Cleaning Tips, Guides & Resources

Step-by-Step Guide: The Right Way to Clean a Fish Tank

Adriana Aziz
December 13, 2022
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how to clean a fish tank custom graphic

If you're considering getting a fish tank, or already have one, you should know that a key aspect to ensuring your fish are healthy is keeping the tank clean. While this might sound a bit daunting, especially for those who have never done it before, it's actually a lot easier than you'd imagine. It will, however, require a bit of effort, as well as the right tools to get the job done efficiently.

Before we dive into the cleaning itself, it's important to know that this should be a regular practice which also depends on the bioload of your tank. At this point, one must note that the bioload refers to the biological waste accumulated in the tank. With that in mind, if you have more bioload, you need to replace water and clean the tank more often to maintain the state of the water, and prevent the excessive build-up of algae.

So, if you want to learn how to clean a fish tank, MaidForYou has all the information right here. Let’s begin!

What You’ll Need to Clean a Fish Tank

3 assorted coloured metal buckets on a white background

  • Water conditioner
  • Clean water to replace in the tank
  • Long-sleeved glove (just one for reaching into the tank)
  • An algae scrubber for the inside of the tank
  • A large, clean bucket
  • Aquarium siphon
  • Siphon-type gravel vacuum
  • Plastic razor blade 
  • Soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Thermometer

With all this on-hand, we can go ahead and begin cleaning the fish tank by carefully following the steps below.

IMPORTANT: Safely transfer the fish to a clean bowl of treated water while you are cleaning the tank.

Step 1: Clean the Glass

man using cloth inside full fish tank to clean

Begin by putting on the long-sleeve glove to keep your hand from making contact with the water. This is to ensure that you don't run the risk of an allergic reaction, and prevents you from accidentally contaminating the water as well. 

From there, take the algae scrubber and begin working the insides of the tank thoroughly, but carefully, to get rid of any algae buildup. If in the event you find a particularly difficult patch, you can use the plastic razor to carefully remove the stubborn algae.

Step 2: Decide the Amount of Water to Change

two large bottles of water in front of a large home fishtank

Here's where the bioload of your tank comes into play. Depending on the amount of nutrients and biological waste in the water, you must determine how much water to change in the tank. The average range of how much you should change is between 25% to 50% of the water in the tank.

If you feel the necessity to reduce nitrate and phosphate levels in the water, consider replacing the water more often to regulate the levels. 

NOTE: 50% water replacement done once a month is a good practice for regular maintenance.

Step 3: Siphon the Water

man wearing white t-shirt cleaning glass of a large aquarium

Once the amount of water to be replaced is decided on, begin by taking the siphon and transferring the water to the bucket. Keep a close eye on the level of the water as it is advisable to avoid transferring water back into the tank from the bucket. 

Ensure that this bucket is used for aquarium water only, and not for any other purpose. Apart from being deemed unsanitary for personal use, when the bucket is used to add fresh water to the tank, you may run the risk of harming the fish if contaminants are left behind after using it for other purposes.

Step 4: Clean the Substrate

top view of a large home aquarium and its filter

If you have gravel as your substrate, take the gravel vacuum, and push it through the gravel. It is recommended to use a fishnet over the end of the vacuum here since you don't want to accidentally suction anything else in the process. Much of the extra food, waste from the fish, and any other debris or dirt will be picked up by the vacuum. Experts recommended cleaning about 30% of your gravel every month for optimum results. 

If you're working with a sand based substrate, you could place your finger over the end of the vacuum, or kink the pipe a bit to slow down the suction. Then, place the vacuum end about one inch above the sand, and begin vacuuming. You can run your fingers through the sand slowly to release anything stuck beneath the grains.

Step 5: Clean Your Decorations

large fish tank decorations on a white background

Since you have nutrients in the water, and light is available, algae tends to thrive in a fish tank. Here, your tank decorations are prime real-estate for the algae and therefore, must be cleaned, too. Using a clean soft-bristled toothbrush, you can scrub the surfaces of these decorations, ensuring that the bristles get into any nooks and crannies. 

If you're having trouble cleaning the decorations, you could try cleaning them outside the tank, and putting them back later. For this you would need to soak the decorations in a bucket of water with bleach added to the mix. After about 15 minutes of soaking, you must rinse the decorations thoroughly to ensure no residue is left behind. 

If in the event that your decorations are porous, it's recommended to first allow them to air-dry, and then consider adding them to the tank again. 

Step 6: Add Fresh Water

large empty fish bowl filled with water

At this point, you should be treating the water that you will put into the tank as replacement. If you're using tap water, you need to add the water conditioner based on the instructions provided on the conditioner's label. Look for an ammonia detoxifier conditioner for best results. This treatment may take a few hours so it is advisable to prepare in advance for this process to save time. 

From there, you must ensure the temperature of the water is within an acceptable range. What this means is that, if the temperature of the new water is so drastically different that it changes the temperature of the whole tank, you could harm your fish more as opposed to doing them any good. Work with your thermometer to ensure the temperatures match, and are not even one degree apart to prevent problems. 

Step 7: Clean the Filter

man looking into extremely dirty fish tank filter

Now that most of the tank is cleaned, it's time to clean the filter that keeps your tank clean. Rinse the filter with tank water itself to prevent any contaminants from entering the water, and work on replacing filter media on a regular basis. Whatever type of filter it may be, carbon filter, GFO filter, etc. you can change the filter media every 2 to 6 weeks to maintain the water quality. 

Step 8: Keep an Eye on the Water

close up of fish tank water thermometer with fish in the background

Finally, wait a few hours while checking the tank regularly. The cloudiness that develops as you clean the tank should slowly settle and the water should clear up completely. When you’ve got visibly clear results, transfer the fish back to their clean tank. 

If this cloudiness doesn't go away after a few hours, you could be dealing with an underlying problem that hasn't been addressed yet. In this case, it's worth looking into that with the assistance of an expert. 

Other than that, the fish tank cleaning guide above will surely help you get the job done safely and efficiently! The key is to practice this regularly to maintain the quality of the water, thus ensuring that your fish are living in a healthy environment.

Adriana Aziz is the operations manager at MaidForYou. With over 6 years of experience managing cleaning operations, she knows all the best hacks when it comes to cleaning residential and commercial buildings. With expert experience in managing house cleaning operations, interior design and logistics. She spends her free time with her family and as a freelance food critic.

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