8 Steps To Set Up Your Freshwater Shrimp Tank the Right Way

how to set up a shrimp tank

Keeping shrimp is simple … if you make sure that you’ve put in the time to create an awesome environment. Instead of fumbling in the dark and killing some of your inverts, let’s hop right into creating a tank that both you and your shrimp will love!

What You Need

Before you begin to set up your tank, you’ll need to have some basics.

The equipment required to keep shrimp is pretty minimal, but it’s best to have everything on hand before you start to add the invertebrates.

You should have the following:

  • An Aquarium
  • Some Kind of Filter
  • Aquarium Heater
  • Aquarium Light
  • Substrate
  • Plants Suitable for Shrimp
  • Hardscape Pieces(Rocks and/or Driftwood)
  • Aquarium Stand or Suitable Place
  • Aquarium Test Kit

Get all of this together before you begin setting up.

The following can wait for some time after the initial set up:

  • Your chosen shrimp species
  • Tankmates
  • Fish food

So, let’s dive in, and I’ll show you what needs to be done, step-by-step.

How to Set Up a Shrimp Tank From Scratch

Step 1: Pick a Tank Size and Location

Cherry Shrimp are remarkably easy to keep. Fortunately for you, they’ll work out in a tank of any size. I don’t think I’d recommend keeping them in less than a gallon of water, but 3 gallons and up works fine.

I prefer to use at least 5 gallons for my tanks. This allows me to keep them with a few other creatures, rather than simply having shrimp in the tank.

You’ll also need to find a good location for your tank. We’re going to create something that’s a bit more complex than a cartoon goldfish bowl; there are a few things to look out for:

  • Sunlight will cause algae problems. It can also cause overheating in some climates, leading to a tank full of cooked shrimp.
  • Ditto with placing them too close to heaters or air conditioners.
  • Make sure the tank has a place to be supported and level. Use an 18″ or bigger level to make sure. Smaller tanks can be propped in minor cases. Large tanks can’t.

Once you’ve got a location and tank in mind, make the purchase and get ready for the real work!

Step 2: Add Substrate to Your Tank

Substrate varies from completely inert to almost living. The latter is what you’re looking for when you set up a shrimp tank.

Which substrate you choose to go with largely depends on the species of shrimp you’re going to raise. The Walstad Method, a specific layering technique for the substrate, is a good idea for hardier shrimp. I’d avoid it for any species of Bee Shrimp; it can be a bit unstable in nitrate and nitrite levels.

Planted tank substrates are easy to use. Most can be used without layering, just make sure that you’ve got something your chosen plants can grow in easily.

The important thing is to either use something with nutrients or to make sure you have root tabs when you finish your setup.

At this point, you’ll want to do any grading, tiering, or other techniques within the aquarium. Your hardscape is going to be much more difficult to change in the future, so getting it right the first time is a great idea.

When you’ve added your gravel or sand, fill the tank to ⅓ to ½ full, or a few inches over your highest substrate tier, depending on which is more.

Step 3: Begin the Planting Process and Add Your Hardscape

It’s much easier to place your plants with the tank half full. If it’s full all the way, you’ll need to worry about spilling, and if it’s completely dry, then you run the risk of damaging your plants.

Each plant should be cleaned and trimmed to the appropriate level.

Some general rules:

  • Stem plants can be trimmed to 3″ or so and planted. All aquatic stem plants can be turned into viable cuttings with just a pair of scissors.
  • Trim all roots back to the rhizome. This larger taproot should remain untouched, but shorter roots make for easier planting. They’ll regrow quickly.
  • Rhizome plants need to be affixed to hardscape items or weighted to remain on the substrate’s surface.

You can keep shrimp without plants.

It’s just not a great idea and will end up taking more work.

You’ll also add the rocks and driftwood at this time. Create your hardscape and initial plantings carefully. If you’ve followed my instructions, you’ll have a bit of time to decide. You’ll be waiting a bit before you add your shrimp.

Step 4: Set Up Equipment and Fill the Tank

It’s time to set up your equipment.

If you have an integrated filter, it’s usually enough to just plug it in. HOB filters usually need to be filled beforehand, as do canisters.

My preferred filtration for shrimp tanks is a sponge filter. These simple devices don’t create too much flow and just require you to hook them up to an air pump. Place them somewhere the bubbles won’t cause too much disruption, and you’re good to go.

Heaters shouldn’t be plugged in until the tank is filled all the way, just place them where you’re going to want them.

Lights should be set up at this time as well.

Protip: All aquarium equipment should be created with a drip loop. They’re easy to set up… just let your cords dangle below the socket when you plug them in. This avoids electrical problems if water gets on the cord and drips down.

Test everything you can then fill up the tank the rest of the way. To avoid moving your plants, substrate, and hardscape, you’ll need to pour slowly. It also helps to find some sort of mesh or screen to place beneath the bucket, disrupting the flow.

