Are Aquariums A Lot Of Work? What You Need To Do

Are aquariums a lot of work?Many of us dream about having an aquarium in our homes but are worried that it is too much work. I have also looked into getting an aquarium and did some research as to how much work it really is and which aquarium will suit me best.

Aquariums are, in fact, not that much work to keep, depending on the type of fish that you decide on, the size of the aquarium, and whether it’s a freshwater or saltwater aquarium. Many see the initial setup of the aquarium as the most work.

You should also start your tank off right to ensure that you don’t begin your aquarium with water that is unhealthy or even toxic to your fish. To do this, you need to first decide what type of aquarium you want.

In this article, we’ll look at both freshwater and saltwater aquariums and how to start them the right way so that your fish will have a healthy habitat to live and grow in.

The Differences Between Freshwater And Saltwater Aquariums

The basic difference between freshwater and saltwater aquariums is that a freshwater aquarium mimics a freshwater habitat (like you’ll find in a lake or a dam, for instance).

A saltwater aquarium, on the other hand, mimics a saltwater habitat, like that found in coral reefs in the ocean, for example. The fish, animals, and plants you’ll find in these different types of aquariums, therefore, differ a lot.

Because of the difference in habitat, there is also a difference in the cost between freshwater and saltwater aquariums.

Because of the more specific and (sometimes) harder to mimic habitat, a saltwater aquarium is more expensive to set up and look after than a freshwater one as other equipment is necessary.

Most aquarium keepers agree that freshwater aquariums are easier to start with when you want to get your first fish tank.

However, if you really want to start with a saltwater one, the best idea is to have a fish-only saltwater aquarium and to rather leave a reef aquarium for later when you have more experience.

If you are unsure about the types of fish that you can keep in home aquariums, here are the most popular ones. Of course, there are some fish, like piranhas, which are sometimes also kept as pets!

The freshwater fish that are mostly kept as pets are probably also the most well-known and popular fish.

Popular freshwater fish include:

  • Neon Tetra
  • Guppies
  • Goldfish
  • Angelfish
  • Zebra Danios
  • Oscar
  • Bettas
  • Kissing Gourami

Freshwater fish are generally speaking hardier than saltwater fish as they can better cope with changes in water pH, for example.

This is another reason why freshwater fish is sometimes a better place to begin your fishkeeping adventures — they are a lot more forgiving if you make mistakes!

Saltwater fish being kept as pets have become a lot more popular over the years. This is not only because of the movie Finding Nemo (2003) but also because newer technology makes it a lot easier to mimic an ocean environment for the fish using specific equipment.

how much work are aquariums
Saltwater Aquarium

Popular saltwater fish include:

  • Clownfish (these days also often called “Nemo”)
  • Green Chromis
  • Wrasses
  • Damselfish
  • Tangs
  • Diamond Watchman and Orange Spotted Gobies
  • Butterflyfish

Saltwater fish live in water with a 7.8 — 8.4 pH, meaning that there isn’t that much room for making mistakes when you have a saltwater aquarium. However, with the correct tools, you’ll soon be an old hand at it!

Which Equipment Is Necessary To Start An Aquarium?

It’s very easy to go out and buy one of the all-in-one aquarium kits, but you should be careful to make sure that it contains everything you need to set up the aquarium.

You should also make sure that the brands used in the kit are trusted ones — even though it may mean that you will need to pay more. In the end, you’ll have the peace of mind that the equipment won’t break soon after buying it and place your fish’s lives in danger.

Here’s a list of everything (except the fish and food) that you will need to set up your basic aquarium. Of course, you can also add plants, some underwater “castles” or even a “sunken pirate ship” if you like!

Saltwater Aquarium

Freshwater Aquarium



Substrate (sand or gravel)

Substrate (sand or gravel)

Live rock


Salt filters



Water testing kit


Hospital or quarantine tank

Protein Skimmer



Chlorine neutralizer

Water testing kit

Hospital or quarantine tank


Chlorine neutralizer

As you can see, there is some equipment that is necessary for a saltwater tank that you don’t need for a freshwater aquarium. It is usually this equipment that push the overall price of the aquarium up.

