Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

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wheelbarrowsand PetAquariums Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

When I started my first aquarium I was blown away by all of the different types of fish and substrate you can have in your aquarium. My wife loves sandy beaches, so I was really interested in sand as my substrate. However, I was also surprised at the cost of sand that is specially made for aquariums.

I exhausted myself doing research so let me tell you if you want cheap aquarium sand, you should choose from one of the following:

Play Sand

Pool Filter Sand

Blasting Sand

Sand from the Beach

CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium and Aragonite Sand

I know this sounds crazy but hear me out. Sand that is specially made for your aquarium is pretty pricy. It is going to cost you a dollar per pound. With that being said, let me explain why these other sands are so cheap and how you can use them in your aquarium.

Play Sand

50 LB Premium Grade Quikrete Play Sand for Sandbox, Craft Sand, and General Kids Play Sand Usage. Included with a Sheet of Summer Stickers by Home and Country USA

Play sand is really meant to be put in a sandbox for your kiddos. But hey, your fish need to have fun too right? Why not make them a sandbox at the bottom of their aquarium? Anyways, at some point, someone, somewhere, got the idea to use play sand for their aquarium.

The most popular is a 50 LB. bag of ‘Quikrete’ play sand from Home Depot. If there is no Home Depot where you live just find your local hardware store and ask for play sand. You can also find it here on Amazon.

Most types of play sand will work for your aquarium as long as you clean the sand, but we will discuss that later. For now, just get that big bag of play sand.

The biggest advantage to play sand is the price. Also, some people like the way that it looks like natural sand.

Some of the disadvantages are the amount of time it takes to clean it and the grain size of the sand. Play sand is notorious for getting sucked up into gravel vacuums and tank filters. However, it is not as difficult to solve these problems as people might think.

To keep sand from getting inside your filter, just buy something called a pre-filter. A prefilter is basically a piece of foam that you stick on the water intake which is where the water flows into your filter. This will keep the sand from getting into your filter.

AQUANEAT 6-Pack Pre-Filter Sponge for Aquarium Shrimp Fry Fish Tank Filter 0.8” Intake, Replacement Foam Cover

When you are vacuuming your play sand, skim over the surface with your gravel vacuum. Don’t push the end of your gravel vacuum down into the sand. It is called a gravel vacuum for a reason. Also, keep one hand on the hose so if you do see sand being sucked up your gravel vacuum, you can quickly crimp the hose and let the sand fall back into your aquarium.

If you don’t like the look of play sand just keep reading and choose a different sand that is cheap.

The most important reason to buy play sand is that it will cost around 10 cents per pound versus a dollar per pound. Play sand isn’t the greatest but is probably the cheapest. When you first start an aquarium, you are going to have a lot of initial costs for equipment, fish, and food.

If your tank is big enough it could cost you between fifty and a hundred dollars for enough sand to put in your aquarium. If you keep saving money like this during the entire aquarium buying process, you could end up saving hundreds of dollars.

Special Note: Play sand is so thin-grained that it can trap a lot of gas beneath its surface. To keep this from happening just run your fingers through the sand at least once a week. This will release any gas bubbles from being trapped. Once released from the sand, the gas bubbles will float up through the water and into the atmosphere.

Pool Filter Sand

HTHPoolFilterSand PetAquariums Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

Next up is pool filter sand. Pool filter sand’s original purpose is to put in the filter for a swimming pool. The grains are more uniformly shaped because it is designed to let water pass through while keeping most dirt and detritus out of your pool (this is why the grains are thicker than play sand).

A lot of people will spend just a few dollars more for a 50 LB. bag of pool filter sand for several reasons. Some people like the way that pool filter sand looks.

The advantages of pool filter sand over play sand are:

It is easier to clean the first time (though not by much). Pool filter sand simply just isn’t as dirty as play sand. It really isn’t a big deal though because you clean play and pool filter sand the same way. It really comes down to which one you like the appearance of more.

It is easier to gravel vacuum. Again, the difference is not much here but play sand is finer in size than pool filter sand. It is a little easier to gravel vacuum but not by much.

The grains are more uniformly shaped. This makes the appearance different than play sand so some people like the appearance of pool filter sand better than play sand.

