Your complete guide to setting-up a self-sustaining tank

Your complete guide to setting-up a self-sustaining tank

Self-sustaining tanks are a blessing in disguise for all those who love to have aquariums but not enough time to maintain them. We all know that fish-keeping is a time-taking hobby. You can’t just have a tank and forget about it as it will lead all the fish to eventually die. The plants will start rotting, and the tank starts giving a foul smell.

When you have a regular aquarium, its regular cleaning becomes mandatory. Apart from that, you have to change its water and other components at a regular interval too. It is essential to perform all these activities with high precision so that the entire environment of the tank does not disturb, and fish do not come under stress.

Everyone loves watching their fish healthily and happily swimming in the tank, but very few found these cleaning and changing rituals exciting. Therefore, experts have found a few sustainable and feasible alternatives that ensure the fish-keeping hobby becomes a hassle-free one.

What is a self-sustaining fish tank?

A tank with self-cleaning properties is a self-sustaining tank. Sounds like a dream? Well, a self-sustaining tank is designed in such a way and equipped with such fish and live plants that they establish a self-sustaining food chain and take care of each other simultaneously. Also, you don’t have to change the water more frequently or clean the substrate often. All this prevents the fish from coming under a high amount of stress.

Benefits of self-sustaining tank

  • Saves time and effort that you put in maintaining the fish tank.
  • Creates a sustainable environment inside the tank
  • Saves fish from the stress that happens due to water changes
  • Provides a healthier natural environment inside the tank
  • Ensures you get enough time for other projects
  • You can go on a trip without worrying about your fish

If the concept and idea of a self-sustaining tank excite you, keep reading to know how to create it and maintain a striking balance among all the live species and equipment so that they can retain each other without any hassle.

Here we have provided detailed information on creating an autonomous tank from scratch.

Basic requirements for a self-sustaining aquarium


The first thing you would need to set up your self-sustaining aquarium is a fish tank. In general, it is asked to select a small size tank for the beginners, but for an autonomous one, you would require a medium or big size tank. It is because you can keep diverse species in a big tank and maintain the right water-fish-plant ratio. A tank with a size ranging from 30 to 200 gallons will be perfect.


Substrate plays a pivotal role in any fish tank, which is, most of the time, under-estimated. Sand, soil, gravel are important parts of an aquarium. A good substrate will become a rooting medium for aquarium plants and fulfill the requirement of bacteria, which is essential in any fish tank. When the desired amount of bacteria stays at the bottom due to the mineral-rich substrate, it ensures a safe filtration system.


Since you will not change water for many days, it becomes essential to use treated water in a self-sustaining tank. Maintain the pH level and temperature within the acceptable limits as per the species you will put inside. At the same time, ensure the right salinity requirements too. When it is about a self-sustaining tank, you should not rely on any random testing kit. Always use a high-quality water testing kit to maintain the level of water parameters accurately.


As already told, a self-sustaining tank establishes its natural food chain. Therefore, selecting the right aquarium plants is very important. If the tank’s size is small, you should choose only those aquarium plants that don’t grow too much and too quickly and therefore do not require frequent trimming. Plants that are easy to maintain and do not require a lot of care are perfect for self-sustaining fish tanks.


A quality filter is another important equipment for an aquarium. It ensures keeping the water clean and providing enough oxygen in the form of bubbles to keep the fish and plants healthy. It is essential that you select the right size and shape of the filter, depending upon the size of your tank. These days technically advanced filters are also available in the market that alerts the users when there is an issue.


When it is about a self-sustaining aquarium, fluorescent light becomes one essential component. Both plants and fish require a sufficient amount of light for proper growth and development. Fluorescent lighting ensures the growth of your ecosystem as they provide the right UV light in the tank. No matter from which direction the light is coming, the fish and plants grow without any hassle. If the tank gets 6 hours of UV light, you don’t have to worry about your water mates.


Although décor items are not an imperative part of a self-sustaining aquarium, it adds to the beauty and attractiveness. You can find plenty of aquarium décor products in the market. Just make sure that they are aquarium safe, free from pollutants, and do not rust. Natural shells and pieces of the reef make great aquarium décor provided that they are thoroughly cleaned before introducing inside the tank.


