Inexpensive fish tank

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How to Set up a Freshwater Aquarium for Cheap

I spend my free time (and spare cash) working on my freshwater aquariums.

Setting Up a Cheap Fish Tank

Starting a new hobby can be really expensive, especially if you buy everything new. Or worse, you have the dreaded fishkeeping disease MTS (multiple tank syndrome) and want to add one or five new aquariums to every room of your house.

Luckily, there are some easy, cheap ways to set up a new aquarium without breaking the bank.

Purchasing a Tank

Undoubtedly, the tank is going to be the bulk of your purchase. Good brand names are All Glass and Oceanic, but Top Fin is merely All Glass with a generic label, and most tanks aren't labeled at all, so don't worry too much about the brand.

What's Important to Look for in a Tank?

The seal. Check all the sealant for cracks or missing pieces inside and out. Pay attention to the seal down by the trim especially. You do NOT want to reseal a tank. It takes hours of swearing and scraping with a razor blade if you end up resealing the whole tank.

Check the glass or acrylic. Small chips and scratches in the glass usually aren't that big of a deal. Deeper chips and cracks, especially on the corners, are red flags. Acrylic scratches much easier than glass. Little scratches are easy to buff out with toothpaste, but deep scratches are usually permanent.

If possible, see the tank filled with water. Either a picture of it with a date or in person. If you can't do that, set the tank up half full in your tub or on your porch for a day. If it passes, fill it up all the way for another day. It's much better to find a leak outside than all over your carpet.

Where to Find Good Deals

  • You can find some smokin' deals on CL, especially if you type the keywords aquarium, tropical fish, or fish tank into the side bar. Don't like the selection, wait a few days. See something you like, but it’s out of your driving range? See if they’ll deliver or meet you half away for gas money.
  • Garage/yards/moving sales: People frequently buy tanks then stop using them because they got frustrated or moved or had some life changes. Years later, they clean out the garage and go, oh wow, I forgot about this . . . well, slap a price on it and put it in the yard sale. These tanks are usually extremely cheap because they just want them gone.
  • Dumpster diving and peoples' porches: I'm sure I'm getting some weird looks, but I've picked up several perfectly good tanks off the curb. Nothing was wrong with them other than someone didn't want them and threw them out. Sometimes they don't make it to the curb. Sometimes they sit on the porch. If you don't mind knocking on the owner's door, go ahead and see if the tank is for sale. They might give it to you for free if you haul it!
  • eBay: eBay is a great place to get tanks too. Just remember that tanks do not ship well, and local pick-up is needed!
  • Petco's $1 per gallon sale: Every year, Petco puts their 10, 15, 20, 29, and 55 gallons on sale for a dollar a gallon. They don't come with lights or stands, but the price for a new tank can't be beat.

What's a Fair Price?

Used tanks, like used cars, drop in value the minute it leaves the store. A good general rule is $1 per gallon. For example, if you're looking at a 55-gallon tank, then $55 is an appropriate price. The price may go up a little for odd shapes like hexes or bowfronts.

Other Considerations

  • Does it have a stand? If so, tack on $20-50 more depending on the quality of the stand and if it's a hex or bowfront. Check stands for rust and water damage thoroughly. Don't buy too little stands where the aquarium hangs over the edge-- this distributes the weight incorrectly and can weaken the tank.
  • Does it come with a filter and/or heater? If so, tack on $20-50 more depending on the quality and condition of the filter and/or heater. A little knowledge about brands will help a lot in determining if you really want the equipment or not.
  • What's all this other stuff? Aquariums often come with other junk. You should throw away excess food and chemicals that are open. You don't know how they were stored or when they were purchased. Fish food does expire just like people food! Nets and decorations and other goodies are pennies on the dollar. Not really worth adding into the price.
  • Does it have lights and a top? If so, tack on another $20-50 dollars depending on the quality of the lights and condition of the bulbs. Glass tops are generally of better quality and look nicer. Know the difference between fluorescent and incandescent light fixtures. Plug lights in before purchase to make sure they work properly and don't need a new bulb or starter.

Keep in mind, these are just basic guidelines and you are free to make a lower offer (just make sure you have counterpoints as to why they should lower their price). Also, be prepared to walk away if the seller won't come down. There are other deals and next time your score might be bigger and better!

