Starting to feel like doing regular fishkeeping maintenance is less therapeutic and more of a hassle? Learn how to make a self-cleaning aquarium, and you can significantly cut down on time spent doing tedious tasks! How do you make a self-sustaining aquarium work?
A self-cleaning aquarium will require minimal human intervention. Live plants, livestock like fish & critters with a small bio-load, and the right gear are the basics of a self-sustaining tank.
A self-cleaning setup’s goal will be to establish a biological balance. How do you achieve this goal?
Mimic the conditions that your fish would survive and thrive in when in the wild. Natural water streams are free of human involvement, and fish have been doing just fine!
We fishkeepers interfere in the habitat of our pet fish because we put them in an enclosed environment. That’s why maintaining water quality at an ideal level feels like a constant balancing act.
Setting up a self-sustaining aquarium requires a bit more of an upfront effort, but it pays off big time in the long run. This article will guide you through the process!
What Is A Self-Cleaning Aquarium? How Does It Work?
A self-cleaning aquarium is set up to run on auto-pilot much longer than traditional tank setups could. The process involves a few key steps:
- Making sure tank conditions are stable and at a level that’s comfortable for the fish (temperature, oxygenation, circulation, etc.).
- Using the nitrogen cycle to purify the water by adding live plants that will use fish waste-derived compounds as food. This prevents nitrate build-up, keeping water quality high between less frequent water changes.
- Encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria by incorporating elements like textured filter media and a thick layer of substrate into the setup. Giving your self-cleaning aquarium time to cycle plays a big part in this step as well!
- Using fishkeeping equipment that’s geared towards self-sustainability – light fixtures, fertilizer dosing pumps, automatic feeders, etc.
Do self-cleaning aquariums work?
Short answer, YES!
Long answer, still yes, but with a bit of expectation management.
A self-cleaning, or self-sustaining, tank isn’t a project you can use a “set it and forget it” mindset on.
This tank is still an enclosed habitat that’s subject to all the things that can go wrong when we keep aquarium fish in captivity. Chemical imbalances, external factors, disease outbreaks, etc., are still possible if you completely neglect a self-cleaning aquarium.
The creativity that goes into making a self-sustaining tank will only cut back on the amount of hands-on cleaning you need to do. You’ll be able to reduce the frequency of most maintenance tasks.
But your pet fish will still heavily rely on you for some basic-care responsibilities:
- Testing the water weekly to make sure water quality parameters are within safe ranges;
- Performing regular water changes (less frequently, but still necessary!);
- Checking the fishkeeping gear for signs of wear & tear to avoid malfunctions;
- Changing filter media as recommended by the manufacturer;
- Fertilizing and pruning live plants;
- Monitoring your fish for signs of distress or disease.
Why Would You Want A Self-Cleaning/Self-Sustaining Aquarium?
Why would you want a self-cleaning aquarium? That one’s pretty obvious.
Even the most enthusiastic aquarists could use a break when it comes to cleaning routines.
Going longer between tank maintenance sessions (gravel siphoning, water changes, filter media changes) can save you loads of time.
Is fishkeeping your therapeutic outlet? Does it give you the chance to slow down and enjoy a less demanding activity? Then you’re probably wondering: “Why would anyone want a self-sustaining tank?”
There are a few reasons you might not be considering:
- The challenge – of making it work. Some aquarists just need to know they can do it. Figuring out how to balance all the moving parts of a living & breathing habitat is a challenge for any fishkeeper!
- Just in case – of an emergency, of a long weekend vacation, etc. With a self-sustaining aquarium, you won’t need to worry about finding a pet sitter. It requires minimal human intervention to maintain a biological balance. Add an automatic feeder in the mix too, and your fish tank will run on autopilot for a good chunk of time!
- When it’s one of many – a planted self-sustaining tank can allow you to put more effort into higher-maintenance aquariums (like a reef tank!). Fishkeepers know they have a hard time limiting themselves to just one tank!
How To Make A Self-Cleaning And Self-Sustaining Aquarium
Putting together a tank setup that’s as close to self-sustainability as possible is easier than it sounds.
And although self-cleaning aquarium kits are available on the market, you can 100% DIY your way through this project. Even as a novice aquarist!
Let’s get into the basics of a self-sustaining aquarium:
Choose the right tank size
Larger tanks make better candidates for self-cleaning aquariums. The more water your fish tank can hold, the smaller the chances of a chemical imbalance.
