Aquarium Equipment – The Basics

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Aquarium Setup
New Aquarium Setup

Freshwater aquarium setups can range anywhere from under $100 to well above $1000, this will all depend on the size of aquarium you want and what you’re willing to spend on other aquarium equipment. We will look at the options below. Some first questions you need to ask yourself is do you have a place for an aquarium, is that location near electrical outlets, an area free of heavy traffic throughout your house? After reading this post, you will have the basic knowledge of equipment needed for your freshwater aquarium. This equipment will assist with the aquarium cycling, it will create places for beneficial bacteria to build up.

There are aquarium equipment kits that you can purchase with all items needed to get you up and running. They can be a cost savings, but like any combined items, the quality of products within are usually the least expensive available. Why not pick your own of each item after some research that will perform better, it may cost more at first but you will save with longer life of that product and get what you want.

Basic Aquarium Equipment needed to get started:

  1. Tanks
  2. Hoods
  3. Lights
  4. Air Pump
  5. Heaters
  6. Filters
  7. Substrate
  8. Thermometer
  9. Decor / Plants


The most important piece of aquarium equipment is the tank, I could not resist. Here we will discuss the two different materials used to make aquariums, glass and acrylic, both have their advantages and disadvantages.


Advantages Disadvantages  
It is much harder to scratch compared to acrylic. Shattering can occur easier with glass.
Can be found in standard sizes, making it easier to find hoods that fit your aquarium. Difficult to make an aquarium other than a rectangle, due to rigid-ness of glass.
Glass panes are very strong;This is a plus if you aqua scape with heavy objects. You not only have the water weight, now you also have the weight of those objects on the bottom glass pane. Weight of glass aquariums is 6-10 times heavier than acrylic, if desired aquarium is above 150 gallons you should look at acrylic. The aquarium alone will weigh around 300 pounds, then add in 150 gallons of water at 8.3 pounds for a combined weight of 1,545 pounds. Adding substrate and decor, it goes up even more.
Cost less to purchase, reduce the cost even more by being patient and waiting for some big box pet stores to do dollar per gallon sales. These usually happens a few times a year; the dollar per gallon is normally for aquariums up to 29 gallons. The larger tanks are a percentage off the sticker price.  


Advantages   Disadvantages  
Lightweight compared to glass.   Scratches easily, over time the scratches from cleaning will make it more difficult to see into the aquarium.
Does not need to be as thick to support the same amount of water as glass aquariums.   Stand will have to support the entire bottom of the aquarium; unlike glass they only need to support outside edges (the larger the tank the more support that will be needed).
Acrylic is easy to mold into any shape aquarium you desire, with less tendency to distort objects. Many acrylic types will yellow, which over the long run will cost more to replace verse glass, which does not yellow.


The options are limitless for hoods, purchased or DYI with different materials. We will cover the purchased options here and future post I will cover the DYI hoods.

Glass Hoods

Advantages Disadvantages
They are versatile and very durable. Tend to be more expensive, this is not a problem if you only have a few aquariums. Perhaps you start a fish room it will get expensive.
Easy to clean, just lift it off and whip the algae or hard water off. You may have to cut out custom sections for heater wires, airline tubing, or hang on back (HOB) filter.
Reduced evaporation, as there are no unwanted gaps in the hood. Does not come with lights; you will have to purchase these separately.
As with all hoods keeps your fish or other aquatic species in the aquarium.  

Glass under light with plastic hood

Advantages Disadvantages
Hinged plastic lid, making access easy for feeding or some maintenance. Customizable lighting is difficult to cover the entire tank.
Light comes with hood Lighting is always focused on the back of the aquarium.
Most aquarium kits come with this setup. Has more openings leading to greater evaporation.
Comes with pre cutouts for HOB filter, airline, and heater cords.  
Has what I consider classic aquarium look.  


