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Old 10-19-2008, 03:48 PM   #1
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Question About Sand Substrates

I recently purchased my first aquarium since leaving home and I was interested in using sand instead of gravel. We always had an aquarium at home but it was gravel so neither my father nor I know much about the advantages and disadvantages of using which types of sand.

I've read several pages on why to/not to use sand but when it comes to the different types I'm getting confused. I live in a very small town so all of my supplies are generally ordered from www.bigalsonline.ca and they have several kinds of sand available. I see several types of "live" sand but am wondering if these are meant only for saltwater setups? (Mine is going to be a fresh water setup). One type of the live sand is Carib Sea Ocean Direct which sounds as though it's intended for saltwater tanks but the Carib Sea Aragonite Alive sand doesn't really specify? There is also different grain sizes which im thinking will depend on the type of fish I plan on having? Or if non of those live sands are an option then I am left with my choice of either Agramax, Reef Sand or Tahitian Moon Sand.

So any help you guys can give me would be greatly appreciated. I have a 29 gallon tank with a beautiful large peice of driftwood I'm going to use, and I plan on puchasing some decorative rocks and silk plants as well. I'm not totally decided on the type of fish but I leaning towards having community fish (angels, swordtails, tetra's, neon's, catfish, etc).

Thanks so much!
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Old 10-19-2008, 04:08 PM   #2
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You will want to stay away from live sand. Basicly all it is is a salt water bacteria haven. If you insist on going with sand, look into petsmarts moonsand. It comes in black.. or if you want a different color, you can use a tan'ish sand used for pool filters. Either way works.

Disadvantages of sand is you have to stur it constantly.. otherwise you get pockets of sulpher, which makes your aquarium smell like a pond rather than a aquarium... that and its almost inpossible to gravel vac it.. so it all has to be done by hand. and i dont know about you, but id prefer my fish gills not to be full of sand, because of sturring it to release stuff into the water.
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Old 10-19-2008, 04:27 PM   #3
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another option if petsmart is not available to you or they dont carry it is to use pool filter sand. any pool supply store carries it and many of the members use it.
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Old 10-19-2008, 05:03 PM   #4
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As others mentioned, "live sand" is a big no-no. It is full of live saltwater bacteria and if you put that in a freshwater tank, all the bacteria will die, decay, and create a bit ammonia-spikey-mess. Avoid!

Now, as for sands, you actually have a lot of options before you, which I would put into three basic categories.

  1. Inert Sands - by far the most common option in this category is the ever-talked-about pool filter sand (PFS). The advantage here is a very cheap cost and nearly ubiquitous availability. PFS tends to be a little larger-grained than children's play sand, which is why it is preferred--the larger grains means it settles to the bottom of the tank much easier and doesn't cloud your water nearly so much. Depending upon the source, PFS can range in color from bright white to off-white to tan, so a disadvantage here is sometimes it takes extra effort to find the right one if you really want a certain color. Another popular choice at least here in the US would be 3M Colorquartz T-Grade, which comes in a variety of colors and is, again, ever-so-slightly larger in size than normal sand. It can be hard to find, though, as usually it is only carried by building supply contractors and those sorts of businesses--and like (most) PFS, it comes in 50 lb. bags as the smallest size available.
  2. Inert Aquarium Sands - SeaChem, CaribSea, and RedSea/Estes all make various sorts of inert sands in differing colors and sometimes grain sizes. These tend to be significantly more expensive than PFS but also can give you the exact color and grain size you are looking for. One of the most popular of these is Tahitian Moon Sand (TMS), which is a striking black color with these little reflective specs in it.
  3. Planted Tank Aquarium Sands - SeaChem makes a couple sands that are nutrient-loaded and designed for planted tanks. Flourite Black Sand is a smaller-sized version of their standard Flourite Black gravel, and is a nice black color. Onyx Sand is another one they make, that one is a medium to dark grey color but unlike the Flourite sand, Onyx sand also buffers the water up in the alkaline range. Not as much as a pure aragonite would, but it definitely boosts the pH some. Obviously if you have plans to use live plants in your tank, having a nutrient-loaded substrate is a helpful (though certainly not necessary) thing. However, because these are specialized substrates, they tend to be a little more on the expensive side (though, honestly, usually not much more than the specialty inert substrates like Tahitian Moon Sand, and sometimes they are the same price).

