How to Clean Aquarium Sand in Fish Tank With or Without Vacuum

By Eddie Waithaka @aquariawise

How to Clean Aquarium Sand in Fish Tank With or Without Vacuum

A common question among fish keepers that are new to sand substrates is “Should I wash aquarium sand?”

And the short and quick answer is Yes.

You ought to wash your sand substrate in the fish tank. If not, you will have frequent water clarity issues, which may potentially crowd up your filter.

Another fact that is pretty unsettling is that sand substrates are arguably harder to clean than gravel substrates, particularly if you have play-sand in your aquarium.

So, how do you clean your aquarium sand?

In this article, we’ll go through cleaning aquarium sand step-by-step using a substrate vacuum (siphon) or even in the absence of one. You will also learn how to clean your substrate with aquarium sand rake.

But first…

Can You Vacuum Aquarium Sand?

Yes, you can vacuum aquarium sand.

In fact, it possible that using a siphon (vacuum) is the easiest way to clean a sand substrate in a fish tank.

The trick is to not get too low with the siphon because you’ll end up sucking up the sad, even though you only want to get the waste.

That said, vacuuming sand bottom aquariums is a little different from cleaning gravel bottom aquariums.

At the outset, sandy substrates stay cleaner because debris doesn’t fall between the particles as easily. However, when its time to vacuum, it will take you longer than cleaning gravel and may be quite challenging especially if you’ve not had a sand substrate before.

How to Clean Aquarium Sand in Fish Tank with Siphon (Vacuum)

Now that we’ve established it OK to vacuum aquarium sand in a fish tank, the only question that remains is “How do you clean sand with a vacuum?

Below is a quick 3-step-guide you can use.

**Step #1.**Stir The Sand

The first thing you’ll want to do is stir your sand substrate with your hand or a net.

Stir the substrate all the way to the bottom to make a “nice” cloud.

After that, give your tank five to 10 minutes to settle.

Usually, any dirt that the filter has not picked out of the water will settle on top of the sand.

Step #2Siphon The Dirt from The Sand Surface

Now that all the dirt you want to vacuum is on top of the sand, take a siphon with a large barrel, like a gravel vacuum, start it, and then gently and lightly, go over the top of the sand picking up all the debris resting on top of the sand.

Try not to get down into the sand because your vacuum will end up picking the sand substrate and taking it out of the tank as well.

In case you are having a challenge getting the dirt in the vacuum, try tilting the siphon at an angle and make a swirling motion above the sand. This will kick up all the waste from the substrate high enough for you to siphon it out.

Step #2Clean Your Filter

One last thing you ought to do, once you are done vacuuming the sand, is to give your filter a quick clean because it will have picked up a fair amount of dirt out of the water when you stirred up the sand.

How to Clean Aquarium Sand Without a Vacuum

If you do not have a gravel siphon, one option you can opt for is a turkey buster, which is actually a smarter solution if you can’t seem to keep sand from getting inside your vacuum kit.

The pressure kit (tucker buster) can precision inject or accurately remove material from your substrate, sometimes better than a vacuum kit, albeit taking longer to get than whole aquarium.

To use a tucker buster to clean your substrate is also quite easy. The whole process is nothing more than to point, squeeze, then eject.

Essentially, this trick is especially useful to hobbyists keeping small freshwater fish in nano tanks or with heavily decorated aquariums that have plenty of nooks and crevices.

If a turkey buster is still not an acceptable (accessible) solution for you, I suggest you remove the vac tube part of your gravel siphon, particularly if your only challenge is keeping sand out of the vacuum kit.

With the vac tube out of the way, use the hose to suction your substrate and to get to specific dirt spots on the sand.

You can use your mouth to get the suction going, though a baby medicine dropper tube is a better option.

Sand Cleaning Freshwater Fish

One other less tedious and rather natural way to keep your new, maybe white, sand substrate clean is to add bottom-dwelling cleaner fishes and other small aquatic animals that can survive in a tropical aquarium such as snails and shrimp.

So, what kind of fish and shrimp make a good cleaning crew for sand substrates?

**#1.**Corydoras Catfish

At the top of our list are corydoras, which are part of a group with many types of small bodied catfish that prefer to live in groups of six (6).

Cory cats are extremely effecient cleaners that’ll scavenge the leftovers that sink to the bottom, either at the top of the sand or just below the substrate.

Thats said, please remember to use fine sand (as opposed to corse) if you plan on adding cories in your tank to help protect their barbels from injury while the forage the substrate.

Top Picks

**#2.**Botia Loaches

A couple of small and medium-sized botia loaches including clown loach, dwarf chain loach, zebra loach, and skunk loach are another group of excellent bottom-dwelling cleaners, as they are pest snail eaters.

The loaches will win your affection and respect as they do a great job keeping the substrate clean and have nice personalities, though most species need to be maintained in a group of at least six (6) individuals.

Top Picks


Another top pick is shrimp, which are pretty easy to keep, though they won’t do well with some fish species as tankmates.

Interestingly, shrimp species for freshwater tanks come in all kinds of shades ranging from scarlet-reds, through vivid-yellows, down to varieties that are clear as glass, and even calming blue types.

In the tank, you can expect your shrimp to comb through everything on the substrate, plants, and decorations, including algae. Moreover, because of their small body size, shrimp will clean even the tightest nooks and crannies in your aquarium.

Top Picks.


With their tiny mouths, freshwater aquarium snails like the ramshorn and Malaysian trumpet snails move about the substrate cleaning up debris such as dead plants and leftover fish food.

However, some species are arguably better cleaners than others, but of all species, Nerites are the most effective especially if you battling algae.

Top Picks

**#4.**Bristlenose Pleco

A master of disguise and an awesome sand cleaner, the bristlenose pleco is our last, but definitely not least, member on this list.

A bristlenose pleco will clean a lot of waste from your substrate especially at night when the lights go out.

Even so, this pleco won’t consume as many algae as the otto catfish, thud if looking for an effective algae eaters, I would recommend going with either the dwarf suckers (Ottos) or siamese algae eaters.

Please note that Bnps (bristlenose plecos) dig into sand particularly under structures, so all decorations in your aquarium should be firmly placed on the bottom or in such a way they won’t fall over.

That’s all for this post.

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