Lighting will depend on your setup; Do you have live plants? Do you have fish that are sensitive or like reduced light or need more light? Do you want to be able to change colors to have a different ambiance for your mood or just simple to get a different effect from the aquarium? There are many options for lighting we will just talk about the basic available.  When you get into live plants, that will need more in-depth discussion on what is needed, in future posts.

LED Lighting

Advantages   Disadvantages  
Reduced electrical cost compared to fluorescent Some kits may not come with LED lights, but as they become more popular, there are more and more kits with LED lighting.
Reduced heat being radiated to the aquarium and other equipment Some kits may not come with LED lights, but as they become more popular, there are more and more kits with LED lighting.
Most LED lights have different settings that will allow you to set the option for night lighting to simulate the moon, along with the intensity of the light.   As effective as LED lighting is, it costs more on the front end; but you will save in energy costs in the long run.
Create a different look within your aquarium. Only suitable for a small array of plants.
Provide suitable lighting for virtually all fish.  

Fluorescent Lighting (standard and compact)

Advantages   Disadvantages  
Standard fluorescent produces quality light intensity, with minimal heat produced. Produce more heat than LED lighting.  
Compact fluorescent produces more light at smaller sizes and are usually built into aquarium hoods.  

Air Pumps 

The air pump size will depend on your setup (aquarium size, what’s running off the air pump) everything within your aquarium needing air supplied to function. When you are deciding on an air pump here are some items to consider before purchasing.  This will be a post of its own later, however if you are only supplying one or two air stones a small pump will suffice like the Tetra Whisper Air pump.  If, you are needing to supply more aquariums, you will need to look into larger pumps that will provide the output needed.  One thing to keep in mind with air pumps or any pump is the distance and elevation gain/loss that it can effectively pump.

What are you supplying air for?

How big is your aquarium? Look at the specifications for the pump you are considering; it will have the size aquarium it can support.

Are you just supplying air for one tank or 10? As air needs go up, distance increases, and elevation increases this will all affect the size of the air pump needed.


Multiple aquarium heater types/brands are out there, the best option for heating a single aquarium would be submersible or hanging/ immersible, a starter kit normally has one of these options. Other options are inline, filter heater, substrate, or complete room heating.  The option to select we depend on your aquarium setup, types of fish kept, amount of fish, and amount of money you want to spend. 

Submersible Heater

Advantages Disadvantages  
Will keep water at a constant temperature than some other options, placed next to filter inlet with more water movement to distribute newly heated water.   Heater can overheat causing cracking of glass.
Have an LED light near the top of the unit to tell when it is on and working.   Water level must stay above glass to prevent damage.
Submersible – entire heater element can be placed into water.   Hole in top of hood for electrical cord.

Immersible/ Hanging Heater

Advantages   Disadvantages  
Comes in most starter kits. Less efficient method of heating aquarium compared to submersible.
Relatively cheap Water level must stay above glass to prevent damage.  

Substrate Heater

Advantages   Disadvantages  
Good for planted tanks Are not as common anymore and can be fairly expensive.  
Heating creates a gentle water movement stimulating root growth.   Will not heat water evenly, will need supplementation with Immersible or submersible heater.

Inline Heater

Advantages   Disadvantages  
Heater is not located inside the tank; It is usually between a sump or filter and the tank. Prone to leaks, due to equipment outside of tank.  
Option is good if you have aggressive fish hard on equipment. Rather expensive, not only do you need this heater, but will need a sump or some other outside tank filter.

No Heater at all

This option is more aligned for fish rooms, as you have multiple tanks needing heated in a small area. This option should only be used if you have the means to ensure room temperature remains consistent.  If you have a species that can thrive at room temperature of your home, this is also an option that can help reduce costs.

Advantages   Disadvantages  
Reduced outlets needed for heaters.   Multiple tanks requiring different temperatures, an above option will still be needed.
It will reduce electrical expenses, with a room that is properly insulated and close to airtight as possible. Can be hard to maintain constant temp if room is not set up correctly

Do not have to worry about electrical shock when you forget to unplug the heater during maintenance.


