The Ultimate Guide to Being an Aquarist

Did you know that it is a proven fact that fish farming is an excellent hobby for your physical and mental well-being? Good is true! Aquarists can expect to enjoy reduced heart rate and lower blood pressure, not to mention being more relaxed than the average person without fish.

At first, the thought of setting up a tropical fish tank in your home and keeping it clean and healthy can be very overwhelming. Where do you start?!

Fortunately, our ultimate guide to being an aquarist contains everything you need to know to start your fishkeeping journey from beginner to expert enthusiast.


Fish farming as a hobby has been around for at least 4,500 years when the Sumerians kept fish in purpose-built ponds, initially for food, but later with brightly colored specimens kept as pets.

The ancient Egyptians and Assyrians also kept species of tropical fish, making these early enthusiasts the first known aquarists. Some of the fish were farmed for food, while other species, which were considered sacred, were kept in ornamental, rectangular pools in the temple and revered.


The Chinese are believed to be the first civilization to selectively breed fish to create ornamental specimens, using freshwater carp originally kept as a food crop. During the Song dynasty, goldfish were kept indoors in large ceramic pots. The Japanese also caught the fishing bug and perfected the art of raising ornamental goldfish.


The ancient Romans farmed fish for food, and evidence was discovered showing that they also created decorative fish ponds, which were filled with fresh seawater and beautiful fish that were brought in from the ocean, making these early enthusiasts the first aquarists. marine.


Later, in medieval Europe, ponds containing carp were regularly included on the grounds of monasteries and estates, where the fish was kept and farmed as an alternative dish to meat on religious holidays when eating meat was prohibited..


In England during the 1700s, early hobbyists used glass containers to keep goldfish, although it wasn’t until 1832 that Jeanne Villepreux-Power, a French naturalist, invented the first glass aquarium.

Since those early days, fish farming has become much more sophisticated and is now one of the most popular pet-keeping hobbies after keeping dogs and cats.


The type of fish farming system you use depends on the species of fish you want to raise.


Most hobbyists take their first steps in their fishing journey by keeping freshwater fish.

Take a look at your local pet store and you’ll see dozens of different freshwater species, from coldwater fish such as goldfish to exotic-looking tropical species including guppies, angelfish, bettas and barbs.

Most aquarists prefer to keep a variety of species in a display tank to create an attractive and interesting focal point in their home. However, there are fish, such as bettas, that are solitary in nature, although they still make an impressive sight in a single-species setup.

In addition to fish, the freshwater aquarium can house a wide variety of live plants, and keeping them can become a hobby in itself. Invertebrates such as snails and shrimp can also be a quirky addition to a tropical freshwater tank, and are also useful for cleaning algae and general debris from the substrate.


Marine tanks are generally more challenging and time-consuming to maintain, and the fish, corals, anemones, and invertebrates you can keep in saltwater are typically much more expensive to purchase than freshwater livestock. For that reason, marine and reef tanks are more suitable for experienced aquarists.

The brightly colored saltwater species kept in home fish tanks are mostly tropical. Temperate species prefer cool water conditions, and that’s hard to provide in an aquarium unless you use a refrigeration unit, known colloquially to hobbyists as a «chiller.»

A coral reef can be created in a saltwater aquarium, using live rocks, large coral species, and anemones. Reef tanks are often home to mollusks, crabs, echinoderms, and shrimp, as well as small, peaceful fish species.


Some fish come from tidal estuaries and mangroves where the water varies between fresh and salty. Although some of these species can also be kept in fresh water, there are many fish that will not thrive unless they are kept in brackish conditions.

Maintaining a well-balanced brackish aquarium can be tricky, especially since the water tends to evaporate, carrying away some of the salt content. In addition, the hobbyist will need to carefully balance the mix of saltwater and freshwater at each weekly partial water change.


First of all, you will need to decide which species of fish you want to keep. I recommend that beginners start with a simple tropical setup or maybe a single species goldfish or betta tank. That said, goldfish are messy creatures, and a tropical aquarium with a few carefully selected specimens is usually easier to manage.

