How to Create and Maintain a Minimal-Maintenance Aquarium

low-maintenance aquarium

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A happy fish home is a healthy fish home. In order to maintain a healthy fish environment, any fish owner is going to have to get wet. "Self-sustaining" aquariums may sound idyllic, but, unfortunately, due to their artificial nature, any fish tank will require at least some maintenance. But there are ways that you can minimize how much time and effort your fish tank requires.

Tank Setup

Start out by designing your ideal tank setup. Do you want it to look a certain way? Fit in a certain spot? Feature a certain kind of fish? Pick one priority and stick to it. If you’re looking at certain décor, size or space, you will need that to limit your fish selection. If you have a particular range of occupants in mind, be sure to do your research to see how much space they need, if they get along together both inter- and intraspecies, and what environment would best suit them.

Could You Go Bigger?

Once you pick your tank, décor and inhabitants, do you think you could increase the volume? Keep in mind that more water equals more weight on whatever surface you have chosen. However, more water will allow more flexibility in maintenance. Greater volume and fewer fish will keep your bio-load low and allow you to stretch a little longer between water changes.

Filtration Is Key

Most tank filters are marketed towards certain size tanks. You pick the one where your tank falls into range. But by choosing a filter that exceeds the capacity of your tank, you allow more water to be filtered, again, buying you some more flexibility in your maintenance routine. Too big a filter will push your fish around! Try for a filter that is one and a half times the size of your tank.

If you’ve already got a filter working, do you have room to add some another? Never remove a filter and replace it with a completely new one no matter what the packaging says! It will take up to four to six weeks before your filter is up and running.


The bigger your tank, the more filtration you have and fewer fish, and the easier maintenance will be.

Your Minimal Maintenance Routine

Rinse Your Filters

The frequency in which you rinse your filters will depend on how many fish you have, how much they are fed and how much filtration your tank has. Don’t wait until the flow slows to clean out your filter media. This will only increase the work your pump has to do, overload them and cause them to need to be replaced sooner. Remember, you never want your filter media to be pretty and sparkling clean. Good bacteria that support your nitrogen cycle live in your filter media and blasting them clean with chlorinated water will kill the colonies you worked so hard to grow.

Rinse your filter media in waste aquarium water or gently in treated tap water of the same temperature. A healthy filter will not be sparkling clean or odor-free. Rinse until the water runs through easily.

Check Your Water Quality

Once your system is established—no new fish, food or equipment in the last three months—your water parameters should follow a predictable cycle. Your water chemistry parameters will tell you all about the health of your aquarium. Buy a reliable, liquid-based test kit and practice with it a few times to be sure you are able to test correctly. Most of your maintenance will be determined by your nitrate levels. Nitrate is the end of your nitrogen cycle and is toxic to fish when it builds up. Individual species will have different tolerances to nitrate levels, so know in advance what levels your fish can handle.

Rinse your filter media in waste aquarium water or gently in treated tap water of the same temperature. A healthy filter will not be sparkling clean or odor-free. Rinse until the water runs through easily.

Water Changes

Since your nitrate has nowhere to go, unless you have a few live plants to assist, you will need to take some old water out and put new water back in. Keep in mind that you will need a lot of plants in order to make a significant impact in your nitrate readings. You will also need to trim plants of dead leaves on a regular basis or your recycled nitrates will turn back into ammonia.


Use your gravel siphon to get down into the crevices of your substrate to remove excess waste and other debris. Your captured waste water can be used to rinse filter media and is great houseplant/veggie garden food.

Unfortunately, it is hard to avoid all maintenance on an aquarium. "Self-sufficient" systems only exist in the wild where they have numerous trophic levels and environmental influences. For artificial aquarium environments, you will have to get a little bit wet in order to best take care of your aquatic pets. By taking a few extra steps at the beginning, you can save yourself lots of stress and wasted time, setting up a system you barely have to work on and can spend more time enjoying.

Shopping List

Before setting up your aquarium, determine which is more important: The size of your tank or the species you want. Once you decide, keep a basic shopping list on hand to make sure you have the bare essentials.