How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel (With & Without a Vacuum)

Substrate

In any aquarium over time, dirt will accumulate. It comes from unconsumed food, fish excrement, plant leaf decay, and algae deposits. Aquarium cleaning is a routine that you can’t avoid, even with the most sophisticated filtering systems.

Sooner or later the aquarium will be loaded with dirt deposits and will not look as joyous as it could. Excessive mess also affects water parameters for fish comfort, so cleaning is really important. Performed once or twice a month, a cleaning routine does not have to take much of your time, and the results are very satisfactory.

One thing that poses a problem is the gravel, as this can be a bit tricky to clean. Why and how should you clean your fish tank gravel?

Why should you clean your gravel? It is obvious—to maintain good fish tank hygiene. Gravel plays an important role in the fish tank ecosystem and if it gets too dirty, it can cause all sorts of unwanted problems.

Old fish food that fish didn’t eat, fish poo, algae, and even harmful bacteria can hide in the fish tank substrate. And you need to get rid of it in order to maintain a balance. Too much waste can lead to ammonia poisoning and foul-smelling water.

There are a few simple ways to clean your fish tank gravel, and they are not complicated. You need a few pieces of equipment, such as a couple of buckets and a hose or a gravel siphon to get it done. But we know that not everyone can get their hands on a gravel siphon, or maybe their gravel siphon is damaged—so what can be used instead?

We will show you a way to clean the gravel in your fish tank, without the need for a siphon or a hose.

If you want to learn how you can clean your fish tank gravel, keep reading, we’ve got some interesting, easy methods that will lead to a clean aquarium and happy fish.

Cleaning the Fish Tank Gravel without a Vacuum

If you don’t have a gravel vacuum on hand, no problem, you can clean your fish tank gravel without one. This way of doing it is a little bit harder, but it can still be done without too much difficulty.

First, fill a bucket with water from your tank, catch the fish using a net (or your hands) and gently place them in the bucket. They will stay here until the fish tank has been cleaned.

Next, remove all the water from the fish tank. You can do this by using a cup and a bucket. Simply, fill up the bucket with the water and empty it into the sink or down the toilet.

After removing the water from the fish tank, it’s now time to remove to the gravel. If your fish tank isn’t that heavy, you can lift it and pour the gravel into a bucket. After doing that, simply rinse the fish tank with some water to clean the glass and put it back in its place.

Now, back to the gravel, take the bucket and using a showerhead or a hose, clean the gravel inside the bucket. You have to do this several times until the water that comes out of the bucket looks clean.

Once you are satisfied that the gravel is clean, it’s time to put it back in the fish tank. Using your hand, gently put the gravel back on the bottom of the tank and slowly fill the tank up with water.

Empty the fish bucket, with the water, into the tank. This will ensure that there are some bacteria left in the water to ensure a properly balanced, healthy ecosystem.

Using a Gravel Vacuum

For many aquarium hobbyists, gravel vacuums are the tool of choice when it comes to cleaning the substrate in your tank. These tools are available in a variety of sizes and some models even come with attachments that are designed to reach into corners and underneath tank decorations.

Recommended Gravel Vacuums

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Choose a gravel vacuum commensurate with the size of your aquarium and the amount of open space in your tank.

For example, if your tank is densely planted or heavily decorated, a gravel vacuum with a narrow mouth may be needed to avoid disturbing plants and decorations while cleaning the substrate.

However, if you have a lot of open space in your tank, a large-mouthed vacuum will save time by allowing you to clean large tank areas at once. It’s very easy to use a gravel vacuum and it’s the fastest way to remove built-up waste from your substrate.

Simply submerge the vacuum head in the tank and drop the other end of the tube into an empty bucket to collect the dirty water.

Cleaning Fish Poop

Gravel vacuums use gravity to draw water out of the tank, so the collection bucket should be positioned lower than the aquarium. Dip the vacuum head into the tank until it fills and them remove it from the water completely.

Watch carefully as the water begins to drain down the tube towards the collection bucket and re-submerge the vacuum quickly before it completely empties.

This will form a pocket of air in the tube, beginning a siphon effect that draws water through the vacuum and into the bucket for collection.

Dig the vacuum head into the substrate once the siphon effect has started and move it slowly around the tank to suck up accumulated waste.

Some gravel vacuums will directly connect to your sink’s faucet. Simply turning on the water creates the siphon effect.

Cleaning the Algae that Linger in the Substrate

Algae is everywhere in aquariums. It is hard to notice because it can be very small and is often eaten by fish or other aquarium inhabitants.

When an algae deposit gets too big, you will notice some green or brown spots on the glass of the aquarium. If the spots tend to extend, it means that the fish tank needs a proper clean. You can use algae removal substances that are available in aquarium shops.

As with the glass, algae tends to form on the substrate as well. And cleaning it is not an easy process. Yes, you can use algae removal substances to get rid of it, but these tend to be expensive without being terribly efficient.

The only good way to get rid of algae in the substrate is to take the substrate out and clean it.

Vacuuming it won’t work as well, since it will only remove the superficial layers of algae and not the ones that have made a strong bond with the gravel.

Cleaning Substrate

Cleaning Rocks and other Fish Tank Decorations

Algae and fish waste doesn’t only deposit into the substrate. Sometimes it can get on the decorations as well and if not cleaned in time it becomes stuck to them, making your tank look dirty and not very pretty.

To clean the decorations, you first need to get them out of the fish tank. You can do that easily when you are doing water changes or when doing a full aquarium cleanup.

Get them out and put them in a bucket or lay them in a tray. Rinse them in clean water. There is no need to use other substances such as vinegar for this—simply brush away the algae and the dirt with a toothbrush or an abrasive sponge.

