10 Gallon Fish Tank Setup: Best Fish, Plants, Equipment

By Eddie Waithaka @aquariawise

10 Gallon Fish Tank Setup: Best Fish, Plants, Equipment

A 10-gallon fish tank is the most popular start-up kit for beginners and aquarists who only need a small feature for their living area.

The average 10-gallon is fairly tiny and compact tank, ideally 20“ by 10“ by 12“ and 7 Lbs heavy, and are mostly sold with the equipment you’ll need when starting out.

However, these equipment are not the best in the trade, they are only included to market the kits and help new aquarist learn fish keeping basics.

That being said, in this guide, you’ll learn how to get your 10-gallon fish tank started. Plus everything you need to know, from selecting fish, equipment upgrades, to deciding whether you should invest in this or a bigger aquarium.

What Fish Can You Keep in a 10 Gallon Fish Tank

A 10 gallon is a small tank in the fish keeping world, which means you can only keep species that don’t grow too big.

You don’t want to max out out the tank because that’ll strain your fish.

Luckily, there are more than a couple of species that are small enough and others quite hardy to live even in small low oxygen tanks.

A good rule of thumb is to make sure there is a gallon of water for every inch of fish.

You’ll also need to research your fish eating habits and the amount of waste they produce(bioload). What you don’t want are wasteful feeders and those that give out too much waste.

Also, use online stocking calculators to know how many of a species you can comfortably keep in your tank.

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at the best freshwater fish for a 10-gallon tank.


Barbs are colorful hardy species of shoaling fish best kept in groups of at least five or more.

An adult barb will only grow to between 2.5 inches in smaller species like black ruby and 13 inches in larger species like fintail barbs.

The fish prefer soft acidic to neutral water that is well aerated and a bit on the cooler side. They are also quite active, so in a community tank, keep them with species that can tolerate boisterous companions.

Preferably, keep small species like the dwarf or black ruby barbs in a 10-gallon tank.


Betta fish, also called Siamese fighting fish, are popular for their brilliant colors and large flowy fins. They are quite hardy, but prefer warm water, though they can survive temporarily in cold water.

The fish grow to a length of about 2.6 inches hence will fit in a 10-gallon tank perfectly.

However, betta fish are territorial and aggressive and not ideal candidates for a community tank, so consider them for a betta species tank. Luckily they like planted tanks, so you can add as many plants as you possibly can.


Danios are hardy and lively fish that prefer cooler aquariums. They can grow up to 2.5 inches in length but grow to an average size of 1.6 inches in captivity.

They are considered easy fish for beginners plus they are cheap and broadly available.

Like barbs, danios are shoaling fish so keep them in a group of six or more. Ergo, consider smaller species like pearl danios for your 10-gallon.

In the aquarium, you can keep them in a group of five with another group of shoaling fish or a group of 10 when kept alone in a species tank.


Gouramis are betta cousins meaning they sometimes get aggressive. So, keep one male with two females or keep the male with a small school of another peaceful species.

Being labyrinth fish, they can live in a low oxygen tank, but you still need to be more careful with your water quality, and as with other tropical fish species, you will need a heater for your aquarium.

Whenever possible, keep dwarf gouramis in your 10-gallon tank, since they only grow to just 3.5 inches long. But make sure the tank is heavily planted, with some surfaces covered with floating plants.


The guppy, also called million fish or rainbowfish, is one of the most widely spread tropical fish hence easily available.

The size varies, but males typically grow to between 0.6 and 1.4 inches while females are 1.2 to 2.4 inches long.

Guppies are a hardy fish but they prefer hard water that is fairly warm. Keep five to ten males or females in a 10-gallon tank, but if you are breeding them, you can keep two males and four females.

Neon Tetras

This is another popular freshwater shoaling fish. They have bright coloring which makes them visible even in dark water.

Neon tetras grow to 1.3 inches long and are considered easy to keep in a community tank.

You can keep up to 10 tetras in a 10-gallon tank as long as you provide them with plenty of hiding places.

Pygmy Corydoras

Pygmy corydoras are a tiny species of peaceful fish kept in groups of around 10 fish. The maximum length of the species is about 1.3 inches.

Because of their peaceful nature, pygmy corydoras (and other cory types)can be kept in a community aquarium of smaller fish such as tetra or even small shrimp and snails.

Keep up to 8 pygmy cories in a 10-gallon tank but provide a lot of hiding places with plants and decorations.

10 Gallon Fish Tank Equipment

Most 10-gallon fish tanks are sold as complete starter sets with some of the accessories you need in an aquarium, though some items you’ll need to purchase.

Moreover, most equipment in the set are not exactly top quality. For instance, while many tanks will come with a lighting fixture, the light is most likely low intensity which can only support hardy plants like Java moss.

