How to Setup and Clean a Fish Tank – Here is What & How To Go About Setting Up and Cleaning Your Fish Tank

clean a fish tank

You suddenly developed liking for an aquarium. And you want to keep some cute little fishes in your home. No matter what kind of fish it is. It requires a proper, clean and healthy environment to live. Moreover, the idea of setting and maintaining an aquarium can also seem intimidating at first. Don’t let the fear hold you back. Because once you get your hands on it, it becomes easier than you might have thought. We are going to discuss almost everything that you should know, from setting an aquarium to how to maintain and clean a fish tank. With good routine and maintenance, you can easily handle an attractive aquarium.

After deciding the type of fish you want, it is better not to purchase both fish and tank at the same time. When you bring an aquarium home, the first thing in the to-do list is to set the aquarium. And this process might take some time. The reason is that it is important to make a habitable environment, safe and healthy for fish. Here is a step by step guide on how you can set a fish tank.

How to set a fish tank?

  • Set a permanent place for your tank. It is better to keep it at a place that is out of direct sunlight. A place where you should not worry about moving it now and then. Selecting a safe and permanent spot beforehand is convenient for you because you won’t be able to replace it once it is set and filled with water. It will be too heavy and delicate then.
  • Rinse the fish tank with warm water. Avoid using any soap or detergents because these toxins are harmful to fish. You can use a paper towel to dry the tank after rinsing it.
  • Sand, aquarium rocks or gravel, etc., whatever you have chosen as a substrate, rinse them off properly before placing them in the aquarium. Be careful when you add layers of the substrate in your fish tank because such substrates can scratch the tank. Use warm water to rinse the decorations and substrates. Also, use a colander to clean gravel and rocks and run water through it until the water runs clear. Later, add decorations and plants. When you plan on adding plants, add some more substrate to give your plant’s roots a little room.
  • Now it’s time to fill your tank with aquarium-specific water. Two types of aquarium-specific, fish-safe aquarium water are pre-heated and you get it from a pet store and the other one is tap water that you treat with a conditioner such as Tetra EasyBalance PLUS or Tetra AquaSafe. The purpose of using a conditioner is to remove chlorine and other heavy metals and chemicals that would be harmful to fish. Fill 1/3 of the aquarium with water. Don’t pour all the water at once, because it will upset the freshly set substrate. Use a flat object and pour water onto that.
  • Once you have set everything in the tank, turn on the filtration system. And if you have any air-driven decorations or bubbles, connect airline tubing from the air pump to the decorations.
  • Place live or artificial plants. These can also hide the filtration system and air/plumbing lines. Make sure that the water is warm enough if you are willing to place live plants. Otherwise, the roots will be dead, thus killing the plant as well. 
  • If you have a fish that is prone to jumping, use a lid. There should be some space between the water level and the lid.
  • The next step is to initiate the biological filter. Biological filters allow bacterial colonies to grow and break down the water. Different types of bacteria break down ammonia into nitrite and then nitrate. Nitrate is relatively harmless. In the process of biological filtration, harmful wastes move through the filter. These bacteria are nearly everywhere; therefore, there is no need to add them to the aquarium. The main part is to add fuel to these microbes. You can use ammonia-based concoction that is aquarium specific. The whole process takes about 6-8 weeks until the biofilter has completely stabilized.
  • Place a heater where there is strong water flow in the tank. Away from the heater, also place an in-tank thermometer to make sure that the tank is maintaining the correct temperature.
  • Turn on filter, heater and air/water pumps. Add fish after 24 hours. Meanwhile, you can make the necessary adjustments.
  • Start by adding only one fish, and then add to your population slowly over weeks and months. Don’t pour fish at once. First, float the fish bag in tank water to adjust the temperature difference between tank water and transport water. Then after 15 minutes, pour water and fish from the bag into a clean bucket. Every minute, add a quarter cup of tank water into the bucket. After some time, this water will be diluted and you can now add fish one by one into the tank. Don’t add bucket water into the tank.

Follow the steps mentioned above and voila! You have your tank all set up. This wasn’t even that difficult as you might have thought. Right! Now that you have set your fish tank, the next step is to maintain and clean the aquarium regularly. And for this purpose, you should know how you can clean a fish tank.

But do you know why it is necessary to clean a fish tank? Well! Here is the answer. The aquarium is an enclosed ecosystem where your fish swims around daily. The waste can easily build up and become toxic if you don’t clean it properly. Therefore, keeping the tank conditions optimal to ensure the health of your fish is important. All you have to do is routine maintenance and cleaning. This maintains the delicate ecosystem in your tank. Just like setting up the tank, maintaining and cleaning your fish tank is not a difficult task. However, if you think it is easier to clean a small tank as compared to the bigger one, you are wrong. Some of the problems of using a small fish tank are unstable water parameters, aggressive fish or stunted growth. Whereas, in the larger tank, you can easily keep the water stable.

