Is changing the tank beneficial?
I have a 5 gallon tank, with four zebrafish, a heater (~76º), and a light that is on for 7 hours.
Since I got the tank I've had an electric filter with activated carbon. Recently the filter got a bunch of alge, so I took it out for cleaning. I was looking at my tank, which has three fairly dominant plants, and thought that they may be able to filter the tank enough, without the need for an electric one. Is this true?
Also: having the plants make it fairly hard to vacuum the gravel since I can easily stir up the roots or make some of the newer plants float out of the gravel. Would it be a horrible idea to switch the gravel out with sand? Which is more beneficial, and easier to maintain? If I did switch, how often does sand need to me vacuumed, or does it at all?
I guess it depends what type of plants they are. If you were to do that I would run your light for more than 7 hours daily.
Plants are hard to vacuum around no matter what the substrate, I would actually say that gravel is 5 times easier to gravel vac than sand. With or without plants.
With 4 fish in a 5 gallon? You're overstocked, you won't be able to get away with no filter.
By zebrafish, I assume you mean Zebra Danio? If so, 5 gallons is far too small for that fish. They are very active swimmers and need length to swim in.
In planted tanks, there is no need to clean the gravel (or sand). Key is not over feeding though.
+1 With rooted plants, you don't need/want to vacuum the substrate as this may damage roots and any detritus will decompose and provide organic fertilizer for the plants (much like organic gardening). If there are unsightly areas, whether gravel or sand, you can simply hover the (gravel) siphon an inch or two above the substrate to remove during your weekly water changes.
Food for thought: There is also a school of thought that even without plants, routinely disturbing the substrate is counter productive. The substrate develops a vast food web of beneficial organisms that colonize at various levels. Running a gravel siphon through there is like a category 5 tornado hitting the center of town!
Now I'm not saying that under certain extreme circumstances a gravel siphon is bad and an exception might be made for larger pea sized substrates. Also, sometimes, with bad tank conditions, aggressive gravel vacuuming is even required. But given proper feeding and good tank maintenance, hovering over the surface of the substrate, at most, should be all that is typically required. Also, with the exception of Malysian Trumpet Snails that burrow in the upper inch or so of the substrate, stirring the substrate is similarly not recommended as this is also a disturbance and may unnaturally stir 'fresh' detritus too deeply into the substrate.
Edit: I realized I didn't address the original question. All tanks, even heavily planted tanks benefit from (power) filtration. As a minimum, we want/need to remove floating debris and we absolutely must have water circulation to promote health and break thermal gradients.
So mechanical filtration is a must. To a perhaps lessor, but still important extent, comes chemical and biological filtration. I am not a fan of cartridge type HOB filters because they typically fall short in chemical/bio filtration. In any case, I feel some level of filtration beyond plants is desired if not required.
If Zebrafish are indeed Zebra Danios, then Geomancer is right, your tank is overstocked and you cannot go without the filter for sure. Also, tanks that have enough plants to filter the water effectively are generally tanks that are HEAVILY planted and understocked.
Even if your tank is full of plants, the over stocked tank will generate more waste than what you fish can handle which is also why you have algae with your filter. A well balanced tank will have very little algae because the plants absorb most of the excess nutrients and out-compete the algae.
What would be an appropriate size? Ten gallons?
I also read somewhere that there may need to be more than four of them in order for them to be happy? Because they're schooling fish.
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