Basic Aquarium Maintenance: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re new to keeping fish or other aquatic pets, you may be unsure about how to properly¬† care for and maintenance an aquarium. Many people have asked me for advice on dealing with sick fish or other problems in their aquariums. My first question is usually, “How often do you maintenance your tank?” Many times people will say, “every couple of months”, “now and then”, or “what?” So I’ve written this article to outline some basic principles for standard aquarium maintenance.

Different styles of aquariums can thrive under various conditions and levels of care. Many factors such as tank size, stocking, and density of live plants can influence the intensity and frequency of maintenance that is required. As you gain experience and knowledge in the hobby, you’ll find your own preferred methods and schedule that works for you and your pets.

How often should I maintenance my aquarium?

It’s a good idea to maintenance your aquarium once a week. Pick a day that you normally have some free time and make it your “tank cleaning day.” If you wait longer, you could be allowing problems to build to a point when they become hazardous to the overall health of your tank. Things like Nitrates can quietly build to toxic levels, if you aren’t cleaning your tank often enough.

Basic Maintenance Routine

To keep it simple, I have broken a basic aquarium maintenance session into five steps:

  1. Water Tests
  2. Shut Off Electrical Appliances
  3. Algae Scrub & Plant Trim
  4. Gravel Vac & Water Change
  5. Filter Check/Clean and Media Replacement

Let’s look at each one and break down what is involved.

Water Tests

Don’t forget to check your water parameters. Pick up an API Master Freshwater Test Kit (or your preferred brand’s equivalent). I like to mix using the master kit and Tetra 6-in-1 strips. Whatever you like to use, make sure you are testing your water regularly and consistently. You’ll be able to spot trouble before it begins to harm your aquarium. Most pet stores that sell fish will test your water, free of charge. Bring in a small sample of your tank water once a week, if you’re not confident in your own ability to check it. I recommend doing this first, because it’s good to see what’s going on in your tank’s water before you start messing with it.

Shut Off Electrical Appliances

As I mention in my Aquarium Tips for Beginners article, remember to always unplug and remove any electrical appliances in and around your aquarium, before starting your maintenance routine. This includes your filter, lights, heater, air pump, etc… Electricity and water are a dangerous combination. Since you’ll be putting your hands in the water and moving things around, it is a good idea to play it safe and remove the danger of electrocution or fire.

Algae Scrub & Plant Trim

For many, this is the least favorite step. It involves getting your hands in the water and often putting in a little elbow grease. The more thorough and regular your scheduled maintenance, the less algae you’ll have to deal with each time. If you stay on top of your maintenance schedule, you shouldn’t have many problems with algae. If you do experience an outbreak, ask yourself if you have been doing anything new lately. Are you using a new type of food? Is one of your fish missing? Has the light lowered closer to the tank? Have you been leaving the shades open more than usual? These questions will help to pinpoint what is causing the sudden growth in algae. Once you have identified the problem, now it’s time to remove the algae you already have. See my guide on common freshwater algae types for more information.

If you have live plants, take a moment to assess their health and growth. Are they the right color? Does it look like they’ve grown since last week, or have they melted back? Do they need a trim? When was the last time you dosed some fertilizer? Plants require just as much care and attention as animals, so don’t neglect your leafy friends! Check out my article on Aquatic Plant Nutrition for some more info on fertilizers and general plant health.

Gravel Vac & Water Change

If you’ve never heard of a gravel vacuum, it’s simply a hose used to drain water from an aquarium, while sucking up unwanted material from the substrate. Most come with a hard plastic tube that attaches to one end of flexible hose. Some models include a squeezable bulb in the middle, and more fancy models have an adapter that enables the hose to be connected to a sink faucet or an electric-powered water pump.

Whatever style of gravel vacuum you have, the method of using one is more or less the same. Use the hard plastic tube to pull fish waste and uneaten food out of your substrate. The water and waste material will travel up the tube, through the hose and into a bucket or drain. I prefer collecting my old tank water in a five gallon bucket. This way I can use the drained water to clean my filter media. And if a fish or shrimp accidentally gets sucked up by the hose, it doesn’t end up in the drain!

If you are unsure how to use the gravel vacuum to start a siphon, consult the directions that can with your gravel vac. Below is a video produced by Aqueon, showing how to use a gravel vacuum.

