Plecos: they’re one of the most popular fish in the aquarium hobby. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most mistreated fish. Especially In terms of their tank, and they’re often kept in far from ideal conditions.

In order to give your pleco a healthy and happy life, one of the most important things is setting up a well-suited tank setup for your pleco. In this guide, you’ll learn everything about how to set up a tank for your (bristle nose) pleco.

Pleco Tank size

Bristlenose pleco tank size

The minimum tank size for a bristlenose pleco is 20 gallons, but a 25 gallon tank is better. This fish gets bigger than most people think, so their tank should be rather big.

Common pleco tank size

Common plecos get very big in an aquarium and will need a tank of at least 150 gallons.

Clown pleco tank size

Clown plecos are one of the smallest pleco catfish. The minimum tank size is 15-20 gallons.

Zebra pleco tank size

Zebra plecos is a rather small pleco catfish. The minimum tank size for Zebra Plecos is 15-20 gallons.

How to set up a pleco tank

Best substrate for plecos

Adding substrate to an aquarium is one of the first things to consider. Plecos don’t really have any specific needs.

In the wild, plecos live in rivers and streams where the substrate consists of gravel or sand and a lot of rocks. Thus, you have a lot of choices since plecos live in many circumstances. If you want to create a species specific tank and imitate their natural habitat, you can look it up on Seriously Fish.

It might surprise you, but many people choose to keep there plecos in a bare-bottom tank. Plecos poop a lot. This means that strong filtration is need along with water changes.
In a bare-bottom tank, waste will be sucked up more easily by the filter and it can be more easily kept clean. Especially for raising pleco fry this is a big advantage, since you want them to grow as fast as possible.

Picking a strong filter

Plecos are one of the biggest waste producers. This means that both a strong filter and regular water changes are needed to make sure it is healthy.

A strong canister filter is best, but if you have a smaller tank hang-on-back or internal filters do the job too. If you do choose a canister filter, it can be a risk for fry. So if you are planning to breed your plecos, cover up the strong intake of the filter to prevent fry getting sucked up.

The most important thing is that your filter filters at least 5x the volume of your tank. This depends on how many other fish or plecos you have. Many pleco breeders go for 10x since the want optimal conditions.

Extra tip: add a sponge filter

Sponge filters are one of the most underrated filters in the aquarium hobby -seriously. For plecos they aren’t that great since you would need a lot of them to filter enough water, but they can serve for another purpose.

Plecos like a lot of oxygen in the water. Many species live in small streams with fresh oxygenated water flowing through it. The bubbles coming out of the sponge filter create the ideal source of extra oxygen and on top of that, it is an extra source of biological filtration.

A heater

Plecos are hardy fish, but they have requirements in terms of water temperature.

Plecos are tropical fish, living in South America. This means that all plecos need a heater in their tank because they need steady water temperatures upwards of 71°F (22°C).

If you want to know more about the best water temperature for plecos, read our full article regarding this matter.

Lighting

Plecos are nocturnal fish meaning they are most active at night. So, in reality your pleco doesn’t really care about lighting. You can perfectly only have a small lamp, and the pleco will be fine.

The most important thing will thus be looking at your plants. If you plan to have a lot of plants, a good Lamp will be necessary. If not, a smaller lamp will do the job.

(Natural) decoration

Hiding places are one of the most important things in every pleco tank. Plecos are mostly active at night, so they will want to have a safe place they can hide in at day.

Examples of hiding places are driftwood, stones, plants, ceramic works and pleco caves.

I hear you thinking ‘but I don’t want my pleco to hide all day’. The reality is that the less hiding places are available, the less comfortable a pleco will be. With a lot of cover, a pleco will feel more safe and will show itself more often.

Driftwood

I highly recommend everyone to have driftwood in their pleco tank.

In the wild, many pleco species including Bristlenose plecos and common plecos grasp on wood as part of their diet. Adding driftwood to your tank is thus a great way to add extra nutrients to a plecos diet.

On top of that, driftwood also provides natural cover and affects your water parameters in a positive way.

If you want to know more about this, read our article on Driftwood For Plecos.

The ideal snack for pelcos. Photo by Joshua Ganderson

Plants

Plecos are a great addition to many aquariums. They bring oxygen, shelter, and a natural look. With plecos, however, it’s somewhat complicated.

