Best Self Cleaning Fish Tank: The Truth And Low Effort Alternatives

Before you read on I’m going to let you in on a secret. True self cleaning fish tanks are a myth! But there are some great low maintenance alternatives…

By Matt Thomas
Last updated on

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Portrait Multi-Filtration

biOrb Flow Aquarium
best self cleaning fish tank

So you’re looking for the best self cleaning fish tank? And why not? They make fish keeping easy, with less hassle and maintenance don’t they? Well, in a word – no.

Self cleaning fish tanks are unfortunately no more than a gimmick. Many of them are far too small to keep fish healthy, and the ‘easy’ maintenance of gravity style self cleaning tanks is actually more likely to harm your fish.

With our combined experience, we’d never recommend ‘self cleaning’ fish tanks. But there are great alternatives if you want to reduce your maintenance. One way is a good size tank with proper filtration, like the Marina LED 20 Gallon Aquarium Kit.

And there are other options too. Like tanks with multi-stage filtration, which we’ll cover below.

So read on if you want to find out the truth about ‘self cleaning’ fish tanks, and how you can make maintenance easier while caring for your fish the right way.

  1. Larger Complete Kit: Marina LED 20 Gallon Aquarium Kit
  2. Easy Water Changes: Aqueon LED MiniBow Aquarium Kit
  3. Portrait – Multi Filtration: biOrb Flow Aquarium
  4. Fish Bowl – Multi Filtration: biOrb Classic Aquarium

Best Self Cleaning Fish Tank Picks Reviewed

None of these aquariums are actually ‘self cleaning’ fish tanks, but they do have features to help make maintenance that much easier! We’ve assessed them all on ease of use whilst being safe and healthy aquariums for your fish.

1. Marina LED 20 Gallon Aquarium Kit

Photo: Amazon.com

  • Shape and Capacity: Rectangular, 20 US gallons
  • Dimensions and Weight: 24.0 (l) x 12.5 (d) x 16.5 (h) inches, 35.0 pounds
  • Material: Glass
  • Equipment Included: Slim S20 HOB power filter with cartridges, hood with integrated daylight effect LED lighting, LCD thermometer, 4 inch fish net, Fluval Max fish food, Fluval Aqua Plus water conditioner, Fluval Cycle biological supplement, Aquarium care guide
  • Best for: Larger Complete Kit

Marina’s LED Aquarium is a fantastic complete kit that comes in 5 gallon, 10 gallon, and 20 gallon sizes. If you’re looking for an easy to maintain tank, we’d recommend the larger 20 gallon option as it’s much easier to maintain stable water parameters with more water volume.

It also has a slim S20 Hang On Back (HOB) filter with an adjustable flow rate of 92 gallons per hour (GPH). This means it can cycle all the water just under 5 times an hour – right in the range needed to keep a tank this size clean and ensure maintenance is manageable.

The kit comes with everything you need to get started, including water conditioner and a biological supplement to help initial cycling of your tank and get your maintenance routine started on the right foot!

2. Aqueon LED MiniBow Aquarium Kit

Photo: Amazon.com

  • Shape and Capacity: Rectangular bow front, 5 US gallons
  • Dimensions and Weight: 15.0 (l) x 10.67 (d) x 15.44 (h) inches, 5.25 pounds
  • Material: Acrylic
  • Equipment Included: low-profile LED hood, integrated power filter with SmartClean and filter cartridge, fish food and water conditioner samples, aquarium set-up guide
  • Best for: Easy Water Changes

The Aqueon LED MiniBow is a great little aquarium that has a few tricks up its sleeve to help with maintenance! The SmartClean filter is an awesome feature that helps make water changes quick and easy.

Just remove the lid and push the nozzle on the filter down. You can then rotate it so it faces outside your tank. Then place a container underneath, push down again, and it will pump out your water automatically! You then simply add conditioned water to top up.

This aquarium comes in 1 gallon and 2.5 gallon options, but we’ve featured the 5 gallon version here as it’s really the best capacity choice for a small but healthy tank.

3. biOrb Flow Aquarium

Photo: Amazon.com

  • Shape and Capacity: Square, 8 US gallons
  • Dimensions and Weight: 15.5 (l) x 10.25 (d) x 14.75 (h) inches, 7.0 pounds
  • Material: Acrylic
  • Equipment Included: 5-stage filter (biological, mechanical, chemical, water stabilization and oxygenation), filter cartridge and ceramic media, integrated LED lighting, water conditioner and beneficial bacteria
  • Best for: Portrait – Multi Filtration

BiOrb produces a range of modern tanks of different shapes and sizes. The 8 gallon biOrb Flow is an awesome choice if you want an upright tank, as its 15.5 x 10.25 inch base will fit nicely on a desk but the volume is great for a single betta or a few nano fish.