The fish you decide to buy can also range drastically in price. Some freshwater fish you can get for as little as $1-$2, while some saltwater fish can cost upward of $100.

How To Prepare An Aquarium For Fish

Although it’s very tempting to just fill your new aquarium with tap water and add the fish, this is the worst thing you can do. Before you can add fish, you first need to prepare the tank correctly to ensure that your fish have a healthy environment to live in.

An aquarium can be made ready for your fish in just a few steps:

  • Plan the size of the aquarium and which fish you’ll keep
  • Clean the aquarium
  • Add the substrate and water
  • Install the aquarium equipment
  • Add the plants and other decoration
  • Cycle the aquarium and add your fish!

Next, we’ll look at each of these steps in detail.

Plan The Size Of The Aquarium And Which Fish You’ll Keep

First of all, you need to decide which type of aquarium you want and the species of fish that you want to keep. This will dictate the size of the aquarium that you’ll need.

There are various online calculators that can help you figure out the size of the tank you’ll need depending on the species and amount of fish you want to keep.

The larger the aquarium, the happier your fish will be; it’s untrue that fish “grow to the size of the tank”. In fact, if the tank is too small for the fish, they will be stunted in their growth which causes health problems.

The fish can also become aggressive because of the stress and lack of space.

Also, keep in mind where the aquarium will be kept — and keep the weight of the filled aquarium in mind as this can be hundreds of pounds depending on the size of the tank and the amount of water and substrate.

The aquarium furthermore needs to be kept away from direct sunlight and a lot of noise. Basically, you can’t, for example, put the aquarium next to a window and beside the TV.

Make sure first that you can afford to buy the size of the aquarium that you will need for your fish, all the equipment that goes along with it, and also that you have a suitable place to put it.

Once this has all been figured out, it’s time to go out and buy everything you need — leave the actual fish for now, though — and get the tank fish-ready.

initial work aquariums
Angelfish in a freshwater aquarium

Clean The Aquarium

Once you get the aquarium home, you will need to wash it, but be careful as you should never use any chemicals like cleaners on your tank.

Use warm water and – if the tank is dirty (for example if it’s second-hand), use white vinegar to wipe it down before rinsing it very thoroughly with warm water.

Remember to always keep the cloths, etc. that you use for the aquarium separate and only use it on the tank. This will ensure that no chemicals get into the aquarium’s water by accident.

Adding The Prepared Substrate And Water

Once the aquarium has been cleaned thoroughly, you can add the prepared substrate (gravel) and water.

To prepare the substrate, you will need to wash it — but, again, only using warm water.

The easiest way to do this is to place the substrate into the bucket you’ll use for the aquarium and add water. Swirl the water, discarding the dirty water.

Repeat this process until you find that the water is completely clean when you swirl the gravel around.

Add the substrate to the tank, creating a layer at the bottom.

Next, add the dechlorinated tap water to the tank. If it’s going to be a saltwater aquarium, you can also prepare the saltwater. Once you’ve added all the water, you can begin installing the equipment like the filters, thermometer, etc.

Installing The Aquarium Equipment

Following the instructions on the packaging, install the filter, thermometer (somewhere that’s easy to keep an eye on), and you can also install the heater now if one is necessary.

You can also add the protein skimmer, etc. if you are planning a saltwater tank.

Make sure, however, that you first rinse equipment that will be in the water with some water as well to remove any dust which may have collected on them.

Add The Plants And Other Decorations

Next comes a very fun part — adding the plants and decorations. Again, make sure that you’ve washed the plants (rinse them in clean water) and other decorations (that pirate ship) before placing them in the water. Note that both live and plastic plants should be rinsed beforehand.

If you’re using live plants, you should always plant the roots gently below the surface of the substrate, leaving the crown — if the plant has one — above the substrate. You can also use an aquatic plant fertilizer on the live plants.

Have fun while planting, decorating and creating a happy, healthy habitat for your fish. Just be sure to leave enough space for your fish to swim around in – don’t overdo it!

