10 Great Fish That Clean Tanks (with Pictures)

Did you know that some aquarium fish can help keep your tank clean? That’s right, and many hard-working freshwater species will happily hoover up uneaten fish food and control algae growth in your tank. Read this post to find the perfect fish that clean tanks.

Let’s dive right in!

Key Takeaways

  • Cleaner fish are fascinating and beautiful pets in their own right.
  • Each species requires care, so research their needs before adding them to your tank.
  • Provide bottom feeders with high-quality sinking food and supplement algae-eating fish with algae wafers when their natural food source runs low.
  • You will still need to perform regular aquarium maintenance and use an aquarium filter to keep your tank clean.

What Are Clean-Up Crew Fish?

You might have heard the phrase ‘clean up crew’ and wondered what it refers to. Well, your clean-up crew (CUC) are the animals that help to keep your aquarium clean!

These fish and invertebrates keep your tank looking beautiful for longer, and they can even help to keep your other pets healthy.

They do this by eating algae and uneaten food in your aquarium before it spoils. Some species even clean your substrate (sand/gravel) by searching for food morsels between the grains and the stems of plants.

Clean-up-crew animals are not a replacement for good old-fashioned tank maintenance, but they can reduce the amount of cleaning that you need to do. As a bonus, these fish and inverts are also fascinating and beautiful creatures, so they add a ton of interest to any tank!

Are you ready to learn about 10 amazing clean-up crew animals for freshwater aquariums? Let’s get started!

Top 10 Fish That Clean Tanks

So now you know what clean-up crew animals do and how they can benefit your fish tank, but how do you choose the right species?

Careful research is important before choosing any aquarium inhabitant. Aquarists should ensure that the new fish, animal, or plant will be happy in their tank size and water parameters and get along with their existing tank mates.

Consider the following important stats before making your choice:

  • Scientific name
  • Temperament
  • Care Level
  • Origin
  • Adult Size
  • Benefits for your tank
  • Minimum tank size
  • Preferred water temperature range

1. Corydoras Catfish

Habrosus Corydoras
  • Scientific name: Corydoras spp.
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: South America
  • Adult Size: 2-3 inches
  • Benefits: Eats leftover food and cleans the substrate
  • Minimum Tank Size: 20 gallons
  • Temperature: 74 – 80 °F

Corydoras are classic clean-up crew fish that deserve a place in almost any freshwater aquarium. These cute little catfish are wonderful community fish that get along with a huge variety of peaceful tank mates.

Cory cats really shine when it comes to keeping your substrate clean. These small schooling fish scour the bottom for leftover fish food and actively search through the gravel and between plant stems to look for scraps.

2. Loach

Dwarf Chain Loach
  • Scientific name: Pangio, Misgurnus, etc.
  • Temperament: Peaceful to semi-aggressive
  • Care Level: Easy to moderate
  • Origin: Asia
  • Adult Size: 2 -12 inches
  • Benefits: Eats leftover food, cleans substrate, and controls pest snail populations
  • Minimum Tank Size: Species dependent
  • Temperature: Species dependent

Loach fish are great bottom-dwellers that will keep your tank clear of uneaten fish food. These peaceful fish come in a wide range of shapes, colors, and sizes.

Loaches are also great for controlling pest snails. These fish can be a little shy during the day, but their crazy antics are very entertaining.

Small species like the kuhli loach are great for tanks in the 20-gallon range, while larger loaches like the weather loach are suitable for larger tanks of 50 gallons or more.

3. Bristlenose pleco

  • Scientific name: Ancistrus sp.
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: South America
  • Adult Size: 5 inches
  • Benefits: Algae removal from hardscape and glass, and substrate cleaning
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Temperature: 72 – 82 °F

Bristlenose plecos are excellent algae-eating fish for freshwater tanks. These strange-looking catfish are true bottom dwellers that use their sucker mouths to graze on algae and diatoms (brown algae) on many surfaces, including your aquarium decorations and glass.

