Planted Aquarium Maintenance

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

All aquariums need regular maintenance. Planted aquariums need even more. Not only will you need to clean the aquarium and do water changes, you'll have to be somewhat more careful while cleaning around your plants. Your growing plants will also need trimmed and some may need to be replanted. Sometimes small patches of algae will need to be removed. Aquariums need regular housekeeping.

Clean the glass

It's helpful to be able to see what your doing while cleaning your aquarium so I like to start by cleaning the inside of the glass. There are several ways to do this. Pet departments and stores have a variety of items available to help with this task. Sponges or plastic cards are good for cleaning algae off the inside glass of your tank. Specially made strong magnet cleaners are also available, one magnet, with a rough base, goes in the tank to scrape off the algae while another magnet with a soft base, holds to the inside magnet from outside the tank, serving as a handle. The magnets are probably the most fun way to clean your glass. For difficult areas you can also carefully use a razor on a glass aquarium. You should not use a razor with a Plexiglas tank as these scratch very easily. I would not recommend using anything on Plexiglas that wasn't made specifically for it.

You can clean the outside of your aquarium with products made specifically for that purpose or carefully with any product you normally use to clean glass in your home. I use regular ammonia based window and glass cleaner. I spray it on to a paper towel away from the tank, to avoid any cleaner getting in to the aquarium, then clean the outside glass with the damp paper towel. You will probably have to wipe off the glass again when you're done cleaning the rest of the tank to remove any water spots.

Get Rid of the Garbage

Pull or clean out as much as you can of the visible algae out of your tank. Don't worry if you happen to throw away a few kernels of gravel along with some algae. It's alright if there are a few strands you can't get out, just make sure you get most of it out. Eventually the goal is to have an aquarium where they algae just don't have the chance to grow, and those last few bits should eventually fade away on their own.

Trim off any old or dying leaves that are becoming discolored or worn looking and clean up any plant parts that may have fallen on to the aquarium floor. Moss and other small plants will often start growing in areas you didn't intend for them to grow. They don't tend to stay in the boundaries we would like them to in our tanks. You will need to pull up and remove or transplant any of these stray plants to keep your aquatic garden attractive.

Keep Your Garden Trimmed

A very important part of keeping a planted aquarium is keeping it trimmed. It's nice to have a full lush aquarium but overgrown plants can cause a lot of problems. Plants are used to living in the great outdoors where they want to spread themselves around as much as possible. In the aquarium there is a very limited amount of space. Many plants also have a tendency to want to grow above the surface of the aquarium water and most of the time that's not what we want them to do.

As the plants grow they shade the area beneath them and around them denying light to surrounding plants, which can cause them to die back. Growing plants and plant parts can clog your filters keeping them from working properly. In a particularly overgrown tank the entire surface of the aquarium may block almost all light from the bottom. Any plant leaves left underneath the surface start to die and decay, the decay of some plants can increase the speed of the other plant parts decay, setting up a nasty, stinky, cycle that can also kill your fish. So keep your plants trimmed is not just important to the attractiveness of your aquarium but to the very life of it's inhabitants.

Trimming and Replanting

A great deal of the trimming in a planted tank will usually involve stemmed plants. Along the stem of these plants are areas where there is just stem and little areas where leaves and roots grow out. The little area where the leaves and roots grow out are called nodes. When trimming your stemmed plants you need to make sure you have nodes for your freshly cut stems to grow roots from and some for them to grow leaves and stems from. Trim them low on the stem, usually this area will be hidden by other foliage in your aquarium so you won't see the trimmed off section. You can then use the top section to replant. If the stems have grown very long they can be cut in to several pieces or just use the nicest top piece to replant and throw the middle section away. You can use the plant trimmings to fill to replant in your tank as needed.

Other plants in your tank may reproduce with runners or along shoots under the gravel. Plants like Vallisneria, Sagittaria, and chain swords will send out chains of runners and new plants will grow on these. You can trim the chains and pull these new plants out and either replant them in a more appropriate area are discard them. Plants like Cryptocorynes will send shoots under the gravel to produce new plants, these can also be removed and the shoot cut away from the parent plant.

After all that pulling and trimming and planting your aquarium can get cloudy from the mulm and dirt that comes up from the substrate. If it's gotten a bit cloudy it can help to wait a bit for it to settle before going on to the next cleaning phases.

Clean the tank

Unplug your aquarium equipment and carefully check the equipment and clean your filters, if needed. Use the manufacturers recommendations for cleaning filters and checking equipment. Most filters use some sort of biological and mechanical method to clean your aquarium water. Sponge, filter pads and flosses all used to house bacteria to clean the tank water. If you totally replace any of the items the bacteria growing on them will be lost. Sometimes it's appropriate to rinse these parts of your filter system but at other times they just need to be replaced. It may be helpful when fully replacing these items to rinse the new filtration material with the old so that some of the bacteria may be transferred on to the new filter material.

Changing the water

There are multiple ways that you can do water changes but the most common involve using some sort of hose and gravity or water pressure to suck old water out, and then refilling the aquarium with fresh water using a hose, or buckets.

With one or a couple small aquariums it may be easy enough to do your water changes with a hose and bucket to drain dirty water out of the aquarium and a bucket to pour clean water back in. Having a large tube on the end of the hose you use to take water out of the aquarium is helpful. You can fill the tube then hold it above the tank to start the water draining, and let gravity do the rest. It also works great to vacuum the gravel, picking up mulm without sucking the actual gravel up the tube.

You should do water changes regularly, but there is a wide range of suggestions as to how much and how frequently. Part of deciding when and how much water to change will depend on the size of your aquarium, how stable your set up is, what types of filtration you use, your plants and the fish you keep in it. As a general rule for a moderately stocked home aquarium, with small fish, for the average hobbyist I would say once or twice a week should be plenty. The quantity of water changed should be between 10% and 25%. If the tank has issues and is very dirty I would still be worried about trying to change more than 50% at once. If you are doing bi weekly water changes you shouldn't need to change more than about 10% of the water.

Vacuum the Gravel and Refill

When doing your water changes it is often a good thing to vacuum the gravel at the same time. How you do this will depend on what you have set up as your substrate. If you have a light soil like substrate, or sand, or soil under gravel, you will have to be much more careful, because you don't want to suck that up with the mulm that may accumulate in your aquarium. If you just have gravel you can clean it more thoroughly.

When you refill your aquarium make sure the new water is the same temperature as the old. You should also be sure to include a water conditioner that will dechlorinate the water. If you have your own well and supply your own water this won't be necessary but for most aquarists using city water, this is an important step, that will keep your fish from being poisoned by chlorine. When refilling with a hose or from a bucket you will want to be careful to not send your substrate flying through the water column and making a big mess in your tank by pouring the water in too quickly or with too much pressure. Using your hand or a saucer from the kitchen can help but diffusing the water. After your tank is all cleaned and refilled be sure to check all equipment to make sure it is still functioning properly. The water may be a bit cloudy and you may see lot's of bubbles on the inside of your aquarium after a water change. This is from gases in the water and this and any cloudiness should go away in the next 24 hours or so.

You won't need to do all steps every time you clean your aquarium. The more regularly you clean the less you will have to do each time. Regular aquarium maintenance will not only keep your aquarium looking its best but will also help keep your fish their most healthy.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

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