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Conducting Routine Maintenance on Your Fish Tank

Updated on June 12, 2016

What Exactly Needs to be Done?

You have your tank cycled. Your fish have been acclimated. So, that's it, right? Wrong. You have cleared the hurdles for sure but the race is still far from over. In order to keep your aquarium system and fish happy and clean you need to do some routine maintenance every now and then.

  • Scrubbing algae
  • Water Changes
  • Gravel Washes
  • Cleaning filter media
  • Replacing filters
  • Changing light bulbs
  • Replacing substrate
  • Cleaning the glass/acrylic
  • Cleaning the pumps could also be needed from time to time

All of these tasks need to be completed at various intervals. Some, like scrubbing algae and water changes, need to be done more frequently. While others, such as replacing the substrate and changing light bulbs, don't need to be done as often. In a home aquarium you might need to take apart the pump a couple times a year to make sure that the propellers or shaft don't have any build up on them. This will keep everything running smoothly.

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Getting Rid of Algae

It doesn't matter if you have a freshwater or saltwater system at some point you are going to have to scrub algae. You have a few options for your artillery when it comes to the war on algae. In freshwater systems plecos and snails are popular among hobbyists since they keep the algae level low by consuming it. In saltwater systems there are a wide array of invertebrates, and some fish, that eat algae and should be considered if you have a high growth of algae in your tank.

Though, even with algae eating friends you are going to have to scrub your tank at some point, especially if you have a saltwater tank with corals. If you have a glass tank you can use whatever type of scrubbing pad you desire on the walls of your tank. However, if you have an acrylic tank you are going to have to make sure that you use acrylic safe scrubbing pad on your tank. This is because acrylic, however much stronger, is easier to scratch than glass. If you do scratch your acrylic, or even glass for that matter, algae will be able to grow in the cracks and is very difficult to remove. Not to mention scratches are rather unsightly in aquariums.

Its not just the walls of an aquarium that can accumulate algae. The rocks, sand, and any decorations you have are hotbeds for algal growth. For your decorations a brush with stiff bristles can be your best friend when it comes to removing algae. For deeper tanks you are going to want to make sure that your brush is on a long handle. That way when you scrub your tank you aren't reaching your entire arm into the tank and possibly displacing water. Be careful when scrubbing, you don't want to accidentally scrub any fish that might possibly refuse to move.

For saltwater systems with corals you want to be meticulous with you algal removal. Chances are pretty good that you are going to have algal growth since you have special lighting to mimic sunlight for your corals. If any algae grows over your corals they will not be able to take advantage of the photosynthesis process and they won't have very good flow of water to the coral itself. This could damage, or even kill, your corals. Which is more inconvenient: taking a few minutes each day to scrub your tank or having to replace your corals? Think about it. A few minutes lost to scrubbing each day is way better than having to replace your coral collection.

There are chemicals that you can buy that are supposed to prevent algal growth. But, I prefer to add the least amount of chemicals possible to my tanks. Though, if you have a really bad algae problem, your algae eaters aren't able to keep up, and you find yourself constantly scrubbing your tank you might want to consider them.

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How often do you do water changes on your tank?

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Water Changes and Gravel Washes

There are two ways you can go a water change on your system. You can take the water out by siphon or by bucket or you can do a gravel wash. If you are doing a small water change and a small system, say a 10% on a 30 gallon tank, a simple siphon water change can be more effective than a gravel wash. Yes, gravel washes are typically better for your system, but in this case you would have have time to do a proper gravel wash by the time you removed 10% of the water from your tank.

Some hobbyists are a little apprehensive about doing a gravel wash for the first time. There is no need. Gravel washes are simple. You just need a gravel wash tube, a long clear tube of acrylic, a siphon hose, a flexible hose that attaches to the tube, and a bucket to catch all the water you tank out of your tank. Attach the hose to the tube and put the tube into your tank. Then ready your bucket so that it will have the hose resting inside of it. There are a few ways to start the siphon: your mouth, a pump, or your sink. (of course there are many other tips and trick to start your siphon, youtube is a great source for these since they can be hard to follow via written direction.) For some reason people don't like using their mouths to start their siphon, I don't really understand this since its the method professional aquarists use at aquariums. Many gravel wash kits come with a pump of sorts attached to the hose, use simply squeeze the pump a few times to start your siphon. Some kits include an attachment for you to hook up to your sink and when you turn on your sink the siphon starts.

