8 Best Freshwater Tank Cleaners

Keeping an aquarium clean isn’t fun, but adding the right tank mates can make it much easier on you.

Jan 24, 2024By Maya Keith
best freshwater tank cleaners

Keeping the tank clean is one of the worst parts of being a fish owner. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but it can also easily upset tank parameters and devastate your carefully cultivated ecosystem.

Adding fish and invertebrates that help you deal with algae and waste cuts down on the amount of cleaning you need to do and can actually keep your tank parameters more stable. Keep reading to learn more about the most effective tank cleaners for freshwater tanks.

Common Goldfish

common goldfish
Image Credit: ぱたごん, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, these first-time favorite fish are actually fantastic at dealing with waste. The misconception that they’re messy comes from the fact that many keep goldfish in tanks much too small–common goldfish can grow up to 12 inches and should have at least 20 gallons to themselves.

While you need goldfish-safe plants like anubias or java ferns, these are generally peaceful tank mates that will break down waste enough to hold you over until the next water change. They’ll spend plenty of time scavenging for leftovers and algae at the bottom of the tank, and they bring bright color to your tank.


female platy
Image Credit: Marrabbio2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Platies are another bright fish that eat much more than you would think. Despite their small size, these scavengers are constantly searching their environment for scraps and snacks. Their mouths are perfectly designed to yank algae from decor or unearth food from substrate.

Platies also reproduce easily, and you can have a self-populating cleanup crew in no time at all. This also means that you can have different sizes of cleaners to fit into nooks and crannies of all sizes, keeping your tank spotless.

Smaller Shrimp

Amano Shrimp
Image Credit: Stefanie Leuker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shrimp are well known for keeping clean homes, so it’s no surprise they’re on this list. They pick at decor until it’s clear of algae or other waste, but are gentle enough to groom plants without harm.

It’s important to set up your tank to provide the small invertebrates with plenty of hiding spaces. They’re also more comfortable when kept in groups of 6 to 8, so you should make sure you have enough space beforehand. Consider the mineral requirements shrimp have for proper molting, and make sure you can provide the best care to repay their janitorial duties.


molly fish
Image Credit: Daniel Franco

The common molly is an affordable and social fish that fits well in most general environments. Like goldfish, they’re unspoken heroes when it comes to keeping the tank clean.

Mollies eat brown algae and diatoms. They’re also known to feed on cyanobacteria, especially if you have a group of young black mollies in your aquarium.

Males grow to about 3 inches, while females can grow as big as 5 inches. They need at least 20 gallons to thrive, but a larger aquarium is usually better.

Bristlenose “Bushy” Plecos

female and male bristlenose pleco eating cucumber
Image Credit: Anthony C, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bristlenose plecos are some of the most thorough freshwater tank cleaners, and they’re the only Plecostomus variety small enough for most home aquariums. They only grow to about 4 or 5 inches, but spend their entire day scouring the tank for algae.

Still, bushy plecos need at least 29 gallons to properly handle their bioload and offer enough room for grazing. You should also supplement their diet with a pleco-specific food to make sure they’re getting proper nutrients for maintenance and growth.


eartheater cichlid
Image Credit: DIFish, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

South American Cichlids, known generally as Eartheaters, have a unique approach to keeping your tank clean. They take a mouthful of substrate in their mouth and then filter it out through their gills, keeping any tasty leftovers for themselves.

Understandably, these tropical fish prefer sand over gravel. They also require a larger tank, ideally 55 gallons or more, but have pleasant personalities and get along well with most tank mates.


zebra nerite snail on glass
Image Credit: Evan Baldonado, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Snails get a bad reputation because they reproduce very easily. This isn’t wrong, but there are ways you can take advantage of their cleaning abilities without surrendering your tank to their offspring.

Snails eat pretty much anything you don’t want in your aquarium, including dead plants, fish waste, algae, and dead fish. They’re some of the most comprehensive cleaners you can add.

Some of the best cleaners include Ramshorn Snails, Nerite Snails, and Malaysian Trumpet Snails. Mystery snails are also a favorite because they cannot reproduce alone, but they’re not as effective cleaners.

If your snails get out of control, you can always add snail-eating fish like loaches to take care of the problem.


clown loach and pleco
Image Credit: Fish-Hed, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Loaches have pointed snouts that work perfectly to take care of snails or get into tight crevices. If you’re attached to your snails, you can add snail-safe varieties like Kuhli or Hillstream loaches to take care of algae without nerfing your snail population.

Like plecos, you want to add sinking food to supplement their diet. Apart from this, they do a fantastic job cleaning off the walls, decor, and any flat surfaces in your aquarium.

Setting up a fish tank properly is hard enough; adding the right clean-up crew for maintenance can ensure you don’t have to start from scratch.

Maya Keith
By Maya Keith

Maya is a lifelong animal lover. While she switched from studying veterinary medicine to English, she continues to help by fostering animals in her community. Her permanent residents include 3 dogs, 2 cats, 5 quail, 19 chickens, and a small colony of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.