Tank Maintenance Shortcuts You Should Not Take in 2024, According to Aquarists

Alison Page

Alison Page


Tank Maintenance Shortcuts Not to Take

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Maintaining a fish tank is a labor of love, and it takes a lot of your time and energy to keep your fish and other tank residents healthy and happy.

However, in the hustle and bustle of your daily routine, it’s tempting to cut corners when it comes to tank maintenance and fish care. I must confess, in my 40 years plus in the hobby, I’ve taken a few shortcuts when time is tight. However, although that might seem harmless at first, trying to skimp on essential aquarium maintenance jobs can have severe long-term consequences, jeopardizing your aquarium’s delicate ecosystem.

This guide explores common tank maintenance shortcuts and explains the potential long-term repercussions of aquarium care corner cutting.

Key Takeaways

Before you dive in and read the full article, I pulled together the key takeaways and most important points to note in this summary.

  • Cycling Is Crucial: Properly cycling a new aquarium is essential to prevent harmful ammonia and nitrite spikes that can stress and kill fish. Skipping this critical stage in your aquarium preparation can lead to new tank syndrome, which will potentially have severe consequences for aquatic life.
  • Maintenance Matters: Regular maintenance tasks such as partial water changes, gravel vacuuming, and filter cleaning are non-negotiable for a healthy aquarium. Neglecting these jobs can result in poor water quality, stressed fish, disease outbreaks, and algae bloom.
  • Monitor and Moderate: Keeping a close eye on water parameters and temperature and using aquarium chemicals judiciously are key practices to avoid stress and disease in fish. Overuse of chemicals can disrupt the ecosystem and build resistance among pathogens, potentially leading to sick fish and cloudy water.

Failing To Cycle Your Aquarium Properly

Java moss plant oxygenate air bubble

The most critical step in setting up a new aquarium is cycling it properly before you add your new fish. Cycling the tank establishes a stable, healthy environment for fish and other aquatic life, and failing to do so often results in stressed, dying fish.

Unfortunately, many newbies to the hobby rush or overlook this essential step, leading to new tank syndrome and the following serious problems:

Ammonia and Nitrite Spikes

Decomposing fish waste and leftover fish food release toxic ammonia into the water as they break down. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and accumulations of the chemical will quickly kill your livestock.

In the aquarium, Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter bacteria process ammonia into nitrite and then into less harmful nitrates. However, these beneficial bacteria won’t have had time to establish large enough colonies in an uncycled tank to do that job. That can lead to ammonia and nitrite spikes, which are highly toxic to fish and can result in stress, disease outbreaks, and even the death of your pets

So, although you’re bound to be keen to rush to the fish store to buy those gorgeous new fishies and get them into your sparkling new tank, you must wait until it’s properly cycled!

How to Properly Cycle Your Aquarium

Cycling a new fish tank takes time, but you must be patient and do the job properly. Here’s a brief overview of what you need to do to cycle your aquarium.

  • Start by setting up your aquarium with a substrate, decorations, a filtration system, and a heater. Position the tank properly and fill it with dechlorinated water.
  • Now, you need to introduce those beneficial bacteria into your fish tank to get the nitrogen cycle started. you can do that using commercial bacterial supplements or by adding established bacteria already present in the substrate or filter media taken from a mature aquarium.
  • The bacteria require a food source to proliferate and establish large, robust colonies. Feed the bacteria by adding a few pinches of fish food, which will quickly decompose, releasing ammonia for the bacteria to feed on. Alternatively, you can accelerate the process by adding a few drops of pure ammonia to the water.
  • Over the next few weeks, test the water until ammonia and nitrite levels are zero. Once that happens, you know the bacterial colonies are established and working hard to process the ammonia and nitrites.
  • Bear in mind it can take a few weeks to a month or longer for a tank to cycle completely. During that time, you must resist the temptation to add fish!

Once your tank has cycled properly, you can add a few small fish. However, don’t go mad and introduce a huge shoal of fish to the aquarium, as that could overwhelm the newly established bacterial colonies, potentially leading to an ammonia spike.

