The Ultimate Aquarium Equipment List

It happens every time. Someone who is new to the hobby asks me if they have everything they need to set up their first fish tank. The first thing every new aquarist does wrong is a strange mistake: They buy what they don’t need.

When building aquariums it’s not uncommon for even experienced hobbyists to forget an item or two, such as magnetic scrapers, so how can someone new to the scene buy extra equipment? Easy. They buy what they see in aquariums and not the hidden components that keep them ticking. Follow along our new aquarium equipment list and your first tank will be on it’s path to success.

If you want to skip the read, all fish tanks need:
Aeration, water treatment, filtration, a lid and a heater

Tanks do Not need:
Decorations, water pumps, air stones, stands, lights and excess medicines.

Aeration and Water Movement

Notice how I said aeration and not air stones. Why is this? Nearly every tank in the pet store has air stones! Again you are right. Most retail stores like that you copy their builds. How easy is it to sell a piece of equipment when someone just learns they needed it? Very, and big stores know this.

In reality aquariums need surface agitation. The act of disturbing the surface creates a strong exchange of gases between the water and its surrounding environment. Hang on back filters, water current producing power heads, and finally air stones all provide this. But how much is enough?

When providing your tank with air their is such a thing as too much surface disturbance. Air stones are the prime culprit here, as their excess amount of small bubbles dramatically increase evaporation, increasing your workload.

So where does this leave us? Simply put, Waterfall filters and power heads provide much more functionality for their price, along with reduced evaporation and noise. My little girl had to have bubbles, but couldn’t stand the noise. This led to me making a trip to get 25 feet of airline tubing to place the tube in another room entirely because she could not stand to be in her room with the noise it produces. Personal story aside, the water movement and filtration caused by the other two methods of aeration should be enough to catch the smart shoppers eye.

By using a simple power head found on Amazon you can combine both your aeration needs and water movement into one piece of equipment. This cuts out air pumps and saves you $10 on the air pump, $5 on the air line tubing and $2 on the air stone.

Aeration and water flow taken care of for the price of one.


So now we need a filter, but not just any filter. We want our aquarium to be quiet. No loud hums, no splashing fountains and certainly no rattling motors. Combine all this and you get one of the most expensive items on the list. Check out this behemoth on amazon. Silent and effective all the way to 400 gallons. It meets all our needs but at that price we could just take a cruise and see fish in the wild. For our first tank we are going to want to invest a smaller amount.

Keeping the quiet and reasonable price together we have found amazing success in Hang on back filters. Unlike internal filters, these are made to hang free on the tank, allowing owners easy access to clean out the filter and even adjust suction strength for feeding time.

But what about the water crashing? To be fair, not everyone likes the sound of a waterfall in their bedroom. However take a look at the highest rated filter available.

View on Amazon

Low Price
Amazing Warranty
Multiple Sizes
Minimal Tank Space
Low Water Outlet

Take special note at the mention of a low water outlet. Given your tank is not half full, the outlet is likely going to reach your water levels. How does this affect our noise issue? As the water has zero fall time, it silently slides into your tank horizontally.

no splash, all silence.


The Fish Tank

Unless you are inheriting an aquarium from you friend, family or craigslist, you will need to buy a home for your fish. The general rule is one inch of fish per gallon of water. To most hobbyists this will mean buy the biggest you can afford and fit in your house. most beginner will want at least a 10 gallon, but we will leave the size choices to you. A special note we will make here is to watch Petco’s weekly adds if you have one in your city. They often have dollar per gallon sales, giving us access to well below bargain prices.

Warning: Despite all the old movies, TV shows and in store displays, do not put your fish in a bowl. Likewise nanocubes should be avoided by beginners, as the water parameters can change suddenly, killing your fish. Small bowls and nanocubes limit the owner to one tiny fish. We are not sinking $50 into fish supplies to house a single guppy. Your fish need space to swim and water volume to combat the toxins fish produce. We urge new owners to stick with the rectangular tanks for your first purchase.


Assuming your house is not constantly 80 degrees, your fish tank will be too cold for almost all fish. Goldfish and a few other like cold water, but plecos, swordtails, guppies and bala sharks all prefer warmer waters. To keep your water heated up to the right temperature you will need 3-5 watts per gallon of water. The range is depending on the difference in temperature you require ex: room temp of 65 changing to 82 vs room temp of 75 changing to 78.

Theres not much to talk about here so lets move on.

Covers and Hoods

Fish jump. They will never not jump. Buying a fish without having a hood on your aquarium is basically inviting them to your floor. Keep your fish alive with a glass canopy or deluxe hood.