So, in this guide, we’ll focus on setting up and maintaining a basic tropical fish tank.


The variety of tropical fish species you can choose from is bewildering! So how the heck do you decide which species to keep? There are several important things for the beginning aquarist to consider when selecting fish:

  • What size aquarium can you have?
  • How big do fish get when they are fully grown?
  • How hardy is the species?
  • Is the species easy to care for?
  • Is the species peaceful or aggressive?
  • What is the life expectancy of the species?

Once you’ve decided on the varieties of fish you want to keep, do your research to ensure that all species share the same requirements in terms of water parameters, environment, feeding, and temperament.

As a beginner, you will find it much more enjoyable and less hassle to keep fish that have similar environmental needs and care requirements. Also, you should avoid fish that have a reputation for being aggressive. A calm tank is much more relaxing for the owner than one where the occupants are constantly scraping!

It’s also wise to stick to the cheapest species when you start your aquarist journey, rather than spend a fortune on a fish, only to have it die a week after you bring it home because tank conditions weren’t right. The species of fish you can keep will be determined by the size of the tank you have.

Species for small tanks

If your space is limited, you can still enjoy keeping fish in a small aquarium.

Bettas are an extremely popular choice of pet fish that are beautiful to look at, peaceful when given the right tank mates, and suitable for a beginning aquarist.

Other species that do well in nano tanks include tetras, Corydoras catfish, and danios.

community aquariums

Community aquariums are a very popular option for beginners.

Choose fish that are peaceful, easy to keep, and share the same water requirements. It’s also a good idea to choose tankmates that live in different areas of the water column. That prevents competition for food and swimming space, which helps maintain harmony within the tank.

Popular community fish species include Platys, Mollies, Guppies, Corydoras catfish, Gouramis and Tetras.


Remember to leave space around your tank for maintenance and enough space to easily access power points. In addition, you must be able to lift the lid of the tank to be able to perform weekly partial water changes.

Also, aquariums need a small amount of space around them to provide good ventilation so that mold and condensation don’t become a problem on surfaces adjacent to the tank.

stable water temperature

It is important that the temperature of the water in the tank remains constant, as fluctuations can be detrimental to many species of fish. Therefore, you should choose a site for your tank that is not in a drafty part of your home, next to a radiator, heater, or air conditioning unit, and is not in a place where it will be affected. by direct sunlight.

level floors

The minimum size of aquarium you purchase should be the minimum size in which your fish will thrive. Generally, the larger the tank, the better it is for the fish. A larger volume of water dilutes harmful ammonia and nitrites more efficiently, and filtration systems in larger aquariums cycle faster, reducing stress on the fish.

The size of the fish tank you can choose will be decided by where you want to store it.

Power supply

The tank will have lights, filtration equipment, and a heater, all of which should be plugged into an electrical outlet, preferably without the need for trailing cords that could present a trip hazard.

Also, it is helpful to keep the tank close to a water source to facilitate weekly maintenance and partial water changes.

space for access

Larger tanks usually come with an integral cabinet that is specially designed and built to safely support the weight of a fish tank filled with water.

Check the floor in the area where you want to keep the tank and cabinet to see if it is solid and level. An uneven surface makes it impossible to fill the tank properly, and it could even tip over.


Now that you know what size tank you can have, it’s time to choose one.

Glass or acrylic?

Aquariums can be made of glass or plastic.

Generally, glass fish tanks are less expensive and more scratch resistant than acrylic. However, acrylic aquariums are much lighter when empty, making them much easier to transport. Acrylic is also stronger than glass and therefore less likely to break. If you live in an earthquake-prone area, it’s worth knowing that acrylic is much more forgiving than glass.

What shape of tank to choose

Aquariums come in a variety of shapes and sizes, some of them extremely extravagant and unusual.

Rectangular tanks are the most popular choice among beginning aquarists. You can also buy bowl-shaped bioOrbs, small nano tanks, tall square aquariums, and hexagonal tanks as well. Additionally, you can purchase rectangular tanks with arched fronts, giving you a better panoramic view of your fish.

How many fish?

Your main consideration when choosing a tank should be the welfare of your fish.

