Cloudy water can be a real downer, and ruins the aesthetic of the tank. I see it pretty often; people feeling discouraged in the aquarium hobby because they can’t seem to acquire that crystal clear look, even though they tank is established. Well, not to fear, this is a step-by-step guide on how to address possible issues, and keep your tank running clear and perfect!
A cautionary note first though: Cloudy water is not necessarily bad. Especially if your tank is newer (4 months or less) then this is just a normal part of establishing an aquarium. The tank may cycle through all sorts of different bacteria as life develops in your filter. It’s totally normal to have a week here or there where the water is all of a sudden cloudy. The key is to never panic and remove a bunch of water. I see online a lot of people suggesting to do a ‘full clean’ and scrub any white away from the whole tank and rocks… this simply will not work and is basically like starting your tank over and compounding the problem! In reality, the cloudiness just means that good bacteria is hard at work in the tank. Adding a bacterial supplement like cycle or accu-clear will do more for you in this situation then doing any water changes or cleaning. Cloudy water isn’t dirty water, there is a difference! Find out by testing your water for ammonia and nitrite, and if they are not spiking then simply let the cloudiness run its course!
That being said, when the cloudiness persists past a month, you know that something needs to be addressed in the tank. Here’s six areas that can make a difference and are easy to do!
Check Nitrate: A lot of the time bacterial blooms occur because there is an excess of nutrients in the tank. I put this step first as this is a really easy way to find out what is going wrong as Nitrate is usually the main offender. Most plants and bacteria love nitrate and it will create a bloom in life, cloudy life, in your tank. If this is the case then you can take a sigh of relief. Your tank is cycled and doing its job! Taking out a little more water with water changes will help this problem as well as adding some thirsty plants to soak it up. Water lettuce or Java Ferns are very hardy and should absorb the excess Nitrate within a few days.
Add plants: There are many nutrients besides Nitrate that may be in excess in the tank, so getting plants is going to help this! You will see a lot of times within hours of adding plants that some of that cloudiness is spreading right on to the plants! This is great, and the plants and the bacteria in your tank are forming a symbiotic relationship. You have finally given that cloudy bacteria the home it needs to fight against the excess nutrients and bad bacteria in the water. Plants also increase oxygen in the tank and help to diversify the life as they will have their own natural bacteria living on them already. Plants are often the missing link, as most people keep a lot of plastic and coated rocks in their tank. These low quality products do not make for a very natural environment. Adding real rocks and minerals and driftwood will also help create a more natural environment where the good bacteria can flourish, and no cleaning required!
Change your filter: Note that this says change your filter, not clean your filter. Filters should be dirty. They should be disgusting and full of sludge. But, when your filter contains the right components that sludge should stay in the filter, and not be in your water. The key is to have layered filtration. Don’t feel like you need to stick to the stuff that came with your filter. Shops like Petsmart only stock products that go with the filters they sell. When in reality, there is a whole world of amazing filtration products out there. Custom filter floss is key, and can usually be cut to fit your filter. You want to have at least 3 different levels of floss that is meant to catch medium – fine particles. The more fine particles that can be caught, the clearer the water will be. Your filter should also be 40-50% made up of biological filtration. I can assure you your fish will not die without your precious carbon, and that space could be better put to use with something more porous with more surface area for bacteria. I usually half the carbon, and swap it out with ammonia zorb, and I usually add a higher quality biological product than those small cylinders that all filters come with. Check out your local mom and pop shop for better selection, including filter floss that can also target nutrients like phosphorus which is another big offender for cloudy water. Just don’t swap everything out in one day! Make sure to stagger changes so that filter still has lots of dirty parts in it.
Get a bigger filter: You always want to get a filter that’s one size up at least for your tank. While waterfall filters look great, I often find they don’t really have the space or sections to properly trap bacteria and waste inside. It seems like some waste is ultimately always floating to the surface. Personally, I feel that canister filters are the best way to get crystal clear water. They have a tonne of space and you can better customize your filter with biological filtration and add more floss on top to trap those small particles.
Switch food: I can’t stress this tip enough. That cloudiness could be coming straight from your food. Before you clean, try to look at the bottom of the aquarium. Is there uneaten food on the bottom? Does it have any white fluffy bits on it? This is a breeding ground for bad bacteria. A good place to start is to switching to a more organic brand and ditching flake foods or large sinking pellets. Frozen bloodworms or brine shrimp are a great addition. They have been sanitized fully, are all natural with no additives, and the fish gobble them up! You will barely have any uneaten food on the bottom if you switch to frozen. Throwing out those cheap brands like Tetra-fin, Aqueon or API is a good start. Once again, products will be more diversified and better quality at a local shop then a big box store. Change up how you feed too! Try feeding smaller amounts 3-4 times a day rather than just standing there for a few minutes and feeding all at once. Always just put in a couple small sized pellets and give them time to see them and get them before they fall to the bottom. Slow sinking fine pellets are key. Fish are lazy and most species just troll at the top for food, so you need to train them to take advantage of every bit you put in so they actually eat what they have instead of waiting for a more convenient bite to come along.
Add more aeration: You don’t need anything fancy, a simple bubble line will do! This will help disrupt the water more, will get rid of any film at the top, and will help keep the tank more stirred. This means that any bad bacteria that was getting stuck on decoration or in the waste on the bottom, is more likely to get swept into the filter and eaten by the good bacteria living in there! The increase in oxygen will help your plants work at their best and creates a good environment for healthy bacteria to flourish. I like to turn my bubbles on during water changes and after feeding to make sure all the particles make their way to the filter!
I hope this article was helpful! I think you will see a distinct difference in the advice here than a lot of what you will read online! These are expert cultivated ideas that address a broad range of issues that are often neglected by even experienced aquarium owners.