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Using sand for your substrate is a popular option in the hobby. There is precious little information on exactly how to do it however. Gravel has long been the standard aquarium substrate and most official sources have information on using gravel but make no mention of sand. This leaves people with a lot of questions. Hopefully I can answer some of them.

First, what are the benefits of using a sand substrate?

  • It looks great. Ok, that's mostly my opinion but it is something that you don't see every day.
  • Sand substrates are easier on bottom feeders. Some bottom feeders, such as cory catfish, have delicate barbels. Even smooth gravel can cause damage to these delicate structures. A sandy substrate is easier on them.
  • Detritus lays out on top of the sand, making it easier to spot and clean. This reduces the amount of gunk decaying in the aquarium pumping nitrogenous substances into the water.
  • It's cheap. A 50lb bag of play sand costs about $4 at my local Home Depot. One bag will handle anything up to around 40 gallons. Two will handle anything up to around 75 or 90 gallons. Eight bucks will buy you about five pounds of aquarium gravel.
  • White play sand is a good reflector, a white sandy substrate ca brighten up an aquarium.
What are the drawbacks?

  • Detritus lays out on top of the sand. You can see it easily. Not a huge deal if you keep up on your vacuuming but stuff gravel would hide sand will make obvious.
  • Vacuuming is a bit more difficult.
  • Can cloud water if disturbed.
Most of the drawbacks of sand can easily be handled with proper maintenance and technique.

Types of Sand to Use:
Play Sand
Pool Filter Sand
Silica Sand

Do Not Use:
Aragonite Sand
Beach Sand
Crushed Coral
Any sand labeled as for use in marine aquariums

Installation

How do you add a sand substrate to your aquarium either new or existing? No matter how you're doing it there is one common step. Rinse it. That bag of play sand sitting there isn't homogeneous. There's assorted bits of stuff in it that isn't sand, sticks, leaves, things you'd probably not think about. Even the sand grains are different. Some are large and coarse, some are just powder. The goal of rinsing is to remove everything but the big coarse grains, or as close to it as possible.

What you'll need:
Sand
Bucket - I use a five gallon. Directions will be based off a bucket this size.
Hose - Preferably one with a spray handle that lets you turn it on and off.

1) Pour sand into the bucket. I add about 10 to 12 pounds of it to my five gallon.
2) Add water. I aim to have about four inches of water over top of the sand.
3) Agitate. If you've got the sprayer for the hose this will help. I turn mine on stream and let it pound into the sand, it stirs it up. If you don't have this just reach in and start churning the sand with your hand. You'll know you're doing good when you stop feeling piles of sand and it just feels like water. All the sand is now in suspension.
4) Wait. You need to give the heavier particles time to settle out of the water. Too little time and you'll pour out good sand and bad. You don't want to give it too much time though as the fine stuff will start to settle out and then the rinsing isn't as effective. I usually give it about five seconds and start to pour things out. It's important that you monitor things closely and use your own judgment on this part.
5) Pour. Slowly pour out the excess water. It'll be milky and brown at the start and this is good. Don't pour too fast, you'll sweep off the upper layers of good sand along with the water.
6) Repeat.

At first your water will look like chocolate milk. Brown and murky. As you go though the water will start to clear. Less gunk will remain suspended. You want to keep rinsing the sand until the water is clear and further rinsing isn't improving things. I average about 15 to 25 cycles of rinsing for each bucket. It's a lot but it pays off in the end. Well rinsed sand clouds very little when bothered. I can move plants, decorations, stir the sand, etc. and my water does not cloud. My sand was rinsed well enough to leave mainly only large particles that sink rapidly, little of the small powdery grains left to float around. Extra rinsing up front results in less clouding later. If in doubt, rinse it again.

Now you've got rinsed sand. If you're adding it to a new aquarium you want to add it first like any substrate. Just scoop it out of the bucket and dump it in. Don't worry, it looks like crap, just dump it in. Once all your sand is in add some water, enough to cover the sand. This smooths it out and with a little work from you it should redistribute nicely. Looks better now doesn't it? Now decorate and add water as normal. Your water will cloud, this is unavoidable no matter how much you rinse. You have two options, the first is to just wait for things to settle out, this can take a while. The second is to run a filter and let it clear things out. So long as you don't run the filter as you're adding the sand what is suspended in the water is stuff small enough that it shouldn't cause damage to your filter. Be aware that your mechanical filter sponge/pads will clog quickly so keep an eye on them during this and expect to change them out. With a filter running your tank should clear in less than 24 hours.

If you're adding the sand to an existing tank, such as a change out from gravel to sand, the procedure is a little more involved. Note, if you use an undergravel filtration system you cannot use sand. You'll need to change to another method of filtration before you can do the replacement. Make sure your tank is filtered and cycled. I recommend doing this all at once, not a little at a time. I also recommend, STRONGLY, removing the fish if at all possible. I'd move the filter, fish, and heater to a bucket or QT tank for the duration of the change. If that's not possible, well they're not going to be happy but you can't do anything about that.