But it’s the 5 stage filtration system that makes biOrb aquariums unique, and really helps keep maintenance to a minimum. Not only does the biOrb have mechanical, chemical and biological stages as per standard 3 stage filters, but it also includes oxygenation and water stabilization.

Essentially the water stabilization is performed by the biOrb’s ceramic media substrate and resin particles which remove toxins such as ammonia. And oxygenation is achieved by the air driven filter which creates a constant flow at the surface.

Overall, whilst the replacement filters are not cheap, many owners give this tank high praise for being a beautiful and low maintenance aquarium that’s perfect for your desk!

4. biOrb Classic Aquarium

Photo: Amazon.com

  • Shape and Capacity: Fishbowl/ sphere, 4 US gallons
  • Dimensions and Weight: 12.87 (diameter) x 13.27 (height) inches, 6.28 pounds
  • Material: Acrylic
  • Equipment Included: 5-stage filtration system, lid with integrated long life LED light
  • Best for: Fish Bowl – Multi Filtration

The biOrb Classic Aquarium comes in an attractive fishbowl design and a range of sizes (4, 8, 16, and even 28 gallons). We’ve featured the 4 gallon option here as the 12.87 inch diameter makes it perfect for a bedroom or dorm, whilst allowing you to keep a few nano fish.

Like the biOrb Flow, it features the same 5 stage filter which helps oxygenate your water and keep it crystal clear. And again, whilst the ceramic media substrate can be expensive it lasts well and reduces your maintenance.

Because the filter sits underneath the substrate, this tank is often praised by betta owners as being gentle and not too harsh for delicate fins.

The Truth About Self Cleaning Fish Tanks

In short, true ‘self cleaning’ fish tanks don’t actually exist! All fish tanks need cleaning and maintenance. So let’s look at some of the myths behind these ‘self cleaning’ tanks.

fish tank pump flowing

What Are Self Cleaning Fish Tanks?

Most products advertised as self cleaning fish tanks fall into one of two types.

The first is a gravity system, where the tank often has an in-built siphon allowing you to turn a knob and draw out water. The theory is that waste sinks to the bottom where you remove the dirty water, then you top up with fresh water.

The second type uses the principles of aquaponics [1]. A water garden sits on top of the tank and waste water is drawn up into the garden. Here, beneficial bacteria break down ammonia and the plants utilize nutrients from the waste whilst providing clean water back to the tank.

A Note On Aquaponics kits

It’s true that some of these water garden ‘mini aquaponics’ kits do provide some benefit to your fish in terms of supplementary filtration. And you can grow plants and even some vegetables with them.

But the point here is they are not self cleaning fish tanks! You still need to provide your tank with an adequate filter system, and clean and maintain it at the right intervals including performing regular water changes.

The Problem With Self Cleaning Fish Tanks

‘Self cleaning’ fish tanks have a number of drawbacks that actually make them very unhealthy environments for your fish.

They Promote ‘Clean Water In, Dirty Water Out’

Gravity based self cleaning fish tanks are often very small, sometimes less than a gallon, and they tend to promote the idea that you are getting rid of ‘dirty water’ while topping up with fresh.

But aquarium water is a very balanced environment in terms of pH, hardness, nitrates, and other chemicals. A filter plays an important part in this as beneficial bacteria within it break down harmful toxins including ammonia.

Water changes have to be done carefully, with certain volumes removed based on your tank’s water parameters. It is not as simple as removing ‘dirty water’ and replacing it with ‘clean’. You must also use water conditioner before topping up, as straight tap water is toxic to fish [2].

Toxin Build Up Is Faster In Smaller Fish Tanks

When fish produce waste it breaks down and releases ammonia into the water. If ammonia builds up it can quickly become highly toxic to your fish [3]. 

Fortunately, a process called the nitrogen cycle takes place. Beneficial bacteria within your tank and filter break down ammonia into nitrites, and then nitrates which are not toxic to your fish in these trace amounts [4].

But in a smaller aquarium, ammonia can build up much more quickly. That’s why these fish tanks have to be carefully monitored and water changes have to be more frequent to keep water parameters at the right levels and prevent an ‘ammonia spike’.

Most self cleaning fish tanks are under 5 gallons and often do not have a proper filter. So without adequate filtration, instead of ‘self cleaning’ they are actually likely to quickly become highly toxic to your fish.

