20 Gallon Tank Advice on low maintenance aquarium

Beckjean

Hey everybody, so my mom wants me to set up a community fish tank for her. We currently have a 10gal and a 20gal long not in use at the house but she was also considering buying either a 29gal or it was either a 25 or 26gal bowfront she saw petsmart had. We do not currently own any other equipment (heater, hood, filter, etc solely the aquarium). She herself doesn't want to be responsible for it and wants me to take care of the cleaning for her. I don't mind helping with the tank because I also like aquariums but I'm hoping to have it as low maintenance as possible because I'm already busy with work and several other pets I take care of.

She specifically wants guppies in the tank because she loves the color but she also open to mollies and platies (she basically just wants bright colored fish). She also wants the tank to have a more natural look using live plants and driftwood. However, she does not want any snails; when we had the 10gallon we put one snail in and ended up with hundreds if not thousands and neither of can handle that again.

I was hoping I could get some advice on a low maintenance set up including suggested tank size, equipment, substrate, fish, plants and anything else you might think of. We are in no rush to set up the tank. And by low maintenance I'm hoping something that I only need to do water changes, cleaning, and testing on every 2-4 weeks, preferably closer to 4 weeks.

If somebody could give me some detailed information or point me in the right direction to some detailed info it would be greatly appreciated.
 

KingOscar

Use the 20 long.
Maintain a low stocking level. Half or less of what the system could support.
No live plants. (they are extra maintenance)
One appropriate sized filter.
Feed sparingly.

I find snails help. If you have too many snails there is too much food.

A tank done like this could easily go a month between water change/cleaning. I've done it.
 

LowConductivity

Not to be a negative Nancy, but if you really don't have time for maintenance, fish probably aren't the right pet. 2-4 weeks, becomes 4-8 weeks, and 4-8 weeks becomes why are my fish sick and dying pretty easily.
 

ruud

Low maintenance aquascapes is how I would define my hobby. However, not because I don't have time for the hobby; but rather because I enjoy to let nature run its own course a bit.

Contrary to what KingOscar suggest, live plants are actually the key for low maintenance tanks. Although there are exceptions, such as riverscapes with fast-flowing water as these can be very low maintenance as well.

My tips:
  • Shallow tanks to maximize surface - volume ratio; the water levels of my 8 tanks is 10 inch or (much) less.
  • Slow-growing, shady plants such as ferns, mosses, crypts and buces (or anubias)
  • Cover 3/4 of ground surface with these plants, from the very start (many of these shady plants are epiphytes, attaching themselves to wood and rock)
  • Dont use strong light (up to 30 umols) or perhaps don't use any dedicated aquarium lights, but simply benefit from ambient light (I do this for some of my tanks close to a window, but only during spring and summer)
  • Correspondingly, dont use any fertilizers, regardless of substrate; micronutrients are provided by, let's say, monthly water changes. Macronutrients by livestock.
  • Get a dozen neocaridina shrimp.
  • At least initially, I would use a filter; its main purpose is to create water movement. In a heavily planted tank, a lot of filtration is performed by plants and bacteria residing on plants and in substrate. Water movement really helps in this regard. I consider the media inside the filter as a bonus.
  • Consider not using a heater.
  • And see what water parameters you have. Choose one fish species only that fits these parameters.
 

MacZ

I agree with LowConductivity on this one. Also if I were you and couldn't guarantee to be there regularly I would either demand some initiative from my mother to simply learn how to do maintenance herself instead of "employing" her (albeit adult) kid as a fish tank maintenance service. Pretty selfish of her if you ask me. I do a lot for my retiree parents, but such a request I would simply refuse. Otherwise I would know I put animals in potential danger, which I wouldn't be comfortable with. They pay the price.
Or is there any form of impairment, that bars her from doing it herself? That would be something different.
 

AP1

From your description, not sure this is a project you should both be doing, at the moment anyways. Low maintenance tanks are very doable, but can often require high initial time/labor expenditures, as well as a willingness to put up with some of the other realities of aquariums. I tend to agree with ruud in terms of the best road forward being a planted tank (the plants, especially if you have floaters, will help keep nitrates in check). But planted tanks do require, if not constant work, constant attention--many who have planted tanks are tinkerers who like looking at, and sometimes messing with, the plants.

Take a look at my 29 gallon build/journal. Two months after setup, the tank is running 2-5 ppm of nitrate a week out from water changes; I could probably thus go at least 3 weeks without water changes, and most would call this a low maintenance tank. But plants also mean that I have a large number of snails--I'm skeptical of whether a planted, no-snail guppy tank can be guaranteed, esp. if neither of you wants to spend 10 minutes a day for the first month watching it and picking out snails. There is also always some minor 'emergency' that needs taking care of--a clogged filter, a mysterious ammonia reading, starving shrimp, etc.

