Skip to content

Currently I have 10 aquariums at home plus a handful of outdoor ponds.  I've also cleaned and maintained a lot of aquariums for clients.  When you're keeping up with a lot of tanks, you have to be efficient with your maintenance routine.  Below are three things I do when performing aquarium cleaning that every fishkeeper should pay attention to. I recommend doing each of these tasks on a monthly basis to keep your aquariums looking their best at all times. (Note: These tips assume you are already performing regular water changes: Read my post on why water changes are important)

Perform These 3 Tasks Monthly

Add these three tasks to your monthly aquarium cleaning routine to keep your aquarium pristine.  Its not necessary to do all of these aquarium cleaning tasks on the same day.  If you normally do two water changes per month, you can split these activities up and do a couple with each water change:

#1: Clean the Lid

Dirty Lid
This lid has algae growing on the underside

The lids of aquariums can collect some nasty stuff. I've seen a lot of filthy lids. Rotting piles of fish food, dust, and calcium buildup can collect on the top surface. Fish meal is the primary ingredient in most fish foods. Once wet, a few stray flakes can really stink up a room. Mold, algae, and bacteria can grow underneath the lid where its always wet. In addition to looking gross, this buildup can reduce the amount of light getting into your tank. The result can be your fish and/or plants not looking their best.

Magic Eraser
Magic Eraser

Personally I use a magic eraser to wipe down both sides of my lids every month. If possible I like to take the lid to a sink where I can rinse it off, but a clean wet rag or sponge will work too. If needed, white vinegar will remove a lot of hard water marks and other gunk. Just make sure you rinse any cleaning products off with fresh water before replacing the lid.

#2: Clean the Glass & Rim

This one probably seems obvious but you should clean the (exterior) glass of your aquarium once in a while. A few water marks on the front of an aquarium can make it look dirty, even if you hardly notice them. I apply windex or white vinegar to a rag or paper towel and wipe off the glass. You don't want those chemicals in your aquarium, so don't spray them directly onto the glass.

The rim on the top of your aquarium also needs to be cleaned regularly. This is where water spots will slowly form into big white or yellow sheets of flaky, crusty calcium buildup. I've seen some neglected tanks that had a thick layer of calcium that took a lot of work to remove. This is also another spot fish flakes like to get stuck and start rotting. All of that can be prevented if you wipe the trim clean with a wet rag on a regular basis. If you already have the lid off the tank to perform a water change (and clean the lid), that's a perfect time to go around the perimeter with a rag and remove any gunk.

#3: Clean the Filter

The exact maintenance you perform is going to depend on what filtration you are running. I've summarized below what should happen on a monthly basis with a few of the most popular types of filters.

Sponge Filters:

Sponge Filter

Just squeeze it out. Sponge filters should be squeezed out in a bucket of aquarium water. This is easy to do during a water change. The water should be brown after a few squeezes of the sponge. You can use this dirty water to feed houseplants or your garden. Fish waste is mostly nitrogen, which makes it an excellent fertilizer. You don't need to replace sponge filters unless they start falling apart.

Hang On Back Filters:

Check the flow on your HOB filter, if you have an intake sponge on it, squeeze it out. Clean the filter intake if there is any visible buildup. You don't necessarily have to clean or replace the media inside your HOB filter every month. The filter media should be cleaned or replaced when the flow is being reduced or the filter cartridge is visibly full of gunk. Sponges and ceramic media do not need to be thrown away, they can be rinsed off in aquarium water and re-used for several years. For tips on improving your hang on back filter: read my post on DIY aquarium filter hacks.

Dirty Media Basket

Dirty Media Basket

clean media basket

Clean Media Basket

(My favorite hang on back filter is the Aquaclear line. You can checkout my writeup on why these filters are so great here.)

Canister Filters:

Cleaning a canister filter is very similar to a hang on back, just a little more work. I work with a bucket next to me to load the media baskets into when I open up the canister. Replace disposable mechanical media like poly floss if needed, squeeze out sponges, and gently rinse ceramic media. Biological media baskets usually don't need to be cleaned every month. Consider alternating them so each basket gets cleaned once in a 2-3 month cycle. The frequency at which your biological media needs cleaned will depend on the tanks bioload. Some setups will be able to go 6 months without maintenance, and some will need to be cleaned every month. The goal when cleaning biological media is just to remove buildup, so that the surface of the media is exposed to the water flowing through it.

