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How To Pick Your Freshwater Aquarium Cleaning Crew

How To Pick Your Freshwater Aquarium Cleaning Crew 1

Maintaining the fish tanks cleanliness can be one of the biggest headaches for aquarium keepers. From algae to detritus it can be hard getting to it I know, I have been there.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to recruit some helpers with keeping the tank clean? There is definitely a few critters you can invite into your tank that will do just that.

I will talk about the helpers that clean algae, pretty much any variety of algae. From the hair algae to the pesky diatoms that reside on the glass.

Another category discussed will be detritus eaters. This is the leftover biowaste that stays at the bottom of the tank, including uneaten food or fish feces. It can be in any various states of being broken down. Sometimes you lose a fish and you have to remove the body, but not with the cleanup crew, they can break it down for you. There are several fish and crustaceans that specialize in this.

There are also the substrate burrowers. As they burrow they are able to move the substrate and allows for oxidation. This can be really good for the roots of the plants getting aerated. For the fish, there is the benefit of not having toxic gasses trapped that build up.

All of these will break down larger detritus and then bacteria will digest it down even further. They also help with the anaerobic aspects of the substrate. This will be key since you do not always have access to all parts of the substrate, especially if you have significant plant growth.

As with all inhabitants of your tank, make sure you are also feeding your cleaning crew. I cannot think of one that I recommended here who will not eat a sinking fish pellet. It is basically compacted algae anyways. Fish flakes that sink to the bottom should also be an easy food source for your crew.

As you can see there are many different kinds of cleaning crew that you can have for your tank. I recommend getting a variety of the following so that you have a complete and diverse crew.


How To Pick Your Freshwater Aquarium Cleaning Crew 2


Shrimp are constantly searching, always moving. They make the tank less stagnant, and also move particles into the water column. The majority of your cleaning crew will most likely be shrimp. Many of these shrimp can reproduce readily.

  • Red Cherry Shrimp (RCS) is a beautiful red shrimp, but they can often be found in other colors depending on how it was bred. This is one that will definitely breed in your tank, with some of the shrimp arriving with berries ready to hatch.
  • Amano Shrimp were made famous by aquascaper Takashi Amano. This is a very popular shrimp but can be hard to find depending on where you live. The price also reflects on this popularity or scarcity. They are a near transparent looking shrimp with spots down the side giving an attractive look. These specialize in blue-green algae and green spot algae. Adults can reach a maximum size of 2 inches.
  • Ghost Shrimp are normally sold to be fed to larger fish. I actually find them to be an underrated part of the cleanup crew. They are very cheap and can be found at any major chain store. They are nearly clear in appearance, make sure that you do not buy ones that are cloudy. These are one of the shrimps that will not breed in the tank, or would be very difficult.


Snails are just as common as shrimp, maybe even more so. I can go down the road and find some pond snails in no time, but is that really going to give me the best solution for my crew? Always get snails that are for the aquarium, otherwise, you could be introducing contaminants into your tank.

  • Nerite Snails are really good algae eaters. They are a brackish snail and will only breed in slightly salty water. This means they will not breed in your tank. Even though they breed in brackish water, they live in freshwater just fine. They come in many color varieties such as zebra stripe, tiger stripe, black racer and olive green. Some even have little horns coming out of their backs which are interesting protrusions out of their shell.
  • Black Devil Snail are little guys that do a great job as substrate cleaners. These Asian snails feature a long spike-like shell. They can get pretty big so be careful and allow them enough room to get around corners and through thick plant growth.
  • Rams Horn Snails are a larger snail with bright red coloring. They do a good job of eating a variety of algae including diatoms, green spot algae, and hair algae.
  • Pest/Hitchhiker Snails, not sure if they help or just make things worse. They usually come as a hitchhiker when you buy plants. They breed way too quickly to make them worthwhile. Loaches love them though.


