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Aquarium Algae Control: How to Get Rid of Algae in a Fish Tank

Updated on March 18, 2017
EricDockett profile image

Eric is an aquarium enthusiast with over two decades of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish.

A little algae can make aquarium decorations look more realistic, but when it gets out of control you need to find a way to rid your fish tank of this green menace.
A little algae can make aquarium decorations look more realistic, but when it gets out of control you need to find a way to rid your fish tank of this green menace. | Source

Algae Run Amok!

How can you get rid of algae growth when it overtakes your freshwater tank, or at least control it before the fish start to suffer? That green gunky stuff covers aquarium decorations, climbs the glass of the tank, and sometimes even gets on the aquarium inhabitants themselves.

Algae growth is a natural occurrence in a freshwater tank, but it can be a nightmare if left unchecked. Fortunately, if your fish tank is permeated with algae, there are solutions. You can drastically limit the level of growth in your tank by practicing the correct tank management habits.

A little algae buildup on rocks and driftwood isn't a bad thing. It makes your tank look more natural. But when you wake up one morning and the glass has turned green it’s probably time to take action. You’ve got some work ahead of you, but the good news is that once you take a few steps in the right direction controlling algae gets easy.

Don’t resort to chemicals to deal with algae in your tank. There are better, natural ways to tackle the problem.

What is Algae Anyway?

Algae is a broad term used to classify a wide range of plant-like organisms. There are a few types of algae you may encounter in your freshwater aquarium, but green and brown are the most common. Both are a result of normal processes in your tank, and no cause for alarm. Brown algae are easily dislodged from surfaces with a quick wipe, but green algae are a little tougher to get rid of and needs to be scraped away.

Like plants, algae contain chlorophyll and create their own food through photosynthesis. Therefore, the same circumstances that helps a plant to grow helps algae to grow. This is important to know when trying to get rid of algae in a fish tank.

It should also be noted that the word algae is actually a plural term. The single form would be alga. But if you have only one alga in your tank you probably don’t have much of a problem, and you wouldn't be reading this!

The little oto is a great option for helping to clean up algae in your fish tank.
The little oto is a great option for helping to clean up algae in your fish tank. | Source

Algae-Eating Fish and Critters

The first step some aquarium owners take when they realize they have an algae issue is to go out and purchase algae-eating fish. They toss the fish in the tank, and wait for them to clean everything up. Eventually they realize the fish aren’t getting the job done, but it’s not because they are lazy or on a diet.

Fish and critters can only do so much when it comes to controlling algae. They don’t hurt anything, and in tanks where there is minimal algae growth they may prevent it from getting worse, but if your situation is out of control they probably can’t save you.

Be aware that most species of plecostomus, the fish most people turn to for eliminating algae, can grow a couple of feet long and are way too big for most aquariums. Consider a rubber-nose pleco instead, as they only grow to a few inches. All plecos can be tough on live plants.

The Chinese Algae Eater is another fish you may consider, but they can become aggressive as they get older.

For most aquariums, the little otocinclus is a good choice. They’re tiny, schooling catfish about an inch in length that will descend on your algae like a little army. They should be kept in schools of at least six.

Other critters like Apple Snails will eat some algae too, but may also wreak havoc on any live plants you have in your tank.

If you have many tiny snails in your tank that you can’t get rid of, these guys are thriving on your algae problem. These are pest snails, and they can be a big problem in their own right. But, if you can take steps to drastically decrease your algae growth you’ll also be limiting their food source.

Gulfstream Tropical AGU125MED Mag-Float Glass Aquarium Cleaner, Medium
Gulfstream Tropical AGU125MED Mag-Float Glass Aquarium Cleaner, Medium

Algae-eating fish and critters can only do so much, You may need to remove algae yourself. Magnetic algae scrubbers are an easy way to keep your tank clean without getting your hands wet.

 

Don’t Overfeed Your Fish

Speaking of food sources, over-feeding your fish can be a major cause of excessive algae growth. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, what goes into a fish must come out!

If you’re letting your fish stuff themselves to the gills and watching a lot of excess food fall to the floor of the tank or get sucked up by the filter, you are creating two great food sources for algae: fish waste, and waste from decaying fish food. Like plants, algae will thrive on these things.

