A 10 gallon aquarium is nice choice for aquarists. Doesn’t take up a lot of space, but you still get plenty of stocking option.
In this guide, I’ll take you walk you through how to choose and set up the best 10 gallon tank for you.
Here’s the basic equipment you need to go with any 10 gallon aquarium:
– Gravel vacuum
– Buckets (3-5 gallons/11-20 liters)
That covers you for the absolute basics.
There is some miscellaneous equipment that you don’t absolutely need, but can be helpful:
Step 1: What Do You Want to Stock?
The first big decision that you have to make about your setup is what kind of fish you want to keep.
Different species of fish have different needs. Some need large, open swimming areas.
Others might need caves and lots of hiding places.
Some really won’t be happy unless they have lots of plants to hide in.
And then some want a mix of these.
So making up your mind about what kind of fish you want to keep is super important.
That’s what decides what shape of tank you get, what kind of substrate, what kind of decor and plants you use, pretty much everything about the tank and equipment.
If a species needs things that don’t fit with your vision for your tank, just go with a different species.
10 Gallon Tank Stocking Ideas
Choosing your stock for your tank is critical for success. It’s best to pick smaller species that won’t outgrow your aquarium.
Pro Tip: When you see fish in the store, they are usually juveniles that can grow to be much larger. Research the species and make sure they can live in your 10 gallon tank long term.
Here are a few species that work well in a 10 gallon aquarium:
Neon tetra (Paracheirodon innesi) – they do best with open swimming areas mixed with areas of tall plants they can dart into.
Chili rasboras (Boraras brigittae) – Chili rasboras do best in a densely planted tank with a gentle current.
Pea puffer (Carinotetraodon travancoricus) – these guys are ridiculously adorable and full of personality. They do best in a heavily planted tank and need lots of filtration. You can keep a pair in a 10 gallon.
Dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius) – you can only have one, because they’ll fight, but they’re well worth it. They need a heavily planted tank with part of the surface covered with floating plants and a gentle current.
Celestial pearl danio (Danio margaritatus) – they also need a heavily planted tank.
Ram cichlid (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi) – they need a mix of open swimming areas, small caves and hidey holes and a few dense clusters of plants. They also do best on a sand substrate.
Zebra danio (Danio Rerio) – zebra danios do best in a school of at least 6. They like a strong current to swim against and do best with lots of open swimming areas and a few tall plants.
Community 10 Gallon Tanks
Many people want what’s known as a community tank, basically, a mix of several different species living together.
A happy community tank can be gorgeous and really interesting to look at since there are so many different kinds of fish occupying every level of the aquarium.
But you’ve got research species to make sure that they’re compatible.
Things to consider when building a community tank:
Water parameters – do the different fish need similar water parameters, like temperature, hardness, pH? Fish with radically different needs might not be able to live in the same tank.
Behavior – this can often be the single most important factor when mixing fish. Things to consider:
– Aggression levels – quiet, peaceful fish can get bullied and harassed by more aggressive tankmates.
– Schooling vs. solitary – some fish need to be kept in groups of five or more to be happy, like neon tetras. But some fish will not accept another fish of the same species in the tank, like dwarf gouramis.
– Territorial habits – some fish want to stake out a small territory and defend it against all other fish. It’s important to know how large a territory a species needs so you don’t end up with a bully fish that keeps everyone else hiding in a corner.
– Swimming level – fish like to swim in different levels of the water column. Usually fish are listed as top, midwater or bottom dwellers. It’s a good idea to mix species that occupy different levels. That way, they’ll spread out all over the tank instead of everyone fighting for room at one level.
Step 2: Choosing The Best 10 Gallon Tank & Equipment
There are a lot of options out there when it comes to tank shape, equipment and maintenance gear.
You have several different choices when it comes to shape for your 10 gallon tank.
Rectangular tanks come in standard or tall.
There are also hexagon and half-moon shapes that are pretty interesting.
It’s best to base the shape you get on the species you decide to stock. Species like platies or bettas will use all levels of the water and do just fine in a taller tank.
But, species like danios, tetras or dwarf gouramis like the longer footprint of a standard 10 gallon.
To Kit or Scratch?
There are a wide variety of kits out there that come with most of the basics, like a filter, lid and light.
Personally, I’ve always bought the tank by itself and picked out my own equipment. A lot of the kits don’t come with the best filters, heaters or lights.
