How to Clean a Fish Tank: The Essential Guide for Beginners

Cleaning a fish tank can seem overwhelming for beginners, but it is an essential part of maintaining a healthy aquatic environment. With proper guidance and the right supplies, you can make this task easier and more efficient. This article will walk you through the steps needed to clean a fish tank effectively and ensure a comfortable home for your aquatic pets.

fish tank cleaning

How to Prepare for Cleaning Your Fish Tank?

Before you dive into cleaning your fish tank, proper preparation is vital to ensure the process goes smoothly and without stress for you and your fish. Follow these simple steps to get ready for a successful cleaning:

  1. Plan ahead: Choose a day when you have enough time on your hands and can focus on the task. Make sure none of your fish are experiencing any health issues, as cleaning might add stress to already stressed fish.
  2. Gather your supplies: Assemble all the materials required for cleaning the fish tank. Some essential supplies include:
    • A bucket dedicated for aquarium use
    • An algae scraper or pad
    • A gravel vacuum
    • Filter media and spare parts
    • Water conditioner to neutralize chlorine (if you use tap water)
    • Thermometer and water testing kits
  3. Designate a safe space: Find a safe area near the fish tank (but not directly next to it) to temporarily house your fish if you plan on removing them during the cleaning process. This could be another container filled with water from the tank.
  4. Prepare water for the water change: Depending on the size of your tank, have enough water ready for the water change. Ensure it’s at the right temperature and properly treated fish-safe water.

Spend some time preparing for the cleaning process to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible. With proper planning and the right supplies, you’ll be well on your way to a cleaner and healthier fish tank.

What are the Essential Supplies for Cleaning a Fish Tank?

Before diving into the process of cleaning your fish tank, it’s important to gather all the essential supplies. These supplies play a crucial role in maintaining the cleanliness and health of your aquarium. Below is a list of necessary items for a thorough and efficient cleaning:

  • Water siphon: This handy tool is vital for removing water from the tank and vacuuming the substrate simultaneously.
  • Algae scraper/scrubber: Algae buildup on the aquarium glass is a common issue; using an algae scraper or scrubber will help you keep the glass clean and clear.
  • Aquarium-safe cleaning wipes or cloths: To avoid using harmful chemicals, investing in aquarium-safe cleaning wipes or cloths is crucial for wiping down the exterior glass and equipment.
  • Water conditioner: Adding a water conditioner to the new water helps remove harmful chemicals and makes the water safe for your fish.
  • Water testing kit: Regularly testing the water quality is essential to ensure the well-being of your fish. A water testing kit helps you monitor the pH levels, ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels in your aquarium.
  • Bucket: Having a dedicated bucket for your aquarium maintenance will prevent cross-contamination and is helpful for water changes and cleaning equipment.
  • Thermometer: Monitoring the water temperature is vital for the well-being of your fish. A thermometer ensures you maintain the appropriate temperature in the tank.
  • Gloves: Wearing gloves while handling water and equipment is not only essential for protecting your skin but also helps avoid transferring dirt or oils from your hands into the tank.

These supplies are the foundation of a successful fish tank cleaning process. Having all the necessary items prepped and ready to go will make your task much more efficient and help maintain a healthy environment for your fish.

How Often Should You Clean a Fish Tank?

One of the most common questions among beginner aquarium enthusiasts is, “How often should I clean my fish tank?” The answer to this question varies depending on the size of the tank, the number of fish, and the type of filtration system you have. However, there are some general guidelines you can follow to maintain a clean and healthy environment for your aquatic friends.

First and foremost, you should do a partial water change (20-50%) every two to four weeks. This helps to remove excess waste and debris, maintain the water’s chemical balance, and replenish essential minerals.

Keep in mind, more frequent, smaller water changes (around 10-20% every week) can be more beneficial than less frequent large water changes, especially in heavily stocked aquariums.

As for other cleaning tasks, here is a rough breakdown of how often they should be performed:

  • Algae removal: As needed, usually every week or two. Use an algae scraper or magnet cleaner to remove algae buildup from the tank glass.
  • Filter maintenance: Clean or replace media every two to four weeks, depending on the filter type and manufacturer’s recommendations, but avoid cleaning it excessively since it contains beneficial bacteria essential for the nitrogen cycle.
  • Substrate vacuuming: Every two to four weeks, during water changes. It helps to remove uneaten food and fish waste from the tank’s bottom.
  • Plant maintenance: As needed, usually every couple of weeks. Trim dead leaves and remove decaying plant matter to prevent excess nutrients and algae growth.
  • Decoration cleaning: As needed, usually during water changes. Clean tank decorations only when there is excessive algae or dirt buildup.

