Clean Up! with Aquarium Cleaning Products

I don’t know if cleanliness is really next to godliness, but when it comes to aquariums, it’s close enough. A clean fish tank can be almost a heavenly vision, with happy, healthy fish appearing to float in the crystal clear water of a sparkling clean glass box. A dirty tank, on the other hand, just looks like heck.

Aquarium hobbyists, and often more importantly their spouses, are generally aiming for that divine look, and are usually on the lookout for ways to make cleaning chores easier and more effective. There are a great number of commercial products, ranging in price from less than a dollar to over a hundred, available to help, and the local fish store or pet shop would do well to stock a wide assortment.

Scrapers and Scubbers

What’s the fun of keeping fish if you can’t even see them? There are dozens of inexpensive hand-held devices to remove algae and other crud from the inside aquarium glass. Some are little more than a small block of coarse filter padding, others more like pot-scrubbing pads, and others consist of plastic or metal blades with some sort of a built-in grip. Everybody has their own favorites, so the enterprising retailer will stock an assortment, which fortunately does not require a large investment in cash or space.

For those aquarists – and there are surprisingly many – who do not wish to get their hands wet more often than necessary, scrapers and scrubbers with long handles are available. It actually requires a little more effort to use these, since it’s difficult to exert much force against the aquarium glass through the extended handle, but many hobbyists still prefer to work harder, but dryer. Better quality units have stronger handles and the cleaning head on an angle to allow ease of operation.

Magnetic cleaners are also available for the hands-off fishkeeper, consisting of a pair of powerful magnets with a cleaning pad or blades on one (for inside the tank) and a softer, friction-reducing pad on the other (for outside). These again may require more effort, since the magnets themselves are all that exert force on the glass, but are still preferred by many hobbyists. Large tanks with thick glass may require more expensive sets with very powerful magnets, or stopping every few wipes to pick up the inside magnet can become an exercise in frustration. In addition to magnet strength, things to look for include the type and ability to replace the cleaning pads or blades, and whether the set includes a handy retrieval string connecting the two magnets.

Regardless of the type of glass cleaner selected, care must be taken to avoid damaging the aquarium itself. If metal blades (especially razor blades) are used, they should have rounded or beveled corners to reduce the risk of slicing the aquarium sealant. They should also be replaced regularly; even a single nick in the blade will cause unsightly scratches on the inside glass applied forcefully. Plastic blades are a bit safer, but can still slice silicone seals if used carelessly. Scrubbing pads are generally safest, but even a few of these appear to be repackaged kitchen pot scrubbers that are tough enough to scratch glass. Aquarists with acrylic tanks need to be cautioned that even lightly abrasive scrubbers (and all scrapers) can be too rough; if it doesn’t say “Safe for Acrylic Tanks” on the label, forget it.. Finally, hobbyists should be advised at the point of sale that aquarium gravel caught in the scrubber or scraper can make many deep scratches in a hurry.

Picker-Uppers and Putter-Downers

In aquariums, as in real life, there is always something where it’s not supposed to be, and the fishkeeper is always looking for a simple way to move or remove the offending matter. A good old aquarium net is a handy tool not only for catching fish, but for collecting small pieces of debris such as plant leaves and the algae that was just scraped off the glass as above. A six inch or larger net with coarse mesh works well for the bulk of larger debris, while a three inch fine mesh net is useful in small spots or for catching smaller pieces.

While many old-timers may snigger at the idea of a “battery operated vacuum aquarium cleaner”, there are hobbyists who like this simple way to collect debris from a small aquarium. Similar units are sometimes available with a hand pump, but the basic concept is this: water and debris is slurped up from the bottom of the tank, and dumped through a cloth mesh bag. Debris remains in bag to be disposed of, while water returns directly to the tank. This is certainly no substitute for a regular partial water change, but serves quite nicely for a little spot cleaning.

For moving, removing or re-positioning larger items like plants or small ornaments, there are plastic “grabbers” to extend one’s reach. In addition to being a lifesaver for the “dry hand” aquarist, these are particularly useful for larger tanks wherein reaching the bottom and back would otherwise be best achieved with wet suit and snorkel. Many of these grabbers may also include a cutting attachment for pruning (presumably live) aquarium plants.

Siphons and Drainers

Nothing beats a good water change to make a tank cleaner and healthier. And while a six foot piece of garden hose and a secondhand bucket will suffice, most aquarists prefer something a little more sophisticated. The next small step up is an aquarium siphon, which uses a clear hose (so you can see the hose-clogging stuff you shouldn’t have tried to pick up) and hopefully some sort of siphon starter other than the aquarist’s mouth and lungs. These drain water from the tank reasonably well, but aren’t very efficient at removing waste.

