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How to set up a fish tank without a filter

Although a filter is important in most fish tanks, it is possible to build a filter-free aquarium.

This guide at Aquarium Blueprints will help you set up and maintain a fish tank without a filter.

Aquarium Filter Benefits

Before we begin, let’s talk a little bit about the benefits of using a filter for your fish tank. The main reason for having a filter is that it provides biological, chemical and mechanical filtration.

Biological filtration actually occurs naturally in a fish tank with or without a filter. This is because the beneficial, nitrifying bacteria will grow on any surface in the fish tank. The locations include the substrate, plants, rocks, decorations, equipment (i.e. heater and bubbler) and more.

Chemical filtration is for removing certain compounds from the water. These include ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, phosphate, odors, discolorations and more. If you set up and maintain your aquarium properly, then you most likely don’t need to use chemical filtration on a regular basis, or at all.

Mechanical filtration will remove fish wastes, otherwise known as detritus or mulm, from your fish tank.

A filter also provides good water movement as well as surface agitation. Having a swift current will help your tank better dilute any buildup of toxins. Having better surface agitation will add more oxygen to your aquarium.


Your no-filter fish tank won’t have the extra surface area provided by a filter. So you should definitely add a substrate in order to give something for the nitrifying bacteria to grow on.

Since we are recommending that you should use live plants, you should get a planted substrate. We recommend using the CaribSea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate. Not only will a vast majority plant grow in this nutrients-rich soil, it also help hide any mulm at the bottom of the fish tank.

You should add enough of the substrate to create a depth of at least two inches to provide plenty of surface area for the bacteria as well as provide room for the roots of the live plants.

If you are interested, you can purchase the CaribSea Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate on Amazon. (#CommissionsEarned).

Live Plants

As we alluded to above, we highly suggest that you add live plants in your fish tank if you aren’t using a filter. Plants will consume ammonia and nitrate from the tank water. It will also provide surface area for beneficial bacteria that will oxidize ammonia and nitrite.

You can use any plants you want. If you need suggestions, we recommend taking a look at the Amazon Sword and Anacharis as you can plant those directly into the Eco Complete. If you want to have some kind of grass that covers the bottom of the aquarium, then you should try Dwarf Hairgrass as well.

We also recommend plants that don’t need to be planted into the substrate. These are Anubias, Java Fern and Java Moss.

You can purchase any of the live plants on Amazon with the following links:

Plant Fertilizer

Eventually, the Eco Complete will run out of nutrients. To avoid starving your plants due to the lack of nutrition, we recommend adding root tabs, such as the Seachem Flourish Tabs Growth Supplement to the substrate.

If you have plants that take nutrients directly from the water, such as the aforementioned Java Fern and Java Moss, then you need a liquid supplement such as the Seachem Flourish.

You can purchase both fertilizers with the following links:


The aforementioned Amazon Sword, Anacharis and Dwarf Hairgrass need moderate lighting. So we recommend the Fluval Plant Spectrum Bluetooth LED 3.0.

Java Fern and Java Moss will grow in low lights. If those two species are all you have, then you can get a more affordable lighting fixture such as the Fluval Aquasky 2.0 LED Strip Light.

You can take a look at our comparison guide between the two Fluval lights. If you are interested in either on them, you can purchase the fixtures with the following links:


The aforementioned plants, as well as most common fish species you find at fish stores, require warm temperatures of at least 70 degrees. So you most likely need a heater for your filter-free fish tank.

We recommend getting the Orlushy Submersible Aquarium Heater. If you have a big tank that is very long (which we consider to be at least 4 feet), then you might want to consider adding a second heater.

This is because the lack of water movement, due to having no filter, will result in the heated water not being able get to all around the tank. By using two heaters and placing them on opposite ends of the aquarium, you will get more consistently warm temperatures throughout the entire water column.

You can purchase the Orlushy Submersible Aquarium Heater on Amazon. (#CommissionsEarned).

Optional: Air Stone

You can forgo having a second heater if you have some water movement. You can do this by having an air stone. This equipment will also help agitate the water surface, increasing the available oxygen well as preventing oil film from building up at the top of the surface.

In addition to an air stone, such as the VIVOSUN Air Stone, you need an air pump (like the Tetra Whisper 60) and some airline tubing (like the Penn Plax Airline Tubing). You can find our recommend products with the following links:

Optional: Gravel Vacuum

Because you don’t have any mechanical filtration due to the lack of a filter, you might want to consider getting a gravel vacuum as well. If you are interested, we recommend taking a look at the Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System, which you can find on Amazon.

Keep in mind that you may not want to vacuum any mulm that are near rooted plants. This is because the plants will use the fish wastes as food.

Fish Stock

When it comes to stocking your fish tank, we recommend nano fish as they won’t eat and/or disturb the plants. Guppies work extremely well as they will explore every corner of the tank from top to bottom. Thus, they will help with providing some water movement.

You should also take a look at Corydoras. Not only will they help keep the substrate clean, they have also occasionally dart up to the surface for a gulp of air. As we stated previously, increase surface agitation will add more oxygen to the tank.

Other good species for a planted tank are Neon Tetras, Cardinal Tetras, Honey Gourami, Endler’s Livebearer and Red Cherry Shrimp.

No-Filter Fish Tank Set Up And Care

If you are new to the fish keeping hobby, we recommend taking a look at our fish tank cycle guide and water change guide so that you can set up and maintain a healthy environment for your pet fish in the no-filter aquarium.


You can offset not having a filter in your aquarium by having a lot of live plants.

In terms of stocking the no-filter tank with fish, we recommend a combination of Guppies and Corydoras as both will help stir around the otherwise stagnate water.

You may also want to get an air stone if you want add even more water movement.