By following these general guidelines, you can make sure your fish tank remains a clean, healthy, and enjoyable habitat for your aquatic pets.

Do You Remove Fish During Cleaning?

When it comes to cleaning your fish tank, one of the most common questions from beginners is whether or not to remove the fish while cleaning. The short answer is: it depends on the level of cleaning that you will be doing.

If you are performing a partial water change of about 20-40%, you can usually let the fish stay in the tank without any problems. This is actually less stressful for the fish because they won’t experience a sudden change in their environment. Make sure to work gently to minimize stress and disturbance to your aquatic pets.

However, when it comes to a thorough cleaning or when your aquarium requires special attention, it is advised to take the fish out of the tank and place them temporarily in a separate container with the tank water. This could include situations such as:

  • Treating a disease outbreak or bacterial infection
  • Cleaning after a long period of neglect
  • Changing the entire tank setup
  • Removing a large amount of waste or debris
  • Restarting a tank after a filter failure

When you need to remove the fish, use a soft net to gently transfer them to the temporary container. Avoid using a bowl or any container that has been washed with soap or other chemicals, because even a small amount of residue can harm the fish.

Keep track of your fish during the process and watch for any signs of stress or discomfort. Once the cleaning is completed, acclimate them back to the clean tank gradually to avoid significant water parameter changes.

How to Prepare Water for Fish Tank?

Preparing water for your fish tank is a crucial step in maintaining a healthy environment for your aquatic pets. The process involves conditioning tap water to remove harmful chemicals and adjusting its temperature to match the tank.

  • Dechlorinating tap water: Tap water usually contains chlorine or chloramine, which can be harmful to your fish. Use a water conditioner or dechlorinator available at pet stores to neutralize these chemicals. Simply follow the instructions provided on the conditioner’s label for the correct dosage.
  • Adjusting water temperature: Fish are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, so it’s essential to match the new water’s temperature to your fish tank. You can use an aquarium thermometer to check the temperature of both the tank and new water. Adjust the temperature of the new water by pouring in hot or cold water until it matches the tank temperature.
  • Monitoring pH levels: The pH level of your water is another factor that affects the well-being of your fish. Freshwater fish tanks usually require a pH level between 6.5 and 7.5, while saltwater tanks require 8.0 to 8.4. You can use a pH test kit to check the new water’s pH and adjust it using pH increasers or decreasers if necessary.
  • Letting water stand: Optionally, you can let the tap water sit in a container for 24 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate and gases to escape. This will further ensure the water is safe for your fish.

By following these steps, you can create a safe and stable environment for your fish during the tank cleaning process and beyond.

What is the Process of Cleaning a Fish Tank?

Now that you’ve prepared the necessary tools and water for cleaning your fish tank, let’s dive into the step-by-step process of making your aquarium spotless. Whether you have freshwater or saltwater fish, the following steps will help you maintain a clean and healthy environment for your aquatic pets.

  • Testing Water Quality: Regularly checking and maintaining your aquarium’s water parameters is essential for the health and well-being of your fish. Use a test kit to examine the levels of ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and pH.
  • Disconnect Aquarium Equipment: Before beginning the cleaning process, always remember to unplug any electrical equipment, such as heaters, filters, and lights to ensure safety.
  • Remove Algae from Plants and Decorations: Using an algae scrubber, gently clean any artificial plants, decorations, and other surfaces where algae has accumulated. Remember to be cautious as to not disrupt your fish or damage their habitat.
  • Aquarium Plant Maintenance: Carefully trim, remove, or replant any real aquatic plants as needed. Healthy plants contribute to a balanced ecosystem within your tank.
  • Substrate Vacuuming: Using a gravel vacuum or siphon, remove any excess debris and waste built up in the substrate. Make sure not to overrun the siphon but don’t be overly vigorous as well.
  • Filter Cleaning and Maintenance: Clean the filter by rinsing it in the removed tank water, and replace filter media as needed. Never use tap water, as it may harm the beneficial bacteria.
  • Cleaning Aquarium Glass: With a soft cloth or sponge, gently clean the interior and exterior of the aquarium glass to remove any algae or dirt.
  • Doing the Water Change: Carefully replace a portion of your tank water with the pre-treated water. Re-introduce your fish if they’ve been temporarily removed, and slowly plug back in your equipment.
  • Monitoring Fish after Water Change: Observe your fish for any signs of stress or discomfort after the water change, and make any necessary adjustments to ensure their safety.

