Tips for a Low Maintenance Fish Tank
Aquariums have developed the reputation of being murky algae-covered death traps for fish. Unfortunately for many, busy lives do take over and the novelty of the new pet will fade over time and aquarium maintenance becomes a neglected household burden.
However, if you plan ahead you can set up your aquarium so that all it requires is a few minutes a week (or even every two weeks) of your attention. (Plus daily feeding, of course. But if you can't manage that then you shouldn't have a fish!)
This guide is designed for those who are running a tight daily schedule and have little interest in the detailed inner workings of aquarium chemistry and aquatic ecosystems. It is not a plan for no maintenance, but a plan for low maintenance. The lowest amount of maintenance you can get away with and still have a clean aquarium with healthy, happy fish.
Things to Avoid
- Do not overstock your tank. The 'one inch of fish per gallon' rule is okay, but if you're looking for low maintenance, go with less fish. Less fish equals less waste, which means less cleaning needs on your part.
- Avoid overfeeding. What goes in must come out. Not only does overfeeding produce more waste for your fish, leftover food will foul up the water, making it toxic and nasty for your underwater critters. Also, overfeeding can make your fish sick, which means more work for you (plus funeral costs are astronomical these days.)
- DO NOT GET A GOLDFISH. Not only are they awkward looking, ugly, and boring (in my opinion), but they are messy. These fish are the pigs of the aquarium world. They have a very high metabolism, producing a lot of waste, and they naturally grow to be huge. HUGE! Goldfish should ideally have ten gallons each, and in my opinion there are a lot more interesting, small, low maintenance fish that could be using those ten gallons. If you like goldfish then by all means, but be aware of what you're actually getting, and please give it the proper environment for its needs.
- Don't get a small tank. You would think that smaller tanks are less work, but in fact larger tanks are easier to maintain. The higher volume of water means the water chemistry and temperature will stay more stable, which means there is less chance of unhappy fish and sudden algae blooms.
Planning and Keeping a Low-Maintenance Tank
A few things to keep in mind when planning your tank:
- Place the aquarium away from direct sunlight to avoid excess algae growth.
- Get an algae eater. Siamese algae eaters, plecos, and certain types of catfish will eat algae but be careful what you choose as some are picky about the types of algae they eat. Always do a bit of research or ask the pet shop employees (who know what they're talking about - most don't), before purchasing your fish. Beware that some types of plecos get really big and will eventually need a bigger tank (or to be traded down at the store). Keep in mind, too, that the algae eater also produces waste and needs to be considered when you decide how many fish to buy.
- Over-filter and under-stock your aquarium. As mentioned before, less fish means less waste. Research the fish you are interested in and find the absolute maximum adult size of each fish, and go by that for the inch-per-gallon rule. Then when you add it all up, leave a few extra gallons for good measure. Then shop for your filter. Look at the filter flow rate when shopping, typically you want a filter that cycles all the water in your tank at least four times per hour, but for low maintenance choose a filter that's for a tank much bigger than yours. For example, I have a 46 gallon tank running with a filter rated for 45-70 gallons. The filter has a flow rate of 340 gallons per hour, which means it filters all the water in that tank about seven times every hour.
- Get a big tank. Not only will you be able to get much cooler fish, but the water will be stable and easier to maintain. All you'll need to do are 10-20% water changes every week or two. No big deal.
- Do partial water changes regularly. If you can, try to dedicate half an hour once every week or every other week (every week is easier to remember and much better for your tank). Use a gravel vacuum or some type of siphon to clean the gravel and drain about 10-20% of the water in the tank. You don't have to be too thorough with the gravel as long as it's done regularly. If you can commit to this small bit of maintenance, you'll save yourself a lot of headache in the future. If you have houseplants, use the fish water on them. They will love it, and since you'll eventually need to add more water to the tank, you will naturally be doing small, frequent water changes which are more ideal than a large change less often.
Adding an Algae Eater to your Aquarium
What about Plants and Snails?
Live plants can help keep your aquarium clean, BUT if your goal is minimal maintenance, avoid them. Having a planted tank is great for the health of your fish, because the plants will use up waste products and toxins produced by them, helping to naturally filter and balance out the water. They also use carbon dioxide and provide oxygen for your fish.
On the down side, however, plants require maintenance and care of their own. Many live plants grow like weeds and need pruning, and they also require proper lighting, water chemistry, and nutrients to flourish. Unfortunately these are the same conditions that promote algae growth and if you're not careful you may soon be looking regretfully at a wall of green algae.
If you want to try keeping plants that are hardy and don't require any extra effort, try starting with a Java Fern or ask your local fish store what kind of plants they have that are suitable.
What about snails?
Snails are another option for algae control, but they aren't ideal. Many types of snails are asexual and can take over your tank before you know it. You only need one snail and you could soon have hundreds or even thousands. Some types however, such as the Apple or Mystery snail, are not single parents, so you can keep one of these without worrying about an invasion.
Warning: some types of fish such as clown loaches and cichlids will eat snails so make sure you know your fish before spending money on snails.