Like I said, those are your main options. I've used PFS, I've used TMS, and currently I have two tanks with the Flourite Black Sand. I like all of them in different ways.

A small note, I would avoid using a pure aragonite substrate unless you have a good reason to. Aragonite will buffer your water all the way up around pH 8 or even perhaps higher (more or less, depending upon what sort of water comes out of your tap), which is a bit high for most community fish. I would only suggest using it if you are setting up a specific tank with fish that want a high pH (certain cichlids, etc.)

P.S. -- I just checked Big Als Canada website, they carry the Flourite Black Sand, Tahitian Moon Sand, and Onyx sand, at the very least. So that gives you several good options from Big Als, at least.

P.P.S. -- A few other thoughts about questions/issues raised:

  • In most cases, it is good to keep a sand substrate stirred in order to avoid anoxic pockets from developing, leading to hydrogen sulfide gas which not only smells bad, but can kill all of the wildlife in your tank. One can choose to do this by hand periodically, or one could get creatures to do this for you--MTS (Malaysian Trumpet Snails). I highly encourage the latter. The snails spend most of the daytime burrowing through your sand, which keeps it mixed up and thus constantly re-oxygenated. The snails will also help clean up uneaten bits of food.
  • Having used sands of various sorts in many tanks for many years, I can't honestly say I've ever seen sand get in fishes' gills. I suppose if you had a very fine sand and you really, really churned it up it could happen, but I don't think it's something to be concerned about.
  • Some creatures (cory catfish, most loaches, some species of inverts) really love to dig around in sand. This makes it a more attractive option than gravel for tanks where you might someday have these guys.
  • Sands (of any sort), in general, are better for growing plants than gravels are. Now, that certainly doesn't apply 100% of the time, and certainly very fine grained sands could cause compaction of roots in some plants, but the slightly-larger-than-normal sands that I listed above tend to be the perfect size for plant roots. Whereas once you get into gravels, some plants really struggle, and if the gravel size is too large, many plants can't get enough of a "grip" to grow at all. Even if you aren't considering live plants right now, it's always best to design things now to leave yourself open for as many possibilities as possible in the future.
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Old 10-19-2008, 05:30 PM   #5
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Thanks so much for the information everyone

Do you find the sand difficult to keep clean in comparison to gravel? I know I prefer the look of sand in an aquarium but I also work full time and go to university at night, so if I'm being realistic if having a sand substrate is going to be vastly more work than gravel I'm not sure if I'll have time to fuss with it constantly. At least not at this point, but if it's not much more work and isn't going to endanger my filtration system then I would prefer to have the sand.

ETA: One last question, I've also read various pro's and con's to a shallow sand bed vs. a deeper one, how much sand would youguys recommend? So that I ensure I order enough pounds of sand, I think it comes in 20lb bags.
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Old 10-19-2008, 08:45 PM   #6
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Thanks so much for the information everyone

Do you find the sand difficult to keep clean in comparison to gravel? I know I prefer the look of sand in an aquarium but I also work full time and go to university at night, so if I'm being realistic if having a sand substrate is going to be vastly more work than gravel I'm not sure if I'll have time to fuss with it constantly. At least not at this point, but if it's not much more work and isn't going to endanger my filtration system then I would prefer to have the sand.

ETA: One last question, I've also read various pro's and con's to a shallow sand bed vs. a deeper one, how much sand would youguys recommend? So that I ensure I order enough pounds of sand, I think it comes in 20lb bags.

yes
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Old 10-19-2008, 08:48 PM   #7
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yes
yes to which question? Yes it's alot more work?
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Old 10-19-2008, 09:02 PM   #8
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its absolutely more work.. its harder to keep clean.. gravel.. requires a gravel vac... sand requires a gravel vac.. stur up the sand, and then gravel vac it.. clean the gravel vac cause it gets sand in the butterfly.. then repeat... not fun at all.
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Old 10-19-2008, 09:20 PM   #9
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Generally the depth of the sand (or any substrate for that matter) should be determined by whether or not you're planning to have live plants. Without live plants it's better to stick to 1-1.5" or less, but with live plants you'll want closer to 3".

