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How to Clean Planted Aquarium Substrate

We can safely assume a few things here: you’re either a budding aquascape hobbyist having challenges with your planted tank substrate; a soon to be aquascape hobbyist reading all you can on everything related to aquascaping because you can never have too much information, right? Either way, we are glad to have you!

If you are having challenges with your planted tank substrates, or you need more information about how to clean your substrates without affecting your water chemistry, you have found the right article!

Before proceeding to helpful tips on properly and effectively cleaning your planted aquarium, it is imperative to lay a solid foundation about what the substrate is, what it does for your aquarium, and the different types of substrates there are. This will enable you to decide the kind that best suits your aquascape and maintain it properly.

What is a substrate in aquascape?

In the simplest of terms, a substrate is basically ‘soil’. You know, the layers of earth and sand used for land planting? Yes. A substrate is basically that, except for the aquascape niche, it is the layer used to cover the bottom of your tank. The same way regular soil supplies nutrients for land plants, aquatic plants also need a source of nutrients for proper root growth and this is why substrate is needed.

Although some aquarium plants can survive in just water such as the arrowhead plant and the Chinese evergreen, most plants need the base for their growth and survival. Substrates are also used to give character and detail to your aquascape. Aquascape seeks to replicate nature—but underwater, so you need to ensure that your aquascape looks the part. Great aesthetic stuff!



Now, you should also know that there are different types and forms of a substrate; and they exist to serve the variety of aquascape styles there are. Your choice of substrate can be influenced by several factors; one of which could be personal taste; you know, a certain aesthetic you’re going for (in other words, ‘oh, this substrate is nice, I want it’). Another (more important) reason can be the type and species of plants you plan on getting in your aquarium.

Different aquatic animals and plants and have different types of an environment suitable to them; so ensure you research much as possible before deciding on your substrate. For emphasis, your choice of the substrate must be well informed to avoid errors that will affect your planted aquascape.

Types of Planted Tank Substrates

The types of substrates that are used in planted aquarium tanks are categorized according to water type and nutrient quantity.

Freshwater & Saltwater Substrates

There are two kinds of water used in the aquascape niche: freshwater and saltwater; and the fundamental difference is that the latter contains a large quantity of salt. As a result of the difference in their chemical composition, freshwater organisms cannot survive in salt water; and saltwater organisms cannot survive in freshwater.

In the same way, certain organisms survive only in one of these kinds of water, some substrates are only suitable to select types of water. For example, sand and gravel, which come in different grades, colors, and textures, are usually compatible with Freshwater tanks.

For saltwater tanks, usually need calcium carbonate substrate. This is because calcium carbonate increases pH which is good for saltwater plants. Examples of salt water-friendly substrates include aragonite, crushed corals, and limestone.

Nutrient-Rich & Inert Substrates

As the name implies, nutrient-rich substrates are just that: Substrates with a lot of organic nutrients. This is organic soil. This seems a bit messy; especially if you are not big on getting your hands too dirty. It sounds like a lot of mud.

However, you can get away with this by layering it with gravel so the soil is sealed. When collecting soil for your aquascape, ensure it is smooth and free of inhibition. To avoid collecting bad soil for your aquarium substrate, we recommend that you purchase substrates from credible suppliers available to you. Nutrient-rich substrates are perfect for freshwater as they help to lower pH.

Inert substrates, on the other hand, have very few nutrients. This is not nearly as bad as it sounds. Again, depends on what exactly you decide to plant. For example, if you’re interested in the type of plants mentioned earlier on, you know, those that can survive in just water? These are the kinds of substrates for you.

These plants don’t need substrates but you can use them as a layer at the bottom of your tank for beautification purposes. If you change your mind and decide you want other plants in your aquarium, you can just buy nutrient supplements.

Having explained all this, it is imperative to bear in mind that most substrates used in planted aquascape come in organic forms. These forms include:



SAND: Some substrates come in the form of sand. There are different types. Such as fine-grained sand, smooth sand, coarse sand. It all depends on the plants you plan to get, as well as the desired style your aquarium will take.