You can buy 20 mesh or higher. If you buy pool filter sand for your aquarium, you should buy 20 mesh or higher. It should say the mesh size on the bag.

To explain what this means picture a one-inch piece of square mesh. It would have 20 squares in it and the sand grains would barely pass through the spaces.

The bigger grain size is what makes the pool filter sand easier to vacuum. The grain size is still small enough that gas can get trapped beneath the surface. Like the play sand, you just need to run your fingers through the sand once a week to release any gas that is trapped beneath the surface.

Why Does Gas Get Trapped?

If you know anything about aquariums, you have heard about the nitrogen cycle. This starts with a fish going to the bathroom. Their poop doesn’t have anywhere to go so it is trapped in the aquarium. It starts out as ammonia and when it goes through a regular filter it is changed into nitrites.

Nitrites are still harmful to your fish. The poopy water also has to go through a filter with beneficial bacteria that turn the poopy water into nitrates. Nitrates aren’t harmful to your fish as long as too many aren’t accumulated.

This is why fish keepers do water changes – to keep the nitrate level down.

Anyways the poop usually finds its way to the bottom of your tank where some of the nitrogen can leak beneath the surface of your substrate – which in this case would be sand. Once beneath the surface, the nitrogen is deprived of oxygen again, so it becomes only nitrogen by itself.

Nitrogen by itself is a gas. Gases will float into the atmosphere unless they are held up by something, in this case, your sand. All you have to do is run your fingers through your sand to release the gases which can be harmful to your fish.

Blasting Sand

BlackBeautySand PetAquariums Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

What?! Yes, it is called blasting sand and you can use it in your aquarium. I know it sounds crazy but keep reading.

Blasting sand’s original purpose is to be used in a sandblaster. The sandblaster is usually used to polish rough surfaces of metal that have rust or corrosion.

This sand barely costs more than play or pool filter sand. You can still get a 50 LB—bag for less than 20 dollars.

The most popular brands to use are Black Diamond and Black Beauty blasting sand. They are black and some people prefer this color in the bottom of their aquarium as opposed to the other sands mentioned above.

It really depends on what hardware store you have available to shop at and what brands they carry.

It is better to start out with coarse grit sand like 20/40 in your aquarium. As mentioned above it will be easier to gravel vacuum your sand. The coarse grain is better, especially for bigger fish, so they won’t cloud up your water.

If you are going to plant live plants in your aquarium, a finer grain sand of 30/60 can be used so that it will be easier to plant your plants. However, if you don’t want the inconvenience of being difficult to gravel vacuum just stick with the coarser sand.

Also, if you have a saltwater tank there will be more water flow in the bottom of your tank so will need the coarser sand.

Sand From the Local Beach

BeachSand PetAquariums Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

Wow! Yes, you can use sand from your local beach. First, you will need to check your county laws or ask someone who works at the beach if you are allowed to take sand. Some states or counties prohibit it.

I read through the grapevine somewhere it is because some of the beaches are already getting smaller from erosion. So authorities don’t want everyone in the neighborhood filling their pickup bed full of sand to take home to their backyard sandbox that they are setting up for their kiddos. Do you get my drift (no pun intended)?

Anyways, once you get the go-ahead to get some sand, go far away from the water. You want to find some sand that has been sitting in the sun for days because you don’t want all of the salt that’s in it. You probably want to go at least 200 feet away. This isn’t as important for a saltwater tank of course but if you have a freshwater tank you don’t want a bunch of salt in it.

Also, if you get some sand far enough away from the water, skim the surface when you are collecting it. This way you are getting sand that has been baking for days so you won’t have to boil it.

However, for the sake of safety and going the extra mile, I’ll explain how to completely sanitize your beach sand.

How to Clean Beach Sand

It is easier to use non-powdered latex gloves when rinsing sand so you can reach in and stir the sand yourself without getting grits underneath your fingernails.

Once you get your beach sand home, make sure you have at least a couple of five-gallon buckets, a strainer/sieve, and some cookie sheets or casserole dishes.

Always make sure when you are using buckets or other equipment that it is equipment solely dedicated for use in your aquarium. If you don’t, you risk getting chemicals in your aquarium.

