One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to keeping fish is that aquariums and fish tanks require little to no maintenance. And while maintaining a healthy and thriving aquarium is not necessarily difficult, keeping your aquatic life healthy and happy starts with a clean tank.
Knowing why, how, and when to clean your fish tank are skills that will not only benefit your water-bound buddies but also make it easier to view and enjoy your aquarium.
In this article, we’ll cover everything a beginner will need to know to keep a fish tank clean and maintain a healthy environment for your fish.
Why do you need to clean a fish tank?
As a living environment, a fish tank produces and accumulates a lot of biological debris. This can come in the form of algae introduced from the live plants in your tank, or from your aquatic life’s waste.
Aside from algae, the biggest culprit when it comes to a dirty fish tank with hazy water is nitrate. This colorless, odorless gas is the reason for your fish tank water looking murky and generally unpleasant.
Nitrate is created when ammonia is introduced to the tank, something that happens naturally over time. Ammonia occurs from decomposing food, fish poo, plant life, and also dead fish.
Both ammonia and nitrate are toxic to fish, and even with a biofilter installed, ammonia and nitrate will build up in a tank, requiring cleaning to occur.
Even though regular cleaning is still necessary, nitrate build-up can be slowed down by not overcrowding a tank and not overfeeding your fish. Dead plants or fish should also be removed promptly, with dirty filters cleaned before the ammonia forms nitrate.
Equipment to clean a fish tank
Before you begin to clean your fish tank, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got the right equipment to hand. Having everything you need will make the whole process less of a headache and quicker to boot.
- Algae scraper: a good quality scraper is needed for keeping the glass clean. It’s recommended to use a scraper with a long handle, or extension rods. Interchangeable blades are also useful, with corner scrapers good for removing algae from the nooks and crannies of your tank.
- Water siphon tube: used to remove debris from inside the tank.
- Filter brush and medium: to clean the filter head and replace the filtering medium inside.
- Dedicated bucket: a bucket solely for the purpose of cleaning your fish tank so as not to introduce anything unwanted.
- Aquarium safe glass cleaner: for cleaning the outside glass of the aquarium.
- Water treatment: used to dechlorinate and treat replacement water.
As well as these essentials, you’ll need some basics such as paper towels and old towels to protect your flooring.
How to clean a fish tank for beginners
Cleaning your tank should occur in the following order:
- Clean the inner glass panels
- Remove and clean ornaments
- Siphon out debris from the tank’s gravel
- Clean the outer glass panels
- Remove the filter, replace the medium, and clean the head
Step 1: Clean the inner glass panels
The first stage of cleaning your fish tank is to get rid of the algae on the inner side of the glass panels.
While there are quite a few ways to do this, including some innovative magnetic cleaners, the tried and tested method is to use a scraper and algae pad.
Algae scrapers can be both plastic and metal, akin to a razor blade. Razor scrapers are only suitable for glass tanks and will scratch acrylic, so be careful to use the appropriate kind.
Simply scrape from top to bottom, pushing the residue to the bottom of the tank, allowing it to sink into the gravel. Don’t worry! We’ll be removing this later.
Step 2: Remove and clean ornaments.
Next, you’ll want to take out the tank’s various ornamental features, such as rocks, decorations, and artificial plants.
Using your dedicated bucket, give them a good rinse, scraping off any algae and visible residue.
Importantly, don’t use any kind of soap or detergent. Even trace amounts can be harmful to aquatic life.
Step 3: Siphon out debris from the tank’s gravel.
Now you’ll want to suck out the various bits of debris that have accumulated on the bottom of the tank within the gravel.
Simply place your water siphon tip in the gravel and begin vacuuming up the old bits of food, plant, and waste.
Just be careful not to suck up any gravel and watch out for any fishy friends swimming past.
Step 4: Clean the outer glass panels
Of course, the fish aren’t entirely to blame for a dirty fish tank. Pointing and admiring your aquarium will mean hand marks and natural oils will accumulate on the glass surface of your tank.
Ideally, you’ll want to use a glass cleaner that is deemed aquarium safe. If not clean, warm water and a damp cloth will do the trick.
Step 5: Replace water.
During the siphoning, you’ll have reduced the water level within the tank. In order to dilute nitrate levels and keep your fish happy, you’ll want to replace this.
Simply follow the instructions on the water treatment packaging and try to match the temperatures of the water before introduction.
Step 6: Clean the filter
Your tank is now clean! However, you’ll want to make sure your filters are too so they can keep it that way.
This should be done two weeks after cleaning your tank, so you allow the good bacteria that live in the filter media to find their way back into your aquatic ecosystem. Failure to wait this allotted time could result in a build-up of ammonia.
Once two weeks are up, you’ll want to use your filter brush to clean out the slime within the housing and tubes and go ahead and replace the filtering medium.
How often should you clean a fish tank?
The exact amount of time between cleaning your tank will depend on how big your tank is and how many fish it contains.
For most small to mid-size tanks cleaning should occur once every two weeks, changing up to 25% of the water. This way, the nitrate-producing algae, and debris cannot accumulate to dangerous levels, and your fish are all the more happy and healthy for it.
Once a month, it may also be worth testing the ammonia, nitrate, and pH levels of your fish tank. This can be done with an aquatic water testing kit that will contain everything you need to ensure these are within safe levels.
You’ll want to keep nitrate levels below 40ppm, with an ideal goal of 0ppm ammonia.
The pH level of your tank should be between 6.8 and 7.6.
Should the fish be removed from the tank?
There’s no need to take your fish out to clean their tank.
You should only be siphoning out at most 25% of the water when clearing debris, so there will be plenty of room left for them to swim about and avoid you and the equipment.
Removing fish from the tank is also relatively stressful and should be avoided as much as possible.
Tips to keep a fish tank clean
While this cleaning routine will keep your aquatic life happy, there’s some additional steps you can take to keep their ecosystem healthy between cleans.
- Introducing the hornwort plant not only boosts the oxygen levels in your tank but is also shown to help naturally reduce nitrogen levels.
- The carbon filter medium in your fish tank will need replacing at least once a month to continue absorbing toxins effectively.
- Plecostomus, “Plecs”, are a great fish to introduce to your tank as they will feed off the algae, keeping your glass clean from the inside.
- Tanks swimming in natural sunlight will naturally produce more algae. That doesn’t mean you should keep your fish in a dark cupboard, just bear in mind tanks in bright rooms will require more regular cleaning.
Armed with these tips, your aquarium will be in tip-top condition, meaning your tank will be easier to maintain in the future, leaving both you and your fish happy.