Sunday, February 17, 2013

Freshwater Aquarium. How to Setup Your Own.

It is time to start your imagination gears running and to get your hands wet. We are now setting up your own freshwater aquarium!

If you missed reading the essential stuffs you need to know before the big setup, you may want to read it first.

Something Fishy. Essential Things to Know about Fish and Fishkeeping.

Photo from Aquarium Design Group

This section will cover all the basics on setting up the aquarium and getting the system up and running. We will divide them into five parts.
  • Shopping. Obtaining your materials
  • Planning. Choosing the location, and designing the landscape.
  • Preparation. Cleaning the materials for setup
  • Assembly. Arrangement of equipments and decorations.
  • Cycling. We will start circulating water for prep before the introduction of fish.


Our first move is to visit the local pet store and purchase the necessary (and/or optional) materials for our aquarium. Most of these can be found on your local pet store but some equipments such as lighting can also be found on hardwares.

If you are near Manila, one great place for bargain and has a wide range of selection is the Cartimar Pet Store located in Pasay near LRT Gil Puyat Station. Google Maps can help you with its location.

Remember that we have two goals in setting up the aquarium.
  1. Create a working aquarium that will support your fishes' needs and would establish a stable, healthy and stress-free environment.
  2. Make a beautiful scenery that is pleasing and relaxing to the eyes. Here is where your imagination can help you.

Materials you need are listed below. Ive separated the essential from the optional. These essential materials are mandatory to create  a healthy environment for our fish to thrive. Make sure they go on top of your list.

IMPORTANT! Fish are not included on the list of things you need to buy at this moment. DO NOT buy fish yet since we need time for our water to reach a healthy and stable condition for our fish. You have been warned! This is one of the most common mistakes beginners commit.

Essential Materials


Fish Tank

Tanks come in different types, shapes and sizes. The most common are the glass box type. Getting popular now are the acrylic tanks which comes in different shapes. Acrylic tanks are really attractive and if you want you can get a shape of your choice but is not practical since it can get scratched easier than the glass type. Cleaning them also requires special procedure. Choosing the size is also your desicion but for beginners, it is recomended that a 50 gallons capacity tank or larger should be use. The bigger the tank the better. This is because it can cycle the water better, fish can have more space to swim around, and it is easier to maintain.

Fish Tank complete with cover and stand
photo from Greengreen84

An oddly shaped fish bowl
Photo from:

Tank Accesories
Tank Cover
This serves as a protection from lighting and jumping fishes and also minimizes water evaporation. Usually made of glass, a canopy or a full hood can be used.
Tank Stand
Stands can be wood or metal. When purchasing one, be sure that it is level from all sides and can handle a lot of weight.

From my previous post, our tank came from my bro-in-law but you can get them from pet shops and stores specializing in them. In Cartimar Pet Shop near Taft Buendia, you can get a 50 gallon tank for only Php 2000 including the cover and stand (not the one pictured above). Haggle for an even lower price.


There are different types of filtration, one example is mechanical which separates dirt from the water, another is biological filter which is designed to house bacteria that promotes good nitogen cycle. There are also hybrid filters which uses multiple type of filtration.

My filter has a four-stage filtration system combining mechanical, biological and chemical types.
I've recently added activated carbon to break down ammonia, prevents the bad odor and to keep the water crystal clean.

Aside from the kind of filtration it does, filters are also differentiated from how it is placed. There are undergravel filters, submersible and overhead or outside filters, which are placed on top of the aquarium and has one or two tube openings.

The most commonly available filters now in the market are the overhead hybrid filters. One thing to consider when looking for filters are their capacity to circulate water effectively for the size of your tank. You need a filter with a powerhead that can circulate water atleast four times an hour.

When buying, they will usually ask for how much is the capacity or gallons your tanks holds and they will give you the best filter and pump for it. I got mine for Php 1000 including the overhead hybrid filter.


Substrates can come in the form of sand or gravel. This are essential since it can be a good source of bacteria, plant support and also a playground for some of your fish. When you are planning a planted aquarium a good layer of laterite or flourite on the bottom can be beneficial for the plant since it is a good source of vitamins and minerals.

Rinsed black sand

When purchasing, you only need an amount that can cover the bottom glass atleast 1-3 centimeter, more when plants are added. In Cartimar, you can find sands packed for Php 30 per kilo. There are also fine, large-grained, black or white.

