How to Make A Self-Sustaining Aquarium (A Complete Step-By-Step Guide)

Self Sustaining Aquarium guide

It takes you a significant amount of time and effort to keep your aquarium clean, regardless of its size. With a regular aquarium tank, you will have to change the water and other components often. And cleaning is a mandatory task for successful aquarium keeping. 

Apparently, you will end up changing their environment from time to time because of cleaning, which results in stress. Fishkeeping is exciting, but too much labor for it? None enjoy this boring part. 

Experts invest their brains in finding alternatives to make this fun hobby a hassle-free one! And not in vain; self-sustaining aquariums are an excellent idea. 

What If You Experiment with A Self-Sustaining Aquarium?

Imagine an aquarium that cleans itself can save a couple of hours and energy as well. It really sounds amazing! Most aquarium enthusiasts have always anticipated creating a self-sustaining fish tank. With such an aquarium, you will have enough time to focus on other projects, and you can plan for trips without worrying about your underwater friend.

For beginners and pro aquarists alike, building a self-sustaining aquarium can present a significant challenge. Creating an autonomous tank can be pretty simple; however, striking a balance among fish species, live plants, and control equipment can be tricky. This guide is meant to help you build a self-sustaining aquarium that needs minimal maintenance. Here we go; keep reading!!!

What Is A Self-Sustaining Fish Tank?

At its core, a self-sustaining or self-cleaning aquarium is a fish tank designed such that you don’t have to change the water or clean the substrate more frequently. Typically, this aquarium establishes a self-sustaining food chain where it rewards by taking care of itself.

Unlike in a regular aquarium, where you need to change the water and clean substrate often, you will have a low frequency of cleaning with this self-cleaning aquarium. Also, you will save your fish from a high amount of stress. A self-cleaning aquarium will save you considerable time and effort while offering your fish a healthier environment.

Types of Self-Sustaining Aquarium

There are several ways to make a self-cleaning aquarium. The philosophy behind a self-sustaining or self-cleaning aquarium is, you’ll arrange the best control and the best combination of aquarium items that will establish a self-cleaning system.

An aquarium cannot be 100% self-sustaining, to be frank. But it will be less maintenance requiring than a typical aquarium, as I said before.

The most popular methods of making self-cleaning aquariums are the aquaponic fish tank, gravity-based technique & traditional tank with three-stage filtration.

Aquaponic Fish Tank

Aquaponic Fish Tank Aquarium

This is one of the popular ways of making a self-cleaning aquarium. An aquaponic fish tank is where you can create a natural harmony with fish, plants & water. It contains a grow-bed with plants at the top & water underneath.

Water with waste is pumped into the plant’s grow-bed, bacteria present there convert wastes into plants’ nutrients. Waste-free clean water then cycles back again into the fish tank. 

With an Aquaponic fish tank, you can be creative while choosing aquarium plants. Besides conventional plants, you can grow herbs or some other edible items. So, it’s a good idea to start your self-cleaning aquarium journey by creating an aquaponic fish tank.

Moreover, you can convert your existing aquarium into an aquaponic one. Check one of my guest posts on how to convert a home aquarium into an aquaponic tank

Gravity Flow Technique

The gravity-based method is not so common in fishkeeping. However, it works on the principle of physics. With this method, fish wastes, leftover foods & debris sinks at the bottom, slip past through the substrates & accumulate in the reservoir tank.

A tube connects the reservoir, extends up to the top of the main tank & out from the side.

When you need to clean the main tank, just pour some clean water, which forces the dirty water out through the extended tube by siphoning. You don’t need to remove decor, gravel, or anything else to clean the fish tank.

There are some fish tanks available made on this principle. Moreover, If you own a conventional tank, YES, you guessed it right; still, you can create a similar self-cleaning tank with a siphon tube.

Three-Stage Filtration Method

Three-stage filtration is very common to fishkeepers & already a proven method to maintain clean & clear water in the fish tank. You can make a self-cleaning aquarium of minimal maintenance with this method as well. 

You need to buy a bigger size filter for your fish tank so that you can minimize the frequency of cleaning the filter unit & water change requirements. Suppose you own a 30-gallon tank, buy a filter specified for 50 to 60 gallons.

You can also add aquarium plants to create a natural ecosystem into the aquarium since plants help reduce the water’s toxic materials.

What Do You Need to Make A Self-Sustaining Aquarium?

Now you know what a self-cleaning fish tank is, and you want to go ahead and build one from scratch. Awesome. This is all you need to do before starting the process.