Set your strainer or sieve across the top of the bucket and scoop your sand into the strainer/sieve so that it sifts the bigger pebbles and other junk out of the sand before it falls down into the water.

You want to throw out the bigger pebbles and other junk that get sifted out of your sand.

Once the bucket is about half full of sand and water fill it with water (a water hose works perfectly) and let the water overflow. While the water is flowing sir up the sand (a stick or broom handle works great) every 20-30 minutes. You want the water to overflow until it flows clearly even after stirring it.

Once the water flow is clear, constantly stir the sand while the water is flowing to get rid of the bleach. You should be able to tell when the bleach smell is gone.

Once the bleach smell is gone you can dump the water and leave the bucket on its side to let any remaining water drain out.

Put your sand on the cookie sheets or casserole dishes and bake it at around 350 for 3-3.5 hours until it is very dry. This will kill any microorganisms or ‘bad stuff’ that can harm your aquarium culture.

Voila! Your beach sand is considered safe and ready for your aquarium.

How to Clean Play and Pool Filter Sand

All of these cheap sands that you get are not made for aquarium use like the expensive aquarium sands. They are going to have a lot of stuff that you need to rinse out before you put the sand into your aquarium.

I explained how to clean beach sand first because it is in a class by itself. It has never been cleaned except for rainwater running through it.

Play and pool filter sand have both been cleaned to a certain extent because of their intended use. Since you are going to be using these sands in a different manner than their intended use, you are going to have to rinse them thoroughly before you put them in your aquarium.

Play and pool filter sand are both cleaned the same way just by rinsing them.

Fill a 5-gallon bucket half full of sand. It is preferred to use a sprayer on the end of a water hose.

Shove the sprayer down into the sand as far down as you can get it and turn the water on. The sprayer puts more water pressure into the sand.

Let the bucket fill up and overflow. The water that overflows will be dirty at first. Just let it run and keep stirring the sand until the water that overflows is coming out clear while you are stirring the sand.

Once the water is coming out clear, the sand is ready to put into your aquarium. Simple as that.

How to Clean Blasting Sand

Blasting sand is a bit different. It has some oil in its sand grains, unlike the other sands. It is pretty much rinsed the same as play and pool filter sand, but you need to rinse it with hot water to get the oil out.

Since you need to rinse it with hot water, it is easier to rinse it in your bathtub versus outside like the other sands.

It is the same concept as the other sands. Just fill a bucket half full of sand and let the water overflow until it flows clear while you are stirring the sand. Once the water flows out clear it is ready to put in your aquarium.

CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium and Aragonite Sand, 10 lbs.

Now that we’ve gone through the extremely cheap sands that you will have to spend extra time preparing for your aquarium, there is another option that is easier than all of the options listed above.

There are actually readymade aquarium sands available that aren’t going to cost you a dollar per pound. You will have to look around but two that I know of are CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium and Aragonite Sand, 10 lb. bags that are available at Petco for less than $20. This is going to cost you around $2 per pound, but it won’t take near as long to rinse although you still have to rinse it.

CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand, 10 lbs.

CaribSeaSand PetAquariums Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

CaribSea Super Naturals sand is premium aquarium sand that is pH neutral and will not increase carbonate hardness. Unique sand-sized grains resist the collection of detritus, fish waste, and food within the substrate bed. Makes maintenance easy.

  • Keeps water crystal clear.
  • Maintains proper pH levels.
  • Does not contain toxic metal impurities, petroleum residues, or pesticides.
  • Resists packing channeling and anaerobic “Dead Spots” beneath rocks and coral.

CaribSea Aragonite Aquarium Sand, 10 lbs.

CaribSeaArgonite PetAquariums Cheap Aquarium Sand: Aquarium on a Budget

CaribSea Aragonite Aquarium sand is an ideal aquarium substrate for marine, reef or african cichlid aquariums. It helps maintain proper pH of 8.2 without the use of chemicals. Has incredible surface area, up to 100,000 sq. inches per pound.