A better choice is a siphon and gravel cleaning device, which uses a foot-long piece of wide diameter clear rigid plastic tubing as sort of a separation chamber. A siphon is started by scooping up enough water to fill the attached piece of flexible tubing, then the skinny end is held over a bucket, and the wider rigid tubing is pushed into the gravel. Gravel swirls in the chamber as the less dense debris is siphoned out, then the aquarist lifts the chamber a bit to allow the gravel to drop, and moves on to the next section. The diameter of tubing and height of water fall determine how fast water flows, so if gravel is being siphoned out, either choose a smaller unit or put the catch bucket up on a chair. Compared to the siphon-only system, a lot of waste can be extracted per volume of water removed.

For those who aren’t inclined to be lugging big, sloshing buckets of dirty water around, there are draining and filling systems with long hoses that attach directly to a nearby sink. Rather than relying on siphon power, a venturi-type apparatus actually uses the flowing tap water to “suck” (yes, I know, that’s not scientifically correct) water from the aquarium. A larger diameter separation chamber is again provided to increase the ratio of dirt to water, and flow may be adjusted for the proper churning, but not removing, of gravel. The same device may then be adjusted to refill the aquarium, after checking water temperature and adding dechlorinators or other chemical adjusters as needed.

And Speaking of Buckets

Every aquarist needs at least one bucket dedicated for aquarium use only, and better yet one dedicated to each aquarium. Buckets purchased from the local hardware store work just fine, but there is a great risk they will also be used with dangerous cleaners to mop the floor or wash the cupboards. If not very thoroughly cleaned, those buckets may leach enough toxic chemicals to contaminate the tank with the next water change. Many stores sell the used buckets that their saltwater mixes come in, which makes sense both financially and environmentally. These work well, have nice tight-fitting lids, and due to their labeling, are less likely to be used for non-aquarium purposes.

Brushes for Stems and Orifices

The aquarium itself isn’t the only thing that gets dirty; filters, heaters, lights and all the other aquarium apparatus also collect their share of grunge and goo. Many items can be cleaned with scrubber pads mentioned above, but there are always a few crevices and cavities that are difficult to get at. An assortment of wire-stemmed brushes should be stocked for those who really care what the inside of a filter tube looks like. A small diameter brush works quite well on airline-sized tubes, a medium-sized brush is great for cleaning the impeller well in a hang-on power filter, and a bigger “foxtail” brush is about right for undergravel filter uplift tubes.

For cleaning the curved intake tubes of hang-on power filters, there are brushes on a flexible coil spring handle that will make the turn without cracking plastic or losing bristles. And a similar small brush attached to a long stiff line can be pulled and pushed through the flexible intake and outlet tubes of a canister filter.

Outside Cleaners

Once the inside of an aquarium is cleaned, the outside could stand to be spiffed up as well, and there a number of commercial products that can help with that chore. There are a number of fish-safe (used as directed) liquid cleaners that help loosen up lime and other deposits from the outside glass and covers. A rubber squeegee like that used by window washers can then be used to achieve a streak-free shine. There are even treatments available to help keep fingerprints, salt creep, and mineral deposits from accumulating in the first place.


The dozens of aquarium cleaning items outlined here can all make great “add-on” sale items: they are useful and convenient, and they are often the kinds of products that can deliver a respectable markup. However, they will almost never just jump off the pegboard and sell themselves. Customers will first need to be informed that such devices exist, and then be persuaded that their lives will become easier, and their aquariums cleaner, if they only had this gizmo and that gadget.

By far the best way to promote aquarium cleaning products is for the store employees to be seen using them in the shop. Let’s face it, it’s harder to sell a twenty dollar cleaning magnet set and a fifty dollar draining system when your customers see you scrubbing with an old dish rag and siphoning with a cutoff garden hose. So don’t be afraid to break out an item or two for store use; it could deliver many times its cost in added sales. And don’t hesitate to do a little tank maintenance during the busy hours, when you have an abundance of spectators.

Cleaning equipment can also be promoted in mailing lists, print, radio and even television advertisements. Again, the focus should be on achieving a cleaner, healthier aquarium with less effort from the hobbyist. Some manufacturers provide ad copy and even co-op advertising dollars to help.

A number of cleaning products also make excellent impulse items at the checkout counter. A fish bowl full of inexpensive scrubbers, scrapers, nets and brushes can be an eye-catching display that helps to inch up your bottom line. Even some of the medium ticket items such as cleaning magnets and siphons don’t take a lot of counter space, and certainly pay their share of the rent.

This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine