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What to use when cleaning fish tanks


One aspect of the fish keeping hobby that is often neglected has to be the cleaning of the aquarium. I set myself a schedule of routine cleaning that needs doing regularly and stick to it, by doing this, the health of the fish will not be compromised as detritus and algae do not clog up filters etc., because of bad house keeping. There are many aids to help us out with our tank chores, long gone are the days when we had to roll up our sleeves and get our arms wet to clean the glass and substrate. I keep a box purely for my cleaning utensils, buying these handy tools can make cleaning the tank a pleasure rather than a burden.

This is a list of my cleaning gear:-

  • Long handled algae scraper with a pad on the reverse
  • Long handled blade scraper (do not use with acrylic tanks)
  • Siphoning tube
  • A bucket which is only used for cleaning purposes
  • White vinegar
  • Clean dishcloth
  • Paper toweling
  • Filter brushes
  • Filter pipe brushes
  • Gravel vacuum
  • Algae magnet
  • Sterilizing tablets
  • An old toothbrush

This may seem quite a long list but when you start doing the aquarium cleaning you will eventually be using them all.

My first cleaning of the aquarium takes place when it has just been purchased, a lot of keepers tend to overlook this but it is very important. Brand new tanks will be packaged to prevent breakages or scratches; the packaging tends to hold dust, especially if the tank has been stored for a length of time. Once the packaging has been removed the tank should be filled outdoors to check for any leaks, while you are doing this you have the chance to remove any dust particles that could contaminate your water when it is set up for use. This is where I use the sterilizing tablets to get the glass nice and clean as well. You must rinse out the tank after this initial clean so that all traces of your sterilizing solution has been removed. I normally rinse three times just to make sure. This initial cleaning stage is very important if you are setting up a second hand tank. You cannot guarantee what medications have been added by the previous keeper, sterilizing the tank will help eradicate anything that has been used in the past.

Once you are satisfied that the tank is up to standard you will be ready to add your gravel and whatever ornaments you wish to add. Cleaning these before they go in the tank will save you a lot of tank maintenance in the future. Rinse the gravel several times as it is always sold with a lot of powdery dust in it. If this is added to the tank it will soon clog the sponges in your filters. Rinse any ornaments to clean off any residual dust but do not use any soaps or detergents, these will add toxins to your tank water if not removed thoroughly.

The tank is now set up and running, this is where your cleaning schedule will kick in. at first you will be cleaning off a lot of algae but as the tank settles down it will become easier. I always try to do my tank clean just before a water change. The reason for this is that once you start cleaning the tank glass and gravel it will leave suspended particles in the water, rather than letting these particles go through your filtration system, most of them can be removed by performing the water change. Every other day I clean the tank glass. I do this on a regular basis as it prevents algae forming a crust on the glass which makes it very difficult to remove. For the front glass I use the algae magnet. For those of you that have never used one, they are sold as two separate parts, both with a magnet built in. One half will have a smooth fabric on its face, this is to go on the outside of the tank, and the other half has a coarser surface for the inside of the tank. The magnets will hold the two parts together when they are placed either side of the glass. Cleaning is performed by simply gliding the outer half over the glass; this will move the inner part too. If there is algae on the glass that refuses to budge the scraper is brought into play. It will soon shift any residues but if you are using a scraper with a metal blade, never attempt to use it on an acrylic tank. These tanks scratch very easily and you will ruin the front face.

On a weekly basis use the scraper to clean the back glass, often it is just a matter of reversing the scraper so that the pad side is showing. For the fussy keepers like me out comes the toothbrush for those awkward areas that the scraper can’t reach. Another part of my weekly cleaning regime is to vacuum the gravel. This can be done with just a siphon tube but you run the risk of siphoning out your gravel at the same time. I always use a purpose made gravel cleaner, this will remove any uneaten food or rotting vegetation before it starts to spoil the tank water. You will be amazed at how much detritus is siphoned out of the tank when you do it.

Depending on the size of your tank, the filters will need the sponges rinsing in old tank water, on a regular basis. With the smaller internal filters, I find it best to do this on a weekly basis. The larger canister filters should only need cleaning out every 2-3 months. This is a lot more involved as not only do the sponges need rinsing, the other media in the canister will also need a quick rinse. While the canister is open I also clean the pump impeller with a filter brush to keep the filter running as efficiently as possible.

Never rinse out filter sponges in tap water-it will kill off the beneficial bacteria!!!

One part of the tank that is often overlooked is the lighting. The tubes will collect water splash stains on them and some household dust, over time this will reduce their brightness if left. Cleaning these, once a week with a damp cloth will prevent any build up.

Over a period of time you may find that your tank ornaments will have built up a coating of algae or debris. To clean these, remove then from the tank and rinse off the detritus then replace them back in the tank. If the ornaments are too difficult to remove I use my toothbrush once again. This is such a versatile little tool. To reach the bottom of the tank I attached the head of the toothbrush to a long plastic rod by means of elastic bands and every part of the tank is easily accessible.

Once you are satisfied that everything inside the tank is nice and clean we can look at the outside of the glass. When we perform water changes, invariably there will be drips of water that will run down the front of the tank. After a while they can leave a residue as they dry out, removing this is also very easy. Never use household cleaning agents for this, and never use polish to clean your tank cabinets. If either of these are accidentally sprayed onto the water surface it can contaminate the whole tank.

For cleaning the front glass I use a damp dishcloth and white vinegar. The vinegar will break down any residue in no time, to dry and buff up the glass use paper towelling. As with the lighting I use a damp cloth to wipe down any dust or debris off the cabinet, this is also dried with the paper towelling.

The tank is now clean, the fish are happy, the job is finished. Not quite, always clean the utensils that have been used straight away, if you don’t clean them, the next time that you use them they will be contaminated from the last cleaning session.

As a footnote, you will have seen on my list that I keep a bucket purely for cleaning purposes. The reason for this is that I use a separate bucket for mixing my new tank water, this helps prevent another risk of contamination.

Questions and answers

The following question was moved here from on March 24th 2011 due to merging that section with related articles. You're welcome to submit your own unique and not yet answered questions here too, use a form at the bottom of this page for this purpose, please!

  • Why should aquariums be cleaned thoroughly? Answer: Cleanliness of the aquarium leads to cleaner water and less chance of infections and diseases being passed on to the fish. The substrate should also be cleaned on a regular basis with a gravel vacuum as detritus (fish waste) can accumulate. A clean tank should also mean that the nitrate levels will be low unless it is over stocked.

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