It’s always easier to add some more plants later rather than filling up the tank with plants and have your poor fish always swimming in a labyrinth of leaves.

After adding the plants, you need to cycle your aquarium.

Cycle The Aquarium And Add Your Fish!

Cycling the aquarium is one of the most important steps in getting your aquarium ready. Be sure that this is completed before adding any fish.

This is where your patience will be tested as you wait for the nitrogen cycle to complete naturally and for enough good bacteria to build up in the biological filter.

This is essential for the health of your fish as the bacteria will turn ammonia into nitrites and then nitrates. Ammonia and nitrites are toxic to fish, so you really don’t want these building up in the aquarium! Your regular water changes will take care of nitrate build-up.

How To Cycle Your Freshwater Aquarium

First, add some ammonia that you got from the fish store to the tank. Be sure to follow the directions on the bottle to a T regarding doses.

Leave the tank, but test once a week to check the levels of ammonia and nitrite. You’ll see that the levels spike first and then drop. Once the levels reach zero (0ppm) it means your tank has been completely cycled and is ready.

How To Cycle Your Saltwater Aquarium

To cycle a saltwater aquarium, you will need “live rock” where the bacteria can build up. Choose light rocks that have a lot of nooks and crannies for the bacteria.

Be sure to transfer the rocks as quickly as possible to keep too many of the bacteria dying off.

If needed, you can also add ammonia to the water to kick-start the cycling.

It’s important to know that cycling can take around 6-8 weeks before it’s finished. Once the levels of ammonia and nitrites reach 0ppm, do a 50% water change to get rid of a build-up of nitrates.

The video below shows some more tips on how to cycle a saltwater aquarium.

When To Test The Aquarium Water After Cycling

For new aquariums like the one you’re prepping, you will need to also check the water daily.

Check the following:

  • Water pH level
  • Ammonia levels
  • Nitrites levels
  • Nitrate levels
  • Water hardness

You will still need to check and test the water every few weeks in an established aquarium to ensure that there are no compounds that can affect or even poison your fish. When the nitrate levels spike, you will need to change some of the water.

Now that your aquarium is fully prepped, you can add the fish! However, you can’t just put the fish in straight from the container in which you brought them home. You need to acclimatize them first.

How To Acclimatize Your Fish

Make sure that the aquarium lights are off and dim the lights in the room (or draw the curtains/close the blinds). Also do not forget that fish should not be exposed to light 24/7 – we explain more on that here!

Take the bag with the fish that you have bought and float it in the aquarium. This will ensure that the water inside the bag is adjusted to that in the aquarium. This will ensure that you don’t shock your fish during the next steps.

Open the bag and add half a cup of water from the aquarium to the bag with your new fish. Repeat this step every 5 minutes until the bag is filled with water.

Pour out half the water that’s in the bag into a separate container – not into the aquarium.

Start adding aquarium water again, half a cup at a time every 5 minutes until the bag is full again.

Now you can use a net to carefully pick your fish up out of the bag and add it to the aquarium. Discard the bag and water into a separate container.

Be sure to watch your fish closely over the next 24-48 hours to ensure that they settle in well, are eating, and aren’t showing any stressed behavior.

Final Thoughts

Now, we have to add that, if this sounds like too much work and something that will just take too long, that you should either re-think getting fish and an aquarium in the first place, or either opting for a species of fish and size of aquarium that you will be able to manage.

Just remember that large amounts of water — and, therefore, larger aquariums — are much more forgiving when it comes to changes in the water chemistry; so you should also not go too small.

Also, an aquarium will not only teach you patience but will also open up the underwater world for you. Watching an aquarium and looking after your fish is even stress-relieving and calming.

Making sure your aquarium is set up right from the start will also give you peace of mind when you add your fish to their new habitat.

In the end, what you get out of keeping fish more than make up for the patience you needed while the tank was cycling and you were waiting for your fish to come to their new forever home.

With a little elbow grease and finding out as much as you can about keeping an aquarium, you will find that aquariums are actually not that much work!

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