The next important part of any aquarium is getting the livestock. Once you have collected everything required to set up a tank, the next step is choosing the right fish that are ideal for self-sustaining. There are a few criteria you need to keep in mind before selecting the fish-

  • Environment conditions
  • Size of your fish or how big it will grow
  • Size of your tank
  • Compatibility with other fish
  • Level of aggressiveness

Other than these, you have to make sure that the fish complement the concept of a self-sustaining tank. You must check how much it can contribute to cleaning the tank and making it suitable to live for many days without any water changes, cleaning the substrate, etc. For instance, there are a few bottom feeder fish that not only look great but are also excellent cleaners. Some feed on algae, too, making the tank look clean and tidy.

Here are the names of some best fish that you can keep in a self-sustaining fish tank. These are pretty compatible fish species and easily adaptable.

Mollies– Mollies, with their attractive colors, look excellent in an aquarium. They could be a great addition to a self-sustaining tank as they adapt quickly and are super friendly too. The best part is they are not aggressive at all and like to mingle with other tank mates peacefully.

Hoplo Catfish- Being bottom dwellers, they contribute greatly to cleaning the tank and making the substrate algae free.

Bloodfin tetra– Easy to maintain, Bloodfin tetra love to mingle with other fish. They are considered as one of the best fish species for community tanks.

Platies– Platies are passive in nature, which means they remain calm and unreactive except under special or extreme conditions. Moreover, platies are easy to maintain and are available in different colors. They make a great choice for a self-sustaining tank.

Neon Tetra– Neon Tetras, just like other tetras, are perfect for a community tank as they love staying in groups. The longer lifespan and attractive color make them one potential candidate for any aquarium.

How to build a self-sustaining fish tank

So now that you have decided to build a self-sustaining fish tank, the next step is to understand how to build one. Check out the steps and get ready with your own self-sustaining aquarium with healthy fish and plants.

Step 1- Clean your tank.

As already discussed, the size of your tank must range between 30 to 200 gallons if you want to make it self-sustaining. As soon as you get it, clean it thoroughly to remove all the contaminants. It will ensure that your pets and plants will remain uninfected.

Step 2- Add the substrate. 

Start putting the substrates- soil, sand, and gravel in layers in the tank. Soil should come at the bottom, followed by the sand and lastly the gravel. The thumb rule is adding 2 inches of sand and one inch of gravel on the top. You can also buy pre-made mixtures of the substrate that are available in the fish stores. Just pour these pre-made mixtures directly from the bag to the tank.

Step 3- Add water 

When it is about setting up a self-sustaining fish tank, adding high-quality and treated water is essential. Make sure that the water parameters are within the range. It would be great if you can access water from a previous tank as it already comprises certain essential nutrients that encourage growth. At the same time, water from the previous tank is less stressful for the fish.

Step 4- Add plants 

Plants add to the beauty of the aquarium, but beforehand know what type of plants you want in your tank- live or artificial. If you are adding artificial plants, make sure they are thoroughly clean and do not contain any toxic chemicals that can harm your fish. However, if you are adding live plants, make sure that they are compatible with the fish. Also, keep in mind the growth pattern of your plants. Since we are setting up a self-sustaining tank that you can keep untouched for many days, the size and growth speed should be under consideration. Include some bottom growing plants like hair grass, surface growing plants like duckweed, along with plants with small branches like phoenix moss and java moss.

Step 5- Add aquarium components. 

Adding aquarium equipment like filters, air pumps, heating systems, water testing kits, thermometer, etc. are equally important. In this step, you add all the non-living components to the tank. Make sure that all the equipment is working fine and giving the right readings.

Step 6- Add micro-filters 

Snails, daphnia, and micro-planarians are some of the best micro-filters you can add to your self-sustaining tank. They perform two major functions- first is cleaning the tank by eating up the leftovers and algae, and second becoming the food for the carnivorous fish. Microfilters take about two weeks to establish in the tank.

Step 7- Add fish

Finally, you can add the center of attraction, your fish in the tank. Once the plants get rooted, and micro-filters get established, introduce fish. Always start with smaller species like guppies, followed by the larger ones. The size of your tank will determine the number and size of your fish to be introduced.

Once the entire set-up of a self-sustaining tank is complete, feed your fish for at least the first week. In the meantime, the plants will mature, and the micro-organisms will start multiplying, making the tank ready and sustainable.

How to maintain a self-sustaining tank

Now that you have set up your self-sustaining tank, you can sit back, relax, and watch your underwater friends play. A self-sustaining tank definitely saves a lot of time, energy, and effort, but after some days, you have to perform a little change in water and remove the debris only for the betterment of your fish.

