Keeping fish is a great hobby, and one of the best tropical fish tanks will help you fully appreciate the hobby and all of its little nuances. It combines the relaxation of watching fishes swim in their controlled environment with the satisfaction of collecting the parts together and making them work.
Colorful fish have been linked to a lowering of stress, even calming down children before bedtime, and also to increased productivity when a tank is kept in a workplace.
The all-in-one tank sets that we feature here are a great place to get started, and are all capable of holding 20 gallons or more of water. If you want something smaller, check out our Best Small Fish Tank article.
Not everything on offer is perfect, and over the years you’ll find yourself replacing parts, say swapping the filter out for a more powerful model, or exchanging the lights for some that offer more in the way of customization. The recent changeover from tube lighting to LEDs has had a huge effect on tropical fish tanks, as features such as color-changing and timed dimming are now becoming more common.
As with any hobby, once you get started you’ll want to add more and more. Getting the right size tank, both for the space it’s housed in and for the number of fish you want to keep in it, means a bit of thought and measurement beforehand, but this is preferable to trying to move a settled tank after you’ve set it up – tropical fish tanks can be incredibly heavy once filled with water, and it only takes one slip to have a heartbreaking experience.
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1. Tetra 20 Gallon Complete Aquarium Kit: Best overall tropical fish tank
If you’re setting up from scratch, this is the one to check first
Volume: 20gal, 29gal, 55gal | Heater capacity: 100W | Weight: 34.5lbs (20gal) | Dimensions: (20gal): 24.2” x 12.4” x 16.7”
From Tetra, one of the biggest names in fishkeeping today, these simple rectangular glass tropical fish tanks come with everything you need to get started – except for water and actual fishes.
Available in sizes from 20gal to 55gal (24” to 48” wide), the tank is made from quarter-inch scratch-resistant glass that comes with a lifetime warranty.
You get quite a lot in the box, with an energy-saving and color-changing LED lighting array inside a black hood with a convenient feeding hole. The entire hood hinges back for cleaning, but being able to open a small flap just to feed through is better in terms of both mess and disturbance to the fish.
The heater and filter included are good enough, but better ones are available and you may feel the itch to upgrade them as time passes. The heater is a pre-set model that should keep the tank at around 77°F, the perfect temperature for platys, barbs, and guppies, but a little on the cool side for some species.
Nonetheless, you’ll be able to build a colorful community tank around this temperature. Being thermostatically controlled, there’s no fiddling with a truculent control knob on the heater – often one of the worst things about setting up a new tank.
The included Tetra Whisper filter offers three stages of filtration, passing the water over activated carbon and a ‘bio-scrubber’ biological filtration layer to remove odors and water discolouration, with a dual-layer mesh to remove floating particulates.
It’s pretty quiet, as you’d expect from the name, but its weakness is in the clip used to attach it to the side of the tank – it’s worth sending away for the optional suction cups, as these will provide a much greater purchase on the glass.
2. Aqua Culture 29-Gallon Aquarium Starter Kit With LED: Best budget option
A basic kit, reflected in its price
Volume: 29gal | Weight: 43.2lbs | Dimensions: 32” x 21” x 14”
A rather plain glass rectangle with visible equipment beyond a clear background, this is nonetheless the perfect introduction to fishkeeping in a larger tank. It has some modern touches such as its low-profile hood with LED lighting, and the filter is manufactured by Tetra.
It’s a nice looking setup, if you can ignore the visibility of the multi-chambered filtration system. Unfortunately, it’s flimsily built in places, with a thin plastic hood (it does at least have an integrated feeding flap) and the LED lighting clipped into the lid on a chain of wires rather than being seamlessly integrated.
Only the fish will see this, so it’s not much of a problem. Anecdotal evidence online, however, points to the lighting being short-lived and unsuitable for growing live plants, something we have been unable to test.
The filter cartridge is at least easy to change, and a nice touch is the green plastic net included in the package, perfect for scooping out uneaten food to take the load off the filter. For the price, this makes a good introduction to the fishkeeping hobby, but it’s basic and you may find yourself itching to upgrade its components after a little while.
3. SeaClear Acrylic Aquarium Combo Set: Best plastic aquarium
The difference is clear, acrylic tanks make a difference
Volume: 20gal, 30gal, 40gal, 50gal rectangular | Weight: 20lbs (20gal) | Dimensions: 24” x 13” x 16” (20gal)
Made from plastic – acrylic to be precise – the SeaClear range is likely to stop a fishkeeping traditionalist in their tracks. It can’t be as good as glass, can it? Well, despite 99% of large tropical fish tanks being made out of glass, acrylic is starting to look as if it might actually be better, even if it does cost more.
Not only is it both lighter (up to 50%) and stronger than glass (17 times stronger, if the manufacturer’s claims are to be believed), but we think acrylic tanks might look better too.
This is partly because of the range of shapes it can be made into, with flat-backed pentagonal and hexagonal tanks not uncommon, and even curve-fronted tanks available, and partly because of the properties of acrylic.
The joins between the panels are virtually invisible – no more slightly milky resin in the corners – and acrylic allows more light to pass through. Your lights and fish look brighter and their finer details are more easily seen.