I bought mine from Bio Research inside SM Megamall. Its a type of black sand which it says is scientifically prepared to absorb ammonia and keep pH stable. A bag of 5 kilos costs Php 700. I bought 2 bags for my 50 gallons.

5kg bag of Black Sand available from Bio-Research



Aside from bringing out the beauty of your aquarium and fishes, it also serves us heat source for your plants and fish. Like how the sun works, it gives off heat and light needed for proper photosynthesis and wellbeing of fishes. There are different types but the most common and recommended for your tank are the fluoresent type. They come in colors and wattage. For planted setups, you need atleast two fixtures.

Lighting can be acquired from pet shops and hardware stores.

Chlorine Neutralizer

This chemical removes the harmful chlorine from water. Make sure you follow the instructions on the bottle for its proper usage. One rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon per 10 gallons of water. They are available on pet stores for only Php 30 for a 250 mL bottle.


Food Staple

Your fish wouldn't survive without food. There are different types for different kinds of fish.

Flakes. These kind floats for a long period and slowly sink. Good for most fishes but best for top surface dwellers. These are the common staple for most fishes.
Pellets. Packed with more nutrients, pellets can be floating or sinking.
Freeze Dried. Are usually live foods freeze-dried to keep nutrients longer.
Live Feeds. Loved by carnivores. they range from small fishes, small crusteceans and worms.

Readily available in pet stores. Cartimar has more affordable staples than in local pet stores. A big bag of flakes cost Php 100. Pellets are Php 30 per bag. Small fishes are packaged in a air tight plastic for Php 10. Small shrimps are Php 2 per piece and worms can be bought for Php 30 for every 1/2 cup.

Optional Materials

Your aquarium can survive without these optional materials but here they are and available for a reason. They provide that distinct beauty and also help in making your fantasy aquascape happen.


Live plants are great source of food. They also add that distinct beauty for the aquarium setup. Some fish also loves playing in between them and for some, they provide a hiding place for predators. Lets not forget that live plants are producers of oxygen.

Variety of live plants.
They are bundled with their roots covered in a sheet of cotton

You can also opt for artificial plants which are only good for design purposes but i dont recommend them. The natural the better plus live plants arent that expensive considering the benefits they give.

Live plants can be found in Cartimar for Php 10 a bundle. Look for anubias, hygrophilia, sword plant or wisteria.

Rocks and Stones

Some fish looks for places to hide. Rocks, when arranged, can create caves which are good hiding places. They also create teritorial boundaries. You can use rocks from your backyard as long as they are not calciferous or has high calcium content since these can increase the water pH which can be bad for your fish. One good way to know if a rock is calciferous is by dipping it in vinegar. If it bubbles, it's calciferous and harmful for fishes.

Pet shops also have interesting and nice looking rocks but I find it funny to go to the counter and buy them. If you are to purchase though look for Granite, Slate, Sandstone and Volcanic rocks. They are weighed and sold per kilo. Price range from 30 to 60 per kilo

These large, flat rocks are suitable for creating caves.
Found them on my backyard.

These are called chocolate stones.
They are nice for plant support and to cover bases of plants and around driftwoods.
Bought a kilo for Php 60


Driftwoods will add that natural look to your aquarium. It also serves a good hiding place for fish and equipments. It is used to support some plants and also tends to soften the water. However, be reminded that this is not the kind that you can just pick from your backyard. Curing a driftwood takes time and alot of process. Fortunately they are already available on pet stores. Smaller sticks range from Php 50 to 100. Larger ones can cost up to 500 a piece. When you are planning to add one, you should soak it in water for atleast a day before placing it in your aquarium. Soaking removes the dirt from driftwood.

Large driftwood for Php 400, haggled down to Php 300
Small dark brown sticks for Php 50 each, but i got the two for only Php 80


Since freshwater fishes are tropical, they require warmer waters. Ideal temperatures are around 70-80 degree Fahrenheit (21-27 degrees Celcius). Since the Philippines is a tropical country, heaters are placed as optional material. Room temperatures are sufficient to warm the aquarium. This only becomes necessary if the aquarium is placed on an airconditioned room.


Aquarium decorations range from caves, artificial plants, castles, sunken ships, treasure chests, spongebob charcters and so on. Some are powered by air pumps that produces bubbles such as clams that opens, floating scuba diver, and a pissng boy. These are optional and it depends on you on how are you gonna make that fantasy aquarium to life.

