Self-Sustaining Aquariums

Self-Sustaining Aquariums: Aquaponics Fish Tank

If you are toying with the idea of building a self-sustaining aquarium, you are not alone. This is because this is a common dream held by many aquarium hobbyists. However, it is a dream that many aquarium hobbyists never get to realize because many assume that it is just too difficult to effectuate. 

In my humble opinion, it is not; it is challenging to effectuate but not difficult. 

In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know about self-sustaining aquariums to help you set one up if you are interested.

The Definition of a Self-Sustaining Aquarium

A self-sustaining aquarium is a special aquarium that has everything to support itself and thrive with very little or zero maintenance. In other words, it’s an aquarium that does not need you to frequently do one thing or the other for your fish to survive. 

A well-built self-sustaining aquarium is one that is so well-balanced that you will only need to interact with when you want to see your fish or play with it. It is a self-supporting ecosystem.

It is not easy to build a self-sustaining aquarium but it is not difficult either. You simply need to understand some biology and to have a bit of patience. 

In case you decide to build a self-sustaining aquarium, your first try may not be perfect and this is expected. If this happens, you just have to figure out the problem and tweak things to make your aquarium sustain itself better.

From the information above, it may seem a bit challenging to build a proper self-sustaining aquarium. However, you’ve got to understand that it is this ‘challenge’ that many aquarium hobbyists seek when they build self-sustaining aquariums. If you don’t like the challenge then maybe you should not try building a self-sustaining aquarium.

How Self-Sustaining Aquariums Work

A self-sustaining aquarium aka a self-supporting aquarium is a complex ecosystem that maintains itself. In other words, it does not need a lot of cleaning.

So how exactly does a self-sustaining aquarium work? Well, it has got fish and plants that survive on each other, enough food for the fish, and it cleans itself. More explanation on how exactly everything works in a bit. 

The Reasons Why You May Want a Self-Sustaining Aquarium

Common aquariums require constant cleaning. If you do not clean them enough or maintain them, they will fail and your fish could get sick or die. To maintain a common aquarium, you will need to regularly vacuum the substrate, change a fraction of the water, change the filter media, and clean the air pump.

Doing all these things regularly can be energy-draining and time-consuming. 

This is the main reason why people build self-sustaining aquariums. Because self-sustaining aquariums are built in such a way that there is no need to maintain them frequently. 

So if you are an aquarium hobbyist and you want an aquarium but you don’t want to spend too much time or effort maintaining it, you should strongly consider building a self-sustaining aquarium.

If you are generally a busy person or you travel a lot, you should also strongly consider building a self-sustaining aquarium. Because it will allow you to work hard or travel without having to worry about how your fish will survive for many hours or a few days without you.

The other reason why people build self-sustaining aquariums is for the challenge. Many aquarists who have owned common aquariums for so long, usually decide to build a self-sustaining aquarium to challenge themselves. They do it to see if they can use the knowledge they have accumulated for many months or years to build a special ecosystem that can sustain itself.

Many aquarists also build self-sustaining aquariums to show off to their friends, acquaintances, and other aquarists.

The Reasons Why You May Not Want a Self-Sustaining Aquarium

While building a self-sustaining aquarium can be fun and exciting and can save you time and energy by reducing the need for frequent maintenance, it also has a couple of drawbacks. 

First, it is quite challenging and time-consuming to build a self-sustaining aquarium. You will need to first collect all the components you will need and then you will need to put them together in a step by step manner to get the whole self-sustaining thing working.

Second, it is quite expensive to set up a self-sustaining aquarium. This is because you need to buy more components or parts than you would need to buy if you wanted to set up an ordinary aquarium. 

Lastly, setting up a self-sustaining aquarium is kind of like letting go of the wheel in the car when teaching your kid how to drive. It is never a good feeling especially if you are a guy who likes staying in control. Many aquarists feel the same way when they are setting up self-sustaining aquariums because they feel as if they will no longer be in control and their fish will no longer really need them.

Despite the above drawbacks, if you have good knowledge, some fish-keeping experience, and patience, you should be able to successfully build a self-sustaining aquarium.

How to Build a Self-Sustaining Aquarium

If you want to build a self-sustaining aquarium, there are several things you will need. 

  1. A Fish Tank 

This kind of goes without saying because you cannot have an aquarium without a tank. 

When buying a fish tank to build a self-sustaining aquarium, the most important thing you will need to consider will be the size. Generally, the bigger the better.

According to experienced aquarists, the best fish tank size for a self-sustaining aquarium is between 75 and 200 gallons. 

  1. Substrate 

It is very important to get a good substrate for your fish tank. Fish tank substrate can be made of soil, sand, and gravel and it is important not only for your tank to look complete but also for the cultivation of beneficial bacteria. Beneficial bacteria are known to grow in substrates and to help with the breakdown of toxic fish waste. 

Another importance is that a fish tank substrate is important for rooting aquatic plants and for providing them with nourishment.

If you want to make sure that the plants you will grow in your aquarium will do well, you have to buy a substrate that is full of minerals. There are several substrate products available on Amazon. 