These strange-looking fish are generally very peaceful, although they can be territorial with their own species. Keep a single bristlenose pleco in your tank with plenty of driftwood and hiding places to enjoy all the benefits this fish has to offer.

4. Flagfish

Florida Flagfish in Tank
  • Scientific name: Jordanella floridae
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: Florida, USA
  • Adult Size: 2.5 inches
  • Benefits: Controlling algae growth
  • Minimum Tank Size: 10 gallons
  • Temperature: 66 – 72 °F

The American Flagfish is an underrated champion when it comes to eating algae. These small freshwater fish feed on many types of algae, including hair algae, brown algae, and green algae. They even have a reputation for eating tough types like black beard algae.

5. Geophagus & Satanperca Cichlids

Geophagus
  • Scientific name: Geophagus spp., Satanperca spp. etc.
  • Temperament: Peaceful to aggressive
  • Care Level: Easy to Advanced
  • Origin: South America
  • Adult Size: 4 – 12 inches
  • Benefits: Substrate cleaning
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 -100 gallons (depending on species)
  • Temperature: Species dependent

Geophagus and Satanperca are two popular genera of South American cichlids1. These fantastic substrate cleaners are commonly known as eartheaters and they come in a huge range of sizes and colors.

Earth-eaters feed by sifting through the substrate. They do this by taking mouthfuls of sand, filtering out the food particles, and expelling the rest back out through their gills.

There are various species, but most eartheaters are larger fish that need a fairly large tank to thrive. Their care and temperament differ by species, so make sure to research carefully before buying a school of these fascinating fish.

6. Rainbow Shark

What does a rainbow shark look like
  • Scientific name: Epalzeorhynchos frenatus
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Care Level: Moderate
  • Origin: Southeast Asia
  • Adult Size: 6 inches
  • Benefits: Controlling algae and eating leftover fish food
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gallons
  • Temperature: 70 – 79°F

Rainbow sharks are great for cleaning up uneaten fish food, but they are also great algae eaters for a larger freshwater aquarium.

These streamlined bottomfeeders are semi-aggressive fish, so keep them with similar-sized tropical fish species and make sure they are the only shark in your fish tank.

Rainbow sharks are available in the wild type, with a dark body and red fins, or the albino version with a red eye and white body. GloFish rainbow sharks are also available in dazzling shades like Cosmic Blue and Sunburst Orange for fish keepers who want even more color.

7. Molly

How Do Molly Fish Look Like
  • Scientific name: Poecilia latipinna/ P. sphenops
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: South & North America
  • Adult Size: 3 inches
  • Benefits: Great algae-eating fish
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Temperature: 68 – 82°F

Molly fish are one of the most popular species in the aquarium hobby. These easy fish are excellent algae eaters for a freshwater aquarium. They will eat algae from any surface, including your aquarium ornaments and the leaves of live plants.

Molly fish are livebearers, so they are super easy to breed in the home aquarium. They also come in many colors, patterns, and fin shapes, so there is a variety to suit almost any tank!

8. Slim Bodied Goldfish

What is a slim bodied goldfish
  • Scientific name: Carassius auratus
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: China
  • Adult Size: 6 – 8 inches
  • Benefits: Helpful algae eater for lightly stocked cool-water aquariums
  • Minimum Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Temperature: 65 – 75 °F

Did you know that goldfish can make great algae-eating fish? Slim-bodied types like commons and comet goldfish can help to keep your freshwater tank clean. However, goldfish can be messy themselves if overstocked in a small tank.

Goldfish are not suitable for a tropical tank because they are at home in cool water temperatures. Your goldfish tank should be at least 30 gallons, and beware; these fish will eat plants.

9. Amano Shrimp

  • Scientific name: Caridina japonica
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: Japan
  • Adult Size: 2 inches
  • Benefits: These shrimp are excellent algae eaters for a planted tank
  • Minimum Tank Size: 10 gallons
  • Temperature: 60 – 80 °F

The Amano shrimp is one of the best algae eaters for a nano freshwater aquarium. These awesome crustaceans feed on a variety of algae types, and they will keep your aquarium plants clean and healthy.

