How to Setup a Planted Aquarium

Number one–Have you got your tank?  That’s where you start!  Of course!

planted-fish-tank-setupThe Substrate

The bottom layer of the tank is called the substrate.  It’s an extremely important part of your tank, so you’ll need to choose your planted aquarium substrate wisely. Check out for one of my favorite guides on planted tank substrate.

Start Small?

The most popular substrate material is the small size.  This includes sand and very small rocks.  The reason they’re so popular is because the fish like it.  It’s easier for the fish to nest in the smaller substrate because it’s easy to work around.

Teeny rocks and sand are also very popular because they’re quite often free, but also easier to find in stores.  You can find them all over, including larger stores like WalMart.  Another added benefit is that the smallest substrate are often the most attractive visually.

The funny thing about these smaller substrate is that there are some fish that will pick up the smaller pieces in their mouths, especially sand, and move it around.  This can often irritate the insides of their mouths.

Medium Substrate

The medium sized substrate is also very popular.  It’s easy to find, easy to handle, and still looks good in freshwater aquariums.  Actually, this is the most used material for substrate.  Medium sized rocks, pebbles, glass can be used.

Large Pieces of Substrate

These large pieces of substrate can be big, especially for a tank.  It would be river rock size and even larger than this.  You won’t see this that often, but some tank owners do cover the whole bottom of their aquarium with larger rocks.

The thing about the bigger substrate is that it can be harder to clean.  Fish food can get stuck underneath the rock layer, making contamination easier.  You will often need to remove all the layer in order to clean your tank.

How to Choose Your Substrate

Be sure to think about your types of fish and their environment when choosing your substrate.  The different types of substrate can affect your fish’s environment and water pH.  Crushed coral, for example, can actually raise the pH of your water.  Also, make sure that the substrate is clean.  This can contaminate your water if not.

Don’t Use These for Substrate!

There are certain types of substrate that you will need to avoid because it can change and affect the aquarium water, making it unsafe for your fish.  Here’s a partial list of what you shouldn’t use in an aquarium:

  • Sandstone
  • Onyx
  • Limestone
  • Shells
  • Geodes
  • Dolomite
  • Lava
  • Quartz
  • Slate
  • Granite

Mostly, these materials may change the pH of your tank water.  There are ways to test them before you use them in your tank.  Here are a couple of tests that will work for you:

One test is the vinegar test.  Just place a few drops of vinegar on your material that you’re thinking of using in your tank.  If the vinegar fizzes up or foams–don’t use it!  It may contain calcium, and this can affect the aquarium water.

Another test is to put your substrate material into a pail of water (a clean one, or one that you use for your tank) and test the pH.  Wait for a week and test the pH again.  You can use the material if you see no real change in the pH levels.

Test Kits


This is such an important aspect of keeping aquariums.  You’ll want to test your water, and test it again.  You’ll have dozens of choices of test kits to choose from.  But you’ll definitely need these few basic test kits:

pH Test Kit.  pH will be the most important consideration in your fresh water aquarium.  Incorrect pH leads to fish stress, which leads to fish death.  If your pH level changes frequently, or all of a sudden, you’ll want to check the carbonate hardness (kH) level in your tank.

Ammonia Test Kit.  The only time ammonia will be high is when you start your tank up.  After that, it shouldn’t change much unless you have water that needs to be cleaned.  Filters that need to be cleaned.  Or your tank has too many fish.  Usually excess ammonia is a sign of too much waste in your water.

Nitrite Testing.  Nitrites are related to waste material, and should be kept at a really low level, less than 1.0.

Nitrate Testing.  Unless the levels of nitrates are really high, this won’t be as much of a problem.  But–don’t let the nitrate count get over 300 parts per million, or ppm.


Don’t forget a hefty power strip.  It will need to be waterproof , and surge-proof.  And you’ll have lots of cords to plug in, so get one that will handle them all.