Dirty substrates are a momentous cause of poor water quality in many fish tanks. Gravel harbor food residue, rotting plants and fish waste trapped between pebbles which increasingly make the water toxic; sometimes even creating a pungent stench.
Though regular water changes will expel the toxic waste, dirty gravel will toxify the new water quite fast. Therefore, it’s imperative to clean your gravel regularly, together with your glass surfaces and decoration.
The idea is to vacuum as much as you can while performing your routine weekly or biweekly water changes using a vacuum siphon vac kit.
This is why today, we will look at how to properly clean aquarium gravel both with or without a vacuum cleaner. Plus take a look at how often you should change your fish tank gravel.
Do You Really Have to Wash Aquarium Gravel?
With a fully cycled tank, you should have a stable amount of beneficial bacteria to breakdown fish waste ammonia and nitrites at an efficient rate.
Which means it virtually possible to maintain a fish tank without too much gravel cleaning.
The least you should do is vacuum solid food and plant grime from your substrate.
Nonetheless, complete failure to clean your gravel will gradually culminate to your water getting dirty more quickly meaning frequent water changes.
As well, algae will thrive in dirty gravel accompanied by a rotten egg odor from excess anaerobic bacteria bloom in tiny oxygen-free pockets between compact pebble.
So, vacuum your gravel not only to remove dirt but also, to break these pockets forming within compact gravel. Alternatively, use airstones to improve water movement within the substrate.
How Often Should You Clean Fish Tank Gravel?
How often you’ll clean your gravel will depend a lot on the dynamics of your fish tank.
Generally, dirt accumulates faster in smaller, plant less and overstocked aquariums. In which case, you should do thorough gravel cleaning every two weeks.
Moreover, try to change 10 to 20 percent of the water weekly.
If you have a densely planted tank, you may forego the biweekly gravel vacuuming and do it one every month instead. However, ensure dead plant leaves that decompose on gravel are not part of the problem.
Gravel in overstocked aquariums will accumulate dirty quickly meted out by food waste from feeding more fish. This especially if you have wasteful fish or species that produce a lot of waste like goldfish and Oscars.
Put simply, a light biweekly gravel vacuuming is necessary, unless you have a fairly clean tank, then you can wash your substrate once every month.
How to Clean Aquarium Gravel — Step by Step Guides
Given your situation, there are a couple of ways you can wash your aquarium gravel. The path you take will mostly depend on the situation, type, and extent of dirt on your substrate.
Below are several ways you can clean dirty gravel.
How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel with a Vacuum Kit
A siphon vacuum gravel cleaner is used to vacuum aquarium gravel. It works by using gravity and hydrostatic pressure to suck dirt from substrates and help dispose of outside the tank.
To use a siphon vac kit effectively, ensure
- The siphon tube is always higher than the aquarium being cleaned to allow water and dirt to flow out on gravity.
- Get a bucket to empty the dirty solution you remove from the tank.
- No air bubbles should form in the vacuum tube otherwise the kit won’t work properly.
- Let the tube get filled with the dirt before you remove it from the tank.
Vacuuming Your Gravel in 10 Quick Step
Step #1 — Unplug
Unplug your heater, filter, and air pump but leave your tank decorations, plants, and fish in the aquarium. Generally, the process should be fairly quick and should not stress your fish too much.
Step #2 — Submerge
Get your aquarium gravel vacuum cleaning kit and the old water bucket. Place the bucket below the aquarium level then start the vacuum process by submerging the kit in your tank. Make sure the siphon vac tube is wholly inside the tank.
Step #3 — Up-Down Motion
Start moving the tube inside the water in small up-down motions about 2 to 4 inches above the gravel until water starts flowing through the tube into the bucket below.
Step #4 — Vacuuming
Once you’ve established a flow, move the tube over the whole gravel surface making sure you get all the grime.
For a more complete clean on your tank, simply move the gravel vac further into the substrate itself. The tube might suck in a few pebbles, but they should fall back once you raise the tube.
Step #5 — Turn the Tube
Once the water level has dropped to around 25 to 30 percent of the water removed, meaning your tank is about 75 percent full, simply turn your gravel vac tube up while still inside the water, Take it from the tank and let it drain out through the tubing.
The tube might fill up before you get to the desired water level, just empty the gravel vac and continue the vacuuming till you reach the desired level.
Step #6 — Plug Back
When you are confident the gravel is reasonably clean, clear the cleaning area then put your heater, filter and air pump back in the tank.
How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel without a Vacuum Kit
Cleaning fish tank gravel without a vacuum is not easy but it’s not entirely impossible either. In fact, it’s not hard just that it takes more time and effort.
Plus there are a few cons associated with this method. For one thing, you’ll need a lot of time albeit a little cheaper and more effective.
You also need to move your fish to another tank and pour out the gravel. Which is quite stressful and will disrupt useful bacteria that have established in your tank.
The process will, however, help you break compact gravel pockets that conceal tough organic dirt.
To clean your tank without a vacuum, follow these steps.
Step #1 — Prepare New Tank
Prepare a clean tank where you’ll move your fish while you clean the gravel. Then use a siphon or a cup to move about 50 percent of your tank water to the holding tank.
This should ensure your fish are held in the same conditions they are used to.
Step #2 — Transfer Your Fish
Transfer your fish into the new tank using a net. However, if you keep fish that have flowy fins like bettas, you may need to use your hand to move them. Flowy fins and tails easily get tangled up in the net threading and could hurt the fish.
Step #3 — Unplug
Remove your heater, filter and air pump from the tank.
Unlike when using a gravel vac kit, here you’ll also need to remove your plants and decorations plus unplug electrical equipment like aquarium lights.
Step #4 — Clean Your Gravel
In this step, there are two ways you can go about it.
First you can use a cup or a fairly sized container to take the dirty gravel out and place it in a sieve for cleaning.
Or if your aquarium is not too heavy, take the remaining water level dow enough then slowly pour the gravel into a holding pan.
Rinse the dirty gravel in your sieve with running water or use a hose to do the washing.
If you have your gravel in a holding pan, fill it with water and use your hands to move the gravel around. Tip the pan slightly while shielding the gravel with your hand to pour out the dirty water then rinse the gravel.
Either way, make sure you don’t clean all the gravel. The portion that remains uncleaned will help keep nitrifying bacteria which will then recolonize your tank once it’s re-established.
Step #5 — Plug Back and Refill
Once the gravel is clean and dry mix it with the portion let unclean then put it back into your tank. Add your equipment and decoration then plug back electrical equipment.
Prepare clean water set in the perfect conditions for your fish tank and refill it making sure the water is at the correct temperature and ph.
Step #6 — Put the Fish Back
Add your fish back to the tank in the same way you moved them.
How to Clean Aquarium Gravel Algae
Sometimes you will have algae in your substrate that may or may not appear in other tank surfaces. This alga is called brown algae, Silica algae or Substrate Algae.
The algae start as brown patches on gravel then spread to other parts of your tank. Luckily removing brown algae ( learn more in this article) from your gravel is fairly easy.
Simply use a siphon vac kit to vacuum your gravel and you will most likely expel the brown film quickly and easily. Moreover, silica algae in new tanks will most likely clear out naturally.
Alternatively, stock algae eaters like suckermouth catfish and they’ll gladly sort your problem.