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Here are 13 steps to clean your aquarium. In the following demonstration, I am cleaning a 55 gallon African cichlid aquarium. I would consider this a thorough cleaning, and perform this once a month. However, I also do a quick water change once a month as well.

1. Prep for cleaning

Nothing’s more frustrating than getting half way through cleaning, only to realize you ran out of water conditioner or you need a new aquarium brush. I suggest making sure you have all you need for a complete cleaning. This is what I make sure I have:

  • Aquarium brush
  • Stiff bristled brush, for scrubbing ornaments
  • 2 clean 5 gallon buckets: one for water, one for ornaments.
  • Gravel vac
  • mesh strainer for sink drain to catch gravel and activated carbon.
  • Activated carbon and other filter media if replacing
  • Aquarium Salt
  • Stress Coat water conditioner
  • Melafix, or other medication, if fish health is in question
  • Clean rags to wipe down exterior tank surfaces and to wipe up spilled water on the floor
  • Aquaclear 50 powerhead with filter screen: to remove fine floating particles from water when cleaning

What I don’t use for the aquarium is dish soap, detergent or any kind of cleaning product. Though I’ve never tested it, I’ve heard a unanimous warning that using cleaning products on objects that come in contact with aquarium water can hurt or kill the fish.

Once I have everything, I give the gravel vac, bristle brush, aquarium brush, and 5 gallon buckets a through rinsing in hot water to insure cleanliness. Likewise, I thoroughly clean the sink and any surfaces I’ll be working on.

I also make sure my hands are thoroughly clean so I don’t transfer germs to tank. Once everything is clean, I place it just where I want it.

One final note, if you have a big tank, consider wearing a sleeveless shirt and shorts, that way you minimize getting wet. I always end up a little damp at the end.

2. Remove and clean aquarium hood assembly

Removing aquarium hood. Wipe down light housing, scrub and rinse hood assembly when cleaning the aquarium.

First, I unplug the aquarium lighting and give that a good wipe down to remove dust or errant flakes of food. I then set it aside in a safe place to prevent breaking the long fragile bulb.

I then remove the hinged covers and bring them to the sink for a thorough rinsing in hot water. I scrub off any algae or stuck on food. I set these aside to drip dry.

3. Remove ornaments

Prior to cleaning the inside of the tank, remove all the ornaments. This will allow uninterrupted cleaning of the gravel and glass. In addition, the ornaments should be scrubbed and rinsed.

I have large plastic ornaments with lots of hiding places inside them. I have to carefully lift them out, listening for any fish that may be stuck inside. I typically dunk these ornaments repeatedly to make sure all the gravel falls out and any stubborn fish get the hint.

Once I remove the ornaments, I count the fish to make sure some aren’t still hanging on. I’ve had it happen before…

I find a biweekly scrubbing of aquarium ornaments helps prevent excessive algae buildup. I use an aquarium dedicated bristled brush and hot water to clean.

When all fish are accounted for, I take the ornaments to the sink and scrub them with my bristled brush. I rinse the inside and outside thoroughly with hot water. I used to be able to set these in a five gallon bucket, but now I have so many ornaments, they don’t fit. Instead, I have a kitchen table with a towel on it to set the ornaments down while I finish cleaning.

4. remove aquarium heater, air stone, etc…

If my aquarium heater or other appliances inside the tank need cleaning, I remove them, rinsing them in hot water and scrubbing with a bristled brush. I set these aside with the aquarium ornaments.

5. Insert powerhead (optional)

I have an Aquaclear 50 powerhead with filter housing and cartridges just for polishing the tank. When scrubbing and vacuuming the tank, it will stir up a lot of debris. The powerhead filter churns the water and catches a lot of the debris.

6. Scrub interior glass

I like to keep my filters running for this process, just to catch as much debris as possible. However, you may want to remove your filtration if it’s in the way of the glass you want to scrub.

I use an aquarium brush to thoroughly scrub algae off the interior of the aquarium glass. I scrub above the water line right to the edge to catch stuck on food. I also brush right into the gravel to scrub the glass all the way down.

While I do this, I have adequate lighting to insure that I don’t crush any fish. Unfortunately, I’ve hit one pretty hard before, and it took him a while to recover.

Once I finish, I thoroughly rinse the brush and hang it to dry.

7. Remove and clean filtration

After removing filter media, scrub filter assembly with a bristled brush and rinse with tap water.

I have a tank divider for some unexpected fry. I use a Tetra 30-60 power filter for their side. For the rest of the tank, I use a Fluval 305 external canister filter. Each filter requires a different level of care, but essentially, it’s the same process.

For the Fluval 305, there is a handy valve that seals off the intake and outlet hoses so I can remove the canister separately. I take the canister out, remove the contents, and scrub every surface with a bristled brush. I avoid rinsing the biological ceramic filters in order to protect the colony of bacteria. I then replace any carbon that’s a month old. As a side note, if you want to learn more about the Fluval 305 and the filtration system I use with it, check out this review

The power filter is easier to clean because it’s smaller. I just unplug it, scrub it with a bristled brush, and rinse it with hot water. I find the biological filter pads need to be rinsed in aquarium water to remove built up gunk. I replace any carbon that’s a month old.

Once the filters are ready, I set them aside while I proceed to the next step of cleaning the tank.

8. Unplug everything

Before I remove any water, I make sure everything is unplugged. Many aquarium appliances require being submerged in water. If you remove the water, you may damage this equipment.

9. Vacuum gravel

A siphon gravel vac is an essential cleaning tool. Gravel should be thoroughly vacuumed at least once a month. Depending on filtration and stock, this may need to be performed twice a month.

I methodically vacuum out the gravel, making sure to push my vacuum to the bottom. Although, in a planted aquarium, this could damage the roots. In my 55 gallon aquarium, I pull out 10-20 gallons of water in the process, depending on how dirty the tank is.

10. Replace water

Next, I replace the water I removed with treated tap water. In my African cichlid tank, I add just under 1 tablespoon aquarium salt and 5ml of Stress Coat water conditioner to 5 gallons of water. I make sure that the water is at the same temperature as the aquarium. In the past, I used a thermometer. Now, I am able to feel the temperature with my hand.

If I have issues with disease in the tank, I add the appropriate medication to the new water. In most cases, I use Melafix.

A gravel vac taking in tap water. Five gallon bucket contains just under a tablespoon aquarium salt and 5ml Stress Coat water conditioner. Ideal for an African cichlid tank.

I dump the water in unceremoniously. I don’t mind if it disturbs the gravel, I end up leveling the gravel off afterward.

11. Replace filtration, plug things back in

Now that the water level is back, I replace the filtration and plug everything back in.

12. Replace ornaments and hood

I carefully replace the ornaments, making sure not to crush any fish. I then put the hood assembly and plug in the light.

13. Final cleanup

Final cleanup of aquarium exterior with glass cleaner.

First, I wipe up any excess moisture on the hood, tank stand, and floor. I then clean the exterior glass with glass cleaner, careful not to get any in the water.

I then put everything away, mindful of anything I need to replace before the next cleaning.

If you used a powerhead to polish your water, remove it at your discretion. However, carefully lift it out, as particles will fall back into the tank.

Related Reading:

  1. AquaClear 50 powerhead review
  2. Fluval 305 external canister filter review
  3. How many African cichlids in a 55 gallon aquarium?
  4. What to Feed African Cichlids
  5. 55 Gallon African Cichlid Aquarium: Supplies
  6. 55 Gallon African Cichlid Tank: Setup, Maintenance
  7. 55 Gallon African Cichlid Tank: General Observations

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