Aquarium Algae Control: How to Get Rid of Algae in a Fish Tank
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!
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.
Be aware that 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. I prefer the . It does a great job of scraping the green stuff, and if you accidentally drop it, it floats! Mag-Float
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.
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.
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.
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.