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How To Choose The Right Aquarium Substrate For Your Tank

Aquarium substrate serves a variety of functions in the home aquarium. It's not just for covering the bottom of your tank. Get valuable tips on choosing the right aquarium substrate and which ones to avoid!


Aquarium substrate serves a variety of functions in the home aquarium beyond simply adding to the overall aesthetic appeal of your tank. While clean substrate will certainly enhance the appearance of your tank, its main purpose is much more important. Because substrate plays such an integral role in the healthy upkeep of your tank it is important to select the right kind. There are many different options to choose from, so rather than simply picking something off the shelf, it is wise to learn a little about the different types of substrate available in order to make an educated decision.

Functions of Aquarium Substrate

aquarium xs 5961727While it may seem like the purpose of having aquarium substrate is to cover the bottom of the tank and to provide a rooting medium for aquarium plants, these are only two of the many functions aquarium substrate serves. If you were to leave the bottom of your tank bare, the light reflecting off the glass could irritate your fish. Aggressive fish in particular could become stressed, thinking that their own reflection is actually a rival fish. Aquarium substrate also serves to give your tank a more “natural” look that mimics the native habitat of your fish. If you choose neon-colored gravel this might not be the case, however.

Although the aforementioned points are very important, perhaps the most important function served by aquarium gravel is providing a bed in which colonies of beneficial bacteria can multiply. Nitrifying bacteria in the home aquarium break down toxins like ammonia into nitrites then nitrates, a process referred to as the nitrogen cycle. While these bacteria may inhabit your tank filter, as well as some tank surfaces, the substrate is where they are most heavily concentrated. In addition to housing these bacteria, substrate also serves as a rooting medium for live aquarium plants. Most aquarium plants must be rooted in order to thrive and certain substrates are formulated to provide the essential nutrients aquarium plants need.

Types of Aquarium Substrate

gravel xs 10070383Gravel – This is the most popular option in aquarium substrate for freshwater fish tanks. Gravel comes in a variety of sizes and colors and is, generally, one of the least expensive types of aquarium substrate. Most aquarium gravel is untreated, so once it has been rinsed thoroughly to remove dirt and dust it can be added to the aquarium without fear of it affecting water parameters. This type of substrate is ideal for harboring colonies of beneficial bacteria but it should be vacuumed regularly to remove built-up waste and uneaten fish food. In fish-only tanks, gravel can be used as the sole substrate, but in planted tanks it is recommended only as a top layer over some kind of fertilizer or fortified substrate formulated to encourage aquarium plant growth.

sand xs 11581398Sand – The second most popular type of substrate for fish-only tanks, sand also comes in a variety of colors and sizes. If you have a quality filtration system installed, sand can actually be cleaner than gravel because, once it has compacted, organic waste and food particles will not be able to penetrate the surface. The main problem hobbyists encounter when using sand as a substrate is that it can get sucked up the intake tube of the filter. A simple adjustment to the length of the tube can remedy this situation. Some aquarists prefer sand over gravel because it provides a more natural-looking base for the aquarium and it is also the preferred substrate for many bottom dwellers.

eco-complete caribseaFertilizers – There are a number of fertilizers that can be used as a lower level of substrate in planted aquariums. These substrates are formulated to provide live aquarium plants with the nutrients they need in order to grow. Fluorite is a kind of lightweight, clay gravel that can be mixed with sand or regular aquarium gravel. Laterite is another type of clay, one that contains high levels of iron-oxide which helps to attract and store nutrients where they are easily accessed by plant roots. Vermiculite is a mineral substrate composed of aluminum, iron and magnesium. This substrate attracts and slowly releases nutrients over a long period of time. One of the best options for aquarium substrate is a product called Eco-Complete. It's packed with over 25 minerals for healthy plant growth and also includes live Heterotrophic bacteria to convert fish waste into food for your plants. An additional bonus is the fact that Eco-Complete doesn't require rinsing, as most substrates do, before adding it to the aquarium.

Not Recommended – The substrate options for freshwater aquariums are numerous, but there are also several types of substrate that should be avoided. Sea sand, for example, is not safe for use in freshwater aquariums because it may contain impurities as well as living organisms which will pollute tank water as they die off. Crushed corals and aragonite sand are only recommended for use in marine and reef tanks because these substrates have a tendency to raise pH. Peat moss is another type of aquarium substrate and, though it can be used in the freshwater tank, it is generally not recommended. Peat is composed of decaying plant matter which can turn the water a yellowish tan color - this type of substrate is better suited for use in black water or brackish tanks.

Tips for Using Substrate in the Home Aquarium

After you choose the substrate for your tank you need to figure out how much of it you will need. If you plan to use gravel in your tank you will need approximately 7 pounds of gravel per square foot of tank space for a depth of one inch. To find out how much sand you need for your tank, simply multiply the length, width and depth of the area to be filled and divide by twenty to find the number of pounds of sand you need. You can also use the formula of eight pounds of sand per square foot of tank space for a depth of one inch. For fluorite and other fertilizers, you should only need about one pound per gallon of tank capacity.

Before adding any substrate to your aquarium it is wise to rinse it thoroughly in fresh, warm water. Pour the substrate into a large plastic bucket or container and fill the container with water. Swirl the substrate around to release any dirt or dust then pour off the dirty water. Repeat this process several times until the water runs clear. At this point the substrate may be considered safe to add to the aquarium. Do not rinse your substrate in hot water because it could affect the water temperature in your tank. To avoid cracking or otherwise damaging the bottom of your tank when adding the gravel, lay a shallow pan or small bowl in the bottom of the tank and pour the substrate into it. As the container fills with the aquarium substrate, the excess will spill slowly over the sides and you can distribute it carefully by hand.

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