Getting Your First Fish Tank: Important Information

Many families enter the pet-ownership circle with a fish tank.  After all, fish are inexpensive and easy to replace, and don’t need walks or much attention. Fish are super easy pets–once the fish tank is set up and established.  Fish require specific water chemistry, and depending on the species you choose, it might be tricky.  However, watching fish is relaxing, and teaches kids about ecosystems and pollution.

Health & Maintenance

Fish do require attention to detail to stay healthy.  They need very specific things from their habitat, otherwise they do fall prey to diseases that naturally exist within their tank.


The quality of care received determines the health of fish.  The first fish tank should stick with tried-and-true species from a quality fish store.  As the keeper gains experience (and equipment), they can keep more sensitive and specialty fish.

Typically, the larger the tank the more “learning room” the tank can provide.  Always start small, with just a few fish, before adding a few more.  Kept in a quality environment, most species can live at least two years, with some species living twenty or more years.

Fish TAnk

Fish require an aquarium of sufficient size for the adult fish.  Many first aquarium owners think fish grow to “fit the tank,” but their growth is simply stunted by smaller tanks, meaning they are small because they are sick.  Generally, the larger the ratio of water to fish the better, and the more often the water changes, the better.  Don’t believe the old saying “one inch of fish per gallon,” because it’s not true.  The temperament of different species greatly influences the amount of fish a tank will hold.

In addition to the physical tank, most aquarium fish require a heater, filter, substrate (gravel or sand), and hiding spaces.  Unlike most pets, I strongly recommend that you purchase at least your initial setup from a specialty fish store.  It will be more expensive than the “first fish tank kits” found at big-box stores, but you will get quality equipment and knowledgeable staff.  Finding your tank overheated, with dead and floating fish, hurts and is preventable with a quality heater.

The difficulty in keeping fish is balancing their need for food with their need to have clean water.  Leftover food as well as waste matter rots in the tank.  Filters remove most of this by growing helpful bacteria, but most tanks require weekly water changes.  Also, live plants require nutrition as well as the removal of waste.  Carefully balancing live plants with fish provides the most natural environment.


Every species has unique needs.  General tropical flakes are fine for most community fish tanks, while more rare or expensive fish may need specific diets.  Pet stores also stock frozen and fresh diets.  Some species, like the plecostemous catfish, love fresh zucchini and lettuce, while others need specific live foods.  Your first aquarium will probably have basic community fish that eat tropical flakes.

Social Needs

Different species of fish have different social needs.  Different species also have different intelligence levels, and different temperaments.

Socializing with People

Fish do not require any social behavior from humans.  Most species seem to lack the ability to see a world outside the fish tank.  Despite that, some species do acknowledge people and recognize faces.  Bettas (Siamese Fighting Fish) and some Cichlid species are especially intelligent.

Socializing with other Fish

Each species of fish has unique socialization needs.  Bettas, for example, hate other bettas and will kill them, but in turn are bullied and killed by many other common community species.  Tetras and barbs need to live in groups of five or more to be happy, and can live easily in mixed tanks.  Cichlids are the bullies of the fish world and need similarly sized, tough fish, if they are to be kept in groups.

A good fish store will advise you on a good mix for your first tank.  I personally recommend livebearers like guppies, platies, and swordfish for a first tank.  I also like mixing a male betta with a school of Corydoras catfish.


Fish tank costs vary, but you’ll need an initial setup amount as well as some money and time for maintenance.  However, long-term costs are pretty low as long as you don’t get “serious” about an aquarium hobby.

Initial Setup

Freshwater fish tanks cost as little as $10 and as much as several thousand.  Supplies, especially for small to medium sized tanks, often appear in the classifieds used.  For a first aquarium, a tank of about 30 gallons and all supplies for freshwater fish costs around $100.  This is enough water that you can work with the chemical balance while you learn, but small enough that it will not take over a room.

Saltwater setups cost a bit more, both because you want to get the chemistry right (the fish cost more) and because they require different equipment.  Saltwater setups start around $150.

Maintenance Costs

Maintenance costs greatly depend on the size of your tank and the fish in it.  A 30 gallon tank with community fish costs less than $5 a month to operate.  If you have a larger tank, or more specialty fish, or start thinking aquariums are like potato chips and you can’t have just one, your costs can skyrocket.

What kind of home suits an aquarium?

  • You vacation regularly and want to be able to leave for a day or two without hiring a pet sitter.
  • You have a stressful life and want a pet that will be calming and soothing, but do not have time to interact with a pet.
  • You want to create an artistic masterpiece.
  • Teaching your children is an important part of your pet choice, and you want them to learn about the effects of pollution, chemistry, biology, and zoology.

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