10 Best Clean-Up Crew Ideas For Freshwater Aquariums


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? Sorry, that mythical creature doesn’t exist. Many animals are good at eating leftover food and dying plant leaves. Continue reading to learn about our top 10 picks for clean-up crew members freshwater aquariums should have.


1. Rainbow Sharks and Redtail Sharks

While these freshwater “sharks” might seem odd to begin with, they are incredibly skilled at janitorial work. Both species are food scavengers, meaning they clean up all excess food from equipment, rocks, and decor. 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 can be great scavengers of large aquariums with tank mates that are similar in size.

2. Eartheaters

There are many species of South American cichlids, including Geophagus (and Satanoperca), that can scoop up substrate in their mouths and filter it through their veins. Any edible leftovers get swallowed and digested in the gut. Then, they are further broken down to allow plants to absorb more of the waste byproducts. For fish that are not kept in live aquariums, they must be removed from the water via more frequent water changes to maintain their health. 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.

3. Flagfish

This North American native fish has a unique pattern in its males that is similar to the stripes and stars on the United States flag. They have a unique mouth shape that allows them to easily pull off black beard algae and hair algae. However, they can damage more delicate plants. These fish can be a bit of a wild type so ensure they are kept in a large aquarium (at least 20 gallon) and with other fast friends.

Flagfish make up one of the few members of a clean-up crew who can live in an unheated tank.

4. Corydoras

There are many sizes and varieties of the beloved cory catfish, including 1-inch dwarf corydoras and 2- to 3-inch normal-sized cories. The larger Brochis type is 4-inch in size. As peaceful scavengers, they use their barbels (or whiskers) to search for scraps, worms, and tiny crustaceans hidden in the substrate and between objects. Like a living robot vacuum, cory catfish happily suck up any food that gets past the surface eaters. They can’t survive on only crumbs though, so make sure to specially feed them sinking wafers, frozen bloodworms, and Repashy gel food to keep their bellies nice and full. For more details, check out our full care guide.

The strong pink color and nicely rounded stomach indicate that this albino cory fish is well-fed and healthy.

5. Platies

The colorful platy fish is not commonly thought of as a potential crew member, but livebearers are often known for their insatiable hunger for edible treats. Like the flatfish, they have a similar mouth shape that’s adept at pulling off algae and grabbing half-buried morsels. Their best feature is their ability to reproduce quickly. This means that you will have platies of different sizes, from 3-inch adults to 0.5 inch babies, and they can fit in different places to search for food.

Platies come in almost every color and pattern combination, and their drive for food will make them the tireless workhorses of your aquarium.

6. Snails

We recommend snails to everyone. Because they can eat anything, they are one of the best cleaners for the tank. They consume fish waste, algae, rotting leaves, and even dead fish, breaking down organic material even further for plants to use. We enjoy nerite, ramshorn, and Malaysian trumpet snails. They burrow into the substrate and clean it. Mystery snails, on the other hand, are more like pets than janitors, so get them if you appreciate their appearance and behavior rather than their cleaning abilities.

This beautiful, brightly colored ramshorn snail loves soft algae, debris and vegetables.

7. Loaches

Snails do have the tendency to reproduce like wildfire, so many people are looking for a way to “clean” or remove them from their fish tanks. Loaches are well-known because they love escargot. This is especially true if the snail species they are is a loach with a pointed snout. So if you’ve got a heavy snail infestation, consider decreasing the amount of food you put in the aquarium and employing the services of clown loaches, yoyo loaches, or even dwarf chain loaches.

If you love snails, there are many types of snail-safe loaches that you can choose from. Kuhli loaches resemble tiny snakes. They can squeeze through narrow spaces and gulp down any crumbs. Hillstream loaches can be used as algae eaters and clean up aquarium walls, plants, leaves, and any other flat surfaces. Loaches come in many different sizes, but all loaches like to find food in the wild. Just like corydoras you need to make sure they are fed a balanced diet of sinking food and don’t expect them live on leftovers.

Yoyo loaches look like a bunch of friendly puppies and can easily eliminate the worst pest snail infestations.

8. Common Goldfish

This surprise addition to our collection may seem counterintuitive. Goldfish are known for being messy fish. But their bad reputation is due to the fact that they can grow up to 12 inches and are usually kept indoors in tanks that are too small. The goldfish enjoy digging through the substrate and eating fish waste. If you have a large aquarium and lots of peaceful tankmates then single-tailed fish or non-fancy goldenfish can keep the bottom of your tank clean. They will break down all the debris in the tank so that you can easily get rid of it when you next change the water.

Goldfish love to eat everything, so it is important to use only hardy plants that are safe for goldfish like anubias or javafern.

9. Bristlenose Plecos

There are hundreds upon hundreds of species of plecostomus, or suckermouth catfish. But many of them grow too big for most home aquariums. The bristlenose or bushynose pleco is our favourite. They grow 4 to 5 inch long and are great for cleaning. (Other smaller plecos include the medusa pleco, clown pleco, and rubbernose pleco.) The bristlenose plecos come in many colors and can be easily bred. You should keep them in a larger aquarium (29-gallon) that can hold their waste and allows for plenty of space for grazing.

It is easy to tell the difference between male and feminine bristlenose plecos since only males have bristles along their noses.

10. Amano Shrimp

Our final cleaner fish is actually an invertebrate called the amano shrimp. These shrimp, which are popular for their ability in eating algae in planted aquascapes have been a great scavenger. Their tiny legs can reach into the smallest cracks that most snails or fish can’t reach. They prefer easy food and will not eat as much algae if they are provided with plenty of fish foods. Your fish will be happy if there are enough minerals in the water and food they eat for healthy molting. View our complete care guide for more information.

Amano shrimp is one of the toughest dwarf shrimp. They have a hungry appetite which makes them an excellent cleaner in smaller tanks.

Hope you enjoyed these suggestions for a support crew that will make your aquarium look even better. You can see more articles such as this by subscribing to our enewsletter. We will send you the most recent articles, videos, and other information.