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

how to clean aquarium sand

The substrate is an important item of aquariums, their purpose is not only decorative but also establishing a natural environment for aquarium inhabitants. Vastly used substrates are gravels and sands, and between these two, gravel is the top choice. Still, many people keep sand in their aquarium, especially those who have bottom-dweller burying fish. 

How to clean aquarium sand? A vastly asked question from beginner aquarists. Fishkeeping is an exciting hobby, and comparatively easy to maintain, if you know what to do exactly. Fish or other aquatic pets are low-maintenance compared to other pets. No, doubt the most challenging part of fishkeeping is to keep your aquarium neat and clean. But only some effortless routine maintenance activities on it are sufficient.

In this article, we will talk about such a regular work of fishkeeping hobbyists, and that is how to clean aquarium sand. Some people decorate their fish tank with gravel or pebble, while others may use sands. Aquarium sand cleaning might not be as difficult as many people think. All you have to do just follow a systematic manner with the help of the right tools.

We’ll discuss step by step actions that you need to follow sequentially during sand cleaning. But one cautionary note before starting, if you use particular planting sand substrate, you will have to be careful during cleaning as it can release ammonia when disturbed. For normal play sand, there is no such issue. 

Aquarium Cleaning Bucket
Siphon Pipe for Aquarium
Siphon Pipe
Magnetic Cleaner for Fish Tank
Magnetic Cleaner

How to Clean aquarium Sand - Sequential Steps



unplug power before cleaning sand of aquarium

Turn off and unplug all power tools

Before handling water, you should ensure no electric power is on. Switch off all electrical controls for your safety reason. Simply 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.

Remove décors

If you remove some décors, that will make your cleaning process convenient. Select décors to take out those you want to clean separately. You can remove algae from décors simply scrubbing those with a brush scrubber. If you have live plants in your aquarium, don’t remove them and be careful so that you don’t damage their roots. 

remove decor to clean aquarium sand
shift fishes to clean aquarium sand

Take your fishes to a safe place

While you are removing almost all the water from your aquarium, you’ll have to shift your pets in a sufficiently sizeable waterful bucket temporarily. Make the bucket full of fresh water of the same temperature as your aquarium, and your fish will remain okay for 3/4 hours without any issue. During winter, you should monitor the water temperature frequently and add some hot water to the fish’s temporary residence to protect them from freezing.

Siphon out all the water in a bucket

Place the siphon pipe half-inch above the sand surface carefully and drain out as much water as it can suck. Once the surface is exposed, you may see a layer of waste on the sand surface. Place the vacuum cleaner pipe carefully so that it can suck the sludge and debris but not the sand. 

Siphon out water to clean aquarium sand
stirring the sand to clean aquarium

Stirring the sand with a stick

Decaying matters like fish waste and food leftovers can get trapped into the sand and release toxic gases. Add some freshwater up to just half inches above the sand layer and then stir 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 dirty water. Repeat the full step 2/3 times until specks of dirt stop coming out of the sand.

Scrape off algae

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

Scrape inside to clean aquarium
reassemble after aquarium sand cleaning

Put back everything as before

Now your cleaning is done. Reassemble all décors and plug in all devices you disconnected but don’t power up. Fillup the fish tank with fresh water up to the level you keep. Switch on the heater and pump and bring back fishes to the aquarium. That’s it!   

Tips to Keep in Mind

  • You should not clean the aquarium sand too often. There are some beneficial bacteria inside your aquarium that grows naturally. Beneficial bacteria help to maintain water quality stable and healthy aquarium environment. Cleaning the sand too often will not allow essential bacteria to grow.
  • Change the water twice in a month and go for sand cleaning every 4/5 weeks, depending on your aquarium’s cleanliness. This time you suck off dirt from the top of the sand layer but do not stir thoroughly. Only perform thorough cleaning quarterly, four times in a year. 
  • 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. 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. While the sand substrate is made of finer materials, and thus less prone to waste accumulation.
If you keep fish in your aquarium that likes to bury holes at the floor, a sand substrate is perfect. Sandy 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 the 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.

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Sujit Modak Aquarium Tales Owner
Sujit Modak

Hello, everyone! Welcome to my aquarium blog. Fishkeeping is my passion, and I started this fascinating hobby back in 2006. Besides my engineering profession, I deeply studied many fishkeeping topics since I started building my home aquarium. I researched effective aquarium filtration and lighting of planted aquariums. I am keeping 20+ species of freshwater and saltwater fish as my aquatic pet collection. I successfully experimented with a complex ecosystem inside the aquarium, biotope aquariums, aquaponics, etc. I would love to share some learnings from my hands-on experience of the last 14 years. Hopefully, my sharing will be somewhat helpful to make your aquarium journey awesome! 

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