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Aquarium sand - Advantages, risks, usage & forum

Brief Description

This page is devoted to those who use sand in their aquariums, or to those who are deciding whether to use sand or not. We'd love to hear about your aquarium with sandy bottom, so leave a message at the bottom of this page once you have finished reading the article. If you came here looking for online suppliers of aquarium sand, then click this link, please.


  • Many fishes hail from sandy environments in the wild and will love a sandy substrate in the aquarium. For some species, sand is more or less mandatory, e.g. for bottom feeding fish with delicate barbells adapted for fine sand rather than coarse gravel. There are also many species of fish and invertebrates that likes to hide in sand and some will even dig out burrows. Examples of popular fish that will appreciate a sandy substrate are Tanganyikan featherfins, shelldwellers and sandsifters.
  • Some species will only breed in sandy aquariums.
  • Some species need sand to aid digestion.
  • Sand is an ideal choice for many species of aquatic plants.
  • Since grains of sand are smaller than gravel, there will be more surface area for beneficial bacteria to colonize.

Sandy bottoms occur in the ocean as well as in brackish environments and in freshwater lakes, rivers, streams and ponds and sand is therefore used in all sorts of aquariums.


  • Fine sand is more tightly packed than coarse gravel and it is therefore easier for “dead” pockets without any water circulation to form. Such pockets will become oxygen depleted and no aerobic biological filtration can be carried out there. You can reduce the risk of dead pockets by using only a thin layer of sand. If you wish to use a thick layer of sand, make sure to disturb it frequently. You can also add animals that will disturb the sand for you, e.g. animals that dig tunnels in the sand.
  • If you use a siphon to clean the sand or siphon out water close to the bottom during water changes, the light sand may be sucked up and end up in the bucket.
  • Sand is not recommended for under gravel filter systems.
  • Grains of sand can easily scratch acrylic aquariums, e.g. if some grains end up between the acrylic glass and the magnetic algae scrubber.

Choosing sand

Today, many different types of sand are used in aquariums and it is important to choose an appropriate type because just like gravel, the mineral content of sand may affect the water chemistry in the aquarium. Colour and grain size must also be taken into consideration. A shy fish kept in a well-lit aquarium can for instance feel less threatened if you switch from bright, reflective sand to a darker variety. If you wish to keep fish with soft bellies, such as rays, you should try to find really soft, fine sand that won’t cause any injury.

Well stocked aquarium shops will typically offer at least six different sand types: silica/blasting sand, black beauty/powdered iron slag, play sand, coral sand, aragonite and black Tahitian moon sand. Play sand can also be purchased from home supply stores and similar since it is used in sand boxes and for brickwork.

Silica sand

Silica sand is used by the sand blasting industry and is therefore also known as blasting sand. It is comparatively cheap and you can normally get 100 lbs for roughly $10 in the United States. It has a pale tan colour and the grain size is extremely fine.

Black beauty sand

Black beauty sand is also used by the sand-blasting industry and can be purchased in home supply stores. It is not naturally occurring sand; it is powdered iron slag. The iron will affect the chemistry of your aquarium and this must of course be taken into consideration. Powdered iron slag can have pretty sharp edges and is therefore not the best choice for species continuously sift sand.

Play sand

Compared to silica sand, play sand is more heterogeneous when it comes to grain size and colour. It is normally darker than silica sand and contains quite a lot of clay. Play sand is inexpensive; it is sold in large quantities to people who use it to fill up entire sand boxes.

Coral sand

Coral sand is made from corals and is typically used in aquariums where there is a need to keep the pH-value high (alkaline) and the water hard. It is more expensive than silica sand, iron slag and play sand, but less expensive than aragonite. Coral sand is usually white with a heterogeneous grain size.

Aragonite sand

Aragonite comes in many different colours and grain sizes and is one of the most expensive types of sand. Just like coral sand, aragonite can help you adjust the pH-value and water hardness in the aquarium.

Tahitian sand

Another example of comparatively expensive sand is the beautiful, but costly, black Tahitian moon sand. Black Tahitian moon sand is commonly used to make colourful fish look even more flamboyant in aquariums, since their flashy colouration will contrast sharply against the black sand. Unlike black beauty, back Tahitian moon sand is not made from iron slag.


When you have decided which sand that is best for your aquarium it is time to prepare it. Unless you use live sand, the sand should be thoroughly cleaned before being added to the tank. One commonly used method is to simply place 2 gallons of sand in a 5 gallon bucket and fill the bucket with water, ideally by using a hose with a sprayer attachment to make the water stir up the sand really well. High pressure spraying will help you remove as much debris as possible. A dirt film will form and should be promptly removed from the water. Continue to spray and remove dirt until the water is clear.

When you have filled the aquarium with sand, it is time to add the water. In order to avoid the water beam from splashing sand everywhere and forming a crater in the substrate, you can place a saucer on top of the sand and let the water beam hit the saucer instead of the sand.

Do not turn on pumps and filters until the sand has settled in the aquarium, because equipment may jam if you turn it on when there is still a lot of sand floating around in the water.


Generally speaking, it is a good idea to vacuum the sand every 2-4 weeks. (There are naturally exceptions.) You only have to siphon up surface detritus. During the first few tries it is common to involuntarily siphon up at lot of sand, but practise makes perfect. Just keep the end of the siphon roughly half an inch over the sand.

It is advisable to church the sand 3-6 times per year, especially if you don’t have animals that will churn the sand for you. Without churning, large pockets of toxic gas can form inside the sand bed, especially if it more than 1.5 inches thick. The sand will also stratify (form layers) over time. Churning releases a lot of debris so a good vacuuming is recommended afterwards. Always turn pumps and filters off before churning and wait for everything to settle before you turn them on again.

You don’t have to move stones and other decorations when you vacuum, but it is a good idea to move them while churning to make sure that no gas is trapped under them.

What is live sand?

Live sand is sand with living organisms in it. In some cases, the living organisms will only be added bacteria, but “true” live sand is filled with the same variety of life forms that you would encounter in the wild. Live sand is typically used in marine aquariums to create a more well functioning ecosystem. Unlike other types of sand, live sand should not be cleaned before use because cleaning it may harm the inhabitants.

Source: AC Tropical Fish & Aquarium

Online suppliers

Here below is a list of companies/websites that sell sand for fish tanks. If any of these links doesn't work any more, let us know via the form that is at the bottom of this page, please.

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