Betta fish are beautiful with their vivid colors and spectacular fins. And providing your betta with a suitable tank setup will allow him to flourish and live a healthy life.
In this detailed article, we explain how to achieve the perfect betta tank setup. And the good news is, that’s not as complicated as you might think!
Before we look at how you can provide the perfect environment for your betta fish, let’s take a look at the kind of world the wild betta fish inhabits in his natural home.
Matching Nurture to Nature
The betta fish, also known as the Siamese Fighting Fish, is native to southeast Asia. Bettas are freshwater fish that belong to the family Osphronemidae, and there are no fewer than 73 varieties! However, the species that most fish keepers know is the Betta splendens.
Betta splendens are the species that are generally kept as pets. These bettas come from the Chao Phraya and Mekong river basins in Thailand (formerly known as Siam, hence the fishes’ other name, Siamese Fighting Fish. Wild bettas live in shallow, stagnant water, including rice paddies, marshes, and flood plains.
During the dry season, bettas live in puddles, feeding on insects and insect larvae. Bettas have a breathing organ called the labyrinth, which enables them to survive in dirty, oxygen-depleted water. Unfortunately, it’s that behavioral quirk that means captive bettas are often kept in tiny bowls or vases with no oxygenation or filtration systems.
Choosing the Right Tank
It’s an urban myth that a betta fish will be happy in a tank as small as one gallon or in a glass bowl. While, betta can survive in a tank of that size, but they won’t live for very long, and he certainly won’t be a happy fish!
Ideally, you should provide your betta with a tank of at least five gallons in size, or bigger if possible. Wild betta have territories of up to three square feet, so a big tank will more closely mimic his natural environment. Also, a big tank will enable you to add lots of plants, again like your betta’s natural habitat. In a large tank, pH and temperature fluctuations will occur less frequently, and you won’t need to perform water changes as often.
Should your betta’s tank have a lid?
Your betta’s tank should have a lid. A lid will keep dust and other debris from polluting your tank water. Also, wild bettas can jump! They use that skill to move from puddle to puddle during droughts, and your fish will think nothing of leaping right out of his tank if it doesn’t have a lid!
A long or tall tank?
Bettas are surface feeders, living primarily in the upper part of the water in their tank. So, to make sure that your betta fish has plenty of swimming space, choose a long tank, rather than a tall one.
To Filter or Not to Filter
As previously mentioned, your betta’s tank should have a filtration system. Without a filter, the tank water will quickly get dirty, and you’ll need to carry out very frequent water changes, ideally on a daily basis.
Many tanks come complete with a filtration system that’s designed for that specific model of tank, saving you the dilemma of having to decide what filter system to buy.
What does a filter do?
Filters keep your betta’s tank clean, removing feces, spoiled food, chemicals, and harmful bacteria. Filtration systems work by drawing in water and debris and passing it through different sponges and other media, keeping the water clean and safe for your fish. Even with a filter, you’ll still need to carry out water changes each week of ten to 15%.
A filtration system prevents the build-up of nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia, all of which are extremely harmful to your betta if they become too concentrated. Ammonia especially will cause your betta to become stressed, weakening his immune system and leaving him vulnerable to diseases.
The filter pumps water around the tank, preventing the environment from becoming stale and stagnant. Stagnant water absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, affecting the pH of your tank water and depriving your betta of the oxygen that he needs to survive. So, a filter keeps the water moving, helping to oxygenate the tank as it does so.
When choosing a filter system for your betta tank, choose one that has a slow flow. In their natural environment, Bettas live in calm water. If the filter you choose is too strong, the current it generates will push your betta around his tank, and he will become stressed.
The ideal filter will have an adjustable flow, enabling you to create the perfect environment for your betta. If you find that the filter current is too strong, you can use plants and tank decorations to slow the flow rate.
How it works
Choose a filter that has three stages of filtration: mechanical, chemical, and biological.