1. Fish Tank

fish tank for self sustaining aquarium tales

Basically, a fish tank is the first thing you need to set up a self-sustaining aquarium. You will need to select the right size for your ecosystem. When deciding on the size, keep in mind that the tank’s size plays an essential role in maintaining.

Significantly larger tanks are easy to maintain as you can include multiple diverse species and offer a nearly perfect water-fish-plant ratio. Regardless of the size you pick, it must be clear to let in light. Buying a tank ranging from 30 to 200 gallons is recommended. But if you are a first-timer, I’ll recommend you some smaller aquarium kits within 5 – 20 gallon to start with. 

You can buy a plain fish tank of crystal clear glass, then add necessary accessories to make your self-sustaining tank. Moreover, you can buy pre-equipped fish tank builds, especially for making self-sustaining aquariums.

One of the best pre-equipped tanks I recommend is the AquaSprouts Garden kit, which is the most popular one, functions based on the aquaponic technique. It is equipped with light, a pump, a timer, and a grow bed for plants. This is not the actual aquarium, but it is a garden kit that fits in a 10-gallon aquarium. So, along with this kit, you need to buy a 10-gallon fish tank.

The second pre-equipped aquaponic garden kit I recommend is the ECO-Cycle Aquaponics Indoor Garden System. It fits on a 20-gallon tank, and the working principle is similar to the first one. Additionally, this garden kit features more advanced LED lighting to encourage your plant’s growth.

I recommend the other two best pre-made tanks are the ‘Aqueon Fish Aquarium Starter Kits’ & ‘Back to the Roots Water Garden, Self-Cleaning Fish Tank.’ Aqueon Fish Aquarium Starter Kits is a 10-gallon glass aquarium equipped with LED lights, 50W Preset Heater, pro filter, plants, multi-colored gravel & includes some other things like water conditioner, fish food, etc.

Back to the Roots Water Garden, Self-Cleaning Fish Tank is a 5-gallon nano aquarium, featured with an award-winning ecosystem. What I love most about this item is, it comes with everything. You don’t need to buy a separate tank and all the necessary things for an aquaponic system like Organic Microgreen Seeds, D-Klor and Zym-Bac, Growstones, etc. 

My 4 recommended tanks

Although the pre-equipped starter kits don’t match with the recommended size (30 to 200 gallons) for self-sustaining aquariums, still it’s not a bad idea at all to start with. Since you may find buying accessories separately if you are a beginner is a hassle, a pre-equipped one can be a good option for you.

If you have already had some experience, I’ll suggest starting your self-cleaning aquarium with the recommended tank size.

2. Substrate

Substrate for self sustaining fish tank

You need to get some sand, soil, and gravel for your aquarium. Although some people underestimate the substrate’s role, it is imperative, and for this case, you must have one for a self-sustaining fish tank.

Besides being a rooting medium for aquarium plants, it helps cultivate an ideal amount of bacteria needed in the fish tank. It is also the substrate that keeps your plants and filtration system safe by ensuring the produced bacteria stays at the bottom.

Make sure to get mineral-rich substrate to flourish plant life, or you can buy from amazon. Among the several items, I recommend Flourite, CaribSea Eco-Complete & Activ-Flora Floracor.

3. Water

water self sustaining tank

You need treated water for your self-sustaining aquarium. Depending on the species you want to keep, you will need to meet specific pH levels, temperature ranges, and salinity requirements. Always ensure to use high-quality water testing for accurate results.

I would recommend the API Freshwater Master Test Kit. It’s a complete package. For routine monitoring of water parameters like ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, etc., you’ll find this test kit is pretty handy & user-friendly.

4. Live plants

live plants for self sustaining tank

Remember, a self-sustaining aquarium is an establishment of a natural food chain. Therefore, you will need to have the right plants for your fish tank. If you have a relatively smaller tank, you may need to consider plants that do not grow too much. Also, it is ideal for picking plants that are pretty easier to maintain.

Plants add much value to your aquarium. They help to create a healthy ecosystem inside the aquarium. Therefore, you need to choose aquarium plants appropriately. 

Some live plants are an ideal dish for baby fish. If you are keeping the anxious critters, dense plant life offers incredible hiding spots. They also add to the décor of your self-cleaning fish tank. Additionally, Some plants are very good at removing toxic matters like nitrates from the water. Check out our detailed article on the best plants to reduce nitrates

5. Filters

filter for self sustaining tank

Filters serve two primary and crucial roles in an aquarium. First top, they help keep the aquarium water clean, and secondly, they provide adequate oxygen for the happier and healthier lives of your critters. They come in various sizes and shapes, which may be part or separate elements of the air pump system.

Recommended filter brands are Fluval, Penn Plax, Marineland, and Aquaclear. You can select either a canister filter or HOB filter according to your budget and requirements.