Even fluctuations in water parameters (temperature, pH) are less likely to cause your fish distress when in a larger capacity tank. And there’s more room for water purifying plants!
Add live aquarium plants
Live plants play a huge role in spacing out the need for frequent tank cleaning sessions. Plants use the compounds leftover from the nitrogen cycle as food. This prevents rising ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels from turning the water toxic.
They’re also excellent water oxygenators!
Add textured filter media to encourage nitrifying bacteria growth
Add a variety of filter media textures inside your tank’s filter (sponges, foam, ceramic rings, bio-balls, and other pre-filter media). Not only do these filter barriers keep the water clean by default, but they also make great breeding grounds for beneficial bacteria.
Cycle your self-sustaining tank
Before you can allow your self-cleaning aquarium to run with minimal human intervention, you need to see it through the cycling phase.
This is the stage where nitrifying bacteria will begin to break down fish waste and other debris, self-regulating the tank’s chemical balance.
Stock a self-cleaning aquarium wisely
The basic guidelines of stocking a self-sustaining tank are:
- Avoid overcrowding;
- Add new tank mates gradually;
- Choose fish species with a small bio-load;
- Add some cleaners (algae-eating fish & invertebrates);
- Keep reading for self-cleaning tank stocking combo suggestions & tips!
Add an automatic feeder for extra autonomy
If you’re looking to make your fish tank both self-cleaning and self-sustaining, an automatic feeder is the ultimate step! For hands-off feeding sessions, use a WIFI controllable automatic fish feeder.
Make sure you test this feeding system first. You’ll want to avoid overestimating how much food your fish can eat in 1-2 minutes. Excessive amounts of leftover food can cause the water in your self-cleaning tank to turn toxic.
Test the water in your self-cleaning aquarium periodically
Digital aquarium water testing kits can be a significant upfront investment when making a self-sustaining tank. A digital nitrate checker, or a pH tester, will save you money in the long run, as they are a one-time purchase.
You can, of course, use a set of strip test kits to monitor the water quality in your self-sustaining tank.
You’ll need to compare these values to the ideal ranges for the fish species that you’re keeping.
This is an easy way to see if you need to tweak your setup or if your self-cleaning aquarium works exactly as it should!
Best Equipment To Set Up A Self-Cleaning Aquarium
Most of the equipment that will set up your self-sustaining and self-cleaning aquarium for success are geared towards plant growth. Along with your algae eaters and the good bacteria, live plants will help keep the tank clean and the water quality high!
Here’s a list of the essential gear you’ll need to set up an efficient self-cleaning aquarium:
A reliable digital tank heater will not only prevent water temperature fluctuations but will also keep your live plants flourishing.
Plants need the proper water temperature, plenty of light, and nutrients to grow. So, a heater is the first step in ensuring your aquatic garden has the primary conditions needed to thrive.
For the well-being of both your fish and your live plants, a self-sustaining aquarium should be kept in a diurnal lighting setup. With at least 6-8 hours of exposure to light, but preferably in the range of 8-10 hours/day if possible.
Direct exposure to sunlight for 10 hours could trigger some nasty side effects, like an algae bloom or sudden swings in water temperature.
Setting your tank away from direct sunlight and installing LED lights with a timer is the way to go for self-sufficiency.
Fertilizer dosing pump
Aquarists know that keeping up with the nutrient needs of a planted tank is far from being a hands-off job. But if you’re looking to get fertilizing life plants off of your to-do list, a fertilizer dosing pump is an awesome investment.
You can program up to 6 channels to automatically release plant fertilizer and even medicine when needed. Fertilizing regularly will help your plants grow and stay healthy enough to play an important part in keeping the fish tank self-sustaining.
Depending on the type of plants you choose to keep in your self-cleaning tank, a CO2 kit might prove to be helpful. This type of system is especially useful in planted tanks with fast-growing plants.
Plants That Help Keep An Aquarium Clean
As the nitrogen cycle takes place, the good bacteria in your self-cleaning tank will convert fish waste into nitrates. While nitrates are not toxic themselves, they are deadly to fish if they accumulate.
What does the nitrogen cycle have to do with plants?
Nitrates are free-range plant nutrients. This means that when you’re adding live plants to a stocked fish tank, you’re laying the foundations of a symbiotic relationship.
Because plants are capable of assimilating nitrates as food, they help purify the water. This allows you to go longer between needing to perform water changes. A step closer to self-sufficiency!