  1. Plants

A self-sustaining aquarium cannot sustain itself without plants. It needs plants. There are many plants that you can add to your aquarium. They include the Java Fern and the Java Moss. Both of these plants do not need a lot of maintenance and are eaten by some fish as food. They also do not grow a big deal hence cannot overcrowd fish tanks. 

The biggest importance of plants in self-sustaining aquariums is that they absorb ammonia (released as waste by fish) and use it as a nutrient. This, alongside the breakdown of the ammonia by beneficial bacteria, makes sure that ammonia does not build up to toxic levels. Plants in aquariums also create hiding and sleeping spots for shy fish and they improve the attractiveness of aquariums. 

If you decide to buy plants for your self-sustaining aquarium, you should not overdo it. This is because too many plants will cramp the little space in your tank.

  1. Water

As I mentioned earlier, it goes without saying that you need a fish tank to build any aquarium. I say it here that you also need water to build any aquarium. Water is life so do not overlook it.

You cannot just use tap water to fill your fish tank. You need to first decide what fish you will house in your aquarium and then to find out their specific water requirements. It is after doing this that you should buy a quality water test kit to test your tap water and make sure it meets the requirements. 

If it doesn’t, condition it and do everything you need to do to make sure the water is okay before using it to fill your aquarium.

  1. Filter

A filter is one of the most important things you will need to acquire to set up your self-sustaining aquarium. This is because it is what you need to continuously clean your aquarium water. 

When getting a filter, do not forget to get an air pump system. Many quality filters come with air pump systems. A filter – air pump combo will ensure your fish tank water is regularly cleaned and aerated. 

While many quality filters can clean your aquarium water regularly like clockwork, you still need to maintain them by checking and replacing the filter media at least once every two or three months. 

  1. Light Source

Your aquarium fish will most likely need a light source to survive and to feel as if they are in a natural environment. So you should get a light source that goes on and off automatically to imitate the day and night cycle. 

There are many aquarium light sources available online. Some of them are cheap, others are expensive. Choose the best one for your tank size and make sure it is automatic to make your work easy.

  1. Decorations

In addition to all the above necessities, you need to buy decorations such as aquarium-safe toys or ornaments to give character to your aquarium. There are many such toys and ornaments available on Amazon including Greek Statues, tiny Buddha, pirate ships, and treasure chests.

While getting one or two ornaments or toys for your aquarium is not a problem, getting too many is. So do not buy too many things to put in your aquarium as decorations. 

  1. Algae eaters 

In addition to all the above things, you need algae eaters such as mollies or nerite snails to make your fish tank totally self-sustaining. 

Algae eaters will eat any algae that attempt to grow in your aquarium and, therefore, clean your tank continuously. So with them in your tank, you will not need to clean your glass weekly or regularly.

Algae eaters such as mollies also have the additional benefit of cleaning or eating leftover food. 

Building Your Self-Sustaining Aquarium

Once you have gotten all the things above, you will need to put them together. Below is how you can do that:

  1. Clean your tank to eliminate contaminants.
  2. Add the substrate you’ve bought to the tank as per the seller’s instructions.
  3. Make sure the layer is thick, identity planting spots, and plant your aquatic plants as per the seller’s instructions.
  4. Add a filter system, an air pump system, and decorations, and then add treated water gently to avoid disturbing everything.
  5. Add snails if you bought any.
  6. Test to see if the temperature is right and all the systems are working.
  7. Add fish if everything is okay.
  8. Feed the fish as instructed by the seller for a couple of weeks. This will allow your plants to grow and micro-organisms to commence multiplying rapidly. Once both of these things have happened, you will have set up a food chain. You can stop feeding your fish as the aquarium will have everything to sustain them. Your only job will be to clean the tank every few weeks and to replace the filter media every two months or so.

Important: Not all fish can survive on the micro-organisms and plants alone. The hardiest fish that can do this include mollies, swordtails, plecos, platies, and neon tetras. 

Potential Problems with Self-Sustaining Aquariums and their Solutions

  1. Clouding of the water – The best solution to this is to add clams or Daphnia to eliminate the algae that cause the clouding. 
  2. Fish eating other fish’s fins – The best solution to this is to get a bigger tank or to remove the aggressive fish or the less aggressive one from the ecosystem and replace it with a more compatible species.
  3. Too many algae – The best solution to this is to add shrimp, clams, or snails to eat the algae. Alternatively, you can add plecos (if they are compatible with your fish) to eat the algae more rapidly.


As you can see, it is not very difficult to build a self-sustaining aquarium. It is just challenging. Once you put your mind to it, it should not be difficult for you to set up a nice and self-sustaining aquarium. 

If you experience any problems, do not lose heart. Search my blog for solutions and I am sure you will most likely find them and then tweak your aquarium to make it better. 

The Best Pre-Made Self-Sustaining Aquarium

The best pre-made self-sustaining aquarium on Amazon is the AquaSprouts Garden kit. This relatively cheap kit comes with everything you need to effortlessly set up a self-cleaning and self-supporting aquarium.

It is also very attractive to look at and allows you to grow plants and herbs.

This is a kit to help you build a simple 10-gallon aquarium. If you want to build a bigger self-sustaining aquarium, you will need to spend more money on another kit.