Moreover, you don’t have to remove all the water at once, to clean a fish tank. Removing all the water will remove all the beneficial bacteria, i.e., biological filtration that was discussed earlier. 

Why do you clean a fish tank?



Cleaning a fish tank regulates the nitrogen cycle and keep nitrates in low concentration.

Ammonia and nitrite both are toxic for fish, whereas nitrate is less harmful and can be easily removed by regular water changes

When you clean a fish tank, you remove organic compounds.

Organic matter is a waste, a natural by-product, and needs to be broken down along with feed left in the tank. Some of these organics are used by plants in freshwater fish and the rest needs to be removed. 

When new water is added to the tank, it replenishes the minerals.

This is important because insufficient minerals can result in osmotic stress, leading to osmotic shock and even death. Different products are available in the market. Select the product carefully so that the cleaning process removes impurities but also adds minerals to the tank.

After considering the reasons for cleaning a fish tank, the next thing that comes to mind is the actual process of cleaning. Both freshwater and saltwater aquarium requires a little time and effort in cleaning.

How to clean a freshwater fish tank?

Before you start cleaning, make sure that you have all the tools used to clean a fish tank. To make it easier for you, below is given a list of tools that you need. 

Tools to clean a fish tank

  • Water conditioner if you are using tap water or properly prepared water. You need fresh water in quantity you need to replace. 
  • A siphon-type gravel vacuum
  • An algae-scrapper, straightedge/scrubby pad or plastic or razor blade for stubborn residue
  • Glass cleaner that should be aquarium based or vinegar-based solution
  • If you are changing the filter, you will require a filter media such as carbon packets, sponges, cartridges and so on.

Now that you have all the tools let’s start cleaning.

How to clean a fish tank

  • Take 10-20% percent water out. Start with cleaning the inner sides of the aquarium. Algae often stick to the aquarium. It is not only unpleasing aesthetically but is also harmful to the environment of the aquarium. Use an algae-pad and scrub algae off the glass. If you find a patch of residue that is difficult to clean, you can use a plastic blade or a razor blade. Don’t use a scrubber that is already used in the kitchen or anywhere else. Because these used sponges or scrubbers can have a residue of chemicals or detergents on it, which are harmful if they get into the tank. You can wear gloves while cleaning the tank. Use shoulder-length gloves. If you are allergic to anything in the tank, you must use gloves.
  • Change 25-50% of water per week. The quantity of water that you need to change depends on bio-load. Bio-load refers to the rate of nutrient accumulation. Bio-load also determines how often you need to change the water. It will be discussed in detail later.
  • Take old water out into the bucket using a siphon. Make sure that you buy a new bucket for this purpose and don’t use buckets that can have a residue of synthetic detergent. Some aquarium siphons are available that you can hook up to a tank. One benefit of such siphons is that you can use the same hose to fill the fish tank. Read instructions on how they work.
  • Remove decorations, artificial plants and rocks after cleaning the inside glass. Use a good scrub, an algae-scrapper, and warm water to clean them. Don’t use soap as it is harmful to fish. For stubborn residue, soak items in 10% bleach solution for 15 minutes. Scrub and rinse with running water and let it air dry. It will eliminate residual bleach. If the items still smell of chlorine, add de-chlorinator in water and rinse with it. You can also use bleach to remove algae from live plants. Stems plants are not tolerant of bleaching. To clean plants in bleach, soak plants in a 5% bleach solution for 2-3 minutes. Then rinse.
  • Keep decorations, rocks, and plants out of the aquarium while using a vacuum to clean gravel. So that no debris from gravel will settle on these items.
  • It is also important that you clean the gravel as it may contain excess food, fish waste, and other debris. To vacuum away the debris, you can use a water siphon. Make sure that all the debris is removed thoroughly. When you use a gravel vacuum, some water is also removed along with the debris. Replace that water with dechlorinated water. Also, make sure that the temperature of water in your aquarium is the same as the temperature of replacement water.
  • Add fresh water, treated and at the temperature of the aquarium. Avoid overfilling the tank as there should be a space between the water level and the lid. Use a thermometer to check the temperature.
  • Clean the exterior of the fish tank. You can use glass cleaner, but make sure you don’t spray cleaner inside the tank. If there are stubborn mineral deposits that are not going away easily, use a distilled solution of white vinegar. Or you can buy special polish if you have an acrylic tank.
  • Depending on the bio-load and maintenance regimen, replace chemical media every 2-6 weeks.

In a nutshell, to clean a fish tank you need appropriate tools, then start by cleaning algae from the inner sides of the tank, decide how much water you are going to change, take out the old water, clean gravel, decorations and plants, clean exterior and then replace water.

Moreover, to know how you can clean a saltwater fish tank, follow the steps mentioned below.

