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Cleaning Gravel?

This is a discussion on Cleaning Gravel? within the Beginner Freshwater Aquarium forums, part of the Freshwater Fish and Aquariums category; --> If there's no objection, I'm going to attach myself to this thread rather than start a new thread titled "Should I vacuum my gravel?" ...

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Old 02-01-2012, 02:48 PM   #11
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If there's no objection, I'm going to attach myself to this thread rather than start a new thread titled "Should I vacuum my gravel?"

Today is the first time I saw a recommendation to not vacuum (or even touch) the substrate in a planted tank. I have been vacuuming mine regularly with every water change. Do I understand that there is no benefit whatsoever to vacuuming the gravel and that in fact it may be detrimental to the plants, which would otherwise make use of the detritus I'm sucking and flushing? Thanks in advance for the clarification!
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Old 02-01-2012, 02:59 PM   #12
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It depends on how heavily you're planted (vs. how much substrate space without roots), how established your rooted plants are, and of which kinds of plants (rooted vs. stem vs. floating, etc). If you post a list of types of plants and a pic, we could better advise you.

Edit- Oops! Just saw that you have pix and list under your Aquarium Log. My mistake!

My short answer in your specific situation is- If your tank is less than 6 months old, I would lightly vac around the open gravel areas. Def give the sword a wide berth, and give the stem plants you're trying to root a good margin, too. You are lightly stocked and moderately planted (for now), and have MTS, so I think this would be fine. Once your tank is established (>6 mos old), and your plants have grown in, you can just hit the surface in the visible areas.

I have to run out the door now, but if someone hasn't gotten ya before I can respond, I'll check back in.

P.S. Just in case you don't know, your mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) is not a true aquatic and will die. You could substitute with a similar but fully aquatic plant, Vallisneria spiralis (Italian Val). I don't have experience with Sag, but that may work, too. Your tank looks great, I could be a happy fish in there!

Double edit- I acknowledge that mine is a conservative answer. I'm sure that many people would tell you that you'd be fine with no vac, just weekly 50% PWC. They're probably right. I tend to be um... "retentive" let's say, so I tend for the "better safe than sorry" route. Just my "retentive" disclaimer! lol

Last edited by MinaMinaMina; 02-01-2012 at 03:14 PM..
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Old 02-01-2012, 03:59 PM   #13
I do not have a planted tank, but I think we can compare 'aquatic gardening' to gardening or farming. Specifically conventional, hydroponics and organic.
Lets look at the sterile sand or gravel substrate with plants that require routine [chemical] fertilization. Seems a lot like hydroponics. In the organic garden, we use compost, green manures and animal manures to feed the soil which in turn feeds the plants.
In the aquarium, if left to break down, the plant and fish waste along with any uneaten food will enrich the substrate and feed the plants organically.
The trouble is some folks have an aesthetic problem with any mulm/detritus on the substrate. Some get more powerful filters and/or power heads for more flow to get it removed. It's really not necessary and for the planted tank is counter productive.

Even though my 60g has only plastic plants, quite some time ago now I added (pool filter) sand to my natural (fairly small size) gravel substrate. During weekly water changes, I hover the gravel vacuum above the gravel/sand substrate to remove waste, but do not drill into the substrate as one normally would with a gravel vac. This is what is typically done with sand substrates. It's been months now and I see no ill effects. Even with gravel, it's safe to say that detritus on the substrate surface breaks down into relatively harmless compounds...just as it does in nature.

Now I'm not saying there's anything wrong with plants in sand/gravel and using ferts - but it may be counter productive to use aggressive gravel siphoning around delicate plant roots... and any aggressive gravel siphoning even in non-planted tanks may be less positive then we think as the substrate eco-system is turned upside down (Ref: deep sand beds). Some things are best left alone to develop and mature

Last edited by AbbeysDad; 02-01-2012 at 04:02 PM..
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Old 02-01-2012, 04:25 PM   #14
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This is great food for thought. Mina, would you mind elaborating on what some of the benefits of gravel siphoning a young tank might be? Is it just a matter of "I might as well while I still can" due to the immature roots? Or could the build-up of waste become a potential danger since there are no plants in those spaces to consume it?

In addition to Betta pellets, algae wafers and blanched spinach for the snails, and a weekly sprinkling of fish flakes for the shrimp, I have been dropping in some calcium tablets for the inverts. Most of this seems to be scarfed down in short order, but do I need to be concerned about any sediment that might find its way between the gravel?

This sort of information is exactly the reason why I'm so thankful for this discussion forum!

BTW, Mina thank you for the heads-up on the Mondo grass. I'd been informed (after purchasing/planting it of course) that the plant was not truly aquatic and would inevitably meet a sad fate. I'll look into the Italian Val as a replacement and I appreciate any other recommendations!
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Old 02-01-2012, 08:00 PM   #15
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This is a topic on which there will be varied opinions, ranging from vigorous vacuuming of the substrate to leaving it alone. And there are situations where either may be beneficial. We are considering planted tanks, so let's stay with that scenario.

