How to Make A Self-Sustaining Aquarium (Beginner’s 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 is 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 I 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 in such a way that it doesn’t need to change the water or clean the substrate more frequently. Typically, this aquarium establishes a self-sustaining food chain where it is rewarded by taking care of itself.

Unlike in a regular aquarium, where you need to change the water and clean the 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 Aquariums

There are several ways to make a self-cleaning aquarium. The philosophy behind a self-sustaining or self-cleaning aquarium is to 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, but it will be less maintenance requiring than a typical aquarium.

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 As A Self Cleaning Tank

This is one of the popular ways of making a self-cleaning aquarium. An aquaponic fish tank is where a symbiotic relationship develops between fish & plants. It contains plants at the top & water underneath.

Fish waste becomes the source of the plant’s food. On the contrary, plants make water clean for the fish. Nitrifying bacteria present in the plant’s root space convert fish wastes into nutritious plant food. Therefore, water gets clean & becomes suitable for fish to live.

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 with an aquaponic fish tank. Moreover, you can convert your existing aquarium into an aquaponic one. 

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 sink at the bottom, slip past the substrates & accumulate in the reservoir tank.

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

When you need to clean the main tank, 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 with plants as a self sustaining aquarium

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 with 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 then buy a filter specified for 50 to 60 gallons.

You can also add aquarium plants to create a natural ecosystem in the aquarium since plants help reduce the water’s toxic materials. Live plants reduce the requirement for cleaning.

Biological wastes that are produced inside the aquarium decompose to form poisonous materials. Plants absorb those harmful components and add oxygen to the water. Thus plants are a natural chemical filtration system to keep water conditions pristine.

Why Do You Need A Self-Cleaning Aquarium? (Benefits)

A self-cleaning tank is a little tricky to establish. But once you set it, everything becomes much more manageable. Here I have pointed out some benefits of making an aquarium self-sustaining.

Why Do You Need A Self-Cleaning Aquarium

Reduced Maintenance Hours

Fishkeeping is a thrilling hobby but maintaining an aquarium is sometimes laborious.

You need to do lots of regular maintenance work, like water changes, cleaning the air pump, vacuuming the substrate, or replacing filter media. They are monotonous and time-consuming, indeed.

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.

Stable Tank Condition

Frequent cleaning works impose stress on you, and at the same time, your fish also suffer. Whenever you perform water changes or vacuum the substrate, you lose beneficial bacteria, and the natural cycle of the tank gets hampered. Frequent interventions also terrify your fish.

Worriless Fishkeeping

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 working on other projects.

Healthy Inhabitants

A perfect self-sustaining aquarium maintains a healthy environment inside. The ideal condition encourages your fish and plants to thrive in good health. And very predictably, healthy members are less prone to infections and diseases.

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. Arrange A Fish Tank

fish tank for self sustaining aquarium (aquarium tales)

Have you decided the type of self-sustaining tank would be the best match for you? Great, now it’s time to pick a fish tank to meet the purpose.

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 maintenance.

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.

You can buy a bare fish tank of crystal clear glass, then add the necessary accessories to make your self-sustaining tank. Moreover, you can purchase a pre-equipped fish tank, which 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 and functions based on the aquaponic technique. It is equipped with a light bar, a pump, a timer, and a grow bed for plants.

This is not the actual aquarium; it is a garden kit that fits over a 10-gallon aquarium. So, along with this kit, you need to buy a 10-gallon fish tank.

There are some other pre-equipped fish tanks available in the market. I have a separate review article on those tanks. However, it’s difficult to find a pre-made tank in the recommended range for making a self-sufficient tank.

2. Buy a Suitable Substrate; Sand or Gravel

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-cleaning 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. 

If you wish to have a self-sustaining aquarium with the gravity-flow technique, the substrate should not be too compact. Instead, the grain size should be sufficiently large to create pores for debris slipping past through. 

Make sure to get mineral-rich substrate to flourish plant life. Among the several items in the market available, I recommend Flourite, CaribSea Eco-Complete & Activ-Flora Floracor.

3. Treat The Water

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 hardness requirements. Always ensure to use high-quality water testing for accurate results.

pH from 6.8 – 8.0 is the safest zone for freshwater aquariums, while saltwater aquariums are perfect with a pH between 8.0 – 8.4. The water temperature should be in a range of 72 – 80 °F. 

I would recommend the API Freshwater Master Test Kit since 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. Arrange Live Plants Suitable Self-Sufficient Tank

live plants for self sustaining tank (aquarium tales)

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.

Typically, low-light-requiring plants are the perfect company to start with a self-cleaning aquarium. You can keep Anubias, Java Moss, Java Fern, and Dwarf Rotala in your tank.

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 this detailed article on the best plants to reduce nitrates. 

