This post contains affiliate links. I make a small commission for a successful purchase at no extra expense to you.
Be honest, this is a question that you have asked yourself when you were mentally preparing yourself to start cleaning your fish tank. I myself have definitely wondered why, so I did some research and this is what I found.
Why is it that we have to regularly clean our fish tank? An aquarium should be cleaned regularly because it is a closed system, and is prone to a build up of substances that can be harmful to the fish living in them. Ammonia or nitrates will build up over time in your aquarium, as well as algae and organic waste. These need to be removed to maintain pristine conditions in your tank.
An aquarium might look like a glass box with water and fish in them, but to a hobbyist or pet owner it is much more, and we know that.
It is a small ecosystem, and although it can be in balance, we as the owners are responsible for the wellbeing of the fish, plants and invertebrates that are housed in the tank.
What Happens to the Tank When We Do Not Clean it for a While?
This is the main thing that I was wondering, what does actually happen when I do not clean my tank? Do my fish die? Do my plants die?
Nitrate and Phosphate Build Up
If your tank is cycled, meaning that all the ammonia in your tank that is produced by your fish gets broken down into nitrite and finally into nitrate, the nitrate concentration in your tank rises. This is the same for phosphates.
Luckily nitrate and phosphate are not toxic to your fish in reasonable concentrations, but when you do not clean your tank in the form of water changes, this might build up. This is sometimes also called old tank syndrome.
There comes a point at which the nitrate/phosphate concentration becomes toxic to your fish, make sure to clean often and measure when you are in doubt. You could for example do this using test strips, which are super convenient. You just dip the strip in your aquarium and read the values using the colors. If you do not have them yet, take a look at these API test strips on Amazon, here is the link.
Nitrate and phosphate are perfect food for live plants, but also for algae. If the concentrations rise you will notice that algae starts to grow in your tank. I often have to clean algae from the glass of my tank.
You can only imagine what happens when we let the algae be, and give it the chance to keep on growing. Your tank will look dirty, and it will be harder to watch your fish through the glass.
Furthermore, algae will build up on your substrate, plants, decorations etcetera. Highly undesired.
Indicators That You Need To Clean Your Tank
There are a lot of things in your aquarium that can indicate that you need to clean your fish tank. This section will be short and to the point. Here is a list of indicators that can show you that your tank needs maintenance.
- Algae build up on glass and ornaments
- Filter flow strongly reduced
- Color of your fish becomes vague and desaturated
- Fish are swimming at the surface gasping for air (severe)
- You see plants floating through your tank
- Fish are suddenly dying (severe, might be an ammonia spike)
Algae build up and a reduced filter flow are obvious indicators, but I would like to dive a little bit deeper in desaturated colors and fish that are gasping at the surface to breathe.
You probably know that when you buy a fish from the store and introduce it to your tank, it will not display its best colors right away. The fish needs time to settle down in the aquarium before it can show its color.
This is because the fish is stressed out, getting caught in the store, transportation and the water parameter difference when introduced in your tank are a lot to handle. When acclimated and calmed down, it will show its color.
Poor water quality is also a major cause of stress for a fish. Therefore a fish does not show its best color in a dirty aquarium.
A good example are rummy nose tetra’s, which I keep myself. Their beautiful red nose is the perfect indicator of water quality. As long as I keep my water pristine the red will be pristine as well.
Fish gasping for air at the surface
Another indicator that you need to immediately look into the state of your aquarium is when there are fish gasping for air at the surface. This means that there is not enough dissolved oxygen in the water.
There can be several causes. It might be because your heater broke and the water is too warm (warm water holds less oxygen than cooler water). Another reason is that there is too much ammonia or nitrite.
If you see this, immediately check if your filtration system is working properly. It might be clogged or broken in some other way.
Also test your water to check if there are any values that are problematic. To do this, you can use the same test strips I recommended earlier in this article, but it is better to use a liquid based test kit to measure the ammonia and nitrite. A test kit that gets a lot of good reviews is the API Master Test Kit, which you can check out here on Amazon. You can also use other test kits that you can buy at your local fish store.
Reduce Cleaning and Maintenance Times
- Add live plants
- Do not overfeed
- Remove organic materials
Add live plants to your aquarium
When I say that I am keeping fish as a hobby, a lot of people think that it takes a lot of time to keep fish. They think that I am cleaning my aquarium every day for an hour, which luckily is not the case.