Over the next few weeks, test the aquarium water every few days and be ready to carry out partial water changes if ammonia or nitrite levels rise above zero. It’s quite normal for nitrate levels to be around 20 ppm or even 30 ppm. Most fish species will tolerate that without difficulty. However, if nitrate levels exceed 30 ppm, carry out a partial water change to dilute that to acceptable levels.

You can add a few more fish when the water parameters remain stable.

Infrequent Water Changes

Green plants growing and pet fishes swimming in an aquarium

One of beginner aquarists’ most common maintenance shortcuts is irregular water changes. Even though your aquarium looks spotless and sparkling clean, and water changes seem unnecessary; they are essential for maintaining good water quality and removing toxins.

Ideally, you should change 20 to 30 percent of the tank water every week or two, depending on the size of your tank and the number of fish you have in it. So, what happens if you don’t?

  • Without regular water changes, chemicals such as ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate will accumulate in the tank, causing stress and disease outbreaks.
  • Nitrates provide an excellent nutrient source for plants and algae. If you don’t carry out regular water changes, you risk triggering an algal bloom in your tank, leading to unsightly green water and a coating of green slime over your viewing panes and decorations.
  • Dirty water provides the ideal environment for harmful bacteria and parasites to thrive, increasing the risk of disease outbreaks among your fish.

Neglecting Gravel Vacuuming

A man vacuums a fish tank

Fish waste, uneaten food, and plant debris fall into the substrate, where it disappears and starts to decompose. You can get rid of that detritus by vacuuming the gravel regularly with an aquarium vacuum cleaner; yes, there is such a thing!

Gravel vacuuming should form a regular part of your aquarium maintenance routine. However, many fish keepers neglect this task or only perform it sporadically.

Use the vacuum to delve deep into the gravel to suck up any debris lurking there, and clean around plant bases, under decorations, and beneath filter boxes, where muck tends to accumulate.

If you don’t bother with this task, organic waste accumulates in the substrate, leading to elevated levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates in the water. Decomposing organic matter also consumes oxygen in the aquarium, leading to oxygen depletion, which can stress your fish and other livestock.

Rotting organic waste can also release acids into the water, leading to fluctuations in pH levels that can be harmful to fish and plants.

Skipping Filter Maintenance

Aquarium filter output of a tropical freshwater aquarium

Every fish tank should have an efficient filtration system. Filters play a crucial role in maintaining water quality by removing physical and biological waste from the water and keeping the environment safe and healthy for your fish. The mechanical filtration element removes particles of waste, leaving the water crystal clear so you can enjoy an unobscured view of your aquatic pets.

However, for the filtration system to work properly, you must pay attention to filter maintenance. If the filter media or the filter unit becomes clogged with debris, water won’t flow through it, starving the beneficial bacteria in the biological filter media of oxygen and nutrients.

If you don’t set aside time to clean your filter, you risk the following consequences:

  • Poor water quality and increased toxin levels
  • Cloudy water you can’t see through
  • Accumulations of sludge inside the filter, preventing the impeller from spinning freely and hampering the filtration system mechanics
  • Organic debris accumulates, providing a breeding ground for harmful bacteria
  • Clogged impellers, motor burnout, and other mechanical issues resulting in costly repairs or replacements

I find it best to disassemble the filter box in my goldfish tank every couple of weeks. I remove the media, rinse it in dirty tank water to remove accumulated sludge, and use an old toothbrush to clean the interior of the box and the impeller. If the media is spent, I replace it, usually once a month.

Of course, goldfish are notoriously filthy creatures, so their filter gets dirty very quickly. The filter in my tropical tank only needs a thorough clean once a month since the bioload is much lighter.

Not Monitoring Water Parameters

Aquarium colourful fishes in dark blue water

Regular monitoring of water parameters, including water temperature, pH levels, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates, is essential for ensuring a stable and healthy environment for your fish.

However, that important aspect of tank maintenance is often forgotten. That’s a shame because water parameter issues are often an early warning sign of impending problems that could be prevented.

