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Aquarium Substrate, Gravel, Pebbles & Sand; Which to Use?

 

Aquarium Gravel/Sand Substrate; including pictures

By Carl Strohmeyer
Updated 6/14/14

QUESTION:
A friend is setting up a fresh water tank he has been given. It's tall rather than long and fits in a corner unit. He's not sure weather to go for sand or gravel at the bottom of the tank. What are the pro's and cons? Is sand easy clean?

ANSWER:
I have used mixtures of gravels with success. The fine will settle to the tank bottom while the coarse gravel will remain at the top.

For the average aquarium I recommend 2-3” of #3 gravel (#3 gravel is .2 to .5 cm in size) or a larger pea sized gravel #5. (#5 is generally about 1 cm)
This allows less build up of hydrogen sulfide producing anaerobic bacteria than with sand. The down side to larger gravel is that it will allow for more waste particle or eaten food to accumulate in the larger crevices that form between the pebbles. With proper cleaning procedures though, waste accumulation should not be a major problem.

If you are not planning to add plants, I would be careful with the use of #00 or #1 sand (#1 sand is commonly used in mortar/masonry) as this can cause dangerous anaerobic Hydrogen Sulfide production in un-planted tanks when anaerobic de-nitrification goes from production of nitrogen to hydrogen sulfides due to sulfur reduction; please see this article for more on this subject:
Hydrogen Sulfide production in anaerobic De-Nitrification for Aquarium/Pond Nitrate Removal

If #1 sand is used in a non-live planted freshwater aquarium, the use of #3 or #5 also provides a way to lower your chances of hydrogen sulfide production. Larger debris/organic mulm will gather for easier cleaning with a gravel vacuum, or Eheim Sludge Remover.

Sand is good for heavily planted aquariums. It provides a better anchor for the roots and even more important, it traps nutrients and symbiotic bacteria needed by plant roots. If used for live plants, I recommend about ½” #00 or #1 sand followed by 2-1/2” of medium (#3) gravel or even #5 pebbles, with laterite mixed in around plant roots. Generally the larger pebbles are suggested with fish that might ingest smaller gravel (even #3) such as goldfish or with Catfish that often injure their barbels and lower fins easily.

Be careful when vacuuming sand as it is easy to suck it into the vacuum and if it is a powered vacuum, this can damage it or clog a Python or similar. I recommend quick probes into sand and possibly ‘kinking’ the tubing behind the vacuum nozzle to allow the sand to settle back into the tank.

If your aquarium is going to be only lightly or moderately planted, I recommend sand only in the area around the plant roots and use #3 size gravel or larger elsewhere.
Sometimes in these lightly planted aquariums I will actually substitute sand for lightly sifted sandy soil. I prepare this by digging in a clean area for my soil then I rinse it gently (as if I am panning for gold). After I have rinsed out the muck and dirt I add a 20/1 water/bleach solution for a few minutes then rinse it with a De-Chlorinator and I am ready to go.

A better method (that can be use to totally replace the aquarium substrate or used only around plant roots) are products such as Eco-Complete or SeaChem Flourite. Flourite Aquarium Plant Substrate in particular will add iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulfur and many other elements to nourish your aquatic plants. Unlike competing products Flourite may be mixed with other gravel and it never has to be replaced. It remains effective for the life of the aquarium. Excellent when combined with Sea Chem Excel

Here are a few pictures of Aquarium Gravels I have used and recommend: (Please click pictures to enlarge)

Pea sized aquarium pebbles, substrate for goldfish Regular Pebbles- excellent pea sized (slightly larger than pea size) for use with Goldfish, Cory Catfish, and Bettas









Coral sea Pea sized aquarium pebbles, substrate Coral Sea Pebbles- another good choice for Goldfish, Bettas, Cory Cats, and other larger pea sized gravel applications










Rainbow number 3 aquarium gravel, substrate #3 Aquarium Gravel, natural rainbow- excellent overall aquarium gravel for most freshwater applications









White coral number 3 aquarium gravel, substrate #3 Aquarium Gravel, White Coral- excellent overall aquarium gravel for most freshwater applications (this is NOT actual coral, rather natural rocks with the color of coral rock)









White coral number 3 aquarium gravel, substrate #1 Aquarium/River Sand- excellent for planted aquariums. This sand is best used only where plant roots are present and only to be used with other more coarse substrates in areas where plant roots are not present. Where roots are present, 100% usage is OK. Use of #1 sand in areas that are not turned regularly or where plant roots are not present can result in Hydrogen Sulfide production in your aquarium

I would recommend checking with local decorative rock/building supply business for these substrates, such as this Sun Burst Rock in Los Angeles County.



Also consider the fish you plan to have:


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AQUARIUM ANSWERS;
ARTICLES:

In Chronological order of writing with the newest at the top

  1. How to Treat Sick Fish
  2. Whirling Disease in Fish
  3. Reef Aquarium Chemistry Maintenance
  4. Use of RO, DI, Softwater in Aquariums
  5. Lighting Theory of a Planted Aquarium- RQE, PFY, PAS, & PUR
  6. Aquarium or Pond Bio Load
  7. Tuberculosis in Fish
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  14. Streptococcus gram positive bacterium in aquariums, Eye Infections
  15. Hydrogen Sulfide
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  16. Fish Shipping
  17. Aquarium Size, Fish Stunting
  18. Aquarium Algae,
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  19. Aquarium Salt (Sodium chloride) in Freshwater Aquariums
  20. Betta Habitat; Wild Bettas to Domestic Betta environment parameters
  21. HITH; Hole in the Head Disease
  22. Aquarium Protein Skimmers, Ozonizers
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  27. Octopus as Aquarium Pets
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  30. Aquarium and Pond Filter Media
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  31. Aquarium Water Conditioners (also Pond)
  32. Fish Parasites; Trematodes & Monogeneans; Annelids and Nematodes;
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  36. NEON TETRA DISEASE
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  37. AQUARIUM TEST KITS; Use & Importance
  38. SEXING FISH; Basics
  39. Chocolate Chip, Knobby and Fromia Starfish
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  41. Usnic Acid as a Fish Remedy
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  48. Cyclops, and Predatory Damselfly larvae
  49. Betta with Dropsy;
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  50. pH and KH problems in African Cichlid Aquarium
  51. Aquarium Gravel, which size?
  52. Blue green algae, Cyanobacteria in Ponds/Aquariums
  53. AQUARIUM ANSWERS DIRECTORY


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