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How to Clean Your Freshwater Aquarium

Updated on November 1, 2012

Thinking "Clean" from the Beginning

Keeping fish is a fun, low-maintenance hobby. Watching fish swim gracefully through their tanks can help you relax and forget the stress of your day. If you've decided to start keeping fish, enjoy the perks and avoid the headaches...think about your tank maintenance from the beginning.Some quick tips that will help you maintain a nice looking tank include:

  • Pick fish with low bio-loads. Big catfish and goldfish put out more waste than most of the smaller tropical fish. Consider your breeds particular waste levels when you consider how often you are willing to do water changes.
  • Don't overstock your tank. The general rule with freshwater aquariums is one inch of fish for each gallon of water. For example, if you have a 20 gallon tank you could theoretically have 20 1-inch guppies in the tank. More than that and your tank can officially be called overstocked. In order to reduce tank maintenance do not overstock or stock to the absolute maximum. Personally, I stock my tank to about 75% of its' capacity.
  • Don't place your tank in direct sunlight. Outside of causing fluctuations in tank temperatures, placing your tank in direct sunlight will encourage algae growth on the glass of your tank.
  • Don't overfeed your fish. Too much food will ruin water quality and increase the need for water changes. Overfeeding will also contribute to population booms in pest snails if any are in your tank. Plus the more your fish eat the more waste they will create, which means (you guessed it!) more water changes.
  • Buy the biggest tank you can afford. Smaller tanks are more sensitive to changes in water chemistry. The more water the tank holds the more ammonia, etc it will take to affect it. Smaller tanks mean more frequent water changes.

Cleaning Your Tank

Now that your prep work and research is done, let's get down to the your tank. When cleaning your tank, start by cleaning your aquarium's walls. Your goal is to remove as much algae and film as possible. I use a floating magnetic scraper, which stays in my tank at all times (doing quick 2-minute scrapes at the end of feeding times). To remove the more resistant algae, use a hand held scraper. If you have sand as a substrate, be careful not trap grains of sand between your scraper and the glass (this will cause the sand to carve out permanent scratches in your tank).

Doing Your Water Changes

Water changes and tank cleaning is a necessity for keeping healthy, disease-free fish. If your tank is new, you will likely do water changes more often. As your tank ages and you perfect your maintenance routine, the frequency that is needed should decrease. If you have a tank with stable water conditions, water changes a couple of times a month will be plenty.

Water Changes are exactly what they sound will change out dirty water for clean water. Once your tank is set up, you will only perform partial water changes. This means that you will not dump all the water at once and start fresh...instead you will drain about 30% of your tanks water out and replace it with fresh water. The easiest way to do this is with a gravel vacuum. Basically, you will quickly move the vacuum in a pumping motion until it creates a suction and starts siphoning water out thru the connecting hose. Drain the water into a bucket (or directly into a sink or toilet if your hose can reach one) and repeat until the desired amount is removed.

Once your gravel vacuum has a suction going use it suck up any excess fish food, algae, dead plants, etc along with the water. As it drains out water, it will also suck out the solid waste. If you have gravel, use the nose of the vacuum to agitate the rocks and gain access to waste foods, etc. If you have sand, simply hover just above the sand to remove old food, waste, etc. Don't forget to hover over decorations and well-rooted plants, too.

Next, you will remove your filter media and rinse it off in your last bucket of removed water. Your goal is just to remove any large chunks of dirt, algae, dead plant leaves, etc.You are rinsing it in your old tank water because we do not wish to kill the good bacteria that is present in your filter. Rinsing in new water (which is water that has not had the opportunity to grow good bacteria) will also wash away the beneficial bacteria.

Lastly, you will add water back to your tank. My tank is far from the nearest sink so I have to go back and forth with buckets of water. Before I start actually putting water in the tank, I first make sure that the temperature of the water is correct. I do this by putting water in a bucket and letting a thermometer sit in it for several minutes. If its not in my desired 80-83 degree zone (this is the temp that I keep my tank because it's the zone that my fish thrive in), I make adjustments until the water temp is right. Once I have the temp right, I fill buckets with clean, clear water. In each bucket, I add a few drops of water conditioner to remove the harmful chlorine. Once the water conditioner has been added, I add the water to the tank. Then it is just repeating until the tank is full again.


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  • philli profile image

    philli 5 years ago from Madison, Alabama

    Thanks, Jack. I appreciate the feedback!

  • Apostle Jack profile image

    Apostle Jack 5 years ago from Atlanta Ga

    Very good.Your advice was great and you said it well.