Keeping Your Fish Healthy With an Aquarium Vacuum

Cloudy Water in Your Aquarium

Cloudy water in your aquarium is not acceptable on several counts. It ruins the look of your tank, reduces the pleasure in watching your fish, and can be an indicator of more severe problems that could damage the health of your precious pets. There are lots of reasons why you might have haze in your aquarium water – have a look at cloudy-fish-tank for an excellent summary. Depending on why your water is cloudy, you may need to get an aquarium vacuum to turn it crystal clear again.

Like many problems that you face in life, cloudy aquarium water is a function of several variables. It is rare for it to be down to one single factor. The only way to be sure of dealing with the overall issue is to look at each component separately. Create a schedule of maintenance to eliminate one possible factor at a time.

Your gravel or sand substrate may be the problem – especially in new tanks if you have not rinsed the base material before use.  Also crucial is the bacterial balance in the aquarium. Your fish waste and stray food particles will decay and produce compounds and bacterial blooms that can cause haze in the water. Algal blooms can cause terrible green fogs in tanks due to high natural light levels and excessive phosphate levels. Finally, you may get yellow or brown milkiness forming with certain woods that are used for aquascaping – this is due to tannins in the wood.

Dealing with one thing at a time is essential. Start by ensuring that your substrate is clean and free of waste and decaying food. To do this, you should use an aquarium vacuum cleaner of some sort. The best aquarium vacuum to use will depend on your tank size, the substrate material and aquascaping density, distance from services, budget, and personal preferences.

Why Do I Need an Aquarium Vacuum?

Once you have planted your weeds, driftwood, rocks, and other aquascaping elements, it is impossible to clean the substrate properly without some form of an aquarium vacuum pump. The particles of waste are just too small to pick out with a net or forceps, and, if your substrate is dusty, then you will need some form of aquarium vacuum filter to clear this over time.

Leaving the fish waste and decaying food will reduce the pH of the water (making it more acidic), and you will either have to make adjustments for this by adding solutions to increase the pH (making it more alkaline) or pick fish that like more acidic conditions. You will almost certainly end up with bacterial blooms, and your fish may die.

Using an aquarium vacuum on your substrate every few weeks will ensure that your gravel or sand is as clean as possible, and conditions in your tank are stable. Then you can make small stepped adjustments to your water to produce the optimum conditions for your fish.

Also read – Best Aquarium Thermometers for Optimal Fish Keeping and Maintenance

Should I Carry Out Water Changes Whenever I Use an Aquarium Vacuum?

Aquarium vacuum pumps can make your tank water a little cloudy after use. This is because the fine particles of gravel or sand may get through the filter on the pump inlet arrangement, and it takes a while for them to settle back onto the substrate. One way to reduce the haze is to change the proportion of the water – usually about 20% – after using the aquarium vacuum. The python aquarium vacuum (see below) makes this quite easy as a simple change of the valve position of the mains water coming from the faucet turns the unit from vacuum mode to fill mode. You should find that the dust effect reduces over time if you regularly use the aquarium vacuum this way.

When you are refilling your tank, it may be necessary to treat the water with a water conditioner to remove chlorine and chloramines. This is almost certainly a requirement if you are on mains water but may not be a necessity if you have a private water supply. Chlorine and Chloramines are added to municipal water to kill bacteria that may lead to human health problems. You can imagine the problems this will cause with the delicate balance of bacteria in your fish tank!

Get water conditioners here.

What Are the Main Types of Aquarium Vacuum?

Simple siphon vacuum for aquarium

These are ridiculously cheap and easy to use.

Pros – cheap, simple system, can be self-priming, empties tank as it sucks, suitable for routine tank water changing

Cons – the risk of leaks as extracted water goes into a bucket, not great suction

Aquarium siphon vacuum with a suction pump

It’s a development on the simple siphon systems with extra suction.

Pros – relatively cheap, self-priming, empties tanks as well, greater suction power

Cons – the risk of leaks

Python aquarium vacuum – venturi effect pump and filler

A great system that allows leak-free vacuuming, filtration and refilling of tanks. The Python uses the venturi principle to create a vacuum effect as it draws water from the aquarium.

