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[draft] Sand as a substrate
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Joined: 12 Jan 2005
Location: Vero Beach, FL

PostPosted: 2005.01.24(Mon)22:29    Post subject: [draft] Sand as a substrate Reply with quote

Sand is not normally thought of as being a good substrate choice, or even a choice at all, but it is actually a sound choice for many aquariums. It is a very natural substance, present in many bodies of water where our fish have once called home. Fish can easily sift through sand, picking up mouthfuls and filtering the particles out through their gills, bottom-dwellers would be given a nice, even bed to rest on as opposed to a substrate made of rough, uneven gravel, and it even prevents wastes from falling any further than the surface. There are several things to consider with sand however, as choosing the wrong type could prove to be a major hassle in the long run.

Types of Sand

Sand is not created equal. There is fine sand and coarse sand, silica sand and play sand, white sand and even black sand. Each has its own properties and behavior in water. Some will cloud the water for months, others will be a model substrate, doing everything it can to stay at the bottom or sink as fast as possible to get back there.

It is ill advised to march into a local home improvement store and come away with a bag of play sand meant for children's sandboxes. This is normally the kind of sand you'd find just about anyplace that carries sand. It's clean, simple, and cheap. However, it is also quite a pain in water. It tends to float lazily in a tank, taking its time in settling to the bottom. It's easily kicked up and clouds the water as soon as it's disturbed. In an aquarium with a filter run with an impellor, this spells disaster. As soon as the sand is disturbed it is liable to get sucked into the filter where it can do a fair amount of damage to an impellor, even stopping it from spinning thus halting your filter. I have firsthand experience in this, and never again will I have a tank with play sand in it. It's a disaster waiting to happen.

Sandblasting/silica sand is a type used by many people who keep substrate sifters and diggers. It doesn't create nearly as much of a problem as play sand, and does not seem to get sucked up by filters. I believe it is heavier and not as fine as play sand, which explains the difference in behavior in the water.

Pool filter sand (PFS): As hard as it may be to find this type of sand, I feel this is one of the best sands out there based on my experience. It's a very heavy type of sand, which is fantastic for tank usage. When poured into the tank, it sinks as though pebbles were poured in. I have sand sifting fish which regularly throw sand all over the tank, including next to the impellor. The sand has yet to get sucked up by my powerful filter. Disturbing the bottom is very similar to stirring gravel; the sand simply moves to the side as opposed to floating into the water column. Even with these wonderful properties, the sand is still fine enough for a small cory to sift through its gills with ease. It's quite natural looking, if only a little on the white side. I'm not sure if other colors are available for this type of sand. Going back to my opening sentence, PFS can be hard to find in hardware stores. Store employees look at me befuddled when I've asked about it and I've had to hunt it up on my own. I found mine in the garden section in a nationwide chain store. The PFS cost me around five dollars for a 50 pound bag. Very reasonable!

Aquarium-purpose sands: Even those most of the above can easily be used in an aquarium, there are sands made specifically for this use. There are sands of varying colors, sands packaged in water that are loaded with beneficial bacteria, and even sands meant for buffering the water. All these sands are excellent aquarium choices but the price will naturally be higher. If purchasing bacteria-inoculated sand, it's often best to pick up one bag of that and mix it with plain sand. Bacteria will rapidly grow to the rest of the sand and the wallet will not be busted. If a darker color is desired, purchasing one bag of colored sand and mixing that with plain sand will also be cost effective while dampening the lightness of plain sand.

Aquarium Maintenance and Sand

Often, people are confused by how to maintain an aquarium which uses sand for a substrate. In aquariums with gravel, a siphon hose can be pushed into the gravel, removing all the wastes while leaving clean gravel behind. This may still be done with sand, but the technique will remove some sand, depending on how well it was rinsed. Sand is a dense substrate, and as such will not allow wastes to seep through the cracks. Feces, uneaten food, and any other debris will settle on the surface, which also makes it easier for filters to take care of. When siphoning, the tube should be brought to just above the surface of the sand and waved around a bit. This will bring currents of water down to the substrate and back up, taking the waste matter with it. It will then get caught up by the siphon. A few particles of sand may get caught as well, but this is unlikely if pool filter sand is used. If PFS is used, it may even sink out of the siphon. Also, with PFS, the siphon tube can be plunged into the sand, allowing all wastes to be removed. Most of the PFS will settle back to the bottom. This also stirs the sand. Stirring the sand is necessary maintenance to prevent gases of decomposition building up, poisoning the fish. Stirring it monthly is all that is needed. Large bottom feeders, digging fish, and sand sifters will also stir the sand. Algae will grow on the sand, but this can be controlled by stirring; the surface layer gets moved to the bottom where algae die from no light and the fresh bottom layer becomes the new surface layer. Stirring can be done with a spoon, siphon tube, toothbrush, or hands. I use my hands so my fingers can give the sand a good swish. When cleaning algae off of the glass or acrylic, care should be taken to prevent sand particles from getting rubbed into the surfaces, causing scratches. I use a toothbrush for cleaning algae off the glass nearest to the sand, preventing any scratches. For the rest, I use an algae magnet scraper, letting the tank portion float now and then to ensure any caught sand particles sink out of the cleaning surface.

Preparing the Sand for the Aquarium

Rinsing sand is a big chore, but well worth it. To make the process easier, choose a brand new bucket or one that's already marked for fish use, acquire a garden hose, and find a spot in the yard that can do with a pile of sand. Fill the bucket a little over halfway with sand, tilt at an angle, and flush with water. Stick the hose deep into the sand and swish it around, remove it and flush the surface, do whatever it takes to flush out every last stray particle. Every so often, stand the bucket up and fill it with water. If the water remains clear, it's ready. If not, keep rinsing! Repeat for each batch of sand.

Notes and Conclusion

It should be noted that a user of a water changing system such as a Python should take extreme care to avoid sucking up sand particles if the siphon hose feeds into the sink. Plumbing and sand do not get along. Rather, run the end of the siphon hose into a bucket or, better yet, outside into a garden. The plants will gladly accept nutrient-rich tank water in exchange for having to deal with stray grains of sand. This will not alter the siphon process at all so long as the whole tube remains lower than the tank.

Plants and sand do work well together. I find that the plants root quite well into the substrate. The sand will need to be sifted around the roots now and then to promote proper aeration as well as to work some wastes into the sand around the roots. Based on articles written about plants and substrates, I don't believe it's the best substrate choice for plants, but it is a good one.

I do hope this dispels some of the fear with using sand. It's a wonderful substrate, the most natual choice, and one that will keep fish busy with sifting and digging for hours.


Please comment, especially with silica/sandblasting sand. I have only used PFS and play sand personally. Other comments/clarifications/concerns are very welcome.
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Joined: 05 Feb 2003
Location: AZ

PostPosted: 2005.01.25(Tue)4:19    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great article! Smile Perhaps you could add something about MTS or other sand stirrer-uppers?
But if you tame me, then we shall need each other....You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery
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Joined: 12 Jan 2005
Location: Vero Beach, FL

PostPosted: 2005.01.25(Tue)12:08    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well I would if I knew what an MTS is Laughing What is that?

Wait, just looked it up in the handy dandy Glossary! I actually have no experience with snails, but I do know they stir the sand. Let me do some reading up on the sand stirring critters and I'll write up a section on that Very Happy

I also have to add something in about grain size.. details details!

Thanks Smile
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