Keeping your lid, glass, and filter clean by adding them to your monthly aquarium cleaning routine will keep your aquarium looking its best at all times.

Running a fishroom can be a lot of work, especially once your number of aquariums crosses into double digit territory. These gadgets are things I use at least weekly and consider an integral part of running my fish room.

Running a fish room can be a lot of work, especially once your number of aquariums crosses into double digit territory. These gadgets are things I use at least weekly and consider an integral part of running my fish room. Most of them are not sold for aquariums and may surprise you!

#1: Specimen Container

Specimen Container
Specimen Container

The clear specimen container might just look like a plastic box - and it is - but it is one of the most useful investments you can make for a fishroom. These containers are perfect for moving fish between tanks, bagging fish to sell, drip acclimating fish, and a lot more. Look for a design that hangs on the side of an aquarium - Lee's is the best widely available brand.

#2: Magnifying Glass

Magnifying Glass
Magnifying Glass

This may be a weird item to see on a fishroom list. I use a magnifying glass all the time in my fishroom. Some of the things you may want to get a closer look at: fish eggs and fry, sick fish, shrimp and snails, tiny organisms like infusoria, copepods, artemia, planaria, etc. If youre a fish nerd youll want to have one handy.

#3: Infrared Thermometer

Infrared Thermometer
Infrared Thermometer

A handheld infrared thermometer is very useful for checking temperature on your aquariums. You should have a thermometer in each tank, but it is super helpful to be able to verify the readings. The handheld thermometer can also be used for a quick temp check on a brine shrimp hatchery, or a bag of fish you just brought home.

#4: Measuring Spoons

Measuring Spoons
Measuring Spoons

Yes, measuring spoons. In order to maintain "domestic tranquility", you'll want to have a dedicated set of measuring spoons for your fishroom. I use these to measure out seachem safe, brine shrimp eggs, aquarium salt, medications, powdered additives, etc. It's helpful to have a small set and a larger set so you can always do quick measurements (and avoid doing math).

#5: A flashlight

Flashlights
Flashlights

A good flashlight can be really helpful in the fishroom. You can use it to spot plecos hiding in their caves. You can check on fish after lights out without messing with timers. A flashlight is also an easy source of light for harvesting brine shrimp. If you watch a lot of fishroom tour videos, youve probably seen a breeder walk through his fishroom with a flashlight in hand.

#6: The Turkey Baster!

Turkey Baster
Turkey Baster

A turkey baster is another kitchen implement that is invaluable in the fishroom. Like the measuring spoons, its best to have one that is just used for fish stuff. I use a turkey baster every day for feeding live and frozen foods. They're also good for catching and moving very small fry. A trick that is popular among aquascapers is using the baster to "squirt" water into plants and gravel to stir up debris during maintenance.

6

Multies live in large colonies in the shell beds left by the lake's native Neothauma snails. This natural shell bed habitat is what the aquarist should be aiming to replicate when setting up an aquarium for Neolamprologus multifasciatus.

Neolamprologus multifasciatus

N. multifasciatus male
N. multifasciatus male

Several species of dwarf African cichlids make their homes in shells. Collectively, they are known as Shell Dwellers. The species that I keep is Neolamprologus multifasciatus, often referred to as "Multies". These fish come from the sandy, rocky bottom near the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Multies live in large colonies in the shell beds left by the lake's native Neothauma snails. This natural shell bed habitat is what the aquarist should be aiming to replicate when setting up an aquarium for Neolamprologus multifasciatus.

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika from Space - NASA Image
Lake Tanganyika from Space - NASA Image

Lake Tanganyika is fascinating for a variety of reasons. It is the largest of Africa's rift lakes, the second deepest lake in the world, and it holds about 16% of the world's available fresh water. Tanganyika is home to at least 250 species of cichlids, plus other fish that are not part of the cichlid family. It is also home to dozens of species of freshwater snails and bivalves. The water in Lake Tanganyika is notoriously hard and alkaline. The PH is about 9.0, and the water is very high in calcium. Temperatures at the surface range from 75 to 84 degrees (F).

