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? 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 learn about our top 10 picks for clean-up crew members.


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 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. To avoid aggression, only one shark should be kept in a aquarium of 29 gallons or more. They come in many colors, including black, albino and Glofish.

Redtail sharks make great scavengers in large aquariums that have tank mates of similar size.

2. Eartheaters

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 leftovers that are edible are swallowed and then taken into their stomachs. Then, they break down the material further to allow plants to absorb it. 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. 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.

3. Flagfish

This North American native fish’s males have a stunning pattern that looks like the stars and stripes of the United States flag. 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 is one of few members of the clean-up crew that can survive in unheated tanks.

4. Corydoras

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. As peaceful scavengers, they use their barbels (or whiskers) to search for scraps, worms, and tiny crustaceans hidden in the substrate and between objects. Cory catfish is a living robot vacuum that happily takes in any food left over from 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

Although the platy fish are not often thought of as potential cleanup crew members, many livebearers are well-known for their insatiable appetites, which cause them to constantly eat plants and other decor to make edible snacks. Like the flatfish, they have a similar mouth shape that’s adept at pulling off algae and grabbing half-buried morsels. The best part is that they reproduce very quickly. You’ll have platies from 3 to 5 inches in length and babies to 0.5 inches in size.

Platies are available in nearly every color and combination of patterns, and they will be the tireless workhorses for your aquarium.

6. Snails

Snails are not for everyone, but we recommend them to all of our customers. 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 like nerite and ramshorn snails. However, mystery snails can be more like pets than regular janitors. You should consider getting them if their behavior and appearance appeal to you more than their cleaning abilities.

This beautiful, bright pink ramshorn snail enjoys eating soft algae, debris, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods.

7. Loaches

Because snails can reproduce rapidly, many people are searching for ways to “clean up” their 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 are tiny snakes that can squeeze into small spaces and swallow any crumbs. Hillstream loaches are better as algae eaters that can clean off your aquarium walls, plant leaves, and other flat surfaces. Although loaches come in many varieties, they are all known for their love of hunting down food in the wild. Loaches are similar to corydoras. You should feed them sinking foods, and not expect them to survive 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. The goldfish enjoy digging through the substrate and eating 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 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 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. 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. You should keep them in a larger aquarium (29-gallon) that can hold their waste and allows for plenty of 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

Another invertebrate is the amano shrimp, which is our final cleaner “fish”. These dwarf shrimp are well-known for their ability to consume algae in planted aquascapes. They can also be great scavengers as they can use their tiny legs to reach the very small cracks that snails and fish can’t reach. They will eat fish food if they have plenty to eat. You need to ensure that they have enough minerals in their water, food and water for healthy molting. They’ll be hard at work keeping 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. For more articles like these, subscribe to our email newsletter to receive the latest videos, articles, and events.