Make sure that you don’t damage the tank decorations as they tend to be very fragile.

After brushing, rinse them again in clean water and put them back in the tank. This is a very simple process and doesn’t require much effort.

Cleaning Gravel that Comes from Aquarium Shops

When cleaning new aquarium gravel, it’s a good idea to use waterproof gloves. Cleaning new aquarium gravel in batches of no more than 5 pounds each is also a good idea. Attempting to rinse too much gravel at once may not remove all the dust, debris or grit.

Also, be careful not to have small pieces of gravel or debris going down the drain, otherwise the drain may collapse.

Place the new gravel in an aquarium seal. Cover the gravel with about one inch of water and mix the gravel to stir things up a little bit.

Let the gravel soak in the bucket for a couple of minutes to soften any possible dust, debris, or grit.

Lighter materials will float to the surface. Heavier materials with a tougher texture will sink to the bottom.

The coloring of the gravel can also discolor the water. Remove the water from the bucket after the gravel has soaked for a few minutes, and refill it with tap water just like before.

As the bucket fills, vigorously agitate the gravel. Pour out the water again and repeat the process several times until the water appears clear, clean and free of film, dust, debris, and grit.

Is it really important to clean new aquarium gravel? Can’t I safely buy clean gravel from an aquarium shop? Keep reading to find out why this is important!

Cleaning Gravel from Outdoor Sources

You might think that you don’t need to buy gravel from an aquarium shop. If you are like me, you will probably take a bucket to a river and start filling it with gravel from there. It is a great source of gravel and, most importantly, it’s free!

While this can save you a buck or two, it is important to remember that the gravel you just picked up might contain unwanted parasites, bacteria, algae and who knows what else. Sometimes you might get lucky and find a fish egg or two, adding a new species into your tank.

Cleaning gravel that was taken from a natural source isn’t a hard process. All you need for this is a bucket and some vinegar.

Yes, vinegar. Bacteria and parasites hate vinegar—it’s deadly to them. While being their worst enemy, it is your best friend in this type of situation.

To clean the river gravel, simply put 2 cups of vinegar in a bucket with the gravel and fill it with water. Leave it for 1-2 hours and then empty the water from the bucket. By this time, most of the harmful bacteria and parasites should have died. Rinse the gravel a couple of times and it is ready to go in the tank!

Another method that is even more efficient than vinegar is to use bleach. But you need to be careful with this because bleach tends to hold on to the gravel for a long time and if you introduce it into the fish tank, it can kill your fish if it’s in high concentration.

If you decide to go with bleach, it is important to use a very small amount, like ¼ of a cup per bucket of water.

This way you ensure a good concentration to kill the unwanted passengers and it will be easy to clean off at the end. After filling the bucket with water, let it sit for 10 minutes and then empty it.

Remember that you need to rinse the gravel a couple of times in clean water to get rid of the bleach that has leeched into it.

Related Questions

Is fish tank gravel that important?

The aquarium substrate, otherwise called sand or gravel, serves two purposes: the decorative substrate and the nutrient substrate. Choosing it is the most important initial step when planning an aquarium.

If an aquarist decides to reposition the plants within the tank, they can be easily removed and positioned in a completely different configuration. However, we can’t do this with the substrate, as interfering with the substrate will destabilize it and it will be like setting up a whole new tank, with all the stages that involves.

How often should you clean your fish tank gravel?

There is no precise answer to this question. Some say that it’s important to clean it every time you do a water change, but that won’t be the case. It also depends a lot on what type of aquarium you have and what species of fish you have in it.

To give a short answer to this, it should be cleaned at least twice a month if you have a heavily populated tank.

Should pet store gravel be cleaned?

An important first step in maintaining high water quality is the proper cleaning of new aquarium gravel; gravel dust and residue can harm or even kill fish.

While new aquarium gravel may be marketed by manufacturers as “pre-rinsed” or “pre-cleared,” new aquarium gravel bags often contain dust, debris, grit or poisonous residue from the factory in which it was packed. These small particles should not enter an aquarium environment.

Will a substrate filter help keep it clean?

You all know that apart from internal and external filters, there is a type of internal filter that is placed in the gravel. This type of filter helps clean up any excess fish poop and uneaten food that makes its way to the bottom of the tank.

In some situations, this type of filter may work, but if your gravel is very fine it can clog the filter, thus rendering it inefficient. If you have bigger, sturdy gravel in your tank, yes, it MAY work. But cleaning the gravel yourself is the best way to do it.

What have we learned from this?

  • Keeping your fish tank gravel clean is very important for maintaining a healthy aquarium. Fish waste and uneaten food can build up and poison the water and the fish in your tank.
  • It is important to clean the gravel at least twice a month to maintain a balanced ecosystem within the aquarium.
  • It is important to clean new gravel, whether you bought it from an aquarium shop or collected it from a river. Hidden parasites and bacteria can ruin your tank if not taken care of properly.
  • Avoid using any substances when cleaning the gravel, such a bleach. You can use vinegar, as it is safe and it doesn’t leave any unwanted residue on the gravel. Also, you can use algae removal substances, but they are not that efficient.
  • You don’t need any special tools to clean your aquarium gravel, a bucket and a source of clean water are all that is needed. Of course, things would be easier with a gravel siphon or a hose.
  • It is good to test the water from time to time. Keep an eye on the pH level, hardness, and ammonia.

Saurabh Kumar

I am a passionate fish keeper, with years of experience. You will find some really useful tips and information on this blog about Freshwater Aquariums.

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