This piece of aquarium equipment is essential, there are different options for filters each has its advantages/disadvantages; what you get will depend on your setup and preference. Options we will look at are sponge air driven, hang on back (HOB) and under gravel. There are other filter options out there (sump, canister, etc.), I will admit I am not that familiar with those so we will not cover them here today.  For a beginner with a single aquarium the best option would be the hang on back filter, most aquarium starter kits come with one designed for that tank size.

     Sponge Filter

Sponge Filter
Sponge Filter
Advantages   Disadvantages
Cheaper than most other filter types.   For larger aquariums they will need multiple sponges.
Can operate multiple filters with a correct-sized air pump for the number of filters.   Does not allow multiple filtration options to be added (biological if not added, chemical).  Other filters may have these options available.
Sponge lasts a considerable amount of time.   The filter is visible in the aquarium.
Cleaning, all that’s needed is squeezing sponge out in a bucket with the old tank water.   Not ideal for fish that produce large amounts of waste, or heavily stocked aquariums.
There are options available to add biological media.   Does not provide much water movement.
Only one power source needed for the pump will support multiple air appliances.    
Will not suck fry or small species into filter.  

Hang on Back (HOB) Filter

Hang on back filters are probably the go to for most, one they come with all starter kits usually, are easy to maintain and just need an outlet to work.  They provide good filtration for your aquarium if properly sized. 

Advantages Disadvantages
Comes with most starter kits. Mechanical parts that can fail.  
Water movement is greater throughout the aquarium. More expensive than sponge filters.  
Opens options for additional filtration media. Continued cost of filter cartridges.  
On outside of the aquarium making cleaning or changing filter easier.   When water level gets low noise from water falling can increase, if in a quiet area it will be noticeable.
Greater water exchange through filter than sponge filters If outlet space is a concern, this option will take up an outlet.  
  Fry or smaller invertebrates may be pulled into filter from the suction that’s created.

Under Gravel Filter

Is an option in any aquarium that has substrate; the substrate is part of the process of filtration.  Planted tanks you will want to look at another option, to clean the aquarium almost a complete breakdown of the tank which would lead to disturbance of roots killing the plants.  Under gravel filters are effective given you stay up on gravel vacuuming and cleaning the aquarium.  If vacuuming does not occur, imagine the amount of waste, uneaten food, and detritus collecting under the plates.

Advantages Disadvantages
Virtually Invisible, only thing visible is piping coming to top of the aquarium. Difficult cleaning in the long run almost requires complete breakdown to clean.  
Inexpensive to purchase and operate only need an air pump and filter. Not good with planted aquariums because of the above problem.  
No moving parts. Can not be used with diggers, Cichlids come to mind.


Substrate not what you normal think of as aquarium equipment but is essential for look you want; fish species need to be considered when selecting the substrate.  Are you going for a planted tank?  If so, then you will need to select a substrate designed for that, which may mean putting soil down below your substrate to improve rooting of plants.  There are substrates out designed for planted tanks; if plants you want have a small root structure, they may not work.  I had substrate designed for plants, but did not look at how small roots are compared to the compactness of the substrate, fish would swim close to substrate and plants would just come out. 

Think about what look and plants your want when considering your substrate.  Adequate vacuuming of substrate is a must, if it goes to long only vacuum a quarter of your substrate at a time.  Doing too large amounts at a time will increase the amount of ammonia that released and can be detrimental to your fish, the bubbles when you disturb the substrate is more than likely ammonia being released.

Gravel Substrate

When I think of gravel, I am talking pinhead size up to 3/8th an inch.  There are unthinkable amounts of different gravel types of any color you want.

Advantages Disadvantages
Easy to clean, does not get vacuumed into hose easily. Does not hold plants well, almost impossible to obtain carpet plants.  
Provides river look to an aquarium. Easy for uneaten food to get into gaps and degrade water quality.  
Difficult for fish to move it around Detritus build up can occur quickly, creating the Sulphur smell (ammonia release into water column) when disturbed. 