Mechanical filtration is the process by which debris, such as feces and uneaten food are removed from your betta’s tank. You’ll need to change the mechanical filter cartridges every month or so, depending on the size of the tank and filter.
Every week when you carry out a water change, wash the filter cartridges through in tank water to remove any debris that’s clogging up the filters and affecting the free flow of water through the filter.
Chemical filtration removes any harmful chemicals from the tank water. Activated charcoal is the most commonly used medium for chemical filtration and does the job very well.
The biological filter is the most important one as far as your betta’s health is concerned. Biological sponges encourage the growth of helpful bacteria in your tank. Those bacteria are essential to the nitrogen cycle that breaks down decaying matter so that it can’t harm your betta or the plants in your tank.
The nitrogen cycle
As mentioned above, your biological filter helps to encourage the growth of helpful bacteria in your betta’s tank, which are essential to the nitrogen cycle.
But what is the nitrogen cycle, and why is it so important for the health of the inhabitants of your tank?
- All the decomposing food, dead organisms, feces, and dead plants in your tank are broken down by bacteria into ammonia. Ammonia is toxic to everything in your tank, especially your fish. Ideally, the levels of ammonia in your tank should be 0ppm (parts per million).
- A bacterium called Nitrosomonas breaks down ammonia into nitrite. Although not as harmful as ammonia, nitrites can still be toxic to the living organisms in your tank, and levels should ideally be 0ppm.
- Next, a bacterium called Nitrobacter acts on the nitrite to break it down into nitrates. Although nitrates won’t harm your betta as badly as nitrites, they can cause algae blooms, and levels should ideally be kept below 20ppm.
For the nitrogen cycle to work properly and efficiently, you’ll need a filter system that has a large biological sponge with plenty of space to hold lots of bacteria. The sponge should be exposed to the air to allow the maximum amount of oxygen to enter the sponge, which enables the bacteria inside to grow and thrive.
Heater: Yes or No?
The water temperature in your betta’s tank should never drop below 690 Fahrenheit, and should ideally remain between 780 and 800 Fahrenheit. So chances are you will need to get a heater to maintain this water temperature.
Betta fish are highly susceptible to temperature shock. So, if you allow the temperature in the tank to drop below 740 Fahrenheit for long periods or, worse, below 690 Fahrenheit, your betta’s immune system may be compromised, leaving him susceptible to many diseases.
The best way of ensuring that the temperature in your betta’s tank stays at a constant level that’s healthy for your fish is to use a heater. Ideally, you want a heater that provides roughly three to five watts per gallon of water in the tank. If you have a very large tank, you might need two heaters to make sure that the whole environment stays warm enough.
Selecting a Substrate
The substrate is the medium or material that lines the bottom of your betta’s tank. The most popular choice of substrate is gravel, although you can use aquarium soil or sand if you prefer.
The substrate is important for several reasons:
- The substrate provides a large surface area where beneficial bacteria can grow and multiply. That means that when you change your biological filter media, you won’t lose all the bacteria that your tank needs to keep the environment healthy.
- Substrate helps to keep your plants and ornaments held in place. Bettas love to have plants in their habitat, so be sure to provide plenty of vegetation for your fish to hide in.
- A layer of the substrate is also important to give your tank aesthetic appeal. Although you could choose not to use a substrate in your tank, that will show up all the feces and other detritus on the bare tank floor. A layer of natural or colored gravel makes the environment look much more appealing.
When choosing a substrate for your betta’s tank, avoid picking something that’s sharp or rough, as that could injure your fish. Also, large pieces of gravel can trap food, which will decompose and produce ammonia that’s harmful to your fish.
If you’re planning on adding live plants to your betta’s tank, sand is probably best avoided, as it doesn’t make the best rooting medium because of its compact nature.
Fine gravel or aquarium soil is usually the best choice for your betta tank. A natural-looking or dark substrate is also perfect for making your betta’s colors really pop!
Décor: Plants, Hides, and More
One very important element of a betta tank setup is the addition of plants and decorations. Although you can buy lots of quirky and unusual items of aquarium décor, an environment that looks as natural as possible is best for showing off your betta’s colors and glorious flowing fins. Also, your betta will most likely feel more at home in a habitat that mimics his wild home.
Choose large plants, caves, and natural driftwood. All these items provide great hiding places and shady areas for your betta and will also prevent boredom from setting in, which is extremely important if your betta doesn’t’ have tankmates to entertain him.
Live plants help to oxygenate the tank water and absorb carbon dioxide, too, as well as giving your fish something to graze on if the mood takes them. Also, live plants can provide a home for beneficial bacteria that remove harmful bacteria from the water. If you don’t want live plants, choose soft silk ones, rather than hard or sharp plastic ones that could inflict injury to your fish.
Steer clear of plastic decorations or anything sharp or hard that could snag your betta’s flowing tail and injure him.
Lighting is important for your betta’s tank. Wild betta fish live in shallow water, so they are able to see when it’s day and night and when it’s time to eat. Being unable to see when it’s dark or light will stress your fish.
LED lights are the best choice, as they last for a long time and produce a bright light that shows off your fish’s gorgeous colors.
How to set up your betta’s tank
IMPORTANT NOTE: You should set up your tank BEFORE purchasing your betta fish. This rule goes for any pet you adopt, fish or otherwise. Making sure your pet’s new home is already set up and waiting for them is a major part of responsible pet ownership. Plus, it increases the chances that your friend will survive the transition into their new space.
Clean the tank and check for leaks
The first thing you’ll need to do when setting up your betta’s tank is to check for leaks. To do that, put the tank in your bathtub or outside on a soft mat. Fill the tank with water and gently rub the inside with a soft cloth to remove any dust and bits of packing material.
Never use any form of cleaning product on the inside of your tank. Cleaning chemicals can linger, potentially poisoning your fish.
While the tank is full of water, check the seals to make sure there are no leaks. When you’re done, empty the tank. Don’t try to lift the tank when it has water in it. For one thing, the tank will be too heavy, and moving a tank with water inside it risks damaging the seals or even cracking the glass.
Pick the Place
One of the most important considerations when setting up your betta tank is where to place it. If you put your tank somewhere too sunny, the excess light could prompt an overgrowth in algae or cause hotspots.
However, if you put the tank somewhere that’s too cold or place it in a spot that’s exposed to drafts, you risk causing the temperature to fluctuate wildly, which could result in temperature shock for your betta.
Ideally, you should put your tank away from windows and radiators, somewhere out of direct sunlight, and well away from drafts. Also, if you have curious young children or pets in your household, you should put your betta’s tank well out of their reach.
Add the substrate
Having chosen a suitable location for your betta tank, you can add the substrate. Aim for a depth of around two inches of substrate across the tank bottom. That is deep enough for plants to take root.
If you’re using a specially prepared brand of a substrate, including aquarium soil, simply add the medium and leave it. However, regular sand and gravel will need to be washed through with cold water to get rid of any residual dust. Once the water runs clear, you can put the substrate into your tank.
Dechlorinate and Decorate
Next, put a few inches of water into your tank. Put a plate underneath the pouring zone to stop the gravel from washing away. Add a dechlorinator to the water and wait for ten to 15 minutes. Dechlorinator removes chlorine and other chemicals from tap water, making it safe to use in your fish tank.
Now, you can add your decorations and plants.
Good tank decorations for bettas include
Suitable live plants that make attractive, natural additions to a betta tank setup include:
Plant the tallest plants towards the back of the tank, using smaller ones the closer you get to the front. That creates an appealing 3-D effect and also makes your tank look larger.
Fill the tank
Now that you have your tank as you want it, you can fill it with water. Pour the water carefully into the tank, using your plate to diffuse the flow so that you don’t displace all your plants and decorations or make craters in the substrate.
Be careful not to overfill the tank, leaving an inch or so of space at the top of the water. Remember that your betta is a surface feeder and can also breathe air from the water’s surface. Also, that inch of space will reduce the likelihood of your betta jumping out of the tank.
When you’re finished filling the tank, add dechlorinator to remove any harmful chloramines, chlorine, and heavy metals from the water. It can also be useful to add a stress reliever to protect your betta when he arrives in his new home.
Add the filter
Now add the filter. Some systems have a purpose-built compartment specifically designed to take the filter.
However, if your setup doesn’t have that, decide where you want to place the filter. Some filters are designed to hang externally off the back of the tank, whereas others must go underneath the substrate. Usually, the best place for the filter is at the top and back of the tank, where it’s relatively inconspicuous and out of the way.
Finally, set the filter’s water flow rate so that it is gentle. If the flow is too strong, try using decorations to block the current or baffling the filter.
Add the heater
Next, you’ll need to add the heater to your tank. When you position the heater, make sure it’s as close to the filter as possible. That’s so that the warmed water will be circulated around the whole tank, rather than in just one area.
Most heaters come with suction cup attachments so that you can fix the heater to the side or the back of the tank. Set the heater for 780 Fahrenheit, although a temperature between 760 and 820 will be fine for your betta.
You’ll need to fix a tank thermometer to the side of the tank where you can easily see it so that you can monitor the tank temperature.
Cycle your betta tank
Before you add your betta fish to their new home, you will need to “cycle” the tank.
Although you can carry out an in-fish tank cycle, the recommended method is to use a fishless tank cycle.
Fishless tank cycle
As the name suggests, a fishless tank cycle involves cycling the tank without having any fish living in it. The fishless cycle allows beneficial bacteria to become established before introducing fish waste and uneaten food into the environment, which would place more pressure on the biological filter.
When starting a fishless cycle, you’ll need to add beneficial bacteria to the tank, which you can do by adding a biological enhancer to the filter medium to kickstart your aquarium.
In-fish tank cycle
If you prefer, you can perform an in-fish cycle. You will also need a biological enhancer if you’re using this method.
Start by adding a few small fish to the tank, and then wait a week or so before adding a betta fish.
Check the water parameters
Whichever tank cycling method you use, you can expect it to take at least ten days for the beneficial bacteria population in the tank to have grown enough to start controlling the ammonia levels in the habitat.
Every few days, check the parameters within the tank to see if the ammonia and nitrite levels are at 0ppm (parts per million), and the nitrate level is at a maximum of 20ppm. To do that, you’ll need an API Master Test Kit. Once these parameters are met, it’s safe to introduce your betta to the tank.
Once your betta is settled in his new home, you will need to test the water daily, as well as carrying out weekly water changes of ten to 15% to keep the ammonia levels down at a suitable level.
Another water treatment that we recommend you use is API Ammo Lock. Ammo Lock neutralizes any ammonia build-up, preventing the water from becoming toxic to your betta.
Add the Betta
Once you’ve set up and cycled your tank, you can add your new betta fish. It is safest to simply open their sale container and hold the whole container (with the water in it) in the new tank. This will help prevent shock as the fish can choose when to exit its original container. Be patient and do not force the fish to move or dump it out.
This process works best if the water the fish is already in is relatively similar to the water of the tank. But using this method allows the temperature of their water to change more gradually, reducing the risk temperature shock.
Choosing the right sized tank and setting it up correctly is essential if your new betta fish is to remain healthy and thrive.
Betta fish are happiest in a long tank that has plenty of surface area. The tank should have an efficient filtration system, lighting, and a heater that keeps the water at an optimum temperature of 780 Fahrenheit. Be sure to position the tank in a place that’s away from direct sunlight and drafts to avoid temperature fluctuations that could cause toxic shock to your betta.
Be sure to cycle the tank correctly, as we’ve described before introducing your betta to his new home.