Initial Aquarium Setup: from A to Z

Setting up an aquarium for the first time: Everything you need to know from A to Z about the Initial Aquarium Setup

So you have finally made the decision to keep fish and bought an aquarium. Now you need to learn all about the initial aquarium setup.

Read below on everything you need to know

Initial Aquarium Setup: Equipping an aquarium

To set up an aquarium you need the following things:

  • a basin
  • a cover or lighting
  • Sand or fine-grain gravel as a substrate
  • a filter
  • a membrane pump if a  foam filter  is to be operated
  • a few meters of hose with different diameters for the membrane pump and for changing the water
  • a heating rod
  • Aquatic plants
  • Stones, wood or other decorative material
  • a back wall
  • a thermometer
  • a fishing net

In order to save electricity, the lighting should be equipped with electronic ballasts if fluorescent tubes are used.

Digital thermometers in the price range of approx. 50 € with a waterproof sensor are easy to read and more accurate than the usual aquarium thermometers. A comparison of different thermometers in the aquarium business shows considerable differences.

A nitrite test, with which the running-in of the aquarium can be followed, is not absolutely necessary, but recommended. Depending on the aquarium and the installation site, a pad may be required. If there is no space available, there is also a base cabinet to set up the aquarium. A mechanical timer is useful to switch the lighting on and off at fixed times. Electronic timers do not always seem to work reliably with aquarium lighting.

What Equipment Do I Need To Get Started?

What are the initial aquarium setup costs?

The exact costs depend heavily on the aquarium size and the equipment details. 

  • Relatively small aquariums measuring 60 x 30 x 30 cm and about 54 liters of water are available as complete offers between $50 and $100. 
  • Aquariums with a length of 80 cm cost between 100 and 150 €. 
  • For larger aquariums, costs from $150 upwards must be expected. 

In addition to the costs for the pure tank, there are the costs for the substrate, plants, safety net, etc., so that costs of at least $200 must also be expected for small aquariums. Also not to be neglected are the costs of the fish themselves.

Initial Aquarium Setup: Where the aquarium will be placed

The best place to set up the aquarium is a quiet location where direct sunlight does not fall into the aquarium. Although fish react to noise and sudden noises by obviously frightening them, it is more important that there are no constant restless movements in front of the aquarium. 

Some fish species then behave shyly hide as far as possible and are difficult to observe. Even the popular knocking on the aquarium glass should only be carried out if the reaction of a fish has to be determined if there is a specific suspicion of a disease.

Fish Tank Location – Where to Place Your Fish Tank

Initial Aquarium Setup: What to look out for when buying plants for the aquarium

Most aquarium plants are not real underwater plants, but marsh plants. They are mostly grown immersed by wholesalers outside of the water. The plants are also delivered to the aquarium stores. Some traders resell the plants in this form. Such plants, as a rule, have a cheap price. In many shops the plants are placed in aquariums and kept under water until they are sold. Real aquatic plants, e.g. Vallisneria, cannot be kept out of the water and are therefore always offered under water.

Plants should look good and fresh when purchased, meaning they should

  • be lush green
  • have no or at most a few rotting leaves
  • have rooted the pot well
  • don’t be rogue

There are sometimes considerable price differences for aquatic plants. So it can be worthwhile to visit several retailers before buying. In any case, you should know the selected plants before buying them and have informed yourself about their requirements. In the trade you can always find very nice looking plants, but they can only be kept under water for a few weeks and accordingly die quickly.

When switching from immersed cultivation to submerged cultivation, many plant species shed their existing leaves and the leaves that grow back look different in the home aquarium than the leaves when you buy them. So-called rhizome plants are primarily affected. These are plants with a rhizome from which the leaves sprout.

Most of the so-called stem plants, on the other hand, are relatively robust and have no conversion problems. Stem plants have a long vertical stem from which the leaves sprout. Stem plants usually continue to grow immediately after planting or after a few days. Rhizome plants, such as the popular Amazon sword plants (Echinodorus), take a few weeks or months to get used to life underwater. But even with rhizome plants, the first new leaves should grow back after about a week.