Pros – Leak-free, comes in various lengths to suit your tank location, simple set up on faucet, no electricity required, no disturbance of fish or aquascaping.

Cons – Expensive

Battery-powered aquarium vacuum (or 110V)

It provides steady, powered suction for faster cleaning. Includes a light to see what you are doing, and a separate tank emptying hose can be bought for water changes. An electric aquarium vacuum provides a lot of benefits.

Pros – Greater suction, light, no need to pump by hand so you can focus on head position, 110v versions do not need batteries, and give increased power.

Cons – Expensive, separate hoses required for emptying and filling the tank.

Our Top 5 Aquarium Vacuum Selections and Why

Best overall aquarium vacuum

Users love the PYTHON No Spill Water Changer. It uses the venturi principle to create suction using the flow of water from the faucet. There is no messing around getting a siphon going whilst trying to keep the outlet hose in the waste bucket at the same time. Simply connect the hose (it comes with different lengths depending on the size of your house) to the faucet, open the valve and turn the cold water on to create the suction. After vacuuming is over, close the valve and then refill the tank with tap water. Do not forget to add some water conditioner after the refill to get rid of the chlorine and chloramines. > Buy on Amazon

The PYTHON is leak-free and acts as an aquarium vacuum and a tank water changer. It is not cheap, but it does make life easier. > Buy on Amazon

Best budget aquarium vacuum

The Aqueon siphon vacuum will not break the bank! It is an extremely basic water changer and aquarium vacuum for under $10. It comes with a useful clip to keep the outlet hose in the bucket, and it is self-starting, so no more sucking on the end of a plastic hose to get the siphon going! > Buy on Amazon

Best pump-action aquarium vacuum

If you want a little more suction and no messing around with getting a siphon going, the Terapump aquarium vacuum is for you. It is ideal for small aquariums. > Buy on Amazon

Best aquarium vacuum for tech geeks

If you like your gadgets, then you might choose the EHEIM Quick Vac Pro Aquarium Vacuum (awful name but great product!). You do not need any hoses or buckets, and it is battery powered, so you do not have any trailing wires. On the downside, you will need a separate water changing system. > Buy on Amazon

Best aquarium vacuum for flexibility

With attachments for all sorts of substrates, extension tubes from 19.5” to 42” and built-in water changing filter and hose, the Hygge 12V DC 5-in1 Electric Aquarium Gravel Vacuum Cleaner Kit will do pretty much everything you need from an aquarium vacuum. The twelve-volt pump provides plenty of suction. > Buy on Amazon

Aquarium Vacuum FAQ’s

How often do I need to vacuum my aquarium gravel?

There is no right answer to this question. Perhaps the main thing to look at is the fish themselves. Are they bright and lively? Are their fins extended, and are they swimming around happily? If they are, then things are probably OK. If not, you may have a problem. You may need to get your aquarium vacuum out.

Other factors to look at are:

  • Food. Some fish food breaks up more quickly than others, and you may find that this creates a lot of detritus at the bottom of your aquarium. ‘Meaty’ foods such as chopped mussels also end up in the gravel or sand, making a mess that needs an aquarium vacuum pump.
  • Mix of fish.  Some fish like dredging around in the substrate for bits of food – Dojo loaches, for example. Having these in your aquarium is a good idea to keep things clean. The other side of this equation is to look at those fish that produce the most feces. Plecos, for example, are beautiful fish, but boy, do they know how to poop!
  • Plants. Some plants love fish feces. Cryptocoryne plants or Amazon Swords will search it out with their roots. You will have to learn how to use aquarium vacuum equipment close to these plants to avoid uprooting them in loose gravel, though.
  • Worms and snails. If there is a lot of waste in your substrate, you may notice an increase in your tank’s snail and detritus worm population. This could be a sign that your aquarium vacuum cleaner is not getting enough use.
  • Test the Nitrogen cycle. The ultimate test of how things are going in your tank is to check for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels in the water. If all is OK, then your good bacteria will be converting ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates. If, however, you find significant levels of ammonia and nitrites, then you will need to start using your aquarium gravel vacuum or aquarium sand vacuum on a scheduled basis.