Courtesy of Doctors Foster and Smith site


  • Thermometer for monitoring the temperature
  • Air pumps for supplemental water circulation. Powers ornamental decorations.
  • Fish Nets for transferring fishes
  • Glass Cleaner to keep glass clear



You may already have a location in mind that you think will be perfect for the aquarium. Its absolutely subjective, but keep in mind some things when planning for your aquarium's location.
  • You dont want your aquarium in a place that receives a lot of direct sunlight. It helps in the production of algae which can be very difficult to remove. Temperature swings can also hurt your fish.
  • Consider a place where a near power supply is available. If none, have one installed. Running extension cords can be messy and hazardous.
  • Make sure that the floor is even and leveled. This is important since uneven tanks tends to create stress cracks that would break your aquarium. Remember, the aquarium will hold enormous weight so a steady support and even floor is essential.

Aquariums are eye catchers and conversation starters
Photo from:

Would you believe that this reef system aquarium is inside a McDonald's store?
Yes. This McReef is in Las Vegas. Cool!

Layout and Design

Now is also a good time to plan the layout of your aquarium. Use your imagination on how you want your scenery be like. To help you with the design, I've collected some ideas from the net below.

Planted aquariums closely resembles their natural habitat.

Combination of plants and stones creates a stunning look.

Cichlids love rocky aquascapes with lots of caves

Nerdy-themed. This Spongebob setup is a real eye candy



While deciding where to place the aquarium or while creating that under-the-sea look for the aquarium in your head, you can start cleaning and preparing the equipments and decorations you will use in the aquarium.
  • If you have driftwoods, make sure to soak it a day before you setup the aquarium to remove the dirt and the brown colored substance from the wood.
  • Check the fish tank for leaks.
  • Clean the tank and wipe it dry.
  • Rinse all the rocks, sand and decorations you will add.
  • Assemble the filter you will be using and make sure the powerhead is functioning.


Setting up your aquarium should be a relatively simple procedure and would only take a couple of hours, although you'll have to wait some time before you can add your first fish. Once we have gathered the necessary materials and prepared them for assembly, we can now start setting up the aquarium. Below are general guidelines and timeframe for setting up.
  1. Place the aquarium in your chosen location. Make sure it is even and level. If using a stand, make sure it supports the aquarium well. A layer of styrofoam between the glass base and the top of stand can help even out pressure.
  2. Put in first the materials that needs to be in the bottom. If you're using undergravel filter and/or heater, lay it first. If not then you can put the rocks and driftwoods first. When placing rocks, arrange them in a way that they would be stable and balanced. When creating caves, make sure they are properly supported and wont fall. The same goes for driftwoods.
  3. Add your sand or gravel. A good practice is to form an uphill from front to back.When having a planted aquarium and plans on adding laterite, put that layer first and top it up with the layer of sand or gravel.
  4. Install the powerhead and filter. Position it in a way that will optimize water circulation. Best if you can put the powerhead from one end of the aquarium and the output of filter on the other end. Ensure that all hoses are securely connected.
  5. Install heater and optional equipments such as thermometer, air pumps and other devices you wish to add.
  6. Place the plants and decorations. If you are using live plants, make sure to put fast growing and large plants at the back and the short greens infront. Make sure that plants are well supported since a lot of fish loves digging. Keep them also away from the powerhead to avoid the equipment from clogging. Arrange the decoration to your liking.
  7. Fill the tank with water. A little caution though, the flow of water can ruin your design so to avoid this you can either direct the flow on a broad rock or by placing a dish infront of the hose's opening to disperse the water. Also remember that this tap water is untreated from harmful chlorine.
  8. Once the tank is filled up to the rim or hood, drop the chlorine neutralizer with the specified amount either directly on water or on your filter. This will remove the harmful chemicals.
  9. Install the top cover and lighting.
  10. Plug in all equipment.
  11. Let the water run and circulate for 5 days up to one week. DO NOT add fish yet. During this time sand or gravel will cloud the water, driftwoods will leach out the remaining brown substance and water quality are still fluctuating. Its a condition you dont want your fish to be in. Things in the tank need to settle. Now is a good time to check for faulty equipments, leaks and water quality.
  12. After 5 days is the ideal time to introduce your fish to the aquarium but there are still conditions to be met. Read below.


Nitrogen cycling starts the moment you introduce fish into the aquarium. the fish breathes, produces carbon dioxide. Poops and uneaten foods produces ammonia. Bacterias grow and breaks down these elements into safer forms. Okay that is the nosebleed part.

You can only perform the next steps if your tank's water has circulated well enough to support life. Signs that your tank is ready.
  • Water is crystal clear, no more clouding.
  • You can see moss like dirt on the glass. These are algaes and are somewhat essential.
  • Plants are greener and healthier, if they are present.

