It seems almost a given that when you go to the store to pick up an aquarium, you also grab a few bags of multicolored gravel to use as the substrate. But gravel isn’t your only option for an aquarium, and in many cases, sand can actually make a better choice
Not only is sand cheaper, but it’s actually superior to gravel in several ways. The biggest difference between sand and gravel is that if you buy a high quality sand, with a relatively uniform grain size, you will have a much easier time maintaining your water quality.
One of the main problems with gravel is that it leaves large spaces between the individual stones, which allows waste and debris to accumulate. If you don’t thoroughly clean the gravel every week during water changes, the waste caught in the gravel can quickly start to impact water quality.
Sand on the other hand, allows very little waste to infiltrate between the grains, and most of it will just accumulate on the surface. Because the waste has nowhere to settle, it is often circulated through the aquarium until it is removed by the filter. Any that isn’t picked up by the filter, can be easily removed during weekly water changes.
Another positive aspect of sand is that it’s far gentler on fish that search in the substrate for food. Fish like bronze corydoras are constantly sifting through their tank’s substrate in search of food and their sensitive barbels can be easily injured. Sand more closely resembles their natural habitat, and they can sift through it without threat of injury.
And while the last selling point of sand may be a more personal preference, any tank with a sand substrate tends to look more natural. This is especially true if you normally choose something along the lines of neon gravel (affectionately nicknamed clown puke in the hobby) for your tank. You’d be amazed at how good sand looks in an aquarium, especially when planted with the proper lighting.
When it comes to choosing sand, play sand is usually the default option. Always choose play sand that is labeled non-toxic, and never, ever try to substitute construction sand. Even using play sand can occasionally be a crap shoot, and you often risk getting sand that is high in clay, which makes cleaning your aquarium a nightmare.
With that being said, many of the more reputable companies offer excellent quality play sand, and I’ve personally used Sand by Brookstone in the past with no issues.
If you don’t mind the white color of pool sand, it actually makes a superior choice to play sand. The size of the sand particles is far more uniform than play sand, and you don’t have to worry about contamination of the sand. The only downside is glaring white color of the sand, which can be blinding in a highly lit tank.
You can find some of the best deals on Pool Filter Sand at Amazon.com
As the aquarium industry expands every year, dozens of specialty aquarium sands have sprouted up. While many of them are nothing more than overpriced play sand, certain companies truly provide a superior product that makes an excellent choice for any aquarium. One of the best companies to choose your aquarium sand from is Carib Sea, and my personal favorite is CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand, which is pH neutral sand, that is specially created to make sure that all the particles are of uniform size.
Cleaning the Sand
While all aquarium gravel available on the market states that it must be thoroughly cleaned before being added to an aquarium, very few people follow these directions. Most people just dump the gravel into the tank, and don’t give a second thought to it being dirty, or that it may contain foreign particles. And in most cases, everything works out fine.
Sand is a completely different matter though, and you absolutely have to clean it before you add it to an aquarium. If you don’t spend the time cleaning the sand before you add it, you will end up with brown, opaque water for weeks, or even months to come. And let’s face it, no one wants muddy water in their show piece aquarium.
So how to clean it then? When you first purchase the sand, fill a clean bucket (one that’s never been used for household cleaning) about halfway with your new sand. After that, fill the bucket with clean water, and swish around the sand in the bucket with your hand. The water should be cloudy at that point, and carefully dump out only the cloudy water, making sure that you don’t lose any sand. Repeat this process until the water runs clear, and the sand should be ready to add to the aquarium.
Adding the Water to the Aquarium
Now that you’ve cleaned the sand, you can add it to the aquarium. Assuming that you’re adding the sand to an empty aquarium, you should take precautions that you don’t destroy your substrate setup when adding water to the tank.
One way of doing this is to place a dinner plate on top of the sand, in the spot where you’ll be adding the water. That way the water is directed onto the plate, and won’t disturb the substrate underneath. Even if you’ve thoroughly cleaned the sand, pouring water directly on top of it will still stir up particles into the water column and may leave the water cloudy for hours.