Overcrowding causes stress, and stress is a common cause of illness in fish kept in aquariums. Therefore, choosing the correct tank size and shape is critical for your fish to thrive.

The general rule of thumb when it comes to calculating how many fish can be accommodated in a tank is that you should allow one gallon of water for every inch of fish. However, that doesn’t take into account the shape of the tank. A better rule of thumb is based on the available surface area in the tank, rather than volume. Therefore, for every inch of fish, you should allow 12 square inches (not one square foot) of surface area.

Therefore, a 40-gallon hexagonal tank could accommodate about half as many fish as a 40-gallon rectangular aquarium.

How is that?

Well, a large surface area is essential for good gas exchange in the water. Fish need dissolved oxygen that is obtained from the air. The smaller the surface area, the less oxygen there is in the water for the fish. A rectangular tank has a larger surface area than a hexagonal one and therefore can comfortably accommodate more fish.

Aquarium shape and fish species

Different species of fish live in different parts of the tank, and that will also influence the tank shape you choose.

For example, active free-swimming species will be happy in a rectangular tank, while poorer swimmers may do better in a tall, narrow tank. Betta fish with their heavy, flowing fins prefer a shallow tank as they feed at the surface and also need to reach the top of the tank to breathe.

For a beginner, I recommend starting with a 10- to 15-gallon rectangular aquarium that is about 24 inches long. That’s a manageable size and allows you to keep a community of 15 to 20 minnows.


While it’s true that you need a wide range of equipment to set up your tropical fish tank, once you’ve bought everything, that’s it. All you need to pay for on a regular basis afterwards is food for your fish and possibly some replacement filter media, depending on the system you choose.

So, in addition to the aquarium, you will need some other equipment.

DIY or kit?

You can choose to go the DIY route and buy everything separately. That allows you to customize your setup with your preferred style of filtration system, heater, lighting, etc.

Once you have some knowledge and experience under your belt, you can change things to better suit your needs. However, when you start, I recommend that you choose an aquarium kit. Many fish tanks come complete with all the essentials, often at a very reasonable price, and that too can save you a lot of trouble and cash.

Let’s take a closer look at what equipment you need:


A medium-sized aquarium should be placed in a specially designed cabinet. It’s important to know that manufacturers’ warranties are often invalid if you place a heavy fish tank on top of an unsuitable DIY piece of furniture that collapses.

Cabinets also give you space to hide external filtration and a place to store food containers, test kits, water treatments, etc.


Tropical fish come from waters in places like Africa, Asia, and South America where the temperature rarely drops below 75o Fahrenheit, so you’ll need an aquarium heater to make sure the water in your tank stays cool. that range.

Fish tank heaters are thermostatic, allowing you to set the temperature you want and maintain it 24/7/365, which is vital for your fish as sudden changes of temperature can be very harmful for them.

When choosing a heater, choose one that offers the same or higher wattage as there are gallons of water in your tank.


A filtration system is an essential piece of kit for an aquarium, regardless of the species of fish you have and the size of the tank. The filter must be in operation 24 hours a day, keeping the water clean and hygienic by removing harmful contaminants and fish waste.

For beginners, starting with a medium or small sized tank, an internal filter is the best option as they are easy to install and use. If your tank doesn’t come with a filter system, ask a fish store staff member for advice on choosing the right one for your tank.

Turning on

A collection of brightly colored active tropical fish can look absolutely stunning when displayed under the right lighting.

Most tanks come with a built-in lighting unit, though you can swap out the bulbs for ones that will encourage live plant growth or bring out the color in your fish. You can also purchase lighting units that come with special effects, remote controls, and timers that can be set using your tablet or smartphone.

Air pump

An air pump is not essential, but having one in your aquarium is beneficial to your fish. The air pump is attached to an air piece and an air stone. The pump releases air bubbles into the water, which helps increase oxygen saturation.

If your filtration system fails, the fish will still get plenty of oxygen through the air pump. Additionally, the beneficial aerobic bacteria that process ammonia and nitrite in the tank will benefit from the additional oxygen, making the filtration process more efficient.