Some plecos will eat live plants or dig through the gravel damaging the roots. Luckily, most plecos like bristlenose plecos will not eat plants.

Plants aren’t a necessity for plecos, since they often live between rocks and wood where there aren’t a lot of plants. Adding plants is completely up to you, but when you choose to not add any plants make sure to add enough other hiding places.

Pleco caves: necessary or not?

Pleco caves are very popular, especially among pleco breeders. In a normal setup, without the intent of breeding, pleco caves aren’t a necessity. They are a great way to provide extra hiding places, though, and males like picking their own cave.

If you do want to breed pleco catfish, pleco caves are extremely handy and useful. Place at least one cave per fish in the tank (including females) so that certainly enough cover is given.

Do plecos need strong current in their tank?

It’s a myth that all plecos need strong current in their tank. The most important thing is to have a lot of oxygen. Having a lot of aeration is more important than having a lot of flow.
Plecos will enjoy flow though, but it’s just not as important if you have a lot of aeration and a strong filter.

Some pleco species will enjoy flow a lot though. These are mostly the species living in the big rivers like Zebra plecos. You can use circulation pomps to achieve this, or buy a stronger filter. If you want to look up the natural habitat of a pleco species, visit Seriously fish.

Photo by mobile_gnome

Water parameters

Plecos are very hardy fish, meaning that they can live in a lot of different temperatures. But, many species have their own preference. Overall, plecos love softer, more acidic water. This is because they live in South America, in rivers with a low pH and lots of organic material lowering it even further.

It’s important to look at your tap water and decoration in order to make sure it doesn’t influence the water parameters in a negative way. Some stones have a lot of chalk in them which might cause a higher pH. Some places have very hard water, so you might want to use an RO system.

Bristlenose plecos can live in pH between 6 and 7,5. This counts for most other species, however if you want to breed you might want to try lowering the pH.

Tank mates

Plecos are rather peaceful fish. This makes them really easy fish and they can be added to most community tanks. Here are 10 great tank mates for plecos summed up.

1. Cory Catfish

Cory Catfish are very peaceful fish that are suited for many tanks. They are flexible, both in terms of tank and water parameters. They do take up the bottom layer of the aquarium, just as pleco catfish. Cory Catfish need to be kept in groups of at least 6.

2. Neon Tetras

Neon tetras are a very popular species that can perfectly live with plecos. They will take up the upper and middle layer of the aquarium, resulting in no competition.

3. Kuhli Loach

It’s easy to see why kuhli loaches are so popular. They are beautiful and their lively character makes them fun to look at. They should be housed in groups and live in the bottom layer of the aquarium.

4. Rummy Nose Tetras

Rummy nose tetras are great for in a community tank and should be housed in groups. They aren’t the easiest fish though and will need some extra care

5. Glass Catfish

It’s hard to miss these mysterious fish when they live in your tank. Glass Catfish need to be kept in groups and live in the upper layer of the tank. Again, it’s a rather difficult fish to care for, but with some special care it certainly is a special addtition.

How to set up pleco breeding tank

Breeding plecos is not that hard in an aquarium. At least the most common plecos, bristlenose plecos, aren’t. Some other species are hard to nearly impossible to breed.

Thus, many people choose to set up a separate dedicated breeding tank for their plecos to breed in.

Pleco caves

Pleco caves are crucial to any pleco breeding tank. Pleco caves are specifically designed for plecos to spawn in. You can buy them in all sizes, shapes and colors which makes them suited for many species.

If you take a look at breeding tanks, you will most likely see a lot of caves, without much extra decoration. This makes it easy to pull eggs/fry from the cave, or to catch fish out of the tank.

It’s recommended to have at least one cave per fish in a breeding tank. Males can regularly fight, so having enough caves is crucial for having success. It’s thus better to have too many caves than too few.

Some people prefer to place caves in different directions so that males can pick their own preferred cave. I find it easier to point all entrances towards the front of the tank. This way I can easily look into the caves for fry.

A Zebra pleco breeding tank

Filtration

Filtration is a very important part of every pleco breeding setup.

If you have a tank dedicated to plecos, strong filtration is necessary to keep the water clean. Very clean water is necessary because many species will only spawn in clean, high-oxygenated water.

For breeding tanks, I prefer using bare bottom tanks. Bare bottom tanks are way more easy to clean and the waste will be sucked in more easily by the filter intake.