How To Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without A Vacuum?

Does your fish tank gravel need a good cleaning, but you’re unsure how to go about it? If you’re new to fish ownership, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t even need a fish tank vacuum for the job. All you need are some items from around your home. Experienced fish owners know that keeping your fish tank gravel clean is essential for the health of your fish.

The best way to clean your fish tank gravel without using a vacuum is to safely remove your fish from the tank and place them into a separate holding container. Then remove a small amount of gravel to set aside to preserve the beneficial bacteria within the tank. Finally, clean the rest of your gravel thoroughly. Keep reading on to learn more about the cleaning process and other ways to keep your fish tank gravel sparkling clean. 

Why Is It Important To Keep Fish Tank Gravel Clean?

Did you know that fish tank gravel can accumulate leftover food, fish excrement, and plant debris from your tank, making it an unsafe environment for your fish if left unattended? Therefore, it’s essential to keep your gravel and overall tank clean.   

When your gravel or substrate accumulates waste and debris floating around your fish tank, it could affect the water quality of your tank, making the water murky. It could also start to smell. Murky, smelly water can affect a fish’s health and make them more susceptible to disease. Some of these diseases, such as Aeromonas, Salmonella, or Streptococcus iniae, can infect humans as well, although this is rare. 

The water quality is critical to fish as it provides oxygen, contributes to metabolic function, and helps filter out waste. Healthy water also provides the necessary vitamins, minerals, and amino acids needed to thrive. 

Ammonia (NH4) and nitrites (NO2) are the two primary waste products produced by fish. Both can be dangerous for your fish if the levels in your tank get too high. Ammonia can burn sensitive tissue on fish such as gills and fins, limiting their ability to take in enough oxygen to survive. Nitrites can be dangerous because they can inhibit oxygen transportation to the fish’s bloodstream. 

What About The Smell?

When your fish tank gravel accumulates fish waste, it can start to emit a strong rotten egg smell due to the harmful bacteria growing there. Although it’s usually not dangerous to kids or other pets, this is a good indication that your fish tank gravel needs some attention. 

In addition to cleaning the substrate, some other ways to prevent bad smells from your fish tank are to remove any dead plants and trim back your living ones. Don’t overfeed your fish, as uneaten food can float to the bottom and start to smell. You will want to check and clean out your filter as buildup can accumulate here. Finally, don’t overcrowd your tank. Not only can this lead to more fish waste, but it will be more challenging to identify if a fish has died and needs to be removed from the tank. 

Cleaning Your Fish Tank Gravel Without A Vacuum

The use of a fish tank vacuum is convenient, but it can also be quite expensive. It’s entirely possible to clean your fish tank gravel without a vacuum, especially if you have a small fish tank. You’ll need to set aside an adequate amount of time to do the cleaning, but it’s relatively simple. Below is a simple 8 step process to clean your fish tank gravel. Here is what you’ll need: 

  • A sieve
  • Holding container
  • clean plastic or rubber gloves
  • Fishnet
  • Small cup
  • Large bucket or bowl (if using a cleaning agent)

Step 1: Transfer Water to A Clean Container

Before you start the cleaning process, you will need to transfer some water to a holding container. Make sure the container is clean, and if you used any cleansers to wash the container beforehand, it should be rinsed thoroughly. 

Using gloves and a cup, transfer approximately half of the aquarium water into the container. It’s crucial to preserve some of the aquarium water as it contains beneficial bacteria needed for the health of the aquarium and your fish. 

Step 2: Remove The Fish From The Tank

Next, safely transfer your fish to the water in the holding container. To remove the fish, use a fishnet. You may need to use your hands for smaller fish as their small fins and tails could get caught in the net and cause injury. 

Step 3: Remove Loose Objects and Electrical Equipment 

Carefully remove any larger rocks, plants, and decorations from your aquarium and set them aside. You will also want to unplug and remove any electrical equipment such as filters or heaters from your aquarium. 

Step 4: Remove Gravel 

Scoop out 1-2 cups of the gravel and set aside. The beneficial bacteria will need to recolonize after the cleaning, so keeping the “dirty” gravel intact is an integral part of the cleaning process.  

Step 5: Clean Gravel

Put the remaining gravel into the sieve, and rinse thoroughly under fresh, clean water. Next, shake and stir the gravel around in the sieve to make sure it’s getting thoroughly cleaned. When the water runs clear, it’s a good indication that your gravel is clean. You can then spread it out to dry. 

