10 Best Clean-Up Crew Ideas For Freshwater Aquariums

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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. Many animals can eat leftover food, leaves from dying plants, and pest snails. Keep reading to learn about our top 10 picks for clean-up crew members.


1. Rainbow Sharks, Redtail Sharks

Although these freshwater sharks may seem odd, you’d be amazed at their cleaning 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. They can be territorial so keep one shark in an aquarium that is 29 gallons or larger to avoid them becoming aggressive. They come in many colors, including black, albino and Glofish.

Redtail sharks are great scavengers for large aquariums with similarly sized tank mates.

2. Eartheaters

There are several South American cichlid genera that include Geophagus, Satanoperca and others. These cichlids are known to scoop up substrate and filter 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 do not have any live aquarium plants, it is important to remove the waste by making more frequent water changes in order 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.

3. Flagfish

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. 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.

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. 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 can happily take in food from all surfaces, acting as a living robot vacuum. 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.

The strong pink color and nicely rounded abdomen are signs that this albino cory catfish is healthy and well-fed.

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. Similar to the flatfish, their mouth shape is similar and they are skilled at picking up algae and 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 can be found in almost any color or pattern combination. Their drive to eat will make them the constant workhorses of your aquarium.

6. Snails

Snails are not for everyone, but we recommend them to all of our customers. They’re one of the best cleaners in the tank because they eat almost anything. They eat fish waste, rotting leaves and dead fish. This allows them to further reduce organic material for the plants. We love nerite, ramshorn, and Malaysian trumpet snails. They burrow into the substrate and clean it. 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, 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 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. 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 look a bit like tiny snakes. They can reach into tight spaces and take in any crumbs. Hillstream loaches can be used as algae eaters and clean up aquarium walls and plant leaves. Loaches can be a diverse group of fish but they all love to hunt for food in nature. Loaches are similar to corydoras. You should feed them sinking foods, and not expect them to survive on leftovers.

Yoyo loaches can be like a group of playful puppies who can take down the most difficult 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 will eat anything they find, so make sure to only use sturdy, safe plants such as anubias and java fern.

9. Bristlenose Plecos

There are many types of plecostomus and suckermouth catfish. However, some species grow too large to be kept in 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. Bristlenose plecos also come in a variety of 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’s easy to distinguish between male and female bristlenose plecos, as only males have bristles at their nostrils.

10. Amano Shrimp

The final cleaner “fish” on our recommended list is actually another invertebrate, the amano shrimp. 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. See our complete care guide to find out more.

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. To see more articles like this, don’t forget to subscribe to our e-newsletter to get our latest articles, videos, events, and more.