Setting up a Tanganyikan Shell Dweller Aquarium

Multi tank
40 gallon Multi tank

Aquarium Size for Shell Dwellers

N. multifasciatus are small cichlids: the largest males may reach 5 centimeters, while females usually top out at 2.5 cm. This diminutive size makes them a good choice for a smaller aquarium. The minimum tank size I would recommend is 10 gallons. Anything smaller will be subject to rapid fluctuations in water parameters. A 10 gallon tank could hold 1 or 2 breeding groups (6-12 fish). Use a 20 gallon long or similar high surface area format tank to show off their colony breeding behavior. Personally I keep them as the only species in a 40 gallon breeder. The large surface area provides space for about 60 shells.

Substrate for Shell Dwellers

To see Multies at their best, the aquarist should aim to recreate the conditions of their ancestral lake. Start with a relatively deep sand substrate, mixing in crushed coral or aragonite to ensure there is plenty of calcium present to keep the water buffered and the PH high. N. multifasciatus are diggers. They pick up sand in their mouths and spit it out, building hills and burrying their shells so that only the entrance is visible. I recommend a substrate depth of 2-3 inches to give them plenty of space to dig.

Snail Shells for Shell Dwellers

Neothauma Mollusks
Neothauma Mollusks

Of course, one of the most important additions for shell dwellers is the shells! In the lake they live in the discarded shells of Neothauma snails. But these snails are only endemic to Africa and the export of their shells is tightly controlled. If you are able to find legitimate Neothauma shells, expect to pay a high price. Instead, most Multi keepers use escargot shells that are commonly sold for cooking. They are very close in size to the Neothauma shells and very affordable. You will want 1 shell per adult fish, keeping in mind that these fish live in colonies, with each male guarding a small territory of 5-7 shells and their resident females.

Don't worry about aquascaping the aquarium before adding your shell dwellers, as they will move the shells and the substrate as soon as they move in. Just toss the shells in and spread them across the bottom. The fish will move and bury the shells very quickly.

N. multis over shell bed
N. multis over shell bed

Water Parameters for Tanganyikan Shell Dwellers

In order to keep the water appropriately hard and alkaline I like to use the Seachem line of Cichlid Lake Salts and Tanganyika Buffer. These products should only be added to new water during water changes, as they do not evaporate out over time. You will need to do some testing to determine the hardness and alkalinity of your water in order to dose correctly.

Although N. multifasciatus come from a lake with a 9.0 PH, don't put too much effort into chasing that PH value. Unless you find wild caught specimens, most fish will be able to adapt to a PH closer to 8.0. Stability and consistency are more important than precision. Always be careful when adjusting PH and test the water before and after you add buffering products to prevent large swings.

Temperature for Tanganyikan Shell Dwellers

Temperature should be at the lower end of the lake's range (below 80 degrees F), as N. multifasciatus actually live at depths of 50-100 feet below the surface. I keep mine at 77 degrees F and they do very well at that temperature. Anything between 75 - 80 degrees fahrenheit should be acceptable.

Filtration for Shell Dwellers

I run an Aquaclear hang on back filter on my Multi tank. I recommend using an intake sponge to prevent fry from being sucked into the filer. A canister filter or sponge filter would both be viable options as well. Any form of filtration will work, as long as you are performing regular water changes. Your preferred maintenance routine should determine the filter you use.

Breeding Neolamprologus Multifasciatus

N. multifasciatus over shell bed
N. multifasciatus over shell bed

Shell dwellers are one of the easier fish to breed as long as you are providing them with clean water and the right conditions. Males will compete for control of a harem of several females. Breeding takes place in the shells and the fry will be born inside of a shell. Feeding a good variety of quality frozen and live foods will usually stimulate breeding. I like to offer live or frozen baby brine shrimp, microworms, krill flake, and spirulina flake. Live daphnia, frozen cyclops, or any similar food will also work.

The first sign of breeding activity is usually a group of small fry poking their heads out of a shell. The fry will be able to eat microworms, crushed flake, and live baby brine as soon as they are big enough to leave the shell. They will remain within a couple inches of their home shell for the first few weeks of their life.

Eventually you will end up with more fish than shells, which is the limiting factor on the size of the colony. At this point some fish should be removed and rehomed to avoid over crowding. Fortunately Multies are typically an easy fish to get rid of due to their small size and amazing behavior.