How to clean an aquarium the best way

How to Clean An Aquarium: Step-by-Step Guide

Keeping an aquarium clean can be a lot of work. Learning how to clean an aquarium is an important skill for any fishkeeper.

You might need to remove the fish, scrub off algae and dirt from the glass, vacuum up any leftover food or poop on the substrate, wipe down all surfaces in the tank with a special cleaner made for aquariums and then refill it with fresh water. It’s hard to keep your aquarium looking great when you don’t know what steps are required to do so. 

With this guide, we will explore each step required to clean your tank properly. We’ll discuss how much time and effort goes into keeping an aquarium clean as well as some tips for making cleaning easier on yourself. By following these instructions, you should be able to keep your tank looking good without spending hours doing so every week!

Recommended Aquarium Cleaning Equipment:

Important Basics of How to Clean an Aquarium

It’s important to observe your fish and their behaviors each day. This way you can more easily evaluate the health of your fish and any issues they might be having. This can help provide clues as to when your tank might need some extra attention. Besides basic daily observation, below are some basic questions around aquarium cleaning.

How often do you need to clean a fish tank?

The frequency of tank cleaning depends on your tank, how many fish you have, and the specific requirements of each species. Heavily stocked tanks will need to be cleaned more frequently. Tanks with Oscars will need to be cleaned more frequently than tanks with Neon Tetras.

Other factors include your filtration system, amount of live plants, and amount of bio material in your tank. If you clean a fish tank regularly, you will be more likely to notice any issues in time for timely intervention.

So that puts the answer likely somewhere between once a week and once a month, depending on your set-up.

Should I remove the fish while cleaning my fish tank?

Generally speaking, no. Sometimes a special situation may require you to remove the fish, but in general, we recommend against doing this.  If you make it a habit of removing your fish from the tank every time you clean it, they will likely become stressed and vulnerable to illness.

Do I have to take all the decorations out of my tank?

No, you don’t have to remove all the decorations in order to clean your tank.  It is a good practice to remove any dead or rotting material and prune your plants. However, we do recommend leaving live plants and rocks in place.  This will help maintain the environment for your fish while you clean the tank itself, which will give them hiding places if they’re feeling stressed.

How long do you let water sit before putting fish in?

Historically, people recommended letting your water sit for at least 24 hours so the chlorine could evaporate. Now, most places use chloramine instead of chlorine in tap water. The catch is that chloramine doesn’t evaporate which means you need to add a water conditioner to make the water safe for fish. Once your water is dechlorinated, it is safe for use immediately.

What cleaning supplies do you need to get?

For basic cleaning supplies, we recommend the following items:

Benefits of Cleaning Your Fish Tank

Healthy fish create waste. Fish waste builds up over time, which negatively impacts the nitrogen cycle.  Over time, this may lead to algae issues and lower oxygen levels. By cleaning your tank, you are helping to balance the environment in order to keep it safe for your fish.

The list below outlines benefits you’ll likely see by keeping your tank clean:

Reduce Harmful Compounds

By cleaning your tank, you will reduce the amount of nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and phosphates in your water.  These compounds are harmful to fish if present in high levels.

High levels of these compounds will stress your fish, making them vulnerable to disease and promoting poor growth and color development. Changing the water in your tank can help you control these elements.

Remove Decomposing Waste 

Fish produce waste. Some fish have bigger bio loads than others. For example, arowanas, oscars, and mollies are bio load heavy, whereas tetras and chili rasboras are bio load light.

Over time, fish waste will decompose and create ammonia.  The longer this remains in your tank, the greater the risk of your fish becoming stressed or sick. By cleaning out your tank regularly, you will remove decaying materials that build up over time.

If you don’t clean regularly, your tank will look dull and dirty, especially with accumulated waste. Nobody likes a poopy tank, especially your tank inhabitants. Also, a dirty tank can be discouraging visually and it can also discourage behaviors like schooling behavior or hiding locations.

