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How To Keep A Saltwater Tank Clean: 5 Essential Steps

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

tropical fish

Saltwater tanks are in our opinion some of the best and most beautiful fish tanks out there. They are home to some fantastic creatures that any aquarium enthusiast would be happy to have in their homes. However, just like with freshwater tanks, saltwater tanks do need to be kept clean.

Cleaning a saltwater tank, while not being all that difficult once you know how, does take a good amount of time, effort, and resources. When it comes to how to keep a saltwater tank clean, we are about to tell you everything that you need to know about it. Your fish need, want, and deserve a clean and healthy living environment, and it is up to you to provide it to them.

wave tropical dividerWhy Clean A Saltwater Tank?

Saltwater coral reef aquarium at home is most beautiful live decoration
Image credit: Vojce, Shutterstock

There are many reasons why the regular cleaning and maintenance of your saltwater tank is necessary, so let’s just go over these first. As you are about to find out, keeping a saltwater tank clean is essential for many different reasons.

  • Saltwater tanks get dirty. Simply put, nobody wants to look at a filthy and cloudy aquarium. It more or less ruins the beauty that is supposed to be a great-looking fish tank.
  • Unclean, dirty, and messy saltwater fish tanks can start to smell pretty bad. Rotting food, plant matter, and fish waste all start to smell bad due to the chemicals which are released into the water and the air above the tank.
  • A dirty saltwater tank is full of ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, and other organic compounds in the water which are very harmful to fish and aquatic plants. Failing to keep the tank clean can result in the quick and untimely demise of all living things in the tank.
  • Dirty saltwater can also be full of diseases, diseases which kill fish.

The 5 Essentials To Keeping Saltwater Tanks Clean

1. Water Changes

One of the most important things that you need to do to keep your saltwater tank clean is to make sure that you perform regular water changes. If the tank has a small bioload, a weekly 20% water change should suffice.

However, if you have a lot of fish and plants in the tank, you will want to change closer to 30% or 35% of the water every week. In other words, one of the easiest ways to keep a saltwater tank clean is by removing healthy portions of the dirty water.

Make sure that the water you add to the tank is treated for chlorine and other chemicals found in tap water with the use of a water conditioner. Next, make sure that you add proper aquarium salt to the freshwater (before adding the water into the tank), making sure that it has the proper salinity for your particular fish. Also make sure that the water has the right hardness and pH level, plus the right temperature as well.

Also, while you are draining out the old dirty water and adding in new water, you want to clean the tank itself. First and foremost, you want to use an aquarium siphon and vacuum to suck up as much fish waste and decaying organic matter as you can (we have covered our favorite vacuums in a separate article here).

This is the stuff that dirties the water the most, so you need to remove as much organic matter as possible. At the same time, you need to clean the ornaments, rocks, and plants in the water too.

The best way to clean the plants and ornaments is to use warm water and bleach solution. Make sure that the bleach solution is very light, only about 1 part bleach to 25 parts water. Rinse the ornaments and decorations in the bleach solution, using a light brush to scrub them down, except for plants. You can’t scrub plants down. On a side note, when the decorations are out of the tank, use a glass cleaner kit and algae scrubber to clean the interior glass as well as you can.

Just make sure to thoroughly rinse the bleach solution off of anything you use it for because any amount of bleach in the water can be disastrous. On a side note, you can always just is the old saltwater you are removing to rinse off the decorations, but it will not be as effective at killing germs and diseases as a light bleach solution. After you have completed the rinsing of ornaments, you can put them back in place.

2. Fish Feeding

Another way to help keep your saltwater fish tank clean is by feeding your fish the proper foods and by not overfeeding the fish. If you feed the fish too much food, they probably won’t eat it all. In turn, this leads to large quantities of uneaten food floating around in the water. This food will rot and create ammonia and other chemicals that should not be in the water.

At the same time, if you overfeed your fish, they will create a lot of waste. Waste is full of ammonia and other toxins which are smelly and harmful to fish, so this is quite important. Also, make sure to feed your fish food they like, because even if you don’t overfeed them if you give them foods they don’t want, they probably won’t eat it either.

Image credit: hedgehog94, Shutterstock

3. Protein Skimmer

The next thing to keep in mind when it comes to keeping your saltwater tank clean is to make sure that you have a good protein skimmer that is in prime condition. A protein skimmer is like a special little mechanical filtration unit that collects all kinds of proteins and solid debris from the water.

This includes fish waste, decaying plants, and uneaten foods. A protein skimmer is important to have if you have a large bioload in the tank that the regular filtration unit cannot handle.

So, now that you have got yourself a protein skimmer, you need to make sure that it is large enough to deal with the tank you have. Moreover, you need to make sure that it is always in working order.

Regular cleaning with some vinegar water will suffice, just as long as none of the tubing or skimming mechanisms are clogged and dirty. Also, be sure to empty the collection cup regularly so that the collected debris does not make its way back into the tank.

4. The Right Filter

Perhaps one of the most important things when it comes to keeping a saltwater tank clean is the filtration unit you have. First and foremost, the filter you have should be able to process at least 4 or 5 times more water than the total volume in your tank per hour. In other words, if your saltwater tank is 40 gallons, the filter should be able to handle 160 gallons per hour at the least, if not 200 gallons per hour.

Next, the aquarium filter you get needs to engage in all three major types of filtration. This includes mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. The mechanical filtration aspect removes all kinds of physical contaminants from the water like decaying plants, uneaten food, and fish waste.

Biological filtration breaks down poisonous ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates, while the mechanical filtration aspect removes any leftover chemicals, toxins, smells, and discoloration.

One of the most important things to remember is to have a good biological bacteria load. These beneficial bacteria housed in the filtration unit work overtime to break down various poisonous substances in the water.

When it comes to the filter, make sure to clean it often, mainly the tubing and media, to keep it clean. A vinegar and water solution should suffice to clean the tubing. Also, remember to regularly change the media as often as needed (if you need some media help then this article covers our top 7 picks for Saltwater tanks).

Hands comparing old and new activated carbon material of a fish tank filter
Image Credit: Ladanifer, Shutterstock

5. UV Sterilizer

The final thing to keep in mind when trying to keep your saltwater tank clean is lighting. We do realize that your tank, including your fish and plants, need light to survive and thrive.

However, you do need to be aware that too much light can cause algae blooms. A good thing to get for your saltwater tank is a UV sterilizer to kill off algae, bacteria, and other unwanted organisms in the tank.

wave tropical dividerFinal Thoughts

As you can see, while keeping a saltwater tank clean is not necessarily that hard, you do need to have the right tools and equipment. We would recommend being very strict about cleaning because doing so regularly is much less work than one or two big cleaning jobs per month. Anyway, as long as you follow the tips we have outlined above, you should have no problem keeping your saltwater tank clean and crystal clear.

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Feature Image Credit: Pixabay

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