How to Clean a Reef Tank: Tips & Tricks

When you own a reef tank, the amount of work you put into cleaning and maintaining it shows. And you’re going to want to show off its beauty to friends and family. Plus, you want to sit back, relax and enjoy it in its full glory, and reap the benefits of your hard work and dedication.

So, how do you achieve this and maintain it? In this article, we will go over our tips and tricks on how to keep your reef tank looking its very best!

Tip #1: Clean the Tank Glass or Acrylic

Clean the Tank Glass or Acrylic

Using a blade that is best suited for your type of tank (metal blade for glass or a plastic blade for acrylic), scrape away as much algae, including coralline algae that has built up on the glass or acrylic surface of your tank as you can. Then, using a scrubbing pad suited for reef tanks, scrub the tank walls, tops, corners and seams to remove any remaining algae.

How Often to Perform: Many reefers do this daily. At a minimum, this should be done when you notice algae building up on the tank walls.

Product Recommendations: A magnetic or handheld algae cleaner with a blade will work best on hard or coralline algae that grows on the glass. Many have a soft pad side to slide along the glass or acrylic for the green algae film that tends to grow there. Another option is a long handled brush with an algae scrubbing sponge on the end. This  is great for getting into the corners of a reef tank. Make sure to use a cleaner that is designed specifically for your tank type, as it is generally not safe to use a cleaner for a glass tank on a tank made with acrylic.

Pro Tip: If any algae besides coralline algae is building up rapidly on the glass of your tank make sure to check your nitrate and phosphate levels, as elevated levels cause algae growth.

Tip #2: Add the Proper Invertebrates (Clean Up Crew)

Add the Proper Invertebrates (Clean Up Crew)

The addition of the correct snails, crabs, sea cucumbers, sea stars and even certain types of fish will continuously work day and night stirring the substrate and cleaning the live rock and tank walls.

How Often to Perform: Even in a really healthy tank inverts can die. Add additional inverts as needed to maintain a consistent stocking level.

Product Recommendations:  The amount of inverts needed for a specific reef tank can vary considerably depending on the amount of algae, uneaten food and detritus. It is always best to start with a smaller number of inverts and gradually add more as needed. If there is not enough waste for them to consume, crabs will start attacking and eating snails and other crabs. And, the other inverts will begin to starve, causing nutrient issues when they die.

As a general rule of thumb, you will want to start with the following: 

  • Snail: 1 per 10 gallons 
  • Crabs: 1 per 10 gallons

As your reef tank matures, you can also add the following:

  • Sand Sifting Stars: 1 per 50 gallons
  • Sea Urchins: 1 urchin can effectively clean an aquarium up to 200 gallons
  • Sea Cucumbers: 3” of worm for every 20 gallons (keep in mind many grow to 12”-18” long)

Tip #3: The Addition of Activated Carbon

The Addition of Activated Carbon

Using activated carbon in a reef tank has many benefits including the following:

  • Removes general contaminates (i.e. chlorine, medications, chemicals, etc)
  • Removes odors
  • Removes dissolved organics
  • Polishes the water, making it crystal clear
  • Removes the build-up of toxins produced by corals and algae

Carbon should be replaced every 2-4 weeks or as soon as you begin to notice yellowing in the water.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend running carbon for one week every month and replacing it with fresh carbon each time.

Product Recommendations: Use a high quality, acid washed activated carbon with excellent adsorption / removal abilities.

Pro Tip: If it is hard to see whether or not the water has a yellow tint to it, use 2 white buckets filling one with the water from your reef tank and the other with fresh RO water.  It should be easy to compare the two colors in the white buckets, if the bucket with the tank water is not as clear as the fresh RO water, then it is time to run some carbon. Generally, water becomes crystal clear within 24hrs with the use of carbon.

Tip #4: Cleaning the Skimmer Neck and Collection Cup

Cleaning the Skimmer Neck and Collection Cup

Your skimmer will perform best when the neck is clean and free from buildup of the skimmate.  As your skimmer runs, the skim will stick to the sides of the neck, reducing and collapsing the bubbles of the skimmate foam and reducing the amount of skimmate reaching the collection cup.  Using a toothbrush, cloth or even paper towel, wipe down the inside of the neck and skimmer body. Be sure to wipe away all of the dirt.

Next, clean the collection cup. It is easy to know when this should be cleaned, since it has an awful smell and/or the collection cup will be full.  Carefully remove the collection cup, making sure not to spill any of the skimmate back into the tank. Pour down a sink, drain or flush it down the toilet. Take the empty collection cup to the sink and wipe out any skimmate on the neck of the collection with your hand or a cloth. Then, give it a good rinse. Clean the cover/lid of the collection cup with your hand or cloth. Clean out any vent holes using Q-tip or brush.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend cleaning the skimmer neck and collection up 1-2 times per week.

