Tips for a Low Maintenance Fish Tank

Updated on January 23, 2015
Many aquariums end up like this. Image from
Many aquariums end up like this. Image from

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Larger tanks are actually easier to maintain.
Larger tanks are actually easier to maintain.

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.


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    • profile image

      Michelle 3 months ago

      Good article but our personnal opinion should be kept to ourselves in this kind of writing

    • profile image

      Stephane 13 months ago

      Thanks you very much for all these information. What could be a nice starter kit not expensive and low maintenance (model, and filter model) i'm looking for 20 gallon tanks

    • profile image

      Amy 17 months ago

      I set my tank up with a small aquaponics filter grow bed that I grow herbs in and I don't ever clean it. I've not cleaned a tank in a year :-) just add water on occasion!

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 2 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      thank you for an informative read. I just recently bought my daughter a fish tank as a house warming gift. Your suggestions will come in handy. thanks for all of the info

    • profile image

      Jamie 2 years ago

      I disagree about goldfish. Boring? Quite the opposite. I keep a tank in the lobby of the preschool where I work and the kids and parents love it. The goldfish are a very "friendly" fish. They always come up to the side of the tank when people watch them. The children love them because they are slow, colorful and easy to see. Their mutated swimming abilities are humerous as well. I'll admit that they are dirtier though. I keep 2 in a 20 gallon and will eventually upgrade to a bigger tank. I have a large filter and do a 20% water change weekly. Not too much of a hassle.

    • profile image

      duh 4 years ago

      bad hub

    • musictunes profile image

      Kris Weber 4 years ago from Saint Cloud, Minnesota

      Goldfish are crazy hard to filter their water and they are messy too! I never knew the fact about having twice the water volume for your filter as what your tank is. I always thought it was just buy what size you have and it will keep up. Lesson learned. Wanna check out my betta tank? Here is a video of me feeding them.

    • profile image

      Oto Otopus 5 years ago

      Good advice, although it's really not necessary to feed your fish every day. Every other day or 3 is just fine, albeit slower growth rates. Regarding size of aquarium: yes, bigger the better and much easier to maintain. I usually clean my 50 gallon once every 3 weeks and my 10 gallon once per week. Slower growth rates of the fish, but no problems, nor algae issues.

      In fact, I've gone on one week vacations (8 days) before and left the fish completely unattended. When I got back, every fish was still alive and well. The only change I noticed was a decreased water level due to evaporation, yet not even close to putting the filters in danger.

      I can't recommend a Bristlenose Pleco. enough. These little fellas are algae workhorses throughout their entire life, unlike the common Pleco. A little piece of zucchini or spinach once a week is plenty for him/her to survive quite well, in addition to a piece of driftwood to chew on.

      Plants generally require a fair degree of knowledge and maintenance with a few exceptions such as Java Fern, Anubias species and perhaps some floating water sprite. I've had 1 Anubias Nana plant in my 10 gallon, that has grown very slowly over the course of 10 years. I don't fertilize or inject CO2, so that's one plant I could recommend and is an easy way to 'prettify' your tank, and not worry about plant maintenance.

      Species: Forget Neon tetras. Cardinal tetras are far more resilient. Rummy-nose tetras are great too and are an excellent indicator of water quality. When the water is clean and to their liking, their 'noses' will go red. When the water quality diminishes, the reddish 'nose' will fade.

      Livebearers such as swordtails or mollies are an option too and quite hardy. Although they can get a decent size, upwards of 3+ to 4 inches.

      I've never had much luck with Gouramis, but Cichlids, either African or South/Central American can be hardy and live a very long life. 8+ yrs. is not unusual in an aquarium environment.

      Right now, I've got 8 dwarf neon rainbowfish, 3 swordtails, 2 Firemouth cichlids and 1 bristlenose pleco in the 50 gallon. It's a relatively peaceful viewing experience. Something I prefer versus the neurotic African cichlids.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      I couldn't agree with you more on your goldfish comment. They are not as colorful or attractive as many smaller aquarium fish.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      We had a marine tank for 3 years. It was recently sold on Ebay as unfortunately we had no time to look after it. I really miss the bright clownfish, birdnose and angels but if you don't have time to look after them its unfair to the fish. I hope the new owner of our tank reads your hub, its great advice.

    • Cagsil profile image

      Cagsil 8 years ago from USA or America

      Great Hub! Well written and very informative. Thank you so much. I learned something new today and now know where to come back, whenever I do decide to buy a tank. :)

    • Katelyn Weel profile image

      Katelyn Weel 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      LOL At first I thought I was getting in trouble.. hahah. No goldfish drive me crazy they are a monstrosity.. especially those ones with the nasty bubble heads. Yuck.

      Thanks for the comment :)

    • GeneralHowitzer profile image

      Gener Geminiano 8 years ago from Land of Salt, Philippines

      Many would get angry with you especially with those fish afficionados who love goldfish and there is a lot of 'em but not me hehehe. I love tetras, gouramis, oscars and cichlids, but not goldfish... Thanks for sharing this great hub of yours, as a fish tank enthusiast your hub indeed gives great insight about fish keeping... Goodluck!

    • Katelyn Weel profile image

      Katelyn Weel 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks, Ripplemaker! Too bad about the aquarium, maybe you'll try again with better luck next time :)

      Thanks for posting the hub nuggets link too. Have a great day

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 8 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hi Katelyn, gosh, we have an aquarium in our house and it is situated outside. My eyes kept popping wide as I read what should and should not be done. Bookmarking this hub. :)

      The excitement of the Hubnuggets can't be contained. So I'm letting out a big whooping cheer for you right here, right now. Congratulations --- Whooooppeeee! Get into the Hubnugget fever and vote and promote okay?

      The link:

    • Katelyn Weel profile image

      Katelyn Weel 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you, Jeffrey! I keep the same cichlids and yes they are a lot of maintenance.. definitely not a beginner fish but I love them.. I don't have too many, though and they get along okay.

      Thanks for the feedback

    • Jeffrey Neal profile image

      Jeffrey Neal 8 years ago from Tennessee

      Good Hub! Maintenance was the main factor causing me to give most of my fish became too much. I kept Malawian African cichlids, and they have to be packed in to curb their aggression. I was cleaning the tank and filter weekly! Beautiful fish, though. Now I just have a plecotomus and an African catfish, so they are much lower metabolism and easier to manage. Good luck with the Hubnugget Wannabees!