Buying Substrate

Unless you are a breeder or like bare bottom tanks, chances are you want some substrate for your new, cheap trophy tank. Since you want 2–3” of substrate on the bottom, buying five 10# bags of gravel from the pet store will run you around $25.

  • Colored gravel: Unfortunately, the only price break you will get on colored gravel is if the pet store is putting it on sale or is reducing it to clear (usually a red or yellow tag! Keep an eye out for these). If it is reduced to clear, don’t wait around; it means they aren’t going to stock it anymore and may not have more in the backroom.
  • Colored or clear glass beads or marbles: Hobby Lobby or Micheals or Joann’s all have these for much cheaper than the pet store and probably have a better selection. You can use this as a whole base or just embellishments for interest in the tank. This works best in small tanks.
  • Pea gravel: Pea gravel is natural colored gravel that is used frequently outdoors in gardens and landscapes. You can purchase 50# bags from Home Depot or Lowes for less than $10. Your local garden center may be even cheaper than that! Remember to rinse well.
  • Play sand/pool sand: Play sand is finer than pool sand and a tan color. Pool sand is coarser and generally paler. Both make excellent substrate for catfish and cichlids and loaches. A #50 bag of sand is under $10. I personally used Quikrete All-Purpose sand. Make sure you rinse sand very well before adding it to your tank or face the haze of doom from all the fine powder.
  • River rocks: Bigger than pea gravel and different colors, river rocks look really nice as accents. It can be used as a single substrate but is difficult to keep clean because of the large cracks between the rocks. Again, Home Depot or Lowes should have it in their Garden Center for under $10.

The Fun Part: Adding Decor

Once you have that covered, you need to fill the tank. This is a little trickier than substrates because everyday objects can be extremely toxic to fish. Please only use inert plastics or decorations made specifically for aquariums for your castles and skulls and pirate ships.


You can collect driftwood from local bodies of water, yes. Make sure they sink. You may have to sink them yourself. You should definitely disinfect them because you don’t want to introduce mold, fungus, pollution, or diseases to your tank.

Drs Foster and Smith frequently run specials on free shipping and real driftwood—this is the route I go. Another place to look is in the reptile sections of the pet store. “Mopani” and “Malaysian” wood are great for fish tanks. Grapevine is not as it rots in water.


Rocks, rocks, everywhere. Can you collect them from outside? Yes, but you should test them to make sure they won’t change your tank composition and disinfect them. For example, limestone dissolves over time and raises the pH, making it a favorite of African cichlid keepers but not used by discus keepers.

Research some aquarium safe rocks then visit your local landscaping rock quarry for some awesome pieces. Lava rock is completely inert and great for beneficial bacteria. Slate is also inert and comes in different colors.

Live Plants

There are a lot of places to get cheap plants. Most local aquarium clubs have “mini auctions” where items are auctioned off to benefit the club. You can pick up a bag of healthy, local plants for a few bucks. You can even ask the donator for tips on growing them. Other places for live plants are online forums such as and and

Purchasing the Right Fish

Okay, so we’ve got the tank looking good, time to add some fish, right? But we don’t want to pay the 200% markup pet stores slap on their fish.

  • Breeders: Chances are that if you want cichlids or livebearers, there’s a breeder nearby. And they’ll be more than happy to sell you some cheap juveniles to clear out tank space. Angels and guppies are good bets for breeders, as are African cichlids.
  • Local fish clubs: Most clubs run a huge auction 2-4 times a year. You can find a wide assortment of fish at these auctions and if you’re lucky, snag them for cheap (as in $1 for 6 cories or kribensis cichlids). Plus, it’s a great way to meet some fellow hobbyists and support your local club. Club forums usually have a buy/sell section where you can pick up some good deals as well. Sometimes clubs work with local stores and give out discounts if you’re a member.
  • Online forums: not just for plants. There are many members that breed cherry shrimp, endlers, guppies, snails, and a variety of other fish. If you’re interested in something bigger and more exotic, try
  • This is the fish equivalent of eBay. It is not the cheapest option, but it may present you with some rarely seen fish for much cheaper than in-store. Remember, most sellers request you use overnight, so budget shipping into your total cost.
  • Local fish stores: Check them all out. If nothing else, see what they have. Find one you like and support it. Tell the owner/staff why you like it and what you feel they can improve on. Cultivate a relationship with the owner/staff. I’ve gotten several free or reduced fish just because I was a “loyal” customer even though I wasn’t the biggest spender. Plus, you're supporting the local economy and business climate.
  • Petco and PetSmart: If they have clean, healthy stock and clean tanks, feel free to take advantage of their dollar sales. Most of these fish are marked down to a dollar for a month’s time. Supplies can be limited, so find out when their fish shipment comes in and plan to go shopping two days afterward (to let the store take the loss for a fish in poor condition from shipping).

