10 Best Clean-Up Crew Ideas for Freshwater Aquariums
Looking for a fish or invertebrate that will clean your aquarium so that you never have to do tank maintenance? Unfortunately, this mythical creature is not real. However, many animals do an excellent job of eating leftover food, algae, dying plant leaves, and even pest snails. Keep reading to discover our top 10 favorite clean-up crew members that every freshwater aquarium should have.
1. Rainbow Sharks and Redtail Sharks
This group of freshwater “sharks”, although it may seem strange, is actually quite capable of performing janitorial tasks. Both species are scavengers that clean up any excess food that gets between decor, rocks, and equipment, and rainbow sharks will even eat algae as part of their diet. However, they can be a bit territorial, so only put one shark in a 29-gallon or larger aquarium to prevent aggression. They come in many colors, including black, albino and Glofish.
Redtail sharks are great scavengers for large aquariums with similarly sized tank mates.
This group of South American cichlids consists of several genera, such as Geophagus and Satanoperca, that are known for scooping up substrate into their mouths and filtering it through their gills. All edible leftovers are taken in, then digested by their stomachs and further broken down so that the plants can absorb any remaining waste byproducts. (If you don’t have live aquarium plants, you must remove the waste via water changes more frequently to keep your fish healthy.) For community tanks that are 55 gallons and larger, eartheaters can be a fun and gentle bottom dweller.
Because eartheaters have to dig through soil to find food, they prefer to use sand rather than gravel.
The pattern of the males of this North American indigenous fish is very similar to the flag’s stars and stripes. Although they are able to pull off hair and black beard algae easily, their mouths can cause damage to delicate plants. They can be a bit wild as a killifish. Keep them in an aquarium of 20 gallons or more with other fast-moving fish.
Flagfish are one of the few clean-up crew members that can live in unheated aquariums.
The cory catfish is a beloved fish that comes in many sizes. There are dwarf corydoras of 1-inch, normal-sized cories from 2- to 3 inches, and larger Brochis varieties that are 4-inch and larger. They are peaceful scavengers and use their whiskers (or barbels) to find scraps, worms and small crustaceans between objects and in the substrate. Cory catfish is a living robot vacuum that happily takes in any food left over from the surface eaters. To ensure they are happy and healthy, make sure you give them Repashy gel food, sinking wafers, frozen Bloodworms and Repashy gel food. For more details, check out our full care guide.
This albino cory catfish’s strong pink color, and nicely rounded abdomen indicate that it is healthy.
Not many people think of the colorful platy fish as potential clean-up crew members, but many livebearers are known for their insatiable appetites that cause them to constantly pick at the ground, plants, and decor for edible snacks. They have the same mouth shape as flatfish and are adept at grabbing half-buried morsels. They reproduce quickly, so you will have plenty of platies, from adults of 3 inches to babies of 0.5 inches.
Platies are available in nearly every color and combination of patterns, and they will be the tireless workhorses for your aquarium.
Although not everyone loves snails, we still recommend them to our customers. They’re one of the best cleaners in the tank because they eat almost anything. They consume fish waste, algae, rotting leaves, and even dead fish, breaking down organic material even further for plants to use. We love nerite, ramshorn, and Malaysian trumpet snails. They burrow into the substrate and clean it. The mystery snails are more like pets than janitors. So get them if they appeal to you and their behavior, rather than their cleaning skills.
This beautiful, brightly colored ramshorn snail loves soft algae, debris and vegetables.
Many people are trying to remove snails from their fish tanks, as they have a tendency to reproduce like wildfire. Loaches love escargot and are known for their fondness for it, especially if they have a pointed nose that is perfect for sucking snails out of their shells. If you have a large snail problem, you might consider reducing the food in your aquarium or hiring the help of clown loaches, dwarf chain loaches, and yoyo loaches.
If you love snails, there are many types of snail-safe loaches that you can choose from. Kuhli loaches are tiny snakes that can squeeze into small spaces and swallow any crumbs. Hillstream loaches can be used as algae eaters and clean up aquarium walls and plant leaves. Loaches are a very diverse group of fish, but in general, they all like to scavenge for food in the wild. Like corydoras, make sure you intentionally feed them a good diet of sinking foods and don’t expect them to live only on leftovers.
Yoyo loaches are like a pack of playful puppies that can easily take down your toughest pest snail infestations.
8. Common Goldfish
This unexpected addition to our list may seem counterintuitive because goldfish are notorious for being messy fish, but their bad reputation comes from the fact that they can grow to 12 inches long and are usually kept in tanks that are way too small for them. Goldfish are fond of digging through substrate and eating leftover fish waste. If you have a large aquarium with big, peaceful tankmates, single-tailed or non-fancy goldfish will keep the bottom of the tank very clean and break down detritus so that you can easily remove it the next time you do a water change or service your filter.
Goldfish tend to nibble on everything to see if it’s edible, so only use hardy, goldfish-safe plants like java fern and anubias.
9. Bristlenose Plecos
There are hundreds of types of plecostomus or suckermouth catfish, but many species grow too big to fit in most home aquariums. The bristlenose and bushy nose plecos are our favorite. They can grow to 4 to 5 inches in length and are excellent cleaners. The medusa pleco (clown pleco), rubbernose pleco, and clown pleco are all smaller plecos. The bristlenose pleco is easy to breed and comes in many color options. They should be kept in a large aquarium of at least 29 gallons that can store their wastes and provides enough room for them to graze.
It’s easy to differentiate between male and female bristlenose plecos because only males have bristles on their snouts.
10. Amano Shrimp
Our final cleaner fish is actually an invertebrate called the amano shrimp. These tiny shrimp have become very popular due to their ability to eat algae in aquascapes. They will eat fish food if they have plenty to eat. Make sure to provide enough minerals in their water and food for healthy molting, and they’ll work hard to keep your tank clean. View our complete care guide for more information.
Amano shrimp are one of the hardiest dwarf shrimp and have a hungry appetite that makes them an excellent cleaner for smaller tanks.
We hope you found these ideas useful for creating a support team to make your aquarium look better. Subscribe to our e-newsletter for more articles and videos.