Freshwater Aquarium – Words of Wisdom I Wish I Knew Before I Started

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Hello again fellow readers. Over the past few years, I have gone through a full dive into the freshwater aquarium hobby. As many of my friends and hobbyists know, I started in the hobby straight into saltwater aquariums and then into reef tanks. A couple of years ago, I posted a big piece of content titled words of wisdom I wish I knew before I started. As I got more into the freshwater side of the hobby, I thought to myself I should do the same with freshwater aquariums.

Today’s post is going to be a long. Each one of these points can be a post on its own. My purpose is to place all these words of wisdom into a single post so you can reference it to anyone starting out in the freshwater aquarium hobby. 

Key Takeaways

  • Education is the number one factor to have success. Research and trust authoritative blogs and experts in the field
  • Don’t cheap out on your setup, invest in quality equipment
  • Be careful with your livestock choices
  • Be patient with your setup and keep calm when things go wrong
  • Maintain your aquarium and avoid getting multiple fish tanks

Freshwater Aquarium Words Of Wisdom – What I Wish I Knew Before I Started

#1 – Educate Yourself

Educate Yourself

The freshwater hobby is very broad. I would say it is about 3-4 times more broad than the saltwater aquarium hobby. A saltwater hobbyist goes to corals at the ultimate goal while a freshwater aquarist can have many goals. You can go with a large predator tank, a planted tank, a small betta fish tank, or even a pond. This means that the hobby is always evolving. There are new breakthroughs every day and new subsets of the hobby. Such as in life, dedicate yourself to never stop learning about this hobby if you are passionate about it. Seek blogs like this one, videos, authoritative figures, etc.

#2 – Patience Is Your Virtue

Patience with Aquariums

Read the image above and understand what it comes. Freshwater aquariums is all about doing everything you can to set yourself for success then letting go. You have to be patient about the results after you have taking the actions or setup the proper routines. Impatience will wreck you in this hobby.

#3 – Know The Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle is the cornerstone piece of knowledge you must have to succeed in the fish hobby. The nitrogen cycle is a 5 stage process:

  1. Nitrogen is introduced with fish food
  2. Ammonia is excreted either by fish or decaying material
  3. Nitrosomas bacteria convert Ammonia to Nitrite
  4. Nitrobactor bacteria converts Nitrite to Nitrate
  5. Plants use Nitrates and Ammonium as fertilizer

Your aquarium is a closed biosystem. Your biosystem needs to have a balance of enough bacteria to keep levels in check. Knowing your balance will keep you from overstocking and overwhelming your biosystem. You can check out the video below by Girl Talks Fish for a more detailed explanation.


It is important to know that most stock filtration equipment will not offer you a full nitrogen cycle out of the box. There are two ways to resolve this. Either get live plants or invest in the best nitrate removers for freshwater aquariums. I recommend Biohome Ultimate for permanent solution or Purigen as a disposable solution.

#4 – Involve Your Family

Child Fish Tank

Freshwater Aquariums offer a greater opportunity to get your family or loved ones involved in your hobby. The hobby is easier to understand and perform compared to saltwater aquariums and anyone with proper guidance and training can have fun and get involved. Do not isolate yourself in your hobby or passion. Invite your children if you have them or your loved one into your hobby. You can have reliable tank sitters when you are away and not panic when things go wrong and you are not present to fix them. A family that keeps fish together, stays together.

#5 – Watch Out For Multiple Tank Syndrome

Multiple Tank Syndrome

Freshwater aquariums are more approachable and far easier to get lost in multiple tank syndrome than with saltwater tanks. For one, it’s way easier to handle water changes and multiple tanks since the you do not need a RODI system for the vast majority of setups. The other thing is that the freshwater hobby is so broad. It’s better to have specialty tanks then to attempt mixed community aquariums not to mention the various aquascaping styles with planted tanks.

Avoid stretching yourself too thin as well as your wallet. Take your time to enjoy your current aquarium and learn from it. When you are ready for the next steps, consider an upgrade and not an additional fish tank.

#6 – Join A Local Club

Aquarium Society Meeting

A local aquarium club or society can be transformation in journey in this hobby. You can meet many people of different backgrounds and experience. One of the biggest benefits to joining a club is the mentorships you can obtain if you are looking for advanced techniques and freshwater fish keeping methods. You can check out a list of local aquarium clubs in our prior blog post.

#7 – Don’t Take LFS Advice at Full Value

There is a higher likelihood that you will get a knowledgeable employee at a local fish store (AKA LFS) when it comes to freshwater aquariums. However, remember that the freshwater hobby is vast. It’s very possible that the employee can be an expert on say Discus Tanks and be completely clueless on how to dry start an Iwagumi aquascape. Always do your research, be prepared, and have a plan before you walk into your local fish store.