Without plants, there is no way to remove nitrates, and unless your mom is willing to do something on the order of two guppies in a 20 gallon long, regular water changes will be needed.

Speaking of guppies, unless doing male-only, the population will increase quickly, and the tank will quickly no longer be low maintenance.

So perhaps have a conversation with her to see whether she really wants to go ahead with this and the responsibilities involved? These are living creatures after all and to me it seems like the best thing to do would be to wait until life slows down for both of you.

If the answer is still yes, my advice would be to get out the 20 gallon long (low height helps in terms of growing plants), and do a very low stocked (perhaps just one, but ask around for opinions from those who have actually kept them, which I have not) planted pea puffer tank. The pea puffer(s) will take care of snails in theory, so this would be one way to have plants and resulting low nitrates without snails. Just plan to spend a decent amount of money on plants and a significant amount of time for the initial set-up (at least).
 

86 ssinit

Sorry but this is already starting off bad so it’s not going to finish well. Get her a cat!
 

BlockHead1981

I have had several tanks of all sizes, the easiest tank I had setup by far was my 29 gallon. I would still not go more than 2 weeks without performing water changes. The key to your potential setup will be a couple of things. First off, low stock meaning not a lot of fish like half stocked. Feed sparingly, do not overfeed, just once a day or every other day. And finally, really great filtration. I had an Eheim 2217 Canister Filter which provided more than enough filtration and flow. You can do plants but would have to be low maintenance plants like java fern. You need to keep your lighting low at a minimum so your glass doesn't get as dirty and you avoid algae. It worked for me and I had a fancy goldfish in the tank which produce a lot of waste. I would recommend a bare bottom which I have setup in one of my tanks and as far as cleanliness goes its the easiest to maintain. I would still plan on water changes even just like 20% every week if you can. Know your limitations, if it becomes too much "work" then it's no longer fun and you should consider making some changes. It happened to me, I had 3 tanks set up and it got to be too much so I went to 2 tanks and it was fun again. Good luck
 

Beckjean

Or is there any form of impairment, that bars her from doing it herself? That would be something different.
My mom has issues with lifting any amount of weight, her max limit is a gallon of milk so doing water changes isn't something she can really do and she also works a full time job so she isn't home anymore than I am.

AP1 ruud I'm really greatful for the advice and other suggestions on things we could do instead. However, I think telling you more about the situation might help better explain the amount of time I have and thus see what would work best for me and the fish.
I do live with my parents so checking on the tank quickly is something I can do but I just can't spend an hour a day maintaining the tank. My situation is more on the line of I have 1 day a week to get all my major chores done and have any significant time to myself which would be the day I would add maintaining the aquarium to.

In the past we had a 10gal tank and we kept getting algae blooms and had an explosion of snails. At the time I was young and didn't do any research on how to care for an aquarium but I had to spend a lot of time partially cleaning and fully cleaning the tank and when I had my turtle in a 55 gal that took hours to properly clean. I just dont have that kind of time anymore.

So I guess a better question would be how much time a week would I need in order to maintain a community tank
 

Ouse

So I guess a better question would be how much time a week would I need in order to maintain a community tank
At the very least: once a week to do a 50% water change and make observations.

However, I'm also not confident getting a fish tank is a good idea for you provided your situation.
 

MacZ

I'll be blunt and realistic then: Drop the idea of a fishtank.

It's best for you both and for any fish you might get. If you can't guarantee sufficient care and are already down to one day for chores and yourself, this is only going to add up and while you are steering right into a caretaker-burnout situation, the fish would be the ones that suffer even more.
 

86 ssinit

Maintaining a tank isn’t hard. A 29g should only take you 2 hrs a week. Do a 30-50% water change weekly and your tank will be fine. If you add plants. Once to twice a month you will need to trim them. 10mins at best. Feed fish twice a day just a pinch of food 5min daily. That’s your daily stuff. Than change 15 gal a week. Drain your tank water into 3 5g buckets. Drain by vacuuming 1 third of the tank weekly. Than weekly clean your filter media in the tank water. For a 29g I would recommend a marineland 350 filter. Can be bought from petsmart online and picked up at store for around $30. Keeping fish is easy but you MUST have a weekly schedule.
 

ruud

Yes, thinking this over, the low maintenance tanks I'm referring to are actually not what your mom, yourself, and probably most people prefer to have. These tank really are dominated by plants; in half of the tanks that I own, I can't even see fish swimming inside the tank (unless I'm doing my best to spot em)!