Filters and Heaters

Heaters and filters. If you did not get them with the tank, you will need to purchase them. This is where I would NOT skimp on the cash. $5 can mean the difference between life and death for your fish when your heater malfunctions and cooks them because the temperature gauge was made of cheap plastic in China. Good filters keep the water clear and house your “good” bacteria, which keeps your tank from smelling like a sewer.

Ways to get deals on new filters/heaters?

  • Sales in local stores
  • Amazon
  • eBay
  • Price matching: Both PetSmart and Petco price match local ads as well as THEIR online prices. Sometimes you’ll get a manager that’s a jerk about this policy. If so, go again later and get a different manager, or ask them to explain their policy on price matching. Be polite!

Filters I Recommend

Heater Brands I Recommend

$30 Aquarium and Fish

Full tank for $30
Full tank for $30
Cheap rasbora from Petco's $1 sale
Cheap dwarf rainbow from Aquariacentral forums

You Can Do It!

Think this is utter bull? I recently set up a tank on a budget of approximately $30. I do admit, I cheated a little because I had some of the material already. But I could've easily done it under $50 still if I weren't making it a planted tank. How'd I do it?

  • Tank: 15-gallon breeder for $5 from the local fish club ($40 retail)
  • Substrate: 16# of substrate for $10 reduced to clear at Petco ($20 full price)
  • Plants: clippings from my other tank and free from my local fish club ($5 per plant)
  • Lighting: reused an old incandescent hood and put in two 26 watt compact fluorescents from the grocery store for $5 ($20 for the hood; $20 for the bulbs)
  • Filter: Aquaclear 20 for $5 from the local fish club ($30 retail)
  • Fish: 5 rasboras for $5 on sale at Petco and moved some fish from another tank that I bought on a forum years ago for $2/piece ($2.69 per fish and $10 per fish, respectively)
  • Heater: not needed for this set up (but would have run me another $20)
  • Décor: driftwood I already had ($5-15 per piece)
  • Stand: dual iron stand free from the garbage ($50 retail)


Bragging Rights

Do you have an unbelievable score you want to brag about? By all means, tell me about it. I love living vicariously. I'll admit it; I'm a bargain hound and love to hear about other peoples' deals and success.


Alfredlups on September 29, 2014: iqylap icbn Chanel Vintage 42e シャネル 財布 マトラッセ ve05 嬉野 ハミルトン lag シャネル 五番 tyw シャネル 手帳 hum hamilton khaki eto

korkee on August 12, 2013:

75 Gallon with 2 60 gal filters a current generator and 2 30 gallon heaters for free just had to buy gravel and plants and feeesh

eveliens (author) from SK on September 27, 2010:

csalter, that's awesome. Great deal! I hope the article helped with the set up a bit. You could do a lot with that much space ;)

csalter on September 27, 2010:


I just got a 350 gallon aquarium with stand, canopy, lights, and a 60 gallon bio filter. I picked it up used from a chinese buffet. Paid $600 for everything. I just set it up and it looks great. Thank you for your very informative article.

eveliens (author) from SK on August 19, 2010:

Thank you taty96. Sorry about the layout mess up. Hopefully it's fixed now!

taty96 from Ecuador on August 19, 2010:

Very informative article.


Thank you for visiting! By the way… any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon and other stores/partners are affiliate links. Aquarium Store Depot earns a commission if you make a purchase.

Fish tanks are expensive. It can be very discouraging for a newcomer wants to get involved in something like a saltwater tank and then finds out how expensive the hobby is to get started. Is there such thing as cheap fish tanks? There definitely is if you know where to look and are patient to wait for good deal. Today’s post breaks down 5 tips to get you the best deal on cheap fish tanks.

How To Get The Cheap Fish Tanks (And 5 Tips)

1. The dollar per gallon sales

A few times every year, the chain pet stores, namely Petco, have a dollar per gallon sale. These dollar per gallon sales have tanks from 10, 20, 29, 40, and 55 gallon tanks all selling for $1 per gallon. You might actually get lucky in your area and have 75 gallon tanks available for $1 per gallon. These tanks are made by Aqueon, which is a quality aquarium manufacturer that has been around for years. You need to be aware of when these stores have their sales, but luckily there is one site that publishes the dates of these sales.