Gravel vacuuming is a key step of your aquarium maintenance routine. It accomplishes two very important tasks: removing old water and removing organic waste material. When using the gravel vac to remove water, aim for approximately 25%. This is the ideal amount of water you want to change in your aquarium per week.

Once you are finished gravel vacuuming, you’ll need to replace the water that you have removed. You should always use a water treatment product like API Water Conditioner or Stress Coat. These and similar products will purify the new water of harmful substances like chlorine and chloramine. Of course, you can avoid needing such products by using R/O water, but that is a topic for a different article.

Filter Check/Clean & Media Replacement

Making sure to first shut off your filter, open the casing and begin examining the interior. Is the water able to flow smoothly through the filter media? You may need to rinse your filter media to clear out any blockages that are causing the flow of water to be less efficient. Material tends to build up around your filter intake and in your mechanical filter media.

When rinsing your mechanical filter media, use the tank water that you’ve already siphoned from your aquarium. You should never use water straight from the tap. This is because tap water can contain chlorine or chloramine, which will kill the beneficial bacteria growing in your filter media. Not sure what I mean by “beneficial bacteria?” Check out my article on the Nitrogen Cycle.

How long has your carbon or other chemical filtration media been in use? Carbon-based media (like charcoal) should be replaced about every 30 days. This is because old carbon will begin to release all the material it has collected back into the aquarium after a few weeks. Keep track of how long it has been since you last changed your carbon media and replace when appropriate.

You should never need to change biological filter media, like bio balls, bio wheels, bio rings, bio-whatever. Sometimes if they become clogged with organic material to the point of reducing water flow, you’ll need to rinse them out a bit. Again, rinse with used tank water, not water directly from the tap.

filter orientation
When putting your filter media into your filter, consider the direction that the water flows through the system. Arrange your media pads/bags in the following order, going with the flow of water: mechanical, chemical, biological.

Once you have cleaned and replaced all the necessary filter media, put your filter back together. Remember, filter media should usually be organized as following, starting with the direction of water flow: mechanical filtration, chemical filtration, biological filtration. This formation provides for the best efficiency in your filter. With some basic filter models, there is only one filter pad. Simply use and replace one of those all-in-one pads as directed by the manufacturer.

You’re Done!

Once you have finished maintenancing your aquarium, be sure to reconnect all of your lights, filter, heater, etc… And you’re done! Your tank may look a little messy at first, but as loose debris settles or is gathered by your filter, you’ll be pleased with how fresh and clean it looks.

How do I keep track of all this stuff?

The simplest way is to keep a calendar and mark off in advance the days you plan to do your maintenance. You can also keep a notebook and record everything you’ve done, including water changes, filter replacement, water tests, newly added fish or plants, etc… This will help you in diagnosing any sudden problems that may occur in the future.

Another way is to download an aquarium tracking app to your phone. I recently started using an app called Aquarium Note. It allows me to keep track of all my tanks, fish, plants, maintenance schedule, and water parameters. Check out the Google Play Store or the App Store for this or similar apps.


Featured Photo Credit: “Fabulous Decay” by¬†Gergely Hideg

What do you think of this article? Was it helpful? Let me know in the comments section below.

5 Replies to “Basic Aquarium Maintenance: A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. I am trying to get a planted tank going and curious when I use my gravel vac should I try to get as much of the debris (nitrates) out of the substrate? I’m using seachem flourite for the substrate.

    I thought plants like nitrates.

    1. When it comes to planted tanks, you don’t need to gravel vacuum quite as thoroughly. Plants do make use of nitrates, and the level of nitrates measured in a tank can be a good indicator of the plants’ nutrient absorption rate. If the plants are healthy, they should keep up with nitrate production. If they aren’t, or if the tank is overstocked, then nitrates will accumulate.

        1. No problem. That’s a good plan, I think. You should still do water changes periodically, and its not a bad idea to do some gravel vacuuming, as needed to remove unsightly debris. Doing water changes will also help to remove minerals and other things from building up over time that the plants don’t make use of.

  2. It really helped when you said that the plants in the aquarium also need care like the fishes, so make sure to check them as well. I guess I would have to hire a professional for this job because I know that I can’t trust myself with this since I really have no green thumb. Our aquarium just needs to be cleaned because it hasn’t been touched ever since it was bought by my husband a month ago.

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