Besides, there is one big maintenance aspect to this approach; the tanks that also have plants growing emersed big time, require a lot of water topping off. Every other day a bucket of RO water is released in my tanks - hard work!

If you proceed, because I bet you will, then do yourself a favor, and add lots and lots of java fern in your tank and keep the lighting very modest. And find a nice group of tetras OR rasboras.
 

KingOscar

Sure, a dedicated aquarist with years of experience can do all sorts of things with live plants. Maybe even something they consider low maintenance. That doesn't really relate to someone with little to no experience, and no desire to put in all sorts of time to figure it out.

Does that mean they shouldn't be able to have and enjoy keeping fish? I don't think so.

I've set up and maintained a tank for my parents. I taught them how to properly feed the fish and that's all they had to do. I would stop by and do a WC every few weeks or so. The fish did well and everyone was happy. I never had to fertilize or trim plants, or contend with not being able to see the fish... which is the main reason most want to keep fish!

I agree that guppies would be a mistake and quickly over stock the tank, unless you kept all males.
 

Beckjean

If you proceed, because I bet you will, then do yourself a favor, and add lots and lots of java fern in your tank and keep the lighting very modest. And find a nice group of tetras OR rasboras.
When the idea for an aquarium first surfaced I did a little research on the stocking and me and my mom agreed to try and understock. Whether it meant less fish or a bigger tank for the amount of fish wanted. The hope was to have 3 guppies about 6 schooling fish and then either shrimp or pygmy cats. I actually love the way Java fern looks and wanted it to be the main plant in the tank with maybe a couple others and then a floating plant.
I agree that guppies would be a mistake and quickly over stock the tank, unless you kept all males.
I didnt realize guppies would overstock the tank so fast. When we had the 10 gallon we had guppies and they bred but the fry didn't tend to last long only a couple ever grew to adults. But I dont think having all males would be a problem because aren't they more colorful than the females and that's what my mom truly wants is the color. If you guys have a suggestion on other colorful fish like guppies that would be better I would definitely take it into consideration.
Keeping fish is easy but you MUST have a weekly schedule.
Breaking it down into what to do and how long it will take is actually extremely helpful so thank you for that


My mom actually went and found a tank at a yard sale today. It's a bowfront and the lady said it's 30gal but I wouldn't be suprised if it's actually slightly smaller by a few gallons. So it looks like as long as that tank doesn't leak she will want me to set that up
 

BlockHead1981

Like I said it can be done, you just have to have the right setup. The right fish, good feeding habits and great filtration. For example if you had 30 gallon tank with 4-5 MALE only guppies and you feed correctly and had a decent canister filter you would probably only have to top off the water when it evaporates during the week and perform water changes every 2 weeks. Personally I under stock all my tanks, nobody says they have to be full. I have 2 small fish in my 22 gallon long and nothing but shrimp in my 16 gallon and they are super easy to maintain. I agree don't be discouraged just be realistic. You should keep fish that interest you not just something that will be easy to maintain. I mentioned java fern in my earlier post because all the ones I have had need zero maintenance and I mean after many many months.
When the idea for an aquarium first surfaced I did a little research on the stocking and me and my mom agreed to try and understock. Whether it meant less fish or a bigger tank for the amount of fish wanted. The hope was to have 3 guppies about 6 schooling fish and then either shrimp or pygmy cats. I actually love the way Java fern looks and wanted it to be the main plant in the tank with maybe a couple others and then a floating plant.

I didnt realize guppies would overstock the tank so fast. When we had the 10 gallon we had guppies and they bred but the fry didn't tend to last long only a couple ever grew to adults. But I dont think having all males would be a problem because aren't they more colorful than the females and that's what my mom truly wants is the color. If you guys have a suggestion on other colorful fish like guppies that would be better I would definitely take it into consideration.

Breaking it down into what to do and how long it will take is actually extremely helpful so thank you for that


My mom actually went and found a tank at a yard sale today. It's a bowfront and the lady said it's 30gal but I wouldn't be suprised if it's actually slightly smaller by a few gallons. So it looks like as long as that tank doesn't leak she will want me to set that up
Java Fern is amazing, its beautiful in color and very filling/dense. I mentioned a canister filter but for someone new and a 30 gallon a good hang on back filter might be better. I suggest an Aquaclear 70. might be a little strong but you can adjust the flow if needed. I had an Aquaclear 50 on my 29 and I could of easily went with a 70 instead. Good luck post pics
 

JavaMossMan

Yes 4 weeks without water change is very doable. You have to make sure you set it up properly from the start. The key is to start with a low/moderate fish load and live plants. Java moss, java ferns, watersprite, floating plants, crypts, amazon swords are all good for a low tank set up. I do water changes once every 3-6 months for my tanks and I regularly top off water that evaporated.

