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How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel in Easy Steps

Christy Caplan
Gravel cleaning fish tank with a siphon pump

The rule of thumb is to clean the fish tank gravel at every water change. When a fish keeper cleans the aquarium once a week, fish tank gravel cleaners are important in the overall process. Hobbyists may decide to clean the tank without a vacuum, and the low-tech method is acceptable but not as easy.

How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel

There are many types of gravel for your aquarium. Typical fish tank substrates include quartz or other lime-free minerals. Most hobbyists use a gravel vacuum to keep the substrate clean. Fish keepers need to be vigilant when they learn how to clean a fish tank. Some fish keepers do not use a vacuum and prefer a low-tech method, but gravel cleaners make the job easy. Clean gravel is an essential step to ensure your fish stay healthy.

Fish Tank Gravel Cleaners Do the Job

Aquarium gravel cleaners keep the substrate clean. These cleaners pick up dirt and uneaten food. Gross! This debris destroys your aquarium environment if it sits on the bottom of the tank.

Fish Tank Gravel Vacuum

An automatic gravel vacuum or battery-powered gravel cleaner keeps the environment clean to maintain consistent water chemistry. The vacuum churns the gravel around in a column of moving water to loosen and carry off debris trapped in the gravel in the tank.

Gravel Washing Equipment Checklist

Low-tech methods are an option too, and hobbyists need to know there are multiple ways to clean old and new fish tank gravel. The equipment fish keepers use depends on the technique, so the gear may change if the keeper decides not to use a battery-operated vacuum or gravel-cleaning tube. All the gear is easy to find at a pet store.

  • Secondary fish tank (optional)
  • Two waste buckets marked for aquarium use only
  • Siphon gravel vacuum tube or a battery-powered gravel cleaner
  • A hose reserved for your aquarium

How to Clean Old Fish Tank Gravel in Three Easy Steps

You'll use a gravel vacuum and fish tank siphon. Schedule this chore once a week.

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Step One: Unplug Equipment, Remove the Fish and Artificial Plants

Fill a secondary fish tank or bucket with some of the existing (used) aquarium water and place the fish and artificial plants in there while you vacuum.

Step Two: Vacuum the Tank

Use your siphon gravel vacuum with an attached hose or battery-powered gravel cleaner to remove the water and gravel in a bucket.

  • Do not remove more than 40 percent of the water in the tank. The goal is to keep the beneficial bacteria in the tank.
  • Debris will rise into the siphon; continue this until the water starts to clear, or you have cleaned all of the gravel floor sections.

Step Three: Reassemble

Put back the plants, decorations, and replace the water.

Techniques to Clean New Gravel

When you need to clean brand new gravel, the technique is simple. Fish keepers typically purchase gravel in bags, and it needs to be free of dust.

  • Turn on the garden hose and fill an empty bucket.
  • Slowly pour in a few inches of gravel and let the dust settle to the bottom.
  • Stir the gravel slowly with your hand, pout off the water and dump the clean gravel into a second bucket. if you're outside, pour the water on the ground.
  • Rinse and repeat this process until all the gravel is clean.

How to Clean Old Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

Novice fish keepers may decide to clean without a vacuum, but savvy hobbyists recommend gravel vacuums. If a hobbyist uses this equipment, it is a more efficient way to clean the tank. This low-tech method is similar to the above technique for cleaning new gravel, except the hobbyist removes gravel from the existing tank. Replace step two above, which involves the gravel vacuum, with the below instructions.

  1. Use a cup to take the dirty gravel out and place it in a sieve for cleaning.
  2. Rinse the dirty gravel in the sieve with running water or a hose.
  3. Move the gravel around, so the debris settles to the bottom.
  4. Don't clean all the gravel to ensure some bacteria is still present.

Gravel Cleaners Make Life Easy for Hobbyists

Always use a gravel vacuum first before you try the low-tech method. The gravel vacuum is easy and makes one of the water change steps more efficient. Fish keepers need to make sure the tank sparkles once a week, and the process needs to be low-stress for your fish. The less time the fish spend in a bucket, the better.

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How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel in Easy Steps