How Much Work Is It To Keep A Fish Tank?

Installing an aquarium can be a room changing experience, adding a kaleidoscope of color and perpetual movement in a segment of your living space. And above all, watching different species of fish lazily swimming around a fish tank in your home can induce a form of hypnotic relaxation that can relieve the stress of many a long workday.

But can the upkeep outweigh the joy?

Depending on the type of fish, whether saltwater or freshwater varieties, as well as the size of the tank itself, can influence the effort required to keep a fish tank running smoothly. The ideal situation is to have a tank that has minimal maintenance with fish that know how to keep their house clean.

The Right Fish Tank

How big should the tank be?

That depends on the area you have available to keep it. The good news is that a larger tank doesn’t necessarily mean more work compared to a smaller one as the maintenance process will be the same for both.

When choosing a tank a few features need to be considered, however, from how easy the access point is for feeding, the filtration system, the water heating system if required and how easy the water is to change, and the lighting; fish like to know whether it’s day or night as well.

If you’re a newbie to fish keeping, the first step to consider is the most exciting part, and that’s deciding which type of fish you would like to showcase in your new aquarium. Do you fancy a diverse range of tropical fish with a myriad of colors, shapes and sizes or you would like just a couple of goldfish, meandering back and forth all day with their little cheeks puffed out?

A point to consider from the get go is that different species of fish have different care needs. And their diversity can reflect on the amount of work and attention needed to keep them fed, in optimum health, and how often the water needs to be changed.

Once the type of fish is mentally ticked off the next step is choosing the tank.

In fact, the tank has to be bought first and not at the same time as the fish. This is very important and why this is crucial will be explained a little further on.

Now, fish tanks can be stylish and modern, and many are mounted on cabinets for storage of fish food and, to make caregiving easier, maintenance equipment. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and even material, plastic or acrylic, so there are a lot of options and styles to choose from.

So, before whatever fish is on your dream list is purchased, the tank has to be filled, and decorated in the manner and style you desire; some people want minimalism, just sand, and a few rocks, while others want fauna, caves and treasure chests. And then there is the source of the water.

This is a crucial component.  Normal tap water can be perfectly okay to use but has to be checked for contaminants and additives, such as chlorine. Chlorinated water is harmless to humans but over a short period of time can adversely impact the health of the fish, can stress them out and at high levels can lead to death.

The solution to using the readily available tap water is to use a dechlorinator or a chloramine remover. Just a few drops will dechlorinate the water instantly and then it can be allowed to sit for a few days with the substrate on the base to ensure that it will be well on its way to being ready for its new inhabitants. After this period of sitting still the water will start to build up a certain level of much-needed bacteria.

This is called the startup cycle or biological cycle and is needed because the bacteria will contribute to breaking down not only the waste excreted by the fish, but any leftover fish food or plant degradation, and this biological cycle can take anywhere from 2 weeks to two months.

So as you can see a bit of patience and a careful initial staging procedure is required. If overlooked it can result in the death of those much sought after fish very quickly. A top tip is actually to introduce a few hardier types of fish over a period of days that can withstand this new budding ecosystem and monitor their behavior. If this trial run is successful then later on the other fish can be gradually introduced to their new home rather than being thrown in at the deep end all at the same time.

To help with water maintenance when creating this new underwater biodiversity system, a water testing kit is a must-have addition to your bag of tools. It can be the difference between life and death and should be utilized regularly to ensure that the water is not doing more harm than good to its inhabitants.

This water testing tool will also monitor the levels of ammonium and nitrates, which can become toxic to the fish if left unchecked. Fortunately, they can easily be controlled by weekly water exchanges, partial or fully if needed, and a good filtration system.

If you have a medium-size tank that holds between 55 – 75 gallons of water, then it would only require a 50% water change each week.

The size of this fish tank is comfortable for most rooms but not for all fish. Goldfish, for example, are kind of messy so for this size tank the water would have to be changed more often for this species.

Another factor that can weigh in on how easy, or difficult, it can be to maintain the tank, are fish cohabitants. Not all fish are created equal and not all fish get along. Fish, like most living things, can grow at different rates, can be bullies, some either like their own space or prefer to be in a school, some are lazy and easygoing while others like to bounce from one end of the tank to the other all day long.

It’s the aggressive ones that you have to be careful of, making sure they are not placed with other fish that they are going to pick on constantly; the last thing you want to be doing on a daily basis is breaking up fish fights.

Proper research is paramount so the tank buddies do not become bad neighbors and the right habitat is amenable to all the inhabitants.

So, with proper planning, a healthy environment can be set up, which would make maintenance easier and weekly chores a breeze.

Freshwater vs Saltwater Tanks

The setting up process for a freshwater tank can be relatively inexpensive compared to its saltwater alternative – but both come with their advantages and disadvantages.