By following this process, you’ll be well on your way to providing a clean and healthy environment for your fish. Remember to stick to a regular cleaning schedule for the best results.

Testing Water Quality

When cleaning a fish tank, testing water quality is of utmost importance. Regular tests ensure the health of your fish by monitoring parameters essential for maintaining a stable aquatic environment.

  • pH Levels: The pH level measures how acidic or alkaline your fish tank water is. Ideally, the pH should be between 6.5 to 7.5, depending on the fish species you have.
  • Ammonia: Ammonia levels should always be at 0 ppm (parts per million) in a healthy, cycled tank. High ammonia levels can be toxic for your fish.
  • Nitrite: Once the bacterial colonies develop in the tank, ammonia converts to nitrite, which is also toxic. Aim for 0 ppm nitrite levels in your tank.
  • Nitrate: The final stage in the nitrogen cycle is the conversion of nitrite to nitrate. Although less toxic, high nitrate levels can cause stress in fish and lead to health issues. The nitrate level should be below 40 ppm for most fish species.

To test water quality, purchase an aquarium test kit, which typically includes tests for pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Conduct these tests before and after cleaning the fish tank. Here’s how to test the water:

  1. Fill the test kit’s vial with the aquarium water.
  2. Add the recommended number of test solution drops.
  3. Place the cap on the vial and gently shake.
  4. Wait the allotted time, then compare the vial’s color to the included color chart to determine the parameter levels.

Testing water quality after cleaning will help you determine if the new water is suitable for your fish. Additionally, testing frequently will enable you to catch any potential issues early and remedy them before they cause harm to your aquatic pets.

Disconnect Aquarium Equipment

Before you begin cleaning your fish tank, it is crucial to disconnect all aquarium equipment to ensure the safety of both you and your fish. Remember to unplug the heater, filter, air pump, and any other powered devices.

  • Heater: Disconnecting the heater avoids any potential damage to the unit, as running it outside water could result in malfunctions. Also, give it a few minutes to cool down before handling it.
  • Filter: Unplugging the filter is necessary for proper cleaning, and to prevent any electrical accidents. Be prepared to work quickly, as leaving the beneficial bacteria in the filter media exposed for too long might lead to a decline in their population.
  • Air pump: To clean your air pump, remove it from the tank and examine the tubing for any clogs or damage. Clean or replace any compromised parts as needed.
  • Lights: Make sure to turn off and unplug any aquarium lights before cleaning. This protects you from electrical hazards.
  • Other powered devices: If you have any additional powered devices in your aquarium, such as wave makers or UV filters, remember to unplug them as well.

By disconnecting your aquarium equipment, you create a safer environment for you to work in, while also making proper maintenance of each component a seamless process. Paying close attention to the needs of each device will guarantee a well-functioning fish tank for your aquatic pets to thrive in.

Remove Algae from Plants and Decorations

One of the vital steps in cleaning your fish tank is removing accumulated algae from plants and decorations. Algae growth is a common issue in aquariums, and it’s essential to address it for the health of aquatic life and maintaining the aesthetic appeal of your tank.

  • Quick and easy algae removal: By using an algae scrubber or algae pad, gently scrub or rub the affected areas of plants and decorations. Make sure you choose the right scrubber suitable for your tank’s glass, like avoiding metal scrubbers for acrylic tanks.
  • Live plants: To clean algae off live plants, remove the plants from the tank and gently swish them around in a container of old tank water or dechlorinated tap water. In some cases, you can also use an old, soft toothbrush to gently brush off the stubborn algae.
  • Plastic plants: Simply remove the plastic plants from the tank and scrub them with a soft brush or pad under running water. Avoid using soap or chemical cleaners, as they can leave residues that may be harmful to your fish.
  • Decorations: Take out non-porous decorations such as ornamental rocks, plastic, or ceramic items, and scrub them with an algae pad or a soft brush under running water. For hard-to-reach areas like crevices, use a small brush or an old toothbrush.

Removing algae from your fish tank’s plants and decorations can improve both the appearance and health of your aquarium. Make sure to use the right tools and methods to clean effectively without damaging your plants, decorations, or tank structure.

Aquarium Plant Maintenance

Caring for the plants in your fish tank is crucial for the health and vitality of your aquarium. Aquarium plant maintenance should be a part of your regular cleaning routine, as plants can harbor debris, algae, and pollutants that can negatively affect water quality.