When cleaning sand, you shouldn't be getting any sand in the gravel vac. Since most of the detris should rest on top it should be possible to simply wave the gravel vac above the sand to pick it up without the sand. If you've got some detris that is settling into the sand, then you can pick up some plastic canvas (found in the craft section) and cut it and roll it to fit into your gravel vac about an 1" past the end. The holes in the plastic canvas will allow you to stir the sand without sucking it into the gravel vac. You can adjust the length to increase or decrease the suction.

I've currently got sand in my pico, and I find that it is no more work than when it had Turface (similar to Flourite or Onyx). While I don't use a gravel vac on it, I do use a Turkey baster for water changes so there are similar issues. I love how much better the HC roots in it.
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Old 10-19-2008, 09:21 PM   #10
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I haven't found sand to be any more difficult to work with than gravel. You just move the gravel vac above the surface of the sand, and most of the junk comes up without disturbing the sand.

I stir sand with my fingers at water changes and also keep loaches and Malaysian trumpet snails to keep the sand aerated. I love my loaches, and they are much happier in sand than with gravel.
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Old 10-19-2008, 09:52 PM   #11
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Thanks again for all the information I do have a smaller syphon, but would it be better have purchase a battery powered vaccum something like this: http://www.bigalsonline.ca/BigAlsCA/...ygravelcleaner

or is this more what I should purchase:
http://www.bigalsonline.ca/BigAlsCA/...avelvacuum25ft

Either way the one I have isn't large enough for this aquarium so I will need to purchase a larger vac.

Thanks again for all the info, it's greatly appreciated!
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Old 10-19-2008, 09:52 PM   #12
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my loaches wouldnt touch the sand after about 3 weeks.. it would pull up sulpher bubbles and actually killed one of them =(
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Old 10-19-2008, 09:54 PM   #13
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In some ways I have found sand easier to deal with than gravel. All the detritus tends to gather on the surface of the sand, so you just wave the gravel vac over the surface and suck up all the detritus and leave the sand undisturbed.

The only time this doesn't work well is if you have some really active fish or something who are really churning it up.
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Old 10-19-2008, 10:13 PM   #14
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I have yet to hear of a single person actually liking a battery powered vac. I'd say just buy the larger gravel vac if you need one.
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Old 10-19-2008, 10:16 PM   #15
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Ok great Thanks!! You guys have all helped so much.
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Old 10-19-2008, 11:16 PM   #16
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Buy a python for gravel vacuuming. I would not be without one ever again. It attaches directly to the faucet and makes water changes a breeze. You will never lug a bucket again.
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Old 10-20-2008, 07:42 AM   #17
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Alright will do. So how frequently do you need to stir up the sand yourself if you have the snails? Someone said every water change, but how frequently should I be doing water changes? I'm sure that's stickied somewhere can someone point me in that direction please? Thanks again
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Old 10-20-2008, 08:08 AM   #18
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Normally the rule is 10% water change every week.

Some do more like 20-25% weekly. Some do like 25% every 2 weeks.

Then people with planted and fertilized tanks, follow a method which requires 50% water changes weekly
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Old 10-20-2008, 08:37 AM   #19
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Alright will do. So how frequently do you need to stir up the sand yourself if you have the snails?
If you have MTS burrowing in your substrate, then you don't need to do any additional stirring of it at all. The MTS will do all of your work for you.
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Old 10-20-2008, 01:10 PM   #20
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generall rule of thumb on calculating substrate would be 2lb per gallon. BUT, ive personally always found that to be ALOT Of FRIGGIN SUBSTRATE.

my tank is a 55 gal and i use 75lbs.

also, i beleive, if you have a planted tank it may b different. not sure though.
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