#8 – Everyone On A Forum Has An Opinion

There are many great forums online that you can join to learn more about the hobby. Be careful of bad information and people trying to give you an answer to help but may not know the best answer.

When it comes to freshwater aquariums I would look at social proof. Is the person giving you advice have the type of tank that you want? Does this person have proven knowledge in the hobby.

To provide you a good example, there are many blogs on the internet about tank equipment. Some of them are written with bad advice to sell you a product rather than educate you. Others I would have serious doubts if author bio on the bottom is a real person.

This blog and site was founded by me, Mark Valderrama. I have been featured on NBCNews, Slate, Buzzfeed, and Huffington post regarding care about our hobby. I am the peer adviser of two books written about aquariums, Freshwater Aquariums for Dummies 3rd edition and Saltwater Aquariums for Dummies 3rd edition. I have owned both freshwater fish and saltwater aquariums.

There are many influencers in the freshwater space, more so than the reefing hobby. Many are true experts in the field versus entertainers. Take your time to do your due diligence.

#9 – Don’t Overstock

Overstocked Aquarium

The general rule you hear in the freshwater hobby is the 1 inch of fish per gallon. I cringe when I hear this rule, because it’s way too broad. Some freshwater fish, like goldfish, are big and bulky, and are hard on a bioload. Other fish, like Cichlids, are territorial and need shelter and space. The 1 inch of fish per gallon is okay for schooling fish like Tetras, but it fails on just about everything else. Too many fish can also lead to poor quality water and a cloudy fish tank.

If you want to look up stocking levels, I would highly suggest using AqAdvisor as a tool. It will provide a comprehensive calculation for your stock, and allow you to plan correctly for your aquarium.

#10 – Betta Fish Do Not Belong In A Bowl

Betta Fish Bowl

You see Betta all the time at local pet stores in bowls. You also probably see a bunch of Betta Fish Tank sets available at the same said stores. I will tell you right now that this is not healthy long-term for a Betta. Bettas are best served in at least a 5 gallon aquarium. Give your pet Betta a better life by giving it an environment that it would enjoy. Check out our Betta Fish Care guide for more info on these wonderful fish.

#11 – Goldfish Do Not Belong In A Bowl

Goldfish Bowl

This is another soapbox moment for me. Goldfish get large and need a lot of space to get to their full size. A goldfish bowl is not healthy for them long term. They are also freshwater fish that are very hard on a bioload since they eat so much and produce a ton of waste. Treat your pet goldfish to a proper aquarium setup so they can reach their full size and potential. Check out our Goldfish Tank care guide for more info on these popular fish.

#12 – Leave Large Aggressive Fish For The Vets

Large Aggressive Fish

You may walk into this hobby wanting to get large aggressive freshwater fish. After all, many like Arowanas, Oscars, Jewel Cichlids, and Jack Dempsey are very beautiful large fish. The problem with these fish are multiple. They get very large and require very large aquariums. This means you have to invest a lot in getting the proper sized tank for them. They are very aggressive and so you have to be very careful who you house with them. Some of these fish are so aggressive that they have no issues with trying to go after your hands when feeding them! Worse yet, some of these fish are large and powerful enough to crack aquariums that are too small for them. The wolf cichlid is notorious for their super aggressive nature as an example.

Large fish also require a ton of food. Due to their aggression, they are known for getting wounds from fighting or just thrashing about in your tank. These wounds can lead to infections. Keep large aggressive fish for the experts or those with the budgets you can handle them.

#13 – Filtration Matters

Hagen Aquaclear

It can be really tempting to just buy a cheap filter to get you started on your freshwater aquarium. The hobby makes it very easy to get into with entry level filters or cheap filters made in China. The problem is not all filters are created the same and as your tank matures, you need better filtration. I would recommend at minimum an Aquarium Power Filter for most freshwater aquarium setups and a Canister Filter for planted tanks. Save the sponge filters for specialized tanks like Freshwater Shrimp Tanks or fry raising. There are very good brand names in the freshwater hobby make quality equipment like Hagen and Eheim. Their equipment is built to last for many years.

#14 – Start Bigger Than Necessary

Bigger is Better

If you are starting out in the hobby, the best advice is to buy the biggest tank for your setup that you can afford. The bigger the tank, the more stability you would have. If you are going for a smaller aquarium like a 5 gallon or 10 gallon aquarium, I would suggest going with an all in one aquarium so you have everything setup and ready to go for you. The main issue with smaller tanks is it is hard to grow with them and often times you outgrow the tank quickly or get overzealous and overpopulate the tank.

#15 – Get A Good Test Kit

Keeping a successful aquarium means you are in tune with your tank and its water quality parameters. You want to get in the habit of regularly testing your water so you can spot changes in your biosystem before its too late. Not all test kits are created equal. See our post on the Best Freshwater Aquarium Test Kits for our picks. Don’t have time to read that post? No problem, I would recommend the API Freshwater Master Test Kit for most freshwater setups.