While you will get the tank itself for cheap, you may still be spending quite a lot of money on suitable equipment. For those looking for a cheap fish tank that has most or all of your equipment need. There is a better option.

2. Buy Used

Buying used is the best way to acquire cheap fish tanks. There are three sources I’m going to list here and explain why they are great way to get a tank

  • Craigslist
  • eBay
  • Aquarium Clubs
  • Friends and Family
  • Facebook groups

Craigslist can be a cheap fish tank goldmine. You will want to search for “fish”, “aquarium”, and “tank” and then look at all the recent listings. Craigslist is a real-time classified so check often. With Craigslist, the larger the tank, the better the deal as many of these people selling are looking to off load their aquarium as soon as possible. Here are a few examples of craiglist listings that I found looking around:

  • 180 gallon 6 foot long aquarium complete reef setup with lacquer stand and canopy – $750
  • 120 gallon 6 foot long reef ready aquarium with canopy and stand – $450
  • 46 gallon bowfront tank with canopy and stand – $99

Aquarium clubs are another great resource. The advantage with aquarium clubs is that you will usually get a high quality setup that is complete and well taken care of. You would need to check on the forums of these clubs to see if there are any tanks anyone is selling. You can check out our list of aquarium clubs to see a list of clubs in the US that are close to you.

Friends and family are potentially an avenue to get a free tank. A lot of the time these aquariums are sitting in an attic in a garage. Friends and family are usually happy to have you take their tanks. This was actually how I started out in the hobby many years ago from a 65 gallon aquarium that was sitting in an uncle’s garage unused. Nothing beats a free fish tank. You never know what is out there unless you ask around.

3. Know What Questions to Ask and What to Look Out For

Buying a used fish tank requires a some due diligence on your part to ensure you purchase a good tank. Here are a few questions to ask and what to inspect.

Questions to ask:

  • Ask for dimensions and references dimensions with this calculator – It is common for Craigslist posters to post the incorrect tank volume
  • Ask what the aquarium was used for and what it housed – do not purchase a tank used to house rodents or reptiles as these tanks may not be watertight or have damage to their seals
  • Has the tank been drilled – watch for glass patches if they have been covered up
  • Ask for a leak test – if the seller balks consider walking from the deal as most sellers should not mind this request
  • Glass or acrylic tank– Acrylic tanks will be easier to repair scratches
  • Where has the tank been stored? Tanks stored in a hot garage or outside are red flags as the heat can affect the silicone and cause leaks down the road.

What to inspect:

  • What does the glass look like? Is it scratched, cloudy? How bad is the damage?
  • Check for cracks – obvious cracks are easy to see but check for hairline cracks as well. These can go unnoticed and can hold water, but spell long-term disaster
  • If glass, check the silicone seals – look for beads that are solid and pliable
  • If drilled, inspect the drill sites for cracks 
  • Bring a flashlight with you – this will allow you to inspect cracks and scratches more easily
  • Look at the stand for signs of warping, cracks, or mold damage. Scratches or peeled finish is fine as you can refinish the tank.
  • For acrylic tanks, inspect the bracing and for visible signs of bowing. 

4. Don’t Purchase the Livestock

Often times you will see a listing where the seller is trying to sell a complete setup with fish, coral/plants, live rock, etc included. I would advise against purchasing the livestock unless you are experienced with handling an aquarium move. Moving an aquarium, especially a large aquarium is one of the most stressful activities you can undertake in the hobby. If the seller has a rare fish or coral that you want, consider purchasing it separately and quarantining it until your tank is established. I would not factor in the price of livestock on a listing. Try to negotiate with the seller to purchase only the equipment.

Often times, the seller can give the livestock to a local fish store or advanced hobbyist who has the means to handle the move. If you chose to purchase livestock, the safest livestock to purchase would be live rock (Amazon Affiliate links ahead). Live rock can be stored in a black stock tank with cheap power heads and an aquarium heater (food grade buckets work for smaller live rock purchases). Corals can be safe to purchase as well, but given the availability of frags these days, I would recommend just getting frags from a local reefer when your tank is ready.

