10 Best Clean-Up Crew Ideas for Freshwater Aquariums
Looking for a fish or invertebrate that will clean your aquarium so that you never have to do tank maintenance? Unfortunately, this mythical creature is not real. Many animals are capable of eating leftover food, alga, dying leaves, and even pest snails. Keep reading to discover our top 10 favorite clean-up crew members that every freshwater aquarium should have.
1. Rainbow Sharks and Redtail Sharks
This group of freshwater “sharks”, although it may seem strange, is actually quite capable of performing janitorial tasks. Both species are scavengers that clean up any excess food that gets between decor, rocks, and equipment, and rainbow sharks will even eat algae as part of their diet. To avoid aggression, only one shark should be kept in a aquarium of 29 gallons or more. You can get them in various colors such as black, albino or Glofish.
Redtail sharks are great scavengers for large aquariums with similarly sized tank mates.
This group of South American cichlids consists of several genera, such as Geophagus and Satanoperca, that are known for scooping up substrate into their mouths and filtering it through their gills. Any edible leftovers are swallowed, digested in their gut, and broken down further so that plants can more easily absorb the remaining waste byproducts. If you do not have any live aquarium plants, it is important to remove the waste by making more frequent water changes in order to keep your fish healthy. If your community tank is 55 gallons in size, you might consider adding eartheaters to make it more fun and friendly.
Due to the way eartheaters sort through substrate for food, they tend towards sand over gravel.
The pattern of the males of this North American indigenous fish is very similar to the flag’s stars and stripes. They have a unique mouth shape that allows them to easily pull off black beard algae and hair algae. However, they can damage more delicate plants. This species of killifish can be quite impulsive so keep them in a larger aquarium (20 gallons) with other fast fish.
Flagfish are one of the few clean-up crew members that can live in unheated aquariums.
The beloved cory catfish comes in many varieties and sizes, such as the 1-inch dwarf corydoras, 2- to 3-inch normal-sized cories, and 4-inch larger Brochis types. Their barbels (or whiskers), are peaceful scavengers that search for small crustaceans, scraps, and worms hidden between objects and the substrate. Cory catfish is a living robot vacuum that happily takes in any food left over from the surface eaters. To ensure they are happy and healthy, make sure you give them Repashy gel food, sinking wafers, frozen Bloodworms and Repashy gel food. For more details, check out our full care guide.
The strong pink color and nicely rounded abdomen are signs that this albino cory catfish is healthy and well-fed.
Not many people think of the colorful platy fish as potential clean-up crew members, but many livebearers are known for their insatiable appetites that cause them to constantly pick at the ground, plants, and decor for edible snacks. They have the same mouth shape as flatfish and are adept at grabbing half-buried morsels. They reproduce quickly, so you will have plenty of platies, from adults of 3 inches to babies of 0.5 inches.
Platies are available in nearly every color and combination of patterns, and they will be the tireless workhorses for your aquarium.
Not everyone likes snails, but we always recommend them to our customers. They’re one of the best cleaners in the tank because they eat almost anything. They consume fish waste, algae, rotting leaves, and even dead fish, breaking down organic material even further for plants to use. We love nerite, ramshorn, and Malaysian trumpet snails. They burrow into the substrate and clean it. The mystery snails are more like pets than janitors. So get them if they appeal to you and their behavior, rather than their cleaning skills.
This beautiful, brightly colored ramshorn snail loves soft algae, debris and vegetables.
Because snails can reproduce rapidly, many people are searching for ways to “clean up” their tanks. Loaches are well-known because they love escargot. This is especially true if the snail species is a loach with a pointed snout. So if you’ve got a heavy snail infestation, consider decreasing the amount of food you put in the aquarium and employing the services of clown loaches, yoyo loaches, or even dwarf chain loaches.
If you love snails, there are many types of snail-safe loaches that you can choose from. Kuhli loaches are tiny snakes that can squeeze into small spaces and swallow any crumbs. Hillstream loaches can be used as algae eaters and clean up aquarium walls and plant leaves. Loaches can be a diverse group of fish but they all love to hunt for food in nature. Loaches are similar to corydoras. You should feed them sinking foods, and not expect them to survive on leftovers.
Yoyo loaches are like a pack of playful puppies that can easily take down your toughest pest snail infestations.
8. Common Goldfish
Although this unexpected addition may seem counterintuitive, goldfish are known for being messy fish. They can grow up to 12 inches in length and are often kept in tanks that are too small. However, goldfish love picking through the substrate, munching on leftovers and fish waste, and eating algae. If you have a large tank with many peaceful fish, single-tailed and non-fancy goldfish can keep the tank’s bottom clean. They will also help to break down debris, so you can remove it when you next change your water filter.
Goldfish tend to nibble on everything to see if it’s edible, so only use hardy, goldfish-safe plants like java fern and anubias.
9. Bristlenose Plecos
There are many types of plecostomus and suckermouth catfish. However, some species grow too large to be kept in home aquariums. We like the bristlenose or bushy nose pleco because they only get 4 to 5 inches long and are great cleaners that eat algae, scavenge for food, and keep driftwood clean. The medusa pleco (clown pleco), rubbernose pleco, and clown pleco are all smaller plecos. Other fun features of bristlenose plecos are that they come in several color varieties and are easy to breed. Keep them in a 29-gallon or larger aquarium that can handle the pleco’s waste load and has enough space for grazing.
It’s easy to distinguish between male and female bristlenose plecos, as only males have bristles at their nostrils.
10. Amano Shrimp
The final cleaner “fish” on our recommended list is actually another invertebrate, the amano shrimp. These dwarf shrimp are well-known for their ability to consume algae in planted aquascapes. They can also be great scavengers as they can use their tiny legs to reach the very small cracks that snails and fish can’t reach. They will eat fish food if they have plenty to eat. They will work hard to maintain your tank clean if you provide them with enough minerals in their water. For more information, see our complete care guide.
Amano shrimp are one of the hardiest dwarf shrimp and have a hungry appetite that makes them an excellent cleaner for smaller tanks.
These ideas for support crews to improve your aquarium’s appearance are our hope. Subscribe to our e-newsletter for more articles and videos.