Stuff that you will need to maintain an aquarium

Keeping pet fish can be a rewarding hobby on many levels. But, to reap those rewards, there are some investments to make. Besides the fish tank itself, you will also need a filter, water heater, cleaning tools, and other equipment.

woman placing empty aquarium on the table with heater filter and thermometer
photo by Pavel Rodimov

Here is a list of the most important stuff that you need to keep fish:

  • Fish tank stand. Is it too obvious? Well, at least we did not write that you need to get a tank and water. Though, be aware that water is heavy and that regular furniture usually won’t hold larger fish tanks well. It’s not that they will break and leave your apartment in a flood (although, it is possible), but it’s common for furniture to bend under the weight of fish tanks. Anything as large as 15 gallons (60 liters) is better off on a specialized fish tank stand, either bought as a set with the tank or as a separate unit. If you buy it separately, the model must have specifications for the tank size that it is intended for – always make it at least the size of your tank.
  • Decorations and plants. Decorations and plants (artificial or live) serve not only the function of aesthetics, but also provide hiding spots for smaller fish in community aquariums. Decorations and plants can serve as environment enrichment and provide physical and emotional stimulation to the fish, which is important for any living creature, regardless how small they are or how large their brains are. Live plants serve an ecological function and help maintain levels of oxygen and waste products: however, there are many successful fish tanks that do not have live plants, and the amount of oxygen is influenced by aeration and frequent partial water changes.
  • Filter is often integrated into startup kits, but, if it isn’t, the best option for starting is an internal filter. They will hang on the side of the tank or will be attached to it with suction caps, where they will sit inside the aquarium to sift the water through itself. They are usually easy to set up and can serve an aquarium up to 60 gallons (200 liters). Anything larger requires an external filter, which are harder to set up.
  • Lighting is usually integrated into tank covers. Although, often, they are not powerful enough to support the growth of plants that require a high amount of light. If your tank has artificial plants, you can skip worrying about watts and lumens – fish alone could easily live with light coming from the room, and the main purpose of lights in tanks with artificial plants is for the viewing. If you intend to plant plants in your aquarium (and most aquarium hobbyists do at some point), then good for you. Starter kits can support low- and medium-light plants okay, which is recommended for starters. For the future, it is not hard to increase the amount of light manually by, first, installing a reflector and, perhaps, adding additional lights to the tank.
  • Heater is a must for tropical aquariums. The usual choice is one that is submerged inside the aquarium and has a thermostat with an option to select a temperature. The power of the heater must be chosen according to the size of the tank. In general, three to five watts per gallon of water is a good choice, but, when you buy an aquarium heater, it is best to look for this information on its packaging. Starter kits usually include an appropriate heater for the selected tank.
  • A thermometer is required, even if the heater is set to maintain correct temperature. This is because that is the way to know whether the heater works properly and to notice sudden temperature climbs during hot summer days. Don’t aim for a hi-tech thermometer – good old-fashioned alcohol thermometers do their job without a glitch and can be bought for less than five dollars. The one that we use has served us for 15+ years already and nothing suggests that it won’t last for 15 more.
  • An air pump isn’t mandatory in most cases. The purpose of an air pump is to create those tiny air bubbles that everyone adores and to ensure water circulation in the tank. Most filters are quite adept for the latter purpose. Aquariums that have plants can easily go without any air bubbles, but many people prefer bubbles for their looks. In this case, you will need an air pump, hoses, and an air-stone. For the air pump, we suggest investing in it, since they are usually the loudest pieces of equipment in fish tanks and a quality (and more expensive) product is more likely to be quiet.
  • A bucket dedicated exclusively for aquarium use. To maintain a healthy aquarium, it is mandatory to do a partial water change periodically. To do so, you need a bucket to carry and pour water. The fish tank should have its own dedicated bucket, that is not used for anything else. It is okay to use the same bucket for removing dirty water and pouring in fresh water, but you should never use it for other purposes, such as mopping floors or giving a drink to other pets (cats, dogs, etc.). Label it “for aquarium use only” and place it near the tank. For easier use, we recommend a bucket with a pouring lip.
  • Siphon is a device that is used to get dirty water out of the tank. This little, in our thoughts, irreplaceable piece of equipment is basically a hose that you place in the water before manually sucking a small amount of water into it, as though it is a straw. Don’t let the water get into your mouth: instead, put the free end in a bucket that resides lower than the tank itself and allow Mrs. Gravity to do her job. The good thing is that, by siphoning, you not only get a water out, but also dirt that has settled on the gravel.
  • aquarium cleaning equipment vs kitchen spongeCleaning equipment has a lot of variety. You need something to scrub algae off the glass. We use a simple kitchen sponge, but there are scrubs with a handle attached to it available. Magnetic scrubs also exist – they are like magic. Actually, magnets are used by magicians all the time. Place one part of the cleaner inside a tank and let it attach to a magnet that you hold on the outside – so, wherever you move the outside piece, the scrub on the inside follows, cleaning algae off the surface along the way. We don’t really think these are more convenient for tanks that are small enough to reach everything with hands, but they are irreplaceable for large tanks.
  • Fish net is something that you will need to get a fish in and out of the tank. After the introduction of all fish, there might be lesser need for a net: nevertheless, you need one in your arsenal. During regular cleaning, fish normally stay inside the tank and must be taken out only when something is wrong with the aquarium, such as the fish are ill or you are trying to breed (or, vice versa, not to breed) your fish and need to separate them temporarily.
  • Test kits are not mandatory, in most cases. When problems arise, they are helpful and, in any cases, they provide additional fun in fish-keeping, if you are into that kind of thing. If you go for test kits, we recommend ammonia and pH level tester for starters. There are more, and you may find them useful as your experience grows.
  • A book about fish keeping is highly recommended. Of course, you can read everything there is to know on the web, but a good handbook can be irreplaceable for a quick reference and it definitely is a more reliable source of information than just from a random website (wink, wink).

Of course, there are lot of other things to own when you have a fish tank, but we do not think you need anything else to get you started. Remember, if at some point you find that you need something, it will be easy to buy. And, don’t worry, when you visit a pet store, the staff will not miss the opportunity to offer you more things, regardless of whether you need them.