  • First, trim any dead or decaying leaves and stems from the plants with a pair of aquatic plant scissors. This prevents rotting plant matter from contaminating your tank and helps promote new growth in your plants.
  • Second, remove any visible algae from the plants. Gently rub the leaves with your finger or use a soft toothbrush to remove any algae build-up.
  • Inspect your plants for signs of disease or pest infestations. If you notice any issues, remove the affected plant(s) and treat them accordingly to prevent the spread in your aquarium.
  • Make sure your plants have adequate lighting to support their health and growth. The required light intensity and duration will depend on the type of plants you have; research your specific plant species to ensure their needs are met.
  • Fertilize your plants regularly. You can use either liquid plant fertilizers or root tabs, depending on the type and requirements of your plants.
  • Perform substrate maintenance periodically, especially if you have root-feeding plants. Gently poke the substrate around the roots to release trapped gases and ensure a healthy environment for plant growth.

Aquarium plant maintenance is essential for a thriving and healthy fish tank. Regular trimming, algae removal, disease inspection, proper lighting, and fertilization will help keep your aquarium plants in top condition, ensuring your fish have a clean and beautiful home.

Substrate Vacuuming

Substrate vacuuming is a crucial step in maintaining your fish tank’s cleanliness and ensuring the well-being of your aquatic friends. This process helps remove uneaten food, fish waste, and other debris that accumulates in the gravel or sand at the bottom of the tank.

Choose the right vacuum: To begin with, you’ll need a suitable aquarium vacuum or siphon designed to clean fish tank substrates. There are various models available, ranging from simple manual siphons to battery-operated vacuums. Make sure to select a size that corresponds to your tank and substrate type.

How to use the vacuum: To effectively vacuum the substrate, follow these steps:

  • Place a bucket nearby to collect the dirty water.
  • Submerge the vacuum or siphon head into the tank, being careful not to disturb the fish.
  • Move the vacuum head slowly over the surface of the substrate, concentrating on particularly dirty areas.
  • As you move the vacuum, gently stir the substrate with the head to dislodge debris for easy suction.
  • Keep an eye on the bucket’s water level to ensure it doesn’t overflow.
  • Stop vacuuming once you’ve removed about 10-20% of the tank’s water, or the substrate looks visibly cleaner.

Tips for successful substrate vacuuming:

  • Do not vacuum the entire surface of the substrate during each session, as this can disrupt beneficial bacteria living within the gravel.
  • Perform substrate vacuuming in sections, focusing on one area per cleaning session.
  • Be gentle when vacuuming around live plants or decorations, as excessive force may uproot plants or damage ornaments.
  • In case of heavily soiled areas, you may need to repeat the vacuuming process until the substrate is thoroughly cleaned.

By regularly vacuuming your fish tank’s substrate, you’ll help maintain a healthy and clean environment for your aquatic pets.

Filter Cleaning and Maintenance

An essential part of maintaining a healthy fish tank is cleaning and maintaining the filter. The filter plays a crucial role in keeping the water clean, as it removes waste, toxins, and other unwanted particles.

  • Turn off the filter before you begin cleaning, to avoid any damage and injury.
  • Remove the filter media from the filter. Different filters have different media, such as sponge, activated carbon, or ceramic rings. Make sure to replace or clean the media as per manufacturer’s instructions.
  • For sponge filters, gently rinse the sponge in a bucket of tank water to preserve the beneficial bacteria. Avoid using tap water, as it can kill the good bacteria. Then, lightly squeeze the sponge to remove excess water and reinstall it into the filter.
  • In case of activated carbon, you will need to replace the carbon once it has lost its effectiveness. The usual duration for replacing activated carbon is around every 4-6 weeks.
  • For ceramic rings, clean them by rinsing in a bucket of tank water. Do not scrub them and avoid using any chemicals or tap water.
  • Inspect the filter impeller for any debris or damage. The impeller is the moving part that helps to pump water through the filter. Remove any debris and ensure it is functioning properly.
  • Clean the filter housing using a brush or cloth. Wipe away any dirt or debris that has accumulated inside.
  • Reassemble the filter after cleaning all the necessary components. Ensure everything is in its correct place and functioning properly.

Remember, regular filter cleaning and maintenance not only keeps your aquarium water clean and healthy for your fish but also prolongs the life of your filter equipment.

