A Complete Guide for How to Clean a Fish Tank

If you want to keep your fish happy and healthy and your fish tank looking its best, it’s important to know how to clean a fish tank properly. Having a clean fish tank will help improve your fish’s wellbeing and make water filtration more efficient. If you simply want to keep your fish tank stored out of sight, you can also use this process to declutter your home. Here you’ll learn all about how to clean a fish tank and what the process entails.

Equipment You Need to Clean a Fish Tank

Whether you’re learning how to clean an old fish tank or a new one, there are some supplies you will need to have to make sure you get the job done right. These supplies include:

  • Bleach
  • Razorblade or, if you have an acrylic tank, a plastic blade
  • Algae pad or scraper
  • Filter media and brush
  • Bucket solely for use in aquariums
  • Glass cleaner or lime remover for aquariums
  • Paper towels
  • Chlorine remover
  • Water siphon

How to Clean a Fish Tank With Fish in It

someone siphoning the gravel as part of how to clean a fish tank

Now that you know what you need to keep your fish tank clean, the following is a guide for how to clean a fish tank. Try to clean each part of your tank in the following order:

  1. The interior glass
  2. All decorations including plants, rocks, and props
  3. Gravel
  4. Exterior glass and features
  5. Water filter

1. Clean the Interior Glass

Use an algae pad or scraper to clean the glass thoroughly on the inside of the tank. There are many types of pads and scrapers out there that you can get. For instance, if you have a larger tank, you may want to get an algae scraper with a long handle to make it easier to reach inside.

Make sure you get your algae pad at a pet store as opposed to a department store because algae scrapers specifically designed for fish tanks won’t contain any harmful chemicals that could hurt your fish.

If you use the scraper or pad but find that any residue remains after scrubbing thoroughly, you can use a razor blade to remove the residue carefully. For acrylic fish tanks, use a plastic blade to avoid damaging the interior.

2. Clean the Rocks, Plants, and Other Decorations

After cleaning the glass on the inside of the tank, remove all decorations, including rocks, plants, and other props that are visibly dirty. However, you should never clean them with regular hand soap and water. Even if you rinse the decorations thoroughly, particles of soap could be left in crevices and creases, which can harm your fish. Instead, use your algae scraper to do the job.

If your decorations require more thorough cleaning, you can create a 10 percent bleach cleaning solution and let the decorations soak in it for around 15 minutes. Once they’re done soaking, make sure you wash any additional grime off and let them air dry until the bleach has been completely removed.

You can also use a five percent bleach solution to clean live plants for a few minutes, but never bleach stem plants. Make sure any bleached plants are thoroughly rinsed after cleaning.
Also, wait until you’re done vacuuming the gravel in the tank before replacing all decorations, which will help keep them cleaner.

3. Use the Siphon to Clean the Gravel

The next step in the process will entail cleaning the gravel through the use of a siphon to vacuum the debris. You can use a variety of siphons, but the main function of any of them will be to remove debris present in the tank without vacuuming the gravel.

Make sure all of the water removed through siphoning is replaced with clean dechlorinated water. You should avoid using any purified water that you might buy at a supermarket. Instead, use tap water that contains the minerals that purified water lacks. Make sure all replacement water is the right temperature and matches what you normally use for the aquarium.

While replacing the water, also turn off your aquarium heater to prevent contamination from the air.

4. Clean the Exterior Glass and Fixtures

With the interior cleaned, it’s time to focus on the outside of the tank. Clean the exterior glass, the hood, the top, the light, and any other fixtures. When cleaning, stick to vinegar or another type of cleaner intended for use on aquarium glass.

5. Clean the Filter When Needed

Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned the tank, wait for around two weeks before cleaning the filter. You should wait because the filter media contains some beneficial bacteria, which will help replace what was lost in the tank during cleaning. Cleaning the filter too soon could result in ammonia buildup, which can kill any remaining bacteria.

After a few weeks, you should always replace any filter media with ammonia absorbers, ion-exchange resins, or carbon. Also, make sure you clean every part of the filter, including the tubing.

Now you know how to clean a fish tank using the right materials and a defined efficient process.

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Clean a Fish Tank With Fish in It

What Can Happen If You Don’t Clean Your Fish Tank Regularly?

Over time, if you don’t maintain your fish tank and clean it regularly, you could expose your fish to ammonia buildup, along with nitrites and nitrates, that could cause severe harm to your fish. Normally, waste accumulation is mitigated by beneficial bacteria. But as the water gets dirtier, that bacteria dies, leaving your fish vulnerable and your tank looking grimy.

You may be able to tell that there’s a problem with your fish’s environment if the fish aren’t eating enough, become discolored, exhibit decreased energy levels, or appear to get sick. If the tank isn’t properly cleaned, this could even lead to death. Knowing how to clean algae from fish tanks, along with other potential contaminants, is essential.

How Big Should Your Fish Tank Be to Keep the Water Clean and Healthy Between Washes?

Ideally, if you have smaller fish of three inches or fewer, you should store no more than one inch of fish per gallon of water. This old rule of thumb will change if you have fish exceeding three inches in length, as larger fish will both take up more space and excrete more waste. If your fish tank contains a larger number of fish, your fish tank will see more waste buildup. The fewer fish you keep and the better the filtration system, the more manageable your fish tank will be and the longer you can go without cleaning it.

How Long Does It Take to Clean an Aquarium?

The amount of time required to thoroughly clean a fish tank will depend on the aquarium’s size. Generally, a small one- to five-gallon fish tank will take around 15 minutes to clean, while larger aquariums could take up to about an hour. The dirtiness and equipment involved will also factor into the total time it takes to clean the aquarium.

How to Clean an Empty Fish Tank for Storage

Along with knowing how to clean a fish tank with fish in it, you may also need to know how to clean a fish tank when moving or drying it out for long-term storage.

1. Clean the Filter

You can start by preparing the filter for storage by unplugging it and cleaning it using water and white vinegar. Throw out any carbon filter or sponge, as they’ll need to be replaced by the time you’re ready to use the tank again. Then scrub it with a filter cleaning brush to remove any algae, and let it air dry.

2. Prepare the Lighting

Remove the lamp from the tank and remove the bulbs. You can store the bulbs in packing paper or the box they came in if they’re in good condition. Then you can clean the lamp with a 1:1 vinegar and water solution. Let the lamp air dry.

3. Prepare the Decorations

Clean all of the decorations in the tank and let them air dry as well. Use packing paper to wrap them up and prepare them for storage. If you want to reuse the gravel later, you can boil it for around five minutes, let it cool, and strain it before placing it back in the tank.

4. Clean the Aquarium Itself

With the tank empty, you can fill the tank with hose or tap water along with a bottle of vinegar per gallon of water. Next, let the solution sit for about an hour. Place some in a pot or bucket, and then empty the rest of the tank. Use that contained solution to scrub the inside and outside of the tank, and then rinse and empty it out. Use a cloth to dry it and then allow the tank to air dry for several hours.

Once the tank is cleaned and dry, store it in the box it came in or use another box that can contain it. Line the box with packing paper, place the tank inside, and add some insulating paper around the tank to act as padding when transporting the tank. Then you can add some paper to the bottom of the aquarium on the inside, and place your bags of gravel and boxed decorations and filter inside. Make sure the box is properly sealed.

Now, if you ever want to move or decide to keep your fish tank in storage, you’ll know how to clean a fish tank and prepare it for storage when making the transition into your new home. By following this complete guide for how to clean a fish tank, you’ll be able to keep your fish happy, maximize their lifespan, and maintain a great-looking tank that functions the way it should.