Learn to gauge how much your fish will eat in a few minutes, and don’t give them so much food that it’s floating to the bottom of the tank. Consider putting them on a feed/fast schedule where they do not eat one or more days a week. Don’t think of this as cruel: It’s almost impossible to starve a fish, and by limiting waste in their tank you are creating a healthier environment for them.

More Reasons Not to Overfeed Your Fish

Frequent Water Changes and Tank Maintenance

Along the same line of reasoning as limiting feeding, you need to make sure you are performing the necessary tank maintenance to keep algae under control. A good routine to get into is performing a weekly water change of about 30%, and a more thorough cleaning monthly.

Don’t cringe! There are easy ways to change the water in your tank that will only take you a few minutes, and it’s time well spent. All tanks accumulate waste chemicals, and by replacing a percentage of the water once a week you are diluting the amount of pollution. This means healthier water for the fish, and less “alga food” in the water.

Monthly, you need to roll up your sleeves and vacuum the substrate, clean off the decorations, clean the filter and scrape the algae off the glass. There is no substitute for this work, and it is vital for making sure you have a clean, healthy tank, that is as algae-free as possible.

Lights Out!

If you have a planted aquarium, you need to be sure you have your lights on a good 12 hours a day. But if you have plastic plants, controlling the amount of time you have the lights on is a great way to control algae growth. Remember that algae create their own food via photosynthesis. This means they need light to thrive, just like a plant. If you limit the light, they can’t be as prolific.

Of course fish need a day/night cycle to be healthy, just like people do. But in the wild most tropical fish don’t have a massive light blaring down on them as they do in your tank. The dim light of daytime is a rough approximation of what they would experience in their rivers and lakes back home.

Really, the aquarium light is for you, not them. It lets you see your pretty fish, and that’s nice, but when nobody is home keep the light off in the tank and algae won’t have a chance to thrive.

Avoid Natural Sunlight

If you have a large tank and you’ve already made the mistake of placing it in direct sunlight there is probably nothing you can do at this point. But if you have a tank you can move, or if you haven’t set it up yet, consider placing it somewhere that the sun won’t be hitting it during part of the day.

It is easy to see why this is important: Like plants, algae will grow like crazy given a good amount of sunlight. Following the steps above and not providing the necessary food helps reduce the chances of this, but why help the algae at all?

Direct sunlight isn't the best thing for your fish, either. The bright light, along with the increased temperatures in the tank, can cause them undue stress which may erode their health. It’s better for fish, tank and owner to avoid the sun if possible.

Common aquarium plants like this Amazon Sword will out-compete algae for food sources.
Common aquarium plants like this Amazon Sword will out-compete algae for food sources. | Source

Consider a Planted Aquarium

Growing natural plants in your tank can go a long way when it comes to limiting algae growth. One reason is obvious: The plants and the algae are competing for the same food sources.

Where fish waste is bad if you want to stop algae growth, it’s good (to a certain level) if you want to grow live plants. Healthy plants will do a better job of nutrient uptake, and the algae will struggle.

Some say certain plants give off natural substances that prevent algae growth. This makes sense, as algae can accumulate on plants too, which of course is not good for the plant.

Planted aquariums still need maintenance, but when done right they can be perfect little ecosystems that meet the needs of fish and plants alike. When the balance is right, algae growth will be minimal.

Algae Bloom!

If your tank water is cloudy and green all of a sudden, you are in the midst of an algae bloom! Algae live in the water, not just on surfaces, so a sudden change in any of the parameters that allow them to thrive can cause a sudden burst of algae growth. This sounds a lot worse than it is, and generally the solution is simple.

First off, if you’ve had an algae bloom something has gone awry with the control methods listed above. Usually it’s because of a sudden spike of waste chemicals in the water. You need to figure out why that happened. Did you over-feed? Did you introduce new fish? Have you missed a few water changes?

The remedy is simply to perform a water change and introduce fresh, clean water, thus taking away some of nutrients the algae is feeding off. You may wish to perform an extra water change for the week, spaced a couple of days apart. Then, get back to your usual algae maintenance routine.