Therefore, such equipment will need an upgrade or replacing them when they break.

So, here are the crucial equipment you need in a 10-gallon tank.


Having a small tank is one thing, but getting the right filter for it a whole different ball game.

Even so, a good filter in a small tank is imperative since it’s easier for ammonia to build up in the less water.

More so, when thinking of a filter, you want to be able to take care of all stages of filtration as each is crucial for the water to remain clean.

An under gravel is generally a safe choice for a beginner with a small aquarium, in this case, a 10-gallon fish tank. They are fairly cheap and easy to operate.

A plastic in-the-tank-filter will be sufficient if you intend to keep a few fish. However, if you want to fill out your aquarium, then a small power filter would be more suitable.

Power filters are able to do all filtration and quite easy to setup and use. They are also not expensive as canister filters, which are a better choice for larger tanks anyway.

Box filters are probably the cheapest option and though they aren’t very impressive cleaner, they are an Ok choice for a 10-gallon tank.

Given that your tank will house small fish, you may want to consider a slower filter flow. In which case, a small sponge filter that runs on an air pump is a safe choice.

That said, regardless of how clean or planted your tank will be, getting a filter will be worth your while.


Most of the time, fish keeping hobbyist put tropical fish in 10-gallon tanks which include bettas, gouramis, neon tetras and guppies. These fish require a temperature between 65°F to 82°F, meaning a heater in the tank is crucial especially during colder months.

Normally, you’ll need a heater that’ll keep the water above the ambient temperature in your house, when the house gets colder, turn up the heater and vice versa when it to hot.

Just like filters, there are different types of heater albeit fewer options plus most units will tend to work the same way.

The one thing to look out for is the size of the heater, with larger tanks needing bigger heaters. In a 10 gallon, I recommend starting with 100-watt equipment. Plus, the recommended tank for each heater should be indicated on the packaging.

Be that as it may, it’s advisable to get your tank a lid, which will stop the heat from dissipating to fast. This way you can run the heater for fewer hours and at a lower setting and reduce your power bill however minimally.

You also have to get a thermometer to check the temperature in the tank to make sure the heat is properly distributed.


Many 10 gallon kits come with built-in top lights. However, most of these lights are not adequate for your aquarium. They are only useable when you want to illuminate the tank.

On the other hand, different fish and plants prefer varying light intensities, something you should consider when stocking. Therefore, instead of compromising on the fish and plants, I recommend upgrading the lights.

Aftermarkets lights are good at popping fish colors, while those marketed as grow light will have the red and blue lights used by plants to photosynthesis.

Plus they are powerful hence penetrate aquarium water better.

Even so, before picking your upgrade, find out how much light your fish and plants need so you don’t go too low or too high on the light intensity.


Aquarium substrates should be chosen according to the type of tank, though not so much the dimensions but the use. This choice includes freshwater tanks as opposed to reef tanks and planted tanks compared to fish-only tanks.

In general, a 10-gallon tank substrate should provide a base layer that orientates fish and plants to the aquarium environment. Also, the substrate should allow breeding and provide a colonizing ground for beneficial bacteria and other microscopic life forms.

If you only want fish in your 10-gallon tank, the substrate you use will mostly serve to provide a surface for the beneficial bacteria to build colonies.

Having said that, in freshwater aquariums, hobbyists prefer to use some kind of gravel as the base layer because sand substrates tend to kick up and particles find their way into filters, which are quite fragile in freshwater tanks and clog easily.

However, sand substrates are best at hosting useful bacteria, and since your is a freshwater tank, consider using finer gravel which is the second-best alternative.

Also, a sand substrate is more appropriate when keeping bottom-dwelling fish that eat from the tank floor like corydoras, and dwarf cichlids ( kribensis, German blue ram cichlid) as they like digging.

Your substrate should be about two inches in height and roughly 1.5 pounds of gravel for each gallon of water in the tank. Meaning, for your 10-gallon tank, you will need about 15 pounds of gravel depending on the shape of the aquarium.

Alternatively, use 10 pounds of gravel for 150square inches of tank surface, which still come to 15 pounds considering the average 10-gallon fish tank covers about 200 square inches of floor space.

In a planted aquarium, the substrate you use should be able to store and provide nutrients for your aquatic plants. Normally, two layers of the substrate are used.

First a nutrient-rich layer, maybe a DIY substrate, and the second layer to prevent possible washout of the nutrients and anchor the plants. Commonly, gravel is used for the tops substrate.

Air Pump

Sometimes, when you have a powerful filter in your 10-gallon fish tank, you might not need an air pump. This, especially when you have hardy or labyrinth fish that will survive even in low oxygen tanks.

