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How to Keep Your Aquarium Crystal Clear at All Times

Updated on October 18, 2014

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Preparing Your Aquarium for Minimal Maintenance

If you choose to go with live plants, you will find that over a year or two, your aquarium will reach a steady state of being, ecologically.
If you choose to go with live plants, you will find that over a year or two, your aquarium will reach a steady state of being, ecologically.

I often get questions about how to keep a fish tank clearer for a longer period of time. Let's face it: water changes can be tedious, messy, and time consuming. Caring for my own aquariums, I have gone from the dip-the-cup method, to the siphon-into-the-bucket method, to the Python hose method, which connects directly to a faucet or spigot to drain, siphon, and fill. In my opinion, the latter is the least time consuming and messy. But wouldn't it be great to go two to three months in between water changes (instead of one month), without harming the fish and livestock in your aquarium?

This isn't easy—at first. Your aquarium must be prepared for the change. All of these elements play a part in the cleanliness of your aquarium:

  • Filtration
  • Decorations
  • Fish residents

If you do your research and follow the general guidelines here, you will be able to help your aquarium reach a steady state of being, giving you an ecosystem that can survive with minimal maintenance.

Step One: Filtration

All types of filters—submersible, hang-on, and external—are great choices. Pick one that is easy to use and that will be most practical for your aquarium.
All types of filters—submersible, hang-on, and external—are great choices. Pick one that is easy to use and that will be most practical for your aquarium.

Considerations When Choosing a Filter

First, let's talk about the filtration system in your aquarium. There are three primary factors that need to work together to keep an aquarium clean:

  • chemical: carbon, charcoal, and zeolite can convert toxins in the water chemistry
  • mechanical: cotton or foam cartridges that physically remove debris from the water
  • biological: nitrate-forming and nitrite-forming bacteria are produced by fish waste and a good balance of both is vital to a healthy aquarium

When choosing a filter, there are many different types of filters to choose from:

  • submersible
  • hang-on
  • external

All are great choices. Pick one that is easy to use and that will be most practical for your aquascape environment.

It is ideal to choose a filter at least one size bigger than the tank's capacity. For example: If you have a 55 gal. aquarium, you would need a filter for a 60-75 gal. aquarium, and preferably with a substantial carbon media and bacteria bed.

Installing Your New Filter

The mechanical part of the filter can be changed at any time, but the chemical and biological filters need a break-in period so they can perform as expected. When you get ready to upgrade your filter, you want to to put the new filter on your aquarium for at least three weeks with the old one still in place. This gives the new filter time to build its own bacteria bed and the charcoal and carbon time to activate.

You also need to make sure your chemicals are adjusted appropriately, meaning your nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia levels need to be stable. There are inexpensive tests available to perform this test. If the levels are out of balance, I use Stress Coat (a chlorine reducer) and Stress Zyme (a bacteria booster to help the process along), but only time can ensure stability for your aquarium. Once you are sure your water is safe, you can remove the old filter.

Step Two: Decorations and Environment

If you like the idea of plants with your African Cichids, plant the fauna well before you add the fish to ensure proper rooting.
If you like the idea of plants with your African Cichids, plant the fauna well before you add the fish to ensure proper rooting.

If your aquarium gets dirty very quickly and is difficult to clean, the type of décor you have in your tank might be adding to the problem. Some types of décor need more frequent care than others. Plastic plants, rocks, and other knick-knacks will need to be cleaned periodically, while river rocks and the live plants don't need to be cleaned as often.

Also, consider whether your choice of décor is appropriate for your fish. Do your décor items contribute anything of value to your fish or are they purely aesthetic? I prefer natural environments and have live plants in all of my aquariums (nine total, currently). Here are some advantages to a natural aquascape:

  • Plants help your water quality in more ways than you think. The plants help convert the nitrites into nitrates. Some fish, like guppies, Angel Fish, and Discus for example, need to be in an environment with live plants and a steady flow of water.

