How Self Cleaning Aquariums Work
An aquarium that cleans itself. Sounds like a dream, doesn't it?! After all, who actually enjoys spending a couple hours cleaning their aquarium every week or two? That's why we created this step-by-step guide to help others build a self cleaning aquarium that requires low maintenance.
Aquarium hobbyists have always dreamed of creating a self sustaining and self cleaning aquarium environment. One where our fish and plants can live together in harmony with little human interference. The good news is that with enough creativity as well as the right equipment, plants, and fish species, you can make a self sustaining aquarium.
Many different things play a part in this process. From the fish and other creatures not eating each other to the pumps providing enough air and the controllers maintaining the right temperature and oxygen levels.
Why You May Want A self cleaning aquarium
Regardless of how big your aquarium is, keeping it clean takes time and energy.
Just as you would clean up after a cat, or take a dog out for a walk, taking care of a fish requires things like cleaning air pumps, changing water filters, changing the water, and vacuuming the substrate from time to time. This is time consuming and hard work.
Building a self cleaning aquarium will help free up time for you to spend with family or to pursue other hobbies you love.
An self sustaining aquarium can also make going on vacation easier. You won't have to worry about cleaning your tank or watering your plants.
Check out the video below to see how awesome a self sustaining fish tank can be!
Drawbacks to building a Self Cleaning Aquarium
If the tank works as it should, then you won't have to worry about any drawbacks.
However, the process of setting up a self sustaining aquarium and/or picking out the right parts to make your own can be time consuming and complicated. Making a self cleaning aquarium is also typically more expensive than buying an ordinary fish tank.
You should think of this extra effort and money as a long-term investment that will pay off over time.
What Is a self sustaining Aquarium?
Regular aquariums require you to change the water very often. Usually once every week or two. Normal fish tanks also need to have the substrate cleaned from time to time. Changing the water or cleaning the substrate often requires you to move fish from one tank to another. This can result in a high amount of stress on your fish.
With a low maintenance aquarium, you usually do not have to change the water or clean the substrate as often. This can result in a healthier environment for the fish as well as reduce your chore list.
A self sustaining aquarium also establishes a natural food chain where the fish tank can take care of itself with little human intervention.
The Best Self Sustaining Aquarium Kit
If you just want to purchase the best pre-made self sustaining and self cleaning aquarium, we recommend the AquaSprouts Garden kit on Amazon. A lot of people besides us have had great success with this kit. Not only is this aquarium kit a real decorative piece for your home, but you can also grow organic herbs or other plants.
We covered this kit in more depth in this review here.
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Last update on 2022-10-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
What You Need to Make a Self Cleaning Aquarium
So you want to make a self cleaning aquarium from scratch. You will need to put together the standard list of fish tank equipment .
1) Fish Tank
The first thing you need to decide on is what size tank you want. Tank size plays an important role and larger tanks generally work better than smaller tanks.
We recommend something in the 30-200 gallon range. Tanks in this size range have a more ideal ratio of water-fish-plant ratio.
If you want to find out more about the various types of fish tanks, check out our Fish Tank Section.
Top-rated 55 gallon tank on Amazon
Some people underestimate the impact that substrate has on an aquatic environment.
The sand, soil, and gravel that make up your substrate are essential for cultivating the right amount of bacteria in a fish tank. It also ensures that all the bacteria stay at the bottom instead of reaching the plants or damaging the air filtration system. Substrate also provides a rooting medium and nourishment for any plants in your aquarium.
If you also want to sustain plant life in your 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.
A beginner aquatic enthusiast may overlook the water aspect of an aquarium. This is a huge mistake. You cannot fill your tank with untreated tap water. Depending on the species, some fish can have specific requirements for temperature, pH level, salinity, etc. Make sure you have a high-qualtiy water testing kit. We recommend the API Freshwater Master Test Kit on Amazon.
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, can serve as an extra food source for baby fish, and are easily available on Amazon. 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 should also consider an aquaponics setup with plants on top of the tank. Depending upon how you set your system up, filters and pumps can feed water to the plants. The roots of these plants will help clean the water.