Amano shrimp are very peaceful towards other tank inhabitants, but they are vulnerable to predatory fish species and other aggressive tank mates.

Amano Shrimp are not the only algae-eating shrimp. Dwarf shrimp species like cherry shrimp and glass shrimp will also eat food scraps and help to control algae.

Bamboo shrimp are another fascinating invertebrate species. These guys are filter feeders, which means they eat tiny food particles that are suspended in the water column.

10. Aquarium Snails

Golden Apple Snail
  • Scientific name: Various
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Origin: Worldwide
  • Adult Size: 0.5 – 2 inches
  • Benefits: Snails are excellent algae eaters and they eat fish waste and leftover fish food
  • Minimum Tank Size: gallons
  • Temperature: 68 – 82°F

Snails are one of the best clean-up crew animals for freshwater aquariums. Snails eat algae, uneaten food, and fish waste, all the things that we don’t want to see in our tanks! However, choosing the right species for your tank is important.

Snails get a bit of a bad rap because some species have a tendency to multiply. These invertebrates tend to breed out of control in aquariums that are overfed and undermaintained. Nevertheless, some species are much easier to manage than others.

Choose rabbit snails, mystery snails, and nerite snails if you would prefer to keep the population low. Ramshorn snails, Malaysian trumpet snails, and pond snails should be added with caution.

Bonus Species

Looking for even more algae eaters? Check out these great algae-eating fish and aquarium inhabitants:

  • Siamese algae eater – Crossocheilus siamensis

Siamese algae eaters are peaceful fish that grow to about 6 inches. They are excellent algae eaters for aquariums of 30 gallons or larger.

  • Chinese algae eater – Gyrinocheilos aymonieri

Chinese algae eaters are similar to the Siamese algae eater but grow much larger. These fish are fantastic for controlling algae, but they have a reputation for eating the slime coat off their tank mates when they get older.

Otos are the perfect algae eaters for a nano freshwater tank. These tiny catfish will keep your plants and glass sparkling clean without harming your shrimp or other fish.

  • Twig catfish – Farlowella acus

Twig catfish are another excellent algae eater that won’t bother other fish in your community tank. These unusual creatures look just like twigs and reach about 6 inches in length.

Caring For Them

Clean-up fish and other helpful animals like algae-eating shrimp and snails can do an amazing job of cleaning up your aquarium, but they need care just like any other pet. That means you need to observe their preferred temperature range, water parameters, and minimum tank size.

Algae eaters can make your tank look brand new in just a few days, but it’s what you can’t see that can become really dangerous. Test your water regularly to monitor the water quality in your aquarium.

You will need a heater for most species, and good-quality filtration is vital. Remember to provide your pets with a natural day/night cycle by running your aquarium lighting on a timer.

Feeding Your Crew

Your clean-up fish can be split into two categories. Algae eaters and bottom feeders. Many species fit into both groups, but some species have specialized diets and require specific supplements.

Typical bottom feeders like corydoras catfish and loaches will require sinking fish foods, while specialized algae eaters like Otocinclus catfish will need an extra food source if they manage to eat all the algae in your tank.

Supplement your cleaner fish and animals with the following foods:

  • Frozen food like brine shrimp
  • Algae wafers
  • bottom feeder pellets
  • Blanched vegetables like zucchini

Keeping Your Aquarium Clean – Other Factors to Consider

Algae-eating fish and invertebrate species can do a wonderful job of cleaning your fish tank, but they are not a replacement for aquarium maintenance. Remember, even cleaning up fish produce waste.

Several factors contribute to algae growth and mess in your aquarium, and these factors tend to work hand in hand.

Clean-up fish may help your tank’s ecosystem function more efficiently, but they cannot maintain good water quality in the long run. If you are considering adding clean-up animals, you might already have a water quality issue.

So how do you improve water quality?

Filtration

The first step is to run good filtration. Your filter has some unexpected benefits for your aquarium. Firstly, filtration removes a lot of the physical waste particles from your water, leaving it visibly cleaner.