If you want something even lower maintenance try a shrimp tank.
 

86 ssinit

Ok first off there’s more to it than just not changing water. It actually takes time to have a low maintenance tank. The tank has to be running for at least 6 months to a year. It has to be established. It’s not like you set it up cycle it add fish and plants and off you go. It will take at least 6months to get it to where you can do less water changes. But the object should never be how can I do less! I recommend water changes weekly just to better understand your tank. The best part of the tank is the fact that your maintaining it. Less is never better.
 

BlockHead1981

Yes 4 weeks without water change is very doable. You have to make sure you set it up properly from the start. The key is to start with a low/moderate fish load and live plants. Java moss, java ferns, watersprite, floating plants, crypts, amazon swords are all good for a low tank set up. I do water changes once every 3-6 months for my tanks and I regularly top off water that evaporated.

If you want something even lower maintenance try a shrimp tank.
I was waiting on someone to chime in on water changes on longer intervals. Some don't ever do water changes just top off. I had a tank like that up and running for a couple years, it was a 29. I even had German Rams in there thriving which can be super sensitive. I prefer to do water changes more frequently myself but I don't worry at all if I miss a week or two.
 

JavaMossMan

I've kept sick platy for many months in a one gallon jar that looked like skeletons from internal parasites only for them to come back to full health and plump. Those jars have been running for three years and I don't recall ever doing a water change in them. The key there was a very deep substrate (with malaysian trumpet snails) and floating plants.

Instead of doing water changes you remove excess plants and top off water. The removal of plants is equivalent to a water change so there is some regular maintenance. I learned my lesson on this once where I allowed jungle val to completely take over a 10 gallon and once it maxed out in the tank it stopped growing and I got an outbreak of cyanobacteria.

Ok first off there’s more to it than just not changing water. It actually takes time to have a low maintenance tank. The tank has to be running for at least 6 months to a year. It has to be established. It’s not like you set it up cycle it add fish and plants and off you go. It will take at least 6months to get it to where you can do less water changes. But the object should never be how can I do less! I recommend water changes weekly just to better understand your tank. The best part of the tank is the fact that your maintaining it. Less is never better.

I agree tanks need to be established (before you go without water changes for a long time) and also tested every week or so. I'm not a fan of new tanks no matter if they were cycled properly. The only safe/stable tank for me is an established tank that has been running for months preferably at least a year.
 

BPSabelhaus

Well, if you don’t mind a lack of live plants, I’ve found brackish with Endlers (guppy) to be very very low maintenance.
 

Beckjean

Thank you guys so much for the advice on what will and won't work. I think once we're ready we'll probably start off with 4 male guppies only and see how that goes. If it goes well maybe add some schooling fish later on. I'm definitely going to be adding a plants like the java fern and Amazon swords and im undecided on the floating plants. I'm also going to plan on getting a larger filter.

Overall for maintenance I'll be able to do water testing weekly and could probably even show my mom how to do it if I can't. I might end up being able to swing a weekly water change but I'm mainly concerned that if I do end up being really busy that it won't kill my tank if I skip a week. I'm thinking as long as we keep an eye on the tank we can top it up often enough it won't take too much time out of the day to do so and my mom will be able to help if it's not so much water.

I know that @blockheadsuggested a barebottom tank but I was wondering if anybody else had suggestions on substrate. When I was originally doing research I saw that eco complete was a good substrate for plants. Would that be good for this type of setup or would gravel or sand or barebottom be recommended?

If you want something even lower maintenance try a shrimp tank
Funny enough I'm about 2 weeks into cycling a 3.5gal in my bedroom for cherry shrimp. I have several Java ferns in it and some type of mossball with an unknown plant growing from it currently

Well, if you don’t mind a lack of live plants, I’ve found brackish with Endlers (guppy) to be very very low maintenance.
Endlers is one of the guppies I've come across in my research and I love them I'm hoping to convince my mom to get some but I didn't realize they were brackish fish
 

86 ssinit

For substrate use just plain small gravel. Anything 1/8” or less. Eco compleat is just crushed lava rock. Works for some and does nothing for others. Your looking for easy so go with gravel.
 

BlockHead1981

Thank you guys so much for the advice on what will and won't work. I think once we're ready we'll probably start off with 4 male guppies only and see how that goes. If it goes well maybe add some schooling fish later on. I'm definitely going to be adding a plants like the java fern and Amazon swords and im undecided on the floating plants. I'm also going to plan on getting a larger filter.

