How to Clean Aquarium Gravel (With and Without a Vacuum)

What is aquarium gravel?

Aquarium gravel is one kind of an aquarium substrate, meaning it is one of the materials used at the bottom of an aquarium. It plays a very significant role in the overall well-being of an aquarium, It affects the water chemistry, filtration, and the state of the living beings inside the tank. And lastly, it also has the role of decoration.

There are other types of substrate for example, sand, crushed-up coral, marble, etc. The best substrate for your tank depends on the type of fish, the water chemistry, etc. It's best not to have any brightly-colored gravel as it can stress out your fish, while substrate of a darker tone tends to have a calming effect on your fish.

You may love to read how to adjust the pH in your aquarium.

How does it help my fish?

If not for gravel, (or any other kind of aquarium substrate) left-over food, waste produced by your fish, and other types of debris will roam freely around the aquarium. The type of bacteria that lives in the aquarium help in eliminating these wastes, thus making the tank safe for your fish to live in. This is how gravel helps in filtration.

These bacteria grows in good enough quantity on the gravel. If there is lack of gravel, there is lack of the sufficient amount of bacteria. Harmful waste will build-up, and the water will be needed to changed more frequently.

Gravel is also a good factor into creating a comfortable habitat for your fish. It's crucial to make sure your fish are comfortable. Having gravel, sand, or any other kind of appropriate substrate on the bottom for your fish to freely sift through will give them comfort.

It can also make a good "nest" for your fish to lay eggs on, and large-sized substrate will also hide the eggs from the reach of hungry adult fishes.

In addition to these, proper substrate is vital for plants to grow. If you plan on keeping freshwater plants, they will root well, receive good nutrition, and thrive in small-sized gravel.

Gravel is also used for improving water chemistry, or adjusting it to your own fish's needs.

Of course, lastly, the aesthetic appeal of a tank gives it yet another good reason for keeping gravel in an aquarium. Not only does it help hide the unappealing wastage from floating around and from building up, it gives color and attraction to others and you. Make sure it to be not too flashy and glaring, but comfortable to your fish.

When substrate is not needed?

There are cases when gravel, or any other kind of substrate isn't a necessity. In fact, when you're better off without it. So when is substrate not an ideal choice?

If you have plans to raise young fry from hatched eggs in grow-out tanks, it is definitely better to not use gravel. This is because fry are too tiny to distinguish, so in the midst of cleaning the tank by vacuuming gravel or changing the water, it is far too easy to accidentally lose them.

A bare-bottomed tank is also of good use when preparing a hospital tank, or a quarantine tank. In these tanks, it's better to have the lack of gravel because parasites can linger there and infect the next inhabitant of the tank.

How to clean aquarium gravel?

There are two basic ways to clean aquarium gravel. One way is to use an aquarium vacuum, and the other way is to do it by hand.

Using a vacuum:

Using an aquarium vacuum is always recommended by most aquarium hobbyists, it's efficient, and it's great for smaller tanks or bowls. It helps profoundly in cleaning off the unwanted gunk around your gravel easily. How do you put it to use?

Always start with unplugging the heater, filter, and pump. Vacuums does the work quickly so you don't need to worry about your fish. Make sure the plastic hose is attached securely to the vacuum head. Place a plastic bucket on the floor near your tank to catch the dirty water. Drop the end of the hose inside it.

Sift through the gravel with the head of the vacuum and allow it to suck off the waste, uneaten fish food and other debris that has collected on the substrate and decor. When the bucket is full, drain the water and continue to siphon the substrate until you have drained about 15 percent of the tank water.

Do not drain more than 15 percent or try to clean almost all of the substrate, because you do not want to remove all of the friendly waste-eating bacteria that ensures good health of your tank. Replace the removed amount of water with fresh, de-chlorinated tap water.

Doing it by hand:

Turn off the water heater, filter and pump. Take a clean bucket that has never come in contact with chemicals, (i.e soap, detergent), and fill it halfway with the dirty fish tank water. Afterwards, fill it halfway with clean tap water. This is an important step, as fish are very sensitive to water changes, and this is to make sure to not injure your fish by drastic water changes. 

Completely drain the tank. Take two cupfuls of dirty gravel and set it aside. This will help some of the friendly bacterica to re-colonize afterwards. Next, take the rest of the gravel and distribute it into two buckets. If you have a lot of gravel to clean, then use another bucket. You can use a strainer to clean small-sized gravel.

If your gravel is big enough to be cleaned by hand, then carry on with placing a garden hose inside the bucket and turn the faucet on full blast, cleaning it with warm water. Stir and rinse the gravel vigorously until the water looks clear. If you're using a strainer, make sure it has never come in contact with any chemicals. Place it under a faucet and clean with warm water. Shake and stir well, and rinse with your hand until the water is clear.

Repeat the same process with the second bucket. Now clean the tank with clean warm tap water. Do not use soap, or any other cleaning agent. The residue left by the chemicals will kill your fish. Make sure to clean the aquarium decor, filter, thermostat, tubes, the same way. Wipe the inside of the tank with clean paper towels.

Now put all of the gravel back into the tank, mixing the clean and dirty gravel. Now fill the tank with clean, cold tap water. Make sure to treat the water first by adding a de-chlorinating agent to it beforehand. Plug in the electrical equipments, and return the fish to the tank.

Weekly water changes are good, and siphoning the gravel once a week and not any more frequent is best. If you do not have a vacuum, clean only about 30 to 40 percent of the gravel once every few weeks. Possibly less frequently depending on the number of inhabitants in the tank, and the amount of debris gathering on and around the gravel.

Of course, these will also depend on the size of your tank, for example, a water bowl or a hospital tank will need more frequent water changes and cleaning.

Paula Anderson

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