Some aquarists say that you should vacuum your substrate once a week. That does seem a little excessive but, getting into a regular routine that works with your specific mix of fish, plants, and water quality makes sense. Regular testing should give you an insight into the right frequency.

Get your testing kit here.

Can you tell me how to use aquarium vacuum efficiently?

Here are our top tips for good aquarium tank vacuum technique (we talk about a simple siphon system, but the same general rules apply for most aquarium vacuum equipment):

  • Do not remove the fish from your tank – catching them is far more stressful for them (and you!) than the vacuum hose coming down into the water. Do look at moving any tank ‘furniture’ though – fish feces tend to hide under your treasure box!
  • If you have any algae on the glass, get your scraper in before you start vacuuming – that way, you will suck up any bits from that as well. Have a look at the water filter as well and clean that before you get going.
  • Put the outlet end of the siphon hose into a bucket (it is a good idea to get a clip to make sure that this stays in the bucket, or you could have some expensive carpet cleaning bills).
  • Fill the siphon inlet tube with water. Then raise the full tube above the height of the tank until water flows into the bucket.
  • Once the siphon has started, you can quickly put the tube back into the tank and then down into the substrate (the trick is to keep the inlet tube full of water until the flow into the bucket is continuous).
  • Vacuum the substrate just as you would the carpet or mow the lawn – back and forth in straight lines. If you find that there is too much gravel or sand building up in the inlet tube, then stop the flow by crimping the siphon tube or putting your thumb over the end in the bucket. The heavy particles will fall back into the tank once the flow stops. Uncrimp the hose or take your thumb off the end to start vacuuming again.
  • Do not try to clean too big an area at a time. If you do, you will remove too much water in one go, and you risk disturbing the water equilibrium. Aim to vacuum about one quarter to one-third of the substrate at a time and remember to start from there on your next visit.
  • Once you have finished vacuuming, top up the tank with fresh, clean water to replace the water that you have removed.

How to make a small aquarium vacuum?

You can make your own DIY aquarium vacuum using a plastic hose, but basic systems cost a few dollars and incorporate siphon pumps and filters and larger inlet tubes for better cleaning. You will save yourself time and money by buying something designed for the job. Without a filter on your hose, you could end up flushing expensive fish into the drain!

What is the best aquarium gravel vacuum?

That depends on the size of your tank, your budget, and how often you are going to need to use your aquarium vacuum. You can pay anything from a few dollars for a basic siphon model through to sixty or seventy dollars for a variable speed electric or battery aquarium vacuum. Have a look at our top 5 aquarium vacuum selections in this article.

Can anyone tell me how to vacuum heavily planted aquarium sand?

You probably will not need to use your aquarium vacuum if you have heavily planted your tank. The plants need the nutrients in the detritus and will clean it for you.

If you have to vacuum around plants, then limit the suction on a siphon hose by squeezing the outlet hose to reduce water flow or set your battery or electric aquarium vacuum to its lowest setting.

Also read- An Aquarium Chiller Can Save Your Fish Tank in a Heatwave


There is no doubt that using an aquarium vacuum to clean gravel and sand substrates in fish tanks regularly is vital if you want to keep your fish healthy. Combined with partial water changes and a water conditioning program, a fish aquarium vacuum will keep your water pH more stable and reduce the risk of bacterial blooms. Your fish will be happier and healthier, and the water in your tank will be cleaner and brighter.

It may be worth starting with a budget model – particularly if you have a small aquarium. You can always move upmarket once you have started, and the hoses and nozzles may still be useful for doing quick spot-cleaning later.

For larger aquariums, with higher investment in stock, choosing the best aquarium vacuum cleaner for you is essential. Price is a factor but, when you have spent a lot on fish, tank, heater, stand, lighting, and all of the other paraphernalia that we aquarists collect, why would you skimp on an aquarium vacuum?

Also read – How Long Do Fish Live? An Ultimate Guide on The Average Lifespan of a Fish

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