Cleaning Aquarium Glass

Cleaning the aquarium glass is an essential part of maintaining a clean and clear view into your fish tank. Doing so not only visually enhances the beauty of your aquarium but also helps in monitoring your fish’s health. To clean the glass:

  • Use a proper aquarium glass cleaner: Choose a glass cleaning solution specifically designed for aquariums. Avoid using household cleaners, as they can be toxic to your fish. Two popular choices are an aquarium-safe glass cleaner or a simple mix of white vinegar and water.
  • Utilize a reliable algae scraper or magnet cleaner: Algae scrapers are designed to remove algae, debris, and other buildups on the glass efficiently without causing any damage. A magnet cleaner consists of two magnets; one goes inside the tank and the other remains on the outside, making it easy to scrub the glass without getting your hands wet.

To clean aquarium glass effectively:

  1. Remove any debris from the glass surface by rinsing it with water.
  2. Apply the chosen aquarium-safe glass cleaner or vinegar solution to the glass surface, avoiding direct contact with the water.
  3. Using the algae scraper or magnet cleaner, gently scrub the glass in a circular motion, focusing on areas with visible algae buildup or streaks.
  4. Once the glass is clean, rinse off any residue from the cleaning solution with water.
  5. Make sure to thoroughly clean both the inside and outside of the glass.

Always use aquarium-safe cleaning solutions and equipment when cleaning the glass to protect your fish and maintain a beautiful view of your underwater world. Regularly cleaning your aquarium glass ensures a clean environment for your fish and enhances your enjoyment of your beautiful, aquatic setup.

Doing the Water Change

Doing the water change is a crucial part of the fish tank cleaning process. This helps maintain a healthy environment for your fish by removing waste, excess food, and other debris. To perform a water change smoothly, follow these steps:

1. Check the temperature and pH levels of the tap water: It’s essential to ensure that the tap water is in the right condition for your fish. Use a thermometer and pH test kit to measure these parameters, which should be as close to the aquarium water as possible.

2. Treat the tap water: Tap water usually contains chemicals that can harm your fish, like chlorine. Use a water conditioner to neutralize these chemicals and make the water safe for your aquarium.

3. Partial water change: The general rule for water change is to remove and replace about 20-25% of the aquarium water. Removing too much water at once can stress the fish. Prepare the water replacement in a clean container.

4. Use a siphon hose: Start the siphon by submerging the end of the hose in the tank and sucking on the other end until the water starts to flow. Place a bucket beneath the hose to catch the water draining from the tank.

5. Refill with treated water: Once the desired amount of water is removed, slowly pour the treated water back into the tank. Carefully pour in the water onto a clean, flat surface or use a container, like a colander, to disperse the water, avoiding stirring up sediment or causing stress to the fish.

Remember to complete this water change regularly, as part of your routine fish tank maintenance, to ensure a clean and healthy environment for your aquarium inhabitants.

Monitoring Fish after Water Change

After you have completed the water change, it is crucial to monitor your fish for any possible signs of stress or discomfort. This is because sudden changes in water chemistry, temperature, or quality can lead to various health problems for your aquatic pets. To ensure their well-being, follow these steps after the water change.

  • Observe their behaviors: Keep an eye on your fish for any unusual behaviors like erratic swimming, gasping at the water surface, or hiding more than usual. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, check the water parameters again and make any necessary adjustments.
  • Check the water temperature: It’s crucial to maintain a stable temperature in your fish tank to prevent thermal stress. Use an aquarium thermometer to check the temperature, and adjust the heater settings as needed.
  • Watch for signs of stress: Stress can weaken the immune system of fish and make them susceptible to diseases. Some common indicators of stress in fish include rapid breathing, loss of color, and reduced appetite. If you notice signs of stress, take remedial measures like reducing noise and activity around the tank, adding stress-reducing additives, and making sure the water chemistry is optimal.
  • Test the water parameters: Monitor the water quality frequently after the water change by testing for ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, pH, and other essential parameters. If any parameter is off, take corrective measures to restore the balance.

Monitoring your fish following a water change is an essential practice to maintain their health and well-being. By observing their behaviors, checking water parameters, ensuring the right temperature, and making necessary adjustments, you can ensure that your aquatic pets remain healthy and stress-free.


Maintaining a clean fish tank is essential for the well-being of your aquatic pets. By following this guide, even beginners can confidently clean their fish tanks and provide a healthy environment for their fish. Now that you’ve learned how to clean a fish tank, please share your experiences and thoughts, or leave any questions in the comments below!

Aquarium   Updated: June 12, 2023
avatar Hello, my name is Fabian, and I am the Chief Editor at Aquarium Nexus. I have over 20 years of experience in keeping and breeding fish. The aquarium hobby brings me immense joy, and I take great pleasure in sharing my experiences with others.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *