Skip to main content

How to deep clean a fish aquarium in one hour or less

Deep cleaning your prized aquarium sounds like a lot of work, but with a little bit of planning and the right tools you can be done in one hour or less. Keeping your fish in the ideal environment is the most important thing you can do to keep them healthy and happy. Let’s get started and learn how to quickly and thoroughly clean your aquarium.

Setting up for success

In order to finish quickly, having all the necessary items ready to go is essential. Unlike your weekly partial cleaning, this full water change requires the following:

  • Gravel vacuum
  • 20-gallon bucket
  • Dish sponge
  • Water quality test kit and conditioner
  • Toothbrush
  • Glass cleaner
  • Paper towels
cleaning aquarium
Alexander Geiger/Shutterstock

Turn off the equipment

Before we get started, a critical safety measure is to make sure all electronic equipment is off. Disconnect the filter, water heater, and any lights in your tank to prevent accidents. Heaters are particularly prone to break if they remain working out of the water. Once they are unplugged, rinse and scrub away any excess moss or algae growth.

Water removal and fish storage

Transporting your fish out of your aquarium during a deep cleaning might sound like a good idea, but the stress and risk are not worth it. Since you will be replacing about 60% of the water, your fish will have plenty of water to stay in the tank safely. Pump the water out carefully into the bucket with the aquarium siphon. Don’t vacuum the bottom gravel just yet. Wait until the very end so you can capture all the micro debris that will fall from cleaning.

The importance of testing

Test the water quality of your tank to ensure ideal conditions for your water pets. You are looking for balanced levels of chemicals so you don’t cause serious damage to your aquarium’s health.

As quick reference,these are the standard recommendations:

Ammonia – 0 ppm
Nitrites – 0 ppm
Nitrates – less than 40 ppm

Remove excess algae

In order to maintain a healthy biological balance, you need to control the growth of algae. Use the sponge to clean the inside walls of the tank as well as artificial plants. Scrub any decor or ornaments with a toothbrush and rinse well. This will ensure a clear view and make your aquarium look amazing while providing the perfect habitat.

Cleaning the gravel

cleaning aquarium

Once all walls and features have been cleaned, use the gravel vacuum to suck out dirt and gunk that hides at the bottom. In some cases, you might have to remove the gravel completely and rinse it thoroughly with fresh water, condition it, then place it back in the tank.
A big amount of biological waste, uneaten food, and other remains accumulate over time and can throw your aquarium out of balance. If you don’t own enough bottom feeders, you need to make sure you are cleaning the gravel every week.

Refilling the tank

This is the one step where your deep cleaning can go wrong. When you refill your aquarium, make sure you are pouring water gently into the tank. Double check that the temperature is at the right level and that it has been conditioned and treated. This will minimize the chances of your fish experiencing an environmental shock that can hurt them or put their lives at risk.

When should I deep clean my aquarium again?

It is best to do this type of cleaning about once a month, but the frequency depends on the size of your filter, aquarium capacity, number of fish, and how much decor is in your tank. As a rule of thumb, you should perform a weekly partial cleaning, with about 20% of the water replaced. Then every month, you go deep and take care of all the components and decorations.

Editors' Recommendations

Add rainbowfish to your tank – these beauties will brighten up any aquarium
There are a few things you need to know before you get a rainbowfish
A colorful rainbowfish swims in front of plants in an aquarium

You might know of rainbowfish from the beloved children's book, but these are real animals that you can keep in your own home. As the name suggests, this group of swimmers is well regarded for being beautiful to behold. Many also get along nicely with other fish and can be handled by beginners. This is what you need to know before bringing home a rainbowfish.
What are rainbow fish?
It's a bit of a catch-all term because there are at least 50 species that all fall under the rainbowfish umbrella. Some work better as pets than others, and you'll probably be looking at boesemani rainbowfish, turquoise rainbowfish, featherfin rainbowfish, or red neon rainbowfish. If you're adding to an existing tank, research carefully to ensure you only get ones that will make friends with your current animals.
What conditions do they need to live in?
These are all freshwater fish, but their exact temperature and pH balance needs vary depending on which species you bring home. You can use your existing tank specs to narrow it down or do the opposite — pick the prettiest fish and then build your ecosystem around it. One thing to note right away is that you shouldn't keep males together and no rainbowfish wants to live on its own because they like to school. Consider keeping a group of six females if you want to prevent expansion.

Why should you add them to your tank?
Here are four excellent reasons to keep rainbowfish as pets.
They look beautiful
You can find just about any gradient you want in a rainbowfish. Some incorporate many colors, more like a traditional rainbow, while others skew toward blue, such as the turquoise rainbowfish, or red, such as the aptly named red rainbowfish.
They get along with other fish
While you want them to have friends of their own species, they'll also do great with others. Female rainbowfish can sometimes live with female bettas if you want to create a color explosion. Otherwise consider catfish, gouramis, and loaches as tank mates.
They're good beginner fish
The care level of most rainbowfish sits at about the same as a neon tetra (in fact, they can live together). Make sure your tank stays clean and that you change and test the water frequently, but they don't have any specialty needs.
They live a long time
Many tank dwellers have short life spans, and rainbowfish won't be any different if not properly cared for. However, boesemani rainbowfish, in the right environment, regularly make it to 5 years and sometimes even t10 years!

Read more
Are female betta fish worth it? Here’s why you should consider getting one of these pretty fish
Unlike males, female betta fish can live together, and get along with other fish, too
A blue female betta in a tank

Betta fish (also known as Siamese fighting fish) rocketed to fame and took a spot as one of our favorite swimming pets for their beautiful color and elegant fins. They, too, are recognized for being aggressive toward each other and will even flare (a display) to you, their owner. However, many of those characteristics only apply to the males of the species, whereas the female versions look and act a little differently. Here's why you should consider bringing one of these lady bettas home.

What are betta fish?
These underwater beauties come from Thailand and live in rice paddies in the wild. It's a myth that they only need a small tank, but bettas often do make great solitary pets that can thrive in an aquarium by themselves. They can also live with many other fish, just not other bettas. One fun thing about these swimmers is that they learn to recognize their owners and will get excited when you come to feed them every night.
How do female bettas differ from males?
You probably know that you can't keep male bettas with others of their kind, as they will fight males and sometimes aggressively mate with females (we recommend only experts breed them). Female bettas won't likely be building any bubble nests though, as that's a job for the males.

Read more
Looking to add corydoras to your aquarium? Here’s what you need to know first
Read this before bringing home a cory catfish to add to your tank
Two cory catfish hang out on the bottom of the tank

One thing you might not know about aquariums until you get one: Every tank needs a janitor, which may wind up just being you. When you first dive into this hobby, it can take a while to realize how much maintenance is really involved — don't think that the filter will do all the work. But if you want a little a help in that department, you can add a catfish to the fray. If you don't have a ton of experience with these bottom feeders, we recommend one of the corydoras since they're generally best for beginners.

What are corydoras?
This is a type of catfish, but there are actually more than 170 species to choose from. These are a well-known group of swimmers who get their name from their barbels, which look a bit like whiskers. While you'll find dozens of options in the pet store, you will likely narrow it down quickly based on the size of your tank, temperature, habitat you've chosen, and the other fish that they'll live with eventually.
Are corydoras friendly?
Yes, corydoras are sweet and gentle fish. They particularly like spending time together, but get along with many others as well. In some cases, you should not buy just one as they'll get lonely. Instead grab a pair of the same type and watch them become best friends. You'll often see them as bottom feeders, well, at the base of the tank, but cory cats also come up to the surface for air or food from time to time.

Read more