self cleaning aquarium

How to Make a Self Cleaning Aquarium

Aquarium hobbyists have always had a fascination for creating a self-sustaining environment where fish and plants can live with little to no human interference.

Most exhibits you run across that hold rare species of aquatic life look impressive, but they are constantly maintained by specialists. On the other hand, personal aquariums are usually the ones that can be engineered for self-sustenance.

The idea of owning a self-sustaining aquarium biosphere is not appealing to just marine biologists. Regular people like us often think of creative ways to both improve the life expectancy of fish and reduce the amount of work it takes to maintain an aquarium.

Most self-cleaning aquariums employ a combination of advanced monitoring and control technology, carefully selected plant life, and compatible fish species.

When control technology, carefully selected live plants , and compatible fish species work together in complete harmony, then the fish tank is considered to be self-cleaning and self-sustaining.

Many different things play a part in this process, from the fish not eating each other to the pumps providing enough air and controllers maintaining the right temperature.

Why You May Want One

Regardless of how big your fish tank is, keeping it clean takes time.
Just as you would clean after a cat or have to take the dog out, you have to take care of cleaning air pumps, changing filters, changing plants, and replacing the substrate from time to time.
This is time-consuming and hard work, to say the least.

Investing in ways to make your aquarium self-cleaning will make you earn in free time to dedicate to other hobbies you love.
It’s also a good system to have when you go on trips or maybe have some commitments that don’t allow you to do the work yourself on regular basis.

With a slightly higher investment, anyone can enjoy watching colourful fish interacting on a daily basis.

Drawbacks of a Self-Cleaning Aquarium

If the tank works as it should, there won’t be any drawbacks. However, the process of choosing one pre-made or picking out the right parts and assembling one yourself is when things can get complicated.
If you don’t have a decent-sized budget to spare, then you need to find one that is very efficient.

What Is a Low Maintenance Aquarium?

Regular aquariums require you to change the water very often. You also need to take out the substrate from time to time and rinse it off before putting it back in the tank. Most of these tasks will have you moving fish from one tank to another, which in turns disturbs them and puts stress on them.
A low-maintenance aquarium is designed to reduce your number of chores and create a healthier environment for the fish. It implements organic solutions like creating a food chain to have the fish tank take care of itself with little human intervention.

What You Need for a No-Clean Fish Tank

As we’ve already stated, there are many parts that contribute in creating a self-sustaining and clean environment. The size of the tank matters, but that’s the least of your concerns. Here’s a list of all the equipment you need.

1) Fish Tank

Fish tanks come in all shapes and sizes.
Average or large sized aquariums (30-200+ gallons) are the best tanks you can hope to modify.
They are big enough for fish, lots of plants, and tools that help monitor the situation.
The really good pumps and filters are usually large devices, so the more room you can leave your fish, the better.
If you want to find out more about the various types of fish tanks, check out our Fish Tank Section.

2) Substrate

Some people underestimate the impact that substrate has on an aquatic environment.

These mixtures of pebbles and gravel are essential to cultivating the right amount of bacteria in a fish tank.
They also ensure that all the bacteria stay at the bottom instead of reaching the plants or damaging the air filtration system.

If you also want to sustain plant life in the aquarium, mineral-rich substrate is what you should use at the base. The most useful plants also tend to be appealing as a food source, so they need a properly nourished substrate to be able to regrow.

There are several good substrates you can buy online. Two we recommend you check out are the Flourite and the CaribSea Eco-Complete that you can find on Amazon.

3) Water

What beginner aquatic enthusiasts may overlook in the quality of the water.
It’s not enough to just dump water in a fish tank and dump the fish afterwards.
Depending on the species, some fish can have specific requirements for temperature, pH level, and salinity.

4) Plants

There are many ways in which plants add value to a fish tank.
Some of them like Java Moss and Java Fern are low-maintenance and can serve as an extra food source for baby fish.
They don’t grow too much, so there’s no need to worry about overcrowding the tank.

Some fish are curious and may enjoy spending time close to the glass where you can see them.
Others, however, are more easily scared, which is where plants come in handy again.
Dense plant life can serve as a good hiding spot for your more anxious critters.

