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. Many animals can eat leftover food, leaves from dying plants, and 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 sharks are good scavengers and can clean up food between equipment and rocks. Rainbow sharks even eat algae. 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 are great scavengers for large aquariums with similarly sized tank mates.

2. Eartheaters

The group of South American Cichlids includes several species, including Geophagus and Satanoperca. They are well-known for scooping up substrate and filtering it through the 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. For community tanks that are 55 gallons and larger, eartheaters can be a fun and gentle bottom dweller.

Due to the way eartheaters sort through substrate for food, they tend towards 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. 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. This species of killifish can be quite impulsive so keep them in a larger aquarium (20 gallons) with other fast fish.

Flagfish is one of few members of the clean-up crew that can survive in unheated tanks.

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. Their barbels (or whiskers), are peaceful scavengers that search for small crustaceans, scraps, and worms hidden between objects and 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.

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 food. They will eat anything and everything that’s available, including plants, flowers, and decorations. Similar to the flatfish, their mouth shape is similar and they are skilled at picking up algae and 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 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 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, brightly colored ramshorn snail loves soft algae, debris and vegetables.

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 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 are a very diverse group of fish, but in general, they all like to scavenge for food in the wild. As with corydoras and other fish, you should provide them with a varied diet that includes sinking food. Don’t expect them only to eat leftovers.

Yoyo loaches can be like a group of playful puppies who can take down the most difficult pest snail infestations.

8. Common Goldfish

Although this unexpected addition may seem counterintuitive, goldfish are known for being messy fish. They can grow up to 12 inches in length and are often kept in tanks that are too small. 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. 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 are the clown pleco and medusa pleco. Bristlenose plecos also come in a variety of colors and can be easily bred. 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 distinguish between male and female bristlenose plecos, as only males have bristles at their nostrils.

10. Amano Shrimp

Our final cleaner fish is actually an invertebrate called 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. For more information, see our complete care guide.

Amano shrimp is one of the toughest dwarf shrimp. They have a hungry appetite which makes them great cleaners for smaller tanks.

These ideas for support crews to improve your aquarium’s appearance are our hope. For more articles like these, subscribe to our email newsletter to receive the latest videos, articles, and events.