The Best Clean Up Crew Critters and Equipment For Your Reef Aquarium

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Spring time has lots of difference faces depending on where you are located. For me living in the Northeast, it means I can finally get outside and tackle the chore of cleaning up my yard from winter (and sneaking out to the golf course as well). But no matter where you live, all of us aquarists all have one common chore that needs to be done, regardless of the time of year: Tank Cleaning.

We have lots of different options to help tackle this chore, from natural means to good old elbow grease and an algae scrapers. In this article I am going to start by going over some of the more popular critters for your clean up crew (CUC) as well as some of the best tools of the trade that you will be able to use to assist your CUC.

Snails:

Snails are one of the most popular members of a CUC and there are many different types available to us. Snails can help graze on algae (all different types of algae), feed on detritus as well as excess food that the fish miss. Listed below are some of the more popular snails and what their main food source consists of:

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Astraea Snails: Herbivore, eats mainly film algae such as diatoms and sometimes cyanobacteria. It may also pick at hair algae and other green algae.

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Turbo Snails: Herbivore, eats mainly hair algae and other green algae. There are a few different snails that are called “turbo” snails, most commonly you will see the Mexican Turbo Snail (Turbo fluctuosa) and Zebra Turbo Snails (Turbo spp or Trochus spp). Many have reported the Zebra Turbo snails do a very good job on hair algae. These snails can get large and many times knock over unsecured corals and rock.

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Cerith Snails: Herbivore, will feed upon green hair and film algae within the tank. These snails tend to be nocturnal in nature and will hide in the sandbed during the evening (generally not recommended for bare bottom tanks).

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Nassarius Snails: Carnivore, will eat uneaten food, decaying organics and fish waste. The Nassarius snail is one of the best detritus eaters for an aquarium with a sandbed. It will bury in the sand to sleep. When it senses food in the aquarium, it will quickly unbury itself and feed upon and food that makes its way to the bottom of the aquarium. Spot feeding may be required for the health of these snails. Small pieces of mysis shrimp or other meaty foods are appreciated. Many times you can also find Tonga Nassarius snails which are a little large in size than the standard Nassarius snails.

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Nerite Snails: Herbivore, will graze upon film algae mostly on the glass of aquariums. They tend to be more nocturnal and show almost no activity during the daytime. Given enough food and proper water quality they can breed in home aquariums. They reproduce by laying eggs on the walls of the aquarium.

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Trochus Snails (Banded Trochus Snails): Herbivore, eats mainly film algae such as diatoms and some times cyanobacteria. Trochus tend to graze more upon the film algae than any other types of algae, but they may graze upon some green algae and may even graze upon hair algae (bryopsis).

If your tank does not have a lot of algae growth you may need to supplement your snails diet. The use of Algae Sheets wrapped around a rock (use a rubber band to hold the algae more securely to the rock) is a great way to do this.

Hermit Crabs:

People tend to have mixed feelings on hermit crabs; some people love them while others stay as far away from them as possible. I personally tend to like to have a few in my tank as I have never had any issues with mine. I stick with only two types though, scarlet hermit crabs and blue legged hermit crabs. Hermit crabs are omnivores and opportunistic scavengers in my experience. Hermit crabs spend most of their day picking at the surface of rocks for food (probably algae), but when they sense meaty type foods in the tank, they will go after it. This may be a dying animal within the tank or excess food falling to the bottom. Many times when the go after a dying animal this can be perceived as them attacking said animal. While they may occasionally go after a healthy occupant of your tank, most of the time they are simply cleaning up. 

Hermit crabs also love to change out shells and if there is a lack of choices for them, they may go after snails in the tank to get their shells. Keeping an abundance of empty shells of various sizes can help with this. You may even see hermit crabs fighting with each other over what they perceive to be the best shell in the tank.

Below is a little bit of information about those two along with a couple other popular ones.

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Scarlet Hermit Crabs: Omnivore, will feed upon meaty bits of seafood, algae and detritus. They will also sift through the sand some. They have red appendages and bright yellow eyes.

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Blue Legged Hermit Crabs: Omnivore, will feed upon meaty bits of seafood, algae and detritus. These hermit crabs tend to stay on the smaller side.

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Dwarf Zebra Hermit Crabs: Omnivore, will feed upon meaty bits of seafood, algae and detritus. These are one of the smaller available hermit crabs and thus they are less likely to go after medium to larger sized snails.

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Mexican Red-Leg Hermit Crabs: Omnivore, will feed upon meaty bits of seafood, algae and detritus. These are another very active species and can do a good job grazing on algae within the tank.

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Starfish:

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Sand Sifting Starfish: Carnivore, feeding upon sand dwelling crustaceans like spaghetti worms, tube worms, copepods, amphipods, etc… While a great invertebrate to keep the sandbed thoroughly sifted, it comes at a price. They will decimate your sandbed off all living creatures. It is estimated that one Sand Sifting Sea Star can void a 5 inch sandbed in an 80 gallon system of living sandbed matter in just a few weeks. It will then proceed to stay hidden in the sand, starve to death and decay. My personal recommendation is to leave these starfish in the ocean. While a few people do have success long term with them, that is an exception and should be taken into consideration when thinking about purchasing one.

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Serpent Star & Brittle Star: Carnivore, feeds upon meaty bits of seafood and detritus. They tend to hide in the rock work and all you see of them is their arms sticking out of the rocks trying to grasp at pieces of food as they float by. But some will venture out of the rock work and hunt down pieces of food in the tank after you have fed your tank. Be cautious of the Green Brittle Stars as they are known to go after fish of all sizes, but the other types of serpent and brittle starts are generally safe with all different sized fish and invertebrates.

