The Wonders of Vinegar for Aquarium Cleaning

Distilled white vinegar is an affordable aquarium maintenance staple

Distilled white vinegar is an affordable aquarium maintenance staple

Though the saltwater aquarium hobby certainly has its share of costly, high-tech equipment and gadgetry, not all the tools we use are quite so complicated. In fact, one aquarium-maintenance workhorse not only costs next to nothing, but is also about as low-tech as you can get. I’m talking about plain ol’ distilled white vinegar.

There’s no beating white vinegar—a solution of acetic acid and water—when it comes to cleaning up those stubborn calcium deposits that gradually form (along with salt creep—but that’s another topic) on every aquarium surface exposed to air and saltwater spray. It’s also great for dissolving the coralline algae that tends to encrust submerged equipment. Let’s face it, we love having that beautiful pink and purple stuff when it’s growing on the rocks, but we don’t necessarily like it coating all our equipment and interfering with its function.

So many uses

The following is just a sampling of the equipment and components that are prone to getting coated or clogged by calcium carbonate or coralline algae buildup—and hence could benefit from cleaning with white vinegar:

  • Heaters
  • Thermometers
  • Hoses and pipes
  • Powerheads and pumps
  • Overflow boxes and siphon tubes
  • Protein skimmer components
  • Filter intakes and return nozzles
  • Chris’s knuckles and fingernails
  • Aquarium covers and canopies
  • Plastic tank rims

You’re soaking in it!

Coralline algae encrusting a hang-on-back overflow

Coralline algae encrusting a hang-on-back overflow

With apologies to “Madge” (okay, now I’m dating myself), the easiest way to clean small, submersible components is to fill an appropriately sized container with white vinegar and let them soak for a few hours. As the components soak, the weak acid will gradually dissolve away any calcareous buildup.

If the buildup isn’t especially thick, a more dilute solution of one part vinegar to one part water may do the trick (and help you stretch your vinegar). For more stubborn deposits, a soak in full-strength vinegar followed by a little brushing and scrubbing will usually get the job done.

IMPORTANT: After soaking, scrubbing, etc., be sure to rinse the components thoroughly with tap water.

Power to the pumps

For cleaning pumps and powerheads, Chris recommends placing them in a bucket or similar container filled with a 1:1 vinegar/water solution, plugging them in, and allowing them to run overnight. This approach will dissolve buildup in those little nooks and crannies that you can’t realistically access with aquarium brushes and will help keep your pumps operating at peak efficiency.

When soaking is not an option

When it comes to larger calcium-encrusted items, such as aquarium covers and canopies, soaking may not be practical. In these cases, wiping the encrusted surface with a clean rag soaked with vinegar (ring out the rag just enough so that it’s wet but not dripping) is the next best thing—though it may require a little extra “elbow grease.” After the vinegar-soaked rag does its job, follow it up with repeated rinsing wipes, using a rag soaked (but not dripping) with clean tap water, to remove any residual vinegar.

What tricks do you recommend?

White vinegar is just one example of an inexpensive household item that can be re-tasked as an aquarium-maintenance tool. Do you know of any similar tips or tricks? Share them with your fellow salties by commenting below!

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. Bill Hurley says:

    I also use white vinegar sprayed on some newspaper to clean the outside glass of my tank it leaves the glass shiny and streak free

  2. Muratic acid is where it’s at. And it’s about the same price by me. Plus it’s so strong, just dilute and the gallon goes WAY farther than vinegar ever could.
    Wear gloves and eye protection and rinse well

  3. I’ve seen a couple of posts recently (one on Mr. Saltwater Tank TV, no plug intended) that mentioned vinegar could, if used full strength and / or soaked too long, remove the molybdenum coating on the magnets in the impellers of pumps, making them run much noisier. The Saltwater Tank TV guy used this as a way to try to sell the viewer on Hydor’s Magi-Klean, but I was hoping you could come up with another suggestion, maybe a vinegar water ratio that is safe? Does anyone have similar experiences with muriatic acid? I would think being stronger it would be even more problematic… (as an aside, Jeff I am a longtime reader of TFH and have enjoyed many of your articles — keep up the good work!)

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      Thanks so much for your kind comment and continued support of TFH, Joshua!

      I’ve never run into any problems using full-strength vinegar to clean pumps, though I tend to soak them for relatively short periods (an hour or so during water changes, etc.). For longer periods (e.g., overnight), you might want to cut that to a 50/50 vinegar/water mix just to be on the safe side.

      If you keep your pumps relatively free of coralline buildup by cleaning them fairly frequently, you might be able to get by using even more dilute vinegar and soaking them for shorter periods.

      I’ve never used muriatic acid for this purpose myself (too much of a nervous Nelly), so I can’t respond to that intelligently. Maybe Jim or another salty out there can check in with the correct dilution rate?

  4. I Have used Muriatic acid on pumps/power heads at a very dilute “capfull or two” in a gallon of water and ran the pumps. I DO NOT recommend this, as a little splash in the face is absolutely painful. Yep, I did that. Scientific experiment- Failed !
    That pump was whistling clean when I was done. In just a minute, for fear of hurting my pump, all internals were cleaned up. .I had bought a mother load of used reefer equipment and vinegar would have taken me weeks to clean my new prizes. Sudden thoughts of my grandpa teaching me how to scrub/winterize the algae/muck off the boat as a child. Muriatic acid cuts dried calcium chunky bits off everything,in fractions of the time vinegar would have even began to work. Once again, DILUTION is the solution. 1/4 cup in a gallon for tuff stuff or mild stuff should do the trick. Absolutely Full Strength can and WILL melt some plastics. Yep, did that also.
    For the cheapskate in me, Muriatic acid works great and I like a little danger . Hah.
    Vinegar is great also.

    • Chris Aldrich says:

      You’re living life on the edge, Jim! :)

      Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your experiences with muriatic acid. While I’m a big fan of vinegar, I have had my interest piqued by muriatic acid before. Maybe I’ll have to give it a whirl one of these days…

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