Cleaning Components of Your Aquarium Based on Material Type

No matter what size or type of aquarium you have, it’s important to keep the tank and other life-support gear clean and operating smoothly. Today’s aquarium hardware, like pumps, skimmers and lighting have never been more reliable, but neglecting to properly maintain your set-up will eventually shorten its lifespan. Aquarium components are made from a variety of materials including glass, acrylic, aluminum and a variety of plastics. These materials are found in pumps, skimmers, lights and even the aquarium itself.  They will eventually become covered with a variety of substances like algae, bacterial slime, encrusting algae, finger smudges and a lot more! But there are many ways to clean these components. We’ll break down the best ways of cleaning your aquarium components, based on the type of material it’s made of.

Cleaning Acrylic Components

Examples of aquarium components made of acrylic

Acrylic is a type of plastic that’s used to make aquariums, filter sumps, protein skimmers and other accessories like probe holders. Acrylic has many glass-like properties. It’s clear, strong and has greater impact resistance than glass, but when it comes to cleaning acrylic components of your aquarium, you can’t treat it like glass. Acrylic is relatively easy to scratch. You shouldn’t use a paper towel or sponge to wipe down the outside of the tank. Acrylic aquarium manufacturers recommend using a soft cotton rag or micro-fiber cloth for cleaning the outside of the aquarium. Use water and light touch when wiping down the outside of an acrylic tank. You’ll even find special polishing products made specifically for cleaning acrylic. Never use alcohol or cleaners containing ammonia as these can damage the plastic. Use the same technique for cleaning sumps, contactors and protein skimmers. For basic cleaning acrylic manufacturers recommend using a dilute solution of dishwashing detergent and water. You can soak the skimmer and skimmer cup in this solution to loosen slime and residue. Wipe everything down with a soft cloth and rinse with plenty of water.

Removing algae from acrylic

Regular algae-scraping pads are too rough for acrylic. Use an acrylic-safe pad for inside the tank, sump and other filtration gear. One of the biggest fears is scratching the tank while scraping algae, even while using a safe algae scraper. All it takes is a tiny sand grain in the scraper pad. Scratches can be buffed out but It’s better to do all you can to avoid them.  Never let your algae pad touch the bottom of the tank. Be careful not to stir up fine particles of sand or rock dust when wiping near the bottom of the aquarium.  Acrylic-safe plastic algae scrapers, like Continuum’s Aquablade-P, can be used to scrape away algae…with care. No matter what you use, don’t apply a lot of pressure, which will reduce the chances of creating a scratch. This is especially important when scraping away coralline algae. Magnetic algae scrapers work well and prevent you from scraping too hard. If you do get a scratch, you can buff it our with Lifegard Aquatic Acrylic Scratch Removal Kit.

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Cleaning Glass Aquariums

Examples of glass aquariums

The outside of a glass aquarium can be wiped down with water to remove smudges and salt creep. Glass cleaners are safe for polishing the outside of a glass tank and will remove greasy finger prints. A soft, lint-free cloth works best. Just spray the cleaner into the cloth and polish the glass. Compared to acrylic, glass is much more resistant to scratching, but if you’re not careful, you can scratch glass too. If you’ve ever seen old glass aquariums, they are often heavily scratched. This is typically caused by fine pieces of gravel, sand and other grit getting stuck in algae scrapers – over the years the scratches have built up. Avoid this by keeping scraper pads away from sand and grit on the bottom of the aquarium. You can use acrylic-safe or glass-safe pads for cleaning glass aquarium components. Pads rated to glass are more abrasive. There are also a variety of handles and magnetic scrapers. Some use metal blades for removing hard to clean coralline algae. No matter what you use, apply the minimum amount of pressure to get the job done.

Cleaning Plastic Components

You’ll find plastic used in uplift tubes, return nozzles, canister and HOB filters, power heads and return pumps. In most cases plastic parts can be wiped with a cloth or scrubbed with a tooth brush. Aquarium components like pump impellers, intake screens and other parts can be disassembled for thorough cleaning. These components can be brought to the sink for rinsing while you scrub away slime and algae. A flexible brush makes cleaning the inside if uplift tubes and return fittings much easier.

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Removing Mineral Scale and Coralline Algae

Example of corraline algae coating aquarium equipment

Over time you will find calcium carbonate build-up on powerheads, return pumps and heaters. The warm surface of these components speeds the formation of the hard carbonate layer. Coralline algae can also coat the outside of equipment like pump motors, intake tubes and other components of your filter system. There’s a quick and completely natural way of cleaning these aquarium components that will loosen hard, crusty algae and scale from them. Plain white vinegar contains acetic acid. Obviously, vinegar is a safe substance since it’s sold in the supermarket for preparing food. That’s because acetic acid is considered a “weak” acid. Its not going to burn through your floor or dissolve your skin. But a vinegar soak will dissolve encrusted carbonates and algae. After a few hours of soaking the crust will flake away when scrubbed with a brush. Here’s how to use vinegar:

  • Some aquarists soak their gear in 100% undiluted vinegar. Others make a dilute soak with RO water at a ratio of one part vinegar to 3 parts RO water.
  • Soak the equipment in the vinegar for several hours. There’s no exact time formula.
  • After soaking, scrub away the loose minerals with a stiff brush.
  • Give everything a quick rinse with tap water and reinstall on your tank.
  • If you’re cleaning an empty aquarium, spray down encrusted algae with a vinegar solution. After a few hours the crust can be brushed off.

You’ll also find powder and liquid “soak” products which are reef and human-safe. Don’t use strong or concentrated “hardware store” acids. They’ll dissolve the minerals but you also risk damaging the equipment and even burning your skin and eyes.

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How to Clean Lighting Fixtures

Its very important to keep salt spray from contacting your light fixture. The salty mist from water movement and splashes can make their way into electrical switches, fans and bulb connectors. Since the salt conducts electricity, the fixture could short out. Salt is also corrosive and can damage exposed metal parts. Some high-end LED lighting fixtures are tightly sealed to prevent salt and moisture damage. Most budget LED strips and fluorescent fixtures are not well protected and can suffer corrosion after long-term exposure to salt. The important thing is to avoid placing lighting in locations where they get misted with water. You may have to adjust your filter’s return nozzle.

Illustration of cleaning a lighting component from aquarium salt spray

Salt spray will also leave a residual coating on bulbs and LED fixtures, reducing the amount of light reaching your corals. The best approach is to never allow your lights to get crusty. Disconnect the power before cleaning the fixture. Use a damp cloth soaked in RO water to wipe down the outside of the light. If you’re using fluorescent bulbs, let them cool down before wiping them with a cloth. If the fixture has a lot of salt build-up, take to the sink. Brush off loose salt. Wipe down the bulbs, lens and any other component that is salty. If you find burnt or blackened bulb holders, melted connections or other faulty components, replace the fixture. It’s not worth the risk of fire in your home.

Summary

No one really likes scraping algae and wiping away salt creep. The key to making the job easier is simply wiping down your aquarium one a week. It will make the task much easier. You’ll find it also helps to have a bucket with cleaning supplies like algae pads, scrapers and polishing cloths. That way you’ll never have to search around trying to gather what you need for quick clean-up. You’ll spend less time cleaning and more time enjoying your reef!

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