  • Small, smooth grains are fish-friendly.
  • Perfect for Rays or other bottom-dwelling fish and invertebrates.
  • Proven to reduce nitrates better than regular aquarium gravel.
  • Makes maintenance easier.

How to Clean CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium and Aragonite Sand, 10 lbs.

You clean these sands exactly the same as the pool filter and play sand. Since they are ready-made for your aquarium, these sands shouldn’t take as long to clean. Follow the same instructions for cleaning as the pool filter and play sand. When you clean them, make sure you rinse the sand long enough that the water you’re rinsing with is coming out clear.

Both of these sands got excellent reviews at However, some of the reviewers were complaining about the sand being cloudy in their aquarium. This usually happens when the sand isn’t rinsed long enough.

Sand Versus Gravel in Your Aquarium

Sand and gravel can both be very attractive in your aquarium but which one you chose depends on the type of fish that you have and your preference.

Gravel is usually the better choice for a freshwater aquarium. Depending on your fish, gravel allows for better water flows through the gravel substrate, which can prevent certain types of bacteria buildup.

It is also heavy enough that it is easier to clean with a gravel vacuum. It is also big and heavy enough that it won’t float up into your filters as sand does in a lot of aquariums.

As far as preference, gravel comes in a wider array of colors than sand. This can be more attractive to someone who is really into the design of their aquarium.

Opposite of gravel, sand is so small-grained that water doesn’t flow well through it at all. Sand is usually better for saltwater aquariums since you are trying to mimic your fish’s original habitat.

Some people like the way that It looks more natural versus gravel.

Although water can’t flow well through sand neither can yucky things such as uneaten food. This stuff tends to stay at the surface of the sand which can actually be vacuumed with a gravel vacuum. You just have to skim the surface of the sand with the vacuum.

Also, to keep the sand from getting in your filter, you simply need to put what is called a pre-filter at the end of your water intake. The water intake is where the water enters your filter. This should keep the sand out of your filter.

Depending on the type of fish that you have, it usually comes down to your preference for the appearance of your tank. Just make sure you don’t have any fish that are going to burrow if you decide on gravel.

Some fish like cichlids actually have to eat sand to help digest their food while goldfish will die if they accidentally eat sand. You really need to do your research when you are choosing your fish and make sure you choose the right substrate while making sure all of the species in your tank are compatible with your substrate.

How Do I Know How Much Sand to Put in My Aquarium?

There are pretty much two types of sand beds for an Aquarium. They are shallow and deep.

Shallow Beds

Shallow beds are usually 1-2 inches in depth. They are easier to keep clean because there is less volume to deal with. A shallow sand bed is also more natural looking to most people. However, if you want to put a lot of aquarium plants you should probably go with a deeper sand bed to provide a better foundation for your plants.

Deeper Beds

Deep beds of sand in your aquarium are harder to keep clean. Nitrates and nitrites can seep down below the sand surface and lose their oxygen. When they are stripped of their oxygen, they become plain old nitrogen which is a gas. To avoid this from happening all you have to do is stir your sand every now and then to release the gas. When the gas is released, it will float into the atmosphere.

Deep sand beds are basically to anchor your plants and give your fish more sand if they are rooters. Some fish are bottom dwellers that like to burrow into the sand. Some fish will keep your sand so mixed up that you won’t have to stir it up to release nitrogen gas.

To calculate how much sand you need in your aquarium use this sand calculator from


An aquarium can be pretty expensive, especially something like a 55-gallon aquarium. The bigger your aquarium is going to be, the more likely you are going to try to save money, unless you are Richie Rich.

Don’t hesitate to use one of these cheaper sands, just make sure you clean it properly.

From my experience and research, I would go with a pool filter or blasting sand first depending on what color you want. I like the black sand. If you don’t like black, get one of the pool filter sands. With that being said though if you have the money I would go with one of the cheaper CaribSea sands above all the other choices in this article.

I think the blasting, pool filter, and CaribSea sands are easier to clean and keep clean. However, if you make a sandbox for the kiddos and you have some play sand left over then that is okay to use but only if you are willing to put in the extra work to clean it and keep it clean.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to which one you think looks better, how much money you can budget, and how much time and effort you want to put into cleaning sand. Enjoy!

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