You need a fish tank cleaner because cleaner fish tanks are better fish tanks. There are two main reasons for this – the first is simply that you can see your fish better when not peering through a layer of algae and dirt encrusted onto the inner surface of the tank.
The second is that dirty tanks kill fish. The more pristine your aquatic environment, the healthier your fish will be, and healthier fish put on a better display of color through the sparkling clean glass. It’s a win-win situation.
Algae is a particular danger. Primitive plant-like organisms, they settle on hard surfaces and breed by absorbing the light, oxygen and nutrients in the tank. If your aquarium has an abundance of these resources, the algae will proliferate and start to take over, starving your fish of what they need to survive.
A tank with green swirls of algae growing off every surface and flapping in the current from the filter also looks unsightly, and the stuff becomes slimy and matted as it grows ever bigger, eventually requiring the services of a scrubbing brush to remove.
There are many little creatures that like to eat the algae, including certain fish and snails, and many are attractive and add interest to your tank. The benefit of these is that they work all the time, nibbling away at every spot of algae that forms. But if you don’t fancy going down the biological control route, nor do you want to resort to using chemicals (which isn’t recommended if you have live plants) you’re better off with some sort of cleaning tool.
These come in a couple of guises: the long-handled sort that you scrub up and down the inside of the glass from the top, and the magnetic sort that sandwich your glass and allow you to scrub them up and down in the same way.
Unless you leave them in the tank permanently, you’ll get your hands wet removing the magnetic scrubber type. However, as long as the magnetic field is strong and creates enough contact with the inside glass, we find the magnetic type gives better results.
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1. Jasonwell Magnetic Aquarium Scrubber: Best overall fish tank cleaner
Jasonwell Magnetic Aquarium Scrubber
Available in four sizes to clean any sort of tank
Cleaning method: magnetic | Floats: yes | Chemical: no | Likely to scratch glass: no
The best way to clean the inside of your fish tank glass is with a two-piece magnetic scraper, and this is one of the best we’ve seen. The idea is that one side goes inside, and attached by magnetism through the tank glass to the other side, which you move. As you move it, the inner piece is dragged through any algae and dirt, dispersing it into the main body of water to be collected by the filter or removed as part of a water change.
While it’s a common design, the Jasonwell we recommend here is a particularly well-thought-out example. It comes in four sizes, and as you increase in size the strength of the magnet increases to take account of the thicker glass found on larger tanks. The inner part of the cleaner floats, so if they do become detached you don’t need to fish around on the bottom of the tank for it. And lastly, it comes with a pair of detachable scrapers for removing really stubbornly attached dirt.
While this is a winning implementation of a proven concept, it does have its downsides. It’s perfectly possible to send the inner half across the tank with an ill-judged movement that overcomes the magnetic attraction, and the tank gunk that becomes stuck to it means you will periodically have to remove it for cleaning, but for anyone determined to get on top of an algae infestation in their fish tank, this is a fine choice of tank cleaner.
2. Tetra No More Algae tablets: Best budget option
Tetra No More Algae Tablets
Just drop them in and let them get to work
Cleaning method: chemical | Floats: no | Chemical: yes | Likely to scratch glass: no
A good budget option for removing an algal infestation of your tank, the use of chemicals brings with it rather more than the avoidance of scrubbing. While low-cost and undeniably effective, you can’t use these products in a tank with live plants, as it will deal with them in the same way it does with the algae.
Snails are in its sights too, so keep it away from all small invertebrates you may keep, but you don’t need to remove the fish from the tank. You can’t use it around turtles, either, and swallowing it, getting it in your eyes or on your skin is not recommended. You will need to remove carbon filtration from the tank before you use it.
If you still think this is the way forward for cleaning your tank – possibly as a one-shot control measure before settling into a more regular cleaning routine, then these fizzing tablets from Tetra are a good place to start.
A pack contains eight tablets, enough to treat 80 gallons of water, the algae dying and sloughing off into the water to be picked up by the filter or, in the case of large blooms, being removed with a net.
Chemical treatment may not be the most convenient way to clean a fish tank – it has no effect, for example, on fish waste or anything other than algae - but it’s effective in the short term and can keep your water sparkling while you decide how to prevent the regrowth of blooms in the future.
3. NICREW Automatic Gravel Cleaner: Best electric gravel cleaner
NICREW Automatic Gravel Cleaner
Take the hard work out of cleaning with an electric cleaner
Cleaning method: electric | Floats: no | Chemical: no | Likely to scratch glass: no
Siphon-based gravel cleaners have been popular for many years, and do an excellent job of picking up the sludge, waste, and uneaten food that can accumulate on the bottom of a fish tank. The problem with these, however, is that the best method of creating the vacuum needed to syphon the water is to suck on the end of the pipe, which can result in an unpleasant mouthful of tank water.
Sure, there are other methods involving putting your thumb over the end of the waste pipe and changing levels, but we’ve never found them as effective, and we like the thrill of dodging a bullet.
Battery-powered solutions have been around for a while, but a mains-powered, and therefore more powerful, gravel cleaner is a rarity. This one from Nicrew pumps the water through a removable filter before sending it down the waste pipe to a bucket on the floor, and fulfils two purposes: cleaning the debris from the top layer of your fish tank gravel, and enabling you to carry out one of your regular water changes.
