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


In any aquarium, over time, dirt accumulates, which comes from unconsumed food, fish excrement, plant leaf decay, and algae deposits. Aquarium cleaning is a routine that you can’t get rid of 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 you know it. Excessive mess also affects water parameters or fish comfort, so let’s go clean. Performed once or twice a month, cleanliness does not take much of your time, and the results are very satisfactory.

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

Why it is obvious. To maintain good hygiene of the fish tank. Gravel is playing an important role in the fish tank ecosystem and if it gets too dirty, it can cause all sort 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 a foul smell of the water.

There are a few simple ways to clean the gravel of a fish tank and they are not complicated. You need a few items such as 1-2 buckets, 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 the one they have got damaged.

For that, we have described a way to clean the gravel of your fish tank without the need of a siphon or a hose.

If you want to learn how you can clean your fish tank gravel, keep reading, we got some interesting and easy methods that you can apply and 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 process is a bit more difficult, but it can be done, it is not hard.

This involves getting rid of most of the water from the fish tank. You can do that by using a cup and a bucket. Simply, all you have to do is to fill up the bucket with water, go to the sink or toilet and empty the bucket.

But remember, before anything, remember to get a separate bucket filled with some water from the tank for your fish. You need to catch the fish using a net, or your hand, and gently place them in the bucket. They will stay there until the cleaning of the fish tank is complete.

After completely getting rid of most of the water from the fish tank, now it’s time to move 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.

After you made sure that the gravel is clean, its 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 it up with water.

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

Using a Gravel Vacuum

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

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 mouth 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 tube end into an empty bucket to collect the dirty water to use your vacuum.

Gravel vacuums use gravity to draw water out of the tank, so the collection bucket should be positioned below the aquarium level. Dip the vacuum head into the tank until it fills and removes 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 with 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 moved it slowly around the tank to suck an 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 those things are so small and often they get eaten by fish or other aquarium inhabitants.

When an algae deposit gets too big, we 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 cleaning or you can use some algae removal substances that are available in aquarium shops.

As with the glass, algae tend 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 they tend to hurt the wallet and sometimes they prove to be inefficient.

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

Vacuuming it won’t work as good since it will only remove the superficial layers of algae and not the ones that 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. This isn’t good because it only lowers the beauty level of your fish tank.

To clean them 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, and with a toothbrush or an abrasive sponge, simply brush away the algae and the dirt from them.

Make sure that you don’t damage them as some fish tank decorations 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 to get it done.

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 lots of no more than 5 pounds each is also a good idea. At the same time, attempting to rinse too much gravel may not remove all 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 of the aquarium in an aquarium seal. Fill the bucket with tap water, about one inch covering the gravel. Switch 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 are floating upwards. They’ve got a dusty texture of the film. To the bottom sink heavier materials. They’ve got a tougher, grim texture.

The coloring of the gravel can also discolor the water. Sprinkle the water out of the bucket after gravel has soaked and refill it with tap water just like before.

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

Is it really important to clean it, aquarium shops seem like a good place to buy safe gravel? Keep reading to find out why this is important!

Cleaning Gravel from Outdoor Sources

Sometimes, you don’t feel the need to go to an aquarium shop and buy a bag of gravel for your aquarium. If you are like me, you would probably take a bucket to a river and start filling it with gravel from there. It is a great source 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 that thing, it is deadly to them. While being their worst enemy, it is your best friend in this type of situation.

To clean it, simply put 2 cups of vinegar in the bucket where the gravel is and fill it with water. Let it stay like that for 1-2hrs and then empty the water from the bucket. By this time, most of the harmful bacteria and parasite 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 the 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 the 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 in the aquarium, consists of two components: the decorative substrate and the nutrient substrate. Choosing it is the most important, it is the essential step and the first one the aquarist must think when planning an aquarium.

If in an aquarium set the aquarist decides to reposition the plants, they can be easily removed and positioned in another completely different configuration, with the substrate we can’t do the same thing. If it is decided to interfere with the substrate in an aquarium set earlier, it will destabilize it and it is practically like a new setup, with all the stages to be stabilized.

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 heavy 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 in freshwater.

Will a substrate filter help keep it clean?

You all know that besides internal filters and external filters, we have a type of internal filter that is placed in the gravel. This type of filter helps clean up the excess fish poop and uneaten food that made its way to the bottom of the tank.

In some situations, it 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 decision to take.

What have we learned from this?

  • Keeping your fish tank gravel clean is very important to maintain a healthy aquarium. Fish waste and uneaten food can deposit within it and poison the water and the fish that swim in it.
  • 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 the gravel that you bought from the aquarium shop or the one that you collected 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, it is safe and it doesn’t leave any unwanted residue on the gravel. Also, algae removal substances, you can use them if you want, 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 can get easier when using 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 in the Hobby & this is my site. You will find some really useful tips and Information that I learned the Hard way.

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