#16 – Get A Good Gravel Vacuum

Python Cleaner

The Python is a mainstay in the fish hobby. Easily clean your aquarium by connecting this to your sink!

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If you have an aquarium substrate, a gravel vacuum is a critical tool. A quality gravel vacuum can pull out all sorts of junk out of your substrate. There are lots of waste that accumulates in your gravel bed and without vacuuming you run of having waste decay and cause nutrient spikes down the road. The best gravel vacuum in my experience is the Python gravel vacuum. It connects directly to your sink and is very convenient to use.

#17 – Set A Maintenance Schedule

Set A Schedule

Setting a maintenance schedule and sticking to it is a long-term habit in our hobby. There are a lot of things to consider when keeping a fish tank, so it’s best to write things down as set reminders for yourself in order to keep up with your tank. Here are suggestions I would have of maintenance tasks to keep track of:

  • Daily
    • Dose fertilizer
    • Check bubble counter and drop checker color
    • Check water level – top off if needed
    • Observe your fish for any obvious signs of disease or stress
  • Weekly
    • Water change 15-20%
    • Check all your equipment to ensure working order
    • Clean glass, hardscape, and plant leaves
    • Trim your live plants if you have them
    • Check CO2 canister – refill as needed
    • Test your water
  • Monthly
    • Clean out your filters – wash down after cleaning with aquarium water
    • Clean pipes and strainers

Some setups are easier to maintain then others. You can always look into a self cleaning fish tank, if you want something less maintenance heavy. Most will be powered by natural filtration.

#18 – Have Backup Equipment

Backup Aquarium Equipment

The harsh reality of our aquarium equipment is that they are subjected to being in hard conditions being underwater with our livestock. Eventually, equipment does break and they can be expensive to replace. The unfortunate fact is our equipment tends to go down at the worst times. The best way to prevent a disaster is to have a back up plan. Having back up equipment is the best step we can make. Here is backup equipment we want to have in for our freshwater aquarium.

#19 – Have A Plan When The Power Goes Out

Power Outage Aquarium

Fish Tank Power outages are one of the most common cause of tank crashes in our hobby. It is a really helpless feeling when the power is out and you watch all your livestock slowly die because you have no backup plan. Don’t let this be you! Be proactive and develop a plan of action when it happens (because it will!).

The great thing about freshwater aquariums is that many can get by with a couple of battery powered air pumps. For others with larger aquariums we can consider a battery backup air pump. For those with large investments in their aquariums, you may want to consider a mobile generator or a whole home generator.

#20 – CO2 Matters (It’s Easier Than You Think!)

CO2 Aquarium

As we have learned in our Best CO2 System for Planted Aquarium post, the golden ticket to fast grow in plants is CO2. 50% of your plants dry mass is carbon. A live plant will use 10 times more carbon than any other macro or micro nutrient. Knowing these fact, many hobbyists are still intimated by CO2. Sometimes it’s the cost to setup and other times it’s being intimated by the complexity.

CO2 systems are much easier to setup and dial than you think. One you have one setup and running, it’s mostly just reading your drop checker and adjusting your inject levels to stay within level. Many hobbyists I talked to post install usually tell me they wish they did it earlier. Take the plunge and get some killer growth in your plants!

#21 – No CO2? Go Low Tech!

Low Tech Planted Tank

Is a CO2 setup out of your budget? If so, pivoting to a low tech planted tank is a great alternative. A low tech tank is a freshwater aquarium with live plants that do not use CO2 injection. Building a thriving low tech tank requires proper selection of live plants. You want to work with plants that do well under low light, will generally feed in the water column, and are hardy. Check out our best low light aquarium plants and best beginner aquarium plants post for a full list of plants that are ideal for low tech. For those who don’t have the time to read, my go to for low tech are Java Fern and Anubias.

#22 – Not All Fertilizers Are Created Equal

Editor's Choice!
APT Complete

Editor's Choice

Made by an aquascaper for aquascapers. This is the best all around aquarium plant fertilizer on the market. Marco and micronutrients in one bottle!

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We learned in our Best Aquarium Plant Fertilizers post that fertilization is one of the 3 cornerstones of planted tank success. Unfortunately, we also learned that fertilizers are not all created equal. The most popular fertilizers sold in planted tanks are usually designed for low tech planted tanks. Those with full planted tanks or high need better fertilizers. In addition, many fertilizers do not have guaranteed analysis info and hide behind their brand names. We swear by APT Complete for our fertilization needs.

#23 – Red Plants Are Harder To Grow Than Green Plants

Red Aquarium Plant

Red plants are typically harder to care for than green plants. This is due to their stronger light requirements, more specific spectrum requirements, and nitrate needs.

