Fish Tank Maintenance Guide

If your desire to have a healthy and sparkling clean fish tank then maintenance should be a top priority. While it is not overly complicated it is highly recommended to have a set task list that you execute very precisely.

Keep in mind that the smaller your tank is the maintenance and cleaning are magnified. Larger tanks are more stable and are more flexible for missed maintenance tasks. I still would keep a schedule of tasks no matter how large or small your fish tank is.

Water Maintenance

Every fish tank goes through a delicate balancing process that is referred to as the nitrogen cycle. A new tank must establish this biological cycling overtime before fish are added. An established tank must keep the cycling balance in check at all times.

The biological cycling balance process consists of ammonia converted to nitrite and nitrite converted to nitrate. Bacteria that are contained in your filter will convert ammonia to nitrite. The second type of bacteria media in the filter will convert nitrite to nitrate. Ammonia and nitrite are toxic and will kill your fish while nitrate is non-toxic. All of these components are part of a properly cycling tank and must be in balance.

While nitrate is not toxic, too much can cause issues in your tank and affect your fish by making them sick and losing color and appetite.

Testing Water Quality

Testing your water is something you have to stay on top of. At times this is something that is easy to put off. To maintain a healthy environment for your pet fish and live plants, this has to be a routine that is not skipped or delayed.

You have two options for doing your water testing. If you have a pet store nearby that provides a water testing service you can take a sample of your water and have it tested by a professional. The more common option is to buy a water testing kit and do the testing yourself. I recommend the following test kit that is sold on Amazon API Master Test Kit

The water parameters that should be tested is pH levels, ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates.


The number one water parameter item that will kill your fish is ammonia. It is created by fish waste material and uneaten food. The ammonia level should be extremely low and almost if not undetectable on the testing readout.

Because of ammonia being so toxic to your fish and the extreme consequences it can have, I recommend having an ammonia alert installed. The constant monitoring of your tank to protect your tank and provides proactive monitoring greatly outweighs any cost.

If the tester or ammonia alert indicates you do have an ammonia problem you should act immediately to treat your water. I will have my ammonia remover on hand at all times so that I can do my treatment immediately.

Nitrites (NO2)

Nitrites are a type of dissolved nitrogen that is created from ammonia when a bacteria called Nitrosomonas converts the ammonia to nitrites. It is toxic and if not controlled can make your fish sick and even death. It should be undetectable at all times (except during cycling). If nitrite is detectable, be sure to test for ammonia as well. If the fish tank does not have an adequate amount of bacteria then the nitrites can get out of control.

When nitrites are detectable the fish will not get proper oxygen that are required to live and they will eventually suffocate. The term for this condition is called nitrite poisoning.

Nitrates  (NO3)

Nitrates are compounds that are created from nitrites when a bacteria called Nitrobacter converts Nitrites. Nitrates and not toxic like ammonia and nitrites. Nitrates should be kept below 10 ppm in freshwater, and 5 ppm or lower in saltwater and reef aquariums.

While nitrates in small amounts in your fish tank are not usually fatal to your fish, a large amount can cause fish stress and more susceptible to diseases. It can also cause loss of fish color, damage reproductive organs and decrease the overall fish lifespan.

pH Levels

pH is an indicator of the levels of acidity or alkalinity in your fish tank. The pH level should remain stable with a range of 6.8 – 7.5 for freshwater tanks. A change of a pH level of 0.2 can cause fish stress or death.

KH – Carbonate Hardness

KH (carbonate hardness) is a measure of pH stability that is a result of the hardness level of the water. It is a protective layer that surrounds your pH. Without KH protecting your pH level when acids rise in your take then your pH level will drop and this can be dangerous to your fish.

Water Temperature

You should monitor your water temperature to make sure it stays between 72 and 82 degrees. Make any adjustments on your heater to maintain the temperature range. A good tank heater will take care of regulating your water temperature and is a must for your fish tank. There are many tank heaters on the market and all are capable. We recommend Orlushy tank water heater. You should have a thermometer in your tank at all times.