1) Siphon out as much of the water as you can, I'd leave only a few inches in the bottom. This makes it easier to work.
2) Remove all decorations and plants. Move them to a bucket full of tank water is best. Take whatever precautions are needed with the plants.
3) Remove the gravel.
4) Vacuum. Add more water if you have to but clean up the bottom of the tank as best you can. You do not want to leave any detritus on the bottom to be covered by the sand.
5) Add rinsed sand.
6) Rebuild the decor.
7) Fill with water. Dechlorinated and at the appropriate temperature.
8) Put the filter back and start it up.
9) Re-introduce your fish. You can do this right away if you want or wait for the water to clear in a day or so. If you wait then keep your filter with your fish.

It's not a bad idea to collect some of the outgoing gravel (swished liberally in old tank water) and put it in a mesh bag or pair of panty hose and place it in the tank in a high flow area. It is also my opinion that the best way to do this is all at once, instead of a little at a time. Doing it all at once gives you the best ability to start fresh with the substrate. Moving in a bit at a time will trap a good bit of crud in the sand that you might otherwise have gotten out if you did it all at once. I also believe it is less stressful on the fish to do it all at once rather than a little at a time.

Maintenance

Now that you've got a sand substrate how do you maintain it? First off, nothing much has changed, you're still going to have to vacuum and the same one you used on gravel you'll use on sand. The only real difference is that rather than jamming it into the sand like you would with gravel, you want to hover the siphon over the top of it. Swirl the siphon to help nudge things off the bottom and pick them up. You want to get the siphon as close as you can without picking up sand. It'll take a while but you'll get it. I still pick up some sand from time to time while vacuuming. Don't worry about it.

Stirring the sand. Let me add the disclaimer that I am including this because its a commonly accepted practice and isn't going to harm anything. Personally I am of the opinion that it is unnecessary. After vacuuming the sand, you don't want to bury any detritus better to vacuum it up, you stir it. I used a two pronged kitchen fork for a time. Just something to move the sand about a bit and release any pockets of gas that might be building in it. Do this during the weekly maintenance routine.

Conclusion

There's everything I know. If you have any questions just ask.
 

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wow!!!!! what a great post!!! thanks so much!!!!

if i move my fish to a 5 gallon bucket for the time being while I change out the gravel to sand.....with an air stone, do you think they will be ok until I get the sand in and get the tank replanted? I don't have an extra tank laying around so they would go in aquarium water with no filter for a little while. I would of course unplug the filter before training the tank.

again, what a great post!!!
 

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Great post!

Some extra stuff I thought of:

If you're adding sand to a tank full of water, you can do it fairly easily. After you rinse the sand in the bucket, leave enough water in the bucket to cover the sand plus an inch or two. Add some water conditioner and mix the contents of the bucket around. Then, take a juice glass or any similar sized container and scoop out some of the sand with water on top. Gently lower this into the tank, all the way to the bottom, and gently pour out the sand. Having a sand/water mix in the bucket is best because if you have only the wet sand, as you lower your glass into the tank water will pour into the glass and disturb the sand and you'll make a mess.

I've never done this on an established tank, but I'm sure it would work fine. Of course, you'd want to do this slowly (as in a third of your floor space per week) so as not to upset your biological filter too much.
 

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I'll bump this up because it is so informative! Great job ;) It should be made into a sticky...

iamntbatman: I did this method with my 29 gallon. There were no fish, but it was full. I rinsed it off well enough that it didn't cloud the water too bad and it settled even without a filter pretty fast.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
wow!!!!! what a great post!!! thanks so much!!!!

if i move my fish to a 5 gallon bucket for the time being while I change out the gravel to sand.....with an air stone, do you think they will be ok until I get the sand in and get the tank replanted? I don't have an extra tank laying around so they would go in aquarium water with no filter for a little while. I would of course unplug the filter before training the tank.

again, what a great post!!!
You should be able to set the filter up to work in the bucket. If not I wouldn't leave the fish in the bucket for very long. An hour or two at most. In other words have your sand rinsed and ready to go and no one banging your door down needing you to do something. If you don't run the filter then you need to ensure that the media stays moist. If it doesn't the bacteria will die out and you get to recycle the tank.
 

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Someone should sticky this
 

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Is this for a planted tank or non-planted? Eco-complete is intended as substrate in planted tanks since it contains nutrients for the plants. In a non-planted tank, this would be a wasted expense, and this stuff is not inexpensive. I don't know if this is actually sand-grain in size, I'll leave that queston for those who have used it.

True play sand such as what you can buy at Home Depot and similar places is inert sand, if sand is what you really want. I prefer small-grain gravel, but I have heavily planted aquaria and gravel has worked better for me.

Byron.
 

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Byron,

I'm planning on a moderate to dense planted 30g tank. Judging from your aquarium pics you've had a lot of experience with plants. What would you reccommend for substrate? So far at the stores I've been to, I've only seen large-grain gravel and that Caribsea sand I posted above. Where would I find the finer gravel?