Other Assorted CUC Worth Noting:

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Urchins: For the most parts urchins can be very useful in a reef tank. The Pincushion (Tuxedo) Urchin grazes upon all types of algae including coralline and will occasionally pick up loose pieces of rubble, sand and even coral frags and “carry” them around the tank. The Longspine Diadema Urchin will also graze upon all types of algae and unfortunately will sometimes graze upon corals as well. I personally have experienced them eating Acropora frags (completely ate many 1″ frags) as well graze around the rim of a Montipora capricornis colony. Add with caution to a reef tank.

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Cucumbers: Many types of cucumbers will sift through the sandbed and will digest the algae and detritus off of it. Some can get quite large and some are toxic if they die within the aquarium (avoid “sea apples”). Cucumbers can be on the more sensitive side, so I would recommend them to the novice hobbyist.

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Shrimp: Shrimp can be a great addition to a reef tank, or even a marine tank with liverock and fish only. They are great scavengers and some, like the Scarlet Clearner Shrimp and Fire Shrimp are even known for their ability to pick parasites off of fish. Peppermint Shrimp can also be useful to people who are trying to rid their tank of aiptasia. They are known for their ability to feed upon these pest anemones (most of the time). But these shrimp also have a nasty habit of “stealing” food from corals. They will literally rip pieces of food from LPS corals like Acanthastrea, Duncanopsammia, Tubastrea and even anemones, sometimes causing damage to the corals.

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Nudibranch: The two most commonly seen nudibranchs available are Sea Hares and Lettuce Nudibranch. They can be useful in helping to rid a tank of Bryopsis or green hair algae in particular. They tend to be very sensitive to changes in water conditions, so you will want to make sure you keep your parameters stable for them. They can make quick work of the algae in a tank and starvation can quickly become a problem.

Now that we have gone over many of the popular invertebrates that can be used as part of your CUC, let’s take a look at some of the items you can use hands-on to help your clean up crew keep your tank looking its best.

Algae Scrapers:

A must have for all hobbyists. They come in all shapes and sizes to tackle even the most stubborn algae on your tanks walls.

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Magnetic Algae Scrapers: The principle on these is fairly simple, but they still need to be used correctly to help prevent damaging your tank. If you have an acrylic tank, make sure the magnet your purchase is acrylic safe to prevent scratching your aquariums.

There are two parts to the magnetic algae scrapers, one part that goes inside the aquarium and one part that stays on the outside. By sliding the outside magnet back and forth you cause the inside magnet to follow and hopefully wipe off the algae. They work on most slime type algae with ease, but more stubborn algae may take a few swipes to remove. Coralline algae more than likely will not be removed with a standard algae magnet though. For those even harder to remove alga like coralline, you can attach an Easy Blade (glass tanks only) to cut through it. The Easy Blade attachment will fit Mag-Float 350 and all Algae Free Magnets and only requires a few drops of super glue to hold it in place.

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Handheld Algae Scrapers: While magnetic algae scrapers are a great tool, they can’t reach in some tight spots or you may not want to get too close to the sandbed (prevent getting sand caught in the pad and scratching your tank). This can leave areas of algae on the sides of your aquarium that can become unsightly. This is where the handheld algae scrapers come in handy.

You will find a wide variety of sizes and style available from handheld abrasive pads (made for glass or acrylic tanks) to handheld metal or plastic blade style scrapers along with abrasive pads and metal or plastic blades on handles of different lengths to reach deeper in your tank or get into some of the tight spots your arm won’t reach.

Equipment Cleaners:

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Pump soaks: Over time the pumps inside of our aquarium can become coated with coralline algae. Some people like this look and feel the pumps blend in more with their tanks. Others feel this looks “dirty” in the tank and want the pumps looking new. You have a couple of option to help get your pumps looking new again. A couple of choices Marine Depot carries include D-D EzeClean Equipment Cleaner and Hydor Magi-Klean. These are very simple to use and work very well. You simply remove the pumps from the tank and soak them in a bucket with water mixed with one of the cleaners. Within minutes you will see the coralline algae start to dissolve off the pumps.

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Bristle brushes: These are indispensable in helping to remove algae on pumps, especially in the grills where a normal algae scrapers won’t reach. They can also help remove the slime that builds up inside of pumps impeller chamber.

Siphons:

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Siphons will help remove water from your tank during a water change. Many will have a larger, rigid tube used to clean the gravel while you siphon water out of the tank. The gravel cleaner is attached to around 4-6 feet of vinyl tubing. With larger sized gravel the gravel cleaner works great but in reef tanks with fine sand you can actually siphon out the sand. Pinching the vinyl tubing to slow down the flow can help reduce the amount of sand that gets siphoned out. Also in reef tanks with a deep sandbed or plenum system you don’t want to disturb the sand too much.

Conclusion:

With the proper combination of fish, a clean up crew and yourself getting your hands wet occasionally you can keep your tank at its healthiest. As a good friend once told me, stability promotes success and this is very true in saltwater aquariums. If you need some guidance on some guidelines to help get a good routine going, you can view a previous article here that can help create these. It will go over all aspects of required maintenance as well as approximate time frames for each including a printable chart.

Thanks for reading and we welcome your comments on other recommendations you have for cleaning your aquarium as well as some of your favorite invertebrates for your ideal CUC.

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