How you clean aquarium gravel is going to depend on why you are cleaning it. We’re going to outline step-by-step instructions for cleaning gravel in your tank, new aquarium gravel, used aquarium gravel, and gravel that was in a tank with sick fish.
Cleaning Gravel in Your Tank
This is the gravel that is already in your established tank and needs to be cleaned to remove waste.
Turn off all electrical items in the tank, including filters and heaters.
Depending on the fish and invertebrates in your tank, you may need to remove them for safety. Place them in a bucket used exclusively for this purpose that you’ve added dirty tank water to.
A gravel vacuum is your best friend when cleaning the gravel in your tank. A small piece of mesh or even cheesecloth can be used to cover the end of the vacuum if you are afraid of vacuuming up fish or invertebrates. Use the vacuum to pick up waste particles and manipulate the gravel to capture waste that may have fallen under the gravel. The vacuum should not be sucking gravel all the way into it.
Drain tank water to a separate bucket from the fish. This second bucket of dirty tank water can be used to wring out filters or rinse décor.
Refill your tank with clean, treated water that is the same temperature as the tank water, put the fish back in, and turn your electronics back on. Remember to prime filters if needed.
Image credit: Sergiy Akhundov, Shutterstock
Cleaning New Gravel
This is gravel you just purchased from an online or in-person store.
Gather a bucket, sieve, and either a garden hose or buckets of clean water.
Put the gravel into the sieve. You may have to do portions at a time instead of the whole bag.
Rinse over the bucket with the hose or clean water. The bucket allows you to catch pieces of gravel that may overflow from the sieve or fall through. Don’t rinse gravel over a sink or drain!
As you rinse, shake the sieve to ensure you are rinsing all the dust and particulates from the gravel.
Continue rinsing the gravel with clean water until the water runs clear. Once clear, the gravel is ready for use.
Credit: Dmitri Ma, Shutterstock
Cleaning Used Gravel
This is gravel that was previously used by someone else and has been given to you.
Create a 10% bleach solution in a clean bucket that has not had other cleaning chemicals in it. This is 1 part bleach to 9 parts water.
Pour the solution into a bucket of the gravel to be cleaned and gently stir the gravel to ensure thorough cleaning. Do not let the gravel soak for more than 10-15 minutes.
Place the gravel into a sieve over a clean bucket and rinse with warm water a minimum of 3 times to ensure you rinse all the bleach off. As above, shake the gravel in the sieve to ensure everything is rinsed completely.
Once you are sure the bleach has been rinsed from the gravel, it is ready to be used.
Cleaning Gravel from Sick Fish
If you’ve had an outbreak of parasites or contagious disease in your tank, you may need to thoroughly clean everything in the tank.
Boil the gravel in clean water. If you are not able to boil the gravel, soak with very hot water, taking care not to burn yourself. This should take about 5-10 minutes.
Once thoroughly boiled, you can repeat the steps above for bleaching the gravel if you are concerned the boiling may have not removed everything.
The gravel will be ready to be used after this. Do not put hot gravel in the tank, wait for it to cool at least to tank temperature before using it. Make sure to thoroughly clean everything, including the tank itself, if you are cleaning gravel for this reason.
There are multiple reasons you may need to clean aquarium gravel, from the ordinary to the abnormal, but you do have options to make sure your gravel is clean and safe for your aquarium. It’s extremely important not to use any cleaning chemicals other than the bleach solution described above for cleaning your gravel. Fish and invertebrates can be extremely sensitive to certain chemicals and using things like bathroom, countertop, or glass cleaners can have disastrous results.
If you feel that your gravel or tank has been cleaned using cleaning solutions, it can be difficult to eliminate all traces of these products and it may be safest to replace your gravel. If you choose not to replace the gravel, ensure it is thoroughly cleaned and rinsed to keep your tank safe.
Brooke Billingsley spent nine years as a veterinary assistant before becoming a human nurse in 2013. She resides in Arkansas with her boyfriend of five years. She loves all animals and currently shares a home with three dogs, two cats, five fish, and two snails. She has a soft spot for special needs animals and has a three-legged senior dog and an internet famous cat with acromegaly and cerebellar hypoplasia. Fish keeping has become a hobby of Brooke’s and she is continually learning how to give her aquarium pets the best life possible. Brooke enjoys plants and gardening and keeps a vegetable garden during the summer months. She stays active with yoga and obtained her 200-hour yoga teacher certification in 2020. She hosts a podcast focusing on folklore and myth and loves spending her free time researching and writing. Brooke believes that every day is an opportunity for learning and growth and she spends time daily working toward new skills and knowledge.