• Fresh and saltwater are the basic fish groups to consider. Aquariums are more complex. Understand the basics.

    Perhaps the most basic distinction in the fish world is between fresh and saltwater species. Whichever group you choose to pursue, you should thoroughly research any fish you intend to purchase. Pay particular attention to the following:

    • How big the species will get and whether your aquarium is large enough.
    • What are the required aquarium water parameters? Explore temperature, pH ranges, etc.
    • What types of fish foods does it eat - is it the same or similar to what you’re feeding your other fish?
    • What is the general temperament of the fish species? Will it get along with the fish you already have or plan to get?
    • Is the species known as a prolific breeder? If so, do you have the equipment needed to keep them or do you have a plan for what happens when your fish has babies. Find out if your local fish store will take the young fish. If you don't have a means of placing them then you should stick with those fish that don't breed as easily in captivity.
    • Is the species of fish easily susceptible to certain fish diseases?

    Once you have selected salt or freshwater fish, your considerations do not end there. Various types of aquarium set-ups can be implemented; each is specific to your fish’s needs and has an impact on maintenance requirements.


    Freshwater Aquariums

    The largest driver of freshwater aquarium design is your choice of fish. Options include:

    • Coldwater
    • Tropical
    • Aggressive Fish
    • Community-Oriented Fish

    In general, whether you are setting up a salt or freshwater tank, there are generally only two types of fish tanks: Community type tanks and semi-aggressive type tanks. The community tanks house species that will get along well with the other species in the tank. Semi-aggressive tanks usually house solitary individuals from different species. Unless you have an extremely large tank, it is normally not recommended to get multiple fish from the same species. Setting up the aquarium is straightforward once you understand the specific water requirements of your fish. Follow the steps outlined in our article “Conditioning Your Aquarium Water” for setting up the correct water conditions for your fish.


    Saltwater Aquariums

    The selection of particular fish has a comparatively smaller role to play in the design of your saltwater aquarium. Besides fish, saltwater fish owners have the option of adding living organisms in the form of rocks and coral to their tanks. Basic saltwater aquarium designs include:

    • Fish Only
      This design is the least expensive set-up though not necessarily the easiest tank to establish. Getting started will require time to establish a proper nitrogen cycle within the tank in the absence of plant matter. Maintenance frequency will also be increased when compared to tanks with living rocks and coral. You will need to stay on top of water conditions and diligently monitor pH, nitrogen and ammonia levels.
    • Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR)

      Set up is the same as a Fish Only tank with the addition of better lighting and the addition of live rock. Rocks with creatures living inside and on the surface, thus the name, have really taken off the last few years as an excellent source of natural biological filtration. Getting healthy rocks is important and the cost is not trivial. A good rule of thumb to use is 1.5 pounds of rock to a gallon of water.

      You will still need to monitor water quality, however, you should find that changes will be more gradual and the tank should require fewer large adjustments.

    • Reef Tanks

      Taking the live rock concept one step farther, advanced fish owners can set up a tank geared toward corals, anemones, and invertebrates. Fish are usually an afterthought in these types of tanks as the focus tends to be on keeping the coral and anemones growing. Reef tanks are complicated systems and usually only set up after one has acquired extensive experience. The expense involved is large and water quality will need to be checked daily to ensure the system stays balanced.


    Select your fish once you’ve considered your budget and researched the species you want to raise. You can then begin building the style of aquarium that best suits your needs, and start on the path to fully enjoying your new pursuit.

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    Live rock comes packed with tiny creatures and organisms that aid in the nitrogen cycle of your aquarium.