Cleaning your fish tank gravel is an important part of aquarium maintenance. All the fish waste, uneaten food, and dirt that falls to the bottom of the substrate aren’t going to disappear by themselves!
That’s why you need to remove it manually or with a gravel vacuum. And to help you know the right way to do either method, our guide will explain how to clean aquarium gravel with a vacuum and without one.
You’ll be a pro in no time!
Why You Should Clean Aquarium Gravel
Cleaning your aquarium isn’t just limited to changing the water once a week. There are other parts of tank maintenance, including cleaning the substrate.
Fish waste, uneaten food, decaying plant matter, and other debris will collect in the gravel over time, so it will need to be removed to prevent it from fouling your water. If you leave it to break down, it will lead to ammonia spikes and alter your water chemistry.
Ammonia, even at low levels, can make your fish extremely sick. The best way to keep ammonia values at zero is by performing regular water changes paired with frequent cleaning of the substrate.
How to Clean Gravel for Aquarium With a Vacuum
Although it might seem like a daunting and time-consuming task, cleaning the fish tank gravel is actually pretty easy if you use a gravel vacuum cleaner. This tool will suck up all the dirt from your substrate without needing to remove it or relocate your fish.
However, you’ll still need to make a few preparations before you start cleaning your fish tank gravel with a gravel vacuum cleaner. But don’t worry, there isn’t too much work involved – they’re the same steps you’d follow before you perform a routine water change!
1. Turn Off Your Aquarium Equipment
Before you conduct maintenance on your tank, you will need to turn off your aquarium equipment like your filter, heater, air pump, etc. It’s very important that you do this before you lower the water level, otherwise, it will damage your devices.
Aquarium heaters need to be turned off and left to cool for at least 15 minutes before you empty the water in your tank. Failure to do so can cause the heater to crack due to the change in temperature.
2. Use the Right Type of Gravel Vacuum
Aquarium gravel vacuum cleaners come in a variety of sizes and types, so you’ll need to make sure you use the right one for your setup.
For instance, if you have a large tank, you should select a gravel vacuum that has a long and wide mouth so it reaches the depth of your aquarium.
Alternatively, if your aquarium is well-planted and contains a lot of decorations, you might want to opt for a gravel vacuum with a narrow mouth. That way, you can clean the substrate without uprooting plants and knocking around your decorations.
3. Grab Towels and a Bucket
Once you’ve chosen the right gravel vacuum for your tank, it’s time to get to work! Grab a clean bucket and lay some towels around your aquarium – cleaning the gravel can be a bit messy.
Make sure you use a bucket that has never been used for cleaning purposes. The chemicals found in dish soap, detergents, and antibacterial sprays are very harmful to aquatic life.
4. Start Cleaning the Gravel
Place the head of the gravel vacuum in your tank and the hose. Gravel vacuums work by using gravity to suck water out of the fish tank, so the collection bucket needs to be placed lower than your aquarium.
Submerge the vacuum head into the water so it fills with water, then take it out of the tank. As the water begins to flow through the tube into the bucket, quickly dip the vacuum head back into the water.
Doing so will cause a pocket of air to form in the tube, creating a siphon effect. Plunge the head of the vacuum into your gravel and move it around the substrate to pick up the debris.
You may need to move decorations out of the way to suck up the dirt that has accumulated under them.
Keep a close eye on the water that drains through the vacuum head. Once there is no more dirt being collected, you can move onto a different patch of the substrate.
Don’t clean all the substrate at once – around a third will do. Some of the beneficial bacteria in your aquarium reside in the substrate, so you will lose a portion of them each time you clean the gravel.
4. Remove the Gravel Vacuum
Once you’ve finished cleaning your gravel, cup your hand over the vacuum head and remove it from your aquarium. This will stop the siphon without dumping dirty water back into your tank.
Position the vacuum upward so the remaining water drains into the bucket, then empty the dirty water. Fill the bucket back up with clean dechlorinated water and deposit it into your aquarium.
How to Use Gravel Vacuum
Cleaning your aquarium substrate is best achieved with a gravel vacuum, but they can be a little fiddly to operate if you’ve never used one before.
First things first, grab a bucket and put the hose end of the gravel vacuum inside it. Put the vacuum head into the aquarium water and wait for it to fill up.
