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? This mythical creature does not exist. Many animals can eat leftover food, leaves from dying plants, and pest snails. Continue reading to find out our top 10 clean-up crew members every freshwater aquarium should have.
1. Rainbow Sharks and Redtail Sharks
Although these freshwater sharks may seem odd, you’d be amazed at their cleaning skills. 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. However, they can be a bit territorial, so only put one shark in a 29-gallon or larger aquarium to prevent aggression. You can get them in various colors such as black, albino or Glofish.
Redtail sharks can be great scavengers of large aquariums with tank mates that are similar in size.
There are several South American cichlid genera that include Geophagus, Satanoperca and others. These cichlids are known to scoop up substrate and filter 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 don’t have live aquarium plants, you must remove the waste via water changes more frequently to keep your fish healthy.) For community tanks that are 55 gallons and larger, eartheaters can be a fun and gentle bottom dweller.
Because of the way eartheaters sift through substrate to find food, they tend to prefer sand over gravel.
The males of this North American native fish have a beautiful pattern that resembles the stars and stripes on the United States flag. Their mouths are also uniquely shaped for easily pulling off hair algae and black beard algae, although they may end up damaging more delicate plants in the process. They can be a bit wild as a killifish. Keep them in an aquarium of 20 gallons or more with other fast-moving fish.
Flagfish is one of few members of the clean-up crew that can survive in unheated tanks.
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. They are peaceful scavengers and use their whiskers (or barbels) to find scraps, worms and small crustaceans between objects and in the substrate. Cory catfish can happily take in food from all surfaces, acting as a living robot vacuum. 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 stomach indicate that this albino cory fish is well-fed and healthy.
The colorful platy fish is not commonly thought of as a potential crew member, but livebearers are often known for their insatiable hunger for food. They will eat anything and everything that’s available, including plants, flowers, and decorations. Like the flatfish, they have a similar mouth shape that’s adept at pulling off algae and grabbing half-buried morsels. The best part is that they reproduce very quickly. You’ll have platies from 3 to 5 inches in length and babies to 0.5 inches in size.
Platies come in almost every color and pattern combination, and their drive for food will make them the tireless workhorses of your aquarium.
Not everyone likes snails, but we always recommend them to our customers. Because they can eat anything, they are one of the best cleaners for the tank. They eat fish waste, rotting leaves and dead fish. This allows them to further reduce organic material for the plants. We personally like ramshorn snails, nerite snails, and Malaysian trumpet snails (which burrow and clean the substrate). Mystery snails, on the other hand, are more like pets than janitors, so get them if you appreciate their appearance and behavior rather than their cleaning abilities.
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 for their love of escargot, especially if they’re a species with a pointed snout that’s perfect for sucking snails right of their shells. Consider reducing the amount of snail food in your aquarium if you have an infestation. You might also consider hiring clown loaches or dwarf chain loaches to help you.
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. Although loaches come in many varieties, they are all known for their love of hunting down food in the wild. Like corydoras, make sure you intentionally feed them a good diet of sinking foods and don’t expect them to live only on leftovers.
Yoyo loaches are like a pack of playful puppies that can easily take down your toughest pest snail infestations.
8. Common Goldfish
This unexpected addition to our list may seem counterintuitive because goldfish are notorious for being messy fish, but their bad reputation comes from the fact that they can grow to 12 inches long and are usually kept in tanks that are way too small for them. Goldfish are fond of digging through substrate and eating leftover fish waste. 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 hundreds of types of plecostomus or suckermouth catfish, but many species grow too big to fit in most home aquariums. The bristlenose pleco or bushy-nose pleco is our favourite. They are only 4 to 5 in. long and can clean up driftwood. (Other smaller plecos include the medusa pleco, clown pleco, and rubbernose pleco.) The bristlenose pleco is easy to breed and comes in many color options. They should be kept in a large aquarium of at least 29 gallons that can store their wastes and provides enough room for them to graze.
Male and female bristlenose pipers can be distinguished easily because males only have bristles on the snouts.
10. Amano Shrimp
Our final cleaner fish is actually an invertebrate called the amano shrimp. These tiny shrimp have become very popular due to their ability to eat algae in aquascapes. They prefer easy food and will not eat as much algae if they are given plenty of fish food. You need to ensure that they have enough minerals in their water, food and water for healthy molting. They’ll be hard at work keeping your tank clean. See our complete care guide to find out more.
Amano shrimp are one of the hardiest dwarf shrimp and have a hungry appetite that makes them an excellent cleaner for smaller tanks.
We hope you found these ideas useful for creating a support team to make your aquarium look better. For more articles like these, subscribe to our email newsletter to receive the latest videos, articles, and events.