If you’re like me, your aquarium needs a thorough cleaning to get back into shape. But before you groan about needing to break out the heavy-duty cleansers, look in your kitchen cabinets. Because one of the most versatile weapons in your saltwater aquarium arsenal is vinegar. That’s right, good old household white vinegar. Don’t worry if you’re skeptical at this point – I stood in your shoes at one point. By the time I’ve gone over these five handy cleaning tips, you’ll want to have a gallon jug stowed in your tank cleaning supplies at all times!
Table of Contents: Vinegar and Cleaning Saltwater Aquariums
Yes, you can stick to the usual suite of saltwater aquarium cleaners. They’re tried and true, and the cost reflects them. But vinegar? It’s a handy “tool” in any hobbyist’s arsenal that won’t set you back, isn’t difficult to work with, and handles PLENTY of cleaning tasks. Just take a look at the links below if you don’t believe me. If you have something on your routine cleaning list that you’ve neglected, odds are high a little scrub with some vinegar will allow you to check it off.
Now, you probably already purchased plenty of different cleaning products when you set up your saltwater aquarium. And there’s nothing WRONG with those cleansers. So why am I telling you to have a jug of vinegar on hand? And why is vinegar so useful? Plenty of reasons, actually:
- Safety. Standard cleaning products usually contain toxic compounds. Even if you rinse everything thoroughly (and repeatedly), odds are something will remain and dissolve into the water. Then you end up with dead fish and invertebrates. That’s not part of the cleaning plan. But vinegar? It’s safe for fish (provided you dilute things properly). This is because it’s a natural food acid.
- Expense. Even if you opt for the pH-balanced “safe” aquarium cleaners on the market, you’re going to hit another wall: cost. All of that safety means extra processing steps. And you get to absorb the price. But vinegar? It doesn’t need special work since it’s food used for human consumption. As such, you won’t break the bank – even if you purchase a gallon jug.
- Availability. All of those aquarium cleaners? You need to hunt them down. That means trekking to your favorite local fish store or perusing the virtual aisles of the internet (and paying for extra shipping). But vinegar? It’s always stocked on the shelves at the grocery store. You can find different bottle sizes without any trouble. This means you’ll never need to worry about running out of this “cleaning supply.”
Types of Vinegar
Of course, not every vinegar is created equal. When you’re planning to start cleaning your saltwater aquarium, you need to focus on white vinegar. Skip any apple cider varieties or bottles that contain additional flavors. Those won’t work well for cleaning. The additional ingredients could pose a risk to your invertebrates or fish – even if you perform those thorough rinses. So check the label carefully.
DON’T use “cleaning vinegar.” Yes, you’re using it for cleaning, but there’s a big difference. Household white vinegar contains 5% acid. Cleaning varieties contains 6%. And while that SOUNDS minimal, it’s actually TWENTY TIMES more potent. When you need to start diluting things, you’ll need WAY more water to achieve the same safety levels. (To help you out, stores don’t keep cleaning vinegar with the cooking versions)
Vinegar IS safe to use in your aquarium – even if it’s full. However, you’re still working with an acid. As such, you need to make sure you dilute things to keep your fish, invertebrates, and YOU safe. (You’re not going to risk a burn with at the 5% concentrations, but the fumes? They can yield a wicked headache) As such, you’ll want to have water on hand so you can create the appropriate dilution for your situation.
- Empty tanks can use 1:1 ratios (50% vinegar and 50% water)
- Full tanks go down to 1:3 ratios (25% vinegar and 75% water)
Vinegar WILL affect the pH within your tank. As such, you want to avoid spilling your prepared liquid into the tank – even when it’s diluted. And that goes double the smaller your tank gets. You don’t want to cause stress. If you’re worried, increase your dilution. And ALWAYS work with a high water flow. It’ll keep things moving through the tank.
IF you spill more than you intended, perform a water change. You’ll dilute that acid faster than the tank will manage on its own.
Using Vinegar to Rejuvenate Powerheads
If you’re keeping a sufficient calcium level in your aquarium, your rocks will develop a nice crusting of coralline algae. But as the algae flourishes, it doesn’t know it’s supposed to stay on the live rock. It grows anywhere and everywhere – including on your powerheads. And while those purple spots are a sign of a healthy tank (and look cool), they reduce the water flow and make your pumps work harder. Time to scrub the powerheads.