Once your siphon has begun insert the tube into the gravel. Then just lift, drain the gravel from the tube, and replace the tube each time the gravel gets about an inch and a half into the tube. Repeat this process until you have covered the entire bottom of the tank or removed the desired amount of water.

Gravel washes are going to remove all the of the excess food, poop, algae, and other nastiness that settles in the substrate of a tank. This keeps your nitrogen levels in range and makes your tank cleaner. I personally do a 15-20% gravel wash on my tank every week to remove all the excess food and poop from my tank.

When you replace your water just make sure that you add any chemicals that you need to maintain your water quality. For example: for my tanks I add a bit of stress coat, quick start (for my bio filter), a little tap water conditional, some leaf zyme for my plants, and every now and then a little stress zyme. I also test my water quality a few hours after I do a water change and adjust as needed.

Cleaning Protein Skimmers

Many saltwater tanks utilize protein skimmers. These will need to be cleaned regularly if you want them to continue to do their job. Protein skimmers have a collection cup on top of the skimmer. This cup is where all of the nasty proteins and waste particles collect. Simply unscrew the cup from the skimmer and use tap water to rinse the cup. You may find that you will need to scrub away some of the gunky film to fully clean the cup. Once the cup is clean simply screw it back into place. There is no need to unplug the protein skimmer unless you are cleaning the entire apparatus, which does not need to be done as often as cleaning the cup.

Depending upon the bioload and size of your system you may have to clean the collection cup daily. Or you could be lucky and be able to get away with a good rinse once everyday and a full cleaning with your weekly maintenance.

Taking Care of Your Filtration

Sooner or later you are going to have to take care of your filtration system. If your filtration utilizes a biowheel then you you are in luck, aside from lightly wiping it down once in a while you don't need to worry about it too much. The standard aquarium filter is made of carbon with filter floss. On occasion you will need to take out this filter and rinse it off with water. How often you will need to change the entire filter will depend upon the number of fish in your tank, the amount of algae you scrub, and the amount of pumps/filtration you have on your system. To maximize the life of your filter cartridge try not to exceed the recommend bioload for your tank and use the recommended amount of filtration. For example if you have a 30 gallon tank and the manufacturer says to use a penguin 150, don't put a 100 on and expect it to be able to do the same amount of work.

Any time you put in a new filter cartridge that has carbon in it make sure to thoroughly rinse it with tap water. This will remove and dust and small particles of carbon.

Occasional Maintenance

At some point you are going to need to replace the light bulbs on your aquarium. This can be rather expensive depending on the kind of lighting you need. If you have live plants and corals you want to make sure that you have lights that replication sunlight so that they are able to grow properly. Typically lights for coral tanks last about six months or so. It depends upon the set up you have for your tank what kind of bulbs you need and how you will replace them. Make sure that you follow all of the manufacture's directions when replacing lightbulbs.


Sooner or later you are going to need to add more substrate or even replace it completely. Gravel will breakdown into small pieces and sand can get sucked up when you gravel wash. Thankfully you won't need to replace your substrate that often, maybe every six months at the most. Simply rinse your substrate and slowly and gently lower it into place at the bottom of your aquarium. The hardest part is trying not to disturb your fish too much. This can be achieved by going as slow as possible, and not making too many sudden movements.

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Green Spot PufferClown LoachBlue Hippo TangsGoldfish
Green Spot Puffer
Green Spot Puffer | Source
Clown Loach
Clown Loach | Source
Blue Hippo Tangs
Blue Hippo Tangs | Source
Goldfish
Goldfish | Source

Cleaning Your Windows

This is one task that can be done as often, or not, as you like. Personally I like to be able to see my fish through all of the windows so I keep my glass clean. There are a few things to keep in mind before you attempt to clean your glass/acrylic. Do not use chemicals, like glass cleaners. If any of it gets into your tank you could get your fish sick or even kill them.

The best way to clean the outside of your tank is to fill a spray bottle with either straight water or water mixed with a little vinegar. To wipe it down use a towel, or a diaper if you have acrylic since a towel might scratch your acrylic. You may even find that your fish interact with you when you clean the windows.

In The End

Once you have your tanking running for a while you should be able to get a better idea of what needs to be done and when it should be done. For example. I know that I can get away with doing a gravel wash on my larger tank every 10 days or so. The plants and filtration do a great job of keeping the water clear and the fish don't leave leftover food after feedings. But, for my smaller beta tank I know that I need to do a water change every week. He is a messy little eater and that tank can get foul if I don't keep up with it.

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