Next, lift the head out of the water so it is above your tank. When the water begins to drain into the bucket, quickly plunge the vacuum head back into the water. This will start the siphon.
Some gravel vacuum cleaners are self-starting, so all you need to do is press the pump/button a few times to begin the siphon. Electric gravel vacuum cleaners don’t need to be primed either, and can also clean the gravel without sucking up water. However, they can be quite pricey!
Once you’ve activated the siphon, push the vacuum head into your gravel so it can suck up the debris. If the siphon is also picking up your gravel, you can squeeze the hose to decrease the suction of the siphon.
Move the gravel vacuum head back and forth in rows, similar to how you’d mow a lawn. Only clean around one third of the gravel – leave the remainder for your next water change.
How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum
If you don’t have an aquarium gravel vacuum, you may have wondered “how to clean fish tank gravel by hand”. Cleaning your aquarium substrate without a vacuum can be done, but it’s a little more time-consuming.
First, turn off your filter, heater, air pump, etc, then use a jug or your hands to scoop up the gravel. Set a couple of handfuls of gravel aside as you shouldn’t clean all of the substrate at one time.
Deposit the gravel into a large sieve (one that is only used for fish!) and rest it over the bucket. Pour old tank water over the gravel a few times to rinse away the debris. Avoid using tap water so you don’t kill off all the beneficial bacteria living inside your substrate.
If the gravel is especially dirty, you can use a new or algae scraper to give the gravel a good scrub. After you’ve finished cleaning the gravel, place it back inside the tank.
If you’d rather leave the gravel inside your tank to clean it, you’ll have to move your fish to a separate aquarium or bucket. Next, swill gravel in the tank water and then remove around 40% to 50% of the dirty water.
Lastly, fill the aquarium back up with fresh dechlorinated water and wait for the remaining debris to settle.
This process is a lot messier and more stressful on your fish, so it’s not the best option. It’s far easier to wash the gravel in a separate tank or use a gravel vacuum.
How to Clean Fish Tank Rocks and Decorations
Algae, fish waste, and other bits of debris can get lodged between aquarium rocks or decorations, so it’s important to clean them from time to time.
Place the rocks and decorations into a bucket and use an algae scraper or brand-new toothbrush to scrub away the dirt. After you’ve given them a good brush, rinse them with old tank water.
Don’t use dish soap or detergents to wash your aquarium rocks or decor as you could harm your fish. If you need to disinfect your tank decorations, you can use a mixture of distilled white vinegar and water (one-part vinegar with one-part water).
Alternatively, you can use a bleach or hydrogen peroxide solution (nine parts water with one part bleach) to clean your aquarium decor. For bleach, use one part bleach with nine parts water.
And for hydrogen peroxide, use four parts water with one part hydrogen peroxide. Make sure you rinse your decorations/rocks well with water after using either of these solutions.
How Often Should You Clean Aquarium Gravel?
For most setups, you should clean aquarium gravel at least twice a month. However, the size and bioload of your aquarium will need to be taken into consideration.
Aquariums that house messy or big species of fish will accumulate a lot of waste, so you may need to clean the gravel at least once a week. In contrast, smaller tanks that contain nano species or a few fish may not need to have the substrate cleaned as frequently.
Should You Wash New Aquarium Gravel?
Yes, you should wash new aquarium gravel as it will contain a lot of debris and dust. This will need to be rinsed away before you put the gravel into your fish tank so it doesn’t make the water cloudy.
Does Vinegar Clean Gravel?
Yes, vinegar is a great way to clean and disinfect aquarium gravel, as well as other accessories and equipment for your fish. It is also very effective at removing algae and limescale (white, chalky residue), so it’s a good product to have in general when you keep fish.
However, you should only use distilled white vinegar for your aquarium. Other types of vinegar like apple cider vinegar and wine vinegar are seldom available pure. They usually contain organic materials and additional flavorings that can be harmful to aquatic life.
Cleaning your fish tank gravel regularly is necessary for keeping your fish and aquarium healthy. It can easily be done during a water change, so you don’t need to put in too much extra work.
Gravel vacuum cleaners make the process considerably easier, so it’s well worth picking one up online or from your local pet store. While you can clean the gravel by hand, it takes a lot more effort and is less effective overall.