Aquarium for the lazy?
January 1, 2021 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Man, I sure would love to look at a fish tank now that I'm working from home every day. Only problem is, I'm lazy and I get bored of things easily. Is there a way I can set up a small aquarium that would require a very little in the way of maintenance after the first couple months?

I don't need a lot, just a small tank, some pretty rocks, maybe some plants, and a couple interesting looking fish. Maybe one of those cool coral-looking things that they could swim around. Ideally there would be a little ecosystem going after a little while.

I know me... I'll be all gung ho the first few weeks and then I won't want to do much in the way of work beyond giving them a pinch or two of food every day, maybe changing a filter cartridge now and then. I'm not so terrible that I'd let a fish die due to my own apathy, but I'd prefer not to have to do a lot of work.

I don't mind doing some work to get the whole thing started.

Obviously, I know I'm looking for a freshwater tank.

Is there, like, a starter kit or something I could get? Or just something like "get THIS KIND OF FISH and put it in THIS TANK with THIS FILTER and it'll mostly take care of itself."

A small tank or large bowl I could keep on my desk would be ideal. And some way to keep the cat from killing it.

Feel free to tell me this is not possible.
posted by bondcliff to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You want an EcoSphere. It's a sealed ecosystem requiring zero maintenance and lasts 1-2 years until the brine shrimp inside die.

I had one many years ago - I haven't thought about it in years until this post - and it lasted almost two years. The Amazon reviews are...varied, but one of the main complaints seems to be that you have to keep it at room temperature. I'd recommend not ordering one online if there's a decent chance it'll spend a few hours in a cold delivery truck on the way to your house.
posted by Hatashran at 7:33 PM on January 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

I agree with Hatashran: the EcoSpheres are very cool, but can also be finicky. I went through two of them over the course of a few years. The good news, I guess, is that there's really no need to feel guilty if it doesn't flourish because it's not really your fault.
posted by DrGail at 7:54 PM on January 1, 2021

I really liked having an Ecosphere but The downside for me is that need sunshine but if you put them on the windowsill they can get too hot in the direct sun or too cold when the cold air leaks in the window.
posted by metahawk at 7:58 PM on January 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Robo Fish?

My grandmother has something very much like this in a small aquarium. It’s cheerful and she doesn’t have to worry about feeding it or maintaining a tank.
posted by mochapickle at 8:11 PM on January 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

The Ecosphere looks like a dressed up version of Sea Monkeys, which proved one of the more disgusting and disappointing experiences of my childhood. It turns out, if you put a bunch of shrimp in a jar of water (which is what both "products" effectively do), you will often stimulate the cannabalistic impulses of the creatures, which is what happened to me: First there were several, then just a few ... and finally just one very large horrifying shrimp. Indeed, if you read the reviews on Amazon, you will find many others who had experiences similar to mine. Oh, I can't even think about it. Robo Fish seem a good deal nicer, frankly.
posted by Violet Blue at 8:42 PM on January 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

Hope this isn’t too annoyingly off the path but it might entertain you a bit while you decide what to do. I’ve been enjoying occasionally the extended videos on YouTube of aquariums, bird feeders and other outdoor life. The bird feeders and aquariums are often listed as “cat tv.” But the high res versions of these are pretty great. It’s fun to watch birds from a different area of the world. And because of the high definition, you can really get a good look at cool looking creatures that wouldn’t stand for you being that close in life. I put these on my second monitor that is off to the side when I need something chill but occasionally engaging.
posted by amanda at 9:10 PM on January 1, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think that what you want exists. Any aquarium requires some work, such as water changes. Generally speaking, a larger aquarium with fewer fish will require less frequent maintenance, but it's always going to require some.

Another suggestion: What about a monitor tuned to a livestream from an aquarium or zoo? That way, you could even have more variety than you'd be able to keep at home.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:16 PM on January 1, 2021 [19 favorites]

Guppy is a pretty and easy to care for freshwater fish, like goldfish. Every captive fish needs some basic care and attention, but these fishes are good starter fishes. (although Guppies tend to overbreed somewhat...)
posted by ovvl at 9:38 PM on January 1, 2021

Best answer: Kutsuwamushi is right. There isn't really such a thing. Small tanks are actually more difficult to maintain in some ways, the smaller volume of water being more difficult to keep stable. Any change in temperature, a pinch too much food, etc has a much bigger effect on the fish. There are also not that many hardy fish that can be kept in a small tank (except for a beta). Please don't get goldfish, especially not in a small tank! They are not that easy to keep healthy and happy. Guppies are easy if you get only one gender (they breed). A beta is also easy and Hardy. But keeping fish is more like gardening than like looking after a cat or dog. It's all about getting the conditions right so that they can thrive, and if you don't, they die. A lot of the fun is in geeking out about that process, so if you're not into that, an aquarium might not be the best option for you.
posted by Zumbador at 9:53 PM on January 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