When purchasing live rock. The best way to move it in a display tank is to “cook” the live rock. Melev’s Reef has a great video explaining the process. The reason why we want to do this is to reset the live rock. This prevents all the pests that and the nuisance algae from entering your display tank. This also effectively quarantines the live rock from parasites if you cook it long enough (6-8 weeks while switching out containers every transfer like in the video).

5. Prices Are Negotiable

Prices for listing are often not firm – especially on craigslist. If you find a listing that is new and listed under the title of a moving sale or “must sell quickly” jump on it right away. The newer the listing, the better the chance you will have at negotiating a better price. Many of people who list on Craigslist just want to get the aquarium out of their hands as soon as possible versus getting the best price for it.

Even if they have a price listed, ask the seller what they would take for it to get it off their hands that day. You would be surprised how often you will get a lower number than what it is originally listed for. The worst thing that can happen is they say no and you just wait another week for a good listing to pop up. People exit the hobby all the time and good deals are literally a dime a dozen especially if you live in a big city.

Negotiating off an aquarium club listing is harder to do because often times the seller is willing to wait it out or knows the value of the equipment they are selling. For these listings, it may be better to consider purchasing separate components of the setup as these sellers are more open to doing this. This is a really great way on getting quality equipment. The best equipment to buy used would be:

Cleaning the Tank and Equipment

If you purchased a used tank setup, it will likely not be cleaned and you will need to get it ready to be used. The best cleaners to use on an aquarium and equipment would be distilled white vinegar that you can pick up cheap at a store like Target.This should be able to get most of the equipment looking like new after an overnight bath in the solution. It should be able to handle most used aquariums. I’m going to suggest some products below. Please note, affiliate links will be included for which I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase) 

For really bad stains and dirty tanks, Bar Keepers Friend Powered Cleanser would be a good safe solution to use on the aquarium only.

For aquarium stands, it’s going to be depend on the condition of the stand. If it is in good condition, a simpler cleaner like Feed N Wax should make it looks like new again.For stands that are not in good shape, you may want to consider refinishing the cabinet with an oil based primer and paint. We recommended Kilz Oil-Based Primers and Java Gel Stain for refinishing projects. You can seal stain with Spar Urethane.

Choosing New – Cheap Aquarium Packages

While searching for a used tank can save you money, sometimes buying new makes more sense. Below are two examples for freshwater appropriate starter kits that are smaller and will get you started on your way.

Tetra 20 Gallon Aquarium Kit – Starter kit for the freshwater beginner

Tetra glass tanks are made in the USA and this 20 gallon starter kitcomes with several things to get you started. It has an LED hood, a UL rated heater, and Tetra Whisper filter, one boxwood plant mat, and four artificial plants to get you started. The 20 gallon tank has good dimensions being 24″ in length and 16″ in height and should serve a good beginner freshwater tank. The nice addition is Tetra’s aquarium app, which provides guidance, recommendations, and reminders to help you succeed! While the whisper filter isn’t the best powerfilter out there, it is a reasonable filter for a beginner and can be upgraded later.

Aqueon 20 Gallon Aquarium Fish Tank Kit 

Aqueon’s 20 gallon kit has a higher end power filter with Aqueon’s Quietflow 10, but it is a little undersized for the package. The heater is a plug and play preset heater configured to 78 degrees. You get to choose your plants and rocks with this kit as it does not come with either.

Cheap Fish Tanks are Easy to Find if You Are Patient – Tell Us Your Story

Tell us your story below in the comments about how you purchased a cheap fish tank. We also know that not all listings will include the equipment you want or need so after you purchase a used tank you can come check out our aquarium supplies for new equipment from top-quality brands. Let us know your thoughts and stories in the comment below.  See you next time :).


Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping - both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.

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Best small fish tank: Five gallon and under fish tanks to suit every budget

Choosing the best small fish tank for your finned friends is no mean feat when there's plenty of choice on the market. Whether you're looking to add a touch of class to the home, reduce work stress or simply love the idea of watching them explore their new home, fish make for delightful pets that enthrall and relax those around them.

If you're new to choosing the right pet fish for you, you'll likely be thinking not just about your new pet's residence but also any additional fish tank accessories that will go inside or out. As as well as the tank itself, you may also be considering a fish tank stand to provide additional support or style.

Then, there's the essentials for fish care. A fish feeder ensures your pets gets the right amount of each day, while selecting the right fish food is key.

