Vacuuming gravel in your fish tank, shown here, requires some skill.

Regularly vacuuming gravel in your fish tank is a must for most types of aquariums, but you already know that. What you might not know are all the little tips and tricks that can make it easier and more thorough, all while keeping your livestock safe.

My customers frequently ask similar questions, including:

  • Should I remove the fish before vacuuming the gravel?
  • How often should I do it?
  • Should I change the gravel completely instead?
  • Do you have any suggestions that would make it easier?

Following are a few tips and methods that I have found very helpful over the years.

Steps of Vacuuming Gravel in Your Fish Tank

Start with placing a large bucket near the tank. We stress the word large, as it will fill up quickly. A small mop bucket, for instance, would not be adequate. A 32-gallon trash can is ideal. The bucket must be lower than the tank, or the siphoning from the aquarium to the bucket will not work properly.

Lower the vacuum through the gravel until it’s at the bottom of the tank and then lift it up until it’s a couple inches above the gravel. As you do so, water will dump right into the bucket while keeping the gravel in the tank. Continue doing this throughout the tank, paying special attention to corners and edges.

You can keep the fish in the tank without worrying so much about them getting sucked up into the vacuum. The fish typically move away from the danger zone. 

You should, however, remove decor so that you can clean under them. (This is a perfect time to clean algae off the decor as well. In order to do so, set the decor outside in the sun for a couple of days. The algae will dry, and you can wipe it off and then replace the decor.)

Important: If you have live plants, you could damage the roots if you place the device too far into the gravel. For that reason, simply cleaning the surface of the gravel may be safer. Avoid digging too far into the gravel unless you’re certain you won’t hit any roots.

Additionally, although it’s always good to vacuum gravel in both freshwater and saltwater tanks, you should not vacuum gravel in a reef tank. Instead, you can wave a cleaning tool above the sand to get it stirred up, which would move some of the debris from the sand into the water column. Once the debris is floating around, you can remove some water via a siphon through a hose, which will also remove some of the debris floating around.

Here are a few additional tips for vacuuming gravel:

  • You can use the vacuum to clean a sponge filter and decor as well.
  • Strategically and gently pinching the tube as you’re vacuuming the gravel enables you to control how much water is being pulled and will help ensure that gravel stays in the tank.
  • It’s important to practice this technique in order to avoid spreading gravel, dirt, and debris around the tank, rendering your efforts useless. 
  • Vacuum the gravel in your fish tank at least once a month.
  • Once you’re finished vacuuming the gravel, take a few moments to clean the inside and outside of the tank glass with scrubbers and RODI water. Never use harsh chemicals like glass cleaner or bleach. 
  • Afterward, refill the tank with fresh RODI water. Don’t remove any more than about 25 percent of the water as you are siphoning the gravel.
  • With regular and proper aquarium maintenance, you might not ever have to change the gravel itself unless you want to for aesthetic purposes. There may also come a point where water changes, vacuuming, and general cleaning are not enough to make the gravel look quite up to par, so you might consider changing the gravel at that time.

Make It Easy on Yourself

Vacuuming gravel in your fish tank is essential, but it can be rather messy. It can also take time to get the maneuvers down to ensure you don’t damage plants or suck up livestock, such as bottom feeders that might be hiding inside the gravel.

If you need assistance maintaining your aquarium in the Phoenix area, I’m here to help. Contact me by phone or send me a message online.

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