More importantly, your filter is home to vast numbers of beneficial bacteria. These are the ‘good guys’ that turn dangerous nitrogen compounds like ammonia into relatively safe nitrates.

However, your filter cannot capture all the solid particles because many of them drop to the bottom and collect. Your beneficial bacteria cannot remove nitrates either, so regular aquarium maintenance is vital.

Proper Tank Maintenance

The most important aquarium maintenance task is the partial water change. This involves physically removing a percentage of your aquarium water and replacing it with new dechlorinated water. Typically you’ll need to replace 25-50% of your aquarium water every 1 to 3 weeks.

You can design your maintenance schedule based on the results of water testing, and the frequency and volume of your water changes are determined largely by the next few factors listed below.

Tank Stocking Levels

The more fish you have, the more you need to feed them, and the more waste they will produce. Unfortunately, you cannot fix an overstocked fish tank by adding more fish!

School of Rasboras

So how many fish can you keep? Well, there is no simple answer. The old guideline of 1 inch of fish for every gallon in your tank is helpful, but this rule has serious flaws.

Your tank’s maximum stocking level depends on the factors discussed below, but it’s always wise to slightly understock your aquarium.

Low-maintenance vs. Messy

Some fish are messier than others. For example, larger fish like Oscars and other cichlids can be messy feeders that leave a lot of uneaten food to sink and decay in your tank.

These fish can be hard on your clean-up crew and often require plenty of space, strong filtration, and frequent maintenance.

Low-maintenance fish like mollies are a great choice because they do a good job at hunting down food scraps. They will even keep their own tank free of most algae.

Small vs. Large

Larger fish eat larger meals and produce more waste, so think carefully before buying a monster fish. However, A small aquarium does not necessarily stay cleaner than a large one. Small tanks can be very unstable and tend to require more frequent maintenance.

A large aquarium with small fish is a great option if you wish to minimize aquarium maintenance. Adding live plants will make a huge difference too.

Read on to learn about the benefits of keeping a planted tank.

Live Plants Keep Algae at Bay

Live aquarium plants are a beautiful addition to any aquarium. They provide a natural environment for your fish, they’re fun to grow, and they look great. However, plants do even more than that!

Live plants compete with algae, so they are one of the best options for keeping your tank clean. Plants also use nitrates and phosphates as a fertilizer, turning harmful compounds into beautiful new growth.

FAQs

What fish cleans the aquarium?

There are many excellent cleaner fish for freshwater tanks. Nerite snails and otocinclus catfish are some of the best algae eaters, but they won’t do much to keep the bottom of your tank clean. Other freshwater snails like Malaysian trumpet snails and bottom-dwelling fish like bristlenose plecos can do a great job of cleaning up waste at the substrate level.

What animal keeps an aquarium clean?

There are a variety of animals that can help to keep your freshwater aquarium clean. Ghost shrimp, cherry shrimp, and other invertebrates like apple snails are fascinating creatures that can help control an aquarium algae problem.

Do algae eaters keep an aquarium clean?

Algae eaters can do an amazing job of controlling many types of algae, including green spot algae, brown algae, and most soft algae types. However, you will still need to clean your tank and perform regular water changes and maintenance to keep your pets healthy.

Which fish maintain the glass?

Otocinclus catfish, stiphodon gobies, and bristlenose plecos are the best algae eaters for cleaning your glass. Mystery snails and nerite snails are great invertebrate options for keeping your glass free of algae.

What can I put in my aquarium to keep the water clean?

A good quality filtration system is the most important tool for keeping your aquarium clean. Cleaner fish like Siamese algae eaters, corydoras catfish, and mollies can also help to keep your tank looking great.

Final Thoughts

Practically any freshwater aquarium can benefit from one or more of the amazing clean-up fish and invertebrates in this article. If you’re like me, you might find that these fascinating creatures become your favorite animals in the tank!

Just remember that you need to perform regular maintenance in your tank no matter what, and even bottom feeders and algae eaters need good care and regular feeding. Which clean-up crew animals do you keep? Tell us about your favorites in the comments below!

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