Angel fish like this one thrive in flowing, planted environments.
Angel fish like this one thrive in flowing, planted environments.
  • The carbon dioxide emitted from fish waste is plant food for the plants, just like humans breathing carbon dioxide into the air aids photosynthesis by trees and plants on the earth. Angel fish, for example, like the long flowing leaves of certain plants and do not eat them. This helps keep the water to stay cleaner longer.
  • Some fish require a rocky mesa, while others prefer a sandy bottom or a planted ecosystem.
  • African cichlids need many hiding places and the more rocks you have the better the cichlids will get along. It is not usual to have live plants in a cichlid aquarium, but many other fish do enjoy munching down on fresh plant life, so do your research on what fish likes to eat what diet. I have plants in my African cichlid aquarium, but I planted the fauna long before I added the fish. If plants have time to root and get settled, fish aren’t as likely to dig them up or eat them.
  • South American cichlids, however, prefer a mangrove-type environment for proper spawning areas and protection.

Aquariums with decorations like castles require more frequent cleaning than those with rocks.
Aquariums with decorations like castles require more frequent cleaning than those with rocks.

If you are adamant about keeping plastic plants and decorations in the tank, you will need to clean the algae build up off as it becomes necessary. Clean buckets and fresh hot water and a scrub brush designated solely for cleaning can rid the décor of unsightly algae. With live plants, you will find less algae in the tank though.

Step Three: The Right Type of Fish for Your Aquarium

There are many species of fish to choose from.

  • Cold water varieties like goldfish, carp and koi.
  • Tropical species include African cichlids (three different lakes in Africa give us a beautiful selection and come closest to providing the colors that salt water fish do).
  • South American cichlids come in an array of sizes and have an iridescent yet graceful display.
  • Tetras come from different regions of the world and are easy to mingle together.
  • Gouramis, mollies, platies, guppies, barbs, sharks and catfish are among the numerous varieties of community fish (with different levels of aggression).

The rule of thumb is to have one individual fish per one gallon of water for a healthy size ratio in your tank. I personally like to have more fish, and a bigger filter. Then I can usually get away with having one fish per one gallon. It's important to stock the aquarium safely for the fish and appropriately for the species you may have.

  • Some fish like to swim in alkaline water, some prefer a softer water environment. Test your tank's pH levels for sensitive fish such as neon tetras, angel fish and discus.
  • Tropical or fresh water fish live and eat in various areas of the world and different levels of water depth. Make sure your fish are compatible with each other or you will have carnage and dead fish clouding up the water.
  • African and South American cichlids require different aquarium décor and have different water needs than guppies, mollies, or tetras. They are much more aggressive than gold fish and gouramis.

Step Four: Feeding Your Fish for a Clean Tank

A variety of foods helps maintain your fishes' color, growth, and overall health.
A variety of foods helps maintain your fishes' color, growth, and overall health.

How you feed your fish also plays a role in how easy is it to keep your aquarium clean. Different fish have different diets: some eat other fish, some eat veggie diets, and there is a wide variety of flakes and pellets to keep your fish from starving to death.

Providing your fish with a variety of foods helps maintain their color, growth, and overall health. Remember: the more you feed them, the more they poop. Only feed them what they can consume in two minutes and there will be less waste. This will reduce the amount of of ammonia in the water. Ammonia turns water a murky yellowish-brown color.

The Result: A Steady State of Being

If you are like me, once you have your tank filter, decorations, fish population, and feeding routine just the way you like it, you will rearrange your aquarium several times before being satisfied with the way it looks. Try not to stress your fish by moving them for two to three months, and you will find you aquarium stays cleaner longer.

If you choose to go with live plants, you will find that over a year or two, your aquarium will reach a steady state (this should be every enthusiasts's goal!). A steady state means that the chemistry of the water in your aquarium is changing slowly if at all. Think of it this way: If your electricity failed and you could not use the filter in your aquarium for a year, the balanced combination of plants and fish would filter the water on its own and the only cleaning you would have to do would be to clean the algae off the sides of the glass and change the water four times a year.

I hope you have found this helpful and time-saving so you have more time to enjoy your aquarium instead of maintaining it. Enjoy and thanks for reading!

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    • SmartRunner profile image

      Nivas 16 months ago from Salem

      Good one....!!

    • Anonymous Mermaid 3 weeks ago

      You are an organized writer! Wow! Thanks so much. It was detailed, sequenced, and easy to follow! :)

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