How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

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A lot of hard work goes into maintaining a sparkling fish tank that makes you go “Wow!” The aquarium’s gravel requires cleaning often because uneaten food, debris, rotting plants, and fish waste accumulate daily. Sometimes a poor quality water used in the fish tanks may also be responsible for creating a pungent stench.  (Sometimes poor quality water used in fish tanks may also be responsible for creating a pungent stench.)

While many people will choose to clean with a specially built fish tank vacuum since it’s an easier method, not everyone will have that tool readily available or want to invest in purchasing one. For those who fall into the latter category, in this post, we will discuss the alternative: how to clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum.

Before going ahead with the steps, let me make it clear that this method only works efficiently for small fish tanks. You will still need to use a vacuum for cleaning a large fish tank with a lot of contents. 

Step #1. Remove All of the Fish

When cleaning a fish tank with a vacuum, you can do this while the fish are still moving around freely. However, you cannot do this very effectively when cleaning without a siphon, so your first step for cleaning gravel without a vacuum will be to remove all of the fish from the tank.

Many people wonder whether this is a necessary step at all. If you don’t follow this step, cleaning gravel will stir up a lot of silt and detritus that can be harmful if the fish were to ingest any of it. To keep them in a safe environment, fill up a bucket or container with water and transfer all of the fish out of the tank.

Step #2. Take Out the Gravel and Clean

Cleaning the gravel is an essential step, but there’s a catch here: you will not be cleaning ALL (all) of the gravel or else it will deprive the fish tank of vital bacteria that help in the process of breaking down the ammonia released from fish waste into less hazardous nitrates.

To ensure you do this properly, you will first need to scoop out a few cups of gravel from the bottom of the tank and keep it set aside separately without cleaning this portion. You will need this original and uncleaned portion for the bacteria to multiply and repopulate after the fish tank has been cleaned thoroughly.

Now, take the remaining gravel and put it in a sieve under a running tap, cleaning it thoroughly with your hands. Make sure that you wear plastic gloves. You also need to ensure that the gloves, strainer, and other tools you use for cleaning are specifically for use in the fish tanks only so that no external chemicals get transferred to them.

When the water from the sieve starts running clear, you can put the gravel back into the tank. Now, add the extra cups of unclean gravel that you separated at the beginning back into the tank. This works best when there is algae growing in the substrate.

Step #3A. Cleaning Gravel with Live Plants

If you have live plants in your fish tank, here is one more alternative method to clean the gravel without damaging the plants. Since taking the plants out entirely can damage the roots, we strongly recommend this method.

To do this method, remove the fish and any decorations, placing them into a separate, water-filled container or bucket. Keeping the live plants rooted in the gravel, stir up the surrounding area to dislodge the dirt and debris stuck between the stones.

Now, dip out about one-third to one-half of the dirty water in the tank. The remaining water in the aquarium contains healthy bacteria that should be retained to repopulate within the tank after cleaning. Some of the algae-eaters and snails also come in handy to clean the gravel.

Step #3B. Cleaning Artificial Plants

After you are done cleaning the gravel inside of a fish tank, you’ll need to take care of the artificial plants inside the aquarium next. Some people prefer artificial plants over living ones. While living plants are a great way to minimize the ammonia levels using biological filtration, fiddler crabs can easily destroy them, so artificial plants serve as an alternative and low-maintenance option.

However, even artificial plants are not immune to decay. Even the brightest of plants turn dull and dirty over time and need thorough cleaning at times, so here are some steps to maintain clean plants in a fish tank:

Another advantage of using artificial plants is that you will not destroy them when attempting to clean. You just need to have time for the job and start plucking them one by one when they start to look a bit out of place.

Just grab the plants by the bottom and take them out gently from the substrate without stirring up the debris too much. You may need to tip the plant back and forth slowly to dislodge it from its base. Remember that the plant will drip after you pull out, so have a bowl ready to hold them and prevent making a mess.

Rinse the plants one by one under tap water and let them soak in clean water while you clean the rest of the tank. Algae builds up quickly on the walls, so take this as an opportunity to remove it when the tank is nearly empty.

Step #4. Refill and Plug Back In

When the fish tank gravel is cleaned and mixed with the withheld amount containing the useful bacteria, refill the tank with clean water. You can then replace the decorations, live or artificial plants, rocks, and so on. At this point, you can add a dechlorinating treatment to ensure that there is no chlorine left in the gravel.

Now, plug all the electric equipment back in, and add the fish to the tank.

Some Tips for Cleaning Your Fish Tank

#1. Avoid Using Chemicals

While you may feel tempted to use chemicals to clean the gravel or the artificial plants to get rid of the unsightly brown grunge on it, we strongly recommend you avoid doing this. Cleaning with plain running tap water is enough to remove the food particles, brown algae, and fish waste settled on the plants.

Using chemicals can do more harm than good. It can not only damage the plants, but it may even poison your fish since they are very sensitive to chemicals— they are actually so sensitive that simply cleaning the gravel with a brush, rag, or sponge that has been exposed to chemicals can negatively affect them.

Due to this risk, always remember to use a clean set of rubber gloves and a clean brush and sponge for cleaning. It’s best to just have a set that is dedicated only for cleaning the fish tank.

#2. Protecting Vital Bacteria Is Important

You must remember that the fish tank is not just the home for your fish, but it also contains colonies of good bacteria that are essential to convert the unsafe waste in the aquarium to less harmful nitrates. Similarly, you also need some algae-eating inhabitants to maintain balance within the ecosystem of the aquarium.

However, getting new algae eaters is not an easy job as the different species have their own unique requirements that may include socialization preferences, water flow needs, and other aspects of daily life.

For example, Otocinclus catfish have a calm attitude and help in removing brown algae. Twig catfish require pristine water and high oxygen levels to thrive, but they are so shy that they can be bullied away from their food sources.

Some of the other creatures that can help in maintaining the cleanliness in your fish tank are live-bearers like mollies, shrimp, snails, guppies, platies, and so on.

We recommend that you always consult your local aquarium specialist before selecting any algae-eaters for your fish tank.

Related Questions

Why is my white gravel turning brown?

This is mostly due to the presence of brown algae called diatoms. They can occur due to several reasons, such as lack of enough proper light or overfeeding. You need to clean the gravel and ensure that there is enough light for at least 8 hours per day to maintain a healthy fish tank.

How often should you clean fish tank gravel?

This will depend on how quickly the fish pollute the water in it. As a general rule of thumb, you should clean the gravel thoroughly once a week or every two weeks or do so after you change the water. Also, if the fish tank is under 20 gallons, you may want to do this every week. If the aquarium is large-sized, schedule a cleaning session every two weeks.

What are the signs of ammonia stress in a fish tank?

If you start noticing signs like lethargy, loss of appetite, inflamed gills, gasping at the surface, read (red) streaks, red eyes or a  red anus, make sure that you check the ammonia content in the water.

What are the ways to reduce the ammonia level in the water?

You need to follow the above steps mentioned in this article to clean the fish tank gravel, do at least a 50% water change, add cycled filters, add a water conditioner, and add ammonia-removing filters. You must also stop overfeeding and double-check how many fish there are in the aquarium.

Changed the numbering since this would be the third step but would vary depending upon the type of plants being used.

 Removed the numbering and header for this sections since it was literally just a continuation of the step about cleaning the artificial plants. There wasn’t really a purpose in it being separated as a different “step” in this list.

See Also:
How Do You Know if Your Algae Eater Is Dying?
Why is My Fish Tank Filter Not Bubbling?
What Does Blue Light in Fish Tank Do?