Harry
 

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I have pool filter sand in my 55 gal. tank. It is not as fine as play sand. Is a tannish white in color but has different colors in the sand. If algae grow on it I just rub it between my hand to remove it.
I have eco-complete on the bottom and black sand on top of my other smaller planted tanks,Black sand has iron in it and is good for the plants. Try putting a solid black background as it brings out the colors of the fish and plants better then the scenery backgrounds. The pool filter sand tank has all low light plants and get a plant tab in the sand every few months. I have no co2 and 2 15 watt bulbs in that tank with the lights on a timer for 9 hrs a day. On at 12 noon off at 9pm.
 

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great post, very informative!

You want to keep rinsing the sand until the water is clear and further rinsing isn't improving things. I average about 15 to 25 cycles of rinsing for each bucket. It's a lot but it pays off in the end.
This part however, concerns me.
Living in Arizona, I'd feel guilty if I used that much water to wash out sand... :|

I'll just stick with gravel for now. Although someday, later down the road, I would definitely like to do sand.
 

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great post, very informative!



This part however, concerns me.
Living in Arizona, I'd feel guilty if I used that much water to wash out sand... :|

I'll just stick with gravel for now. Although someday, later down the road, I would definitely like to do sand.
Is there something I should know about living in Arizona? are there frequent water shortages? I think you should always clean the sand, but if you don't have fish in the tank you can just dump it in the tank, and let it settle then let the filter run for about a day. Then clean the filter and do like a 80% WC. I did this on my 220 just because I was to lazy to wash the sand.

One note, you shouldn't store wet sand, I have no idea what I was thinking, but I took the sand out of the tank to move it. Well it took a couple weeks to get the tank setup, when I went to check the sand before putting it back in, there was black mold on the sides of the buckets holding the sand. I tossed all the sand in my garden and bought new.
 

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So far at the stores I've been to, I've only seen large-grain gravel and that Caribsea sand I posted above. Where would I find the finer gravel?
Fine gravel is hard to come by these days, I been hunting around FOREVER and then some to find my dark & fine gravel. For the 10g I used black sand and for the next new 10g set up I'll use play sand again; had great success with play sand and pool sand in the past. I had found that certain plants root down quicker & easier using the sand vs. gravel.
 

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Is there something I should know about living in Arizona? are there frequent water shortages? I think you should always clean the sand, but if you don't have fish in the tank you can just dump it in the tank, and let it settle then let the filter run for about a day. Then clean the filter and do like a 80% WC. I did this on my 220 just because I was to lazy to wash the sand.

One note, you shouldn't store wet sand, I have no idea what I was thinking, but I took the sand out of the tank to move it. Well it took a couple weeks to get the tank setup, when I went to check the sand before putting it back in, there was black mold on the sides of the buckets holding the sand. I tossed all the sand in my garden and bought new.
I believe you can get reported for "wasting water" in Arizona. Water is of great concern because of ground water/water tables underneath Arizona and the region. Ground water is being withdrawn at a exponential rate as compared to the rate that it's being replenished. Arizona's even created programs to replenish ground water by pumping in "black water" (any water that we wouldn't drink, but isn't toxic) back into the ground.
 

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Byron,

I'm planning on a moderate to dense planted 30g tank. Judging from your aquarium pics you've had a lot of experience with plants. What would you recommend for substrate? So far at the stores I've been to, I've only seen large-grain gravel and that Caribsea sand I posted above. Where would I find the finer gravel?

Harry
For more than 20 years I have used nothing but gravel, the smallest grain size [about 1-2 mm, used to be called No. 3 I think, but not sure]. Here I can get this in bulk at many aquarium stores, it is cheaper than buying bags of any type of gravel. The natural or dark colour gravel works best to show off the plants and fish. I have read almost every planted tank authority over the past 15 years, and I cannot remember one who recommended anything other than small-grain gravel for planted tanks. Some suggest soil under a layer of gravel. But small gravels still the majority. And before the sand folks jump on me, sand will also work. But the issue with sand is its compaction; gravel will also compact, but it is easier--especially for those not yet experienced with aquaria--to ensure gravel does not compact. I like things simple.

The problem with sand or gravel that contains iron is getting too much iron in the tank. This is also an issue with any of the enriched substrates. Plants require a balance of 17 nutrients, and overloading any one nutrient can sometimes cause plants to "shut down" on other nutrients. Also, years ago I was adding iron, being told it was "essential" for planted tanks, and because I wasn't using other nutrients (general fertilizers) I ended up overdosing iron and killed off some of the plants. There is a balance in all this, and I have learned it is safer to go minimal than risk something. Plain inert gravel, with weekly liquid fertilization, works. For heavy-feeding substrate-rooted plants like large swords I add a Plant-Gro stick. You saw the results in my photos; my tanks have looked like this for 20 years.

Byron.
 
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