Anything which required a full tank should be tested at this point.

Step 5: Allow Your Tank to Cycle

The tank needs to fulfill the nitrogen cycle before you can add any living creatures.

Or rather, it needs to do so before you can ethically cycle your tank. Many people use minimal fauna, in the beginning, to move the process along, but doing so in a responsible matter requires finesse and experience.

Don’t be that guy. If you insist on adding something this early, they need to come from a hardy species. I prefer snails for cycling a tank, especially since I include them in all of my tanks. Ramshorn or Nerite snails are large enough to have a bioload while being hardy enough to live through a cycle.

And, chances are you got some with your plants.

Test the water daily in the following manner:

  1. Test for ammonia daily until it shows up. Continue to test until there is no detectable ammonia in the system. If you opted for a live cycle, then use a conditioner like Seachem Prime daily as well to protect the animals.
  2. Test for nitrites, which should show up after ammonia disappears. This number has to be 0ppm before you add any more stock to the tank.
  3. Test for nitrates daily, make sure they’re <25ppm before you begin to add more stock. Nitrates should be tested daily for the first few months of a tank’s lifespan, then at least weekly from there on out.

Testing isn’t optional.

Let me repeat that: water testing isn’t optional. Not doing so is downright irresponsible, and it can play havoc on your animals eventually.

You should, ideally, be able to match the requirements of your shrimp. Cherry Shrimp are remarkably easy, for instance, while Bee Shrimp have more stringent requirements. Just make sure the pH, GH, and KH are in the right area for your desired species.

Once the tank is safely cycled, you’re ready to move on. It’s going to take a couple of weeks, but trust me… the wait will be well worth it. Monitor your plants for growth during this time as well.

Step 6: Add Your Freshwater Shrimp and Friends Gradually

Now we’re talking.

Your shrimp should be added gradually. I recommend not adding more than 1 per gallon at a time, separating them by three days or so. Fish can also be added around this time, but try to add everyone gradually for the best end results.

You’ll want to acclimate your shrimp, creating a match of temperatures between the bag or cup they came in and your tank. You can also drip acclimate them, especially for Bee Shrimp species, by using a small tube to siphon a small drizzle of water into their container.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, you can add all of the shrimp and fish you’re planning on.

Remember to keep testing for nitrates daily during this period. You may also want to test for ammonia. If ammonia is at a detectable level, then immediately do a 20-25% water change in the tank.

It’s not over yet, but you’re close!

Step 7: Perform Regular Maintenance

If you’re new to keeping aquaria, you’re probably expecting more work.

In all reality, you should be doing the following each day:

  1. Add any fertilizers when the light comes on in the morning.
  2. Feed your animals
  3. Test for nitrate levels
  4. See if any plants need trimming.

Worst case scenario? You’ll need to do a quick water change. Since most shrimp tanks are on the small side, it’s usually not a time-consuming task.

Do a partial water change once per week as well. This should be anywhere from 20-50%, depending on the tested nitrate level in the tank. However, even if your test indicates minimal nitrate, you still want to go through with the water change. It can prevent the buildup of other chemicals present in tap water.

Step 8: Learn About Breeding

Freshwater shrimp are divided into two main categories when it comes to breeding.

Dwarf shrimp, like Neocardinia davidi and Cardina cantonensis will breed as long as they’re in suitable water conditions. No questions asked.

For the casual aquarist, they’re going to breed one way or the other. More serious hobbyists may want to found their own lines as time goes on.

This process is known as line-breeding. While you’ll need to learn some genetics, the base process is simple: take the best looking shrimp and keep them together to breed. Since water conditions and the like don’t need to be modified, it’s mostly a matter of paying attention and being quick with your net.

Other shrimp, like Amano Shrimp, will require serious effort and extra equipment put into breeding them. If you’re going down that path, then you have a lot to learn before you’re ready.

Line breeding is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s not hard to find the basics if you’re looking. It’s going to require more than one mature tank and some serious time. It’s a rabbit hole that many of us have crawled down, but it’s not the same as casually keeping a desktop tank with shrimp and a Betta.

In any case, your shrimp will breed. In shared tanks, the shrimp fry are vulnerable. Very vulnerable. I consider losses of less than 90% exceptional in my Cherry Shrimp tanks, for instance.

To increase your chances of healthy fry making it to adulthood, you’ll want to have tons of hiding places. A mature planted tank is your best bet, especially if you have textured elements in your hardscapes like lava rock or driftwood.

They’re going to breed if they live, so make up your mind about what to do with the babies.

Ready to Get Shrimpy?

Setting up a fish tank doesn’t require a lot of experience. Instead, it requires careful thought and a deliberate process. The closer you stick to the above plan, the better off your tank will end up. So, put down the order form for shrimp and get everything else in order… the future holds a brand new aquatic world full of wonderful invertebrates as long as you can exercise a bit of patience!


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