In contrast to the 20-gallon-plus behemoths that are out there, small fish tanks are designed to be compact and beautiful but they don't offer the excitement of building up a large aquatic landscape for your pets. If you're not sure what size will be right for your fish, our overall guide to the best fish tank can set you on the right path. 

Otherwise, the requirements for a small fish tank remain the same as for larger tanks. You will need to heat and filter them, populate them with just enough fish, never too many, and of course, feed those fish. Then there’s a small amount of maintenance, such as cleaning, changing water and filter cartridges. 

Fulfil these simple requirements, and a small fish tank can repay its setup costs many times over in terms of satisfaction and enjoyment. 

PetsRadar's pick of the best small fish tanks

  • Best overall small fish tank: MarineLand 5 Gallon Portrait Glass LED Aquarium Kit
  • Best budget small fish tank: Tetra Crescent Acrylic Aquarium Kit 5
  • Best small fish tank for Bettas: Aqueon LED MiniBow Aquarium Starter Kit
  • Best small fish tank for colored lighting: Koller Products AquaView 4.5-Gallon
  • Best small fish tank for low-light environments: GloFish Aquarium Kit w/ Hood, LED Lights and Whisper Filter

MarineLand 5 Gallon Portrait Glass LED Aquarium Kit

Best overall small fish tank

Volume: 5gal | Heater capacity: 50W | Weight: 12lbs | Dimensions: 11.8” x 11.6” x 17”

Looks great

Complete kit

Hidden filtration

More expensive than many

Sleek and elegant, MarineLand’s upright tank looks great wherever you put it. Five gallons isn’t a lot of water, but it’s enough for a thriving community of colorful fish as long as you stay on top of filtration and maintenance.

MarineLand’s tank contains a three-stage filter that uses replaceable activated carbon cartridges – you’ll go through one every month or so – and also comes with a Tetra submersible heater that’s pre-set to a suitable temperature. 

The pack of three artificial plants that comes in the kit is enough to be starting off with, but you may find you want more to provide a complete-looking display. The back of the tank is black, so a wall of greenery that will push fish forward where you can see them best will look good. Thanks to the height of the tank, it’s possible to use taller aquarium plants, which can look especially attractive.

The tank sits on a sturdy plastic base, held in place by its own weight, and the front and sides are made from one piece of seamless glass. Lighting comes from blue and white LEDs, giving a natural shimmering look to the water as it circulates as well as a moonlit appearance if switched on at night. 

One reason we like this tank so much is the ease with which the equipment can be accessed – a glass canopy slides toward the rear of the aquarium, opening it up for both feeding and maintenance. The only downside to this is that the filter compartment takes away 2” from an already small tank, and if you're using live plants then debris from these can collect around the filter, becoming hard to remove.

Tetra Crescent Acrylic Aquarium Kit 5

Best budget small fish tank

Volume: 5gal | Heater capacity: N/A | Weight: 1lbs | Dimensions: 16” x 11.2” x 13.2”

Market-leading brand

Curved front


No heater

With its curved front and bright LED lights, Tetra’s Crescent will stand out wherever you place it. Moulded from one piece of acrylic, with a separate lid and base, the curving front enhances the visibility of your fish.

Inside, you get the popular Tetra Whisper power filter, but no heater is included. This is fine if you’re only going to keep room-temperature fish, but anyone who dreams of bright, tropical specimens will need to add a heater to bring the temperature up to around 77F. 

The slim black cover contains the LED lights that are bright enough to encourage live plants to grow, but plastic plants will be equally at home. Their intensity sets off the colors of fish nicely too. There’s also an uncovered oval in the cover for feeding – cautious owners might want to cover this with a mesh panel to avoid jumping fish accidentally using it as an exit.

Filtration media comes in the form of disposable Bio-bags, which can be switched out easily enough from the black, cylindrical filter. They have a dual-sided mesh to catch floating debris, a layer of carbon to remove odors and discoloration, and incorporate Tetra’s Water Clarifier to prevent the buildup of particles in the water and on the glass. The Whisper filter is a popular choice, and if properly maintained will do its job with the minimum of noise.

Aqueon LED MiniBow Aquarium Starter Kit

Best small fish tank for Bettas

Volume: 5gal | Heater capacity: N/A | Weight: 1lbs | Dimensions: 15” x 10.7” x 15.4”

Elevated base

Curved front

Power filter

No heater

Easily scratched

Betta fish are a popular choice for emergent fishkeepers, and due to their ability to breathe from the surface using an organ known as the labyrinth. The best-known of the genus is the beautiful Siamese fighting fish – only to be kept on its own or with carefully chosen tank mates – but there are many other bettas that don’t display the same level of ferocity. 