The so-called cryptocorynes are particularly sensitive. They often react to even the smallest changes in the environment with what is known as cryptocoryne rot; Most or even all of the leaves dissolve within a few days. Eventually new leaves will grow after a few weeks if the plant is not disturbed further.

Which plants are suitable for the new furnishing?

In a newly set up aquarium, stem plants that grow quickly are mainly placed. This serves to prevent excessive algae growth, as the plants consume nutrients as they grow that are otherwise used by the algae to multiply. For the same reason, 70 to 80% of the floor area will be planted when setting up a new facility. Around 80% of the plants should be fast-growing stem plants.

Proceed cautiously with the initial planting, as with the initial stocking with fish. It is started with just a few plants and gradually more and more plants are used. This method assumes that the plants also have to get used to the new environment. The plants are unstable and not fully active in the first 14 days. 

If the leaves are falling apart, the aquarium that has not been retracted will be more stressed than is tolerable. There will be accumulation of organic substances are not decomposed or consumed quickly enough and are thus available as nutrients for algae. These will mostly be on fallen leaves and the substrate underneath blue-green algae.

In spite of the careful approach, regardless of the method used, algae will increasingly grow in many new aquariums after a few weeks. Under no circumstances should chemical agents be used to combat these algae. These agents either do not help or damage the plants more than the algae. A real vicious circle is inevitable.

The damaged plants grow worse and therefore use fewer nutrients. The excess nutrients are available again for the algae to multiply even more. Algae should only be removed mechanically by cleaning the panes and the decoration and by carefully rubbing the plant leaves. 

As a rule, after a few weeks, a state will level off in which algae are present in the aquarium, but not overflowing. If there is a real plague of algae, possible causes must be found out so that targeted measures can be taken.

Stem plants that are robust, grow quickly and are therefore suitable for initial planting:

  • Heteranthera zosteraefolia
  • Hygrophila angustifolia
  • Hygrophila corymbosa
  • Hygrophila difformis
  • Hygrophila polysperma
  • Limnophila sessiliflora
  • Limnophila heterophila
  • Rotala rotundifolia
  • Cabomba caroliniana
  • Ludwigia repens
  • Ludwigia palustris
  • Ceratophyllum demersum (hornwort)

When stem plants have grown too much, they are simply pulled out of the ground and cut. Both sections can be replanted. Some stem plants can even be cut in more than two parts. However, they should not be planted too close together, as otherwise the lower leaves can die off due to lack of light.

initial aquarium setup

The following robust plants grow well but not that fast

  • Echinodorus tenellus
  • Echinodorus quadricostatus
  • Echinodorus bolivianus

There is a variant of Echinodorus tenellus that only grows to about 5 cm and a reddish variant that grows up to 18 cm. Echinodorus quadricostatus becomes about 10 cm tall. Echinodorus bolivianus is very similar to Echinodorus quadricostatus.

The following robust plants grow relatively slowly, but are also suitable in small numbers for new installations

  • Microsorium pteropus (Java fern)
  • Vallisneria spiralis
  • Vallisneria americana

The following plants are not suitable for new installations and especially for beginners in the aquarium hobby:

  • Cryptocorynes
  • Anubia
  • Old ternanteras
  • Didiplis diandra
  • Lobelia cardinalis
  • Rotala macranda
  • Limnophila aqquatica

Not only do these plants grow slowly, they are often also demanding.

Initial Aquarium Setup: If the aquarium runs smoothly, you can experiment.

When the aquarium has stabilized after about half a year, some of the fast-growing stem plants can be replaced by slower-growing or even sensitive plants.

Depending on the prevailing conditions in the aquarium, one or the other of these plants may grow better than expected.

However, a preventive effect against algae is by no means to be expected.

Therefore, not too many stem plants should be replaced at once.