Not all plants have to be submerged to be useful.
You can set up an aquaponics self-cleaning fish tank, which means that the plants can sit on top of the tank.

Filters and pumps can then feed the plants everything they need straight from the water.
This way you get more room for your fish and get to have a nice garden on top.

If you do decide to use some underwater plant life, try not to overdo it.
Sometimes less is more, and a few plants here and there that are a secondary food source are more than enough.

5) Filters

Filters come either as separate tools or as part of the air pump.

Either way, they are essential in keeping the water as clean as possible.

Some gadgets are very high-tech and come with settings for different scenarios.
They can have alert systems to let you know when something is wrong. The filters are among the few things that will need your attention from time to time as they do need changing.
Check out our post here to find out more about aquarium filters.

If you are on a tight budget, you might need a no clean aquarium DIY solution.
Luckily, the same rudimentary things that have worked for humans in the past can work just as easily for fish.
This means that with a bit of charcoal and some ability you can have a self-cleaning filter take care of your aquarium.
This video may inspire you.

6) Light Source

Although there are marine life forms that survive and thrive deep in the oceans where light doesn’t reach, you won’t be getting any of those in your fish tank.
This means that for regular fish and plants you will need some natural light to penetrate the glass as much as possible.

The good news is that you won’t need artificial UV lights.
Most fish found in pet stores or specialty shops live on a day-and-night cycle just like us.
This means that as long as you provide them at least half a day of light, they will be just fine.

The light can come from any direction. You can top off the fish tank with a nice self-sustaining hydroponic garden as long as the fish still get light in from the sides.

The placement of the aquarium, as well as the use of crystal clear glass, are both essential.
If you need to integrate with artificial lighting, we suggest LED lighting. There are several option on the market specifically for planted tanks.

7) Décor

Décor can mean more than just plants.

There are many fancy looking toys and scenery items you can put inside a fish tank.
Pirate ships, scuba-divers, and treasure chests are just some of the popular choices you can find online at Amazon.

In most cases, none of these items contribute to a self-cleaning aquarium in any way, shape, or form.
They are usually just for visual purposes. If you do decide to use such decoration pieces, read the label very carefully to make sure they don’t contain any contaminants.

Avoid any items that have too much paint on them or that are made from easily eroding materials.

Even if you decide to use real shells and reef pieces, give them a thorough cleaning before introducing them in the tank.

8) Livestock

Gadgets, tanks, and plants are not the only things that matter when trying to create an aquarium.

The fish you choose to build a home for is just as important as anything else.
You need to take into account their species, size, and their own environmental requirements.

Some fish can only survive in a specific temperature range, so putting together compatible creatures is essential.

This not only prevents them from dying, but it also helps keep the water clean of dead critters.

Mollies and Nerite snails can help you take care of algae.
Having a few of these or other species that eat algae is essential if you don’t want to scrub the tank every week.

These critters will take care of any deposits that may form on the glass or on the pumps and filters.

Other fish are very useful because they can clean up after their friends.
The Hoplo Catfish, in particular, is excellent at picking up the rests of other tank mates food. This little guy doesn’t care too much about water temp, but he does enjoy hiding spots, so he will get along well with dense moss like plants.

How the Pieces Come Together

So how do all these pieces fit together like cogs to create a self-cleaning fish tank?

Well, let’s take it one step at a time, starting with the tank, of course.
To have a higher chance of success, consider getting at least a 60-gallon tank. This will ensure that you have more room to work with.

After you clean the tank, you should add in the substrate.
If you buy a pre-made mixture, you can add it from the bag; if not, add layers. If you choose to layer it, always go with smaller textures at the bottom and work your way up.

At this point, you should also consider what types of plants you want to use.
If you need them to regrow, consider using a higher layer of substrate. It will give you a better anchoring point, as well as store more nutrients for the plant life.

Now comes the hard part. After the initial bedding is prepped and planting spots are chosen, you need to arrange your filtering systems and attach the air pumps, temperature monitoring systems, and everything else that’s not living.

Placing decorations can also be done before you put in the water.

It is best to dump the water slowly to avoid disturbing the substrate as much as possible.