5. Buy Good Enough Filters

filter for self sustaining tank (aquarium tales)

Filters serve two primary and crucial roles in an aquarium. First, they help keep the aquarium water clean, and second, 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.

A properly balanced planted aquarium with a three-stage filtration system can function as a self-cleaning system. Still, you need to check and replace the filter media routinely. But of course, in a much less frequency.

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

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. Arrange A Fluorescent Light Source

The marine life and live plants you include in the fish tank need as much light as possible. Even though some species 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 to 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 OK.

In terms of artificial lights, you can also use LED lighting. I recommend using Fluval Aquasky LED Strip Light & Nicrew Classic LED Aquarium Lights among the LED lights on the market.

7. Use Décor To Make It Visually Appealing

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 rust easily. If you opt for natural shells and reef pieces, clean them well before incorporating them into the aquarium.

Also, a routine décor clean-up is necessary once you already established a fish tank.

8. Bring Fish, Shrimps & Snails

self sustaining aquarium with fish (aquarium tales)

Now that you have gathered everything you need for an ideal self-sustaining fish tank, you need to get the livestock. Before that figure out how many fish will be an ideal fit in your aquarium.

When buying fish for your aquarium, you need to consider environmental requirements, species, size, and aggressiveness level. Whatever fish you choose, make sure to select 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 beneficial species in aquarium cleaning include Catfish, Platy, Guppy, and Molly.

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: Clean The Aquarium Thoroughly

Once you have bought the tank, clean it thoroughly. Proper cleaning of your aquarium tank helps prevent contaminants that may harm your pets and aquarium plants.

Step 2: Make a 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 1 of self sustaining aquarium

Step 3: Fill The 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 required nutrients.

Step 4: Put A Variety Of Suitable 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 develop roots before you add fish into the tank.

second step of self sustaining tank

Step 5: Install heater, Filter & Lights

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 establish the nitrogen cycle in the tank before adding fish. There are several methods to follow, and 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 this detailed article on how to cycle a fish tank.

Step 7: Add Shrimps, Snails & Dhapnia

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 to give them at least two weeks to establish.

Step 8: Introduce Fish & Acclimatize To Your Aquarium

This is the last step in setting up a self-sustaining aquarium. After the plants and micro-critters 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: Install An Automatic Feeder to Feed Fish Timely & precisely

Here comes the extra comfort step! Feeding your fish is always exciting, and gives a feeling of joy and a sense of 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 forget to feed them. Moreover, you can be on vacation while nobody is there to help them. 

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 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.

Self-Sustaining Fish Tank Maintenance Tips

1. Changing The Water

When changing the water of your self-sustaining fish tank, you need to be very keen. You should avoid drastic fluctuations 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, typically in intervals of two weeks. This helps keep high-quality water for healthy fish. I have a separate article on how often to change the water in the fish tank, I encourage you to read that!

If you have a well-established food chain, you may not have to worry 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, they may multiply excessively. To help keep your self-cleaning fish tank clean, vacuum the gravel when changing the water to remove algae and accumulate uneaten foods.

You can occasionally use an algae magnetic pad or filter floss to clean the aquarium walls. Plants, daphnia, and snails will also play an 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, count your critters at least once 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, take steps to reduce the level to a safe range.

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.


Mollies for Self-Sustaining Aquarium

Mollies adapt quickly, are friendly, and are not aggressive. As algae eaters, they keep the tank clean. Their peaceful nature and contribution to aquarium cleanliness make them the perfect fish for a self-sustaining tank. 

If you happen to be a breeder, mollies are livebearers, it will be great fun to breed mollies. I have a detailed article on pregnant molly fish and how to breed, I encourage you to read that.


Platies for Self-Sustaining Aquarium

Platies are easy to maintain, colorful, and passive, which makes them perfect community fish. Like Mollies, they are also algae eaters. Platies are a great addition to your self-sustaining aquarium, making it tidy and vibrant.


Tetras are suitable for community tanks and easy to maintain. They love staying in groups and have a longer lifespan. Neon Tetra and Bloodfin Tetra from this family are best suitable for a self-cleaning tank. 


Catfish for Self-Sustaining Aquarium

Catfish are bottom-dwellers. They eat algae and drop from peers; therefore, helping to clean. They are not attractive-looking creatures, but rather a bit dull in appearance. But they are cleaner fish and very friendly for a self-cleaning aquarium

I wrote an article on care requirements for cory catfish, I would like to recommend you to read that if you like to keep corydoras in your tank.

Final Words

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

However, being a self-cleaning entity does not mean you are 100% relaxed. Still, you have to make sure to keep the tank and water clean for a happier and healthier life for your critters.

Hopefully, this article becomes helpful to meet your purpose. I will love to hear your thoughts and experience with a self-cleaning aquarium. Please feel free to put a comment below.

Sujit Modak

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