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Aquarium Sand vs Gravel

aquarium sand vs gravel

Two of the most popular substrates you can use in your fish tank are sand and gravel. Whether you are having a new aquarium or just rescaping your fish tank, these two options are the most popular when it comes to the substrate of your aquarium.

But what are the differences between the two substrates? Gravel may be a popular choice for freshwater aquariums, but the sand substrate is a far better choice for specific situations. This article will compare aquarium sand vs gravel in terms of features and benefits it brings to your fish tank.

Features Sand Substrate Gravel Substrate
Physical Appearance Looks Good Looks Good
Color Retains Its Color Tendency to Fade Over Time
Fish Preference Prefered By Most Fish Prefered by Few Fish
Maintenance Frequent Less But Challenging
Plant Preference No Issues No Issues

When it comes to aquascaping in the aquarium, choosing a sand vs gravel aquarium is an important decision the owner must make. Switching from one substrate to the other will need you to break down the entire aquarium setup, which is tricky. So, choosing the suitable substrate you will be using inside your fish tank is a must. Please see below the difference between these two substrates in terms of features and benefits:

Physical Appearance

What do you think looks better? To answer this question depends on your personal preference. However, you need to understand that both substrates have various color varieties in favor of the aquarium owner.

When it comes to the general colors like white, tan, or even black, those colors are a natural part of the sand substrate, which means you will not see any changes in these colors as time passes.

These properties cannot be said the same when it comes to gravel, especially when it is not the normal rock color. In this situation, you will notice the color of the gravel fade over time. Gravels colored in green, yellow, and so on will fade after some time. On the other hand, the sand substrate retains its color a little bit more.

Fish Preference

gravel for planted aquarium

The fish’s health is the most important part of considering your aquarium’s substrate. For the most part, sand is the safe way to go because many of the fish being used in the hobby prefer sand. Those bottom dweller fish like the cory cats, loaches, and plecos usually prefer sand. Furthermore, there is not many fish that like gravel substrate.

Maintenance Aspect

When it comes to the maintenance aspect, you can tell the difference between these two substrates. The gravel substrate has the ability to hide all the fish waste and stuff going down on the bottom of the tank. All this stuff will go in between the pieces of gravel as it masks all the dirt making the maintenance more difficult.

On the other hand, since sand is more compact and tight, most fish waste and other dirt will sit on the surface of the sand. So, when cleaning a gravel substrate, you may not see all the fish waste and the other dirt as it is hidden on the gravel. It also means that having the gravel as a substrate may be challenging, especially in maintenance.

For some people who do not clean their aquarium more often, failing to remove all the waste can lead to a higher nitrate level. A higher nitrate level can also lead to an increase in algae. Having gravel as your substrate will require you to properly remove all the waste to prevent water quality issues in the future.

As for the sand, maintenance can be challenging because it requires you to do the maintenance more frequently than gravel.

Sand or Gravel for Planted Aquarium

sand substrate

What about plants? Do plants have a preference when it comes to the substrate? In our experience, there is no difference between sand and gravel. Some people like sand better than gravel when putting plants in the aquarium, but that is only their personal preference.

Gravel substrate can also grow plants in the aquarium similar to the sand substrate. Most of the plants that are planted in a gravel substrate have no problem growing. I have even experienced growing plants with sand and gravel substrate.

Perhaps, the only advantage of the gravel substrate when dealing with plants is its ability to trap the fish waste for the plant’s consumption. So, you will not be adding root tabs more often because the fish waste trap in the gravel can already help.

Filter Issues

When it comes to the sand substrate, there is a likelihood that the sand ends up in your filtration system because of its lightness. As for gravel, since it has the size and the weight, it may not likely be an issue for your filtration system.

The sand’s likelihood of issues with the filtration system is a little bit higher because of the sand’s lightness. And it can cause the filter to stop running, which is unsuitable for you as an aquarium owner.


Knowing the difference between aquarium sand vs gravel will help you in deciding which is the better substrate will be used for your fish tank. Both substrates have upsides and downsides that will be considered before deciding which one will be used. Whatever you use, make sure that you have already understood what these substrates bring to your aquarium.

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