The consequences of failing to monitor your aquarium water parameters include:

  • Poor water quality, leading to stressed, sick fish
  • Temperature fluctuations, potentially causing temperature shock in sensitive fish species
  • Inaccurate diagnosis of fish diseases, potentially leading to incorrect treatment

Use a high-quality, comprehensive aquarium water testing kit once a week as part of your regular aquarium maintenance routine.

Over-Reliance on Aquarium Chemicals

woman sprays water conditioner

Although aquarium chemicals can be invaluable tools for maintaining water quality and treating fish diseases, these should be used judiciously and never as a substitute for correct tank maintenance.

Over-reliance on chemicals can have serious consequences for the health and stability of your aquarium ecosystem, potentially leading to toxicity, disease outbreaks, and long-term harm to your fish and other livestock.

What Are Some Commonly Used Aquarium Chemicals?

Here are some aquarium chemicals we all reach for from time to time.

  • Tap-safe: Tap-safe products are convenient for removing chlorine, chloramine, and heavy metals from tap water. You must use a reliable one every time you carry out a partial water change unless you use distilled water, well water, deionized water, spring water, or reverse osmosis water.
  • Water conditioners: Water conditioners are sometimes combined with dechlorinators and contain elements to enhance the fish’s slime coat and reduce stress.
  • pH adjusters: pH adjusters are used to raise or lower aquarium water’s pH level to suit specific fish species’ preferences or maintain stable pH levels.
  • Algaecides: These are chemicals designed to kill algae or inhibit its growth, helping to keep your water clear and the aquarium surfaces free from the dreaded green slime.
  • Medication: You’ll find various medications to treat the most common fish ailments, including fungus, bacterial infections, parasitic infestations, and protozoan diseases, at your local fish store or pet shop.

Consequences of overuse

Using too many chemicals in your fish tank can disrupt the ecosystem’s delicate balance. That causes fluctuations in the water parameters, including dissolved oxygen levels, stressing the fish and leaving them more susceptible to disease.

In addition, many aquarium chemicals, especially medicines and algaecides, contain active ingredients that are toxic to your fish if you use too much of them. Over time, excess chemicals build up in the water, potentially poisoning or even killing your pets.

There has been much in the press recently about the overuse of antibiotics to treat minor illnesses in humans, which is proven to make certain bacterial strains immune to the effects of these drugs. The same applies to fish.

Using drugs and other chemicals in your tank too often can lead to resistance and immunity among pathogens, making them more difficult to get rid of with standard treatments. That will result in recurring outbreaks of disease and the need for stronger, more aggressive medications to treat them.

Some chemicals, especially algaecides, and antibiotics, can alter the natural microbial balance of the tank. That disrupts the nitrogen cycle, leaving your fish vulnerable to harmful bacteria and your tank enveloped in algae blooms.

Not Maintaining Correct Heating and Lighting Levels

fish tank thermometer

All fish need to live in water of a specific temperature range. If the water is too warm or too cold for long periods, the fish will become stressed and sick. Similarly, if the temperature fluctuates wildly throughout the day, the fish could suffer from temperature shock, which is often fatal.

Before introducing new fish to your aquarium, thoroughly research the species and ensure the tank temperature is correct and appropriate for each.

For example, goldfish need cooler water temperatures between 73° and 75° F. However, tropical fish, like gouramis, need water in the range of 75° and 80° F. So, if you put gouramis in a goldfish tank, they will suffer temperature shock and probably not survive for long.


Different organisms, including living plants and corals, need different lighting levels. Sometimes, those levels must change at different times of the day, depending on the species involved. So, before introducing newbies to your tank, carefully research their lighting preferences and choose compatible inhabitants rather than pairing lowlight species with those needing much more light.

Final Thoughts

Keeping fish successfully demands various maintenance tasks to keep your aquarium healthy, safe for your fish, and looking good. Those jobs are quite time-consuming, and taking shortcuts, either intentionally or accidentally, can be tempting if you’re new to the hobby.

However, neglecting basic maintenance tasks like performing partial water changes, gravel vacuuming, filter maintenance, and water parameter monitoring can lead to poor water conditions and sick fish.

Remember, the well-being of your fish and other aquatic pets is well worth the extra time and effort demanded for proper maintenance.

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