Living with Algae

The purpose of this article was to help deal with algae in as simple terms as possible. However, anyone who is serious about aquarium care should consider investing in a water-testing kit and discovering more about the nitrogen cycle and chemicals in their tank. Learn to monitor the level of ammonia, nitrates and nitrites in your aquarium and you have a better chance of keeping your water parameters under control.

Most people are probably happy with keeping their tank looking clean, and getting rid of as much of that brownish, greenish gunky stuff as they can. The bad news is that algae are never going to go away completely. New spores will come every time you introduce a new fish or plant into your tank, and they can even float in on the air. It’s best to think of the alga as just another organism in your fish tank.

But, as we’ve seen, even though you won’t get rid of algae completely you can control it if you get into the right aquarium care habits.

Algae Poll!

How is the algae situation in your fish tank?

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    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 3 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Useful tips for keeping the tank clear. I am watching the Plecostamus with interest!

    • EricDockett profile image
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      Eric Dockett 3 years ago from USA

      Thanks Gypsy Willow. If you have a pleco I hope you have a big tank! :-)

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 19 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Congrats Eric on HOTD for this fascinating hub. Nice work!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 19 months ago from the short journey

      Nicely done! This would be a useful read for any tank owner/user, but it is so well done that children who are being introduced to this hobby would greatly benefit from reading or having it read to them.

    • EricDockett profile image
      Author

      Eric Dockett 19 months ago from USA

      Thanks for the kind words Kristen and RTalloni! And thanks for HOTD, HP! :-)

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 19 months ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks for this useful article! We only have a small 25l tank, and have 3 x platys and a hillstream loach to nibble up algae. Whilst we have a plastic plant, we've added a massimo moss ball to help boost oxygen and compete with algae. Not sure whether this actually works or not though! We do get a bit of algae building up, but I am cleaning most of this off the glass once a week, and hoovering the poop out of the gravel at the same time, whilst doing a little water change. Still very new to the hobby, so articles like yours are so very helpful. Thank you for a brilliant Hub!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 19 months ago from the short journey

      Meant to say congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this well done post!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 19 months ago from sunny Florida

      Definitely a great tutorial on algae control for fish tanks...I do not have one at present but my daughter does so I will be sharing this with her.

      Congrats on HOTD...definitely deserving of the recognition.

      Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 19 months ago from New Zealand

      Congratulations for HOTD.

      I used to have goldfish, but it became a big job to keep their container clean, so I gave them away.

      I like fish very much and enjoy watching them swimming about, I found it very relaxing.

      You have done a great job writing this article. Thanks.

    • EricDockett profile image
      Author

      Eric Dockett 19 months ago from USA

      Thanks for the kind feedback, everyone! I really appreciate your comments.

    • profile image

      Guest 12 months ago

      Actually,indirect sunlight is okay

    • profile image

      nathan6790 9 months ago

      I got a purple uv tube bulb above my tank aswell as normal white tube light 120 litre jewel with 2 plecs 11 zebra obliquidens (victoriana cichlids) no plants just sand and rocks and I've never had a problem with algae but you can also get a uv sterliser which is like a filter but as water passes thru it. It makes the algae build up so the filter can actually pick it up instead of building up around your tank therefore solving your algae problem yeah you still have to do water changes and all other stuff mentioned above but a uv bulb or uv sterliser will help big time with little work needed

    • profile image

      Whodoo 3 months ago

      K, what is a good method for killing the spores/etc that won't kill other things in the tank?

      I am going to break down the tank, wash and clean the live plants and other objects, and ideally soak them briefly in something that will kill the algae but not harm the plants, esp. "post facto", by contaminating the water even after rinsed off.

      The problem is I have a blue-green algae that seems to laugh at all other efforts to constrain it. I want to do as much as possible to make sure none is restored to the tank when I re-build it.

      Will a brief dip in alcohol+water and then peroxide+water kill any algae attached to the plants and other surfaces (not doing anything to the fish) and allow the plants to survive?

    • EricDockett profile image
      Author

      Eric Dockett 3 months ago from USA

      @ Whodoo: I would not use any type of chemical solution to clean algae. You need to clean it with old-fashioned elbow grease. If you need a coarse medium for scrubbing you can use some aquarium salt, but make sure you rinse everything thoroughly before putting it back in the tank.

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