Sand Substrate

Advantages Disadvantages
Aesthetically amazing, if you have a species that rearranges the substrate, it is fun to watch. Very fine particles, species that like to move substrate will rearrange substrate for you.  
Cost is relatively cheap compared to special substrates. Compacts and creates anaerobic pockets  
  May require root tabs for planted tanks

There is what I consider specialty substrate for aquariums for shrimp, I am not familiar with those nor have I used them.  If you are interested in shrimp tank substrate, recommends Rio Escuro by Brightwell Aquatics. They are a valuable and trusted source in the shrimp industry. 


A small but needed piece of aquarium equipment is a thermometer, the easiest parameter to monitor but vital.  There is not much to talk about here, the two options I have used and trust are a glass floating thermometer and the stick-on side of tank.  My preferred thermometer is the stick-on tank option, it really comes down to your preference.

Stick on Aquarium Thermometer

Advantages Disadvantages
Visibility is perfect it’s always in the same spot.   Hard to determine exact temperature.
Less expensive than glass option. Debatable whether air temperature affects reading.

Floating or Standing Thermometer

Advantages Disadvantages
Directly in aquarium giving exact water temperature.   Suction cups degrade over time, allowing thermometer to float around the aquarium.
Can get exact water temperature with closer degree measurements. Can break easily, contaminating aquarium.

            Digital Thermometer

Advantages Disadvantages
Easy to determine temperature with digital display. Require batteries
Some options are available with wireless readings. Least cost efficient
Some options are available with an audible alarm that sounds when temperature falls below a certain level.  

Plants/ Decor

Looking for that aquarium that would make others talk about it?  Plants and décor (hardscape) will help your tank become that talk when someone enters the room. Some hard scapes are not plants can improve water quality and look amazing. Indian Almond Leaves and Alder Cones, that not only look appealing but offer benefits for your water quality. 

Substrate paired correctly with correct plants will create an amazing look that you can enjoy every day.  The quickest and easiest way to achieve this look is using artificial plants; There has been great strides in the past couple of decades to make artificial plants look more lifelike.  For those that have seen naturally planted tanks though there is no comparison, with some extra knowledge and equipment you can have an amazing live planted aquarium.  Let’s look at each option.

Artificial Plants

Advantages Disadvantages
Price compared to live plants is lower. If you want the eye-catching aquarium, this is not as attractive as live plants.
You want low maintenance this is the option it is minimal to zero. Larger fish can easily move them within the aquarium.
Fish do not seem to notice the difference. Will need cleaned of algae from time to time.
No additional/ special equipment needed. Does not have the benefits live plants do on aquarium water quality that live plants add.

Live Plants

Advantages Disadvantages
The most eye-catching aquariums have live plants; they flow in the water and look natural. It will need more equipment from lights to CO2, and cost can increase fast.  Quality lights designed for aquatic plants are not cheap.
Provide a more natural environment for your fish, correctly selected plant species that match those of your fish. Not for the beginner, you really need to do your research and understand each plant’s requirements.
Helps improve water quality. Takes extra maintenance, trimming plants, ensuring they are fertilized (with a quality fertilizer that will not harm fish species in aquarium).
Need I say more AMAZING TO LOOK AT!  

These nine items are not a must have to own an aquarium, you can have an aquarium with just the aquarium, filtration (a must) and a light so you can enjoy your aquatic species of choice.  Aquarium equipment covered above will help ensure your fish can thrive, you should always have the aquatic species comfort in mind prior to purchasing and while in your care, treat them as you would any other pet.  I treat mine as my pets and want the very best for them and I am guessing if you have made it to this point you have the same care and love of aquatic fish as I do.  Aquariums are beautiful and soothing to look at; for me they have a calming effect that is enjoyable. 

If you are looking to get your first aquarium and have questions, please ask those in the comment section to create a place where people can continue to learn. 

Keep it Fresh!   

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