How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Properly (Definitive Guide)

how to clean fish tank gravel
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Last Updated: July 11, 2022 by Flora Gibbins

Other than the obvious aesthetic appeal, aquarium gravel has several other uses. They include harboring aquarium bacteria, creating natural fish habitat, and holding the plants’ roots.


Aquarium gravel collects dirt from uneaten foods, fish waste, or decaying plants among others. Also, remember that even new gravel contains impurities that need cleaning.

In this article, you will learn how to clean fish tank gravel with, or without a vacuum cleaner. Plus, we will also explore the use of aquarium creatures in gravel cleaning.

How to Clean New Fish Tank Gravel

Why Clean New Aquarium Gravel?

If you’re setting up your first fish tank, congratulations! Welcome to fishkeeping. Before setting up the whole system, one of the most important things you will need to learn, is how to clean aquarium gravel.

colored aquarium gravel

Here is why. When you buy these gravel from pet shops, they are labeled “pre-cleaned” or “pre-rinsed”. So, they’re ready to use, right? Not quite. New gravel from pet shops is rarely clean. Most contain dirt particles and are also colored. Using them in this condition may harm your aquarium in several ways.

First, the particles may clog the filters, leading to costly replacement or repairs.

Secondly, while the colored gravel may look attractive, it may not be the best fit for your aquarium. The color in the aquarium dissolves in the aquarium water making it unclear.

Besides, it is much easier to learn how to clean the aquarium gravel before you set up the tank. At this time, you don’t require many tools to do this. So here is how to make your new gravel clean in a few quick steps.

How to Clean New Aquarium Gravel in Easy Steps

This process is slightly different from learning how to clean gravel in a fish tank. Not only is it less complicated, but also you use your everyday tools.

Here are some of the things you will need.

  • Rubber gloves
  • Two clean buckets
  • Water de-chlorinator
  • Strainer
  • Water
  • Aquarium gravel

If you are ready, we can start learning how to clean gravel in a fish tank. Pour water into one of the buckets. Any clean water is fine. Next, with your plastic gloves on, scoop approximately 5 pounds of the new aquarium gravel into that bucket.

pouring water into bucket with fish gravel

Putting plenty of gravel at once will make it hard to reach all the dirt in the gravel. Alternatively, you can first put the gravel in the bucket and then add water. Either way, ensure the water level is 1 to 1.5 inches from the gravel.

As you will realize later in the step on how to clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum, both of these cleaning procedures are entirely manual.

Using your hands, stir the gravel around the bucket gently to clean the gravel. Additionally, scrub the gravel with your hands to remove even the stubborn particles. Also, let the gravel settle for 5 minutes to loosen well.

At this stage, water appears colored with floating impurities. Discard this water and add more. You should repeat this process until the water in the bucket looks clear.

Rinsing the Cleaned Fish Tank Gravel

At this point the gravel is clean, but you need to rinse it thoroughly to remove the remaining impurities. To do this, run tap water on the gravel through a strainer while shaking gently to dislodge the remaining dirt.

man pouring the gravel into the aquarium

Don’t forget to inspect the gravel while keeping watch of the drained water. If the water appears unclear, the gravel is not clean yet. Continue rinsing until you are satisfied with the results, and then place those gravels into the second bucket. Repeat the same procedure with the same quantity of gravel, until it’s all done.

De-chlorinating the New Clean Gravel

The greatest difference between this process, with how to vacuum gravel in a fish tank, is that this gravel has to be dechlorinated. Why are we dechlorinating the gravels? Tap water or any water whose source may contain chemicals such as chlorine and chloramines.

Both of these are harmful to the health of your fish in several ways. For instance, chlorine damages fish organs such as the gills and their skin. Put the bucket containing the clean gravel and add dechlorinated water.

Keep in mind to follow the direction for use stated in the instructions on the label.

Stir the content with your hand(with gloves on) briefly, and let the gravel sit for 25 minutes. After this period, you can pour out the chlorinated water. Your gravel is now clean and safe for use in the aquarium. As this gravel will eventually get dirty, you still need to clean it once, or twice per month. You can opt to clean them either with or without a vacuum cleaner.

Cleaning Fish Tank Gravel Without Vacuum

This is one of the best ways to clean aquarium gravel. To start, you have to remove the fish from the aquarium. And this is why. As you work on the gravel, this is likely to agitate the water and make the water murky.

This stresses the fish as their breathing becomes strained, due to the reduced oxygen level in the murky water.
dead fish in an aquarium

Consequently, you might lose some of the fish. To do it safely, transfer the fish to a clean bucket with aquarium water. With our happy fish safely tucked away, it is now time to work on the gravel.

Steps to Cleaning the Fish Tank Gravel Without Vacuum Cleaner

With your gloves on, scoop a handful of the gravel and keep it aside. Why are we doing this? Aquarium gravel holds bacteria that are essential for the proper functioning of your aquarium. These bacteria break down toxic ammonia into harmless nitrates. So, while you wash the rest of the gravel, you need to retain some for repopulating the tank bacterial colonies.

Using your hands you can clean the gravel in the tank by stirring them around the tank. If you have plants in the tank, gently move them to one side to avoid uprooting or otherwise damaging them.

