How to set up a holding/makeshift aquarium

If you’re betta was an impulse buy, you may have found this page whilst looking for some advice about what to do next. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered, and if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments!

Just bought a betta?

Let’s dive right in and say you’ve bought a betta on an impulse. You don’t have a cycled aquarium prepared, and you don’t have the other equipment recommended for a suitable betta home.

What do you do?

The first thing is: DON’T PANIC. This isn’t a rare occurrence and you’ll have everything in order in no time. We run through a couple of options below.

It’s not unusual for a betta to be an impulse purchase, especially for first time keepers. You go to the pet store / aquatics store, fall in love with a betta, and can’t resist buying it and bringing it home.

HOWEVER, you do need to be fair to the betta. If you brought a puppy home in a cardboard box, you wouldn’t keep it locked in that box for the next two weeks. The same goes for a betta – keeping it in sub-optimal living conditions for too long constitutes animal cruelty.

It won’t take much to get it sorted, though. We are here to help – have a read over our guides, and leave a comment on one of our articles if you’ve got any questions.

Now, let’s have a look at what to do if you’ve just bought a betta.

Option 1

Take the betta back to the store. Provided the fish was being kept in appropriate conditions, you can always return it to the store and ask them to hold it in its original aquarium whilst you set up and cycle an aquarium for it to live in at home. A good store would usually check you have the appropriate set up before selling you the fish, but not always.

In the UK bettas are usually stocked in their own individual divider aquariums, also known as betta barracks, with a running filter and heater. This is the most professional way to stock bettas. Understandably, not every pet or aquatics store in the world is the same. We have seen photos online of bettas being displayed in tiny bags, stored on a hook. Obviously this level of stocking is appalling, so we understand an impulse betta purchase can be one of sympathy, with the new owner hoping to give the betta a more adequate home as soon as possible. If this is the case, returning it to the store definitely is not a good option.

Option 2

Option 2 is to set up a holding aquarium where you can keep the betta whilst you set up another aquarium and cycle it for a week or so.

Luckily, bettas are very hardy fish, so introducing it to an uncycled aquarium isn’t going to instantly end the little guy. However, the water conditions must be adequate. A fish will undergo stress when being re-homed, and being re-homed into an uncomfortable environment will exacerbate the fish’s stress levels. Stress can mean a lower immunity, creating a gateway for disease. Reducing this stress and making your fish feel comfortable should be tackled as soon as possible.

Example Scenario

Say you’ve purchased a betta but you don’t have an aquarium waiting. You’re planning to set up and cycle an aquarium but that won’t be ready for a week or two. You can’t keep the betta fish in its transportation bag for more than a few hours – although it does depend what kind of bag it is – because of the low amount of oxygen and water.

PLEASE NOTE: The setup described below is a holding aquarium/container. It should not be considered as permanent housing for you betta. Your fish should not be kept in this set up for anything more than 2 -3 weeks.

Setting up the makeshift aquarium

First things first, you need some sort of clean container. If you’re housing the fish in the container for no more than two weeks, it can afford to be less than 10L. In our betta keeping requirements section, we recommend NEVER permanently housing a betta in anything less than 10L.

The container

For your makeshift aquarium, the container shouldn’t be anything less than 6L; you want the fish to experience as little stress as possible. Whilst you don’t want the holding aquarium to be too small (say 4 litres), you also don’t want it to be too big (say 60L). We explain why this is the case later on in the article, but generally speaking the less space, the more stress.

The container must be clean, as in, fish-safe clean. Don’t use a container that’s previously held strong chemicals like bleach or soap, for example. Rinse and wash the container thoroughly with freshwater. Really thoroughly.

You’re also going to need something transparent you can put over the holding container, like a thin mesh. Bettas can jump out the water, and they’re even more likely to do so when stressed. Make sure the aquarium is covered, but that air and light can still pass through.

The next step is important: water preparation.

Water preparation

Cycled water can take up to 2 weeks to prepare and the pH should be tested before adding the betta to it. Even at two weeks, if the pH isn’t adequate the aquarium should be left to cycle for longer.

So how can we achieve, so to speak, ‘instantly cycled water’ for your holding aquarium. The bad news is that we can’t – it’s impossible, cycled water needs time to develop – but the next best thing should suffice in most cases.