Water Changes

Frequency water changes are a key ingredient in maintaining a healthy fish tank. It is recommended to remove 25% of the water and add new water every 3 weeks. You can also change your water more frequently and if so you can replace 10-15% every week. By changing the water it helps to remove excess compounds such as nitrites.

Tap water contains chlorine and is harmful to your fish. It is recommended to use purified water and place a water conditioner in each bucket of water that is added to remove all the chlorine. We recommend the following water conditioner.

Prior to adding new conditioned tap water, try to get the water temperature to match the existing water. You can do this by feel and it does not need to perfectly match the temperature as long as it is close.

I really like doing water changes as I would see my water get crystal clear after 30 minutes or so after everything has settled. The fish enjoy the freshwater and it is good to see them react to the new freshwater.

Adding New Fish

To keep a healthy fish tank it is important to pay attention to what types and sizes of fish are in your tank. When new fish are added you will need to make sure not to disrupt the fish community.

Fish Community Considerations

Anytime fish are added the existing fish can be aggressive against the new fish. Careful research must be done to determine if the new fish being added can coexist with the existing fish.

The size of the fish must also be considered. If the new fish are too large or too small the existing fish may overtake the new fish or the existing fish could be in danger. Determine the maximum size of the new fish that will grow to eliminate future overcrowding.

New Fish Health

When buying new fish you should make sure that the fish store is a reputable source. Do research on reviews of the store to ensure they have healthy fish. You should also pay attention to their fish tanks when onsite to verify the water is clean and the fish in the tank do not have sores and fish are all alive.

When adding new fish you should give the fish time to get adjusted. Fish are vulnerable when they are introduced to a new environment. They can become stressed or even go into shock. The following tips are recommended.

  • Make sure that you have plenty of structure for the new fish to hide.
  • Before adding the new fish you should feed the existing fish to help take away their aggressions.
  • Turn the tank light off and make the room dark so the new fish feel less stress.
  • Float the bag containing the new fish at the top of the fish tank. Make sure the bag is sealed. You should leave to floating bag for at least 20 minutes so that the water temperature in the bag matches up to the fish tank water.
  • With a net add the fish from the bag to the fish tank. Do not dump the water in the bag to the fish tank as this could add unwanted foreign material to your existing tank water.
  • It is recommended to keep the tank lights off and the room lights dimmed for a couple of hours so the new fish can adjust.

For the next couple of weeks you should closely monitor the fish to make sure they are healthy and you do not see spots on the new fish that could indicate disease.

Adding Items to Your Tank

Bottom Substrate

When adding new sand or gravel to the bottom of your existing tank it is recommended that you adhere to the following.

Do not introduce too much substrate to the tank at one time. You do not want to disturb the balance of your system. If there is foreign material still attached to the substrate, a smaller amount can be handled by your tank cycling.

Thoroughly clean gravel or sand with tap water. Never try to clean with soap or any other type of cleaner. You will probably need to soak with clean water multiple times until the extra water is clean in appearance.

Slowly add the substrate material to the tank and try to insert it close to the bottom surface.

Live and Artificial Plants

Clean artificial plants with tap water. Do not use soap or any other cleaners. If the plant has been used in a previous tank make sure to scrub off all the algae before placing it in the tank.

Research live plants compatible with the current environment. Carefully place the plant on the substrate or rocks. Be careful not to place the plants too close to any filters.

Rocks and Structural Changes

Plan out how you want to place your rocks or structures. Do not overcrowd your tank. Keep in mind that when you add the rocks or structures it will displace some of your water and might overflow from the top of the tank.

Clean thoroughly before adding to the tank. Do not use soap or any other cleaners.

Be careful that rocks and rock structures are stable. If the rocks are not stable they could fall over and break your glass.

Fish Feeding Considerations

Do not overfeed as this can cause extra unused food that will decay and throw off the water balance. It is better to underfeed your fish than overfeeding them.