I had a little office tank in LA until I figured out that the fish went fins up over long weekends when the building got too hot. All that were left were my two half dollar sized snails, Mario and Luigi. They were great! Lived off algae and kept the tank clear... and more interesting than I expected, squeegee-ing up and down the plants and walls. They lived for two-three more years. I still have Luigi’s shell even though it’s been 30 years.
posted by carmicha at 9:55 PM on January 1, 2021 [20 favorites]

Mmm... this is what's worked for me in the past + how I'd do it slightly different now. [Our fish didn't fair well with our last two moves and staying with other people while we were between homes]

Get a bigger tank than you need for the fish you intend to have. As in, don't stuff as many fish as possible in it. I used a 10 gallon tank, plus a pleco and 1-3 goldfish. Seriously. No more than 3. And even feeder goldfish will work, so long as they're healthy when you get them. Pick ones you like looking at. Get a bigger, stronger filter than it says for that size tank. [We do it again, it might be with a 20 gallon tank and 3-5 fish. I want them to GROW.]

If you want a lid with a light, get a lid with a light. We usually use a wire lizard-style lid, because the cats like to sit on it, with a small lamp nearby. [Now, we'd probably use some of those multi-color, adjustable-color, LEDs.]

Feed goldfish food. Be really careful not to overfeed - flakes leftover just get the tank dirty. After they've settled in, feed them small chunks of apples, pears, lettuce, spinach, whatever fruits and veggies that are safe for them that you have on hand. [And they will GROW.]

Oddly enough, I had one goldfish 25 years ago that used to splash at me to get my attention every time I went in the kitchen, or if I was sitting at the table doing classwork. It was the strangest thing, I hadn't realized they were that smart. Haven't had one do it since, but then, haven't had a solo fish since. Maybe he was lonely?
posted by stormyteal at 10:53 PM on January 1, 2021

Best answer: If you really want a live fish, you might consider a Betta; they are the quintessential "starter fish" as they really can do just fine in a bowl, although they'll be happier with some decor, plants, light, etc. Petco carries a ton of them and they sell various starter kits too. (Disclaimer: I used to work at a Petco and love Betta fish). Only thing is you can't have more than 1 in a tank, but you could add some snails or shrimp or something. They live a year or two and can be quite charming.
posted by The otter lady at 10:59 PM on January 1, 2021

Best answer: Bettas can regularly live to five or more years if their needs are met: at least a five gallon tank with a good filtration system, correct water chemistry and temperature (75-79), proper betta food. Goldfish can live to be fifty years! I'm pointing this out because there's a misperception among many people that a little betta or goldfish tank is "easy". It's very hard on the fish and they live short lives because of it.

IMO tank of ten gallons with an oversized canister filter, heater if needed, and proper lighting is the minimum aquarium setup for living creatures. You could have a planted aquarium with some snails once there was something growing for them to eat and it would be fairly* low maintenance. Many fish species are happier and healthier in groups of six or more, so potentially after a month or two when the chemistry stabilizes you could have some nano fish.

*Algae still a possibility with direct sunlight and too much nutrition in the water. Most often this is what shifts a tank from reasonable maintenance to a lot.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:13 PM on January 1, 2021 [16 favorites]

Just to echo the previous comment: If you think you might want a "starter" fish, read about their care first. Look for care guides on websites aimed at enthusiasts, not big box stores.

There is a lot more information about care available than there used to be. I think that some of the advice you're getting in this thread is coming from a time when that information was harder to come by.

For example, it's a common myth that goldfish will grow to the size of their tank, so it's ok to keep a goldfish in a small tank. The truth is that if the tank is too small, they don't grow because they're stressed and unhealthy. A ten gallon tank is much too small for three goldfish. A twenty gallon tank is too small.

Likewise, it's a common myth that bettas are fine in bowls because in the wild, they live in puddles in rice paddies. In reality, they only sometimes end up in puddles in the dry season and many die when that happens. A betta needs a proper tank with a heater and a filter. (Though they do need less water volume than many fish.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:48 PM on January 1, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as a long time aquarist, what you are asking for cannot include vertebrates. So, no fish*, no frogs, no salamanders. I agree with oneirodynia: you could do a lovely planted tank with a bladder snail which will quickly become several bladder snails because they are never not laying eggs.

