Aquarium Setup Instructions

We offer both a printable aquarium setup page as well as a series of "step by step" guide page instructions. If you are away from the computer when the aquarium set up happens, it can be useful to print this page out as a guide through the process.

Even if you do decide to print the instructions, we do encourage you to use the individual step by step pages to take advantage of the video instructions included for those aquarium set up steps.

  1. Assemble the Aquarium Stand
    Most aquarium stands are shipped knocked down and must be assembled. Carefully follow the assembly instructions. When you are finished building the stand, it should be sturdy and solid. It should not wobble or shake and should sit solidly on its legs. Adjust the legs, if possible, to make sure the aquarium will sit securely on the support and that the entire set is squarely sitting on the floor
  2. Locate the stand in its proper place
    There are a number of considerations to understand when placing the stand to hold the aquarium setup. Since the load will be quite heavy, it is always best to place the aquarium on an inside supporting wall. This will help to ensure that local foot traffic around the aquarium will not cause floor vibrations and/or movement of the entire system under normal traffic conditions. You can place it on an outside supporting wall to reduce the problems from unsteady construction as well. Be aware that the wall itself may radiate either heat or cold depending on the outside conditions and the state of the insulation. In these cases, backing it off the wall a few inches may reduce the influence of the wall radiation on the temperature of the tank - without too many problems from floor movement. It is also important that the location chosen for the aquarium does not allow direct sunlight to enter the aquarium setup. Sunlight will cause excess growth of algae and should never be allowed to get into the tank. If the sun can get into the back of the tank, that is not difficult to block with an aquarium background. If the sun can enter the sides or the front, you will either have to use a background on the side or eliminate the location and find an alternative one. The ideal location is away from heating or cooling ducts. The aquarium will be using a heater to maintain a level and even temperature over time. Heating or cooling ducts can play havoc on the setting and can create variations on the temperature that are unhealthy for the fish. By removing any possible influence of ducts, the aquarium setup will be much better able to maintain the ideal temperature levels over the life of the tank.
  3. (Test and) Locate the Aquarium on the stand
    Most aquariums are made properly and rarely leak. However, it never hurts to make small test before putting the aquarium on the stand. As an old-timer, when the tank can fit in the bathtub, I put the new unit in there and fill with lukewarm water at least halfway to full and wait for at least an hour to ensure the level remains the same. Then the tank needs to be emptied and placed on the previously situated stand. Once the aquarium is on the stand, the pair should become a single unit. There should be no place for the aquarium to move on the stand. It should match the stand and not move on it at all. All four corners should be solidly supported. There may be a little settling along the edges as the weight of water forces the tank against the stand supporting edges, but this should be minimal. The important support is at the four corners, not a flat surface underneath the aquarium setup.
  4. Level the aquarium
    Check that the dry aquarium is level at the top and along the sides. The tank normally has some type of frame where the water is kept slightly above to cut off the top of the water. It should be level when filled to prevent sloping, either laterally from front to back. If the floor is not level, you will identify it at this point. If the problem is minimal, you should be able to shim it to true level. If the problem is great, you would probably be best to move the tank to an alternate location with a more level foundation.
  5. Install the Undergravel Filter (Optional)
    In earlier days, an Undergravel filter was a very common filtration apparatus. Modern aquarium setup rarely employ them since the advent of powerful pump technology has made them less popular compared to power filters. They are not totally obsolete, so if your aquarium setup contains one, now is the time to install the plates and the riser stems. As with any filter, assemble according to the individual filter's instruction and manual. You may want to wait until the tank is pretty much filled before you cut the stems to size.
  6. Rinse and add the aquarium gravel
    Standard aquarium gravel and pebbles often has some dust and small debris in the bag. Take a colander and place it on a fairly large plate to trap debris as it is washed away. Rinse the gravel until it runs clean and no debris is being forced out. Once it is ready, it can be placed on the bottom of the tank. There should be at least an inch or two of gravel when it is all rinsed and placed. Three inches or so are better for rooting live plants. Gently slope the gravel from higher in the back to lower in the front. Although standard maintenance actions will gradually erode this sloping effect, this angled effect will tend to let large debris roll toward the front for easier removal.
