How to Clean Sand or Gravel for the Aquarium

When you buy new aquarium sand or gravel it is highly recommended that you rinse it first. Even if it says it was pre-washed, it will still carry some dirt which can cause a cloudy mess in your water. However, even once you get it in the aquarium it’s not over, the substrate will accumulate detritus, decomposing organics and more. So, in order to keep the aquarium substrate tidy before and after placing it in the aquarium here are a few tips on how to clean sand or gravel to keep the tank pristine:

How to Clean Sand or Gravel when it’s New:

  • Cut the bag of sand open and fill a bucket 1/3 full with sand. Place the bucket under the faucet and turn it on full so that it vigorously jets into the sand. Move your fingers through the sand, stirring it and lifting into the water jet as you do so. When the bucket is full, turn off the water, run your fingers through the sand some more, then pour the dirty water away (being careful not to pour the sand down the drain,) and repeat. It may take 10 or more goes until the water remains clear. Pour the clean sand into the bare, new tank, and fill the bucket with the second third of sand. Repeat, and repeat again with the last third.
  • Fill a bucket 1/3 full with sand, take it outside and push a garden hose through the sand to the bottom of the bucket. Turn the faucet on and adjust the flow to let the hose agitate the sand on its own, allowing it to overflow the bucket. Change the hose end’s position within the sand when the water becomes clear and repeat until all areas have been cleaned.
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Cleaning methods for new sand or gravel

How to Clean Sand or Gravel when it’s established in the Aquarium:

  • Use a gravel cleaner like an Aquaeon Siphon Vacuum or Python Pro-Clean to siphon out dirt into a bucket. Alternatively, an Aqueon Water Changer or Python No Spill Clean and Fill to connect your faucet to your tank and start to siphon the water. Once siphon is achieved, hover the wide open end of the vacuum over the substrate so that it travels a few inches up the tube and releases the dirt from within it. Then slowly move the vacuum upwards and gravity should drop the sand or gravel back down, otherwise the flow may be controlled by simply pinching the soft tubing; the detritus should be all that ends up in the bucket. Repeat this, moving the gravel vacuum back to front, left to right, until a sufficient amount of the substrate has been cleaned. Tip Freshwater Use: Add API Tap Water Conditioner and adjust for water temps, if filling the tank with the Water Changer or Clean and Fill.
  • If you don’t have a gravel vacuum, routinely run your fingers, or a JBJ Aquascraper 4-in-1 Cleaning Kit through the gravel to dislodge debris. Let the filter remove the dirt from the water via mechanical filtration, then clean the filter or swap filter socks to export the dirt from the system.
  • Use livestock to help clean the substrate. For freshwater use Corydoras catfish, Loaches or Geophagus cichlids to sift the substrate for food, cleaning it as they do so. Tanks containing Corydoras always have cleaner substrates. For nano freshwater tanks, shrimp do a great job. For a saltwater cleanup crew use Nassarius snails, sand sifting starfish, fighting conchs, or sand sifting gobies to clean the sand.
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Extra Pointers:

To keep a cleaner sand or gravel bottom use a thin layer, approximately an inch or less thick across the bottom. Thinner layers will not trap as much waste, will be quicker to rinse before adding and quicker to vacuum when in the tank.

Powerful external filters can be used to suck dirty water across the gravel bed, acting as a constant siphon in the tank. Although, it won’t work like a gravel vacuum will, but long term it will help to prevent dirt from settling on the bottom.

Strong flow throughout the tank will help keep dirt suspended off the substrate so that it may be filtered out.

Lifting up any easily removable structures like rock, wood, artificial plants or ornaments when vacuuming will help keep things clean, as dirt tends to collect underneath them as well.   

To calculate how much sand your aquarium needs check out our substrate calculator.

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