With a reasonable stock of fish and critters, a heavily planted aquarium will need 10-15% water changes every two weeks.
Here’s a list of live aquarium plants that will help clean and purify the water in your self-sustaining tank:
Types of plants
Live aquarium plant suggestions
|Plants with fast growth rates – because these are the type of plants that will continuously consume nitrates and phosphates.||Duckweeds
Green Buce Plant
|Low maintenance plants that require less pruning and attention (Java Fern, Java Moss) are ideal if you’re new to planted aquariums.|
|Try to plan out the layout of your aquatic garden to include background, midground, and foreground plants.
This will help the water stay clean even if not all the areas in your tank get great circulation/aeration.
|Dense and bushy plants that help capture leftover food and debris. Your cleaners (cory catfish, shrimp) will happily clean off these plants when hungry.|
Self-Cleaning Planted Aquariums
Another way to have a tank that needs little maintenance is to set up a Walstad tank. These planted aquariums use a soil bottom and heavy plant growth.
Plants use nitrogenous waste as fertilizer. And the soil bed provides a place for your beneficial bacteria to grow. Pollutants are removed whenever you trim your plants!
These all-natural ecosystems can even be run without a filter! The main downside to a Walstad tank is that fish populations need to be kept low.
You also need proper plant lights that output PAR (photosynthetically active radiation). A solid grasp of aquarium chemistry, the nitrogen cycle, and fish biologiy is also crucial for success. Making a Walstad tank a good intermediate level system!
Best Fish & Invertebrates That Help Keep An Aquarium Clean
Wondering how you can include a live-in cleaning crew into the mix without overcrowding your self-sustaining tank?
Easy! Add invertebrates into the mix. They usually have a negligible bio-load, and they’re insatiable algae eaters.
Here’s a list of aquarium livestock that can help keep the plants, substrate, rocks, décor, and glass/acrylic panels squeaky clean:
|Cory Catfish||Nerite Snails|
|Bristlenose Plecos||Mystery Snails|
|Siamese Algae Eaters||Cherry Shrimp|
|Chinese Algae Eaters||Amano Shrimp|
|Otocinclus Catfish||Ghost Shrimp|
All living creatures, fish & invertebrates alike, are waste producers. It’s obvious why you would want to keep reasonably-sized non-messy tank mates in a self-cleaning aquarium.
But what makes the critters suggested above perfect candidates for a self-sustaining tank?
They’re no only low waste producers, but they also take on some of your tank maintenance chores:
In a self-sustaining aquarium, the presence of algae is beneficial, as it’s going to be the main course on the menu. When keeping algae eaters and critters with an herbivorous palette, you can go longer between feedings.
But algae overgrowth can ruin the aesthetics of any fish tank. Patches of algae can quickly turn decorations into undistinguishable green or brown mounds. An algae bloom will also turn your crystal-clear water into a cloudy green mess.
Keeping ravenous algae-eaters in a self-cleaning tank is the best form of hands-off algae control! Chinese algae eaters, Siamese algae eaters, Ghost shrimp, or Nerite snails will all happily feast on algae.
They help clean algae off décor items, your fishkeeping gear, glass/acrylic, and even off live plants.
Wondering how you can get out of your gravel siphoning duties in a self-cleaning tank? Cory Catfish, Bristlenose Plecos, and Otocinclus Catfish are the best candidates for this job! Mystery snails are also an excellent addition to the cleaning crew.
They will all scavenge through the substrate and eat any leftover food or sunken plant matter. This debris would otherwise start decomposing, negatively impacting water quality.
The best part about leaving substrate maintenance in the care of bottom dwellers? You won’t have to worry about disturbing the established culture of good bacteria that thrives in a planted tank’s substrate.
Getting rid of dead plant matter
Add a few live-in gardeners into your self-cleaning tank to keep all the live plants trimmed. Amano shrimp, Nerite snails, plecos, and pygmy Corydoras can make live plant upkeep effortless for you!
Herbivorous & omnivorous foragers will remove dead plant matter in a fish tank before it starts decaying. Rotting plants can easily throw off the chemical balance in a self-sustaining tank as they convert into excess ammonia/nitrites.
So, although you might not be the biggest catfish or snail fan, they’re invaluable when setting up a low-maintenance planted aquarium. If you’re worried about having to deal with snail infestations, just avoid overfeeding! Excess leftover fish food is the main culprit to spikes in snail populations.