How to clean a saltwater fish tank?

  • For saltwater aquariums, as the name suggests, you have to use a saltwater solution. Make sure that the pH, salinity, and temperature of the water should be according to the requirements of your fish. You can also buy distilled or reverse osmosis water. Do this process a night before you clean your tank.
  • As saltwater needs are different, tools that you are going to clean saltwater aquarium are also different. Tools to the clean saltwater fish tank are:
    • Algae pad for inside glass
    • A siphon-type gravel vacuum
    • pH strips
    • A thermometer
    • A salinity probe, refractometer, hygrometer
    • Vinegar-based solution or aquarium-safe glass cleaner
    • If you are changing the filter, you will require a filter media such as carbon packets, sponges, cartridges and so on.
  • The next few steps are similar to the process used to clean freshwater fish tanks such as clean gravel, decorations, plants, taking out water.
  • For the saltwater aquarium, you also have to check for saltwater creep. Salt creep is the crusty residue that is left behind when saltwater evaporates. Clean this salt residue using a wet towel or an algae sponge.
  • Replace the water lost in this process. And also, make sure that the temperature and salinity of water match that of water already present in the tank.
  • Check temperature regularly because the water in which salt fish lives has a relatively narrow temperature range. 

Have you started cleaning and don’t know where to put fish during the whole process? Well! It is not advised to remove fish from your tank during cleaning because it can stress them and make then sick. However, if it is necessary to remove fish, use a net. Fill a bucket with original tank water and place fish in it. But remember, less handling is better for your fish. Also, wash your hands thoroughly before and after cleaning the tank.

Using vinegar to clean a fish tank

As it is mentioned earlier that you should protect your tank, its water and the beings in it from harsh chemicals, soaps, and detergents, etc. What comes to your mind next? Right! Is there something easily available in our home and is also not harmful that we can use it to clean a fish tank? Yes, you can and that thing in vinegar. You can try white vinegar to clean the tank. It is safe enough that you don’t even have to remove fish from the tank. White vinegar also cleans glass and neutralizes odor. Surely you don’t want your place to smell fishy, no matter how much you love your fish and its beautiful home.

It depends on you, whether you want to spot-clean or deep clean your tank. For spot cleaning, take a spray bottle and mix equal parts of vinegar and water in it. Spray the mixture on the tank areas which you want to clean. Finally, rub the tank with a soft cloth. This simple process doesn’t require any rinsing.

For deep cleaning, empty the tank of its water as well as fish. Place fish in a safe place. Fill half of the tank with white vinegar and let it sit for about 20 to 30 minutes. Then remove all the vinegar from the tank. Scrape the sides, clean the tank and wipe it with a dampened soft cloth. Finally, rinse the tank thoroughly with cold water and the tank is good to place fish in it again.

You can also use vinegar to clean fish tank equipment such as powerheads and power pumps, filter intakes, thermometers and heaters, hoses and pipes and aquarium covers. To clean equipment using vinegar, fill a bucket with vinegar. The quantity should be enough to cover the entire item. Let it soak overnight. Then clean the gunk using a brush and rinse it thoroughly. Now you get a clean tank and clean equipment by just using a simple ingredient that is always present in our home.

Ongoing maintenance of a fish tank

After you clean a fish tank, it is important to maintain that healthy tank. This maintenance issue answers how often do you need to clean a fish tank. It depends on different factors such as type and number of fish you have, the size of your aquarium and the filter system you have. Apart from that, there is a general schedule that involves cleaning activities. Following the schedule would be beneficial and easy to manage.

The interval between cleaning often consists of daily, weekly, monthly and every 6 months. You don’t have to clean a fish tank daily. However, if you observe that fish is gasping for air and is not behaving normally, then you must change water no matter how long it has been since the last cleaning.

Your tank doesn’t require you to clean it often if it is large. Whereas, an average-sized tank should be cleaned weekly. It is also beneficial for the health and wellbeing of your fish. If you are cleaning weekly, remove one-quarter water approximately and replace it. All the cleaning process has been discussed earlier in detail.

What you should do once a month involves checking the levels of ammonia and nitrate and also pH levels of water. Also, change your filter once a month. It would be sufficient. Though the readings remain pretty steady from month to month, you should also keep an eye on certain things such as a change in color of water, cloudiness, or fish behaving abnormally.

Every six months, you should check filters, pumps, lights and other equipment. Unplug everything and check it out thoroughly. Deeply clean your tank and replace anything that is in poor condition. 


Setting, cleaning and keeping an aquarium is not a difficult task, especially if you develop an attachment to it. The key is ongoing maintenance. It will not only keep your fish healthy but will also extend the lifespan of your fish. All you have to do is follow our guide as we have provided you all the necessary information, including setting, cleaning and maintaining an aquarium.