Ordinarily, an air pump is used to aerate and oxygenate an aquarium, and selecting one is actually pretty simple.

Like the aquarium heater, the size of the tank the pump is rated for should be indicated on the packaging.

However, keep in mind the depth of your tank is the most important factor when selecting an air pump. The deeper it is to the bottom of the tank, the harder the pump will need to work to push the air down to the stone.

Therefore, when you have a deeper tank, use a pump that is rated slightly higher than the size of your tank. Consider getting a quiet air pump as well since buzzing pumps do get quite uncomfortable.

10 Gallon Fish Tank Setup in 10 Steps

Aquarium requirements vary from one tank to the other, So there are many ideas you can implement in a 10-gallon fish tank. However, there are some nearly universal steps for setting up a freshwater aquarium.

A good setup is easier to clean and more comfortable for your fish, plus aquatic plants will thrive.

These are the 10 steps you should follow when setting up a 10-gallon fish tank.

Step 1— Clean Your Substrate

Wash your aquarium gravel, rocks, and pebbles with warm water before you install them, but avoid using soap or detergents. Soaps are undesirable since they have chemicals that are toxic to fish.

Should you fail to wash your gravel properly, your aquarium water will become cloudy a few hours after installation. This haze comes from specks of dirt given off by pebbles when they rub together as you pour them inside your tank.

Step 2 — Install Your Substrate

Once you wash the gravel till the water runs clear, then install a base layer two to two and a half inches in height. An average 10-gallon fish tank should use up about 15pounds of gravel.

Step 3 — Fill Your Tank Partially

Fill your tank to approximately one-third full with room temperature water from a clean bucket. Place a saucer at the bottom of the gravel to help you stream the water while making sure the substrate remains in place.

Step 4 — Install Your Air pump

If you wish to have an air pump in your 10-gallon fish tank, this is the time to install airline tubing from the air pump to any outlet inside your tank such as airstones.

Then install your pump underneath your tank. However, be sure to use an aquarium check valve to stop the aquarium water from backing up the line when the system is powered off.

Step 5 — Aquascape with Plants and Decorations

The fifth step is to aquascape your tank making sure the arrangement hides any equipment inside the tank.

If you’ll add live plants to your 10-gallon tank, place the roots gently below the gravel only leaving the crown exposed. Remember, planted tanks work best with a double layer of the substrate.

Plus be sure to keep your aquatic plants alive prior to placing them in your tank.

Step 6 — Fill Up Your Tank

Now that your plants and decorations are set, you can fill up the remaining two-thirds of your aquarium. Still, don’t fill it completely, leave some air space between the water and the lid, just below the top frame.

Step 7 — Set up Your Filter

Set up your filter and cycle your tank, however, this will depend on the type of filter you have. For instance, if you are using an under gravel filter, you would have to install the filter plate a little earlier in this setup process.

It best to read the instructions on the filter or 10-gallon fish tank manual before you start the whole setup. Also, make sure the filter is primed with water before you start-it-up.

Step 8 — Install The Heater

Install your heater near the water flow and then place a thermometer far away on the side opposite to the heater. This will help you monitor the heat distribution around the tank.

Step 9 — Check Your Water

Check the water condition after a few hours making sure the air pump, filter, heater, and thermometer are working properly. Also, check the pH and water hardness and adjust accordingly depending on the fish you intend to keep.

That said, your water will turn cloudy a few days sometimes weeks after establishment. This is caused by bacteria bloom as the harmless nitrifying bacteria establish in your tank; which should clear out naturally.

Even so, if your gets hazy a few hours after its setup, there is a chance you didn’t clean your substrate and decorations properly.

Step 10 — Water Changes and Cleaning

It will take the nitrifying bacteria a few day or week to establish in your 10-gallon tank, which means any dirt accumulation during this period won’t be adequately expelled.

Therefore, do regular water changes, at least twice a week especially if you already placed fish in the tank. Also, vacuum the substrate and clean the tank surfaces from time to time.

My Two Cents

A 10-gallon fish tank is an easy compact choice for first-time owners. However, it might be limiting for hobbyists who want to try out bigger fish and exotic plants or those who love more decorations in their aquariums.

I, therefore, recommend a 10-gallon tank for beginners. If you’ve tried fish keeping before and you already conversant with the basics, go for a slightly bigger tank like a 20, 50 or even an 80-gallon aquarium.

Finally, a 10-gallon is ideal if you only wish to keep one or two medium-size fish like bettas or a school of six or more small fish like neon tetras. For big fishes like Oscars and Silver dollars, you’ll need a considerably bigger tank.

All the best with your 10-gallon fish tank.

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