Overall for maintenance I'll be able to do water testing weekly and could probably even show my mom how to do it if I can't. I might end up being able to swing a weekly water change but I'm mainly concerned that if I do end up being really busy that it won't kill my tank if I skip a week. I'm thinking as long as we keep an eye on the tank we can top it up often enough it won't take too much time out of the day to do so and my mom will be able to help if it's not so much water.

I know that @blockheadsuggested a barebottom tank but I was wondering if anybody else had suggestions on substrate. When I was originally doing research I saw that eco complete was a good substrate for plants. Would that be good for this type of setup or would gravel or sand or barebottom be recommended?


Funny enough I'm about 2 weeks into cycling a 3.5gal in my bedroom for cherry shrimp. I have several Java ferns in it and some type of mossball with an unknown plant growing from it currently


Endlers is one of the guppies I've come across in my research and I love them I'm hoping to convince my mom to get some but I didn't realize they were brackish fish
I use CaribSea Eco Complete, good stuff, pick up some root tabs as well. I recommend Seachem Root tabs I have had great results, your swords should take off and I suggest Crypts as well amazing plants grows slower but very nice. Ludwigia is another one of my personal favorites and Sagittaria. I have had great results with just straight up sand as well. Unless you get something like ADA which is great stuff most substrates are inert and you need to add fertilizer or root tabs.
 

AP1

Now that the decision is made, congratulations on starting the new tank. My impression is that many, including myself, don't add salt for endlers. But if they are alone, adding a bit may be a good idea--just research how much can be added without harming any plants or other fish in there.

As a frame of reference, my weekly water change takes 45 minutes. Total maintenance time is perhaps 2 hours per week, but could very easily be halved on any given week.

I would personally highly recommend fast growing/floating plants. Hornwort and water lettuce are two personal favorites. In fact, I am a little bit confused about the advice above to use slow growing plants to prevent algae. My experience (granted, in a dirted tank) has been that lots of fast growing plants are the key to preventing an algae outbreak, as the plants outcompete algae for available nutrients. At present I am actually hoping to find a way to increase algae in my tank to provide extra fodder for shrimp.

If using an active substrate I believe that you are adding nutrients to the tank, which means you need more plants to prevent algae. So I agree with the others that if thinking of low/moderate planting, it might be best to go root tabs only. But again, others, please chime in if I am wrong. If using plants, you will also want to think about lights--once you are settled on what you want to grow, let us know.

Other than the questions about maintenance (really aim for that once a week hour, at least to start), I think the one hole in your plans is snails. Adding plants should really help with reducing nitrates. But it is very hard to have plants without snails. So perhaps have a conv. with your mother regarding snails. If they are absolutely a no-go, you could think about the pea puffer route, no plants (but that reduces nitrate 'filtering'), or trying to rent assassin snails (but these can reproduce as well). Perhaps someone here has a successful method for planting without snails as well.

By the way, you are being a good child to your mom. And the two of you are honestly putting more thought into this than most who buy fish, which is to be commended. Just perhaps plan on a bit more work than you were initially thinking, esp. for the first two months. Once the tank is established and a routine is established you should be able to get close to where you were initially thinking (and if the aquarium is doing well, you will also be more motivated to continue to work on it).
 

Beckjean

UPDATE:
So my mom has decided to wait until black Friday to buy a 36 gallon bowfront with stand to use instead of the one she got at the yard sale. I was wondering if I were to buy the filter now ( I'm thinking either the Top Fin Pro 50 Power filter or the Marineland Penguin Pro 275 Power Filter or the Marineland Penguin 350 Power Filter) could I start cycling the filter now to make the process go faster once we get the new tank. My idea was to attach the filter to either the 10g or 20g long we have and let it run with nothing in the tank but water and add either liquid ammonia or fish flakes to start the cycle and then transfer the filter to the new tank. Would this work or should I just wait until we get the new tank to start cycling it?
 

BlockHead1981

Get the biggest filter you can, preferably one that you can adjust the flow. You will get better flow in the tank which is critical, better filtration, and more time between maintenance also if you decide to get a bigger tank someday you have a filter for it. I am not running any HOB filters myself right now, but I am a firm believer in having 2 filters when I do. Just in case one fails, just alternate cleaning them and you're fine. It's also good to have 2 filters because it helps with dead spots and creates more movement in the tank and surface agitation, just place them on opposite ends of the tank. If it were me on a 36g I would probably go with 2 Aquaclear 50s or maybe even 70s. I would look into Tidal HOB filters as well, I have read good things about them. Good luck
 

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