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ProVetLogic Aquatic Animal Health Bulletin

Aquarium Maintenance Using Nature to Clean Nature

Aquarium Maintenance


In the outdoors lakes, rivers and oceans depend on rain to produce fresh water and live plants to produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. In an aquarium, keeping fish and plants healthy is a synchronized swim off: buffering pH, removing ammonia and nitrites,  detoxifying heavy metals, managing chlorine, and restoring electrolytes and slime coat. Mother Nature does a good job of cleaning up water outdoors, so how do we bring Mother Nature indoors?

Replicating Mother Nature

Compared to bodies of water in nature aquariums, even the large ones, hold a relatively small amount of water. In addition, it is a closed environment, requiring a filter to aerate the water. But filters can become clogged and can end up causing more harm than good. Fish produce waste, uneaten food decays, and harmful byproducts slowly buildup.

Overtime, the fish become unhealthy and unhappy. Mother Nature isn’t going to be there to help, so it is up to you to perform preventive aquarium maintenance.

Using Nature to Clean Nature

For eons, Mother Nature has used naturally derived bacteria to reduce ammonia, nitrate, nitrite and phosphate from natural waterways, while improving water quality and clarity. A wide variety of man made chemicals have been developed over the years to take the place of what Mother Nature was able to accomplish naturally. This can be a tricky balancing act of adding this chemical and that chemical. So the best way to replicate what Mother Nature has created, is to use aquarium cleaners and additives that are derived from the same ingredients found in nature.

It is not only important to eliminate the bad stuff in aquariums, it is important to add beneficial electrolytes and slime coat, as well as reduce toxin buildup and eliminate odors.

Do the fish need to be removed during the cleaning process?

No, the fish can be left in the aquarium, as you will not be completely draining the water. The process of catching and transferring them is more stressful than cleaning around them.

Basic Cleaning Supplies

• Water test kit • Gravel cleaner & Conditioner
Algae scraper • Aquarium siphon (gravel vacuum)
Brush for cleaning algae off plants and structures
• Glass cleaner for exterior glass
• Scissors for pruning live plants
• Paper towels for cleanup

STEP 1: Test the Water Quality

If your aquarium is newly established and has not been cycled yet, you need to test the water to determine that the levels are 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrites, and less than 400 ppm nitrates. Higher levels of these waste compounds can be dangerous for fish.

If your aquarium is already cycled, the goal is to keep nitrate levels below 40 ppm. Measure the nitrates using the water test kit to determine how much water will need to be removed and if other steps should be taken.

STEP 2: Remove Algae

• Scrubbing algae from the tank walls will help maintain a clear view of the fish and plants. Use an algae scraper that is tough enough to slice through the algae but won’t scratch the glass or acrylic.
• If algae has grown on the lid, rinse it off in the sink. If algae covers rocks, plants or structures use a sturdy tank brush to gently brush off the algae, either over a sink or in the aquarium.

STEP 3: Caring for Live Plants

If live plants are part of your aquarium décor, it is important to remove dead leaves and trim overgrown foliage. The tops of tall stem plants can be cut off and replanted in the substrate. Runners, from spreading plants, can be pulled out and moved to other locations of the aquarium. If floating plants cover the entire water surface, 30% to 50% of them should be removed to allow enough light into the tank and for the fish to get enough oxygen.

STEP 4: Turn Off Equipment

Tank Siphon for Aquarium MaintenanceTurn off all power or unplug equipment, including heaters and filters. This equipment can be easily damaged, when operated without water.

STEP 5: Cleaning the Substrate

The easiest and most efficient way to clean aquarium substrate is by using an aquarium siphon system. You’ll want to move any decorations and structures, as debris can collect beneath them. The siphon not only removes fish waste, decaying food and dead leaves from the substrate, it also removes the old tank water and the excess nitrates.

STEP 6: Cleaning the Filter

It is important to clean filters on a regular basis to remove accumulation of fish and food waste and before the filter gets clogged and overflows.
• For filters with media (cartridges) the easiest way to clean them is to rinse them in the old tank water. Do not use soap! Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for caring for the filter and replacing the cartridges.

STEP 7: Replacing the Water

It is important to replace the water with clean water that matches the temperature of the existing aquarium water. Refill the aquarium with tap water. You can add the conditioner into a mixing jug or bucket, dosing based on volume. Or, dose directly into tank based on aquarium’s water volume.

STEP 8: Turn on the Equipment

Although the tank may look dirtier after the cleaning and due to particulate in the water, turn on the filter and heater and within an hour or so, the water will begin to clear.

STEP 9: Cleaning the Glass

To complete the process and to enhance the appearance of your aquarium, clean the exterior glass or acrylic with a non-ammoniated, safe glass cleaner and two microfiber cloths. One to apply the solution and a second dry cloth to polish the surface.