How To Clean Fish Tank Gravel in 3 Easy Steps (Low Effort)

In the past years that I’ve had my aquarium, cleaning the gravel is a task I rarely look forward to. It’s time consuming and can be challenging without the proper equipment. Luckily there are ways to make is easier, you just have to know how to do it.

When (and when not) to clean the aquarium gravel

While I know that most people aim to change their water every (other) week, it’s not necessary to clean the aquarium gravel this often. It takes a bit more effort to clean the gravel so do not do it too often. I recommend cleaning the gravel of your fish tank once or twice a month. If you see a reason to do it more often, it’s not a problem.

There is one big don’t when it comes to cleaning aquarium gravel. Do not remove the gravel from your tank to give it a thorough cleaning. Instead, leave the gravel inside the aquarium. Next to being easier, you also do not risk accidentally killing all the beneficial bacteria living in the gravel that are part of the nitrogen cycle.

Although all the steps are explained in more detail on this page, I’ve also recorded and uploaded a short tutorial video on how I clean my gravel. If you’re more of a listener this might be for you.

Now let’s dive in the three steps that you can follow to easily clean your aquarium gravel!

1. Prepare your aquarium for cleaning the gravel

It’s important you take the necessary steps to prepare your aquarium for maintenance. In short: turn off all equipment and lower the water level to make it easier to reach the bottom. Get yourself plenty of towels and buckets and you’re pretty much ready for step 2.

Before moving on, you could have some more questions concerning the preparation. For example, why would you turn off electronic equipment like the filter, the heater or wave makers? There are several reasons. The heater needs to be turned off because room temperature often is lower than the water in a tropical aquarium. If the water level drops below the thermostat of the heater it’s going to try and heat up the room to tropical temperatures and it suddenly becomes a fire hazard.

You should turn off the filter because the water level might drop below the filter intake. If this happens, the filter will start to suck up air instead of water. If this has ever happened to you before you know that filters are not made for this and they will start to make loud noises.

Also, consider scraping the inside of the glass before you start cleaning the gravel. The reason is obvious, because any debris that you loosen up by cleaning the aquarium will land on the gravel. If you do this beforehand, you get the chance to remove everything in one go.

2. Make sure to use the right equipment

You probably know how to start a siphon to remove water from your aquarium. If used in the right way, you can use this flow to rinse and clean the gravel without much effort. When done properly, you never have to remove the gravel from the aquarium to clean it, it can just remain in the tank.

For cleaning fish tank gravel without a gravel vacuum, scroll down a bit further to the last subheading “How to clean gravel without a vacuum”.

When you’ve just got a tube to use as a siphon, its tricky to use that to clean the gravel. The flow is way to strong and you’ll just end up sucking all the gravel out of your aquarium. If the top layer is really dirty due to intense algae growth, this might be the effect you’re looking for. If you’re just trying to remove fish poop and other dirt, there is a better way.

The best way to clean fish tank gravel is by using a “gravel vacuum”. There are super expensive gravel vacuum systems available, but you definitely don’t have to buy those. There are loads of affordable (I almost want to call them cheap) gravel vacuums available online that will make your life so much easier.

What does a gravel vacuum do? A gravel vacuum, of gravel vac for short, uses the flow of the siphon to lift up the gravel and wash it thoroughly. It uses a wider opening to prevent all the gravel from being sucked out of the aquarium.

If you don’t have a gravel vacuum yet, check out this one on Amazon. I’ve been recommending this one for years because its super basic (and therefore won’t break) and does not break the bank.

3. Get to work and deploy that vacuum

Now that you’re all prepared, you can get to work. Use the vacuum to clean all the gravel that you can reach in your fish tank. If you’ve got any plants or rocks that prevent you from reaching the gravel, don’t worry. It’s no problem to skip parts as you’ll never get it 100% clean. In fact, leaving some parts untouched (especially where you’re growing plants) might even benefit your tank.

While cleaning you should pay attention to a couple of things. First of all I need you to understand that all fish tanks have “dead spots” where the flow of the aquarium ends or stops. At these dead spots you’ll find the highest concentration of fish poop and other floating debris that has landed on the substrate. Identify where these spots are in your tank and clean them thoroughly. You can also try and improve the flow to remove any dead spots in your tank.

You should also check whether your tank is still healthy as you’re cleaning the gravel. Try and remove any dead plant matter and keep an eye out for fish, shrimp or snails that might have passed away. Cleaning time is the time to check up on your tank.

When you’re done make sure to replace any removed water and turn on all equipment. Your tank is good to go again.

How to clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum

While you generally never have to remove your aquarium fish when cleaning, you do if you want to clean aquarium gravel without a vacuum. The reason for this is because you’re either going to remove most of the gravel and stir up a lot of detritus, or you’re going to purposely stir up as much detritus as possible after which you’re removing 40 – 50% of the nasty water.

The first way is to first remove your fish and carefully move them to a bucket of aquarium water. Make sure it’s water from the very aquarium you’re removing them from to make sure all the parameters align perfectly. When all fish are removed, try and remove all the gravel.

Keep one cup of uncleaned gravel apart as this includes beneficial bacteria your tank needs to remain safe. Thoroughly clean the rest of the gravel and put it back in the tank. Add the last cup, wait till all the detritus has settled and introduce the fish again.

The second option is to remove all fish in the same manner and use your tank to wash the gravel while it’s still in the fish tank. It will stir up so much detritus you can’t even see your hands anymore. Make sure it’s all floating in the water and then remove 40 to 50% of the water. Fill it up with new water, wait till it’s all settled and put the fish back in.

Both these methods are much more stressful to your fish, so I would not recommend them. It’s way better to leave your fish in the tank while cleaning. Again, check out this cheap gravel vacuum on Amazon; it’s going to save you so much work.

Bart Sprenkels

I have been keeping multiple aquariums since I was 18 years old. Just like many of you, I started with two goldfish but quickly learned they were not suitable for aquariums. Later, I switched to a tropical community tank and I also have two pet musk-turtles in a bigger aquarium. You can read more about me here.

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