Do research to determine the best fish food based on the species in your tank. If you have multiple species they each might require a different diet. In this case you may need multiple types of fish food.

The quantity of fish food should be based on how much they can eat in about 3 minutes. It is best to introduce the food in small portions so that the fish will each all the food and minimize extra food that will drop to the bottom and can cause unwanted ammonia and nitrites throwing your water balance off.

Typically I will feed my fish once a day. Occasionally I will skip a day so the fish can clear out their digestive systems. You have the option to feed your fish in the morning or in the evening. If feeding in the morning turn on the tank light 30 minutes prior to feeding. In the evening you should leave the tank light on 30 minutes after feeding. If your tank has bottom feeder fish you should place food in when the light is turned off so that the fish food will sink to the bottom.

Evaluate Lighting Conditions

Too much light can have negative impacts on your fish tank. if you have direct sunlight on your fish tank this can promote algae growth. It is best to place your tank away from direct sunlight. You should properly plan your tank location prior to setup as moving a tank can be a chore.

Turn off hood light on a regular schedule and never leave your tank light on all night. I try to have a regular schedule for keeping your tank light on.

An option is to install a timer device that will turn your fish tank on/off automatically.

Cleaning Requirements

It is recommended to not remove your fish when cleaning or adding water to your fish tank. This can cause stress on your fish and potentially getting them sick and even death. If you absolutely must remove the fish place this in a clean bucket that is filled with water from your fish tank.

Use a vacuum to siphon the gravel or sand substrate when doing a water change. The siphon should be placed on the bottom of the substrate to extract extra food and waste. We recommend this siphone tool or something similar.

Clean inside and outside glass or acrylic using a scraper. You can use a magnetic cleaning device to remove algae from the surface. We recommend the following cleaning kit.

You should rinse your filters often. We recommend rinsing them out at least once a week. Based on the filter you purchase you should replace them at the recommended times. Be careful to not remove the media from the filters. The filter media is crucial component to providing the bacteria need for proper cycling of your tank.

Document Maintenance Schedule

Create a detailed maintenance schedule with a checklist of different time points that you should follow. This should include daily, weekly, monthly tasks.

Daily1. Count your fish and search for any missing fish.
2. Monitor your water temperature.
3. Visually inspect your filter and heater equipment.
4. Visually inspect for unwanted algae growth
5. Feed fish
Weekly1. Clean inside & outside glass or acrylic surfaces
2. Clean filter media
3. Remove uneaten food at the bottom of the tank
Every other Week1. Test water for ammonia, nitrites, nitrates, pH
2. Water change and siphon bottom substrate
Monthly1. KH test
2. Inspect and potentially replace filter media
3. Clean aquarium top including light cover
4. Inspect for expired dates on testing equipment
Annual1. Replace filter hoses
2. Deep cleaning that includes rocks and plants
3. Evaluate pumps and filters

Other Tips

  1. When away from home for an extended time you should follow these recommendations:
    • Have someone regularly feed your fish. An option to consider is an automatic fish feeder. Recommended product from Amazon
    • If you will be gone for multiple days then a daily and/or weekly maintenance tasks list should be provided. It is important to train your backup on how to execute the tasks.
    • Do regular water testing every 2 weeks.
    • Evaluate filters are properly operating. I have experienced a power outage and the pump did not start up when the power was restored. A power surge could have tripped the circuit breaker. It is good practice to have a backup filter ready to go so that your backup person can replace the faulty filter.
  2. Connect all filter pumps, heaters and lights with a surge protector. This will protect your equipment if a power surge occurs.
  3. If possible you may consider connecting your power through a battery-powered UPS system. While this may only keep your power running for an hour or so it will protect against short outages.
  4. Do not wait to remove algae until its time to do a cleaning. As soon as you see the algae growing on the tank surface you should use your algae magnetic tool or scraper to remove the algae.
  5. If you continually see algae appear you can increase the frequency of your water changes. Also cut down on feeding by skipping a day or two and/or decrease the amounts you are feeding. Also evaluate external light to make sure there is no direct light on your tank.

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