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. 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
These freshwater “sharks” might seem like an odd group to start with, but you would be surprised at their janitorial skills. 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. As a bonus, they come in many variations, such as black, albino, and even Glofish colors.
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. Any edible leftovers are swallowed, digested in their gut, and broken down further so that plants can more easily absorb the 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.) Consider adding eartheaters as a fun and docile bottom dweller for any community tank that is 55 gallons or larger.
Because of the way eartheaters sift through substrate to find food, they tend to prefer sand over gravel.
The males of this North American native fish have a beautiful pattern that resembles the stars and stripes on the United States flag. Their mouths are also uniquely shaped for easily pulling off hair algae and black beard algae, although they may end up damaging more delicate plants in the process. As a type of killifish, they can get a bit rambunctious, so make sure to keep them in a 20-gallon or larger aquarium with other fast tank mates.
Flagfish are one of the few clean-up crew members that can live in unheated aquariums.
The beloved cory catfish comes in many varieties and sizes, such as the 1-inch dwarf corydoras, 2- to 3-inch normal-sized cories, and 4-inch larger Brochis types. 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 abdomen are signs that this albino cory catfish is healthy and well-fed.
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 décor for edible snacks. Like the flatfish, they have a similar mouth shape that’s adept at pulling off algae and grabbing half-buried morsels. Best of all, they reproduce quite readily, which means you’ll have platies of all different sizes – from 3-inch adults to 0.5-inch babies – that can fit into different types of nooks and crannies to look 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.
Not everyone likes snails, but we always 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 personally like ramshorn snails, nerite snails, and Malaysian trumpet snails (which burrow and clean the substrate). 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, bright pink ramshorn snail enjoys eating soft algae, debris, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods.
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 for their love of escargot, especially if they’re a species with a pointed snout that’s perfect for sucking snails right of their shells. 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.
Now if you enjoy snails like us, there are many other types of snail-safe loaches to consider. Kuhli loaches look like tiny snakes that can wiggle into narrow crevices and gulp down any crumbs stuck inside. Hillstream loaches are better as algae eaters that can clean off your aquarium walls, plant leaves, and other flat surfaces. 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. However, goldfish love picking through the substrate, munching on leftovers and fish waste, and eating algae. 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. We like the bristlenose or bushy nose pleco because they only get 4 to 5 inches long and are great cleaners that eat algae, scavenge for food, and keep driftwood clean. (Other smaller plecos include the medusa pleco, clown pleco, and rubbernose pleco.) Other fun features of bristlenose plecos are that they come in several color varieties and are easy to breed. Keep them in a 29-gallon or larger aquarium that can handle the pleco’s waste load and has enough space for grazing.
It’s easy to differentiate between male and female bristlenose plecos because only males have bristles on their snouts.
10. Amano Shrimp
The final cleaner "fish" on our recommended list is actually another invertebrate, the amano shrimp. Made popular by their algae-eating capabilities in planted aquascapes, these dwarf shrimp are also great scavengers and can use their little legs to grab inside the tiniest cracks that most fish and snails can’t reach. If given access to plenty of fish food, they tend to go for the easy meals and won’t eat algae as much. 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.
Hope you enjoyed our ideas for a support crew to help make your aquarium look a little better all the time. To see more articles like this, don’t forget to subscribe to our e-newsletter to get our latest articles, videos, events, and more.