GRAVEL: Gravel is a common type of substrate and it consists basically of a variation of stones and the examples are numerous: small pebbles, crushed gravel, small stones, smooth stones, coarse stones, etc. Coarse stones are usually not encouraged because some plants and/or fish can get scratched and injured by the stones, but some plants thrive in those environments.

It is worthy of mention that you can very well combine different types of substrates in one aquarium. Similar to layering soil with gravel, you can mix different substrates as long they are compatible with one another and not harmful to your plants and fish.

Thorough research will keep you informed of how to go about this, so don’t be afraid to combine! An example of a standard combination is using sand as the bottom layer, putting nutrient-rich soil on top of the sand, and then topping it off with colorful gravel. Sounds pretty, doesn’t it? What’s more, your plants will love this as they can sink their roots into it and flourish!

Cleaning the Tank Substrate

The first thing we will be looking at? Tools. What tools do you need to clean your substrate?

With planted tank substrates, however, you only need a siphon vacuum. There are so many other names for this: gravel cleaner, gravel vacuum, aquarium siphon, siphon vacuum, etc. they are all the same thing, so do not get confused when you see them.

A siphon vacuum is used to clean dirt, fish poop, uneaten feed, etc. in a tank. It can also be used for regular water changes in the aquarium tank. A siphon vacuum could be something that typically looks like a long tube or hose which works with gravity and has suction capabilities.

As almost everything discussed in this piece is dependent on different factors, your choice of siphon vacuum is not exempted.

How many layers of substrate? How big is your aquarium? 

How many living organisms live in your aquarium? 

These will serve as a guide in choosing the best for your aquarium. A good homemade substitute, especially for a smaller tank works just fine!

Now that you have your tools ready, time to learn the method. There is a very simple method for cleaning the tank substrate. This method can further be broken down based on the specifics of your aquarium; the size, the style, and the kind of substrate used.

Following the Method

Put your siphon in the tank close to the substrate. Wave the siphon around while simultaneously picking up detritus (dirt). That’s it! That is all you have to do. Just make sure you cover all parts of the aquarium.

Also, try not to suck in too much of your substrate while cleaning; because some of it will be suctioned. It is advisable to carry out the cleaning of your substrate while doing your weekly maintenance tasks and water change in your aquarium.

The type of substrate you have will determine how close your siphon has to be to your substrate when cleaning. For example, if it’s a purely soft sand substrate, the siphon should be at least three inches away from the sand. If not, you might end up sucking all your sand.

This is because of how soft and light the sand is. With some types of Sand, you can use your hands or an aquarium rake to shake the sand a little while suctioning. Make sure you know your substrate well, also study your plants and fish after the cleaning so you know if the process has any kind of effect on them.

With a gravel substrate, even those that have a lower layer of soil, the siphon can be just about an inch from the gravel. You can do a sort of sweeping motion through the gravel to make sure all the dirt is picked.

Wondering how often you need to completely change your substrate? Again, this is dependent on what you want, the kind of substrate you have, and what’s good for your plants. Usually, substrates last for many months, but on average, a good substrate can last about a year before the nutrients are completely depleted.

If you are replacing the substrate completely, it is advisable to clean the substrate first before putting it in the tank. This is because they usually have lots of dust particles in them. You don’t need dust in your aquarium.



How to clean Substrate before putting it in your Aquarium

Pour the substrate in a large bucket; for better results don’t let the substrate reach up to half of the bucket. Fill the bucket up with water and rake through the substrate multiple times. When the dust is on top, drain the top, making sure the substrate doesn’t pour. Repeat this loop until the water in the bucket is clear enough to see the substrate at the bottom.

It is important to study the type of substrate you purchase/collect before doing this. Sand and gravel substrate usually need to be cleaned before going into the tank but it is not advisable to do this with soil substrate.

In conclusion, your plants need a healthy base to grow and the success of your aquascape depends on this. Therefore, we recommend that you clean your substrate from time to time and enrich it with nutrients when needed.