Unstable Water Parameters

Keeping ammonia and nitrites at trace levels (less than 0.1ppm), and nitrates under 50ppm is critical to the health of your fish and prevent disease. But other parameters such as pH and temperature need to be kept stable too. In fact, many tropical fish do best around 74 to 80°F.

Small gravity tanks that promote constant water changes and top-offs mean your water parameters are going to become unstable very quickly. And there is often no room for important equipment such as a filter or heater.

Water gardens can also have the same problem with unstable parameters, because the plants are relied on to absorb toxins from the water. But as soon as you start a new crop your water parameters will become unbalanced.

Low Oxygen Levels

Oxygen is as important to your fish as it is to you or me. Your fish need well oxygenated water as they absorb dissolved oxygen directly using their gills [5].

The small size of self cleaning fish tanks means there’s less surface area for oxygen to enter the water. For example, a small gravity based tank may have a surface area of only 20 square inches. Compare this with a 20 gallon aquarium with over 1900 square inches of surface area!

Coupled with the fact that self cleaning fish tanks don’t have the room for a proper filter, air pump, or air stone, and there’s just no opportunity to oxygenate the water. 

How Experienced Aquarists Reduce Fish Tank Maintenance 

Rather than rely on a ‘self cleaning’ fish tank, there are several ways you can set yourself up for success while reducing your tank maintenance by following tips from experienced aquarists.

fish swimming in large aquarium

Focus On Tank Size

Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with smaller nano aquariums, such as 5 gallon or even 3 gallon fish tanks, they are harder to manage and maintain water parameters.

If you’re new to fishkeeping it’s much easier to maintain and keep a larger tank stable. If you have the room, a 20 gallon or even a 30 gallon tank can be the perfect size. But a 10 gallon tank is also fine if you want to keep a small community or just one or two fish.

The Right Filtration

A proper filtration system is another key component in keeping your water parameters in check, your tank healthy, and reducing your maintenance. 3 stage filters are excellent as they have mechanical, chemical, and biological media working together to remove toxins from the water.

Your filter also needs the correct flow rate for the size of tank. Generally, for a freshwater aquarium, your filter should be able to process all your water in your tank 4 to 6 times an hour. So for a 20 gallon aquarium you’d need one with an 80 to 120 gallon per hour (GPH) flow rate.

Stock Your Tank Correctly

Making sure you stock the right fish, and that you don’t overstock your aquarium is another way you’ll make sure you have a healthy tank that’s easier to maintain.

Overstocking means more fish waste and often excess food in the water, which in turn can lead to ammonia spikes and other parameter fluctuations. The general rule is to allow one gallon per inch of fish for a freshwater tank, so around 12 1.5 inch long fish in a 20 gallon aquarium.

Monitor Your Water Parameters

Keeping a close eye on your water parameters is another tip experienced aquarists follow to help reduce maintenance. If you use an in-tank thermometer you can take a quick look at it every day when you feed your fish to check the temperature.

You should also test your water at least weekly using a test kit. These kits allow you to test ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, and other levels. And depending on the values you can work out your water change frequency accordingly.

Our Verdict

Whilst true ‘self cleaning’ fish tanks are a myth there are some tanks which have awesome features to help reduce maintenance.

If you want a small nano aquarium that features easy water changes, the MiniBow Aquarium Kit is a great choice. Or for a premium but low maintenance tank, the biOrb Flow is another great option.

But overall if you are new to fish keeping, one of the main pieces of advice is to buy a good size tank with a proper filter, and don’t overstock. The Marina LED 20 Gallon Aquarium Kit comes with everything you need to get started in this way. 

FAQs

Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to self cleaning fish tanks.

Should I Buy A Self Cleaning Fish Tank?

Tiny gravity based tanks with no filtration are very unhealthy for fish and we certainly don’t recommend them. Larger water garden kits are ok, but they are not ‘self cleaning’ – you still need to maintain your fish tank!

Is There a Fish Tank You Don’t Have to Clean?

No. Every aquarium that contains fish will need cleaning and maintenance. But you’ll find it easier with a larger tank set up with proper filtration.

What Is The Easiest Fish Tank To Maintain?

Larger aquariums that have adequate filtration and have been properly stocked are always going to be easier to keep stable than small nano tanks.

How Often Do You Need To Clean A Fish Tank?

Most tanks need cleaning weekly, along with a partial water change of around 20 to 25%. This may be more or less frequent though depending on the stability of your water parameters.

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AUTHOR
Matt Thomas
Matt has been keeping fish since junior high when he used to look after his parent's tank. He loves guppies, cichlids, and his crowntail betta named Bobby.

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