When you buy new aquarium dry sand or gravel it is highly recommended that you rinse it first. Even if it says it was pre-washed, it will still carry some dirt which can cause a cloudy mess in your water. The only exception to this would be LIVE sand that contains water and live bacteria, in this case the sand should not be rinsed prior to introduction into your aquarium

Once you get the substrate (sand or gravel) in your aquarium the cleaning isn't over, the substrate will accumulate detritus, mainly fish waste and leftover food, that accumulates over time. In order to keep the aquarium substrate tidy, routine cleaning is recommended with the use of a gravel vacuum or siphon

Substrate: an underlying substance or layer. In an aquarium, this refers specifically to the sand or gravel on the bottom of the aquarium. 

Sand and gravel 1

How to Rinse New Dry Sand or Gravel

Faucet and Sink Method

  1. Cut the bag of sand open and fill a bucket 1/3 full with substrate.
  2. Place the bucket under the faucet inside a large sink. Turn on the water to maximum output so that it vigorously jets into the sand without sending the sand or gravel boiling over the edges down your drain. **Sand or similar fine-grain substrates are lighter and will overflow easier.
  3. Move your fingers through the substrate, stirring and lifting into the water jet as you fill it up. When the bucket is full, turn off the water. Continue to agitate some more, then pour the dirty water away (being careful not to pour the sand/gravel down the drain).
  4. Repeat the process. It may take 10 or more rinses before the sand is clean and the water remains clear.
  5. Drain water as best you can without pouring substrate down the drain, and then pour into an empty aquarium.
  6. Let the substrate dry for 24 hours before filling the aquarium with water or add a water conditioner to prevent the risk of chlorine contamination from your tap water.

Garden Hose Method

  1. Fill a bucket 1/3 full with the substrate, take it outside, and push a garden hose through the substrate all the way to the bottom of the bucket.
  2. Turn the faucet on and adjust the flow to let the hose agitate the substrate and allow the water to overflow out of the bucket on its own.
  3. Move the hose's position within the sand when the water begins to clear and repeat until the sand is thoroughly rinsed.
  4. Drain water as best you can without pouring substrate down the drain, and then pour the substrate into an empty aquarium.
  5. Let the substrate dry for 24 hours before filling the aquarium with water or add a water conditioner to prevent the risk of chlorine contamination from your tap water.

Sand and gravel 2

How To Clean Gravel and Sand In An Aquarium

Gravel Vacuum or Siphon

When using a siphon to clean your sand, a water change is generally recommended. You will end up removing water along with debris which then must be replaced with clean water after the cleaning is complete. If you must save the existing aquarium water, you can use a filter sock to catch the debris and then refill the aquarium using the same water. 

Use a gravel cleaner like a Python No Spill Water Change System or Gravel Washer to siphon water and detritus out of the substrate. The Python No Spill Clean and Fill comes with a special adapter that will connect to your faucet and create suction/siphon while also sending the dirty water down the drain in your sink. Alternatively, you can use a gravity siphon into a bucket with something like the Gravel Washer or a similar gravel cleaner/siphon tube device.

Modern gravel washer devices have a bulb or hand pump device designed to help you start a gravity siphon into your bucket. You can also just do it the "old school" way by applying suction to one end (lower end) of the tube until water begins to flow on its own into your bucket. A siphon must be achieved before cleaning your substrate.

  1. Once a siphon is achieved, hover the wide-open end of the large-diameter tube just over the surface of the substrate. The substrate will rise just a couple of inches up the tube bringing debris along with it. Slowly move the vacuum upwards away from the substrate and gravity should drop the sand or gravel back down to the bottom while debris flows up and out with the water into your bucket or down your drain.
  2. You can control the flow rate or strength of a gravity siphon with a valve or by pinching the tube. As the tube is pinched, the suction will be reduced making it easier to rinse sand and lighter weight substrates. If you're using the Python No Spill Water Change System, simply reduce the rate of flow on your faucet to reduce suction. **Gravel or large particle substrates are heavier than sand and can handle more suction than sand without being sucked from the aquarium. 
  3. The trick is to find the right rate of suction that removes debris and water without pulling out too much substrate. Gravel is easier than sand in this case but nonetheless, it is normal for very small particles of substrate or a small amount of sand to escape during cleaning.  Once you dial in the suction rate, repeat this gentle movement around the entire surface of the substrate. Carefully moving the gravel vacuum up and down until you can effectively clean the entire substrate.

Be careful not to remove too much water. Generally speaking, you will never remove more than 50% of the entire water volume. You may not be able to clean the entire substrate in a single cleaning event before too much water is drained. If this is the case, proceed with your water change by filling the tank with clean water.  Then just repeat the process after 5-7 days has passed, cleaning the remaining substrate during your next water change.

Manual Stirring

If you don't have a gravel vacuum or siphon tube, you can routinely stir up the substrate allowing your filtration to remove the debris. You can use your hands but a long handle algae scraper, tongs, or similar device will work great. This method is not as effective but far better than allowing the detritus to remain in the substrate.  It is best to do this in batches, especially for larger tanks or neglected tanks.  Only stir up small areas at a time to avoid over-polluting the aquarium water or worse yet, releasing contaminants. 

Utilitarian Fish and Inverts

Various species of livestock can help to keep your sandbed clean too.  Freshwater Corydoras Catfish, Loaches, and Geophagus Cichlids will sift through the substrate in search of food.  In saltwater tanks, cleanup crew animals such as Nassarius Snails, Sand Sifting Starfish, and Sand Sifting Gobies do the same thing, sifting through the sand looking for food and keeping the substrate stirred up.   

Shop Rock and Sand

Pro Tips

  • Thin layers of substrate are easier to keep clean. They will not trap as much debris and are much easier to maintain.  1-2" is the recommended substrate depth in most all aquariums with the exception of planted aquariums or species-specific saltwater tanks where deeper substrates are necessary. 
  • Powerheads creating strong internal flow will help keep detritus suspended for easier removal via your filtration.
  • Canister filters can be very effective mechanical filters, just be sure to swap out the sponges or filters pads often for the best results. 
  • Lifting up any easily removable structures like rock, wood, artificial plants, or ornaments when vacuuming will help keep things cleaner. Detritus collects underneath rocks and tank ornaments as well. 
  • Note that new live sand should not be rinsed with fresh water before putting it into an aquarium for the first time, this will kill off the beneficial bacteria. Some cloudiness is to be expected when using live sand but this will clear within 24-48 hours after turning on your pump and filtration. 
  • To calculate how much sand your aquarium needs check out our substrate calculator.
  • When refilling freshwater aquariums, be sure to use a tap water conditioner when necessary and match water temperatures.  You do not want to shock your fish and other tank inhabitants with drastic temperature changes.