Keeping your freshwater fish healthy and tank looking beautiful.
A large part of keeping your fish healthy is ensuring that their habitat remains healthy. Regular maintenance is key to keeping the aquarium environment safe. One roadblock for aquarium owners is knowing what maintenance they should perform. This is my recommended routine aquarium maintenance plan.
Why do maintenance?
Often aquarium owners don’t give much thought to maintenance. After all, they have a filter, and some bottom-feeding fish to pick up stuff that falls there. So what else is needed? Some will cite the fact that nobody is cleaning the rivers, lakes, and oceans, and they do fine. So why clean the aquarium?
Unlike bodies of water in nature, an aquarium is a relatively small amount of water. Add to that the fact that it is a closed system, and it becomes quite different than a habitat in nature. Nothing goes into or out of the tank unless you have a hand in making it happen. Filters certainly help, but if not maintained, filters become clogged and can cause more harm than good. Meanwhile, fish continue to produce waste, uneaten food decays, and potentially harmful byproducts slowly build up. The only way an aquarium will remain clean is if you take the time to perform maintenance on a regular basis. Otherwise, over time the habitat will become less and less healthy for the fish.
It is neither practical nor healthy to clean every surface in the aquarium on a daily or even weekly basis. For that matter, it’s never wise to clean everything at the same time. To minimize the impact cleaning has on beneficial bacteria, cleaning of colony rich areas, such as the filter and the substrate, should be staggered. If the bacterial colonies are disturbed too much, it can disrupt the nitrogen cycle enough to cause a spike in ammonia and/or nitrites. For that reason, it’s also wise to test the water a few days after a significant cleaning, to ensure nothing is amiss.
Do a quick visual check of the aquarium to ensure the filter is running at full strength, the lights are functioning properly, and any other equipment you have is running normally. Check the temperature to ensure it’s in the proper range.1 Count the fish and check if they appear healthy. A good time to do this is when you feed them, as they will be out and easy to observe. Once they have finished eating, examine the tank to see if there is uneaten food remaining on the bottom. If you notice that there is often uneaten food left after ten minutes, cut back on the volume of food you give your fish at each feeding. Should you notice that uneaten food starts building up on the bottom of the tank, use a siphon to remove it.1 If the water level has dropped, top it off with treated or aged water as needed.
This is a good time to start an aquarium journal or log if you haven’t done so already. While there is no need to record everything, it is helpful to note anything out of the ordinary on your daily checks. That way you can catch trends that may be occurring. For instance, the temperature dropping by a degree isn’t a huge deal, but if it drops a degree four days in a row, that’s a tip-off that something may be wrong with your heater. All of this can be done in literally a matter of minutes, so it’s not a huge time investment.
- Visual fish health check
- Visual equipment check
- Temperature check
- Top off water level
Weekly / Bi-Weekly.
Some experts are proponents of weekly partial water changes, while others prefer to do them every other week.2 As long as you are regularly performing partial water changes every couple of weeks, the exact frequency is not so critical. Use water that is treated, and if possible, aged. Replacement water should be close to the temperature of the aquarium. However, prior to performing the water change, perform the other weekly and every other week tasks first, leaving the partial water change as the last task.
The other task that should be performed every week or two is the general cleaning of the tank.1 By performing light cleaning every couple of weeks, your tank will never get overly dirty. Wipe down the outside tank surfaces with a non-ammonia aquarium safe cleanser, or simply use a damp cloth. Gently shake plants, whether they are live or artificial, to dislodge debris. Scrape the inside glass to remove any algae, then take a break for ten or fifteen minutes and let everything settle a bit. When you come back, gently siphon the substrate to remove debris. Lastly, perform a partial water change. Make notes in your log or journal of the maintenance you performed, and anything unusual going on in the tank.
- Clean outside of tank
- Shake plants to free debris
- Scrape inside of glass
- Siphon and clean substrate/sand
- 20% water change
Water testing should be performed monthly to ensure nothing unseen is brewing.1 I recommend testing the following parameters: pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. If you have algae problems, you may also test for phosphates to see if that may be part of the root cause. Perform water tests first before water changes and any other maintenance. If you have live plants, inspect them and remove any dead leaves, and trim excess growth.
Next perform the weekly/biweekly cleaning tasks, followed by the partial water change. Save a bucket of the water removed from the tank to use for performing filter maintenance. If you use exhaustible media, such as activated carbon or zeolite, replace it. Using the water saved from the water change, rinse the mechanical media. If the mechanical media is very clogged, replace it. However, avoid replacing all the filter media at the same time. Instead, retain part of the media to avoid losing too large a portion of the beneficial biological colonies. The next month you can replace the remaining filter media. Mechanical filter media (such as foam) generally only has to be replaced once or twice a year.
- Water test (ph, nitrate, etc.)
- Trim live plants
- Change filter media
- Check equipment and replace as needed
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