  7. Place larger ornaments and do preliminary landscaping
    Be very careful when placing large rocks and ornaments. They can often be quite heavy, and in most cases the aquarium is made of glass on the bottom as well as the back front and sides. Even a short drop of a heavy object can apply enough force to break the bottom. Locate the larger ornaments as you prefer. Remember to leave enough room for any heater tubes and filter intakes. You can build any terraces or other special features for plants at this time as well. With the aquarium filled with gravel and some of the larger decorations, now is the time to install the aquarium background if you are using one
  8. Fill the aquarium a quarter of the way
    It is important to understand the way the water is treated by your municipal water company. Many treat the water with germicides such as chlorine or chloramine to make it safe for humans to use and drink. These will kill the fish and other inhabitants in an aquarium and will need to be removed, but for the first fill, you can use straight tap water. It is at this point where your hands are normally immersed in the water that the fish will ultimately live in. Make sure your hands and forearms are rinsed of any soaps or lotions that may be on your arms. Soaps and lotions are not good for the fish and can cause serious stress if allowed to get into the aquarium setup. Make sure you do not add anything to the water by accident. Tap water is delivered through a series of pipes from reservoir to home. Those pipes can be made of a number of metals, and if left standing for any length of time may accept some of those metallic ions. It is best to run the water to flush the pipes for a few minutes before using any water in the tank. Conditioning water is extremely important, especially for new aquariums, but in this unique case, you don't need to condition it as you fill it. Toxic metallic ions that flow in with the water can be removed when a full featured product is used to make the water safe. The colder the water that is added, the more atmospheric gas is contained in solution. When the water warms up to room temperature, usually pretty rapidly, a lot of little bubbles are often expelled from solution as the ability to hold them is eliminated. It is much better to fill an aquarium setup with lukewarm or even the same temperature as you want to keep the tank. If the mixture of hot and cold has a lot of gas you can still get small bubbles on all the surfaces of the glass. Don't worry too much they will slowly dissipate as the tank ages. You can rub the surfaces gently to force the bubbles to release to the surface. An important trick to employ, especially when you are first filling with a carefully decorated aquarium is to place a small clean plate on a clear area to pour the water over. This breaks the force of the falling water and prevents, as much as possible, disturbance of the gravel layer as the water fills. It is a great trick to keep your work intact.
  9. Place the rest of the decorations
    Once the tank is filled a quarter to half way, it is time to add the smaller decorations and live plants if you are going to keep them. Rinse the plants off in clear water and rub the leaves gently (if possible) before adding them to the aquarium setup, this will reduce any hitchhikers like snails and/or their eggs. It probably won't eliminate them entirely, but can reduce the chances greatly. Small decorations and artificial plants can be placed in their locations with no danger of overflowing or splashing while working. The water level should be high enough to allow some support for plant leaves and stems, while allowing much better access to the levels and terraces previously created to accept the roots.
  10. Set up the electrical aquarium equipment
    Most starter sets have three pieces of equipment that requires installation. FilterHeaterLighting Simply prepare and place the equipment in position. Do not plug anything into power quite yet. Filters come in a wide variety of types and styles. You need to install the unit as per the manufacturer's instructions. If the unit is a canister filter, be sure there is an adequate drop from the bottom of the aquarium to the top of the filter. Canister filters work using gravity siphons. If there isn't enough drop, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get one started. Once started, there will be reduced flow as well. Make sure that the hoses connect below the aquarium setup bottom to the filter input. Even though there are a few types of heaters, submersible and non-submersible, bi-metallic or electronic thermostat, you need only to place the heater correctly and install a thermometer to verify the temperature independently. 99% of the heaters available for the aquarist use a glass tube to protect the electrical inner components. Glass is fragile, but it is great for aquarium use, since it is non-toxic and very resistant to water and heat. One of the easiest way to break it, though, is to place it in such a way that something like a rock, decoration or gravel contacts the tube. This creates a hotspot preventing heat from dissipating evenly. This will weaken the tube and often it will break for no apparent reason at a later time. Always ensure the heater is completely independent of everything. Ensure the only thing that contacts the heater tube in the aquarium setup is water - preferably in a flowing current. The great majority of aquarium lights are housed in a canopy that also covers the entire aquarium setup top. This reduces evaporation and keeps fish from jumping when startled. The actual illumination can be from a number of types. It is always best to install the canopy as per manufacturer's instructions. The most important thing to remember is that the canopy, in most cases, must be adapted to the filter. Many standard canopies are made with perforations or scored rear plates that can be easily cut to the size of the filter. Other accessories, such as the heater tube or wires are also often accommodated. Make sure that everything is able to enter the aquarium setup and be properly situated. There is one piece of lighting apparatus that should not be installed at this point. If the aquarium setup requires a Sliding Glass Top, you should wait until the aquarium is completely full before cutting the slides to size, or trying to install the plates. They are usually at least an inch to even 4 inches longer than the aquarium width. This is not an accident, each aquarium will bow out under the pressure of the water. It is not possible to predict the final width until the aquarium setup is under maximum capacity. Too many new aquarists are lured into the apparent easy assemble of the SGT while the water is low, only to find they have cut the slides anywhere form a half inch to a couple of inches too short. When the tank is filled, the center slide cannot support the glass plates since it is too short to sit on the aquarium top frame!
  11. While the tank is half full, check the level again
    You need to know that the place you have selected is not warping or buckling under pressure. The ideal situation is that the previously leveled aquarium stays exactly the same place after the water is finally topped up. While the aquarium is only half full or so, it is still easier to insert any required shims to keep it level as it is filled.
  12. Finish filling the aquarium
    Bring the level of water at least to 1" to 1 1/2" from the top. If the filter and other accessories require placing your hands back into the tank, be sure you leave enough room to finish the job without overflowing the tank when your hands are in it. At this time, a sliding glass top should be installed. Be sure you cut the center strut long enough to sit on both edges of the frame securely. Finding a replacement slider for one cut too short is normally a real chore. Once the final touches in the tank have been made, fill the tank so the top of the the water is just above the lower edge of the rim or canopy frame. The idea is to use the bottom of the frame to make the top of the living picture. The frame truly frames the aquarium setup like any painting. There can be serious leakage problems with making the water level too high. Most aquariums are sealed with silicone. The problem is that, although silicone firmly bonds between glass to glass joints, it is not so good bonding glass to plastic. This matters because the top plastic frames on most tanks are simply tacked to the top glass edge. The seal is far from complete. If the tank is too full, or if there is excessive splashing against the rim, water will gradually work its way up and over the underside of the rim and start a wick like drip through capillary action. The same capillary action can happen with a frameless aquarium setup where the canopy construction sits on the glass rim. The same wick action can happen just as easily.
  13. Powering up
    Until this point, none of the accessories are powered up or working. The first accessory I normally power up is the aquarium filter. This is responsible for creating the currents in the aquarium setup that mix the water and keep it in constant motion. Even slightly below the operating level, the filter should start fairly easily, unless it is a canister filter where the water has to be drawn up and over the rim to flow into the filter canister under the stand. Adjust the output to make even and useful currents throughout the aquarium setup. Make sure the water does not splash hard against the glass. You do not need to provide the conditions for capillary action to begin. You want the water to thoroughly mix and that there are no dead spots in the tank. Proper currents will make the heater more efficient by ensuring the heat produced is evenly distributed in the aquarium. If there are dead spots, then thermal layering may occur where there are different temperatures in different parts of the tank. This is not as much of a concern nowadays as the pumps are much more powerful and reliably move a lot of water around. Heaters, especially bi-metallic strip thermostats, need to be to acclimated to the surrounding water temperature before they are powered on. By waiting until the aquarium setup is entirely filled and the filter is running, there is usually enough time to let that happen. The currents will start the heat moving throughout the tank evenly right from the start. Once the heater has had time to acclimatize, you can set it to the temperature yo want if the unit is factory calibrated. If the there is no temperature scale used, you should turn the dial for the heater until it turns on. Let it heat until the heater turns off and determine your temperature with a reliable thermometer. If it is too low, turn the heater dial up again and wait until it turns off. Once the proper temperature is reached, twist the thermostat so it just turns on, then back to where it just turns off. Let the heater work for a few hours and verify that the proper temperature is steady and set.