How to Clean An Aquarium

Step 1: Get your Equipment Ready

Before you start cleaning, make sure you have your equipment ready. You don’t want to get caught with a gravel vacuum full of waste and nowhere to put it so make sure you have everything ready to go before you get started.

Step 2: Test the Water Quality

Before you begin cleaning, it is important to test your water. If your aquarium is newly established, your goal for the water is 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrites, and less than 40 ppm nitrates. By keeping these compounds at these levels, you reduce the risk to your fish.

If your aquarium is already established, focus on keeping the nitrate levels below 40 ppm. By understanding nitrate levels prior to the cleaning process, it will help give you an idea of how much water should be removed. If you’re seeing other issues in the water test, you also might need a more in-depth cleaning.

Step 3: Remove Algae

The next step is removing algae. This will help keep a clear view for checking out your beautiful fish tank. We recommend using an algae scraper to scrub the tank walls. For thick algae, use the blade attachment. You can also use a gravel vacuum to remove algae and other decaying material from your substrate. Lastly, for algae growth on aquarium decor, rocks, any plants, you can use a clean toothbrush (we recommend dedicating one to this purpose!) to gently brush it off.

If your tank lid is covered in algae, rinse it off in the sink. Avoid soap or any other chemicals that would harm your fish if they got into the water.

Step 4: Prune the Plants

Next, remove excess growth from your plants. This helps promote healthy plants, and it also helps improve the visual look of the tank. There are many ways to prune; we recommend using an aquascaping kit specifically for this purpose. Every plant species is different so it is important to adapt your pruning style to your species.

If you have floating plants that have taken over the water surface, remove about 30% to 50%. This will improve light flow for your plants and oxygen levels for your fish.

Step 5: Turn off Equipment

Before starting the water change process, turn off and/or unplug all equipment. You’re dealing with water and electricity so the last thing you want to deal with is electricity running through your water. Also, certain aquarium equipment, such as heaters and filters, are not meant to operate without water so you run the risk of damaging them if you run them without water.

Step 6: Vacuum the Substrate

It is important to vacuum the substrate (sand, gravel, etc.) thoroughly for cleaning purposes. Lots of waste and debris accumulates in the substrate so you definitely don’t want to skip this step. You need an aquarium-specific vacuum; you don’t want to use a regular household vacuum for so many reasons!

Cleaning aquarium using gravel vaccum

Vacuum approximately one-third of the substrate. Make sure to shift your decorations and hardscape around because debris tends to collect underneath them.

Step 7: Clean the Filter Media

Filter cleaning is an important step. Think of your filter like your trash can that collects fish poop and other waste materials. Trash cans need to be emptied regularly, or they get too full and spill all of that nasty stuff back out into your tank! Or, they clog up and overflow all over your nice floors! Best to avoid both situations.

For hang-on-back (HOB) or canister filters, simply remove the filter and wash it in the bucket of recently removed tank water. Do not use soapy water or tap water, just your tank water. For sponge filters, remove the foam and wring it out multiple times in the old tank water bucket. Both soap and chlorine from the tap water will kill all your beneficial bacteria, so rinse off all of that gunk with your tank water.

Step 8: Refill the Water

Time to refill your tank with fresh, clean water. Important things to note about adding new water to your tank. First, you want it to roughly match your aquarium’s current temperature to avoid a temperature shock. Secondly, never add tap water straight into your tank. You will always need to add dechlorinator to not shock your inhabitants.

Empty out the bucket of old tank water (great for plants so it doesn’t go to waste!), and refill it with tap water. Add your dechlorinator into the bucket (dose on the bucket’s volume so you get everything correctly proportioned). If you’re maintaining a planted tank, you can also add fertilizer. When you’re ready, slowly add the water back into your tank to minimally disturb the substrate. You’re going to kick-up particles, even with the slowest pouring, but don’t worry! Things will quickly settle within an hour or so.

Step 9: Turn on Equipment Again

Time to turn everything back on.  If you have a heater, remember to adjust the temperature once all water is added back into your tank.

