Betta Fish Tank Setup Guide: Getting Your Betta Fish Habitat Right

Your betta fish relies on you entirely to provide the perfect conditions for it to thrive. This means that setting up your betta fish tank is of crucial importance if your fish is to stay happy and healthy. And yet, it’s one step that so many betta fish keepers get wrong.

In this article we’ll discuss each of the key elements you’ll need to get right. We’ll look at what works best for betta fish and combine all this knowledge into a step-by-step betta fish tank setup guide.

By the end you’ll know everything necessary to properly set your betta fish up with the perfect captive habitat.

Let’s get started…

The Wild Habitat of Betta Fish

Betta fish are found naturally in Southeast Asia, in countries like Thailand. They are freshwater fish, often found living in rice paddies and other slow-moving bodies of water. They are even encountered living in seasonal puddles during the rainy season.

This means that betta fish have evolved to live in environments where they encounter few other fish, and where there are plenty of places for them to hide away. This is doubly important in captivity, where their elegant fins can mean that they are teased and nipped by more aggressive fish.

Selecting the Best Betta Fish Tank

A lot of misinformation has been shared about betta fish tanks over the years. The truth is that betta fish shouldn’t be kept in tiny fish tanks like goldfish bowls. So what does a good betta fish tank look like?


Size / Volume / Dimensions

Betta fish should be kept in a proper tank holding no less than 5 gallons of fresh water. If you can stretch your budget to a 10 gallon tank then your betta fish is likely to be even happier.

Such tanks not only provide suitable swimming space but are easier to setup and maintain than much smaller tanks, with their smaller volume of water and less space for electrical equipment.

Secure Lid

Betta fish have been known to jump out of their tanks, so the best betta fish tanks also incorporate a secure, tight-fitting lid.

A proper lid has several other benefits. For example, a lid prevents other household pets like cats gaining access to your fish, while also preventing household chemicals such as furniture polish or window cleaner from polluting your betta fish water.

Built-in Electrics

Even a 5-10 gallon aquarium isn’t huge. Fitting the range of electrical equipment you’ll need into a small tank can sometimes be challenging, so many betta fish keepers opt to choose a tank that includes all the electrics.

To be clear; you certainly don’t have to select a tank with built-in electrics, but if you’re new to keeping betta fish such an “all-inclusive” kit can really make your life a lot easier.

Environmental Conditions

Once you’ve chosen your betta fish tank, the next thing to consider are the environmental conditions that your fish requires.

Water Temperature

Coming from the tropical parts of Asia, betta fish thrive in warm water. An optimal temperature for betta fish is between 78 and 82’F, or between 24 and 28’C. This means that an aquarium heater will be necessary.

Fish tank heaters come in a range of different sizes. When selecting an aquarium heater check that it is designed for the size of tank you have.

Chlorine

Most tap water in the West has had chlorine added to it to support human health. For fish, however, chlorine can be toxic so will need to be removed.

There are a number of ways to avoid the chlorine in tap water. Firstly, you could of course avoid tap water entirely, filling your betta fish tank with bottled water or rain water. If you rely on tap water, however, there are still two other solutions:

Time: Over time the chlorine in tap water dissipates into the air. Therefore you can simply fill up your aquarium and leave the water for a period of 48 hours or so, by which point it should be safe.

Dechlorinators: An easier and more efficient option is to purchase a bottle of aquarium dechlorinator. As the name suggests, follow the instructions on the bottle, adding the necessary volume to eliminate the chlorine in your tank. This tends to work almost instantly so can be a far more practical solution.

Nitrogen Cycle

Leftover food and fish faeces can create a toxic environment for your fish. Over time, with the right care, a colony of aquatic bacteria will build up in the tank. These bacteria, in turn, will turn the toxic ammonia firstly into nitrite, and then into nitrate. Nitrates are much safer for your fish, but even these will need to kept under control with regular water changes.

The point here is that it is crucial to maintain the right water conditions if your betta fish is to thrive. Indeed, one of the most common reasons for any pet fish dying is simply that the owner didn’t understand the nitrogen cycle, and as a result their fish have slowly poisoned themselves.

Fortunately, cycling your betta fish tank needn’t be too difficult. You’ll need two things: an aquarium filter to remove debris from the water, and time for the bacterial colonies to build up.

Filters for your Betta Fish

Let’s firstly look at the best filters for your betta fish tank before we look at encouraging the beneficial bacteria that will control nitrogen in your aquarium.


