Sand or gravel for the aquarium?

Sand or gravel is the question here. Whoever buys an aquarium will sooner or later face this question. In the forums there are lively discussions when it comes to the topic, sometimes you can call it a dispute. Both aquarium floors offer their advantages and disadvantages. Basically sand is a fine-grained gravel. Up to a grain size of 2mm one speaks of sand.

Sand and gravel what are they good for?

The substrate plays a central role in the biosystem of the aquarium. It collects and provides nutrients, filters the water and gives the plants a foothold. But sand and gravel are also an important medium for fish. So there are fish species that need a certain grain size. There are different aspects which should be considered when choosing.

The habitat

The best way to see how the aquarium inhabitants live in nature. The better you imitate this environment, the more comfortable the creatures feel. You should urgently avoid two types of sand. Sharp-edged gravel can hurt fish and shrimps that are searching for food at the bottom. Game box sand is partially enriched with fungicides, which means your fish and plants will die. So keep your hands off and reach for the right aquarium sand. So make sure you know which substrate or grain size your pets prefer or need. Below you will find more information about this.

The price as a factor

Often one reads that one or the other aquarist wants to save money and therefore has chosen either sand or gravel. I cannot understand this in any way. A 25 kilo bag is already available from 10 Euro. I think everyone who has bought a tank and knows the costs of the other necessary accessories and inhabitants should quickly realize that the substrate for the aquarium is probably the smallest factor. Both grounds are also available in color, this one is of course much more expensive than normal ground.

Which substrate do plants find better?

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I often read that plants grow better in gravel. I cannot confirm this and I do not see any good argument why this should be the case. I have read that plants with strong roots find little space in the sand and are less able to absorb nutrients. I cannot confirm this in my sand basins. The strong roots have enough power to displace the soil. The plants are healthy and they also grow in the sand, so I can’t see any lack of nutrients.

However, it is true that plants with very fine roots often need sand to get the necessary hold. It’s also true that plants only need the substrate for support and nutrients reach the roots well, especially with gravel. But since you are not a plant breeder, almost all plants can absorb a large part of the nutrients through their leaves and you just want to have a beautiful planting, you can fall back on sand without worries.

Advantages of sand and gravel

As already mentioned, every substrate has its advantages and disadvantages. So that you don’t have to read the whole text, here is a summary of the main points:

Advantages of sand

  • easier to clean
  • least risk of injury to animals
  • the habitat of most fish and plant species comes closest
  • certain fish can flush their gills
  • Obligation for burrowing animals
  • Some species spawn here

Disadvantages of sand

  • Nutrients get to the root less easily
  • may putrefy
  • Turbulence when refilling water
]Food remains, plant remains and fish excrements remain on the surface when sand
is present.
This makes cleaning much easier. With a mulching bell or a hose you simply suck the dirt away and the floor stays on the ground because of its weight. If you have bought real aquarium sand, it does not pose a risk of injury. Almost all fish and plant species can cope with sand and you imitate the habitat of most fish species.

Advantages gravel

  • Nutrients reach the root easily
  • does not rot

Disadvantages Gravel

  • more time-consuming cleaning
  • Plants with fine roots find no hold

Soil dwelling animals

Arguments for fine bottom: There are various fish that live close to the bottom - one speaks of gundeling and digging fish. Many catfish for example appreciate very fine aquarium sand. This can easily be ploughed through and dug up. Fish can flush their gills with it and many fish species chew the sand while feeding, which can be seen in the following video of the butterfly cichlid. But also fish, shells and snails that dig in are dependent on a fine bottom. Some fish species lay their eggs in it.


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Shrimps and crabs, for example, do not like the ground to be too fine but also do not like coarse gravel. In search of food they turn over larger grains of sand. For most community aquariums with different inhabitants a grain size of approx. 1 mm is chosen.

When will the decision finally be made?

As you can see the answer to the big question is not so easy to find. With aquarium sand you cannot do much wrong and you have less maintenance effort. Most fish and plant species don't care which soil you use. By the way, the question is not at all either or, you can furnish your tank with gravel and build a sand island. Simply place a bowl in the gravel and fill it. You will now also find out which inhabitants would have preferred not to have gravel 🙂 In case of doubt, always look where the animals and plants come from and what kind of soil they have available in nature. Nature has adapted all living beings perfectly to their environment, so you can't go wrong.

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