Routine Aquarium Maintenance

Goldfish in an aquarium

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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 new aquarium owners is not knowing what maintenance they should perform, and when. Experts may disagree on the specific points of aquarium maintenance, but everyone agrees that following a regular routine of any kind is better than no maintenance at all. This is one recommended 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 the fish do fine. So why clean the aquarium? That's actually a good question. Mother Nature is not idle, she does a pretty good job of cleaning things up in the great outdoors. Lakes, rivers, and oceans are large bodies of water that have currents and waves circulating the water. Rain falling adds fresh water, and live plants produce oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide. The sheer volume of water also serves to dilute any harmful toxins.

Unlike bodies of water in nature, an aquarium holds a relatively small amount of water. Add to that the fact that it is a closed system, and it becomes quite different from 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 will no longer work properly. 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, the habitat will become unhealthy for the fish over time.

Frequency of Maintenance

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 in the aquarium 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 nitrite. 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 water temperature to ensure it's in the proper range. 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 five to 10 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 or gravel vacuum to remove it. 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.

  • Count and observe the fish
  • Visual equipment check
  • Temperature check
  • Remove uneaten food
  • Top off the water level
  • Note concerns in a journal or logbook
Woman looking at fish tank

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Some experts are proponents of weekly partial water changes, while others prefer to do them every few weeks. As long as you are regularly performing partial water changes every couple of weeks, the exact frequency is not critical. Use water that is treated to remove chlorine, 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, such as cleaning algae off the inside of the aquarium glass. Leave 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. By performing light cleaning every couple of weeks, your aquarium 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.

  • Wipe down outside surfaces
  • Shake debris off plants
  • Scrape inside glass
  • Siphon substrate
  • Partial water change
  • Note maintenance in a log


Water testing should be performed monthly to ensure nothing unseen is brewing. Test the following parameters: pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. If you have algae problems, you may also test for high phosphate level to see if that may be the cause. Perform water tests first before water changes and any other maintenance. If there are abnormal water test results, check them again after the water change to ensure the parameters are back to normal levels. If you have live plants, inspect them, 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 filter media. If the filter media is very dirty or 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 bacteria 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 tests
  • Trim live plants as needed
  • Perform weekly/bi-weekly tasks
  • Change or clean filter media
  • Note maintenance and test results in a log
Bearded man testing quality of water in his reef tank.

vgajic / E+ / Getty Images


In addition to the scheduled maintenance tasks, there are a few things that should be done as needed. These include replacing the light bulbs once per year, regardless of whether they have burned out. Inspect the air pump tubing, and the filter tubing if you have a canister filter. Clean the canister filter intake using a filter brush. If you have live plants, fertilize them.

  • Replace light bulbs
  • Inspect & clean tubing
  • Clean filter intake
  • Fertilize plants

Cleaning Equipment

Aquarium maintenance does not require a lot of equipment. However, it does help to have a few specialized tools on hand. The most important piece of equipment to have is a dedicated aquarium bucket, and make sure you do not use it for anything else. Having two buckets is helpful, but not absolutely necessary. In addition to the bucket, a siphon, water conditioner, algae scrubber, filter brush, aquarium-safe glass cleaner, soft cloth, and some towels round out your cleaning materials. All of these items can be stored inside the aquarium bucket to make cleaning day quick and easy. Additionally, you'll need fresh filter media and if you have live plants, fertilizer, and small scissors to trim the plants.

  • Water bucket
  • Siphon
  • Algae scrubber
  • Filter brush
  • Aquarium safe cleaner
  • Cleaning cloths/paper towels
  • Replacement filter media
  • Scissors to trim plants
  • Plant fertilizer
Article Sources
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  1. Providing a Home for Fish. Merck Veterinary Manual.

  2. Aquarium Water Quality: Nitrogen Cycle. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.