My 4 recommended filters

When selecting a filter, you need to consider your tank size. Make sure to buy a filter that will serve your aquarium appropriately. If you can afford it, it is ideal to purchase high-tech filters to alert you whenever you need to pay attention. For regular filters, remember to check them often.

6. Fluorescent light Source

light for self sustaining tank

The marine life and life plants you include in the fish tank need as much light as possible. Even though there are those species that survive deep in the ocean where there is no light, don’t expect to get either for aquarium tanks.

Fluorescent lighting will provide the right UV light for the growth of your ecosystem. What you need is some light for your aquarium, regardless of the direction it comes from. However, this should be artificial UV lighting. Don’t use incandescent lights because they won’t help your ecosystem grow.

What if you can’t afford artificial UV lights at the start? Most fish kept in tanks can live on a day-and-night cycle; therefore, you should not be worried. Provide your critters with at least 6 hours of UV light, and they will be perfectly fine.

In terms of artificial lights, you can also use LED lighting. Check our article on planted tank LED lighting for your guide. Among LED lights in the market, I recommend to use, Fluval Aquasky LED Strip Light & Nicrew Classic LED Aquarium Lights. Check the light review section for a more in-detail review of them.

7. Décor

decor self sustaining tank

Even though plants decorate your fish tank, you may need to add more. There are thousands and thousands of aquarium toys that you can incorporate into your self-sustaining fish tank. However, none of these fun and playful toys will help in the self-cleaning process. They are purely meant to provide ultimate beauty.

When picking aquarium toys, check if they have pollutants, and they should not corrode easily. If you opt for natural shells and reef pieces, clean them well before incorporating them into the aquarium. Also, a routine decor clean-up is necessary once you already established a fish tank.

8. The Fish

self sustaining aquarium with fish

Now that you have gathered everything you need for an ideal self-sustaining fish tank, you need to get the livestock. When buying fish for your aquarium, you need to consider environmental requirements, species, size, and aggressiveness level. Whatever fish you choose, make sure to choose compatible species.

Also, it is a good idea to keep species that will take over plant life. Get species that will complement the whole concept of cleaning the fish tank. Some of the very useful species in aquarium cleaning include Hoplo Catfish, Nerite, and mollies.

Building Your Self-Cleaning Fish Tank

You have all the components of your self-sustaining aquarium ready. So, how do you set up your fish tank? Here are the steps you need to make a self-cleaning aquarium.

Step 1: Cleaning the aquarium tank

Once you have bought your appropriate (30-200 gallons), clean it thoroughly. Proper cleaning of your aquarium tank helps prevent contaminants that may harm your pets and aquarium plants.

step 1 of self sustaining aquarium

Step 2: Make substrate bed into your fish tank

It is always ideal for adding the substrate in layers. Start with soils, then sand, and lastly gravel, or simply start with the finest textures and work you up. If you buy the pre-made mixture, you don’t need to struggle for layers; instead, pour it from the bag.

Depending on the size of your fish tank, you need to observe the following:

  • Add one inch of sand and then top with one-half inch of gravel if you are using a small glass bowl.
  • If you have a medium or considerably larger fish tank, add 2 inches of sand and one inch of gravel on top.

Step 3: Fill your aquarium tank with water

Remember that high-quality water is critical for the life of your critters. It also provides the initial food source for your ecosystem. You can start with treated tap water or distilled water and add some fish flakes to it. If you can access water from a previous aquarium, it can be more useful in encouraging growth. This is because it contains the unrequired nutrients.

second step of self sustaining tank

Step 4: Put a variety of plants

At this point, consider what types of plants you will use. You need to add live plants that pair well with the fish and other creatures like snails. Make sure to put the plant’s size and growth speed into consideration.

For diversity, you can consider including a blend of plants growing differently, like bottom growth (Green Rotala, Corkscrew Grass, and Hair Grass), surface growth (Lotus, Duckweed), and branches (Phoenix Moss, Christmas moss, Java moss, Crystalwort). Allow the plants to grow and root before you add fish into the tank. Follow the article on how to plant the aquarium plants for aquarium planting.

Step 5: Incorporating aquarium components

After you have planted your aquarium plants, it is time to include filters, air pumps, heating systems, temperature monitoring elements, and ammonia testing kits. Basically, in this step, you add everything that is not living. Test to ensure that every component works at optimal levels and the temperature is ideal.

Step 6: Cycle your tank

It’s the patience part. Don’t ever forget to cycle your tank. It is always crucial to cycling the tank before adding fish. There are several methods to follow, I would recommend cycling without fish. Since it minimizes any risk to your aquatic pets. Although it requires patience, it pays off if you consider the overall benefits. Check our detailed article on how to cycle a fish tank.