I’d rather pay a little more and get higher quality gear.
Choosing Your Filter for Your 10 Gallon Tank
Here’s what you need to look at when choosing your filter:
Gallons Per Hour
You’ll see filters marked as “for 5 to 10 gallons” or “up to 20 gallons” without any real explanation.
All these ratings really refer to is the number of gallons the filter can move in an hour (GPH).
You want a filter that can move at least 4 times the volume of the tank in an hour. So for a 10 gallon tank, you want a filter with a GPH of at least 40.
But more turnover is almost always better.
I prefer to over filter my tanks as a general rule. I usually install filters that can turnover the water in the tank 8-10 times an hour.
Types of Filters
There are three main choices for a 10 gallon:
Hang-on-the-back – these are the most common fish filters. These are a solid option, but go for a model that has the largest possible biomedia capacity, like the AquaClear 20.
Internal – these are smaller filters that go inside the tank. Some you submerge completely but others the top of the filter sticks out of the water. These filters are simple to set up and maintain and are a good option for fish that like a gentle current.
Sponge – I love sponge filters. They’re cheap, easy to set up and easy to maintain. They are also excellent biofilters that efficiently process waste. I use them either as a primary filter or to boost filtration capacity.
Let’s talk dirty.
And by dirty, I mean fish poop.
It’s a simple fact that some fish produce more waste than others.
Fish like platies, mollies and guppies are high energy eating machines and put out lots of waste for their size.
Tetras and rasboras are at the other end of the spectrum and produce far less waste.
If you’re keeping a species that produces higher levels of waste, you’re better off going with a larger filter. A bigger filter has more capacity to break down waste and help prevent ammonia spikes.
Different species of fish prefer higher or lower flow rates in a tank.
Fish like bettas aren’t crazy about a strong current in the aquarium. I usually recommend a gentle sponge or internal filter for them.
Species like zebra danios love a strong current and will surf around in it all day.
So, again, what you plan to stock in the tank makes a difference.
Choosing a Heater for Your 10 Gallon Tank
Here’s what you need to know about filters for a 10 gallon aquarium.
What Size Heater for 10 Gallon?
There’s a lot of debate on the internet about what size heater to use in your tank.
It can all get pretty confusing.
In my experience, the two biggest factors are the quality of the heater and air temperature of the room where the tank is.
Over the years, I really have found that you get what you pay for when it comes to heaters. Not once have I bought a cheap heater and years later said to myself, “I’m so glad I went with the cheap one!”
Cheap heaters often struggle to maintain the temperature and have a much higher fail rate.
Do yourself a favor and spend some extra cash on a higher quality heater.
You can find more information about the pros and cons of heater brands here.
If you live in a pretty warm area, you may never need to raise the temperature more than 9°F (5°C), so you could go with something like a 50 watt for your 10 gallon.
But if your room temperature drops to 65°F (18°C) in the winter, you might need to go with something as big as a 100 watt.
Here are some things to look for:
Temperature dial – this makes it so much easier to set and tweak the temperature.
Indicator light – light comes on and lets you know the heating element is on.
Shut off sensor – heater will shut itself off if it’s out of the water
Pro Tip: Not all fish have the same needs when it comes to temperature. It all depends on the species.
Tank bred fish can often adapt to all kinds of water parameters, like differences in pH or hardness. But, most species don’t do well outside their optimal temperature range.
Choosing Lighting for Your 10 Gallon Tank
There are several different kinds of lighting available for a 10 gallon:
– Compact fluorescent
Fish and plants can have differing lighting requirements. Some may be fine with bright lights, while others need softer, dimmer light.
So again, your choices are going to be based on what you plan on stocking in the tank.
For such a small tank, LEDs really are a great way to go. They last a long time, most are plenty bright enough for a 10 gallon and they use less electricity.
Some LED fixtures might cost more to buy, but over time, can save you money on your electric bill.
Maintenance Equipment for a 10 Gallon Tank
Once you’ve got your tank up and running, you’re going to need to change out water every week.
So let’s go over the basic equipment you’ll need to maintain your tank.
You seriously can’t go without this. It lets you siphon water out of the tank and suck fish waste and gunk out of your gravel.
For a 10 gallon, I’d recommend going with a 9 inch gravel vac.
