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Awesome Fish Tank Maintenance Tips: Easy And Low Effort!

Want to know the secret to proper fish tank maintenance that’s also manageable? The answer is balance. Be driven by your water parameters and don’t overclean!

By Julie Millis
Last updated on

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fish tank maintenance
Image Source: “June 1-7, 2011” by osseous is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’ve cleaned a lot of aquariums at home and in aquatic stores over the past 15 years. The amount and type of fish tank maintenance have probably varied for each one!

But you can make things easier and be assured that you are providing the best environment for your fish. The key is to base your maintenance routine on your tanks’ water parameters.

I want to share some tips for how you can use this to work out when to do various maintenance activities.

So keeping reading and find out how you can reduce the maintenance you need to do too!

Why Do Fish Tank Maintenance?

You might think removing algae, maintaining your filter, and generally keeping your aquarium clean are obvious things to do.

But the real goal of fish tank maintenance is keeping a balanced environment for your fish. And that means maintaining the right water conditions.

If you don’t clean your tank often enough your fish end up living in their own waste. So you run the risk of them becoming ill. 

Overdo the cleaning though, and you could lose your tanks’ beneficial bacteria. These bacteria are critical in breaking down harmful ammonia and nitrites from excess food and feces [1].

Cleaning your glass, maintaining the filter, and carrying out water changes are all essential. But it’s also key not to overdo things.

How Often Should I Do Fish Tank Maintenance?

You’ll probably find differing opinions on how often you should carry out various fish tank maintenance activities. This is especially true when it comes to water changes. 

Some experts recommend a lower percentage of water is changed weekly. Others suggest you should do a bigger change every few weeks [2, 3].

In fact, how often you need to do a water change depends on many things. Tank size, your filtration system, and the number and species of fish you have all make a difference.

I find that as long as I test my water parameters weekly [4] and do regular water changes the exact frequency of these changes is less important. 

The Right Water Parameters

fish tank maintenance
Key water parameters

There’s often a lot of emphasis on water parameters when it comes to fish tank maintenance but the key ones are shown above.

Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate need to be kept at these minimal levels so the water does not become toxic [5]. These three indicators will drive your water changes. In fact, as far as possible ammonia and nitrite should be kept at zero instead of the upper limits shown above.

Whilst pH is also important, most freshwater fish will do well as long as it generally stays between 6.5 and 7.5. The best thing is to keep a pH indicator that permanently sits in your tank. You can take a quick glance at it when you feed them. 

Most tropical fish will also be fine with a broad temperature range of 70 to 90°F. Some fish such as goldfish need to be at the cooler end, but most can tolerate some fluctuation.

Water hardness levels like KH (carbonate hardness) and GH (general hardness) can also be tolerated well by most tropical fish. These levels become more important if you are keeping blackwater species like loaches or hatchet fish.

Working Out Your Water Change Frequency

You can work out roughly how often to do your water changes by measuring the increase in nitrate levels. Use a master test kit or test strips to do this over three or four weeks. 

At the end of the first week check if your nitrate level is above or below 45 to 50ppm. If it’s above, you need to do a water change that week. If it’s below you can skip the change.

Check your nitrate level at the end of the next week. How much has it increased?

  • If you see a 5ppm increase you can do a 10 to 25% water change every two weeks.
  • If you are seeing a 10ppm increase each week do a 10 to 25% water change weekly.

As I say, this is a rough guide as it really depends on your individual tank. But as long as you are doing these water changes regularly within a two-week window that’s what matters. 

Tank Cleaning And Water Changes: A Step By Step Guide

Make sure you unplug your filter and heater before doing any fish tank maintenance.

Your filter needs water running through it to function. If it accidentally runs dry during a water change it could burn out. Similarly, if your heater stays on when it’s out of the water it will get very hot. So it could explode when you put water back into your tank.

You also want to leave your fish in the tank while doing maintenance, including a water change. Moving them will only cause undue stress.

Make sure you give your gravel a good clean while doing your water change. This will get rid of fish feces, excess food, and harmful waste that can build up.

Ok so let’s get to it!

  1. Start by scraping any algae off the inside of your aquarium. If your tank is made of acrylic it’s best to use a plastic scraper instead of metal.
  2. Now leave everything for 15 minutes to let it settle before you start your water change.
  3. Use an aquarium siphon and place the hose into a large empty bucket. Place the other end into the tank and start the water flow.
  4. Clean the gravel by pushing the siphon into an area. You’ll see cloudy water and debris start to get sucked out. Once it runs clear move on to the next spot.
  5. Continue to clean the gravel until you have taken 10 to 25% of the water out.
  6. If you find your tank is draining too quickly and you are still cleaning the gravel, just crimp the hose to slow the water flow. If the opposite is true and you’ve already finished cleaning, leave the siphon in the tank to take out more water.
  7. Clean out your bucket and fill it with fresh tap water.
  8. You must add water conditioner at this stage. Tap water is treated with chlorine and chloramine to make it safe for human use. But these chemicals are toxic to fish and must be removed [6].
  9. Use a thermometer to check the water is close to the temperature of your tank. You could shock your fish if you add fresh water that is not at a similar temperature.
  10. Once the new water is ready, use the siphon to top up your aquarium. This is better than pouring it in as it won’t upset your fish.