Much is said about the nitrogen cycle, whereby ammonia is oxidized into nitrite and nitrite is oxidized into nitrate. And that is where it often ends, but in fact this is only the beginning of the whole process. In an aquarium the nitrogen cycle is only complete when it includes de-nitrification; in this stage, different bacteria that are termed de-nitrifying convert nitrate into nitrogen gas which is released back into the atmosphere. Another component of the complete nitrogen cycle in nature but not present in our aquaria involves the “fixing” of atmospheric nitrogen by cyanobacteria and other life forms.

And this process from start to finish occurs most significantly in the substrate, not the filter. Those who advocate soil substrates are quite correct when they say that the soil gets this whole cycle going immediately, unlike a new tank with a non-organic substrate. The reason is simple; there is an abundance of organic matter and many of the various bacteria are already present. All of this can cause other issues, but that is beyond the scope of the issue at hand.

The greatest population of bacteria in a healthy aquarium occurs in the substrate, not the filter. All bacteria adheres to surfaces, and the humic compost that collects in the substrate is the host for the biofilms that support the various bacteria. There are aerobic bacteria, anaerobic bacteria, and facultative anaerobes, able to live with or without oxygen. True nitrifying bacteria are autotrophic, meaning they synthesize their own food, in this case using chemosynthesis to take up ammonia and nitrite as their source of energy ("food"). De-nitrifying bacteria are heterotrophic; they cannot make their own food so they need organic material. The latter far outnumber the former in all aquaria. Generally speaking, aerobic nitrification occurs in the upper inch or two of the substrate, and anaerobic de-nitrification below. You can read a bit more on this here:

The plants play a vital role in all this. Plants produce oxygen, and most of it is released through the roots. This oxygen is used by some of the bacteria, while other bacteria use nitrates. Snails and worms in the substrate are also important; most of us use Malaysian Livebearing snails, but in nature worms play a vital role in aerating the substrate. Many worry about so-called dead spots and the production of hydrogen sulphide, but this is very unlikely to actually be an issue because of the plants and snails and bacteria. Plant roots release a lot of oxygen; and it only takes as little as 1ppm of oxygen in the substrate to promote nitrogen reduction (the de-nitrifying aspect) rather than sulphur reduction (the hydrogen sulphide).

Allowing the substrate to develop naturally and then leaving it alone is probably the best way to achieving a healthy balanced aquarium.


Last edited by Byron; 02-01-2012 at 08:03 PM..
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Old 02-01-2012, 08:18 PM   #16
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the small plants growing on the leaves are babies they will feed of the leaf and then will float around the tank until they find a place to grip on to.
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Old 02-01-2012, 08:42 PM   #17
Thanks Timothy, thats pretty cool. I,ve now anchored all 8 of my Java ferns to small rocks. Hope everything works out because so for my aquarium is the healthest it's been sinces setting it up. And I do plan on changing my entire tank over to live plants, But I have some questions, I'll ask that in the plants forum.
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Old 02-01-2012, 09:23 PM   #18
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Byron, outstanding info as usual. Many heartfelt thanks for your willingness to share your knowledge. I'm sure I'm not alone in my appreciation for the time it must take for you to provide such detailed responses. I'll be all too happy to assume a laisseze faire approach to substrate maintenance.
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Old 02-02-2012, 12:36 AM   #19
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onemanswarm, my thinking is that of easing the biological filtration of an immature tank into full swing, for lack of a better way to put it. Of course, Byron and AbbeysDad have excellent information and explained it very clearly. Since I can reference no studies on how quickly this organic maturation takes place, I choose to take a more restrained route and clean up some of the wastes from the substrate (with a light vac in just clear areas) for the first few months. When I can see that the plants are solidly established, with good root systems, and showing good growth, and my water quality is good (with nitrates below 10ppm), then I feel more confident that the wastes I leave behind are truly and effectively getting used by the plants' roots.
The other important consideration I noted in this situation is that with new tanks, and new fish keepers, often in the first few months the tank is overfed. It commonly takes new fish keepers a while to find the right amount of food, and usually the error is on the side of excess. So my more conservation approach accounted for this likely excess of waste.

I feel the same way you do, I'm so grateful for TFK and the fantastically knowledgeable and generous people here! What a difference this community makes in the quality of life for fish!

Chris7, I'm really glad you're adding more plants! Java Fern is a great plant, I'm sure you'll like it. Since it does not feed from roots in the gravel, you'll want to be careful that you're getting unused waste from the substrate and not overfeeding. A variety of different kinds of plants- rhizome, rooted, stem, floating- will help utilize wastes more effectively and make a wonderful difference in water quality and health of your tank and it's inhabitants. There are wonderful people here that could help you choose plants based on your water parameters and lighting. Never hesitate to ask, there are some smart (and friendly!) cookies here at TFK!
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Old 02-02-2012, 08:28 AM   #20
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Mina, that makes sense to me. I think I'll continue to spot clean the open areas until the plants take off. At that point, I'll commit to letting the substrate take care of itself. Thanks again!
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