February 15, 2023

5 Steps to Tropical Aquarium Success Part 2

Equipment and Setting Up

If you are buying a complete setup (e.g. the aquarium packages by manufacturers such as Fluval, Juwel, etc.), the basic equipment required will usually be included. If you are buying a tank separately, you will need to select the right equipment for your tank. One of our staff at Wharf can help you with this, but it's helpful to have some advance knowledge of what is required.

Equipment will include an internal filter or external filter, heater, lighting, substrate (gravel or sand), backing material and other decor (such as rocks, wood and real or plastic plants). Once set up, you will need additional accessories such as a water conditioner, net, test kits, etc.


Filtration can be considered as three major types: mechanical, biological and adsorptive/chemical. Mechanical filtration is necessary to remove particles from the water to keep the water sparkling clear and to maximise the efficiency of subsequent biological or adsorptive filtration.
Biological filtration is essential to ensure the breakdown of waste products in the aquarium by 'friendly' bacteria. This occurs most efficiently in highly porous media such as sponge and specific bio-media such as ceramic tubes and sintered glass. This media should only be lightly rinsed in aquarium water (not tap water) to maintain the bacterial colonies which establish.
Adsorptive or chemical media selectively remove various substances from the water. Examples include activated carbon which removes toxins, medications, dyes, etc. and specific resins which remove ammonia, nitrate, phosphate, etc.


Tropical fish require a normal maintenance temperature between approx. 22-29oC (72-84oF), with many species being kept at a "middle value" of 24-25oC (75-77oF). Maintaining a stable temperature (and more importantly avoiding rapid changes) is vital to avoid stressing fish. The temperature of a tropical aquarium is usually maintained using rod-shaped combined heater-stats, placed inside the tank. These are available in a number of standard wattages between 25W and 300W. The general rule applied is to allow 1 Watt per litre of water, and round up to the nearest heater size (e.g. for a 90L aquarium, you would select a 100W heater). The modern combined heater-stats use very reliable thermocouples to maintain a stable temperature.

Thermofilters are external canister filters which have a heating element built into them. Many are fitted with a precice temperature controller, which may include a digital readout. Using a thermofilter avoids having an unsightly heater unit inside the tank.

On larger tanks, it is advisable to use two or more heaters to make up the required wattage - this not only gives a more even heat distribution, but gives an extra safety margin. If one heater fails, the other heater will provide some heat and the malfunction should be noticed before the temperature drops significantly. Also, if one of the smaller heaters should stick in the "on" position, it will not raise the tank temperature as rapidly as one larger heater.

It is worth mentioning the importance of a thermometer, which should be checked daily to verify that the temperature is correct. Although modern heater-stats are very reliable and can be set to a specific temperature, you will need to verify initially that they are actually maintaining the correct temperature in the tank, and adjust as necessary. If you check the temperature every time you feed, you should notice any change in temperature caused by a failed heater before fish are affected.


The lighting used in an aquarium is governed to a large extent by whether the tank is to contain live plants. If the tank will not contain plants (or only plastic plants) then the light need only provide a means to view the fish. The choice of lighting is then only governed by choosing a light which enhances the colours of fish. A light intensity of around 10W per square foot (30 x 30 cm) of water surface area is sufficient for this purpose (e.g. a 40W fluorescent tube for a tank with a base measuring 48x12" / 122 x 30 cm). Fluorescent tubes used to be the most commonly used form of lighting in aquariums before LEDs became popular. They are available in a range of sizes and colour spectrums to suit different tanks and applications.

Planted tanks need more light than fish only tanks, and the type of lighting becomes more important. The light requirement of different plant species varies somewhat, but generally the light will need to be at least double that recommended for a fish only tank, i.e. 20W per square foot of tank surface area. Light requirements are also quoted per volume, e.g. 2W per gallon.

Brighter T5 fluorescent tubes can be useful for deeper tanks, or those with high-light requiring plants. For very high light requirements, metal halide or mercury vapour lights used to be an option, but these have largely been replaced by high-power LED lights. It should be remembered that when higher intensity lighting is employed to boost plant growth, it will be necessary to balance this with an adequate amount of nutrients and CO2.

LED lighting is now becoming increasingly popular for aquarium lighting, as it offers brighter lighting for less wattage. It also produces a pleasant "shimmer" effect in comparison to the "flatter" light produced by flourescents. LED lights should have a very long life compared to bulbs or tubes, and they are very versatile and may have features such as auto-dimming and other effects.

With the required equipment in place, the next thing to consider is the tank decor.

Introduction Equipment Tank Decor Adding Fish Maintenance