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Tank window cleaning

by Frank Panis

Normally there is no real reason to get philosophical on algae in aquaria, but have you ever thought how these micro-organisms like us and our cichlid tank? In some cases we make them really happy campers by offering them the ideal environment to grow or even thrive! They grow on every available surface that receives light in our cichlid tank, including the tank windows, so our pride and glory will look dirty and untended much faster than we ever imagined. 

Elements that promote algae:
1. Overstocking: Some aquarists overstock their tank to "avoid" aggression, what puts a lot of stress on the whole system. Many fish need more food, and more food means more waste products: Algae-Hobbyist 1-0
2. Overfeeding: Malawi cichlids are hungry all the time and when they see you passing, they're already on their usual feeding spot waiting for their crispy flakes, pellets or yummy frozen food! Give in to their constant begging means: Algae-Hobbyist 2-0
3. Poor water changes: If the owner underestimates the importance of diluting the waste products, the algae will have an unlimited supply of nitrates and phosphates to feed on: Algae-Hobbyist 3-0

An algae-free tank with clean windows will remain a utopian dream, but the growth of these lower plants can be kept under control "if" we feed sparingly, keep the fish density low, and do regular & massive water changes. Using less light could also reduce algae growth, but that is out of the question, as this would lead to an accumulation of even more waste products, what will stress the fish even more. On the contrary, a good light source will propagate the growth of green algae that are eagerly eaten by most Mbuna species. I even have pictures from Fossorochromis rostratus that eat from green algae from the rocks in my previous 1000L tank. Chemicals to eradicate algae should clearly be avoided, as they're harmful to the fish, and there isn't done anything about the real cause.

So how are we going to clean the inside glass surfaces? Everyone will probably have their favourite method, but still I'd like to make a small roundup of my and other people's experiences with all kinds of cleaners. I divided the tools in 2 categories: the commercial products and DYI tools. Keep in mind that we're not supported by any of the manufacturers. Also I didn't list all available cleaners, what would be impossible anyway. Take into account that there are even subtypes of the same model (e.g. acrylic vs. glass).

 

The commercial products

 

1. The classic magnet cleaner:

Principle: 2 Elements that attract each other by magnetic force are coupled on both sides of the window. The element with the smooth face is kept outside and the element with the rough face is put in the tank. When you make smooth circular movements with the exterior element, the inner element will follow and will rub the algae off the window.



The classic magnet cleaner. The pic below shows the smooth & rough face.

My experience: I've used them for quite a long time, but got disappointed by them. Most of the models don't have enough pulling power, so when you get a bit overenthusiastic and want to ramp up the cleaning speed, they usually come loose and the inner element will fall into the sand. If you pick it up again without thorough cleaning, the tiny sand particles will scratch the glass and damage it permanently. You're supposed to keep your hands out of the water with this tool, but as the inner element will come loose from time to time, they're going to be wet anyhow!

 

2. Mag-Float floating magnet cleaner:

Principle: 2 floating elements that attract each other by magnetic force are coupled on both sides of the window. The element with the smooth face is kept outside and the element with the rough face is put in the tank. When you make smooth circular movements with the exterior element, the inner element will follow and will rub the algae off the window. The floating feature undoes all disadvantages of the classic magnet cleaner.


The midsize and large model in my tank. Both perform well, but the largest one is clearly the best.

My experience: This very useful tool comes in 3 sizes, and I have both the midrange and the top model. The midrange model doesn't have enough pulling power in my opinion, so when you get a bit overenthusiast and want to ramp up the cleaning speed, it comes loose. No problem of course, because it rushes directly to the surface without picking up a single grain of sand. Of course it can always get contaminated with sand, but this only happens when you stir the sand near the window on purpose. The top model is the one that I really recommend. It can handle relative strong & brutal movement before it comes loose and is extremely effective in removing algae. You can keep your hands out of the water with this tool and the only downside I can think of is the price tag. It's also the only possible cleaner for a tank that's built into a wall or other set-ups where you can't reach the front glass by hand.