  14. The Drip Loop
    Always remember that water and electricity do not mix. They make a deadly combination. Water entering an electrical socket is an open invitation to short circuit and possible fire. Any powered appliance used in the aquarium setup should be installed with a drip loop. This is simply a wire configuration the ensures that the wire hangs lower than where the plug enters the socket. Water seeks the easiest path to the lowest level. If the plug is situated higher than the lower part of the drip loop, the socket is protected from water getting in. The real problem is that the standard wall outlet has two sockets. Unless there are two socket plates close to the location of the aquarium setup. Most people solve the problem with a power bar. This can be a serious problem because the easiest place to locate it is on the floor by or even in the stand. The electrical draw by an aquarium is quite small, rarely over 150 W an hour when the heater is operating all the time (assuming the heater is 100 W). I prefer to use the outlet splitters that change a 2 outlet into six outlets, but always leave any unused by the aquarium accessories open. This way the outlets are well above the floor and a true drip loop can be formed with all the cables. Allowing them to drop to the floor and then rise up to enter the outlet.
  15. Water Conditioning
    The water in the aquarium setup is vital to the health of the fish. Most tap water is poisonous to the inhabitants of the aquarium. Most often it is treated with chlorine or chloramine to make it safe to drink for humans. These toxic compounds need to be removed from the water before the fish can be added. This is the only time when you can safely treat the water while it is in the aquarium. Since there are no fish or other living cultures, you can fill the tank the first time with tap water, then treat the volume with a quality, full feature water conditioner. Once the tank is running, you should never put untreated tap water into the aquarium setup. We suggest that you purchase a new bucket and mark it "FOR FISH USE ONLY". Keep it separate and only use it for tank maintenance - removing and replacing water. Never, Never, Never put soap in it for any reason. The bucket should only ever contain dirty water drawn from the tank and fresh tap water destined for the aquarium. Water conditioners act immediately, generally you should treat the water once it is put in the bucket, but before it is poured into the aquarium. Untreated tap water with chlorine or chloramine will oxidize the gills and other delicate membranes. It should never be given a chance to enter the aquarium.
  16. Add the fish
    You should take your time evaluating and to select tropical fish for a new aquarium. You should purchase hardy fish able to take the stresses of any new aquarium setup as it matures. It is best to choose fish that will work with the rest of the fish you plan to keep once the biological filtration is matured. There are many opinions on how long to wait before putting the fish in the tank. Assuming the use of a good water conditioner, the water is actually safe for them immediately. That is not recommended, but the fish can be added as soon as the aquarium has had a chance to settle and the temperature has stabilized at the level you have selected. More important is the number of fish you add to the aquarium setup in the beginning. You should not overload it, the fish will simply poison themselves and die from either ammonia or nitrite concentrations. We recommend taking a strict view of fish load in the beginning. After the first six to eight weeks, when the biological filter has established a vibrant nitrogen cycle, the more typical fish load recommendations can be used. You do need some fish to produce the ammonia needed to grow the bacteria for the nitrogen cycle, but too many will cause the concentrations to become lethal.
  17. Sit back, relax and watch
    Enjoy the living picture you have worked so carefully to create in your aquarium setup. As time goes by, though, you will need to perform regular maintenance* as the tank matures.

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