If you want to help jump-start the growth of micro-organisms, you can also mix in the water that came with the fish.

Adding snails or micro-critters should also be done before adding the fish.

After testing to see if all filters and pumps are working at optimum levels, check the temperature to make sure it’s safe.

Then you can add your fish one at a time.
This is the final stage in the process of setting up a self-cleaning aquarium.
You have your plants that feed on the substrate and the micro-critters that help facilitate this.
You can speed up the process by using some fish food flakes in the first few weeks. This will ensure that your fish are eating enough before the plants reach maturity and that the micro-critters are multiplying fast enough.

If at this point you have some sanitary fish, good filters, and air pumps, your only job will be to change the cloth for the filters and change water from time to time.
It is about as self-cleaning and self-sustaining as it gets.

Maintaining No-Clean Aquariums

When changing the water in the fish tank, you can go about it in a few different ways.
You can take most of it out and leave enough at the bottom so your fish are still underwater, or you can change a little bit from the top more often. This is where a temperature controller comes in handy.
You should do your best to avoid making drastic changes in the water temperature so it doesn’t send the fish into shock.

If you are using algae and micro-critters, you shouldn’t change too much of the water so you don’t disturb the balance of the ecosystem.
The food chain can suffer if you remove too many of the bacteria and critters.
As long as your food chain is well-established, you should have no issues with excess algae on the walls of the tank or the equipment.
Just three or four fish that thrive on eating this stuff are enough to keep a 60-gallon tank clean.

Easiest Fish to Take Care Of

Maintaining the food chain is not the only concern for a self-sufficient aquarium.
The fewer requirements the fish have, the easier it is to keep them healthy and thriving.

Here are some of the easiest water dwellers an owner can ask for.
They don’t need much attention, yet they contribute to the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Mollies

These little guys are very adaptable and make quite the friendly neighbors. They lack aggression and love eating algae. Because they help keep things clean and they don’t attack other fish, they are a fine addition to any aquarium, self-sustaining or otherwise.

Swordtail

The elongated shape of these colorful fish can add a layer of diversity to an aquarium. They aren’t the best cleaners, but their passive nature makes them good companions. Their lifespan is quite long and they don’t have strict dietary or environmental requirements.

Hoplo Catfish
image By Danny Steaven (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

These species are the ideal cleaners you want in a fish tank. They take care of most droppings from other fish and they also eat algae. Their appearance is a bit dull, but they make up for it with hard work.

Bristlenose Plecos
image By Anthony Corda (Canon T3 Camera by Anthony Corda) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

These weird-looking creatures are great for any large-sized fish tank. The can grow up to 15cm, get around fast, and eat lots of algae. If you decide to pick some of these up, make sure you have enough algae to keep them fed.

Platies
image credit: The original uploader was Dunkelfalke at German Wikipedia [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If you want colorful yet low-maintenance fish, then the Platies should be on your shopping list. They eat anything including algae and are passive in nature, which means that they don’t eat other fish. They come in multiple colors, so they can really make a fish tank look alive.

Bloodfin Tetra
image By Chronotopian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

These two-inch fish have a lifespan of over five years. They are active when in larger groups and the more room they have, the bigger their visual impact will be. They require almost no care, and given their size, they won’t eat your plants anytime soon.

Neon Tetra
image By Warrieboy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the Tetra family, these fish are some of the brightest colored you can get. They also thrive in groups of at least six and are active when they have enough room to swim. The long lifespan and low-maintenance nature make them a good investment and a great starter species to have.

Conclusion

A self-cleaning aquarium is about more than just low-maintenance.
It ultimately creates a thriving aquatic environment for fish, plant life, and micro-critters.
It comes as close as possible to recreating the real world, at least as far as fish are concerned.

Even if you don’t mind constantly working to keep the fish tank clean, trying to make a self-cleaning one will do more for the creatures living inside of it than you could ever do by hand.
Their food will be better than anything store-bought, the water cleaner, and the view a lot more spectacular.

Self Cleaning Aquarium. How to make a self-sustaining aquarium biosphere, How They Work and Why You May Want a Self-Cleaning Low Maintenance Aquarium.

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