Step 10: Wipe the Glass Clean

For a crystal-clear finish, wipe down the outside walls of the tank with aquarium-safe glass and acrylic cleaner. This will get rid of your fingerprints and any smudges along the way. Don’t forget to dust the lid, light, and aquarium stand.

Step 11: Enjoy Your Clean Tank!

Now that the tank is clean, it’s time to enjoy your beautiful aquarium! Don’t forget to regularly maintain your equipment and perform water changes moving forward. Cleaning is not a one-and-done operation.

Fish Tank Cleaning Maintenance

In-between full fish tank cleans, we recommend some routine maintenance tasks to keep everything looking clean and beautiful.

Daily Tank Maintenance

We might have scared you with the idea of daily fish tank maintenance but in reality, the list of to-do items is short. These chores only take a few minutes and will help you maintain your fish tank.

  • Observe your tank for a minute or two. Are all your fish and inhabitants present? Are they healthy? No injuries?
  • Once you do your roll-count, feed everyone! Depending on your fish species, we typically recommend feeding twice a day. Only feed as much as your fish can consume in a short period of 3-5 minutes. If any food is leftover, try to remove it to avoid it clouding the water.
  • Lastly, check the water temperature to make sure your heater (if applicable) is functioning correctly.

Weekly Tank Maintenance

Weekly tank maintenance is pretty light as well. We recommend:

  • Testing the water using an aquarium test kit. You can evaluate your pH, nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and salinity for saltwater tanks. Use a home kit. They’re easy to use and affordable, and will help you stay up to tank on any water condition issues before they become significant.
  • Check all your tank equipment, such as a filter or light, to make sure they’re all functioning correctly. Replace burnt-out lights and make sure your filter is not overflowing!

How to Clean An Aquarium FAQs

How do I clean a fish tank which has eggs in it?

The answer depends on where the eggs are laid. If you have a big tank and the eggs are safely laid in the substrate on one end of the tank, you can likely safely clean the other side of the tank.

However, if it all possible, It is recommended to wait to clean a tank with eggs. Wait until the fry are free swimming and then you can change the water as usual.

How often should I clean my fish tanks?

Depending on the tank, we recommend a solid cleaning every 2-4 weeks. If your tank is heavily stocked or has lots of big fish, it will be on the shorter side of that range.

Can you use vinegar to clean a fish tank?

Cleaning your fish tank with vinegar is a cheap and effective way to remove algae and water stains from your tank glass, ornaments, and plants. To clean an empty tank using vinegar, use a solution of 1 part tap water to 1 part vinegar. Pour the solution onto a clean sponge and scrub your problem areas. It’s best to use white distilled vinegar.

Why do fish die after cleaning tank?

If you have recently cleaned your fish tank, but your fish die shortly after, there is a high chance something in your water parameters, such as ammonia levels, went awry. This ammonia toxicity can kill them quickly. When a sudden, large water change occurs, it causes a major shift in water parameters that the fish struggle to adapt to quickly, causing their sudden demise.

Should you change water after fish died?

First, remove the dead fish from your water promptly. A dead corpse in you water will decompose and release potential bacteria and disease into the water, jeopardizing the health of your other fish. Secondly, test your water to check out the water parameters to see if you’re having any issues that could be the cause of death and/or require a water change. Generally, we do recommend doing a partial water change after a fish death in order to keep everything clean and functional.

How to Clean an Aquarium – Conclusion

Caring for your aquarium is a lot of work but it doesn’t have to be daunting. Learning how to clean an aquarium is an important part of responsible pet ownership. If you follow the steps outlined in this guide, you will not only keep your fish happy and healthy, you’ll also enjoy an aesthetically pleasing addition to your living space!

The best part about owning a clean aquarium? You can see all the beautiful fish and aquatic critters on display with no worries that they are being smothered by algae or waste.

What’s been your experience cleaning your aquarium? We want to hear from you so we can learn more about what works and what needs improvement!

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