Here are the ways that will help you maintain your self-sustaining tank and keep your fish and live plants happy and healthy.

What are the best self-sustaining tanks?

There are lots of sustaining-tanks here and there and the prices vary a lot on them with Betta EZ Care Marina Aquarium being one of the cheapest ($32.26 on Amazon) and biOrb LIFE 15 Aquarium with LED Light being one of the most pricey options ($265.10 on Amazon). The choice depends on your needs: if you are an experienced fish lover, you may choose something more pricey, unless you are not or want to buy an aquarium as a present to your child, choose something lower-priced. But the one is true, your fish will love any aquarium you get. When I want to earn a fast buck  to buy something cool for my pets, I like playing at a sign up bonuses casino with lots of cool casino games for real money. It entertains me and gives me an opportunity to earn some easy money.

Changing the water 

You have to change the water of your aquarium the same way you do it with your regular tank but with more precision. Since we have tried to maintain a natural food chain in a self-sustaining fish tank, a keen observation of water parameters is essential. Sudden fluctuation in water parameters will disturb the ecosystem of the tank, giving stress to the fish.

Ideally, you need to change only 10 to 20% of the tank’s water at an interval of 2 weeks. It will ensure that the recommended level of bacteria will remain in the tank that will help in maintaining the natural food chain. Also, it will keep the quality of water up the mark, keeping the fish healthy and happy.

Controlling the growth of algae 

Typically, algae growth is a matter of concern in a regular tank. However, when it is about a self-sustaining fish tank, most of the algae are eaten up by the fish, keeping the tank clean. Although the fish eat up most of the algae, they sometimes multiply so fast that they degrade the tank’s sight. It is when you have to vacuum the gravel at the time of changing the water to remove uneaten food, debris, and algae. Microfilters like snails and daphnia play a crucial role in algae control, so make sure that you keep them in a self-sustaining tank.

Remove dead fish

Hard to say, but at some point in their life, your fish will die. Whether they die due to stress, sickness, or after completing their entire lifespan, you must remove them from the tank as soon as possible. If a dead fish remain unnoticed and there is a delay in removing it, it will start decomposing, disturbing the level of nitrite and ammonia. It could pose harm to the flourishing fish. In case it happens, immediately check the level of ammonia and nitrate in your tank with the help of a quality testing kit. If the level is too high, replace the water straight away.

Final words

An autonomous tank is beneficial in many ways. However, there are a few darker sides to it too. For instance, setting up a self-sustaining tank takes more time than a regular tank. Also, you cannot put any fish or plant in it, so your choices get restricted. At the same time, putting algae eaters become a compulsion.

Selecting the right components and compatible fish and plants is essential in setting up a self-sustaining tank. But, once it is set, you can sit back and relax for many days without worrying about your fish, plants, and water parameters. All of them will create an ecosystem and natural food chain to self-sustain for many days. So, if you are a busy person or keep going on trips for days, try your hands in setting up a self-sustaining fish tank and remain stress-free for your fish.

Aquarium Plants

7 thoughts on “Your complete guide to setting-up a self-sustaining tank

  1. ANUPAM MITRA says:

    I am having 24 x 30 inch aquarium as community tank. You have advised to use soil at the bottom. Will you please advise what types/kinds of soil to be used in my aquarium?

  2. FishKeeper says:

    Please provide examples of type of item which needed. My honest opinion on this guide is that its not a complete guide. its a overview of the setup.(Summary)

  3. Bill says:

    At the end you talking about changing water and taking care of it like a regular tank, that is not a self-sustaining tank then, this is a bunch of BS. A self-sustaining tank you don’t have to change the water like a regular tank.

  4. Fernando says:

    Thankyou for allowing comments.
    Self sustainable fishtank ecosystem keeps healthy parameters without assistance (water changes?).
    Microbial community, substrates, complementary (very small water flow) phases (even without any kind of pump) and good plant notorious photosynthetic process are there.
    Food chain, seems to me, unnecesary concept. Better would be biogeochemical cycles;
    More than very important concepts are good health microbial community stablishment and notorious healthy plant photosynthetic activity;
    Fishes might live amazingly well if everything needed is there in the proper order and complementarity (without assistance).
    Far as I have tested, eventual evaporated water should be refilled and food fish supply might be an additional strategy . Plants prunning might be needed and its growth might be related to desired healthy ecosystem conditions.

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