The popular perception of bettas is that, because of their breathing habits, they can be kept in a small enclosure, but they thrive in five-gallon tanks such as this one. It’s worth noting that Bettas, as with many fish, require a water temperature of 76-81F, so if your room is cooler, look into a tank with a heater, or add one to this kit.

The tank itself is acrylic, but in contrast to the scratch-resistant materials available elsewhere this one is easily scratched. This isn’t an issue once the tank is set up, but can be during delivery. The tank ships in its own container for protection against scratches, but accidents happen. The curved front looks great once it is filled and lit, and the Aqueon power filter provided takes up little space. 

Koller Products AquaView 4.5-Gallon

Best for colored lighting

Volume: 4.5gal | Heater capacity: N/A | Weight: 1lbs | Dimensions: 14.6” x 10.75” x 13.25”

Impact-resistant acrylic

Seven LED colors

Looks great

No heater

Looking incredible on a shelf or desk, this Koller tank offers seven different colors of LED light and four transitions to show off your fish and really attract attention. 

The design of this tank is so simple as to be an immediate winner – a simple rounded rectangle of acrylic, with no seams or sharp corners whatsoever. You can see the fish from any angle, as the power filter only takes up a small amount of space at the top of the tank’s rear.

This filter takes simple dual-sided cartridges that wrap activated carbon in a poly-fiber floss that strains out floating particles while the carbon takes care of water discoloration and odors. It’s worth noting that the filter is quite powerful, so anyone intending to keep long-fined or weak-swimming species might like to place a piece of mesh over the inlet to prevent fish being sucked inside.

That single-piece construction means the tank is more-or-less leakproof, and with the bright LEDs shining down makes the tank perfect for places where it might get a little knock now and then. As with all tanks, it’s not going to put up with repeated pummelling, but anyone considering a tank for a child’s room would do well to add this one to their list. 

The lights can be changed to seven colors: amber, aqua, blue, green, purple, red, and white. They can be locked to a single shade, or set to cycle. 

GloFish Aquarium Kit w/ Hood, LED Lights and Whisper Filter

Best small fish tank for low-light environments

Volume: 3gal | Heater capacity: N/A | Weight: 2lbs | Dimensions: 14.6” x 8.8” x 11.2”

Bright colors

Good filter

No heater

Not to everyone's taste

GloFish products may not be to everyone’s taste, designed as they are to display the almost garish colors of the company’s own line of extra-bright fish (bred with a fluorescence gene, they glow under the right lighting conditions). To this end, you get LED lights that emit the exact shade of blue necessary to set off a colorful display in the right fish, but which may not suit those sourced from elsewhere.

The kit itself is a nice one, however. The tank is a seamless acrylic design with a curved front that should show off its inhabitants to their best. The Tetra Whisper filter included is a popular model that will keep the water clear and is easy to service, dropping a new cartridge in every month or so and disposing of the old one. 

GloFish makes plenty of products to accessorize your aquarium too, with plastic plants that will glow under its lights, ornaments, and even colored gravel to add some interest to the bottom of the tank. The lights themselves are neatly hidden in a slim black hood that should help reduce evaporation and protect from the heartbreaking danger of fish jumping to their doom.

Ideal for low-light environments or even as a night-light in a bedroom, the GloFish tanks are a unique experience. 

How to choose the best small fish tank

Once full of water, even the smallest fish tank can be surprisingly heavy, so make sure you are sitting it in a position that will be able to take the weight long-term. Tanks smaller than four or five gallons aren’t really worth considering, as they will not be able to give your fish the space and turnover of water they will need to live a happy life. 

Modern curved-front tanks look great, those that are curved all the way around look even better, and the acrylic that makes these curves possible also means that they’re lighter when not filled.

It’s important not to over-stock your tanks, even if the water is churned up by a powerful filter, so try to stick to the old rule about having one inch of fish to one gallon of water, excluding tails. So in a five gallon tank, you can have five inch-long fish. Modern filtration may allow you to push this rule to its limit, but the more fish you have, the more important it is that you carry out regular maintenance to keep the water in top condition. Most cartridge-based filters expect you to change the cartridge every month, but this may drop to every two weeks if you’ve got a lot of messy fish.

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