When you buy and set up a new aquarium, choosing the right substrate for it is an essential issue. These days, people alsoselect plants, specific substrates, or gravel for their aquarium to help the plants grow better and faster.

However, cleaning the planted aquarium substrate is as essential as setting up the fish tank substrate. Unfortunately, cleaning a planted aquarium substrate is a tricky function, and it raises some serious controversies among the expert fish keepers and aquarists.

Thus, I have prepared a detailed guideline on how to clean the planted aquarium substrate in the best possible way. Also, our discussion includes the maintenance of the planted substrates, along with their advantages and disadvantages.

Furthermore, we will discuss the cleaning and maintenance of aquasoil based planted tank since it has become an integral part of the fish tank setup.

So, let’s kick off the discussion.

What Is Planted Aquarium Substrate?

A beginner fish keeper and aquarist might not have a proper idea of the planted aquarium substrate. So, let’s clarify the confusion at first.

To put it simply, substrates refer to the soil or ground covering right at the tank bottom. The substrate offers essential nutrients to the plants. It helps the plant grow and absorb the nutrient better and grow steadily.

The planted substrate means that the tank bottom is filled with rich-nutrients such as ammonia.  The substrate is essential to absorb nutrients from the soil for some aquarium plants. It includes various species of carpeting plants, sword plants, cryptocoryne, and Vallisneria. These plants will reach the substrate with the roots and absorb the essential elements through the roots.

However, not all aquarium plants do need a planted substrate. These plants include floating plant species, rhizome plants, and stem plants mostly. These plants will absorb their necessary nutrients from the tank water, not the substrate.

How clean is the tank bottom?


Before you want to know the planting substrate’s cleaning process, you must know when to clean it. And the timing of cleaning the planted substrate will depend on the cleanliness of the tank bottom.

So, you must determine the cleanliness of the aquarium bottom. To be honest, substrates don’t get dirty soon and so, and these elements won’t need cleaning soon. When you set up the aquarium substrate, it will be fresh and neat for the next few weeks.

However, after one or two weeks of the substrate installation, you might look at the aquarium bottom and think, ‘Hey, the water looks cloudy. There’s must be something wrong at the tank bottom…” When you have such feelings, it is time to clean the planted substrate.

Why Is Cleaning Important?

Let’s face it; cleanliness is the route to fish health for an aquarium. And it all starts with the substrate maintenance and cleaning of the fish tank. Usually, some people will tear down the substrate almost yearly.

They often forget about substrate maintenance and find that their plants in the tank are experiencing persistent health issues. So, they are left with no other choice to remove and replace the substrate entirely.

Similarly, if you cultivate rare species that are sensitive and small, regular cleaning of the substrates becomes obvious. It is crucial because without maintaining the tank bottom properly, these susceptible and sensitive plant species might die.

Furthermore, if you have small carpet or tissue cultured plants inside the tank, these plants will melt quickly. Also, these sorts of tank plants catch algae relatively fast, and so, cleaning the substrate regularly becomes even more crucial.

How To Clean Planted Aquarium Substrate

How to Clean Planted Aquarium Substrate

Planting substrates are highly controversial. For instance, installing the expensive, high-end, and nutrient-rich ADA Powersand planting substrate has two open alternatives for you. These options are-

  1. You know what you are doing with the fish tank. It is so because maintaining the planted tank substrate is exceptionally challenging and demanding. It asks you to pay the closest attention almost on a daily basis.
  2. The second option for choosing the planted substrate is a fatal decision, especially when you don’t know its proper usages and maintenance. Unfortunately, many people really don’t see the planting substrate’s applications and buy it for fantasy. They just make a big mistake.

So, when you get the planted substrate inside the fish tank, you will have to clean it without damaging the helpful bacterial colony.

Manufacturers design the planting substrate to trap the essential bacteria and nutrients inside it. The substrate then slowly releases these nutrients and bacteria inside the tank to the plant roots. Also, this type of substrates comes with pre-loaded food and nutrient. In this case, the food for the plants is ammonia.

Ammonia breaks into essential nitrogen to help the plants grow. But when you start cleaning the planting based substrate, it wreaks havoc on the ammonia concentration inside the substrate. When you move the substrate out of the fish aquarium, the ammonia concretion and the rich nutrients will release into the tank water.

Since these nutrients are ideal for plants, algae will form rapidly inside the fish tank, especially on the tank corners and walls.  The algae outbreak is responsible for several algal fish diseases. So, you will have to minimize the ammonia and nutrient deformation inside the tank to ensure fish health when you clean the planted surface.

So, what’s the solution?

Here’s what I have found-

  • You should never clean the substrate before installing it inside the tank. This idea is different from other substrates since most gravels need proper cleaning before putting them inside the fish tank.
  • Once you have installed the planted aquarium substrate, cleaning is essential. But it is not straightforward either.
  • Aqua scrapers and fish keeping experts suggest that you should clean one portion of the planted substrate periodically. They suggest that you should remove, clean, and replace one substrate portion in a cyclic order. The cleaning period might vary from a few weeks to months. It will depend on the dirtiness of the tank and the substrate.
  • You might use a soft sponge to clean the gravel or substrate mildly. It won’t damage the ammonia and nutrient formation of the substrates.
  • Some experts say that you don’t need to clean the planted aquarium substrate at all. But it is highly likely controversial, and I don’t recommend it either.