If you’re sucking water out of your tank, you’ve got to put it somewhere. You don’t need to drain a lot of water from a 10 gallon so two buckets should be just fine.
I’d recommend 3-5 gallon buckets.
I usually get the empty 5 gallon buckets meant for paint at the big box hardware stores. They’re cheap and tough.
Pro Tip: Mark your fish buckets so they don’t get used for household cleaning. Residue from soap or cleansers is DEADLY to fish, even if you’ve rinsed the bucket.
You can use sponges to wipe the glass on the inside of your tank to get rid of algae.
No need to buy anything expensive, I usually pick up the plain cheapy kind from the discount store. Just make sure it doesn’t have any kind of added soaps or cleansers.
Most tap water has chlorine (Cl) and/or chloramine (NH2Cl) added to make it safe for drinking.
These chemicals are deadly to fish and invertebrates. So you need to have dechlorinator to make any water you put in the tank safe.
Personally, I use Seachem Prime in all of my tanks. It’s more concentrated so a bottle lasts longer than other brands.
We’ve gone over the most basic equipment that you need to set up a 10 gallon aquarium.
But there are some extras that can be really beneficial.
I really recommend buying a small net to go with your tank.
They’re useful for adding new fish to a tank, catching fish so they can be separated or moved and even for removing the occasional dead fish.
OK so you don’t absolutely have to use a lid on your tank.
But, in my opinion, they’re really helpful.
– Cut back on evaporation
– Keep fish/invertebrates from jumping/crawling out the tank
– Keep dust and bugs out of the tank
– Stop lights from falling in the water
I can’t possibly recommend keeping a thermometer in your tank enough.
It’s important to monitor the temperature in your aquarium.
My new favorite is the JW Pet Magnet Smart Temperature Aquarium Thermometer. I picked one up and liked it so much that I went back and bought 3 more so I’d have one in every tank.
Air pumps force air through a small, plastic airline hose into the tank. At the end of the airline is an airstone, a little piece of porous stone that diffuses the air and makes smaller bubbles.
Air pumps are great because they increase water flow and oxygen levels in the tank.
I use airstones in all of my tanks. I put them at the opposite end from the filter to make sure there’s water movement throughout the aquarium.
Surface skimmers either attach to your existing filter or are stand alone pieces of equipment.
They have an intake that floats at the surface and lets just water from the surface flow in. This passes through a mechanical filter that grabs any detritus or surface film before it pushes the water back out.
Keeping the surface cleaner can really help increase gas exchange which means more oxygen in the water column.
A UV sterilizer works by exposing aquarium water to intense ultraviolet light. UV light can kill parasites, bacteria, viruses and free-floating algae.
This can greatly increase water clarity and help prevent disease outbreaks in your tank.
One word of caution: just like with heaters, you get what you pay for with UV sterilizers.
Cheap internal or hang-on-the-back sterilizers really don’t do much. They might help with water clarity, but they aren’t powerful enough to kill bacteria and other pathogens.
Test kits for your water aren’t absolutely necessary, but I STRONGLY recommend them.
This will let you know exactly what’s going on with your water parameters, especially important when you’re first getting the tank set up.
Liquid tests are much more accurate than test strips, in my experience.
pH high and low
API makes a Freshwater Master Test Kit that contains all of these. This is what I use for my tanks.
Step 3: How to Set Up Your 10 Gallon Tank
1. Place your tank where you want it to go. Make sure that it is level and the entire bottom is supported.
2. Rinse your substrate. No matter if it’s gravel, sand or soil, all substrates develop dust. I put small batches, somewhere around ⅓ of the bag, in a bucket and run a garden hose in the bucket.
Gently stir it with your hand and let the water overflow. Keep going until the water runs clear. Then drain off as much of the water as possible.
3. Carefully, add your substrate. Usually you want a 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) layer across the entire bottom.
4. Set up your equipment, but leave everything unplugged for now.
5. Place your decor in the tank. For live plants, you might want to wait until you have the tank half filled with water before you start planting.
6. Fill the tank with water. Pour the water in as gently as possible. I usually put my hand under the stream to keep it from digging out the substrate and making the cloudiness even worse.
7. Plug in all of your equipment. Make sure that you have drip loops on all your cords.
8. Place your lids and lights on the tank.
Pro Tip: Expect that your tank will be cloudy and have a coating of tiny bubbles on all the surfaces. This is normal and should clear up within 24 hours.