Catfish are a bottom dweller fish, with a large variety of types. I like to keep the smaller types, the larger just don’t have a place in the aquarium. Make sure to provide enough hiding places, so your catfish much more comfortable.

  • Corydoras or Cory Catfish use soft barbs on their mouth to search the substrate. They sift the substrate so that it doesn’t become stagnant. They can be pretty social fish best kept in groups. Some do not clean as well when they get older. There are several different types of Cory’s some larger than others, some more omnivorous instead of veggie.
  • Otocinclus is one of my favorite fish. They are great cleaners, very docile and somewhat social. I just cannot emphasize how calm they are. When first putting them into your tank they are very sensitive and could die easily. After the first week or so if they survived then they will be there for the long haul. Being a social fish, they like having groups of their own but will also act like they are schooling with other fish types. Otos like to eat diatoms, green algae, and bacterial slime. Markings can be confused with SAE.


The Plecostomos or Pleco, is another category of catfish that does a great job of cleaning the tank. This one eats algae from the glass and decorations. They are often a solitary species and it is best not to keep them with others of their own type.

  • Bristlenose Plecos have little tell-tell bristles on the top of their head. They do a really good job of moving the dead spots in the tank. They get the small particles into the water column. Reaching size of up to 6”, they can of be found in the albino form. Can be aggressive when older and territorial to other bottom dwellers.
  • Rubber Nose/Lip Pleco – It is smaller than the Bristlenose Pleco. I think that they are probably the best cleaner around, rivaling the shrimp with how much they clean. They stay pretty small only getting to 4” but I have never seen them get that long. The rubber nose will look for places to hide away, this could be a cave or log. Out of all of the plecos, I think this one is the best cleaner.


The carp family is known to get large and be messy. I personally would only go with the SAE described below. The CAE seems to get a little too big, but if you have the large tank to accommodate them then definitely go ahead.

  • Siamese Algae Eater (SAE) is a really good cleaner! They eat all kinds of algae such as blackbeard, fuzz algae, red algae, hair algae, and even detritus. They can be hard to find because sometimes they can be sold as different fish the Otocinclus, not the true SAE. Be careful these have been known to eat plants as well. They eat nearly anything you give them including fish flakes, bloodworms, and pellets. They can be skittish when confronted by other fish. They are definitely fun to watch, having similar characteristics to loaches.
  • Chinese Algae Eater (CAE) is the largest algae eater in this list. They can be somewhat aggressive often feeding on the protective slim that covers fish and keeps them healthy. It doesn’t pair well with small calmer fish but with larger aggressive fish tanks it will do okay.


I do not have a lot to say about the Goby. It is such a fun fish to watch. Pretty much just skipping along the substrate and even burrowing into it. Sometimes it will come out to the front of the tank to greet you. Flipping sand to say ‘Hi!’.

  • Neon Blue Goby is a very unique fish for the freshwater aquarium. Normally you only see this type of fish in a saltwater environment. This Goby will eat the bio-slime that resides on the surfaces in your tank. They do a great job of stirring up the substrate.


While the list above goes over some of the more common aquatic janitors, that doesn’t mean they are the only option. The others listed below serve more niche purposes in the aquarium and didn’t make the list for that reason.