There are a couple of thing you need to know that can help reduce the time that you spend on cleaning your fish tank. The first one that I always recommend people is to keep some live plants.
Next to doing water changes, live plants are also great at getting rid of nitrates and phosphates in your water, because they eat it as fertilizer. They convert nitrate to leaves so to say.
If you think that keeping live plants is super difficult, you can read this page I wrote that gives you 8 options for live plants that do not require CO2 and are pretty easy to keep as a beginner.
Do not overfeed your fish
One of the most common sources of ammonia is overfeeding. All the food that does not get eaten will decay and will all be converted to ammonia.
If your tank is functioning well, all the ammonia gets converted to nitrate. But a lot of ammonia means a lot of nitrate, and a spike will allow algae to grow like crazy.
When you feed your fish, make sure you only feed what they can eat.
Remove organic material from your tank
Next to uneaten food, there is all kind of other organic material that can decay when it gets the chance to. This means more ammonia.
If you see pieces of plants floating though the water of your fish tank, take the time to get a net and catch it. Except for when it is a dedicated floating plant of course.
Another thing that you have to be aware of is diseased fish. When a fish has died, take it out as soon as possible. If not, it will start rotting and give you an ammonia spike that can be lethal to your entire tank.
Oh and also, when you see a fish has passed away, try and find out why. Is it from old age, than there was nothing you could do. However if you measure your water parameters and you find some ammonia in your tank, treat that immediately. This is the same for other causes such as ich or other diseases.
Can Fish Help You Clean Your Aquarium?
- Shrimp and snails
- Algae eaters
- All have a bioload
Yes! They can! There are fish that you can add to your aquarium that will help you keep your tank clean, so you do not have to clean it as often.
Before I will tell you which fish, I want to talk about a common misconception. A “clean-up crew” consisting of snails, algae eaters and shrimp will definitely not entirely replace any cleaning that you have to do.
Also, the clean-up crew might be able to survive of the left over food of the rest of the fish in your tank, but it is best to also feed them like separate fish with dedicated food such as algae wafers.
So what can a clean-up crew do?
In general, algae eaters such as a bristlenose pleco/catfish and otocinclus will eat some algae. They are most effective against brown algae, and not that effective for green algae such as hair algae.
Another great animal to add to your tank to battle algae are nerite snails. They are also really popular because their eggs require salt water to hatch. This means that they will be able to lay eggs, but they can not hatch so there is no chance that these nerite snails will become an infestation.
Another important function of a clean-up crew is the fact that they can eat the left-over food that has dropped to the bottom of the tank. I found that shrimp are especially good at this. Snails will also do this.
This is rather useful when your other tank inhabitants are messy eaters, or will not eat the food as soon as it has hit the ground.
Lastly, malaysian trumpet snail are super good to add to your aquarium when you have soil or substrate lying on the bottom. These snails will dig in the substrate, aerating the soil. This is really important if you have a thicker layer of soil.
Are there fish that eat fish poop? This is a common question that a lot of people have asked themselves, mostly because they see a lot of poop lying on the bottom of their tank. There is no fish that will eat fish poop. You have to manually remove it using a gravel vacuum. I wrote an article on this, you can read it here.
How to clean fish tank glass? When you are cleaning the inside of the aquarium glass, you can use a sponge or magnet. Another way is to add fish that eat the algae of your glass. When cleaning the outside, make sure you do not use any cleaning products because you risk adding a cleaning product to your aquarium water, killing your fish.
How to clean fish tank gravel? For cleaning the gravel, you should use a gravel vacuum. This will remove any loose particles such as fish poop from the water. When cleaning the gravel when it is not in the tank anymore, make sure you rinse them with just water before putting them back in a tank. There can not be any cleaning product left on the gravel.
Nerite snail image – Author: Evan Baldonado License: CC4.0 No Changes
Bristlenose catfish image – Owned: sannse Licensed: CC3.0
Cryptocoryne Photo owned by Tommy Kronkvist licensed under CC 3.0
Rummynose tetra image – Owned Lerdsuwa by licensed underCC 3.0 .
Aquarium Genius is a participant in the Chewy.com affiliate program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Chewy.com. We also participate in other affiliate programs (Amazon) which compensate us for referring traffic.