How to Clean a Fish Tank

A person cleaning a fish tank.

The main reason people give up on their fish tanks is do the fact that many people buy their aquariums from the big “Box Stores” where nobody knows a damn thing about keeping fish. They just sell you some stuff so they can send you on your way and sell some more stuff to the next person. The result of this is that people are unsure of what to do with their aquarium. They don’t know how to set it up, how to keep it running or how to clean it.

The tank gets ugly, scum forms everywhere in it, and the fish die. It can be very frustrating for the aquarist. This is where I come in. During my years working for Pet Zone, I convinced many would be aquarium quitters not to give up. I just gave them some simple advice on fish and aquarium care and maintenance, and whattaya know? Things turned out alright. So here I am again, passing my fish care knowledge onto others. The format is a little different, but the advice is the same. In the section below I will give you step by step instructions on how to clean an aquarium using zero chemicals. This whole process, by the way, need only be done once a month. That is unless you have predatory fish that you are feeding live foods to. In that case, this should be done every two to three weeks.

Cleaning a Fish Tank Naturally

  1. paper towel filled with algaeBefore any cleaning begins, make sure to get everything unplugged. Turns out water + electricity = death. Who knew? Anyway, first you will want to remove the light ballast and set it aside. After that, remove the hood and carry it carefully (so it doesn’t drip) to the sink, tub or outside to clean it. Usually all you will need is rag or, if you must, a paper towel. The algae on the hood usually comes off pretty easily. If it’s stubborn, use a super well rinsed rag or the Algae Pad that I will mention in the next step.
  2. scrubbing side of aquariumDraw down and scrub. Using your siphon hose (if you don’t have one, go get one . . . now.) draw a few inches of water out of the tank and into a 5gal. bucket. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough so you don’t over flow the aquarium when you’ve got your arm in there for scrubbing. Once the water is down, grab a rag (super super rinsed out so you don’t add any soap of any kind to the water) or better yet, an algae pad specifically made for that purpose and go to town. Scrub down all panes of glass. I usually skip the back pane so that there’s still some algae left for the plecostomus. Towards the bottom, below the gravel line, be very careful not to get any gravel between the algae pad and the glass or you will scratch the glass up.
  3. bucket of artificial plants and decorationsRemove all decorations and artificial plants. Starting with the heavy hard stuff, remove all your decorations so that excess fish food and poop don’t get trapped under them and remain in the tank. When you’re moving the plants, give them a good shake while still in the tank just in case there are any fish hiding out in them. Apparently a fish out of water doesn’t live very long. Place everything into a second 5 gal bucket.
  4. cleaning fake plantsClean your plants and decorations. I generally do this in the kitchen sink after I rinse it out really well to get rid of any dish detergent/food grease that might have been left in there. For cleaning plant leaves, hold each leaf between your thumb and forefinger and rub them clean with your thumb. If the algae is holding on tight, grab your algae pad and use that. Don’t pull too hard on the leaves or they might break or come off completely. Use the algae pad on the hard decorations. Try it first in an inconspicuous part of the decoration just in case the algae pad takes some of the coloration off.
  5. rinsing filterClean the filter. If you use a top-hanging filter, remove it from the back of the tank and take it to the sink. Keep it upright, there will still be some water in it. Dump the water out and remove the water intake pipe, it’s housing and the impeller. Rinse these three units off and set them aside. If your filter has a bio-wheel, remove it and set it aside (NEVER CLEAN THE BIO-WHEEL!) Now grab the filter unit itself, remove the old cartridge and throw it away. Next run some water into the body of the filter, swirl it around, dump it and rinse. Repeat this several times. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just clean enough so that water can run smoothly through it.
  6. a clean aquariumDo a water change. Using your siphon hose and a bucket, draw out only about 25-30% of the aquarium water. You don’t want to take much out because you don’t want to change the environment of the fish too drastically. While you are doing this, push the tip of the siphon down into the gravel all over the bottom of the tank. This pulls up all the nastiness that settles down in there. After that, refill the tank with room temperature water. If you have city water, only use it if it has been sitting out for at least one day (24hrs). That way, any of the chlorine that is in city water would have had time to dissipate as gas and it will not harm the fish. Finally, redecorate, wipe down the outside of the glass and enjoy.

Natural Aquarium Cleaning

In general, aquarium keeping is already a pretty green hobby the way it is. It has to be, the addition of strange chemicals directly into a fish’s environment can really only lead to one end…death. And unfortunately, there is a myriad of chemicals available on the market today that you can add to your water that are just plain unnecessary and can actually be harmful if not used correctly.

The biggest problem aquarists run into in the battle for a clean aquarium is algae. Luckily though, it really doesn’t have to be a big problem. Regular fish tank cleaning removes nutrients that the algae need to live. So by simply doing regular water changes you will significantly help your cause. If you do feel the need to employ another weapon, I would first recommend using a UV sterilizer. UV sterilizers draw water up and blast it with UV light that kills many types of not only algae, but also parasites. You may also consider a protein skimmer to remove excess nutrients from the water that the algae might otherwise use. Amazon sells a wide variety of UV sterilizers. As for water additives, Green Clean Algaecide is a safe and natural algaecide that is safe for ponds and aquariums. It is peroxide based and causes oxidation that starts to break down algae on contact. Biodigesters is another pretty excellent product that uses a combination of natural bacteria and enzymes to that help to inhibit algae growth by targeting the algae’s food sources.

Biological Aquarium Cleaning

picture of pleco fishPlecostomus. Plecos are by far the most commonly employed variety of algae eating fish. Most of them do a pretty good job of helping to clean an aquarium and they come in many varieties. Some of the prettier varieties are the leopard (shown), royal, gold nugget and queen arabesque.

picture of otocinclus fishOtocinclus. These are very small algae eaters that work wonders on keeping your small decorations and fine leafed plants clean. Their petite size makes them very good at getting at hard to reach places.

snail racer from Never Ending StorySnails. There are many types of snails available in the pet trade. Whether you’re buying apple snails, rams horn, golden or any other variety, just keep in mind that they sometimes eat live plants and may also reproduce at an alarming rate.