An Aquarium without Electricity
February 4, 2013 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I love fish. I don't like buying electric components and spending the money on electricity to maintain a fish tank. I am also slightly paranoid about mixing water with electricity. So I'd like advice/stories/speculation on setting up an aesthetically pleasing aquarium without using electricity at all. Realistically, I'll be living in an apartment, and looking for a 0.5 to 12 gallon aquarium, but I'm interested in stories of aquariums elsewhere and/or in other situations.

Experience: I have some experience keeping fish, from a beta fish in a 1/4 gallon tank to 50 gallon setups of angelfish and goldfish (in separate aquariums, of course!). I have kept a ghost knife fish, which I really liked, but it did not survive my one week long vacation. I've kept salt water shrimps, but no salt water fish. (It was my attempt at a nano tank.) So assume that I know the basics of cycling, schooling fish, community fish, etc, but not the more advanced stuff.

Location: Like I said, an apartment. With two cats. The apartment should never get below 55 degrees, but I don't want to promise more than that. There is a south facing window.

Budget: Let's say up to $300 for the entire setup? (Including fish.) I have nothing right now.

Things I've briefly looked into: I'm okay with getting a beta fish again, though I would want the beta fish to be healthy. Something like the NoClean Aquariums satisfies my sensibilities. or maybe something like this and then I can grow basil or something.

If there were no constraints, I would try to either keep another ghost knife fish, try to breed discus fish, or try to keep puffer fish. But I don't want to spend that much time taking care of the aquarium. I prefer a planted tank.
posted by ethidda to Pets & Animals (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Unfiltered aquariums are A Thing in the world of aquaria. It's considered an advanced technique, so lots of planning and study need to be put into it - here's an overview. In essence, you're using a balance of plants, invertebrates and fish to set up a sustaining ecosystem in miniature.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:47 AM on February 4, 2013

I used to have a zebra fish (Maurice--some old videos* are in my profile link if you wanna see how cute he is was). He lived for four (!) years in a 1 gallon bowl. He required minimal care (partial water changes with the AquaSafe chemical every two-ish weeks) and was extremely hardy, even surviving several days without food and heat in a Chicago winter while I was on vacation and my roommate was in the hospital. (Roommate survived, too.)

I am pretty much a noob when it comes to the fish thing, but Maurice lived a nice, long life sans electricity and with very little involvement on my part. I would chalk up his success to zebrafish just being a really sturdy little species.

*You will also see a few videos of a sunburst platy, Lydia, who only lived a day because apparently platys require a lot of extra attention that the pet store guy didn't tell me about.
posted by phunniemee at 11:09 AM on February 4, 2013

What you want can me done—but with a very high degree of difficulty.

Essentially, you'll be trying to create an entire ecosystem that is self-sustaining. Typically, a filter (and water changes) is how you you deal with pollution in an aquarium. You'll need to rely on plants and a stock of good bacteria to be your "filter". Discus are notorious for being very picky about water quality—doubly so if you want them to breed. This is to say nothing of water temperature—which would need to be a constant 75-80.

Typically, (but not always) planted tanks and discus require some of the most equipment and attention of the fresh-water aquarium hobby.

Your success will depend on having abundant sun, lots of carefully selected plants and VERY minimal fish stocking. You should look at these links:
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 11:22 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

FYI, I've seen a "no aquariums or waterbeds" clause in leases before—the rational being applying large volumes of water to a floor isn't neighborly to any downstairs tenants. You might want to double check your lease first.
posted by fontophilic at 11:27 AM on February 4, 2013

Best answer: Here is a simple self-sustaining biosphere I found intriguing.
posted by shothotbot at 12:01 PM on February 4, 2013

So, to sum up, you're looking for an aquarium set-up which requires no additional light, additional heat, or mechanical filtration. I'm sure it's technically possible to get all three of those, but probably not without spending considerably more time and effort on maintenance than you're looking for. (Note that the guides in the davesgarden and aquariumadvice articles linked above use light, and one of them filtration as well. Heat isn't really mentioned but may just be assumed because they're talking about tropical fish for the most part.)

It might be easier if you lived in a warmer area or had room for a larger tank, but 55 degrees restricts you to coldwater species, many of which get pretty large, are happier in schools, are happier in tanks with with current, or some combination of the above.

A mini tank for ghost shrimp like the ones in the instructables or the MAKE links is probably your best bet.

And now for the eponysterical section:

If you'd like to go for a betta and are willing to compromise on the electricity, my suggestion would be a 5 gallon cycled tank with a heater and filter (and, if you want to throw in live plants, a light). Inexpensive, low maintenance for you, paradise for the betta. You could go as low as 2.5 gallons, but then it would be much harder to cycle, which means more frequent water changes for you. I've kept bettas long term in both cycled 5 gallons and uncycled 2.5 gallons, and I can attest that not only were the smaller tanks 3 or 4 times the work -- I absolutely had to change the water in the 2.5 gallons every five days or the water quality would plummet, whereas my 5 gallons I could easily neglect other than feedings for most of a month and they'd be fine -- but my bettas were *much* more active, colorful, and interactive when I upgraded their digs. I would definitely not keep bettas in anything like the Goldfish Garden or the NoClean (shudder!), which are far too small, and unheated. You can compromise a little on the tank size, but in your apartment you'd definitely need a heater, in which case I say you might as well go for the larger tank and have something prettier, easier to maintain, and better for its occupant. If you want to research more about your options here, I recommend as one of the best betta care websites out there.
posted by bettafish at 12:47 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I disagree somewhat with those saying what you want to do is something difficult to attain or requires a great deal of skill or maintenance. You might have to be willing to look into hardier species of fish though. I would peruse the forums here for some tips. This is also a pretty cool example of what can be done within most of the parameters you've mentioned.

In my own experience, putting a ton of plants in the tank and starting out with a fairly small number of fish (I had six white clouds in a 10 gallon tank when I started mine a few years ago) is pretty much all you need. I think the general recommendation for aquaria is 1 inch of fish at its adult size per gallon of aquarium, but I think that, with sufficient plants (especially some emergent ones, i.e. growing only partly submersed, which seem to improve water conditions) you could go a little over that. The only maintenance I have to do is occasionally add a gallon or two of water to bring the level back up, and of course feed the fish every day or two. No water changes or cleaning or anything. It's very wild looking, but I like it. It's in a north-facing window, so I do have some supplemental lighting for the plants that's on for about 4 hours a day, but in a lighter location even this wouldn't be necessary.
posted by i. shishkin at 2:02 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The thing with plants, is they need lights, and your substrate will need a tonne of nutrients, because there won't be as many fish as plants supplying rich fertisiler.

It certainly can be fantastically complicated, and to avoid that you need to look away from many traditional aquarium pets - they are too finicky (discus), or two dirty (goldfish, many, many others) for a tank like this to survive. White clouds are an excellent suggestion as they can handle cold better than almost any other fish.

Be aware that, in a planted tank, your plants are in constant competition with algae. Aquarists invest a lot of time and resources giving plants the things they need to beat the algae. If you remove all of those things, it is easy for algae to gain the upper hand, as it is generally more efficient at processing sunlight and nutrients (in the water) than plants. This is why simply parking the tank in the sun is not necessarily a great idea.
posted by smoke at 4:12 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

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