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, 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!)
An Easy, Low-Maintenance Plan for Busy Fish Owners
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, keep fewer fish. Fewer fish equals less waste, which naturally reduces the need for cleaning.
- Avoid overfeeding. 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 friends. Overfeeding can also make your fish sick, and funeral costs for fish are astronomical these days.
- Avoid goldfish! Goldfish are the piggies of the aquarium world. They have a very high metabolism, producing a lot of waste, and they naturally grow to be huge. Goldfish should ideally have ten gallons each. There are a lot more interesting, lower maintenance fish that could be using those ten gallons. If you really want to keep goldfish, just be aware of what you're actually getting, and please give them the proper habitat.
- Don't get a small tank. Larger tanks are actually a lot easier to maintain than small ones. The higher volume of water means the water chemistry and temperature will stay more stable, and the tank will function more easily as a mini ecosystem with the ability to self-clean, to a certain extent.
Planning and Keeping a Low-Maintenance Aquarium
There are a few things to keep in mind when planning your tank:
- Place the aquarium away from direct sunlight to reduce algae growth.
- Add 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 staff in a reputable aquarium shop before purchasing your fish. Beware that some types of plecos grow very large 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 stock your tank with.
- Under-stock your aquarium. As mentioned before, fewer 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.
- Over-filter your aquarium. After you've researched your fish, 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 designed 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. This was mentioned already but is worth restating. The water in a larger tank will be more stable and easier to maintain. 10-20% water changes every week or two can be your entire maintenance and this is easily accomplished by using aquarium water on your house plants (see next point).
- Do partial water changes regularly. Once every week or two, 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 stay on top of this small bit of maintenance, your tank will stay nice indefinitely with no need for major clean-up projects at all.
- If you have house plants, use the fish water on them (turn your home into an ecosystem!). The plants 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 better for the fish and easier for you than occasional major clean-outs.
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, helping to naturally filter and balance out the water. They also use carbon dioxide and provide oxygen for your fish. It is tempting to think that plants are the key to setting up a perfectly self sufficient, no-maintenance, mini-ecosystem.
Problems With Plants
However, plants require maintenance and care of their own, and creating a mini-ecosystem is a delicate balancing act that requires good knowledge of all the different components and variables involved:
- Many aquatic plants will grow enthusiastically in the right conditions and can grow out of control if not managed.
- Dead plant material can build up and alter the water chemistry and microbiome in the tank.
- Plants also require sufficient lighting and nutrients to flourish. 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 for a low maintenance tank.
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 may buy one snail but soon end up with hundreds or even thousands taking over your tank. Some types, however, such as apple or mystery snails, require a partner to breed, 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 adding snails to your tank.