Cycling the 10 Gallon Tank
Getting your tank cycled is probably the most important step to getting things set up. Without a flourishing nitrogen cycle in your tank, fish waste can quickly make your water toxic.
When you introduce fish and/or invertebrates, they poop and pee in the water.
I know, gross, but it’s not like they have a whole lot of choice about it.
That waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and starts to break down, which puts off ammonia (NH3).
This is not good. Ammonia is highly toxic.
Just one part per million of ammonia is enough to seriously stress and/or kill many fish.
And as more waste breaks down, more ammonia builds up in the water.
The good news is, there’s a solution to this.
Fish filters don’t just move water around. They are also home to beneficial bacteria that help process fish waste.
One kind of beneficial bacteria eats ammonia and puts off something called nitrite (NO2 -1).
Nitrite is also really toxic, but luckily, there’s another kind of bacteria that eats the nitrite and turns it into nitrate (NO3-).
At low levels, nitrate is much less toxic than ammonia and nitrate. So it can be allowed to build up in the tank somewhat.
It still needs to be removed periodically, but I’ll cover that under the maintenance section below.
But, here’s the catch with the nitrogen cycle in an aquarium, it doesn’t happen instantly. You can’t just plug in the filter and “boom!” you’ve got the beneficial bacteria you need.
You have to provide them the right conditions and eventually they’ll move in.
Pro Tip: Fishless cycling is the safest and most humane way to establish your nitrogen cycle. Going through the proper steps to cycle your tank ahead of time will save you from losing fish.
For more information about the nitrogen cycle, and the full steps for performing a fishless cycle, check out this article.
Adding Your Fish
Once you’ve got your tank fully cycled, it’s time to add fish!
But, you’ve still got to be patient.
I know, no fun, but it’s important.
If you add too many fish too quickly, it can overwhelm the beneficial bacteria in your tank.
So add a few fish, wait a week or two and then add a few more.
It’s best to add the most peaceful fish first and add the most aggressive last. That way, the gentler fish are more established before anyone else arrives.
Steps for Adding Fish
1. Float the unopened fish bag from the pet store in your tank for 15-20 minutes. This equalizes the temperature.
2. Remove the bag from the tank and cut it open with scissors.
3. Place your net over your bucket. If you can, get a helper to hold the net for you.
4. Pour the bag, fish and all, through the net and immediately put the fish in the tank.
5. Discard the bag water.
Maintaining Your 10 Gallon Tank
Once you’ve set up your 10 gallon aquarium, here’s what you can do to ensure it stays an healthy environment.
There’s no getting around it, aquariums require maintenance.
The inside glass will need wiping, plants need pruning, substrate needs to be cleaned and water has to be changed out.
I really recommend that you change out 25%-50% of your water weekly and make sure to get as much gunk out of the substrate as possible each time.
The more fish you have, the more waste there is. This means you’ll need to change out more water, more frequently.
It’s a good idea to test your water every few days when you’re first getting your tank set up, cycled and when you’re adding more fish.
Once everything is established, you can just test every two weeks and make sure that your parameters are staying at acceptable levels.
Stability is Best
I can’t stress this enough, it’s far better to maintain consistent, stable water parameters than to try and make your water “perfect.”
Don’t get caught up in trying to add a bunch of chemicals to chase the “perfect” pH. Most tank raised fish have been bred for generations in all sorts of conditions.
They can generally acclimate to your local conditions and be just fine.
Clean water, with nitrates below 40 ppm (below 30 ppm if you can manage it) and stable water parameters is so much more important that trying to reach an “ideal” pH level.
So don’t stress out about getting your water perfect. Just keeping up with your weekly water changes will do your tank so much good, believe me.
Final Thoughts for Setting Up the Best 10 Gallon Aquarium for you
I know, I just threw a lot at you.
But, that’s all the basics you need to know to get started with your very own 10 gallon tank.
The biggest thing that will affect how you set up your aquarium is the kind of fish that you decide on. The tank should be tailored to the fish’s needs so researching species is crucial.
I recommend that you invest in quality equipment from the get go. Sure the cheap brands are less expensive now, but you’ll just have to replace them when they fail early.
And don’t worry if this all seems overwhelming right now. Just take it a step at a time, plan carefully and you’ll get it over time.
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Last update on 2019-07-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API