03-03-2009, 04:35 PM
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There are many different types of substrates for aquariums. Gravel, sand, crushed coral, aragonite, substrates designed for planted tanks (like Eco-complete), etc.
Cost is a major factor. You can buy pea gravel or play sand from a home improvement store for around $5 for a 50lb bag. If you're willing to spend more money, sand or gravel designed for aquarium use usually runs about $15 for a 20lb bag. Specialty substrates like crushed coral or Eco-complete run something like $20-$25 for a 20lb bag.
What type of substrate you get depends largely on what's going to be in the tank. If you're getting African rift lake cichlids, generally you want aragonite sand or crushed coral substrate. For other freshwater fish, rougher substrates like gravel are fine in some cases, but if you're planning on getting bottom dwellers that root through the substrate looking for food or burrow, sand is usually a must. You'll also want to research the nutrient requirements of the plants you're looking to have in the planted tank(s). Some plants really need a nutrient-heavy substrate like Eco-complete, while others will do just fine in an inert substrate like sand or gravel as long as they are provided with fertilizer, and yet others don't even require fertilization.
Saltwater tanks usually have live sand as a substrate, although some people use crushed coral or even have barebottomed tanks.