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Sand, Sand, Sand
by Brad Newton

This article addresses the following concerns:

  • Deciding to switch to sand
  • Choosing the type of sand
  • Switching out gravel for sand
  • Maintaining the sand

First off, deciding if you want sand as your tank's substrate requires taking a few things into account. Sand is not a good choice for a planted tank if using rooted plants, its also undesireable if you have an undergravel filter system. Another thing to keep in mind if the tank is made of Acrylic is the extra care that sand requires.

The benefits of a sand bed typically outweigh most of the negative aspects. Most fish seem to prefer sand as the substrate, and some actually require it to feel at ease and for natural spawning behaviour. Tanganyikan featherfins, sandsifters & shelldwellers all significantly benefit from a sandy substrate, and its been noted that some fish use sand to aid in digestion. Sand also has a very nice, smooth look and its very entertaining to watch the fish "work the sand"; they really seem to enjoy it!

There are quite a few readily available sands that are commonly used for aquariums. They are Silica (also sold as Blasting sand, used in the sandblasting industry); Play Sand (sold at most building/hardware centers for sandboxes, brickwork, etc.); Black Beauty (its actually iron slag, not sand, but is used quite often); Coral Sand (sold primarily in fish stores and aquatic supply shops); Aragonite (also sold at fish shops and aquatic supply centers); Black Tahitian Moon Sand (another sand available through fish shops & aquatic supply centers).

Water Violet Plant Font Fashion accessory
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Brown Wood Flooring Rectangle Font
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Asphalt Rectangle City Tree Pattern
Silica sand
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Play sand
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Black Beauty
Plant Tree Beige Pattern Soil
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Font Pattern Soil Grass Rock
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Grey Asphalt Font Technology Pattern
Coral sand
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Grey Wood Font Twig Electric blue
Tahitian Moon

Silica sand is a lighter tan and is very uniform and fine in grain size. It cleans very easily and provides a nice look , its very afffordable and can usually be found for 10 dollars or less per 100 lb. sack.

Play sand is also very affordable and is darker and less uniform in grain size & color than Silica sand. It contains a fair amount of clay and can be quite dirty compared to Silica sand. As long as you take the time to thoroughly rinse the sand it makes a good substrate.

Black Beauty is another affordable sand used for sand-blasting and is sold at home supply/hardware outlets. Its not really sand but powdered iron slag. It can be quite sharp so its not recommended for fish that sift a lot of sand such as Tanganyikan sandsifters. Furthermore, these very fine particles contain iron, which means they are not inert.

Coral Sand is an off white color, lighter than the previous sands, and less uniform. Its a bit rough to the touch but is a good choice if you need to stabilize your PH or improve your buffering capacity. Its fairly expensive compared to the previous types but less than Aragonite.

Aragonite is a sandy substrate available in several colors and grain sizes, its similar to Coral sand as far as buffering goes, so its a good choice if you need help with buffering. Its quite expensive, so you may want to consider another choice if you have a large tank to fill.

Lastly, a newer sand is now available that is a nice black color, very uniform and much safer than Black Beauty. Its Black Tahitian Moon Sand, its a great choice if you want the black sand, but its expensive (similar to Aragonite).

Once youve decided to switch to sand and have picked out the variety, you need to prepare it for the tank. I recommend only a 1-1.5" depth of sand throughout the tank, it can take a lot to maintain a real deep bed and can cause problems which Ill explain later on.

With the exception of "Live Aragonite" (sand thats pre-seeded w/ living organisms/bacteria) youll need to clean your sand. Dont cut corners here; its time well spent. Get a 5 gallon bucket and a garden hose with sprayer attachment. Pour about 2 gallons of sand into the bucket and fill the bucket with water, pour the excess dirt film from the bucket, then really churn the sand while giving it a high pressure spray, this will get most of the dust, etc, off the sand. Pour the dirt film again and repeat until youre pouring clear water. If you choose Play sand or Black Beauty this can take several tries before its clean enough. I get a 30 gallon trash can and line it w/ a couple trash bags to pour the clean sand into. Just repeat this process 2 gallons of sand at a time until you get all the required sand clean.

Fin Organism Iris Fish Marine biology

If youre switching from gravel to sand theres a couple ways to make the switch. If you have a small tank and want to remove the fish while doing the change-over thats fine. Larger tanks w/ a lot of fish is easier if you leave the fish in while changing over. I like using a large filter bag to load the gravel into, you can also use a spaghetti-strainer bowl or nylon hose. Anything thats safe and porous will do. If you dont have much bacteria filtration in your tank you may want to keep some seeded gravel in a filter bag or nylon hose so you can aid your sand substrate in establishing bacteria levels, just put the bag near the filter intake and you should get good results after about 5-7 days.

When the gravel is removed BE SURE to shut down any impeller operated pumps & filters. Youll have a lot of sand floating around and it can really do some damage to your equipment. When adding the sand if youve left your fish in the tank, be careful not to add too much at once. It can clump together and become a "depth charge", splashing a lot of water and stressing the fish, just be patient and careful here. Once your sand is added and youve got it leveled out and the tank arranged to your liking, go ahead and turn on your pumps/filters.

Another thing to keep in mind: If youre cleaning your sand with very cold water, or leave the sand overnight in the cold, the sand can cause a quick temperature drop when added to an existing tank and shock the fish. Be sure to keep the sand in room temp for awhile to get the sand temp back up or add some warmer water to the sand. This usually isnt a problem, but its something you should be aware of.

Water Organism Fin Fluid Fish

Maintaining the sand bed can seem like a challenge to those that havent tried it. Its actually very easy once youve gotten used to it. Heres the procedure I use and its worked well over the years:

Every 2-4 weeks, depending on your fish load and available time, a good skimming of the sand should be performed. A small vinyl hose works well, about the inner diameter of a garden hose. Just hook the hose up to a faucet pump and siphon up the surface detritus. You may siphon a lot of sand the first couple of tries, a little practice is all it takes. Just keep the end of the hose about ½" away from the sand and quickly siphon up the fish waste. No need to remove or re-arrange the rocks, just get all the visible sand areas. Try to get the entire "visible" sand floor.

Every 8-16 weeks, again, depending on fish load, a good churning of the sand bed is required. Trapped food and gasses can become toxic over time and these need to be released periodically. Youll notice that there will be a statification of the sand bed. The bottom "trapped" layer of sand will turn a dark grey-black in time, and once the layer is churned up and the waste & gasses released, it will eventually turn back to the original sand color. Youll even notice a bit of "rotten-egg" odor when churning the bed, this is normal and are just the gasses being released. At this time you should also move rocks and churn the sand under them. You may want to do half the tank at a time so there wont be as much disturbance. Youll have quite a cloud of debris, so youll want to let it settle and do a good skimming again. Be sure to keep all impeller-operated equipment off during the churning procedure.

One last note, when keeping sand in Acrylic tanks, be extra careful when cleaning the surface and using algae-cleaning magnets. A single grain of sand between your cleaning sponge or magnet and the acrylic surface can be very damaging.

Hope you enjoy sand as your substrate!
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