Top Tip

The water you remove from your tank is nutrient-rich and great for houseplants. So after a water change, you can recycle it and give them a drink!

Maintaining Your Filter

You do need to be careful not to overdo things when it comes to your filtration system. 

Your filter is one of the main areas where your tanks’ beneficial bacteria are colonized. If you overclean your filter you risk disrupting or losing these bacteria. Harmful ammonia or nitrites could then build up.

Never do filter maintenance on the same day you do a water change. You want to leave four or five days in between so that you don’t strip out too much of your bacteria at once.

Filter Types And Mediums

The type of filter and its components will also affect how often you need to maintain it.

It’s worth checking your mechanical filter on a weekly basis just to pull out any obvious debris. Mechanical filtration becomes ineffective if matter is left to rot inside. 

You may find every few weeks you need to rinse your filter medium. Remember to only ever rinse in water from your tank, never from the tap.

If you have a hang on back (HOB) filter you can take out and replace the filter pads if they get very clogged up. This usually only needs to be done once a month.

Chemical filters should need maintenance every three to four weeks. They often use carbon as their media and it is best to change only some at a time. That way you will help retain more of your beneficial bacteria.

If you have a biological filter such as moss balls these don’t need to be cleaned very often at all. Whilst you should check them, you’ll probably find you won’t need to replace any of the media for a number of months [7]. 

Keeping A Simple Fish Tank Maintenance Routine

I like to follow a complete but straightforward fish tank maintenance routine. Look at where you can combine jobs together to make things even easier!

  • Observe your fish as you feed them. If you notice any behavior changes or loss of appetite you may have water quality issues or sick fish.
  • Remove any uneaten food after feeding. If there is often excess food after five or ten minutes, reduce the amount you give them.
  • Take a quick check of temperature and pH and a visual check of your equipment.
Weekly/ Every Other Week
  • Test your water quality parameters weekly.
  • Clean algae from the glass. If you think you may have excess algae you can also test for phosphates. High levels of these can sometimes be the cause.
  • Perform your water change as required and vacuum the gravel.
  • De-clog your mechanical filter. Rinse filter media as required.
  • Check the expiry dates on your test kits and other supplies. If you use a test kit that is out of date it may give you false readings.
  • Replace filter media as needed.

How Can I Reduce My Fish Tank Maintenance?

There are some other steps you can take to make fish tank maintenance a bit easier for yourself!

  • Keep a bigger tank. A larger volume means less maintenance. Your water parameters tend to be much more stable than in a smaller tank simply because it is more dilute.
  • Site your aquarium away from hot or cold areas. If your tank sits in direct sunlight, or in a draught, you may get fluxes in temperature. This is not only very harmful to your fish and your bacteria, but too much sunlight could also cause more algae to grow.
  • Don’t overstock your tank. Overstocking means more waste from excess food and feces. This is bad for your fish and will mean you need to do increased maintenance.
  • Avoid overfeeding. Not only is overfeeding harmful for your fish, but excess food means excess waste. You’ll be doing more water changes to keep your tank in balance.
  • Get the lighting right. Make sure you get the appropriate light for your tank. If you are out during the day set your light to switch off with a timer. Too much light will encourage increased algal growth, and mean more work!
  • Use live plants. Live plants help oxygenate the water and contribute to your tank’s balance. You should find this means a bit less maintenance. Java fern and Dwarf Sagittaria are good examples. 
  • Overfilter rather than underfilter. On larger tanks, I tend to use a large primary filter like a canister, supported with a smaller sponge filter. You can support filtration by adding an airstone. The increased oxygenation will help keep things in balance.

The Bottom Line

Fish tank maintenance is much more about what you can’t see rather than what you can.

What may look like a dirty filter is actually a balanced ecosystem for your tanks’ bacteria. So it’s important to stagger your maintenance routine and not to overclean.

Base your cleaning schedule around regular water parameter tests. That way you’ll ensure you keep your water quality in balance and provide the best environment for your fish.

Photo of author
Julie Millis
Julie has been involved in aquatics for over 15 years. She is passionate about freshwater and saltwater tanks. Julie loves helping with all your fish-keeping questions!

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