Undergravel Filters

One popular filtration option for betta fish are undergravel filters. As the name suggests, these filters draw water down through the gravel, where any particulate matter floating in the water then becomes trapped.

This filtration helps to keep the aquarium water looking clean. Furthermore, beneficial bacteria are allowed to build up in the gravel, where they are constantly being “fed” with the fish tank waste.

The downside of undergravel filters, of course, is that routine maintenance can be troublesome. Even worse, if something goes wrong then you may need to remove the aquarium gravel to reach the filter media.

Canister Filters

Canister filters don’t sit under the gravel; instead they sit in one corner of your betta fish tank. These filters draw water into their central canister, where it passes through the filtration medium, before being ejected back into the tank.

Canister filters are my personal preference because they are easier to access – and hence maintain.

That said, it is important to understand a few key factors when choosing a filter for your betta fish.

Firstly, of course, canister filters can take up more space in your betta fish tank, so care should be taken to select a filter that still allows plenty of swimming room for your fish.

Secondly, and equally important, betta fish tend not to be very strong swimmers. This is hardly surprising taking into account their luxurious fins; how well would you swim wearing a wedding dress or a ball gown?

In practical terms this means you don’t want the water in your betta fish tank to be moving too quickly. A strong current thanks to a powerful canister filter can really cause issues.

Once again, therefore, choose your betta fish tank filter carefully. Do your research to find a model that is not only small enough to fit into your betta fish tank, but also one that has a variable flow rate that you can turn down to the lowest setting.

Cycling the Tank

Once you’ve chosen your filter and have filled your tank with water you can begin a process known as “tank cycling”. This is a fancy name for encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria. The process is quite simple. Each morning simply drop in a tiny pinch of fish food.

This uneaten food will be the “catalyst” that the handful of naturally occuring bacteria will feed on. The colonies will grow over time, until you have enough bacteria to process your betta fish waste. This is the point when it is safe to add your fish.

Testing Water Quality

All this talk of nitrogen cycles is well and good – but how do you know when it is safe to add your fish? Firstly, most people find the nitrogen cycling process takes some 7-14 days depending on conditions – so this gives you a ballpark figure.

However, time alone is not enough of an indication. The caring betta fish keeper will also carry out water tests using an aquarium testing kit. Looking rather like a schoolboy chemistry set, you simply use the kit to measure ammonia, nitrites and nitrates. When all levels are satisfactory some weeks later you know you’re ready to go.

If you’re on a budget note that some aquarium stores will actually test your tank water for you – often for free. So if you opt not to purchase your own water testing kit scout your local area to see if any retailers will help you out.

Lighting

Betta fish are diurnal – meaning they’re awake during the day. All the same, the muddy puddles and rice paddies in which they naturally live are often shady, or are filled with particulate matter.

This means that aquarium lights aren’t absolutely necessary for betta fish. All the same, most owners choose to add lights to their tank, so they can fully enjoy the colors of their fish.

If you’ve chosen an “all-inclusive” betta fish tank then this will likely already have lights fitted. If you’re setting up your own tank from scratch, choosing equipment on the fly, then LED aquarium lights can be particularly strong contenders. Not only do LED aquarium lights stay nice and cool – so they don’t mess with your aquarium heater – but they also use very little energy.

Substrates for Betta Fish

After you’ve chosen your tank and electrical equipment it’s time to start thinking about landscaping your tank. The first step here is typically choosing a suitable substrate – something to line the base of your aquarium.

A load of options exist but two of the most popular solutions are:

Gravel: To my mind gravel is the best option. It is easily sources, cheap to buy, looks great and comes in a whole load of different varieties. Try to choose gravel with pieces that your fish can’t eat for safety. If you opt to use an undergravel filter then follow the guidelines as to what depth is required.

Sand: A second option that has become popular in recent years is aquarium sand. Like gravel, this comes in a variety of different colors and can look very visually appealing. If there is a downside it is that the more closely-packed particles can make it harder for the beneficial bacteria you need to become established.

Whatever option you choose be sure to thoroughly wash the substrate before placing it into your tank. In this way you’ll limit the dust that such substrates naturally include, preventing your aquarium water from going cloudy.

For my full guide on betta fish substrates please click here.