Quick tips for the initial aquarium setup

  • Rhizome plants are not moved too often, as some of them cannot tolerate moving too often to a new location.
  • Newly purchased stem plants do not have to be laboriously removed from the pot with their roots. It is enough to cut the stems just above the ground.
  • When cutting stem plants, do not crush the stems.
  • The rock wool, in which the plants are usually grown, must be removed from the roots as completely as possible. Stone wool can damage the gills and intestines of fish.
  • When removing the rock wool, the rhizome (root stock) should not be damaged. If in doubt, leave some rock wool at the root.
  • The plant pots are washed around with fertilizer solution at the grower. The rock wool therefore contains a lot of fertilizer. If the rock wool cannot be removed, rinse the rock wool with lukewarm water.
  • Before planting, shorten the roots to 2 to 3 cm with sharp scissors. The roots grow faster this way.
  • Remove rotten brown roots before planting.
  • Remove rotten brown leaves before planting.
  • If the lower part is planted again and again after the division of stem plants, it will become unsightly after several divisions. Then only the upper part (approx. 10 cm) is replanted and the lower part is removed.
  • If you shake the plant a little while planting out, the roots loosen in the soil and the plant comes out of the soil more easily.
  • Stem plants grow (flood) along the water surface if they are of the appropriate size. Strong shoots and many branches form. Excessive flooding can shade the flooding plants themselves and other plants too much.
  • On the Internet you can buy or exchange cheap and above all the desired plants.
  • Poor plant growth can possibly be improved by suitable fertilization or CO2 supply.
  • Water changes remove excess nutrients. Fertilization replenishes missing nutrients. Regular and sufficient water changes with subsequent fertilization bring you closer to the optimal fertilizer content. The plants grow optimally and push back algae.

Initial Aquarium Setup: CO2 can be used for fertilization immediately after the new installation 

After the new setup, an aquarium must first be run in without fish. During this time, the plants already in use consume CO 2 during the day. At night, plants consume oxygen and produce CO2. 

However, the amount of CO 2 generated during the night does not offset the consumption during the day. Since there is no feeding yet, only a small amount of CO2 is generated through biological degradation processes. The CO2 content in the water will gradually decrease without the introduction of a special external CO2 supply. After a while, the plants have too little CO2 available and they grow poorly or take care of them.

As soon as fish are placed in the aquarium, an increased production of CO2 begins in the aquarium through the breathing of the fish and through increased biological degradation processes. The already weakened plants, however, no longer absorb the additional CO2, as they have adapted to the low CO2 content.

To compensate for the CO 2 consumed by the plants, O 2 fertilization should therefore be started immediately after setting up the aquarium.

The CO2 content in the water can be determined and controlled using suitable water tests (CO2 tests).

In the beginning, a weekly check is useful. A CO 2 content of 10 to 15 mg / l provides the plants with sufficient CO2 and poses no danger to the fish.

However, a supply of CO2 is not always necessary. Depending on the overall conditions in the aquarium and the plant species being cared for, an aquarium can also be operated successfully and with good plant growth without additional CO2.

Unfortunately, due to the complex dependencies, it is not possible to say in advance when an aquarium needs an additional CO2 supply and when it doesn’t.

Initial Aquarium Setup: Should you fertilize the aquarium from the start?

A new aquarium must first be run in. At this time there are already plants in the aquarium, but no fish. This gives rise to the question of whether fertilization should or must be used during the running-in period.


  • The freshly planted plants need nutrients to grow.
  • After adding fertilizer, the algae recede because the plants grow better.


  • The freshly planted plants first have to acclimate and therefore cannot use the fertilizer during this time.
  • The additional fertilizer mainly or even exclusively benefits the algae.
  • Without fertilization, the plants take away the few existing nutrients from the algae, so that there is no excessive algae growth.

Whether or not fertilization is used does not depend on specific times, but must be answered according to the needs of the plants. Plants also have to get used to the new aquarium. Newly purchased plants are mostly grown above water and even have to get used to life under water. In the early days of these plants, the leaves above the water die off, while the underwater leaves grow back in parallel. 