You need a minimum water depth of 8.5in, so this might not be suitable for small tanks, or ones that are only partially filled. Otherwise, its excellent suction power pulls plenty of water through, and if you’re careful not to disturb the gravel too much, you can avoid the hour of cloudy water that often follows cleaning while everything settles.
4. UPETTOOLS Aquarium Cleaning Tool 6 in 1: Best multipurpose option
UPETTOOLS Aquarium Cleaning Tool 6 in 1
Why buy one when you can have six?
Cleaning method: manual | Floats: no | Chemical: no | Likely to scratch glass: maybe
Offering a lightweight carbon fiber rod with six attachments on the end, this is not a cleaning tool so much as a complete fish-tank care package.
It comes with a gravel rake for herding uneaten food and other debris on the tank floor into piles for easier removal, a scraper for attacking stubborn deposits on the tank walls, a right-angle cleaning sponge for getting right into the corners, a flat sponge for scrubbing the sides, a tube brush for really hard to access areas, and a net for removing floating or piled debris, and catching fish if you really need to.
The whole thing snaps together easily, and the telescopic handle means you’ll be able to reach to the bottom of even the largest home tank. As the kit has been developed with glass aquaria in mind, we are surprised to see that the scraper blade is made of (non-replaceable) stainless steel rather than hard plastic – a scratch could only be one awkward twist of the handle away. The rest of the kit is innocuous and, with the exception of that metal blade, could be used on an acrylic tank as well.
Another downside is the amount of flex in the handle when fully extended. Effective cleaning relies on sufficient pressure being applied by the cleaning head to the inside of the tank but with a push, this handle will bend. The device isn’t useless by any means, and we appreciate the work that has gone into keeping it lightweight.
5. Kent Marine Pro-Scraper II: Best for easy cleaning
Kent Marine Pro-Scraper II
Scrape away the dirt with this traditional long-arm cleaner
Cleaning method: manual | Floats: no | Chemical: no | Likely to scratch glass: yes
A simple tool for cleaning the inside of acrylic aquariums, this scraper will remove algae and other dirt quickly and effectively. Made of fiberglass, the scraper can be used in both fresh and saltwater, as there are no metal parts to corrode. It comes in a variety of sizes, including up to 36in, and should be capable of cleaning to the gravel-line on any depth of tank.
That ability does open up one of the scraper’s caveats, however. Acrylic tanks, for all their benefits in terms of weight and clarity, are more prone to scratching than glass ones. A scraper such as this can reach down and pick up gravel from the bottom of the tank, sandwiching it against the glass when it is pulled upwards, and leaving a scratch in the plastic. Likewise, while the cleaning pad is durable, if used with excessive pressure you again run the risk of leaving a permanent mark on the inside of your tank wall.
It’s not all bad news, however. The handle is agreeably shaped for the reciprocating up-and-down motion required for cleaning vertical tank walls, and it comes with three interchangeable blades to tackle various degrees of algal infestation. If your cleaning is so thorough that you wear the blades out, replacement packs are available.
6. Koller Products Tom Aquarium Algae Scraper Multi-Tool: Best for stylish cleaning
Koller Products Tom Aquarium Algae Scraper Multi-Tool
Strong, long, and interchangeable
Cleaning method: manual | Floats: no | Chemical: no | Likely to scratch glass: yes
Another complete-care kit that makes use of fiberglass in its construction, remaining stiff even at its greatest extension and making it suitable for use in both fresh and saltwater. Available in a couple of sizes, there’s one to suit even the deepest of home tanks, although the handle isn’t telescopic.
What we like about this set is that, despite only having three heads, the gravel rake can be flipped upside down and used as a scoop, making the collection of floating blooms or dirt scraped from the sides easier.
The algae-removing pad claims to be suitable for use on both glass and acrylic tanks, but the stainless-steel scraper blade certainly isn’t. A hard-plastic blade would have done just as well, as we’ve rarely encountered anything stuck on the inside of an aquarium that required a metal blade to remove.
There are a few other downsides: the rounded edges of the scrubber mean it can’t reach completely into the corners of your tank, and the attachments can be tricky to remove from the handle once they’ve been pushed firmly on. Despite this, it’s a pleasant enough kit, the red and black coloring making it more pleasing to the eye than others. Who knows what fish make of it though?
How to choose the best aquarium cleaner
We’re of the opinion that there is no single ’best’ aquarium cleaner. That mythical tool would include a magnetic glass cleaner, an electric-powered gravel vacuum, a net, and some sort of scraper. But while we wait for such a tool, some sort of combination of the above is the way to a perfectly clean fish tank.
While we tend to shy away from chemical treatments, there’s no doubt they can be effective, and relatively cheap as long as you’re not using them every month. Our favorite scrubber is the magnetic one, but a long-handled scraper is also useful for getting into fiddly corners and the bits behind filters where the bulky magnetic pad can’t reach.
A gravel cleaner is essential to prevent the build-up of unsightly brown debris in the top layer too. Thankfully, these things are all reasonably cheap, and for little more than $50, you can equip yourself with all the tools you need.
The only other thing to watch out for is the possibility of damage to your tank from overenthusiastic cleaning. Most glass tank walls are hard enough to take a bit of scrubbing, but it’s better not to let it get so bad that you need to do this in the first place. Whatever the level of cleaning required, you should be wary of waving a stainless steel blade around in there. Clean tanks mean healthy fish, so a regular regime of light cleaning beats leaving it until it requires a thorough blitz.
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