Betta Fish Tank Decor

Adding some gravel to your betta fish tank is one thing, but most of us want to create an attractive focal point of our tank. Something that will really help your betta fish to look its best, while providing a suitable environment for your pet.

Here are some of the most popular options for designing a beautiful betta fish tank…

Driftwood

Pieces of gnarled wood can look very natural indeed in a betta fish tank. They add visual appeal and can also provide places for your betta fish to hide away when the mood takes it.

Some wood has a nasty habit of floating to the surface of the water so be sure to soak it for 48 hours before placing it into your betta tank.

Rocks

Rocks and pebbles can also make a useful addition to your betta fish tank. It can be worth adding additional substrate if you plan to incorporate rocks into your tank design, as this will help to “wedge” the heavy stones into place, reducing the risk of them falling onto your fish.

Caves

Betta fish really appreciate places to hide. Both driftwood and rocks can help to achieve this, but another option is one of the pre-made aquarium “caves” available from many pet stores.

Many of these are designed to look as realistic as possible, but can be made to look even better when they are combined with other decor elements like wood or plants.

Floating Decor

Betta fish like to gently rest near the surface of the water. In the wild there would be all sorts of floating material, or plants growing over the edges of their pools. Furthermore, betta fish are known to “rest” on plant leaves close to the top of their tank.

As a result, many betta fish keepers opt to include one or more floating pieces of decor designed with betta fish in mind.

Plants

Aquarium plants can make the difference between an “OK” betta fish tank and one that looks incredible.

While live aquarium plants are popular, they do add to your maintenance workload. In reality, live aquarium plants can have quite specialist requirements and may require ongoing care if they are not to die and ruin the water chemistry in your tank.

Fortunately, over the years artificial aquarium plants have improved by leaps and bounds.

Ignore ugly-looking plastic plants, and instead consider some of the beautiful silk aquarium ornaments currently on sale.

Many look amazingly lifelike, provide similar places to hide but require much less ongoing care. A perfect compromise for most betta fish keepers.

Important Considerations When Selecting Decor

While most fish keepers select tank decor based primarily on appearance it is also important to consider the practical implications. Before you start decking out your tank, therefore, here are some handy hints and tips you should consider…

Sharp Objects

The elegant fins of betta fish can easily become scuffed or torn on sharp objects.

When selecting decor for your betta fish tank it is therefore wise to focus on those options with smooth surfaces. This includes plants; those with long, smooth leaves tend to be more suitable than anything “spiky”.

Hygiene & Chemistry

As we have already discussed, water chemistry is of the utmost importance when keeping any type of fish. All too often this isn’t given enough thought.

For example, people regularly pick up attractive rocks or driftwood from the beach, then place it into their fish tank without thought. Soon enough the saltwater of these items starts to leach out, ruining the water chemistry and killing their fish.

It therefore advisable to only choose tank decor from a reputable aquarium shop, rather than using whatever you happen to find in the countryside. Even then, be sure to properly sterilize it before use.

The easiest option I have found is to purchase a large plastic container that is used only for fish equipment. Your decor can be placed inside and then boiling water can be poured over rocks and wood.

Note that boiling water can damage silk plants, so if in doubt instead soak them in an aquarium-safe detergent.

Dust & Dirt

Many substrates and natural decor items can have all manner of dust and dirt on them. Wood, in particular, can release “tannins” – natural dyes that can turn your aquarium water a rich red or brown in color.

While this is unlikely to do too much harm to your pet, it can be quite unsightly, and a real annoyance if you’ve put significant effort into creating an attractive aquascape.

Before adding any tank decor, therefore, take the time to thoroughly wash and scrub them. For your peace of mind you may also want to soak them in a bucket of water overnight, changing the water if the water color starts to change.

Hiding Places

Lastly, don’t forget that betta fish love places to hide, and will be much happier if this need is met. When considering tank decor, therefore, actively consider how you’ll provide these secluded areas.

While it is tempting to add minimal decor, so that your fish is always on display, this is probably not the most suitable environment for the long-term health and happiness of your fish.

Step-by-Step Betta Fish Tank Setup Guide

By now you should have gathered all the equipment you’ll need to setup your betta fish tank. This should include:

  • Suitably sized aquarium – At least 5 gallons, but ideally at least 10, with a close-fitting lid.
  • Aquarium heater – Chosen based on tank size, and capable of keeping the water between  78 and 82’F, or between 24 and 28’C.
  • Filter – Chosen based on tank size, with a slow flow rate.
  • Lighting – Ideally LED lights that will show off your betta fish to best effect.
  • Dechlorinator / Water Conditioner – To remove harmful chlorine from the water. Use in line with the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Substrate – Gravel or sand of a color that appeals to you.
  • Decor – Rocks, wood, plants and more to create an attractive aquascape.