Plants that are taken over from other aquariums are already used to life underwater and have already formed underwater leaves. Getting used to a new aquarium is correspondingly easier and shorter. Even the different origins of the plants rule out a general answer. 

In addition, there are nutrients in aquariums even without adding fertilizer, some of which are already in tap water, some of which are generated by the metabolism in the aquarium. The amount of nutrients is therefore dependent on the source water and the metabolism. Both can be very different for different aquariums.

The question of adding fertilizer is therefore sensibly linked to the fertilization requirement of the plants. On the one hand, the plants need to receive enough nutrients to allow them to grow healthily. On the other hand, there must not be more nutrients in the aquarium than the plants consume.

In addition, all nutrients must be in a balanced ratio so that some nutrients are not lacking while others are in abundance. Excess nutrients such as nutrients that are not consumed by the plants are absorbed by the algae, which then multiply accordingly.

After setting up the basin, there is initially no fertilization. After a relatively short time, the plants used get the first new leaves. When a few new leaves have formed, the overwater leaves can be gradually removed from newly purchased plants by pruning. They die anyway and at most pollute the water. However, not all old leaves should be removed at the same time.

The color of new leaves is initially light green. If the leaves get larger, they turn into a strong, lush green on well-nourished plants. As long as the plants in the aquarium look so healthy, there is no need to fertilize. It must be taken into account that there are also plants whose mature leaves are light green or red. Beginners should therefore get an idea of ​​the healthy underwater forms of the well-kept plants.

Only when there are signs that there is a lack of nutrients does it need to be fertilized. You should start with small amounts of fertilizer. A rough rule of thumb is to use a third, or at most half the dose recommended by the fertilizer manufacturer. Depending on the type of plant, very narrow, thin or pale leaves are signs of nutrient deficiency. 

Yellowish pale leaves are often an indication of iron deficiency. Then you can also fertilize with a pure iron fertilizer. Again, you should only start with a small amount. If the leaves are pale, aquarium beginners are better off using so-called complete fertilizers, as pure iron fertilizers contain other nutrients, e.g. Manganese. Because of the breakdown processes in the filter, iron can also accumulate there.

After adding the fertilizer, it must be determined by observing the growth of plants and algae which amount of fertilizer is suitable for the respective aquarium. If the plants continue to care, the amount of fertilizer is carefully increased. If algae multiply, the amount of fertilizer is carefully reduced. After a while, you get a feeling for the amount of fertilizer that enables healthy and strong plants, but does not make algae a nuisance.

Before this equilibrium is reached, there is a strong increase in algae in most new aquariums. Algae often react faster than plants to environmental changes and therefore initially have a developmental advantage. As a rule, the algae recede after a while when the plants have caught up with the lead.

Initial Aquarium Setup: Should you introduce snails into the aquarium? How useful are they?

Snails eat at least some of the algae and “waste” in the aquarium. For this reason they are useful and should at least be tolerated.

For many aquarists, snails are part of the aquarium. Only a few species of snail eat plant leaves. This can also be tolerated if not too many snails damage the plants too much. If the plant is too eaten, the snails are better removed.

The cause of a real snail plague is usually too much feeding.

The snails eat the food that the fish have not eaten and reproduce accordingly. If you reduce the feed, the snail population will decrease after a while.

Initial Aquarium Setup: Should you make water changes during the running-in period?

There are some arguments for and against changing water during the running-in period. In practice, however, no measurable difference can be determined.


  • You get used to regular water changes during the running-in period.
  • The aquarium should be set up in the way it will be operated later.
  • The aquarium gets used to a certain maintenance rhythm.


  • The reproduction of the desired bacteria is disrupted.
  • The nitrite peak is more difficult to detect because the rise and fall of the nitrite value is falsified by the water change.
  • There are no living beings in the aquarium that are poisoned by nitrite. Snails can cope with the nitrite levels that occur during the run-in process.

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