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18. Aquarium Maintenance

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Author : David Bogert

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Time To Read :
6 minutes
Typically people do maintenance on their aquariums at some set time interval. Some do it every week. And some do it every two months.

There typically are several items which make up maintenance:

  • Water changes make up the bulk of time spent in aquarium maintenance.
  • Many clean the gravel every water change, something I do not recommend
  • Many clean or even replace their filter media every water change, which is a BIG mistake
  • Many clean or replace the mechanical media in their filter every water change
  • Some check the chlorine level in the tap water before every water change
  • Some consider feeding part of maintenance.
  • Almost everyone cleans off the front viewing area of algae once a week or even more

We cover the first four items in depth in separate articles in this chapter. We cover the last three items, chlorine, feeding and viewing area cleaning, in paragraphs below.

Hemichromis exsul Turkana Jewel Cichlid
Hemichromis exsul – Turkana Jewel Cichlid

Aquarium Maintenance and Stocking Ratio

Aquarium Maintenance can be a very simple topic or a very complex topic, depending on the aquarium stocking ratio. In nature there is a very light stocking of fish in most freshwater systems. As a result, with light stocking, Mother Nature pretty much takes care of everything just fine.

With most aquariums with light stocking (4 grams of fish per gallon (4 liter)) of fish like angelfish and platies, one can simply do:

  • a 50% water change every two months
  • do no substrate vacuuming
  • clean only the mechanical media in the filter once a week
  • clean the algae off the front glass once a week

Probably 99% of all aquariums in the hobby are just fine with this regimen. But if one looks up stocking ratio apps and websites and does the inputs into those sites AND those sites say you are over 100% stocked or over, i.e. overstocked, AND  you do not have a huge amount of biofiltration, one CAN have a problem.

If one uses a gravel substrate one CAN POSSIBLY develop low grade bad organic compound emissions which create health problems with the fish. These problems include mycobacteriosis (“Fish TB”), bacterial infections, and hole-in-the-head. It is rare but here CAN be a general “failure to thrive” and odd behavior in fish. We go into this in some depth in this link

18.5. Heavy Stocked Maintenance

But it must be emphasized this is rare. It is not something for the average hobbyist to be concerned about.

Maylandia estherae Red Zebra male
Maylandia estherae – Red Zebra male

How to Drop One’s Maintenance Time

HalfMan-HalfCichlid did an excellent video on how to reduce aquarium maintenance to a minimum. He had a large 300 gallon (1200 liter) tank and he timed his “conventional” maintenance as follows:

Maintenance taskStandard maintenance
60% water changes3 per month, 1 hour each
Water change drain rate500 gal/hour, 2273 L/H
Gravel cleaningEvery other water change. 1 hour
Canister filter cleaning5 canisters every two months, 1 hour each
Chlorine checks15 minutes each water change
Feeding15 minutes each, twice daily

This “standard maintenance” number is about three hours a week maintaining this aquarium. This is why many leave the hobby. “Standard maintenance” is just a pain in the butt.

So Halfman/Halfcichlid changed his routine. He added a pump for removing the water from his tank during a water change. He added an automatic feeder. He added a large sump with a refugium where plants grew. He added wavemakers. He added a carbon filter to the water line filling the aquarium during water changes. And he dropped his maintenance down to this:

Maintenance taskImproved maintenance
60% water changes1 per month, 1 hour each
Water change drain rate1500 gal/hour, 6819 L/H
Wavemakers sweeping bottom of debrisNo gravel cleaning
Sump filter cleaning1 sump every two months, 30 minutes
Carbon water filtrationNo chlorine checks
Automatic feeder15 minutes once a week

Note the “15 minutes once a week” with the automatic feeder is the fifteen minutes required to measure out the food and put it in the feeder. All these changes took the time down to about thirty minutes per week, an 83% reduction.

Now the author is a big believer in something called “drip water changes”. If one adds a drip water changer, an under gravel filter AND adds a no mechanical filtration fluidized K1 sump, one can go to virtually no maintenance per week.

Maintenance taskUltimate maintenance
Continuous drip water changesNo maintenance
Water change drain rateNot applicable with drip system
Under gravel filterNo gravel cleaning
Sump filter cleaningNo mechanical filtration fluidized K1 bed with NO cleaning at all
Drip doesn’t need to worry about chlorineNo chlorine checks with drip system
Automatic feeder15 minutes once a week

All these measures can reduce maintenance by a huge amount. The only maintenance in the above scenario is feeding. That is it.

Many make keeping an aquarium an arduous time-consuming hobby. It simply doesn’t have to be that way.

Placidochromis Sp Jalo Reef
Placidochromis Sp – Jalo Reef

Chlorine and Chloramine and Carbon

HalfMan/HalfCichlid recommends activated carbon to remove chlorine and chloramine. This is good advice IF AND ONLY IF one has only chlorine in one’s tap water. Activated carbon will rapidly convert chlorine to chloride by a process called “reduction” and the carbon will last for six months or so.

But chloramine is different. At the pH of most drinking water chloramine is only slowly reduced to ammonia and chloride (Bauer and Snoyeyink, 1973, Komorita and Snoeyink, 1985). The reduction is very slow (maximum of 0.3 gallons per minute (1 liter per minute) through three feet (90 centimeter) of carbon, per the article “Activated Carbon Filtration” DeSilva, 2000), which means it doesn’t work well for doing a water change (1 to 5 gpm and a few inches of carbon). Because the reduction generates ammonia and ammonia is a food source for bacterial growth, activated carbon beds reducing chlorine become “fouled” pretty rapidly and stop doing reduction.

So if one has chloramines activated carbon is not an option. Currently about 60% of the municipal water supplies in the USA use chloramine or a combination of chlorine and chloramine.

Symphysodon aequifasciatus Discus Albino eruption fine pattern
Symphysodon aequifasciatus – Discus Albino eruption fine pattern

Automatic Feeders

I found the old mechanical automatic feeders to be very dependable. They are simply mechanical clock mechanisms modified for use in an automatic feeder. But I have found the newer “solid state” feeders to be very unreliable. I’ve now had several malfunction and dump a weeks worth of food into the aquarium. It is probably because programming them is a nightmare and I’m not tech savvy enough to interpret what the instructions say, but so be it.

Now my aquariums have a HUGE amount of filtration so this dumping didn’t kill any fish or anything. But in most hobbyist’s tank this will kill fish. So I do not recommend the newer automatic feeder designs.

Neolamprologus caudopunctatus
Neolamprologus caudopunctatus

Cleaning the Viewing Area

Cleaning the front acrylic panel or glass of algae is so automatic and casual that I often forget to add it to maintenance (an omission which I have made in the charts above… whoops). I use the magnetic glass cleaners but one can use a whole host of things to do it. Some even just use an old credit card. Other use razor blades. Some seem to like the white foam cleaners. Plastic pot scrubbers to the job very well.

Aquarium Maintenance in Depth

We go into all aspects of maintenance in the following links:

18.1. Aquarium Water Changes

18.2. Drip Water Changes

18.3. Cleaning the Substrate

18.4. Cleaning the Filter

18.5 Heavily Stocked Maintenance

18.6. Old Tank Syndrome

18.7. Sick Tank Syndrome