At the risk of sounding overenthusiastic, acrylic tanks are starting to look like the best modern TVs, a practically borderless rectangle on which bright and high-resolution pictures can be enjoyed. The SeaClear rectangular tank has no black plastic fittings apart from a lid that appears to float above the top of the tank.
Clever positioning can make it appear to blend in seamlessly with its surroundings, and a range of plastic backing panels are available to hide wires and equipment.
The set comes with a light fixture (with no bulb) in that lid, but is otherwise just a bare tank, so you’ll need to factor in the cost of adding filtration, gravel, heating etc to the already high cost of the tank. Once you’ve got it set up, however, there’s really nothing like it.
4. Coralife LED BioCube Aquarium Kit: Best for beginners
A great kit to get stuck into if you're a beginner
Volume: 32gals | Weight: 60lbs | Dimensions: 22” x 21.5” x 20”
With its curved glass front and wraparound black plastic bezel, the BioCube brings some striking modern looks to the fishkeeping party. While not as flexible in shape as some of the acrylic offerings, this is a sleek glass option that packs some interesting technology to make looking after your fish easier and more rewarding.
Not truly a cube, the BioCube still looks great compared to the tired old rectangular tanks that we see so many of. Its low-profile hood contains energy-efficient LED lighting that comes with three independent light channels for plenty of customization options, whether you want bright white, a sparkling blue, or to enhance the colours of your fish, the lights and their integrated timer can accommodate you, even providing simulations of sunrise and sunset.
The dual-intake pump is completely submersible, and quiet as a result. Despite being almost invisible in use, it’s easy to clean – the three-chamber filtration system has one section for the pump, a second for biological filter media, and another with both phosphorus-based filter media and the water heater.
Having everything in a single package, and so neatly tucked away as they are in the BioCube, means this is the perfect tank for beginners who don’t want to fiddle about too much and just get on with watching their fish, or perhaps for a professional setting where it will be on display. Along with the lighting timer, there’s a temperature control, and a small cooling fan that prevents the LEDs from getting too hot.
5. GloFish Aquarium Kit Fish Tank: Best for a darkened room
Bright lights, bright plants, bright fish
Volume: 20gal | Heater capacity: 100W | Weight: 34.5lbs (20gal) | Dimensions: 24.2” x 12.5” x 16.2”
GloFish lives up to its name with this kit, which contains artificial plants of such molten, unrealistic colours they practically light up the tank without putting the lights on. And when you do, well, you’d better be wearing sunglasses. Elsewhere, however, there’s a lot to like about this kit,
The equipment supplied is by market leader Tetra, so you get a submersible heater and Whisper 20 filter that should do a good job. You’ll want to go out to an aquatics store and buy replacement filter media, as only one is included, and there’s only a small sampler packet of fish food too.
GloFish’s lighting is kept within the lid of the fish tank, and has been chosen, along with the artificial plants, to give a strong display of color when switched on.
Rather than going for a naturalistic look, GloFish has chosen to include blue LED lights that make the plastic anemones and plants fluoresce. Alongside brightly colored fish such as platies, danios, and barbs, and a dark background, it can be a striking sight, but if you’re after a realistic look you should consider other options.
We also wouldn’t put plain silver or other drab-coloured fish in a tank like this, as they’re likely to get lost in the cacophony of colour. GloFish sells its own strains of common fish, including male Siamese fighting fish and long-finned varieties of barbs and tetras, that are bred for their bright colours.
How to choose the best tropical fish tank
The most important thing about a tropical fish tank is that it holds water. Do not under any circumstances buy your fish right away – leave the tank set up and circulating for a while to ensure there are absolutely no leaks.
This is a good time to put some water conditioner and bacterial starter solution in the tank, to make sure it’s good and ready for when the occupants arrive.
Look for a tank with good joins between the panels, or a plastic one that doesn’t rely on sealant. Make sure the lid fits snugly – a little give is usual, but you shouldn’t be able to see a gap around the edge. Any lighting cables should be tidied out of the way and not droop into the water, and the same goes for filtration.
If your lighting gets too wet it may stop working, so ensure there’s enough of a gap above the surface of the water, or a plastic internal lid to stop splashes. Filtration that takes the water outside of the tank should always be fitted with a non-return valve to prevent it from emptying your tank in the case of an accident, although this is rare. Internal power filters should be able to sit vertically with their output flow on the surface of the water and their intake above the level of the gravel.
This also helps when replacing their cartridges, which you’ll need to do every month, as they’re more accessible.
The importance of gravel in an aquarium is high – if you’re going to use undergravel biological filtration you always need more depth of gravel than you think, and in a small tank it can take up a surprising amount of space. The gravel is as alive as your fish, containing helpful bacteria that digest waste even if you’re not using it as a filter medium.
Fluorescent tube lighting is now a thing of the past, with LEDs providing more brightness, greater color combinations, and less heat as well as being easier to set up, lasting longer and using less energy.
Lights should be on a timer – a smart plug can do the job – to allow the fish to sleep, but filtration must be left on all the time as it is the movement of the water that exposes it to the outside air and dissolves essential oxygen. Streams of bubbles move water with them, but transpiration between the bubbles and the water is low.
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