Cleaning your tank is an incredibly important process, as it is the last step in regulating your tank's toxin, pH, and algae levels. It also helps you recreate the most natural environment possible for your fish to live and thrive in. However, many articles on the internet will try to teach you how to clean your tank, some of which contain conflicting information, making it hard to nail down the correct process. That's why this article will be your ultimate guide on how to properly clean your freshwater fish tank.
When To Clean Your Tank
Knowing when to clean your tank is the first step in cleaning your aquarium properly. The most obvious sign is a build-up of waste and algae. However, waste build-up isn't always obvious, and you may need to change your water before you notice a build-up. To tell, you'll want to check your tank water regularly.
After establishing your tank, it’s safest to test your water once a week and after any fish death or illness. However, for beginner tanks or tanks that you’ve just stocked, it's best practice to test your tank once a day until your first water change. Ideally, your nitrate levels should not be over 25 to 50ppm, depending on the size of your tank. If your pH level or nitrate level is out of whack, then it's time to change your water and clean your tank.
Turn Off and Clean All Equipment
Before touching anything in your tank, wash your hands and clean under your fingernails to prevent introducing foreign bacteria into the tank. You'll want to continue cleaning your hands whenever you touch something you haven’t previously cleaned or sterilized.
While this might not be the first step that comes to mind, you must ensure that your equipment is in top shape. You'll want to take apart your filter and your heater to inspect them for any mineral deposits of filters that need changing. While your tank equipment may harbor beneficial bacteria for biological filtering, cleaning them is still important, so they stay working longer. Ideally, you'll clean your equipment with an aquarium sponge and hot water.
Set Up a Temporary Tank
Once you've determined that you need to clean your tank and all your equipment, you must set up a temporary tank for your fish to stay in. You'll require a container similar in size to your aquarium, or you can use multiple smaller containers. Ensure the container is sturdy enough to withstand all the water you will put in it.
Don't clean the makeshift tank with bleach or soap; wash it thoroughly with fresh water. Next, place your filter, heater, and thermometer in the tank. Then, add your water and water conditioner, and let the equipment do its job for at least 20 minutes, or however long the instructions on your water conditioner tell you. Afterward, you can drip acclimate, bag acclimate, or use your preferred acclimation process to introduce your fish to the water.
You’re finally ready to clean your tank.
Clean Out Algae
Depending on the material of your tank, there are two different ways to remove algae from your tank. If your tank's panes are acrylic, you'll want to avoid using a scraper as acrylic scratches easily. These scratches can also harbor bacteria and algae that become difficult to remove. Instead, use an algae sponge either by hand or with an attached magnet.
However, if your tank's panes are glass, you can use a scraper as glass doesn't scratch as easily. Either way, ensure you don't get any gravel or substrate trapped between the panes and the tool, as this can also cause damage.
Before cleaning your décor, ensure your sink is completely clean and free of soap, chemicals, or food debris. You want to create as sterile an environment as possible without introducing extra chemicals into the tank water.
Like cleaning the temporary aquarium, don't use soap, bleach, or chemicals. Use hot water and an aquarium sponge to remove algae. If, for whatever reason, you must clean your aquarium décor with soap, choose something specifically labeled as unscented. Fragrance-free soaps have additives that hide the smell, whereas unscented soaps don't contain these neutralizing chemicals or scents. In addition, rinse every nook and cranny thoroughly to ensure no soap is left on the item you’ve cleaned.
The cleaning process is a great opportunity to manage and prune any live aquarium plants. While plants are great at mitigating algae growth, overgrown aquatic plants can take away valuable sunlight from your fish and other plants. In addition, your fish may struggle as they compete for oxygen with too many plants. So, remove any overgrown branches and dead foliage to prevent this from occurring. You'll also want to remove at least 30 percent of floating plants if they're covering the entire top of your aquarium.
Clean the Substrate
Aquarium siphons and vacuums are the best way to clean the substrate of your tank. These vacuums will target debris such as fish waste, dead plants, and more. Ideally, you'll want to clean no less than a third of the substrate. Be sure not to clean or remove all of it as substrate harbors essential bacteria, critical to the health of your plants and fish.
Cleaning your substrate can also help mitigate the presence of anaerobic pockets. These anaerobic pockets create spaces for dangerous anaerobic bacteria to form. While the roots of aquatic plants can help break up these pockets, vacuuming your substrate significantly helps.
Remove, Redecorate and Refill
If you're doing a partial or complete water change, this is the time to do it. If you're doing a partial water change, you only need to remove about 15 percent of the tank water, and you won't need to worry as much about getting the new water to the same levels. However, a complete water change requires more than just conditioning. You must ensure that you're still testing pH and nitrate levels, as they need to be exact. If your tank doesn't have plants or an old substrate to rely on for beneficially bacteria, it would be prudent to add a live bacteria solution, let the tank cycle, and retest.
However, if you don't need to do a complete water change, you can start adding in your clean aquarium décor.
Let the Tank Settle
Now at this point, your tank may technically be clean, but it may not look clean. The cleaning process will kick up a lot of dirt and substrate, so you must let the tank settle and filter for about an hour. You can add the fish at this point, but depending on the behavior of your fish, they may kick up more substrate.
Once your tank has settled, you can clean the outside of the tank with an aquarium-safe glass cleaner and re-wipe the inside of the tank if necessary for a clean finish.
Now that you know how to properly clean your freshwater tank, you're ready to give your fish the best and most beautiful environment to thrive in. Luckily, if you're looking for some new tank mates, Natural Environment Aquatix allows you to buy live fish online, so you never have to leave your home to find your new best fish friend.