Curing Ugly Tank Syndrome

We have all been there, your once beautiful tank, filled with colorful fish and lush plants, now looks more like a swamp than a river. What is a hobbyist to do? Usually by the time most hobbyists get to this point it’s too late, the seemingly daunting task of breaking the tank down just seems more like work. It doesn’t have to be.

Before I begin, I do have to tell you that I in no way consider myself an expert. I am just a guy who wanted make an ugly tank look good again. Some people may not agree with my methods but they did work extremely well for me. I will take you through the steps I took.


To begin you are going to need a few things. The following items can be changed to best suit the tank size and style that you are working on, you be the judge. These items may seem like a lot but most of them in actuality are ones that you use in your regular tank maintenance anyway.

Buckets- Preferably 5 gallon ones, as many as you need to hold the amount of water in your tank.
1 gallon water jugs
1 small plastic juice pitcher
Shoe boxes- If you are thinking you finally have a use for all the boxes holding your wife’s shoe boxes think again. Use the ones that are plastic and can be bought at the dollar store for…. You guessed it ONE DOLLAR. Get as many as you will need to hold the plants and fish you are keeping. ( Here you can adjust the size of the boxes to fit your needs.)
Tank cleaning supplies- You know what you use so I don’t think I need to go into detail here.
Misc. items- You are going to need a pair of scissors, some plant weights, new gravel (if you prefer), any gravel enhancing material such as fluorite for your plants, the soundtracks from the Rocky movies, (trust me it will get you motivated and if your tank suffers from Ugly Tank Syndrome you need the motivation),
Safety Sense- At this point you are about to begin, but first make sure that all electrical equipment for the tank has been un-plugged, give your heaters a chance to cool down to tank temperature before removing them.


As an example I am going to base this article on a 20 gallon tank as I have said just make adjustments for your size tank. The first thing you are going to need to do is drain some of the water from your tank into the shoe boxes. Do not vacuum your gravel, you will be doing this later. You want just the water from your tank not the detritus, fill the shoe boxes with enough water to hold your fish and plants. One of these shoe boxes should also hold your filter’s media as you do not want them to dry out.

The next step is to begin to carefully pull up your live plants, I say carefully because you should have some extensive root growth you do not want to damage. As you remove your plants inspect them for any dying leaves, snail eggs, snails, and any other unattractive things. (Sorry snail lovers). As you are pulling up your plants I would trim down some of the roots to make it easier to re-plant later, just make sure not to trim off too much. Place all the plants you have rescued into the shoe boxes making sure that they are completely submerged thus avoiding plant dry out.. At this point you are most likely going to see your water turning murky from all the detritus that has sunk into the gravel now would be a good time to net your fish out and place them into the shoe boxes as well.

You should by now be looking at murky tank of gravel, scum and snails (if you had them). Personally I gave up long ago trying to remove snails from my tanks and have learned to just deal with them. Your fish are happy for the temporary change of scenery (consider it a vacation), and you are about to flip the Rocky cassette over, and yes I still listen to cassettes. While you were flipping over the Rocky cassette thinking about how long it’s been since you watched Rocky III, the water remaining in your tank should have begun to settle down. If all the detritus has begun to settle down in the remaining tank water then you are ready for the next step, if not take a break and wait a little longer. Now your water has started to look a little clearer begin to siphon the water into your one gallon jugs, this water is going to be used to refill your tank later, leave about 1/3 of the tanks water in the tank. Begin the next step by agitating the remaining water and gravel in the tank, you want the remaining water to become extremely murky, this will save you some time when you begin to clean the gravel later and help to remove most of the remaining detritus from the tank. Begin to siphon the muddy water from the tank into one of the remaining 5 gallon buckets. Once you can no longer get any more water from your tank begin to net out the gravel into one of the 5 gallon buckets. Once all your gravel is out use a container of the water you saved to cover the gravel completely.

Up to this point you should have the following things strewn around you: Shoeboxes with fish and plants, 1 shoebox filled with your filter media, 1 gallon jugs filled with somewhat clean water, at least one bucket filled with tank water, and one filled with gravel.

You should also be looking at a pretty bare tank. Now clean your tank up as much as you need to. Your about to begin to rebuild your tank.


The rebuild of your tank is one of the most rewarding parts of this entire project. This is when all your artistic thoughts you have will come into play. The first thing you are going to need to do is prep your gravel. Begin to mix your gravel with any additives following the manufacturers instructions. Begin by laying a layer of your gravel in your tank, place enough to begin replanting. Since you already have some experience with planting since your tank was planted I will not go into detail about this process. Just remember a few things when placing plants and decorations into your tank such as some plants do not like to be pushed around by flow of your filter, Place your plants where you feel they are most appealing. Don’t be afraid to pick your plants back up and move them around, you are going to step back and look at your tank many times to make sure that you are happy with there placement.

After you have your plants where you like them you are going to want to add your remaining gravel to the tank make sure to cover any exposed roots. Now begin to fill your tank with water from the 1 gallon jugs, Some say to use a plate to keep your gravel from being moved around but I prefer the hand method. For those who do not know the hand method basically all you are doing is using your free hand to catch the water you are pouring, basically keeping your hand just above the water line. Now you tank should be partially filled and you’ll get the general idea of how your tank is going to look. Once you are satisfied begin to replace your filter, heater, and air lines. Before plugging them back in make sure to add a drip loop to all power cords. A drip loop is basically a loop in your power cords that allows any water that may leak down them to safely drip down and not directly to the outlet. Begin to finish up the project by filling the remaining tank space with the water you have left. The only water at this point you should have is the water still holding the fish. Before adding the fish back into your tank you are going to want to add a little stress coat and maybe even check to see how close your waters parameters are to when you started the project. After everything is to your satisfaction begin to acclimate your fish back into their tank using any method you feel comfortable with.

When I got to the end of this project I ended up only needing to replace a gallon or so of water to the tank, and after monitoring the fish for several hours and then several days I noticed I did not lose any fish. The project was a success and was completely happy with te looks of the tank.

There may be some things I have left out since I wrote this article from memory. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me at