syphon it out at a later date. You can use an old clean plate on the gravel, so that when you pour the water in, it will not destroy your gravel landscaping.



Use an aquarium valve regulator near the pump end, and don’t forget to add the non-return valve to prevent the water from going back into the electrical pump when switched off. Connect all piping to the pump, and add an air stone on the other end. You can place the air stone anywhere in the aquarium. Some like to put them inside decorations to create cool effects or you can place them discreetly in the corner of your tank.



Place your internal filter into the tank or set up your external filter according to the instructions with which the filter came. External filters always have the inlet at one end and the outlet on the other to encourage water movement.  Fill them with filter materials or filter cartridges.  Make sure they become primed (full) with freshwater. I know by now you are probably excited but refrain from turning them on just yet as we have a few more steps to go before you get to this.

There are many different filters available however this can be a bit of a minefield and it can get a little confusing. Not to worry we do talk more about filters in our e-book and we have provided a little more information here .


Set the temperature to around 78-80 degrees fahrenheit (25-27 celsius). Place the heater near the return flow. Place the thermometer as far away from the heater as possible.

TIP: You should make sure that ALL electrical cables have a drip loop. This will stop any water from dripping down the cable into the plug.

Click here to learn more about aquarium heaters.


Aquascaping is the fun part. This is the point at which you get to really customise your tank and make it aesthetically pleasing. Add any live or plastic plants along with any ornaments. Ideally, you want to arrange them, so they hide equipment, like heaters and cables. If you are using live plants, make sure you use warm water and place the roots just below the surface. Remember to keep live plants moist until they’re planted—wet newspaper works well. For optimum growth and root development, use an aquatic plant fertiliser such as API LEAF ZONE Freshwater Aquarium Plant Fertilizer 16-Ounce Bottle and use the correct lighting.

Click here for aquascaping inspiration. You may also want to visit our aquarium plants pages. 


Time to fill your tank up to the bottom of the top frame. Place your thermometer in the corner, test your lights and set all your timers. If you want to give your aquarium a boost you can add your filter start at this point to introduce the good bacteria into your aquarium. 


Check to make sure your lighting works, and that they are set on the correct timers or controllers. Once you’ve checked them, turn them off again. You don’t want to leave the lights on while you do the water cycle, as this could cause algae growth.


Now add the water conditioner. Like Tetra AquaSafe Water Conditioner, 500ml, this will de-chlorinate the water. Be sure to follow the instructions and only add what is required according to the size of your tank.


Once you’re happy, you can turn the heater(s), filters, and pumps on. Let them all run for a while. Sit back and admire, while it’s finding its level. You may need to top up or remove some water.


Make sure your heaters are woking properly, and give your tank a final check. If you are not between 75-80 degrees fahrenheit, you will need to turn your heater up or down.Remember that there will be a delay between you changing the temperature and your thermometer registering a change due to the water volume. Therefore allow 3 or 4 hours for your water temperature to adjust before making further changes on your heater.


As difficult as this may be, its now time to leave the whole system alone for 24 hours. When you check on it again in the morning, the tank may have a cloudy appearance, or you might find everything covered in bubbles. However If you have carefully followed our steps above this is completely normal and will clear up relatively quickly.


Your tank now requires time to grow healthy bacteria and you may have heard this being called ‘water cycling’. It can take 24-48 hours for the water cycle to be complete, but it can happen a little later. There is very little you can do but be patient and wait, the rest will fall into place. At this point, you’ll be tempted to rush, but don’t!. You’ll end up with all kinds of water problems, like algae blooms. We cannot stress this enough. TAKE YOUR TIME


After 24-48 hours, test your water for ammonia. If the reading is zero, then you can add a fish. If you have a small reading of nitrate, this is fine. This can be removed when you carry out a partial water change. Also check the pH. This really depends on the fish. Some species, such as neon tetras, prefer slightly acidic water (6-7 range). Check our fish section for more details or send us a message if you are unsure.

CONGRATULATIONS, You are now the proud owner of a lovely, fully working aquarium.