Glass canopies are cheaper and allow you to view your fish from above with ease. Hoods on the other hand can take care of your lighting in addition to covering your tank. For those with plants in their tank we really recommend hoods, as spot lights added to glass tops create dim sides on the tank.

Either choice will serve to keep your fish alive and reduce your evaporation. For those getting into the hobby for the long run a hood is a great investment, and not much more expensive for the value it will bring you. If this is just for your children for a few years then a glass top can serve your purposes well.

Water Treatment

When setting up a new aquarium many owners use tap water without questioning it. Nearly all water available to the public has levels of iron, chorine and phosphates. While iron and phosphates are not particularly bad for fish, chlorine will kill most fish that are forced to endure it.

The two answers to this differ greatly in price. The high end that will be needed for large salt water tanks housing corals is reverse osmosis filters. These filter the water to be pure, allowing for the absolute best start. For our ten gallon tetra tank however we can use a tap water conditioner found at any retail store. These are cheapest at Walmart and almost the same at pet stores, so don’t look too hard into the best deal. Either way be sure to do something about your waters chlorine, less you have only dead fish in a day or two.

The Not So Needed


While this is close to essential, many tanks will see success without any form of substrate. These “glass bottom” aquariums will be far easier to clean.

The down side is the lack of surface area for beneficial bacteria. The good bacteria in our tank will eat the toxins our fish produce and delay the need for water changes. It’s up to the owner to decide which they prefer. No substrate and faster cleaning or adding substrate for less water changes.


Simply put many tanks will end up on our dressers or end tables. You likely have something you want to add your tank to, so there is little need to buy something that will result in you throwing something away.


Lights allow our tanks to grow plants and be seen more easily in dark rooms. Without plants however, lights only serve to promote algae growth. Most aquariums are fully visible in normal room lighting, but a aquarium light will really help your tank stand out in the room.

This choice is more of “do I want people to gawk at my tank?” We love to dazzle our guests, but our kids had to ask what the black thing on the top did.

Water Pumps

I’ll admit, we fell into the trap of buying a water pump early on. Sure it mixes our salt into new saltwater for us, rather than me swirling it around with my hand for 30 minutes, but other than that it just sits in the corner looking pretty.

Don’t get me wrong, this was essentially day one of our journey to the perfect aquarium. Since then we have found a great deal of uses for our pumps, the best being connecting our tank to a sump.

If you have big plans and know what you’re using the water pump for go ahead and pick one up. If you heard they help a lot but have no idea what you would use it for don’t worry about it.

Water Chillers

We live in the northern parts of the US and would never dream of the word “colder.” However when I lived in Texas, a water chiller was an absolute must.

These are essentially attachments that will keep your water cool. Mostly used when owners are away from the house and turn off their ac. Running a tank chiller instead of your houses ac will be a huge decrease in your electric bill meaning those in hot areas should really pick up a water chiller.

Gravel Vacuum

We love these for two reasons. Our pleco is lazy with cleaning the floors and the siphon created by these are actually amazing for water changes. No more dunking buckets into your tank to get the water out.(come on we all did this at least once)

Those with sand or no substrate at all can clean the bottoms with a net or clean, not washed, cloth. For gravel users without a handful of cleaners you will want to add a gravel vacuum to your cart.

Not Needed, Maybe Wanted

Air Pumps

I know we already talked about this but we really want to keep people away from air stones. Unless you absolutely need bubbles, you will be better off using a power head for aeration.


We do not want you to let sick fish die, however buying medicine before your fish is sick is a bit silly. Imagine if you kept a spare engine in your car, or another trash can in case yours gets knocked over and cracks.

If your fish gets ill then by all means get medicine. Just don’t keep every single chemical you see by the tanks side. You likely wont notice your fish get sick the second it happens, one more hour while you get what you actually need will not make a difference.

Plastic decorations

We have all seen spongebobs pineapple at Walmart or Petco, you don’t need it in your tank. Some of the more elaborate decorations can be cool, just be sure it fits and your substrate matches.

When choosing your decorations avoid all plastics with points and sharp edges. Fish get startled and will swim into these. Plastic plants can impale fish and sharp edges will remove scales. If your kid can hurt themselves with it, your fish probably can too.

Fish and Fish food

Any aquarium can survive fantastically without inhabitants. For the owner looking to watch an empty glass water box you can easily forgo adding fish and therefore food.

These are all the tools you will need to run a successful aquarium, along with our notes of what sounds useful but really is just a waste of money.

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