Plants on top of your tank also make for a nice decorative piece as well as can provide some fresh vegitables or hebts.
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.
Filters come in all shapes and sizes. They can either be a separate element or part of the air pump system. They are essential for helping to keep the water clean as well as to provide oxygen to the fish.
Some filters 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 filter will still need your attention from time to time as the filtration material will need to be changed or cleaned regularly.
For a much more in-depth discussion on aquarium filters check out our article here to learn more.
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 the regular fish and plants in your tank will need as much natural light to penetrate the glass 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. This makes the placement of the aquarium, as well as the use of crystal clear glass, an essential element in building a self cleaning fish tank.
If you want or need to integrate some with artificial lighting as well, we suggest LED lighting. There are several option on the market specifically for planted tanks as well. Our top-pick and a best-seller on Amazon is the NICREW ClassicLED Aquarium Light. It comes in a bunch of different sizes so there is sure to be one to fit your tank.
Decor can mean more than just plants.
There are many other fun and playful toys and ornaments that you can put inside your fish tank. You can find a ton of options on Amazon - including ornaments ranging from a pirate ships to a treasure chest or a scuba-diver to a Greek statue.
None of these items contribute to a self-cleaning aquarium in any way, shape, or form. But they are fun to look at. 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 materials that will corrode easily.
Even if you decide to use real shells and reef pieces, give them a thorough cleaning before introducing them to the tank.
Equipment, tanks, and plants are not the only things that matter when trying to create an self cleaning aquarium.
The fish you choose to build a home for are 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 species is essential.
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 help take care of any deposits that may form on the glass or on the pumps and filters.
Other fish that are very useful in helping to clean up after their friends include 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.
Putting a self cleaning aquarium together
So how do all these pieces fit together to create a self-cleaning fish tank?
Once you've identified and purchased a tank (hopefully at least a 60-gallon tank to give yourself enough room to work with) it must be cleaned. This is essential for preventing contaminants that may harm your mini ecosystem.
After the tank is clean, 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 are going with rooted plants, 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 or ornaments can also be done before you put in the water.
It is best to fill the tank with water slowly to avoid disturbing the substrate and plantings as much as possible.
If you want to help jump-start the growth of micro-organisms, you can also mix in the water that the fish came in.
Adding snails or micro-critters should also be done before adding the fish.
After testing to see if all the filters and pumps are working at optimum levels, check the temperature to make sure it’s safe. If the water temperature is between 75F and 80F (24-27C), then it is safe to add the fish one at a time.
This is the final stage in the process of setting up a self-cleaning aquarium.
You should continue to feed your fish regularly for the first few weeks. This will allow your plants to reach maturity and your microorganisms to start multiplying fast enough to sustain your algae-eating fish and other critters.
Once you have established a food chain your only job will be to change the filter material and water from time to time. That is about as self-cleaning and self-sustaining as it gets!
Maintaining Self Cleaning 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 replace 10-20% of the water 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. The occasional use of an magnetic algae pad can also help (see 12 Creative Hacks to Keep Your Fish Tank Clean for how to make one).
The best fish for self cleaning aquariums
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 and the less work you will have to do.
Here are some of the easiest freshwater fish that an owner can ask for. They don’t need much attention, yet they contribute to the sustainability of the ecosystem.
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.
The elongated shape of these colorful fish can add a layer of diversity to an aquarium. Swordtails aren’t the best cleaners, but their passive nature makes them good companions. Swordtail's lifespans are quite long and they don’t have strict dietary or environmental requirements.
Hoplo catfish are the ideal cleaners for a fish tank. They take care of most droppings from other fish and they also eat algae. Hoplo's appearance is a bit dull, but they make up for it with hard work.
These weird-looking creatures are great for any large-sized fish tank. Bristlenose Plecos 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.
If you want colorful yet low-maintenance fish, then the Platies should be on your shopping list. Platies 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.
These two-inch fish have a lifespan of over five years. Bloodfin Tetra's 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.
A self cleaning aquarium is about more than just low maintenance. It is about creating a thriving aquatic ecosystem for fish, invertebrate, plant life, and microorganisms. It comes as close as possible to recreating the natural environment in an aquarium.
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.