 

3. Tetratec GS glass scraper:

Principle: A fibreglass stick with a tilting stainless razor blade is pressed against the inside of the aquarium. When you move it up and down, the blade scrapes off the algae.



Tetratec GS glass scraper seen from 2 sides.

My experience:  This tool fails a bit in it's main purpose, as it takes quite some time & effort to finish the cleaning job in a really large tank. The best results are obtained when the stick is pulled up while scraping the algae. A lot of pressure is needed to handle the more tough algae, what causes the plastic retention clip to wear out pretty fast, so the blade isn't supported very well after some time. Also the algae start growing again sooner as with other cleaning methods and you see the scraping patterns, what's shows that they're cut superficial instead of thoroughly removed. The stick is unbreakable though, and it floats when it's released. When used normally, you can keep your hands out of the water with this tool. Also it doesn't damage the silicons in the corners of the tank. 

 

4. Kent marine Pro scraper short & long:

Principle: A metal blade is used directly to clean the glass. This blade is mounted in a short or long handle for better ergonomics and also for protecting yourself against cutting wounds. 


2 algae scrubber models from Kent Marine. Photo by George Reclos MCH

George's experience: The two models shown are the one with the long handle and the one without it. Kent Marine offers two kinds of blades one for acrylic and one for glass. The one shown in the pictures is the metal blade used for glass panels. Extremely useful, it will remove even the most stubborn algae spots from the glass. The short one has a better "feeling" in the hand but will get you wet.

 

5. Algae scrubbing pads (various brands):

Principle: Rub off the algae on the inside glass surfaces by gently pressing them against the glass and make circular movements


Commercial algae scrubbing pads... 

My experience: Effective. They claim that the glass surface won't be scratched, but they also pick up sand very easily when you want to clean the window near the bottom. They're not as cheap as the domestic versions though, but they should be safer in return!

 

The DYI alternatives

 

1. Domestic cleaning pads:

Principle: These pads have a soft and a rough side. We use the rough face to rub off the algae on the tank window.


Domestic cleaning pads

My experience: Can be effective, but they also pick up sand very easily when you want to clean the window near the bottom. I'm not sure, but the rough layer isn't also completely innocent in damaging the glass, but I think it's mainly sand that gets picked up that can ruin the glass though. I'm not going to discuss this, but when you let this pad dry completely and you shake it, you'll always see sand falling out. They're very cheap though, so you can replace them regularly. Always wash them before using them the first time to be sure no harmful chemicals are introduced in the tank.

 

2. Wads of synthetic wool:

Principle: Just take a small portion of synthetic filtration wool and squeeze it together. Rub off the algae on the inside glass surfaces by gently pressing the wad against the glass and make circular movements.

My experience: Can be effective, as the white colour of the wool makes it easy to determine if there are still green dots on the window. Needs a lot of pressure to be effective with persistent algae dots though, so it can be exhaustive to clean a large tank. Needs allot of attention to prevent picking up the sand that can cause permanent damage of the window. It also looses fibres very easily that float in the water, but these will normally get sucked into the filter.

 

3. An old credit card: idea from readers of the EAC list

Principle: The relative stiffness and the size of an EXPIRED credit card make it very easy to handle & suited as an algae scraper.

Their experience and comments:
Kevin:
I use an old credit card. I get better use out of it that way. Much cheaper using it as a scraper than a credit card.
Tilly:
I use a credit card.  Probably why I can't go out and buy more tanks and fish!!!
George: I have used it with great success, too, especially in the marine tanks where the algae accumulates under the glass covers. Very handy indeed. Just remember to use an expired card!!!
Luc: I use the credit card too, but my arms are not long enough to remove the algae everywhere on the glass, so I took a plastic electric pipe from 50cm long and 15mm thick and with a metal saw I've cut a 3cm slit. I inserted the credit card in that slit and I glued it with hard plastic glue, so the credit card is fixed in the pipe, and it's more easy to work with.
 

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