How to Clean Aquarium Sand, the Simplest Way in 7 Steps!

Many people keep sand in their aquariums, especially those who have bottom-dwellers burying fish. No, doubt the most challenging part of fishkeeping is to keep your aquarium neat and clean. But only some effortless maintenance activities are sufficient to meet the purpose.

Aquarium sand cleaning might not be as difficult as many people think. All you have to do is follow a systematic manner with the help of the right tools.

How to clean aquarium sand? This a vastly asked question from beginner aquarists who are having the sandy substrate or planning to have it. Fishkeeping is an exciting hobby and comparatively easy to maintain if you know what to do precisely. 

In this article, I will talk about the procedure of thorough sand cleaning. A thorough cleaning is advisable only if you feel a significant amount of garbage accumulation at the bottom, affecting the aquarium’s health. You can perform it once or twice a year very carefully, ensuring you are not ruining the nitrogen cycle

For doing this, You have to shift all the fish in a separate tank (I’ll suggest a quarantine tank) or bowl. I follow this procedure when I perform thorough sand cleaning in my aquariums, having a sand substrate. 

How To Clean Aquarium Sand – Sequential Steps

How to Clean Aquarium Sand Thoroughly

Step-1: Turn off & unplug all power tools

unplug power before cleaning sand of aquarium

Before handling water, you should ensure no electric power is on. Switch off all electrical controls for safety reasons. Unplug the heater and the filter, as you might need to remove those from the aquarium during cleaning. If you have submersible light in the aquarium, unplug and remove it also.

Step-2: Remove décors

remove decor to clean aquarium sand

Removing some décors will make the cleaning process convenient. Select décors to take out those you want to clean separately. You can remove algae from décors simply by scrubbing those with a brush scrubber. If you have live plants in your aquarium, never remove them, as it can damage their roots. 

Step-3: Take your fish to a quarantine tank

shift fishes to clean aquarium sand

When you remove almost all the water from your aquarium, you’ll have to shift your pets to a quarantine tank or sufficiently sizeable waterful bucket. Having a quarantine tank is beneficial for this purpose. If you don’t have one, still, a bucket is good enough.

Make the bucket full of water of the same temperature as your aquarium, and your fish will remain okay for 1/2 hour without any issue. During winter, you should frequently monitor the water temperature and add some hot water to the fish’s temporary residence to protect them from freezing.

Step-4: Siphon out all the water in a bucket

Siphon out water to clean aquarium sand

Place the siphon pipe half-inch above the sand surface carefully and drain out as much water as it can suck. Collect the water into a bucket as you will reuse a portion of it.

Step-5: Stirring the sand with a stick

stirring the sand to clean aquarium

Decaying matters like fish waste and food leftovers can get trapped in the sand and release toxic gases. Add some freshwater up to just half inches above the sand layer, and then stir the sand thoroughly with a stick.

You’ll see debris and sludge coming out of the sand, and the water becomes dirty. Then rerun the vacuum to suck out contaminated water. Repeat the full step 2/3 times until specks of dirt stop coming out of the sand.

Step-6: Scrape off algae

Scrape inside to clean aquarium

Though it is not directly a part of sand cleaning, you can take this opportunity to clean the inside surface and decors to scrape off algae. Use a soft scrubber or a lint-free cloth and gently rub the tank inside. Do it carefully, and don’t push too hard. You can wash decors with detergent.

But before putting it back in the tank, rinse thoroughly with clean water. Otherwise, the presence of cleansing agents in the items can be harmful to fish

Step-7: Put back everything as before

reassemble after aquarium sand cleaning

Now the cleaning is done. Reassemble all décors and plug in all devices you disconnected but don’t power up. Fill up 75% of the tank with previously used water you collected in a bucket.

The rest fill up with new water. Check water pH and temperature to keep consistency with the erstwhile condition. Switch on the heater and pump and bring back fish to the aquarium. That’s it! 

Alternative Method

Many people do not prefer removing fish during sand cleaning. I also do regular sand and gravel cleaning, keeping fish in the tank. But it is convenient only for a partial cleaning when you are not digging the sand too deep. You can follow the video instruction for this method.

One cautionary note for this procedure, if you use a planting sand substrate, you will have to be careful during cleaning as it can release ammonia when disturbed. Entrapped ammonia release can be dangerous when you clean the sand and fish in the aquarium.

Tips to Keep in Mind

  • It would help if you did not clean the aquarium sand too often. There are some beneficial bacteria inside your aquarium that grow naturally. Beneficial bacteria help to maintain water quality and a stable and healthy aquarium environment. Cleaning the sand too often will not allow essential bacteria to grow.
  • Change the water twice a month and go for regular substrate cleaning (without removing fish) every 7/8 weeks. Suck off the dirt from the top of the sand layer but do not stir thoroughly. This frequency will solely depend on your aquarium’s cleanliness. 
  • Only perform thorough cleaning once or twice a year. Similarly, the frequency may vary on the aquarium condition. 
  • Don’t make a sand bed thicker than 2.5 cm. If the sand bed is too deep, it is difficult to clean and more prone to turning anaerobic. 
  • Only use the sand labeled for aquarium use. Don’t put builders’ sand in the aquarium, as it can adversely affect the water quality. Don’t use pebbles and sand together; it makes the cleaning process more complicated. 


Cleanliness of the substrate is crucial, as all the aquarium wastes actually deposit at the bottom. In addition, aquarium wastes are the primary source of toxic gas like ammonia and nitrates, which can be deadly for your fish.

Larger gravels and pebbles create gaps, and debris is accumulated in those easily. In comparison, the sand substrate is made of finer materials and thus less prone to waste accumulation.

If you keep fish in your aquarium that like to bury holes in the floor, a sand substrate is perfect. Sand bottom aquariums have a unique visual appeal and look more natural.

If you want to have live plants in the aquarium, special planting sands will be required for plants’ expected growth.

Some people keep a combination of gravel, rocks, and sand as the substrate. But in that case, the cleaning process can be a little hard, so we don’t suggest it for beginners.

Hopefully, our article will benefit you by making your maintenance job easier. If you have any thoughts or ideas, please feel free to drop a comment below.

Sujit Modak

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