The air pump can live in the cabinet under the tank, but you must install a check valve to prevent water from entering the pump in the event of a power outage. Alternatively, you can hang the pump on the wall behind the tank at a point above the waterline.


Your aquarium should have a two to three inch layer of substrate on the bottom. There are several different types of substrates to choose from, but the preferred option for most beginner tanks is gravel.

Although you can buy colored gravel, we do not recommend it. Most colored gravel is made from a mineral called white dolomite, which is packed with calcium and magnesium. Both of these naturally occurring minerals alter the pH of the water, making it unsuitable for many species of fish and requiring a pH buffer to correct the water chemistry.

Gravel is the best option as it gives an attractive natural look to the aquascape, does not alter the hardness of the water and provides a safe rooting place for live plants.


Most fish benefit from having places to hide and explore, so include some decorative elements in your tank setup.

Popular tank decorating options include driftwood, rocks, and resin trim. You can also buy bog wood, sometimes with live plants growing on it. However, bog wood eventually releases tannins into the water, which stain the water brown.

Although some tropical fish, such as cardinal tetras, live in naturally dyed “black waters” in their wild Amazon environment, tea-colored water can spoil the look of your tank. So use activated carbon in your filtration system to remove tannins or use driftwood.


Live plants add an attractive, natural feel to your tank. Fish also love plants, and use the leaves as hiding places or resting places.

There are many different plant species that novice hobbyists can successfully grow in the tropical home aquarium without the need to add supplements. Most plants need a small amount of basic maintenance, including trimming dead leaves and cutting back on excessive growth.

When choosing fish species, check to make sure your favorites are compatible with a planted tank. Some fish, including goldfish, can be destructive, digging up plants and even eating some of the young leaves.

As an alternative to live plants, you can try using silk plants, which require no maintenance. I would advise against using plastic plants as they can have sharp blades which can harm fish.

Other Essentials

Water test kits are essential if you have a new aquarium. The water may appear crystal clear, but it can still be full of harmful nitrates that could make fish sick. Also, a new biological filtration system takes time to mature, and testing your tank water every week will show you how well your filter is working.

You will need a fish catching net to use if you need to catch your fish for a tank move or if one of your pets gets sick. Choose a net that is wider in diameter than your largest fish. An algae magnet is also essential so you can clean green algae off the tank glass as part of your weekly maintenance routine.

The most effective way to clean your aquarium gravel and perform weekly partial water changes is to use an aquarium gravel vacuum. This simple device allows you to vacuum fish and general debris from gravel while removing water.

Finally, you will need an aquarium thermometer to be able to monitor the temperature of the water on a daily basis.

PRESENT the fish

Now it’s time to start fueling your tank!

Start by adding just a few small fish to the tank. That gives the biofilter time to deal with the extra workload of fish debris in the water. If you add too many fish too soon, you risk exposing them to harmful levels of ammonia and nitrite in the water.

Taking it slowly also allows the fish to settle in without the stress of a crowd. Schooling species like tetras and guppies are a good place to start, as safety in numbers means newcomers will settle in more quickly.

Over the next few weeks, you can introduce small amounts of different species of fish to your community.

When you purchase your fish, the fish will be placed in a plastic bag for transportation. Let the bag float in your tank with the fish inside for 30 minutes or so before releasing them into the aquarium. This allows the temperatures in the bag and the aquarium to equalize, reducing the chance of your fish suffering from heat shock.


Water can be hard or soft, depending on the amount of certain minerals it contains, including calcium carbonate. Water also has a pH level. The pH of the water determines its degree of alkalinity, acidity or if it is neutral.

Different species of fish have different tolerances when it comes to water chemistry. So before you buy your fish, check the hardness and pH of your aquarium water to make sure the fish you choose will be happy in that environment.

It is possible to add buffering chemicals to the water to alter the pH, but choosing the right fish for the environment is less complicated.


Your filter keeps your fish tank clean, removing uneaten food, harmful bacteria, fish waste, and chemicals. The filter removes water and waste products through various means to purify them, preventing ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates from building up in the water, which is crucial to the health of your fish.