Even with plant eaters on your staff, your aquatic garden will require a bit of hands-on effort. You’ll still have to prune fast-growing plants or plants that you want to stay short & bushy.
But you won’t have to be as meticulous when it comes to aquarium plant care as you would in a regular tank. Any loose trimmings will get eaten!
Fish & Invertebrates | Livestock Combos For A Self-Sustaining Aquarium
We’ve already discussed how to stock a self-sustaining aquarium:
- Avoid overstocking;
- Add fish and critters gradually;
- Test water parameters after the new additions have settled in;
- Give your self-cleaning tank a live-in cleaning crew;
- Choose livestock with small bio-loads.
Tank mate compatibility plays a huge part in how happy & healthy your fish will be in the long run. Monitoring a fin-nipper or deciding when to isolate a tank bully doesn’t fit into aquarium self-sufficiency. That’s why a small yet peaceful community of compatible tank mates is key!
Here are a few factors to consider when researching stocking combos for a self-sustaining tank:
|Choose peaceful, non-territorial fish to stock a self-sustaining tank.|
|Behavior||Avoid pairing shy fish with nosey species. Tiger barbs will harass guppies, for example.
Species are compatible, but you have a shy individual in your tank? Add hiding spots to give the outcast a few safe areas to retreat to.
|Schooling/Shoaling behavior||Shy and nervous fish (schooling fish species in general) should be kept in groups of 6 or more.
This cuts down on stress levels, keeping their immune systems in peak condition.
|Breeding behavior||If you’re adding livebearers to your self-cleaning aquarium, aim for a 1:3 male to female ratio.
Molly, Guppy, and Endler’s Livebearer males will harass females if one male’s attention isn’t divided by the presence of at least 3 females.
|Diet||Omnivorous fish are pretty easy to keep fed and content, but you don’t want them to have to compete for food.
Get a few bottom dwellers in the same tank as mid to top-level feeders, and you’ll avoid a feeding frenzy.
|Tank conditions||Make sure the species you’re keeping together share the same water parameter preferences.
This will require a bit of research, but you’ll have less stressed fish in the end.
The fish should all be comfortable in the same pH, temperature, GH (water hardness), alkalinity ranges.
|Size||Obviously, don’t keep extremely large fish with considerably smaller tank makes.|
|Instincts||Don’t keep predators in the same tank as fish they might consider as prey.
A hungry carnivore can thin out the stock in your self-sustaining aquarium.
Here are a few self-cleaning tank stocking combos that fit the guidelines listed above:
Self-sustaining Tank Stocking
Self-sustaining Tank Stocking
Self-sustaining Tank Stocking
|Molly Fish||Swordtail Fish||Platy Fish|
|Cory Catfish||Neon Tetras||Guppy Fish|
|Bloodfin Tetras||Siamese Algae Eaters||Mystery Snails|
|Cherry Shrimp||Nerite Snails||Bristlenose Plecos|
Pros & Cons Of A Self-Cleaning Aquarium
|Less time spent cleaning the aquarium.||Requires more effort during the initial set-up.
Planting live plants, setting up the gear, cycling the tank, and stocking it gradually to avoid nitrogen cycle imbalances all require some effort.
|Fewer products are used to keep the water crystal clear & the glass/acrylic panels clean.||Limited livestock options.
Regardless of its size, a self-sustaining aquarium will be inefficient if stocked with messy fish (like goldfish!).
|Less human intervention equals less stress for fish. Much like life in the wild!||Store-bought self-cleaning aquarium kits can be pricey if you’re reluctant to make a DIY self-cleaning aquarium.|
|Less chances of sudden changes in water parameters inside a self-sustaining aquarium.||It can get ruined just as easily as a regular tank if you neglect it altogether.
A tank remains an enclosed habitat that depends on your basic contributions (water changes, protections against gear malfunctions, etc.).
|With less hands-on cleaning come significantly fewer chances of disturbing the established culture of nitrifying bacteria.|
Once you DIY your way through setting up a self-cleaning aquarium, you’ll see there’s nothing to it!
Self-sustaining tanks require some extra gear, and they can limit your stocking options.
But they are considerably less time-consuming than regular setups.
Periodic water changes, testing aquarium water parameters weekly, and a few other monthly gear check-ups? Way shorter task list than a tedious weekly maintenance routine!
The nitty-gritty parts of fishkeeping can be off-putting for those of us short on time. If this applies to your lifestyle, then a self-cleaning tank might be an excellent choice for you.
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