How To Clean Aquarium Gravel (Step-by-Step)

Let’s not beat around the bush. Fish and other aquarium inhabitants are constantly putting off waste in the forms of urine and feces. 

I know, kinda gross, but they really don’t have a choice in the matter.

These wastes settle in the gravel, rotting, and putting off nitrates that foul your water. Creating the perfect environment for detritus worms to thrive in huge numbers. 

Using a gravel vacuum to clean out your substrate removes these wastes and helps to keep your water within healthy parameters.

This guide walks you through exactly how to clean your aquarium gravel.

How to Clean Aquarium Gravel

Gravel vacuuming aquarium

Don’t worry, it’s not hard at all to get the gunk out of your substrate.

In fact, gravel is the easiest kind of aquarium substrate to clean. 

I recommend cleaning your aquarium gravel as thoroughly as possible every week when you perform water changes

For a more in-depth article on aquarium cleaning, see this article.

Here’s the equipment and steps for  cleaning the gravel in your fish tank:


  • Gravel vacuum
  • Buckets
  • Towels for spills


  1. Unplug all your equipment and remove your lids and lights.
  2. Get a siphon going and begin to drain water into your bucket.
  3. Push the lift tube on the gravel vacuum down into the gravel until it hits the bottom glass. You’ll see a plume of fish poop and detritus billow up.
  4. Pick up the lift tube to dump the gravel back out and press the lift tube into the next patch of gravel. Repeat this process in all the open areas of the tank.
  5. Keep going until you’ve drained 50% of the water in the tank.
  6. Refill as you normally would. Be sure you add water conditioner. 


  • Don’t be in a rush. Let the cleaned gravel fall back out so it doesn’t build up in the tube.
  • If you have plants rooted in the gravel, proceed with caution around them. Don’t push the lift tube all the way to the bottom. Just push in a little bit so you don’t disturb the roots.
  • Kink the drain hose if you need to slow the suction down some in tight corners of the tank.
  • The dirty tank water is great for watering plants. There are lots of nutrients in it. Aquarium water is basically mild liquid fertilizer. You can fill up watering cans or even attach a long hose to your gravel vacuum that drains out into your garden.

Vacuuming Gravel Isn’t Hard

There is no need to be intimidated about cleaning your aquarium gravel. It’s very easy and simple.

Vacuuming your tank’s gravel will help eliminate solid wastes that have become trapped down in the substrate. Getting rid of these wastes before they rot in the tank really improves water quality and helps keep your livestock healthy.

This will also keep detritus worm populations under control.

I hope you find this article helpful.

I wish you and your fish the very best!

Katherine Morgan
Katherine Morgan

Hey, there! I'm Katherine from Northwest Florida. A nunchuck specialist, I've kept aquariums for over two decades, enjoy experimenting with low-tech planted setups and an avid South American cichlid enthusiast. If You'd like to see more of my tanks, check out my Instagram

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