There's plenty of all-in-one small tanks on the market with integrated filtration and lighting, Fluval makes nice ones. There's other brands that use disposable filter cartridges, if you prefer touching just one thing.

Maintenance-wise, you will still have to stay on top of manual algae removal (snails, like Roombas, are random in their removal efforts) and water changes, although without fish, you can extend the interval between water changes quite a bit. If you are wondering what water changes are for, they remove the waste products of the living fauna in your tank. Keeping fish in a fixed volume of water without water changes is sentencing them to live in a cesspool of their own ever increasing waste. If you have a dirt substrate + a lot of plants and a few snails, you can largely skip having to clean the substrate as the plants will consume what the snails produce.

If you were willing to up your game w/r/t water purity, you could keep freshwater shrimp, which are endlessly entertaining. However, they need very clean water and close attention to temperature.

*Especially not goldfish in a 10 gallon tank, which is profoundly too small of a volume of water for even one goldfish. It's inhumane.
posted by jamaro at 11:59 PM on January 1, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Small tanks are less chemically stable so more prone to problems. I ran a 30 gallon tank for about 30 years with few problems but you really need to change a significant amount of the water out weekly. (I would use it to water my houseplants - win all around). Oversize filtration is definitely helpful. We've enjoyed catfish, zebras, swordtails, neons among the others mentioned above. But as everyone has mentioned there really isn't a no-maintenance option.
posted by leslies at 6:03 AM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Check out Triops. They are kind of the new sea monkey, they are bigger, and they are one of the few creatures have exactly three eyes!
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:48 AM on January 2, 2021

If you do get a betta, please please don't condemn it to a bowl or tiny tank. They are highly intelligent fish that need more space and environmental stimulation than people give them credit for. It's a myth that they thrive in tiny tanks--just because they can live there doesn't mean it's a great experience for them. Sorry to be that nagging person, this is kind of my pet peeve. If you do get a betta they would love a larger tank. They are beautiful, smart fish and a lot of fun when properly cared for. Oh, and nthing what everyone said about small tanks being difficult to get water conditions right in.
posted by whistle pig at 10:09 AM on January 2, 2021 [7 favorites]

I gave up on fish in favor of what I like to call “my underwater sculpture garden”

I have a Biorb, which is a very cool looking spherical aquarium that I absolutely coveted. After killing too many goldfish, I tried making it a plants-only situation, full of Marimo moss balls, but the algae growth was still pretty labor intensive.

I have since pivoted again. There is nothing living in the tank at all, because it wouldn’t survive the crystal clear no algae fountain solution I have in there. I do have a very cool skeleton dude that is animated by the bubbler, a rad mermaid sculpture, and a cool rocks and marbles collection. I also have a fake seahorse in there. I change the water 1-2 times a year at most. It’s more an art object than anything now, and I love it.
posted by wowenthusiast at 10:15 AM on January 2, 2021 [10 favorites]

A couple notes as someone that has previously owned bettas:
Pro - You can train them to jump up and eat food off your finger and you will be happy.
Con - They can jump out of the tank to meet an untimely death and you will be sad.
posted by Seboshin at 5:41 PM on January 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have a small garden of plants in my backyard: cactus, jade, strawberry. The worst mistake I ever made was thinking they'd "just grow" without my attendance. I mind them now, every day, tend to their water and their pruning. A garden isn't just "decoration you have to water once in a while." They are living things and you are assuming responsibility for them. It took me two years to understand that I am their guardian. Please don't make my mistake and assume that they'll just "look after themselves."
posted by SPrintF at 5:44 PM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A 5 gallon all-in-one tank and a betta with some Anubias plants can be quite beautiful. One nerite snail to eat the algae and you're set aside from some water changes and gravel vacuuming. Bettas are very intelligent and interactive fish - they're like a little water puppy.

Just cycle the tank and you'll be on your way.

I have several tanks, but I really don't spend more than 15-20 minutes on maintenance on my simpler ones per week. I don't change the filter cartridges once they are cycled, I just rinse them out in old tank water.
posted by christiehawk at 11:15 PM on January 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Do you have a Roku? There’s an aquarium screensaver.
posted by sageleaf at 3:13 PM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update: I bought a 29 gallon tank with all the gear to go with it. Gonna fill it with some water and plants this weekend and start the cycle. I'll get my first couple fish in a few weeks, hopefully.

I decided to commit. I did my homework. I'll put in the work to keep my little fishies healthy.
posted by bondcliff at 2:47 PM on January 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

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