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? This mythical creature does not exist. However, many animals do an excellent job of eating leftover food, algae, dying plant leaves, and even pest snails. Keep reading to discover our top 10 favorite clean-up crew members that every freshwater aquarium should have.


1. Rainbow Sharks, Redtail Sharks

This group of freshwater “sharks”, although it may seem strange, is actually quite capable of performing janitorial tasks. 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. To avoid aggression, only one shark should be kept in a aquarium of 29 gallons or more. As a bonus, they come in many variations, such as black, albino, and even Glofish colors.

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

2. Eartheaters

This group of South American cichlids consists of several genera, such as Geophagus and Satanoperca, that are known for scooping up substrate into their mouths and filtering 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 don’t have live aquarium plants, you must remove the waste via water changes more frequently to keep your fish healthy.) For community tanks that are 55 gallons and larger, eartheaters can be a fun and gentle bottom dweller.

Because eartheaters have to dig through soil to find food, they prefer to use sand rather than 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. As a type of killifish, they can get a bit rambunctious, so make sure to keep them in a 20-gallon or larger aquarium with other fast tank mates.

Flagfish can live in unheated aquariums and are one of the few members of the cleaning crew.

4. Corydoras

The cory catfish is a beloved fish that comes in many sizes. There are dwarf corydoras of 1-inch, normal-sized cories from 2- to 3 inches, and larger Brochis varieties that are 4-inch and larger. Their barbels (or whiskers), are peaceful scavengers that search for small crustaceans, scraps, and worms hidden between objects and the substrate. Like a living robot vacuum, cory catfish happily suck up any food that gets past the surface eaters. You can’t give them crumbs, but they won’t live on crumbs. So make sure to feed them sinking wafers and frozen bloodworms. For more details, check out our full care guide.

The strong pink color and nicely rounded stomach indicate that this albino cory fish is well-fed and healthy.

5. Platies

Not many people think of the colorful platy fish as potential clean-up crew members, but many livebearers are known for their insatiable appetites that cause them to constantly pick at the ground, plants, and decor for edible snacks. Like the flatfish, they have a similar mouth shape that’s adept at pulling off algae and grabbing 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 are available in nearly every color and combination of patterns, and they will be the tireless workhorses for your aquarium.

6. Snails

Although not everyone loves snails, we still recommend them to our customers. Because they can eat almost any food, they’re one of our best tank cleaners. 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. The mystery snails are more like pets than janitors. So get them if they appeal to you and their behavior, rather than their cleaning skills.

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.

If you love snails, there are many types of snail-safe loaches that you can choose from. Kuhli loaches look like tiny snakes that can wiggle into narrow crevices and gulp down any crumbs stuck inside. Hillstream loaches are better as algae eaters that can clean off your aquarium walls, plant leaves, and other flat surfaces. Although loaches come in many varieties, they are all known for their love of hunting down food in the wild. Loaches are similar to corydoras. You should feed them sinking foods, and not expect them to survive on leftovers.

Yoyo loaches are like a pack of playful puppies that can easily take down your toughest pest snail infestations.

8. Common Goldfish

This surprising addition to our list may seem odd because goldfish are known to be messy fish. However, their bad reputation stems from the fact they can grow up to 12 inches and are kept in tanks that are far too small. However, goldfish love picking through the substrate, munching on leftovers and fish waste, and eating algae. If you have large tanks with peaceful fish friends, single-tailed goldfish or non-fancy ones will help keep the bottom clean. They also break down any debris so you can remove it easily when you change the water or service the 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. Other smaller plecos are the clown pleco and medusa pleco. The bristlenose pleco is easy to breed and comes in many color options. They should be kept in a large aquarium of at least 29 gallons that can store their wastes and provides enough room for them to graze.

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 prefer easy food and will not eat as much algae if they are given plenty of fish food. They will work hard to maintain your tank clean if you provide them with enough minerals in their water. For more information, see our complete care guide.

Amano shrimp make excellent cleaners for small tanks.

These ideas for support crews to improve your aquarium’s appearance are our hope. Subscribe to our e-newsletter for more articles and videos.