Now it’s time to put all this together and finally set up your tank.

Clean Your Betta Fish Tank & Decor

Start off by ensuring that both the aquarium you have chosen and your kit is all thoroughly clean. The use of aquarium-safe detergents can come in handy here.

You’ll want to be sure that any chemical residue leftover from the manufacturing process or from storage is removed to create an entirely sanitary home for your fish.

Position Your Tank

Even small betta fish tanks can be heavy to move once filled with gravel and water, so it makes sense to get the positioning right to begin with.

Aim to place your betta fish tank in an area where it is easily observed by you (waist height or above) and away from loud noises (like TVs).

Try to avoid areas where the temperature is likely to change rapidly – such as in a draught or near a radiator.

Lastly, avoid direct sunlight, which can not only overheat a small betta fish tank but can also result in brown algae growing in your tank.

Add the Substrate

Add your chosen substrate to the base of the aquarium. Unless you’re using an undergravel filter just an inch or two of substrate is required.

Many fish keepers opt to create a gentle slope, with the gravel at the back being higher than at the front, as this can be very visually appealing.

Add the substrate gently and slowly, rather than pouring it out of a bucket from a great height, which might risk cracking the base of the tank.

Half Fill With Water

Using dechlorinated water half-fill your tank with water. This allows you to start adding tank decor to create an attractive layout with the risk of water slopping over the sides when you stick your hands in.

If you want to avoid the substrate moving then either pour in the water very gently or place a dinner place onto the substrate and pour the water onto this.

Insert Electrical Equipment

Now is the time to add your electrical equipment. Carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions when fitting your filter and heater, ensuring that they have the recommended space to operate.

However don’t turn these on until we have finished setting up your tank.

Aquascape With Tank Decor

Now all the key elements are in place you can begin to let your imagination run wild with tank decor. Take your time, ensuring you don’t block the smooth movement of water around your filter and heater.

Routinely move away from the tank, observing what it looks like from a distance. This is the really fun bit so enjoy it!

Finish Filling With Water

Once you’re happy with the design of your tank you can then finish filling it up with dechlorinated water.

Note that betta fish tanks shouldn’t be filled right to the very top. Instead, try to leave an inch or two of space between the top of the water and your aquarium lid. This is because betta fish will sometimes choose to take breaths of air from here.

Turn On Electrics

By now your tank should look ready for business. Now is the time to finally turn on all the electrics.

Get your filter running, the heater working and, if applicable, your lighting set up. Make any minor adjustments necessary if the water flow from your filter uproots plants etc.

Monitor Tank Conditions

While the equipment that we have today tends to be very reliable, it is always worth monitoring your tank for some time before adding your fish.

Use an aquarium thermometer to keep an eye on water temperature (and change the setting on your heater as necessary). Also, use a water testing kit to check on your tank chemistry.

Only when you’re happy all is well should you consider adding your betta fish.

Introduce Your Betta Fish

Lastly, once your betta fish tank has been up and running for a few weeks, and you’ve confirmed that all the environmental conditions are right, can you finally gently introduce your betta fish.

It is crucial to add your fish properly, giving them a chance to get familiar with their new tank.

The best option here is to float the bag that you bring home from the aquarium shop in your tank for 30-60 minutes. In this time the water temperature in the bag should reach that of your tank.

The bag can then be carefully opened, and your betta fish can be allowed to gently swim out into your tank.

Final Thoughts

Setting up a betta fish tank may seem like an intimidating task at first. However, as we have seen, when you break it all down then it actually becomes quite simple.

For best results aim to set up your betta fish tank at your leisure, taking your time and enjoying the task. Let the tank sit for a few weeks once all set up, so that the nitrogen cycle can begin.

Once your water test kit shows that the chemistry is right you can then consider introducing your new betta fish.

As a final note, if you’re planning to give your betta fish some tank mates then introduce these methodically over time, rather than throwing everything into the tank at once.

This will allow your water chemistry to recover with each new resident, and so should maximize your chances of success.

Richard Adams

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