My preferred way to clean these powerful pumps is to give them a rejuvenating bath in vinegar. Let your powerhead sit in a bucket filled with a dilute solution and run (overnight is ideal, but even a few hours will do the trick). The mild acid gets into all of the crevices and pieces (which probably have algae you didn’t know about) and dissolves the coralline algae, making cleanup a breeze. Then all you need to do is rinse your powerhead (yes, even though you used a diluted solution), and voila! A rejuvenated pump that will work like new.
Vinegar to Battle Salt Creep
Anywhere saltwater splashes or bubbles up around your tank will eventually become encrusted by salt creep. This is that white crusting you notice on, well, everything the water comes in touch with. As the water evaporates, the salt left behind crystalizes and makes a mess. Then you get to deal with salt creep – and it’s an inevitable problem for saltwater aquariums. And if you don’t stay on top of cleaning the crusting, it’ll get thicker and spread further across the surface. (That’s where the “creep” part of the name comes in)
But vinegar can help you keep salt creep from getting out of hand – even if you’re only trying to eliminate an unsightly mess before company comes over. A rag soaked in a dilute solution will quickly dissolve salt creep. You want it wet but NOT soaking (no drips into the tank). And, of course, you need to work carefully when you’re around the lid of your tank – even without a soaking rag. You CAN get the same results with ordinary water (if you’re looking for a 5-second fix) if you’re worried.
If you want a permanent fix to salt creep, vinegar probably isn’t the answer (acid rarely is). However, it can get you started in the right direction.
Quarantine tanks work beautifully when you’re introducing new fish, coral, or invertebrates. And when you’ve shuttled the new inhabitants into your display tank? It’s time to give that quarantine tank a thorough cleaning, so you have it ready to go for the next batch of acquisitions. Rather than breaking out potentially toxic cleaners, you can use vinegar instead.
Since the tank’s empty, this is your chance to go for that 1:1 dilution. Take your filters and pumps (and powerheads) and let them soak in a bucket. Again, if you let them run while they’re submerged in the solution? You’ll get all of the tiny corners, and inside machinery you can’t see (or reach). You can take a rag to the lid and the cover of your lighting (where you’ll find that unwanted salt creep).
And when you’re done? Rinse, rinse, and repeat some more rinsing. Then you’re ready to set the quarantine tank up again.
Using Vinegar to Shine Glass
No one’s aquarium glass remains pristine forever. Over time, drips of water, greasy fingerprints (can you tell I have kids?), and dust collect on the front of the aquarium, obscuring the view of your gorgeous fish. And while you can attempt to clean everything with a glass or window cleaner (making sure you don’t accidentally spray the water in the process), there’s an easier way to keep the view clear and unobstructed. While keeping the water safe and sound.
Vinegar helps you keep the glass on your aquarium shiny, streak-free, and looking like new. Remember the rag you used to battle salt creep? It works equally well on those greasy fingerprints. And you won’t even need that much. It’s a mild acid, but it’s enough to handle the daily grime that collects on the outside of your tank. Splash a bit on your cleaning rag and wipe down the glass. Before you know it, everything looks new!
Controlling Nitrates with Vinegar
Now, we’ve handled cleaning your saltwater aquarium with vinegar. How about the overall performance of your tank, though? Surprisingly, this household ingredient can work there, too.
The mild acid in the household staple can help lower nitrates in your tank by boosting the growth of the beneficial bacteria living and thriving within your little ecosystem. Those bacteria then chomp down on the nitrates. Dosing small amounts of vinegar slowly over time acts as food/fuel for beneficial bacteria. (It sounds weird, but it IS a food, remember?)
Naturally, you need to take some care with this process and manage your dosing carefully. Too much, and you’ll end up wreaking havoc with your tank’s system. And you also want to look at how your aquarium’s doing. If you already have a thriving system, you may not want to rock the boat. (Or, you know, if you feel leery about introducing a new variable)
Vinegar is one of those helpful aquarium tools not everyone knows about. And if you want to make sure you’re getting everything you can out of that gallon jug? You’ve come to the right place for some extra key pieces of information.
Such as this YouTube video that will walk you through cleaning various pieces of aquarium equipment:
Or what about a couple other clever hacks? (Who doesn’t love saving money?)
Do you have any other uses for this staple of every household that we haven’t talked about? Share them in the comments!