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. Keep reading to learn about our top 10 picks for clean-up crew members.
1. Rainbow Sharks and Redtail Sharks
These freshwater “sharks” might seem like an odd group to start with, but you would be surprised at their janitorial 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. To avoid aggression, only one shark should be kept in a aquarium of 29 gallons or more. As a bonus, they come in many variations, such as black, albino, and even Glofish colors.
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.
Due to the way eartheaters sort through substrate for food, they tend towards 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. 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. 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 cory catfish is a beloved fish that comes in many sizes. There are dwarf corydoras of 1-inch, normal-sized cories from 2- to 3 inches, and larger Brochis varieties that are 4-inch and larger. Their barbels (or whiskers), are peaceful scavengers that search for small crustaceans, scraps, and worms hidden between objects and the substrate. Like a living robot vacuum, cory catfish happily suck up any food that gets past 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.
This albino cory catfish’s strong pink color, and nicely rounded abdomen indicate that it is healthy.
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. Similar to the flatfish, their mouth shape is similar and they are skilled at picking up algae and half-buried morsels. Best of all, they reproduce quite readily, which means you’ll have platies of all different sizes – from 3-inch adults to 0.5-inch babies – that can fit into different types of nooks and crannies to look for food.
Platies can be found in almost any color or pattern combination. Their drive to eat will make them the constant workhorses of your aquarium.
Not everyone likes snails, but we always recommend them to our customers. Because they can eat almost any food, they’re one of our best tank cleaners. They will eat any organic material, including fish waste, rotting leaf matter, dead fish and algae. 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 brightly pink, ramshorn snail likes soft algae, debris, veggies, and other calcium-rich food.
Because snails can reproduce rapidly, many people are searching for ways to “clean up” their tanks. Loaches love escargot and are known for their fondness for it, especially if they have a pointed nose that is perfect for sucking snails out of their shells. If you have a large snail problem, you might consider reducing the food in your aquarium or hiring the help of clown loaches, dwarf chain loaches, and yoyo loaches.
If you love snails, there are many types of snail-safe loaches that you can choose from. Kuhli loaches look like tiny snakes that can wiggle into narrow crevices and gulp down any crumbs stuck inside. 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. Loaches are similar to corydoras. You should feed them sinking foods, and not expect them to survive on leftovers.
Yoyo loaches look like a bunch of friendly puppies and can take down even the most severe 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. 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 will eat anything they find, so make sure to only use sturdy, safe plants such as anubias and java fern.
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. The medusa pleco (clown pleco), rubbernose pleco, and clown pleco are all smaller plecos. The bristlenose pleco is easy to breed and comes in many color options. 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 differentiate between male and female bristlenose plecos because only males have bristles on their snouts.
10. Amano Shrimp
Another invertebrate is the amano shrimp, which is our final cleaner “fish”. These tiny shrimp have become very popular due to their ability to eat algae in aquascapes. If given access to plenty of fish food, they tend to go for the easy meals and won’t eat algae as much. 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. For more information, see our complete care guide.
Amano shrimp is one of the toughest dwarf shrimp. They have a hungry appetite which makes them great cleaners for smaller tanks.
Hope you enjoyed our ideas for a support crew to help make your aquarium look a little better all the time. To see more articles like this, don’t forget to subscribe to our e-newsletter to get our latest articles, videos, events, and more.