Pro Tip: Clean the skimmer pump every 1-3 months to allow it to perform its best. Over time, the build-up of coralline algae, regular algae, tiny snails and other debris can reduce the speed and performance of any pump.

Tip #5: Frequent Water Changes

Frequent Water Changes

Changing at least 10% of the water volume of your tank every 1-2 weeks will reduce excess nutrients and debris, remove yellow pigmented water and replenish some trace and minor elements. Larger or more frequent water changes may be needed if the nitrates and phosphates are high in your reef tank.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend changing tank water every 1-2 weeks.

Tip #6: Blow debris off of the rocks and corals during water changes

Blow debris off of the rocks and corals during water changes

Regardless of your reef tank’s flow, debris still manages to settle into the porous live rock or in between crevices. It can even settle in between the branches or at the base of corals. With the placement and the size of corals in a reef tank, the flow from your pumps will slow down as it tries to pass through, creating lower flow or even dead spots. Using a small powerhead or a turkey baster, blow off the rocks and corals, dislodging all the debris that has settled.  

How Often to Perform: This should be done right before any water change, so that the debris suspended into the water column can be siphoned out during the water change.

Tip #7: Use Filter Socks

Use Filter Socks

Unwanted food and debris suspended into the water column will eventually be pulled into the drain of your tank. Using filter socks will capture that debris and prevent it from remaining in the tank where it can break down and release unwanted phosphates, nitrates and other nutrients into the tank.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend changing filter socks every 2-4 days to help prevent the particles trapped inside the sock from breaking down and releasing phosphates and nitrates back into the tank.

Pro Tip: Filter socks can be cleaned and reused by turning them inside out and washing them in the washing machine using hot water and a couple capfuls of bleach. Use an extra rinse cycle and let each sock completely dry to make sure all of the bleach is removed.

Tip #8: Siphoning the Sanbed

Siphoning the Sanbed

Fish waste, food and debris can settle into the sand bed of a reef tank. This causes nutrient levels to spike by leaching nitrates and phosphates back into the water. The best way to prevent this is by siphoning out the sand bed during water changes.

How Often to Perform: This should be done as part of every regular water change.

Pro Tip: Siphon no more than half of the aquarium at any one time. Siphoning too much at once can reduce the levels of microfauna that live in the sandbed. It can also remove too many of the denitrifying bacteria that live in the rocks and sandbed, causing the nitrogen cycle to start over.

Tip #9: Cleaning Circulation Pumps/Wave Pumps

Blowing off build up on circulation pumps or wave makers during a water change will help improve their long term performance. This can dislodge trapped particles and prevent other particles from being sucked inside the pump while it’s running. Performing this task is important. Without it, your pump’s flow may be reduced, making the pump work harder. It can even shorten the use-able lifespan of the pump.

How Often to Perform: This should be done right before any water change so that the debris suspended into the water column can be siphoned out during the water change.

Pro Tip: Take apart and clean all pumps every 1- 3 months using a vinegar-water or acid-water bath to remove any coralline algae and other debris.

Tip #10: Wipe Exterior Glass/Acrylic

Wipe Exterior Glass/Acrylic

Remove dust and other debris on the outside of the tank by wiping it off with a simple dry cloth.

Clean up any splashes with a damp cloth as soon as they are noticed. Catching salt creep before it dries out makes it easier to clean.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend wiping down the exterior of the tank 1-2 times per week.

Tip #11: Dust lights and blow out the fans

Dust lights and blow out the fans

Wiping down the outsides of your lights will help rid them of dust and prevent that dust from spreading or getting pulled into the fans of the lights.

Make sure to wipe and blow out the fans with compressed air to help extend their life. Dust can become trapped and the moist environment makes it stick to the fan blades, causing them to slow down. Salt may also become suspended in the air from evaporation and sucked into your light’s fans.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend cleaning your lights once every month.

Tip #12: Wipe Away Salt Creep

Wipe Away Salt Creep

Salt creep finds its way onto everything around an aquarium and can even damage items such as the stand. Wipe it down regularly and at the first sign to help make cleaning easier and prevent damage.  One of the most common areas to catch salt creep is on the acrylic shield of your lights. This can reduce the amount of par reaching your aquarium. Remove the salt creep using a soft damp cloth. Then, dry thoroughly, polishing the light.  There are also cleaners available specifically for salt creep that can help make the job easier.

How Often to Perform: As a general rule of thumb, we recommend checking for and removing salt creep 1-2 times per week.

There are not many things that can be more frustrating than sitting down to enjoy your tank and being unable to see through the glass or noticing that the water looks dirty.  Whether you need to do some of these daily or just once a week; these tips and tricks will help keep your tank looking its best, so that it can be enjoyed whenever you are ready – by yourself or with others.

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