Natural Cleansers

Water may be enough. However, if you feel that your gravel needs a deeper cleaning but you’re concerned about your family’s health, there are also safe, natural options out there. 

White vinegar as a cleaning agent is a great option. Simply mix a 1:1 solution of vinegar to water in a large bowl or bucket, then soak the gravel in the solution for 10 minutes. Make sure to rinse thoroughly. 

Natural gravel cleaners are also available for purchase in pet stores or online, such as this one from Natural Rapport

Bleach to Clean Gravel

You may be surprised to learn that you can also use bleach as a cleansing agent. However, it should be a last resort. It’s essential to handle bleach correctly for the safety of your fish and if you have kids around. 

Bleach should always be mixed with water and should never be used in a solution over 10%. Never mix bleach with any other chemicals. Don’t let your gravel sit in the bleach longer than 15 minutes, and never bleach gravel that is porous. Gravel that contains color may fade in a bleach solution. 

Step 6: Replace Gravel And Objects In Tank

Once the gravel is dry, mix the clean gravel back in with what is set aside, then place it back in your aquarium. Plug back in your electrical equipment and replace all the larger rocks, plants, and decorations you previously removed. Make sure everything is in the correct place before adding water back to the tank. 

Step 7: Refill Water

Prepare clean water and carefully refill your tank. Be mindful not to fill past the maximum level for your tank. The water should be free of any toxic chemicals, be the correct Ph level, and the proper temperature for your fish. 

Step 8: Place Fish Back In

Gently transfer your fish back into the tank. You should notice a difference in the cleanliness of your aquarium water immediately! 

What Are Beneficial Bacteria?

We mentioned the importance of preserving the beneficial bacteria in your aquarium by setting aside existing water and unwashed gravel, but why is this important?

The beneficial bacteria in your fish tank are what keep the ammonia and nitrites in your tank from accumulating and becoming a bigger problem. The bacteria do this by breaking down fish waste and plant debris in your tank. The bacteria live on surfaces in your tank, such as the filter media, rocks, plants, and of course, gravel. The pocket between the gravel is an ideal place for these beneficial bacteria to thrive. 

Because it takes time for beneficial bacteria to establish themselves in a tank, newer fish tanks will often see a spike in ammonia and nitrites levels. There isn’t enough of the bacteria present yet to break down the fish waste products. For this reason, it’s essential to preserve the precious bacteria during the cleaning process. 

How Often Should You Clean Your Fish Tank Gravel? 

How often you need to clean your fish tank gravel will depend on the size of your tank and how crowded it is. However, when in doubt, it’s a good idea to clean your gravel every two weeks to maintain a healthy tank. 


How Much Gravel Is Too Much For Your Fish Tank?

Yet another factor to consider with maintaining a healthy fish tank is how much gravel to put in. After all, it is possible to have too much gravel. 

If your gravel is too thick and compact, oxygen won’t reach the bottom, and beneficial bacteria will be unable to grow. A good rule of thumb for gravel depth is to keep it around two inches deep and don’t exceed 2.5 inches. 

Are There Other Alternatives To Keep Fish Tank Gravel Clean?

To keep your gravel free of waste, debris, and algae, you may find it beneficial to add algae-eaters or detritivores to your tank. 

Detrivores are animals that feed on dead organic material such as plant detritus or fish waste. For example, Malaysian Trumpet Snails can benefit your fish tank as they eat up plant and protein matter in your substrate. They, however, won’t cause damage to existing plants but tend to aerate the gravel since they like to burrow. 

When considering adding algae eaters to your fish tank, you will need to consider if they may fall prey to some of the existing fish in your aquarium. For example, Cherry Shrimp do an excellent job cleaning up your tank. However, larger fish could find that they are a tasty meal. Amano shrimp, on the other hand, are larger and better able to defend themselves. 

Siamese algae eaters are an excellent choice when it comes to keeping your fish tank clean and sterile. The freshwater fish will eat a wide variety of algae and control the flatworm population in your tank. In addition, siamese algae eaters tend to be less aggressive than other algae eaters and won’t damage your plants while they scavenge for food. 

Final Thoughts

Now you know that cleaning your fish tank without a vacuum is not only possible but cost-effective too. 

As a fish owner, it’s helpful to understand the beneficial bacteria at play in your fish tank and other ways to keep your aquarium sparkling without breaking the bank.  

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