How to Clean Aquarium Sand: A Helpful Illustrated Guide with Video

Keeping your aquarium clean is a must to ensure happy and healthy fish, as well as maximizing the aesthetic appeal. However, cleaning aquarium sand can be a challenge, especially when compared to other substrates. The small particle size means that sand can easily be sucked up by a gravel filter, which is something you’ll want to avoid. We want to keep our substrate in the tank

How to clean aquarium sand? Use your fingers to turn over the sand, this will cause debris to settle on top. Next use a gravel filter held slightly above the sand to suck up any particles.

That’s it, that’s all you need to do to clean aquarium sand. The video below illustrates the point nicely, but read on for some tips and tricks that will help reduce the need for cleaning as well methods for making your tank look spotlessly clean with the minimum amount of effort.

Before you begin any cleaning, you should understand what sort of sand you have. Not all sands are created equally.

If you’re using bog standard play sand then you can quite easily agitate it without any concerns. However, if you’re using sand suitable for planting, then you need to be careful when raking or moving it. Overzealous agitation can cause dangerous bacteria and ammonia to be released, effectively poisoning your fish.

If you’re not sure what type of sand you have, refer to the shop you bought it from, or if you still have it, the packaging.

You’re looking for any special care instructions or warnings. Even if you do have specialist planting sand, you can still clean the top 1/2 – 1 inch without to much concern.

Top Tip: Some sands might look beautiful, coral sand for example, but can be lethal to some fish species. It’s never a good idea to take sand from your local beach as it can contain parasites and contaminants, not to mention the ecological impact.

Weekly Maintenance: Sand Aquarium Water Changes

Completing a water change is one of the most effective and easiest ways of keeping your fish tank in spotless condition. You’ll want to do a partial water change every week or possibly two, depending on how many fish you have and how big the tank is.

The first step is to turn off all electronics at the wall, so make sure the filter, heater, and light are all turned off. Don’t worry about your fish, they’ll be absolutely fine for the amount of time it’ll take you to clean everything. This is for obvious reasons, electronics, water, and humans don’t mix well, and if you accidentally break your heater as you’re cleaning you could be in for a nasty shock.

If it’s safe to do so, remove any decorations and artificial plants. At this point you can clean these items with some warm water and a soft lint-free cloth, however, doing this is slightly controversial. The theory goes that this sort of excessive cleaning will remove some of the beneficial bacteria. Generally, I don’t bother.

There’s no need to remove any live plants, doing so will probably cause more harm than good.

At this point, I like to give the glass a scrub to remove any algae growth and keep the glass looking clean and bright.

You can also turnover and rake your sand at this point, making sure any debris is dislodged from the sand.

With all the glass scrubbing, removing of ornaments and sand raking, there’s going to be some debris floating around. Scoop up any large bits with a net and we’ll try and get some of the rest with the water siphon.

Put the end of the water siphon into the tank and the other end into a bucket or sink. We’re looking to remove between 10 – 20% of the water. Place the water siphon end approximately 1/2 an inch above the sand and suck up as much of debris as you can.

While the water is draining it’s a good time to remove the foam filter from the water pump and to give it a clean. There are two schools of thought here, one is you should only ever clean the filter in the siphoned off tank water. The idea is you’re looking to preserve as much of the bacteria as possible.

The other option is to rinse the foam filter under cold running water. I personally clean my filters in the siphoned water. Whatever you decide, never use chemicals, soap or hot water.

Once you’ve siphoned off enough water you can dispose of the old water. I like to pour it onto my garden plants, it’s full of organic compounds that act as a fertilizer.

As we’ve removed water, we need to top up the tank again. Fill a bucket with tap water and add a few drops of aquarium water conditioner. It’ll take a few minutes for the water conditioner to neutralize the chlorine present in almost all mains water. The exact amount of conditioner needed varies by brand, so read the instructions carefully.

Once a few minutes have gone by you can carefully top up your aquarium water, add any ornaments back in and turn the power back on.

Daily Maintenance: Remove Debris

If you’re keeping a planted tank then you’re going to end up with tank debris floating around, over time this can start to decompose, releasing all sorts of chemicals you’d rather keep out of your water.

Simply scoop plant parts out as soon as you see them. I keep a fine mesh net next to the tank for exactly this purpose.

Additionally, when any of your fish die off, you’re going to fish them out asap and give them a proper send off. Like plants, they will start to break down and release toxins into your water. If you have a large tank, this is probably less of an issue, but smaller tanks can suffer.

Pro TiP: be careful with the amount of food you’re giving your fish. Overfeeding is a major cause of dirty tanks. If you can avoid overfeeding then you’ll need to spend less time cleaning.

Spending barely a few seconds each day to remove debris from your tank will make your weekly cleaning much easier, make your tank look much nicer and give your fish a better environment to live in.

Natural Maintenance: Snails, Shrimp & Fish

There are several breeds of fish, snails, and shrimp that will help maintain aquarium cleanliness. Not only do these species help keep algae under control, but they also help to consume excess food. A surge in your snail population is a good sign that you’re overfeeding your fish!

Snails are particularly effective at churning sand over, which will go some way to making sure dirt and debris stay on the surface where we can easily suck it up.

In terms of breeds, we think the following a good starting point:

  • Bristlenose Plecos: Renowned for being a ferocious eater of algae, but will also eat food that’s sunk to the bottom of the tank.
  • Malaysian Trumpet Snail: These snails will multiply quickly if there is excess food available, so you’ll quickly find out if you’re overfeeding. Great for churning over sand.
  • Ramshorn Snail: These snails are ideal for heavily planted tanks as they tent to leave live plants alone, preferring algae and dead plant matter.
  • Nerite Snails: Another good candidate for cleaning a substrate as these snails tend to spend most of their lives at the bottom of the tank.
  • Cherry Shrimp: I love cherry shrimp, they can add a splash of color to aquariums and can get to areas that fish can’t. They’ll also do an admirable job at cleaning up uneaten food.
  • Ghost Shrimp: Not fantastic algae eaters, although they do a good job controlling hair algae. They will eat any and all leftover food. Word of caution, I found out to my detriment that they will eat other shrimp species.

Final Thoughts

We don’t think that cleaning aquarium sand need by any more difficult than any other substrate, you’ll just need to be a bit more careful. With regular maintenance, cleaning doesn’t need to be a big job and with some natural helpers, it can be even easier.

If your experience differs or if you have any tips or tricks you’d like to share with our readers, then please let us know in the comments below.

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