  • Crayfish are scavengers that reside on the bottom of the tank. They clean up detritus as well as fish remains. If not careful in selecting their tankmates you will find that crayfish love to eat other crustaceans and sometimes the slow fish.
  • Fiddler Crab can be identified by the larger claw on one side. They eat rotting food, algae growing in the substrate, detritus, and other crustaceans. Take special care to cover the aquarium with a lid because these crabs are climbers. It is common to find them out of the tank.
  • Freshwater Clams do a great job of filtering the sand. They basically are a living sand filter. They take in the sand, clean it and spit it back out. They also burrow into the substrate which helps aerate it.
  • Mystery Snails are also known as apple snails. They are often sold in local fish stores. These snails are constantly on the move. They do a good job of keeping the substrate turned. There are reports that they eat leaves, but I have never seen this happen. So either I have gross tasting plants or that information is just false.
  • Malaysian Trumpet Snails (MTS), this one almost made it onto the list above. They burrow into the sand and eat detritus. They can also clean the glass. This snail doesn’t do as good of a job as the others and can be a pest with how fast it reproduces.
  • Filter Shrimp, like the Bamboo Shrimp or Vampire Shrimp, don’t eat the same way as other shrimp. These shrimp are really cool. They prop themselves up in the current and put their fan-like hands out. Little particles flowing through the water column get caught in their filament hands then they pull it into their mouth. This is one of my favorite things to watch. They are large and clumsy, they get up high in the plants to reach the current. They will often sit with each other and feed from the water stream. Since they are polishing the water, they are also like a mini living filter system.
  • Weather Loach is an omnivore that will eat pretty much whatever is in front of them. These are bottom dwellers. They eat the hair algae, green spot algae, fuzz algae, and slim from the decoration surfaces. All loaches love to eat snails, so they are not the best to keep together. Loaches can get very large, the largest I ever had was about 8”. Make sure to supplement their diet with frozen treats.


The most important member hasn’t been mentioned yet. That other cleaning crew member is you. You are the number one way of cleaning out the fish tank. You are the only one that has the ability to remove water from the tank and replace it with new fresh water.

These are freshwater fish, they want their water to be fresh. Just as you are deciding to put a cleaning crew in your tank, that means you are concerned about the quality of the environment. The fish, shrimps, and snails you put in your tank will all work towards keeping the tank crystal clear.

Plants as filters are also very common in the tank. Most people do not think of the plants this way. Basically, the plants are taking in waste by-products, nutrients, and minerals. They filter these out and release oxygen. One of the major things removed from the water column is ammonia. Ammonia is toxic to the fish, but it is food for the plants.


Other things to consider when selecting your inhabitants is the bioload balance. You can control this by not overstocking fish in your tank. Even though you are selecting fish, shrimp, and snails for the purpose of cleaning biowaste, that doesn’t mean that they will not, in turn, create more waste.

By having the correct amount of living cleaners for your tank you will not be overdoing it. I even go under the recommendations when stocking my tank. I do this because some of them will reproduce, like the shrimp, there will be more biomass in the aquarium than anticipated.

When selecting your cleaning crew, you want to make sure that they are compatible. Some species have a passion for eating not only the algae but the plant itself. It is best not to get one that will destroy your hard work. Some of these creatures cannot live with aggressive fish that would hunt them down for dinner.

Just because they are put in your tank for cleaning the algae doesn’t mean that they don’t also need to be fed. Algae will not be enough on its own, treat the algae as a supplement to their normal dietary requirements. Most of the time they do not need anything special over what you are already feeding your fish.

A balance of nutrients helps. Just like with our diets, we do not want to eat the same thing over and over. This limits how many nutrients we get since we are not exposing ourselves to other types of food. This malnourishment would be the same for your new cleaning crew. They will need to get nutrients from several different food sources.

Don’t overfeed in order not to stimulate algae growth. Overfeeding will also cause your fish to become spoiled and lazy. If they are constantly fed then there is no incentive for them to go out and try to find their own food. This will work out better for both your fish and your tanks overall health.

Check out this video from ADU Aquascaping on YouTube, it goes really in-depth on what clean up crew species you should pick for your aquarium.  I was able to get quite a few good tidbits from his video.


The first step with keeping your tank clean is to actively clean it yourself. You need to maintain weekly water changes and remove any algae or detritus that you can.

Only after maintaining the tank yourself with you see the benefit of adding a cleaning crew.

Make sure you are also feeding your aquatic janitors. They will not be sustained on the algae and remnants of food. A well-rounded diet will help keep them alive and active.

You will spend hours watching your cleaning crew take care of all the algae. They each have their own unique way of doing it, adding so much character to your tank.

Hopefully, the list above can give you a good starting point when selecting your cleaning crew.

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