Starter Fish

The next step is to buy your first fish. Yey! They are called starter fish. They are named so because they are the first one to experience the conditions of your newly built tank. They will serve as (though i hate to say it) test subjects that will tell whether or not you have succesfully treated the water. They are important because they will trigger the needed nitrogen cycle.

You might think that its harsh but worry not, the starter fish are hardy fish. These fish are designed to tolerate less favorable conditions. They will stabilize the nitrogen cycle and will help in creating a more favorable environment for the more sensitive fishes. What is good about starter fishes is that most of them are community fishes, meaning they have no problem getting along with other fishes once they are added. They also live in schools meaning they love to be in groups of their kinds. The best part is that they are affordable and wont hurt your wallet.

A little note when buying schooling fishes. You need to get atleast six (6) members of the group or more to have a functioning school.

Choosing your Starter Fish

Now, we are gonna go back to the pet store to buy your first fish. More Yey! Make sure to look for the below species.

Characins or Tetras

They are brightly colored with pleasant temperaments. They are strong and hardy and for the most part, very affordable. They school, so keep a minimum of 6. They are middle strata dwellers. Look for Neon, black, lemon or disk tetra.

A Lemon Tetra


Noted for the barbells that protrude on their mouth, these fish are very hardy and does an odd but beneficial thing. They consume poops of other fishes. They also keeps glasses clean by consuming algae. There are two catfish to look for. Plecos and corydoras. Plecos are known locally as janitor fishes. A little warning though most plecos grow fast and are very large when mature that can reach up to 15 inches in length. Corydoras on the other hand are their cuter version. Most of them are small in size and has colorful designs. Get the bronze cory, spotted, skunk and the beautiful albino corydoras. Most are bottom dwellers but plecos love to stick on the side of glasses.

Cute Little Corys


Cyprinids are tough fish. They are mostly top and middle dwellers and are also schooling fish. Barbs are kinds of cyprinids. They are active and playful. Examples of them are tiger, cherry and rosy barbs. A caution though, most are fin nippers, so dont mix fish with long fins or they will end up being bullied all the time. Another cyprinid are the Danios, and like the latter, they are also active swimmers and are fun to watch. Look for Zebra, leopard and rose danios.

Zebra Danios

Upon purchase, you will notice that the fishes will be placed in a bag filled with water and air, and tightened with rubberbands. this will keep the fish alive until you get to your house. At most, the Oxygen added in tightened plastic bags can support the fish for five to six hours. Dont let them stay there for longer than that or else they'll die.

Acclimating the Fish

Once you get home, you still need to make the last steps before you can introduce the fish into the aquarium. Acclimitating is the process of making the fish become accustomed or get used to its new environment. It is wise to let the fish feel its new home first. This will help him adapt and lessen the stress of the transfer. In order to do so, follow these steps.
  1. Let the fish stay in the sealed bag. Do not open it. Slowly put the bag in the aquarium water. let it float for around 20 minutes. This will help the fish adapt to the water's temperature.
  2. Get a small bucket, open the bag and gently release the fish into the bucket together with its water.
  3. Then, scoop a small amount of water from your aquarium tank and add it to the bucket.
  4. Continue adding until the bucket is about half the water from the sealed plastic and half of your aquarium tank water.
  5. Let the fish swim for about five minutes.
  6. Net the fish out of the bucket and gently release it to your tank.
  7. Keep a close eye into your fish until it settled in. A sure sign it has accustomed to its new environment is when the gills flap more calmly and starts exploring the aquascape.

Never ever transfer the fish directly from the bag into your tank. You dont know what is in the water that came from the store.
You have now successfully setup your own aquarium with your first fish in it. The next topic will cover about the other fishes you can introduce in  your aquarium, how to feed them, and how to maintain them so read on.


1 comment:

  1. Hello, i'm surprised no one has commented on your wonderful blog yet.
    i am over excited to buy my first fish pet , honestly, i'll be going to cartimar tomorrow ( and i'm super excited. )

    your blog are very helpful, from what to is needed to what fish should you buy first, and not to mention, a very friendly explanation for the "nose-bleed" part of it.
    i can say that, even those people who doesn't know a lot about science can understand it ( like me lol )

    i actually took a lot of notes, just by reading 2 of your blogs ;)
    hopefully i'll be able to read more of your entries soon :D

    Thank you for sharing this! :)


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