It’s an inevitability in our fish tanks. Sooner or later, detritus and algae make our beautiful aquarium decorations dirty. You can clean them, of course, but you also need to take some precautions to avoid any danger to the fauna in your tank. If you’re willing to learn, read on, and I’ll show you how to clean aquarium decorations without any risk to your favorite fishy friends.
Step 1: Remove Your Decorations Carefully
Getting decorations out can be a bit of a pain. You’ll need to pull everything out that you can.
There are a few things that should never be cleaned intentionally:
- Live Plants
Your run of the line treasure chests, castles, and pirate ships will be fine. Silk plants can be cleaned as well.
If you’re in a planted tank, then you should be careful to remove them without disturbing the roots of nearby plants. I’ve never found a completely foolproof way to remove a focal decoration from a planted tank for cleaning, but trimming the roots if they pull up seems to help.
In a “standard” aquarium, you shouldn’t have any issues. Just pull them up slowly.
If there’s a lot of detritus stirred up when you pull out the decoration, then go over the area with a gravel vacuum. Otherwise, you’ll just mash that junk down in the bottom when you replace the decorations.
Step 2: Clean the Decorations with Mild Cleaners
The basic idea is to use the mildest form of cleaning possible. Even soap will cause harm if the residue makes it into the tank.
Because of that, I generally start without anything but water and a toothbrush. Most unsightly algae, like brown diatomic algae, will come off without requiring any sort of cleaner.
If that doesn’t work, then I’ll often use a 1:1 ratio of vinegar and water. The most common stains left over after the initial brushing are hard water spots on tall decorations. It’s rare that anything makes it through this part of the cleaning process.
I recommend against using bleach in most cases. It’s a common recommendation, but I feel it’s unnecessarily risky for routine cleaning.
There are two main reasons to clean your decorations with bleach.
- You’ve recently had a fungal/viral infection in your tank
- The decoration has had its surface penetrated by green spot or brown algae
In that case, you can soak them in a dilute solution of bleach. I’ve used both 5:1 and 10:1 water to bleach solutions in the past. Lower amounts are better.
To be honest, there are better ways to handle infected decorations, but you need the correct antibacterial or antifungal medication. You should also remember that some decorations may lose color when you use bleach with them, which is another reason to dilute.
Soap is fine too, but be very careful when rinsing your decorations if you choose to use it. A small amount in the water of a fish tank can be disastrous. It’s particularly useful for silk plants.
Plastic “silk” plants may not be able to be restored to their original condition. I’ve found there’s still not a lot that a stubborn brush and time won’t work out in the end, however.
Step 3: Soak Them in a Bucket
Rinse your decorations underwater after you’re done with the cleaning process.
Next, you’ll want to take your clean decorations and stick them in a bucket of tap water. Leave them there for five minutes, then come back and make sure that there’s no soap film on top of the water and that it doesn’t smell like whatever you used to clean them.
If it does, rinse and repeat the process. Discard the water afterward. You can water some plants if you don’t want to put it down the sink.
If you used bleach in the cleaning of the rest of the plants, then you’ll want to neutralize the extra chlorine resulting from the bleach used to clean the decorations.
Use twice the amount of water conditioner that the amount of water calls for.
Let bleached decorations sit in a conditioned bucket for at least 30 minutes and discard the water.
Regardless, always give them a final rinse before resetting them.
Step 4: Replace the Decorations
Now that they’re clean, all you need to do is reintroduce your decorations. Gravel vacuum before you replace decorations as well. It’ll help keep everything tidy, and you can get in all the nooks and crannies.
Working things back into gravel isn’t too hard, just don’t hurt anything in the tank and try not to disrupt any nearby plants. It’s better to shovel the substrate out of the way and then back over the base than wiggling it in.
Once everything is to your liking again… well, you’re done!
Tips and Tricks for Cleaning Aquarium Decorations
It’s a simple task, but there are quite a few things a new aquarist can do to make cleaning much easier.
- Try not to clean too often. If you need to clean decorations more than once every six months or so… the tank is imbalanced, and that should be addressed rather than letting it go on.
- If you have fish that depend on particular decorations for their territory, you should be careful about removing it. I’ve found that placing the fish in a quarantine tank while cleaning works; they’ll have their pirate ship back in the tank without being any the wiser.
- Removing decorations in “shifts” is a good idea, too much detritus or rapid changes in the tank will lead to stressed fish.
- To kill bacteria and fungi in a decoration, try boiling them for 10 minutes in a 10:1 bleach solution. Use your fan and open a window. It should kill everything in the decoration handily; then, you can soak them in a bucket as described above.
Keeping Things Clean and Bright
The key to learning how to clean aquarium decorations is very aware of the chemicals involved. However, as long as you don’t go to extremes, you’ll be able to easily reintroduce them within a half-hour or so. So, pull on your gloves and get started!