My Suggestion:

One of my friends uses planted aquarium substrates. He uses a gravel cleaner to wash the substrate. So, I took his advice and tested it personally, too.  I found that when you run the gravel cleaner one inch above the substrates, it collects the majority of the wastage. But it won’t harm the ammonia concentration inside the substrate and fish tank.

Also, move the gravel cleaner mildly to consume the waste and not disturb the substrate formation.

Advantages of planting substrates:

When you use the planting substrate for your fish tank, it ensures the plants’ growth rapidly. Also, it supplies sufficient nutrients to the plant roots so the plant can absorb them properly. Hence, it is ideal for all plant growth.

Also, it consumes ammonia and prevents fish from turning black. So, fish remains safe from ammonia burn and its consequence.

Disadvantages of planting substrates:

Although planted aquarium substrates are excellent for plants growth, it is not free of its disadvantages. Some of its cons include-

  1. If you have a dirty and murky tank or borrowing catfish, the planting substrate will be useless. Even after extensive cleaning, it won’t help you.
  2. The planting substrates come with limited choices for gravel and coloration.

Cleaning Tips for Aquasoil Substrate Based Tank

Over the past few years, aquasoil has become part and parcel of the planted substrate inside the fish tank.  If you have a slow-growing tank or changes the tank substrate annually, maintaining and evolving the aquasoil isn’t so essential.

However, when you plan for a long run with the aquasoil in the aquarium, it is evident that you must maintain and clean it properly. Usually, the fish tank’s maintenance becomes obvious since most aquarists will forget about little care of the fish tanks, and all of a sudden, they would find that the substrate is rotten or has become useless.

Therefore, regular cleaning is essential. It would prevent you from replacing the costly substrate. Also, maintaining the aquasoil will allow the plants to grow better and healthier.

When you use the aquasoil substrate, it helps the build-up of ammonia and nitrogen better. Thus, plants inside the fish tank get a boost in their health. Consequently, they will grow healthily and happily without much issue.

Nonetheless, aquasoil will deplete its rich nutrients roughly in about 6 months to 10 months period. Therefore, cleaning and maintaining it becomes evident for you. If you have a soft tank, setting up the rich nutrients’ buffering will last slightly longer.

In the aquasoil tank, organic materials build up naturally and thus, needs regular cleaning. The growth of organic materials becomes quicker if plants are dying or deteriorating inside the tank. Then, you need to follow these steps to remove the organic materials to clean the aquasoil tanks-

  1. If you have a tank with higher bio-load and faster tank growth, clean it once a week with a soft siphon. High light tanks yield more residues and so need such extensive and regular cleaning.
  2. Tanks with slow-growth and bio-load will work fine with cleaning once every two to three weeks. So, it doesn’t need your extensive care.
  3. When you have an old tank with plants root deep inside the substrate, please give it a deep cleaning at least once a year.
  4. You can either use a finger or a small space to remove the aquasoil. Later use the siphon to collect the detritus to clean it.

Adding fresh aquasoil and ammonia in the substrate:

When you clean the aquasoil or planted substrate-based tanks, you should take the opportunity to add some new aquasoil or ammonia to help the plants grow better. Since aquasoil will be lost its highly-rich nutrients after six months, adding the ammonia helps it bond better.

You need to add the following nutrient or fertilizers inside the aquasoil-

  1. Potassium
  2. Magnesium

Also, picking up the nutrients to feed the plants choose ammonium-based ones over the nitrogen-based ones since they will absorb better and faster with the aquasoil. It is recommended because nitrogen won’t readily blend with the soil and boost algae growth. It can be problematic for fishes at times.

Also, use root tabs without any trace elements to feed the tanks better aquasoil substrate. Again, bury the nutrient deep inside the substrate for better results.

Alternative of planted aquarium substrates:

Since cleaning and maintaining the planting or growing substrate are increasingly demanding, aquarists find alternatives to it. I have discovered Vermiculite or perlite as a wonderful alternative to the growing substrate.

Perlite is made of volcanic rock and is incredibly lightweight. Vermiculate, on the contrary, is made of mica, which is expanded with heat. It has a shiny and flaky appearance. But you must be careful using them since it doesn’t contain the rich nutrients likewise the planting substrates.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Do I really need to clean the tank substrate or gravel?

When you have proper mechanical and biological filtration running inside the tank, it will breakdown the ammonia into useful nitrogen. It will also boost the moderate bacterial colony growth inside the fish tank. So, it is quite possible to run the fish tank even without cleaning the substrates. You may also prefer using a vacuum to collect the plant dirt and solid food from the water.

However, it is recommended that you clean the gravel to prevent harmful bacterial growth inside the tank.

How frequently should I clean the aquarium gravel?

It depends on various aspects of the fish tank. For instance, if you have plant free and small aquarium, dirt will consume faster in it. So, smaller tanks need frequent washing of their gravel. Also, it depends on water change frequency. If you change 10% to 20% of the tank water weekly, you can clean the aquarium gravel and substrates once a month.

Wrapping Up

I honestly aspire that you have got your answer to the aquarium and fishing question, “How to clean planted aquarium substrate?” Although many people prefer using a siphon or vacuum kit to clean the tank gravel, I don’t recommend it. When you use the vacuum cleaner, it will deform the substrate and release the ammonia in the tank water.

Thus, aquarium plants will die, and the fishes will become sickened due to the ammonia burns. Hence, I suggest using a gravel cleaner, just one inch above the substrate to clean it properly.

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