Step 7: Add micro-critters

Now, it is time to add micro-critters. Some of the micro-critters you may consider are snails, micro-planarians, and daphnia. They help in cleaning and serve as food for carnivorous fish. Since most micro-critters are tiny, it is ideal for giving them at least two weeks to establish.

Step 8: Add fish or shrimp into your aquarium

This is the last step in setting up a self-sustaining aquarium. After the plants and micro-filters have developed, you can now introduce fish into the tank. It is ideal to start with smaller species like guppies and continue with medium to larger species. However, the number and size of fish you keep will vary depending on the tank’s size.

It is a good idea to continue feeding your critters for the first few weeks as the plants mature and micro-organisms start multiplying at a higher rate.

Step-9 Get extra comfort if you want

Feeding your fish is always exciting, gives a feeling of joy & accomplishment. You can handpick a bunch of food & can give it to your aquatic pets from time to time. But sometimes you may feel that you are out of time or just forget to feed them. Moreover, you can be on vacation while nobody is there to provide. 

So, It’s a good idea to incorporate an automatic fish feeder to feed your fish routinely & in a timely. Also, a feeder can help you provide the exact amount of food you want your fish to eat, thus avoiding the hazards of overfeeding. So, now with a self-cleaning aquarium & an automatic feeder, you can actually enjoy the sheer comfort of fishkeeping. 

Maintenance of Self-Sustaining Fish Tank

Having a self-cleaning aquarium does not mean you will have to sit and watch your intelligent pets play. It only saves you a considerable amount of time and effort. Here is the way to go to keep your friends happier and healthier throughout.

1. Changing the water

When changing the water of your self-sustaining fish tank, you need to be very keen. You should avoid drastic fluctuation in water temperature, and you should take care not to disturb the ecosystem. This is because the natural food chain will suffer if you remove much of the bacteria.

It is recommended and ideal to change 10-20% of the tank’s water in the tank, typically, in intervals of two weeks. This helps keep high-quality water for healthy fish. If you have a well-established food chain, you may not have to worry very much about excess algae. The fish that feed on algae will help clear it.

2. Control algae growth

Even though you may have species that thrive on eating algae, it may multiply excessively. To help keep your self-cleaning fish tank clean, vacuum the gravel when you are changing the water to remove algae and accumulate uneaten foods. You can occasionally use algae magnetic pad or filter floss to clean the aquarium walls. Plants, daphnia, and snails will also play their indispensable role in controlling the growth of algae.

3. Remove dead fish promptly

Even with the perfect care, you may have some of your fish dying. In case of death, make sure to remove the dead fish immediately. For this reason, make sure to count your critters at least once in a week and check for possible deaths.

If you delay removing dead fish, they will decompose and disturb ammonia and nitrite levels, which can be harmful to the flourishing fish. You can use a high-quality test kit to determine the levels of ammonia and nitrate; if they are too high, replace the water promptly. Remember, the levels are dependent on the type of fish you are keeping.

Why Do You Need A Self-Cleaning Aquarium?

The main reason that all aquarium enthusiasts need a self-sustaining fish tank is that it spares a significant amount of time and energy. It allows you time to spend with family or pursue other things you love.

You can as well go on vacation without necessarily worrying about cleaning your fish tank. Simply, a self-sustaining fish tank is meant to offer you more time to keep work on other projects.

Any Self-Sustaining Aquarium Drawbacks

Although a self-cleaning aquarium is a long-term investment, it has its own dark side. Typically, making a self-sustaining fish tank is more expensive compared to a regular aquarium. You will also spend more time during setup and picking the right components and compatible fish.

The Best Fish to Keep in A Self-Sustaining Fish Tank

A self-sustaining aquarium requires compatible fish species. You need to keep them in a safe and healthy environment. Here are some of the best species to keep in a freshwater self-cleaning fish tank.


Sailfin Molly

Mollies adapt quickly, are friendly, and are not aggressive.


Platy Fish

Platies are easy to maintain, colorful, and passive.


Bloodfin Tetra

Tetras are suitable for community tanks and easy to maintain. They love staying in groups and have a longer lifespan.


Hoplo Catfish

Catfish are bottom-dwellers. They eat algae and drop from peers; therefore, helping to clean.

Final words

A self-sustaining fish tank helps create an excellent aquatic ecosystem for fish, plants, and micro-organisms. This is why it is beyond being a low-maintenance aquarium.

However, being a self-cleaning entity does not mean you relax. Make sure to keep the tank and water clean for a happier and healthier life for your critters.

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