Gently scrub the gravel between your fingers until you are satisfied most of the dirt has been dislodged from the gravel. At this point, the water may be murky from the dirt and the suspended detritus.

Pour 40-50% of this water to discard the floating and suspended materials.

Next, top up the fish tank with fresh aquarium water to the desired level and wait for thirty minutes or until the water looks clear. If you are satisfied with the water’s appearance, you can reintroduce the fish back to the tank.

Remarkably, most aquarists do not recommend this method of cleaning the gravel. It is risky especially, as you have to remove the fish from its usual aquarium environment. A better method is vacuum cleaning.

How to Clean Aquarium Gravel With Vacuuming Equipment

This method is easier and faster than manual cleaning with your hands. Moreover, the fish is safer, as the aquarium water doesn’t get murky. Sadly, most people shy away from this option, over the perceived cost of the cleaning tools.

siphon the gravel dirt using vacuum

We know there are expensive vacuuming gadgets but you do not have to use them. Nowadays, affordable vacuum cleaners are a dime a dozen.

A brief online search can yield a variety of good quality aquarium vacuums costing as little as $25 on Amazon.

Preparing for the Gravel Cleaning

Before you start vacuum cleaning, prepare the aquarium by taking several steps. As you know, vacuum cleaning involves using electric motor power and that may affect some of the aquarium components. For that reason, remember to turn off aquarium equipment such as filters, heaters, and wavemakers. This is to avoid fire hazards risks from heaters or damage to filters.

Starting the Cleaning Process

cleaning the fish gravel using vacuum gadget

Aquarium vacuuming works through the siphoning effect which is an effective cleaning method. To start cleaning the aquarium gravel insert the vacuum cleaning end into the aquarium and move it around the gravel. It will suck in impurities in the gravel and into the cleaning pipe.

While at it also, scrub inside the walls of the aquarium to accomplish an entire cleaning. Cleaning only the gravel while leaving the rest of the fish tank dirty, is not effective as it will still fall back into the gravel.

For best results, be sure to reach out to all the dead spots to clean all the gravel. Depending on the number of items you have in your fish tanks, all the gravel may not be reachable. For instance, having many rocks, plants, or decorations hide some gravel under them.

However, ensure you’re able to clean the majority of the gravel even if not all. While at it also takes the opportunity to check other aspects of the tank. Look for and remove dead fish, and plants, and check whether filters are working.

Finally, if you are satisfied with the results, you can now switch off the cleaning equipment, and turn on the aquarium devices.

Other Fish Tank Gravel Cleaning Methods

If you do not prefer the above methods you can opt for the biological method of cleaning the gravel. You can do this by introducing into the tank, other creatures that can clean the tank.

Perfect examples are the Malaysian trumpet snails and cherry shrimps, which are effective in clearing algae on the gravel. They do this by burrowing among the gravel to clean algae from within them. Moreover, some are detrivores, which means they can eat all decaying matter.

Some people may not prefer this option, nonetheless, it is an effective method, as well.

Problem is, that it requires patience as it is a slow process. Furthermore, some of these creatures may not be compatible tank mates with the bigger fish and may end up being eaten.

Fun Fact: Cleaning your aquarium gravel is only one of many ways to maintain your fish tank. There is one nemesis that needs to be dealt with immediately, though: black algae. Read our article, Black Algae On Fish Tank: How To Get Rid Of It (Permanently) for tips and hints in removing this aquatic nuisance!

Frequently Asked Questions on Cleaning Fish Tank Gravel

How often do I clean my fish tank gravel?

Once or twice per month is the ideal number of times you can clean your gravel. But this also depends on other considerations. For heavily stocked fish tanks the gravel gets dirtier faster than in less stocked, fish tanks due to several reasons.

A fish tank with more fish produces more waste from dead fish, plants, and unused foods. However, also keep in mind the more populated fish tank requires more effort and care. Therefore, frequently washing the gravel within a short duration might not be desirable.

What happens if I don’t wash aquarium gravel?

If you do not wash your aquarium gravel as required you are endangering the health of your fish. With time small particles from food, decaying plant and fish waste build up in water making the water unclean and unhealthy.

These settle on the aquarium gravel discoloring it and also encouraging the growth of algae. Also, dirty gravel may hide harmful microorganisms that spread fish diseases.

Can I use river gravel in my aquarium?

Yes, you can. All you have to do is wash them thoroughly and dechlorinate them. But washing only is not sufficiently safe for outdoor gravel. Some rocks are known to contain elements to fish in an aquarium. Examples are dolomites and marble which contain calcium. The problem with calcium is it can change the aquarium water pH.

Final Thoughts

Cleaning aquarium gravel is essential if you want to keep a healthy fish tank. As we found out, uncleaned gravel harbors rotting foods, fish wastes, and dead plant material falls. Once they rot they create a lot of problems for the entire fish tank; fish, and filtration system among others.

Fortunately, this all can be avoided by simple cleaning methods. No reason to keep unclean gravel in your fish pond anymore. Pick one of your favorite methods, and keep your aquarium gravel clean today.

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