For ease of set up and maintenance, a freshwater fish tank would be easier to start with if you have little or no experience with fish tanks, and generally the fish are not as expensive to buy and are easier to take care of. To keep maintenance down and avoid problems to start with it is advisable not to introduce live plants to the freshwater ecosystem as complications can arise with the water quality. Artificial plants can look just as vibrant and the fish would react to them in exactly the same manner, whether for shelter, to hide, or for an afternoon nap.

The tank options are better, and cheaper, too, with both glass and acrylic being available while only glass is an option for saltwater. In this case, it’s always better to opt for a larger size as saltwater fish tend to grow slightly larger and require a bigger environment to thrive. But the advantages with saltwater tanks lie with the sheer variety of fish available, from a myriad blend of vibrant colors to shapes, sizes and, believe it or not, characters.

And it’s these extra perks that make a saltwater tank worth the extra bit of cost and effort in the setting up process. Once that is done, the differences are minor, a little extra attention to the filtration process, the water quality monitored more frequently, and a closer eye on the health and well-being of the fish.

The rewards will far outweigh any initial extra overheads or difficulties, and your new tank can be a beautiful showpiece in your home. 

The Work Needed to Maintain a Fish Tank

As you can see the main crux of it is that a lot of the work comes down to the initial set-up stage. It’s reminiscent of what woodworkers always say, “measure twice, cut once.”

This also applies to fish tanks. The importance of taking the time to plan, research and set up the right habitat for the types of fish desired cannot be stressed enough.  Simply ensuring that all the fish are going to make good tank buddies and that they are all going to be healthy and stress-free in their new biodiverse system, will ensure that you yourself will be stress-free.

A simple schedule can make all of this a piece of fish cake.

First, make sure the nitrate and ammonia levels are under control so as not to endanger the lives of any of your fish. This is a quick job with a water tester.

Depending on what types of fish in the tank will determine how often the water has to be changed.

On average just a 50% water change is required on a weekly basis and, although a bucket can be used to carefully scoop out the water, a submersible pump makes life a lot easier. Dangle the waste end in a toilet, or into the garden or into a bucket, and the time and effort involved will be greatly reduced. Once the tank is sufficiently empty the glass can be cleaned at this time and the re-filling can be done by a hose connected to a tap.

Periodically the filtration system needs to be checked for any blockages and cleaned, an essential part of maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

An unavoidable task of keeping a fish tank is feeding the fish. Like all living beings fish have to have a varied diet and not all fish eat the same things or at the same time. They also like to have several small meals throughout the day rather than large ones.

Overfeeding can lead to its own accumulation of problems as uneaten food will go to waste and, unlike in our above-water world, there are no rubbish collectors. And as you know rotten food does not a livable environment make, and this will reflect in the health of the fish and the number of cleanups you have to do regularly.

Some fish are nocturnal so tend to eat at different times to their neighbors, some are bottom feeders so need food that sinks to the bottom and some are omnivores, not carnivores, preferring just plant-based foods like fruits and veg for their dietary needs. Then to complicate matters some fish like to hunt for their food, so when choosing tank mates ensure that one inhabitant won’t be eyeing the other as its next meal.

Overcrowding can be an issue.

The temptation when starting out is to have as many fish in the tank as possible so you have more to look at and make faces at. This can be a problem as some species prefer more fin space than others and if personal space is not respected then your new fish will become stressed out, aggressive and violence can break out.

When those potential teething problems are ironed out, the idea is to make a maintenance schedule as easy as possible to adhere to and with just a few hours a week set aside all the necessary tasks can easily be undertaken.

The time of this maintenance routine can vary or be reduced if the decorations do not include live plants, the substrate is composed of either sand or gravel, which are both easy to clean, and the fish are not messy eaters or world-beating poopers.

In a nutshell, having fish as pets isn’t as easy as plopping them in a tank of water, throwing in a rock or two for decoration, and letting the good times roll.

Conclusion

The good news is that looking after a fish tank can be a fairly easy hobby and the reward of having a colorful array of fish in the corner of the living room can change the ambiance of a room for the better.

This underwater metropolis needs to be set up for the optimum well-being of the fish, for their health, their entertainment and if done correctly they will be swimmingly happy and content. And in return, you get to marvel and watch these amazingly beautiful creatures day in and day out for many years to come.

The question to ask at the end of the day is, are you watching the fish, or are the fish watching you?

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Adam Edwards
Hi, my name is Adam and I'm an aquarium enthusiast! I didn't discover the joys of being an 'aquarium fanatic' (as some of my friends call me!) until I was in my 20's. When I first started out I found it difficult to find all the information I needed so I started this website to compile all the useful information I can think of. Enjoy!