They generally should be avoided by beginners. If you want to try out a red plants, consider an easier to care for species like Cyptocoryne ‘flamingo’ or Red Amazon Swords.

#24 – A Quality Light Matters For Planted Tanks

Best Value
Serene RGB Pro LED

Current USA's offering into aquascaping is an incredible value. Spectrum, spread, easy to program and great PAR output.

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We learned in our Best LED Lights for Planted Tanks post that lighting is one of the 3 cornerstones of planted tank success. Lighting is broken down into three elements that we need to know are adequate in the lighting fixture we purchase:

  • Spectrum
  • PAR
  • Spread

We learned that there is an ideal plant spectrum and that different plants have different PAR requirements. Shading can also be problematic with taller plants so spread is a major factor in our decision for our fixture.

The Serene Pro RGB LED we feel is the best comprehensive planted tank light in the industry. It excels in all 3 elements and will work with most planted tank setups.

#25 – Dip Your Plants

Dipping your plants should be something all planted aquarium owners should do before introducing plants in their aquarium. Plants can introduce pests and disease such as snails and parasites like ich and planaria. By using this method by Lifewithpets above, you can eliminate pest hitchikers from your plants. For parasites, you can consider a quarantine period for your plants in a separate tank. You can do even better by select lab grown plants, which tend to be pest and disease free for extra safety.

#26 – Aquascaping Tools Are Amazing!

Stainless Steel Aquascaping Tools

Look cool and get the job done right with these stainless steel aquascaping tools. For for fine detailing on your scape!

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Proper Aquascaping tools are amazing when it comes to maintaining your planted tank. Curve scissors make it easy to cut down ground cover and smaller plants while prune shares will cut your taller plants. The tweezers are great for moving plants around and handling new arrivals. The substrate spatula is excellent for keeping your substrate tidy and even. I can’t imagine handling a planted tank without one. It’s a must purchase in my mind if you are serious about keeping a planted tank.


#27 – Not All Substrates Are Created Equal

Editor's Choice!
ADA Aqua Soil

The Best Planted Tank Substrate

The world's standard in active substrates for planted tanks. Created by brand that founded modern aquascaping

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In our best aquarium substrate for planted tank post, we talked about active vs inactive substrates. Active substrates are ones that alter our water chemistry and break down over time. As this substrate breaks down, they fertilize our aquarium plants. This means active substrate amazing for rooted plants and ground cover. They are also preferred for dry starts as you can grow some plants in the substrate before you flood your tank. This results in healthy plant growth from the start, a short/nearly instant cycle, and less algae problems.

In contrast, an inactive substrate will not alter your water chemistry. It will not breakdown. However, some inactive substrates are designed to absorb nutrients and still work well for rooted plants. If you are going with a traditional gravel bed, you may want to consider column feeding live plants since it will be more difficult to support root plants in gravel.

#28 – Driftwood Can Leach Tannins

In our Best Driftwood for Aquariums post, we talked about tannins and how to prevent your aquarium for getting that unappealing tea color. The best two ways to prevent this are:

  • Select a driftwood with a low tannin count
  • Prep your driftwood properly

We learned from our post that Manzanita, Spider wood, and Tiger wood have a low amount of tannins and are the preferred driftwood types to work with.

Prepping your driftwood will also save you a world of headache getting that tea color out. Boil your driftwood until the tea color is gone and use carbon media to get rid of any discoloration that comes from the leftover tannins.

#29 – Not All Rocks Are Safe For Usage

Traditional Seiryu Stone

A go to classic. Highly recommended for Iwagumi aquascapes

Buy On Buce Plant Buy On Glass Aqua

In our best rocks for freshwater aquarium post, we learned that not all rocks are safe for aquariums. Some rocks can alter our water chemistry. Some like limestone will raise the pH and hardness, which is great for an African Cichlid Tank, but bad for the majority of tropical freshwater fish. Other rocks, like the ones you can pick up at your local river could contain harmful chemicals or bacteria that can wipe our your tank.The preferred rock for freshwater aquarium is granite and there are many types of available in our hobby. I would recommend Seiryu Rock for most aquarium projects.

#30 – Learn To Aquascape

Learning the types of freshwater aquascape styles and how to design them will take your tanks to the next level. If you want to have stunning award winning looking tanks, it all starts with learning how to aquascape. Start by learning the various type of styles and design concepts like the rule of two thirds and tension vs harmony. What makes aquascaping amazing in this hobby is it is all derived from art, photo techniques, and garden scape designs. It is a true art form that is very rewarding when you create a major work of art. You can get started by learning about a few of the aquascape styles below

Final Thoughts

That was a long post wasn’t it :). Well, I hope you enjoyed reading and took away some words of wisdom. As always, please share and subscribe to our newsletter. If you have any tips you would like to share, please leave us a comment below. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

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