Also, standing water absorbs CO2 from the air, which changes the pH of the water and deprives fish of the oxygen they need to survive. Its filtration system ensures that the water keeps moving, drawing oxygen into the water as it moves.

The best filters have three stages; mechanical, biological and chemical.

mechanical filtration

Mechanical filtration makes it easy to remove fish waste, uneaten food, and general aquarium detritus. To ensure optimal filter performance, you should change the filter cartridges approximately once a month, depending on your system. Every week, rinse the filter media in the tank water to remove any debris that could clog the filters and prevent the free flow of water through the system.

biological filtration

The biological filter is essential for the health of your fish. Special biological sponges inside the filter stimulate the growth of «good» bacteria in the aquarium. Those beneficial bacteria help break the nitrogen cycle, keeping the water safe for fish and living plants.

chemical filtration

The chemical filtration part of the system is responsible for extracting harmful chemicals from the water. Activated carbon is generally used for this phase of the filter system as it is very effective in keeping the water safe for fish.

The nitrogen cycle

As your aquarium becomes established, it accumulates fish waste, decaying food, dead organisms, and plant debris. All of that matter is broken down by bacteria to form ammonia. Ammonia is highly toxic to everything that lives in the aquarium, particularly fish. In a perfect situation, the ammonia levels in your tank should be zero.

Ammonia is broken down by a bacterium called Nitrosomonas to form nitrite. Nitrites are not as dangerous to life as ammonia, but they are still toxic to fish, and ideally, nitrite levels should be 0 ppm (parts per million).

The final element of the nitrogen cycle sees nitrite broken down by another bacterium called Nitrobacter to form nitrates. Nitrates are not as dangerous to fish as nitrite and ammonia, but they do cause algae to bloom in the water, and levels should preferably be kept below 20 ppm.

Therefore, you should test your water every week to ensure ammonia and nitrite levels are 0 ppm and nitrates are below 20 ppm.


Proper maintenance of your aquarium is vital for your fish to remain in good health.

Basically, tank maintenance is a weekly job:

  1. Start by cleaning the aquarium glass to remove algae and biofilm. The easiest way to do this is by using an aquarium magnet.
  2. If you have live plants in your tank, remove any dead leaves or excess growth. Remove decorations and rocks, and clean algae with an old toothbrush. Stubborn stains can be removed with white distilled vinegar.
  3. Turn off the tank lighting and remove the lid. Clean any algae growing on the slide and remove hard water stains.
  4. Turn off the filtration system.
  5. Using an aquarium vacuum cleaner, clean up the gravel and scoop out a bucket of water.
  6. Remove the filter unit from the tank. Take the filter media out of the housing and wash it in the bucket with dirty water from the tank. The idea here is to remove any buildup of dirt so water can flow freely through the system. Check that the pump impeller is not clogged and free of debris. If necessary, use an old toothbrush to gently remove dirt and rinse the impeller with water from the tank. Discard dirty water.
  7. Replace filter media in housing and replace unit in tank.
  8. Partial water changes are crucial to removing any accumulated nitrates from the water, so continue to clean the gravel until you have removed about 25% to 30% of the water in the tank.
  9. Fill the aquarium with fresh tap water that has been treated with dechlorinator.
  10. Turn the filtration unit back on, check for proper operation, and replace the tank lid and lamp.


Fish farming is a fun and rewarding hobby that the whole family can enjoy. In our guide, we’ve included everything you need to know to become a successful aquarist. Here’s a reminder of the key points:

  • Decide where you want to put your fish tank and based on that, decide what size aquarium you can have.
  • Choose hardy, compatible and peaceful fish species.
  • Gather the essential equipment you will need.
  • Set up your tank as shown in our guide.
  • Cycle the tank for a week before adding your fish.
  • Add a few fish each week so you don’t overload your filtration system.
  • Perform weekly aquarium maintenance tasks to keep your fish happy and healthy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my ultimate guide to being an aquarist!

Share your thoughts, experiences, and tips in the comment box below, and don’t forget to share this article with other fishing enthusiasts!

Check out our infographic and don’t forget to share it!

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