If you’re new to fish keeping, cleaning your aquarium can appear to be a daunting task. Where do you even begin, when you have to deal with water changes, algae, and numerous decorations that by now look like they’ve been submerged since Roman times?
As you watch more and more poop build up in the aquarium, and a fuzzy layer of algae slowly creeps up the glass, you know that you have to take action and clean out your aquarium. Thankfully cleaning out an aquarium isn’t that difficult, and if you follow this guide, you can have even the dirtiest aquarium clean in under an hour.
Unplug everything – Before you start splashing water everywhere like a toddler in a bath, you should always unplug everything in the aquarium. While many pieces of aquarium equipment are specifically made to be water-resistant – or even better, water proof, it’s always better to err on the side of caution when mixing electricity and water.
Clean the glass – The first thing that you want to do after everything is unplugged, is to give the glass a good scraping. Even in the most heavily planted aquariums, you will often face a steady build up of algae on the aquarium glass. While algae doesn’t pose any direct threat to your fish, it should be dealt with regularly, so that your fish tank doesn’t become completely obscured with a thick lawn of algae.
While you may see people doing this step after a water change, it’s very important that you scrape the glass prior to any water being removed from the aquarium. When you scrap the algae off of the glass in an aquarium, most of it will just end up floating in the water column. And if it isn’t removed, it will just settle right back onto the aquarium glass again. So by doing the water change while most of the algae is still suspended in the water column, you can remove a large portion of the algae permanently.
Remove the water – The next step in cleaning an aquarium, is to the remove the water. There is a lot of debate on how much water should be removed in a water change, but I find removing 15-25% of the water works best. If you want to change larger volumes of water, then you should work up to it slowly. Never increase the amount of water removed suddenly, and as a rule of thumb, never increase the amount of water changed by more than 10% from the previous week.
The easiest way to remove the water is the use the python water change – wait, you don’t have one yet? If there is one piece of aquarium equipment I would recommend a person owning, it would be the python water changer. Once you’ve used a python water changer, you will never be able to go back to the tedious and painful process of changing the water by hand again. You can order a Python No Spill Water Changer at Amazon.com, which normally has the best prices.
When suctioning out the water, you should always use the vacuum attachment to remove as much waste as possible from the substrate. If you are using gravel for your substrate, then you can sink the vacuum attachment about one to two inches directly into the gravel, where it will remove fish waste and uneaten food. If you are using sand, or other specialized substrates, then you should just hover the vacuum slightly over the substrate, where it will suck up the waste without removing the substrate.
Plant and Decoration Maintenance – After you have removed some of the water from the aquarium, you should take advantage of the lowered water level to do some tank maintenance. The two things that you want to focus on are cleaning the tank decorations, and replanting and pruning live plants.
The decorations are relatively easy to maintain, and you may just want to consider giving them a brief wipe down to remove any excess algae. You may also want to reposition them (especially if you have digging fish), and give them a brief inspection to insure that no fish with an overly optimistic body image has wedged themselves into a decoration (this is especially common for yoyo loaches.)
Plants on the other hand, take a bit more work. You should take this time during your weekly cleaning to prune some of the plants back, replant any that have become uprooted by unruly fish, and improve your aquascaping based on how the plants are growing. It’s not unusual to end up with some excess plant clippings, and these can be sold to other hobbyists, replanted in your other tanks, or as a last resort – fed to hungry goldfish.
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Clean the filter – The next cleaning job that you want to tackle, is the filter. This is usually the dirtiest and most unpleasant aspect of cleaning a fish tank, and many people prefer to use gloves for this task. You may even want to take the filter to another room if you have a nice hard wood floor or carpet. No matter how carefully you clean the filter, some water and fish waste will inevitable drip onto the floor.
To begin with, you should scoop liberal amounts of tank water into a bucket. You will be using this tank water to clean the filter, so make sure that the water has enough depth to at least submerge the filter media.
I can’t stress how important it is that you don’t use tap water to the clean the filter. The chlorine, or chloramine in the tap water will kill most of the beneficial bacteria that reside in the filter, and you’ll likely end up with a mini cycle that may kill some of your fish.
To clean the filter, dump out all of water, and remove the filter media from the filter. The filter media should then be gently washed in the bucket of tank water, taking care not to clean it too vigorously. If you over clean the filter, you may end up removing much of the beneficial bacteria from the filter – which brings us back the mini-cycle again.
You may also want to scrub out the interior of the filter, and clean out the intake and any of the moving parts. Once that has been accomplished, you can reassemble the filter, prime it and get it ready to be restarted when you are done cleaning the fish tank.
Refill the fish tank – The final thing to do, is to refill the aquarium with fresh water. You should always measure the temperature of the water you are adding to the tank, and make sure it is as close as possible to the temperature of the tank water (quick tip: use your aquarium thermometer to measure the tap water temperature).
If the water you are using to refill the aquarium contains either chlorine or chloramines, then it should be treated as soon as the tank has been filled. Some people prefer to put some water conditioner in prior to filling up the tank, but in most cases you should be fine if you add it immediately after you have finished refilling the tank.
After you have finished refilling the aquarium, you can go about plugging everything back in. You should spend a few minutes to make sure that everything is working properly, and that there are no problems with the filter. Once you’re sure that everything is operating correctly, you can sit back and relax, secure in the knowledge that you have successfully cleaned your fish tank.