Without cycled water, the safest bet is to use bottled spring water; this is about as close as you can get to natural water, and the more natural the better. Using water from the tap and treating it will take too long – it’s always best to leave treated tap water to stand for 12 hours, even if the treatment manufacturer says the treatment is instant. Also, tap water tends to be hard, which can be problematic.

When using bottled water, it’s also best to add an aquarium treatment (Tetra’s – ‘Aquasafe’ for example). Add the appropriate dosage as recommended by the instructions that come with the treatment. Give the bottle a shake to mix in the treatment and leave it to stand for 5 minutes. Now add the treated bottled water to the holding container. Again, if you can get your hands on it you could also add a dosage of biological enhancer to the bottled water. Biological enhancer contains beneficial, nitrifying bacteria which can help keep ammonia levels down. Examples of biological enhancers are Tetra’s – ‘SafeStart’ or Fluval’s ‘Cycle’.

Heating

You’re also going to need an aquarium heater, bettas are tropical fish, in order for the fish to live healthily the water needs to be between  78℉ and  82℉. In most countries, the water will not reach this temperature without a heater, it will simply reach room temperature (70℉). You’ll therefore need to go and buy a heater, or order one online, pretty swiftly if you don’t already have one.

You can read about water temperature and recommended heaters here.

Once you’ve bought your heater, add it to the aquarium. Instructions on how to add the heater to your container will be specified on the heater packaging. It’s also best to buy a thermometer to add to the holding aquarium. If the heater is causing the temperature to sporadically rise and drop this is going to stress the fish.

As a result of adding the heater, you’ll want the water temperature to gradually rise until it reaches a stable temperature, which should be between 76℉ and 82℉. Bettas are hardy fish, so they can survive temperatures below 74℉, but their metabolism will increasingly slow if the temperature drops below 68℉ and the betta will soon die. As mentioned, they are a lot more susceptible to illness and disease at a lower temperature.

The betta will be fine if introduced to the holding aquarium at a lower-than-comfortable temperature, provided that the increase to a more comfortable temperature is gradual.

Depending on the heater and the volume of the water it can sometimes take up to 12 hours to heat an aquarium/container. You don’t want the container volume to be so large that it’ll take more than 12 hours to heat, but you also don’t want the container to be so small that it heats up too quickly as this will stress the betta. A smaller container will also fluctuate in temperature more.

Acclimating the betta

Acclimation is an important part of this situation. We recommend acclimating a betta to a well-prepared, readily set up and cycled aquarium for anything between 20 and 30 minutes. In this situation, though, we recommend you spend an hour acclimating the fish to the holding aquarium. You can read more about acclimation and adding your betta to a new tank here.

Filter

It’s also wise to add a small air stone or sponge filter to the holding aquarium, just so that it reduces the chance of water becoming stagnant and can help oxygenate the water . Unlike the other components this isn’t vital for a holding aquarium, but can be helpful. Water disturbance can also stress a betta out, so if you do decide to add an airstone or small filter make sure it doesn’t create too much of a disturbance.

Water Changes

Change 20% of the water every 3 days with freshly treated bottled water. Also check the temperature regularly and feed your betta accordingly. 

This is not permanent housing

Just to reiterate: This SHOULD NOT be considered as permanent housing for a betta. A betta should NOT be housed in a holding aquarium like this for any longer than 2 weeks, 3 weeks tops.

The first thing you should do after setting up a holding aquarium is to begin setting up your betta’s permanent, cycled, properly prepared aquarium. It’s going to take at least a week to cycle a proper betta aquarium; the sooner you get it running, the sooner you can re-house the betta. You can read about how to set up a betta aquarium correctly here.

To help speed up the process of cycling the aquarium, you can transfer some filter medium that’s been sat in a pre-established filtration system in another aquarium. This will boost the beneficial bacteria growth in your aquarium. This  may be hard to come by, but if you ask in your local aquatics store they may be able to help.

Another option is to buy an aquarium booster, such as the Fluval Cycle Biological Enhancer, which will also help with the process.  You should be able to find a range of boosters either online, or at your local pet/aquatics store.

Do what’s best for your betta

Hopefully from reading the above you can understand that even setting up a holding aquarium is quite an involved process. If you don’t have the means to do this swiftly, it may be best to return the betta to the place you bought it. If this isn’t an option, just do all you can to get the little guy a proper setup ASAP.

Remember, if you’ve got any questions, ask in the comments below.