How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

13 min read

When our family got our first aquarium we didn’t have an aquarium gravel vacuum.

The Ultimate Guide To Saltwater Fish…

I recommend that you purchase an aquarium vacuum if you have gravel in your fish tank. If you haven’t purchased one yet or you have a small tank, never fear, we are more than happy to answer your question, how to clean tank gravel without a vacuum? The short answer is:

To clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum, you need to move your fish to a temporary aquarium or bucket. Place handfuls or scoops of the tank gravel in a bucket, sieve, or pantyhose and run water over the gravel until the water is clear while sifting the gravel with your hands. Always leave some gravel in the tank to ensure the beneficial bacteria keep a foothold.

We had to do this several times because our first tank was so small that we didn’t really want to buy a gravel vacuum. Let me explain the process in more detail…

Before you clean your fish tank gravel without a vacuum, the most important thing to do is to move your fish somewhere else. It’s always a good idea to have at least a small extra aquarium laying around for maintenance like this or a fish tank of any size for that matter.

If you can’t afford an extra aquarium, you can always purchase a used aquarium. Just remember to never use soap when cleaning an aquarium. If any leftover soap residue gets into your fish aquarium it is dangerous to your fish’s health.

If you must use bleach to clean a used aquarium just make sure you rinse it really well until there is no more bleach smell. You shouldn’t have to use bleach unless the tank is very dirty.

You also will need to let the used tank completely dry until there is absolutely no bleach smell. “However, it is best to just use warm water if possible. If the used tank is too dirty it isn’t really worth cleaning.

You can even just get a specimen tank sometimes for less than 10 dollars if you are low on funds. Always take as little risk as possible with your fish’s health.

You don’t have to remove your fish if you are using a gravel vacuum because it sucks any loose debris up right away. When you clean your gravel without a vacuum you will be moving the gravel around a lot as you remove the gravel from the tank.

This stirs up too much gunk trapped in the gravel and will make the water cloudy and unhealthy for your fish. This is why you need to remove them.

If you don’t have a spare aquarium you can just use the good old-fashioned 5-gallon bucket, or another container large enough to hold a few gallons of water, to transfer your fish too.

Just make sure the container you use is solely dedicated for use for your aquarium water maintenance. As stated above, you never want to get soap residue in your aquarium water, but you also don’t want to get any other foreign substance in your water.” So, don’t be using Uncle Bobs oil change bucket.

Just to be on the safe side, when transferring your fish, it doesn’t take that much extra time to treat the water you are moving them to with a water conditioner that includes a dechlorinate.

The water should be fine if it’s a container dedicated to your aquarium but it’s always better to err on the side of caution when there is a chance to expose your fish to foreign contaminants.

If possible, it is always better to clean your gravel outside with a water hose so you can dump the dirty water outside. It won’t harm the grass or plants outside, and you don’t run the risk of clogging one of your drains. If it’s winter you can always dump the water into 5-gallon buckets instead of down the drain.

When Removing the Gravel From the Tank

Always leave some of your gravel in the bottom of your fish tank or just set some to the side. You don’t want to wash all of your gravel. Every fish tank has a nitrogen cycle.

To explain it quickly when you add food to your tank it contains nitrogen. The fish eat it and poop it out which turns it into ammonia and nitrates. A good filter will have separate internal parts that filter mechanical, chemical, and biological matter.

The biological part of a filter is designed to let beneficial bacteria grow which changes the nitrites into nitrates. Nitrates are the good guys because they are plant food and they are also not harmful to fish as long as you don’t let them build up to high. Water changes are meant to keep the nitrate level down.

So, the reason you don’t want to remove all of your gravel is because a lot of this beneficial bacteria also grows on your gravel.

This can get confusing because the reason you want to clean your gravel is to get rid of the bad bacteria and algae. However, we don’t want to cause a good bacteria genocide so we need to keep some ‘dirty’ gravel so this good bacteria can spread across your aquarium again.

It’s all about cycling just to keep bad things from building up in your aquarium. The best way to do this is to spread the dirty gravel across your clean gravel when you put it back.

Scoop up a couple of cupsful of the gravel from the bottom of the tank and set aside without rinsing. If you have a lot of live plants in your tank, you can leave the gravel around their roots if it is going to damage them.

This gravel contains beneficial bacteria that help break down ammonia from fish waste into less harmful nitrates. It’s important to keep some gravel uncleaned so these bacteria can repopulate easily after your tank is cleaned.


Sieve/Colander – I assume everyone knows what this is, but for the sake of any non-cookers, a colander is that thing your mom used to put the spaghetti into after it is cooked to let the water drain out. If you buy one with small enough holes, you can use it to hold the gravel while you run water over it and work it with your hands.

Just make sure you put some elbow grease into it and keep running the water over it until the water comes out clear underneath. There are also sieves made specifically for cleaning aquarium gravel that are very affordable. Sieves are usually made out of metal and work with the same principle as a colander.

Pantyhose – Get some pantyhose and a 5-gallon bucket. This is best for washing new gravel before placing it in your aquarium, but you can also grab handfuls of gravel from a tank that is already set up. Just put the gravel inside the pantyhose.

Hold the pantyhose with gravel over the bucket and run some water over the pantyhose while shaking the pantyhose. You can even grab the covered panty-hosed gravel and work it with your hand under the flowing water to try to jerk lose any buildup of algae or other gunk. 

It will rinse most build-up off the gravel and through the pantyhose while not letting the gravel fall through the pantyhose. If the bucket gets too full just dump it out onto the ground and keep going.

The objective here is to run water over the gravel until the water runs clear. When the water is clear, this is a good indicator that the gravel is clean enough. If it’s new gravel, the water may be clear right away, just rinse it for a while to get any residue like dust off.

Bucket – Just put your gravel in a five-gallon bucket and run some water into it. Work the gravel with just your hands or your hands and a scrubber.

To use a scrubber just grab some gravel and scrub it in your hand letting the gravel fall back into the bucket. When you think the gravel is clean enough, pour the water out of the bucket onto the ground while using one of your hands to keep the gravel in the bucket.

If you’re skeptical, just keep scrubbing and dumping until the water you dump out is clear.

Cleaning Gravel in a Tank with Lots of Live Plants (without a vacuum)

If you have live plants covering most of your aquarium it may be more feasible to try not to remove any gravel from the tank. You still need to remove your fish though.

Start using your hands to start moving the gravel around wherever possible. Try to work the gravel with your fingers as much as possible.

This will jerk loose any algae or gunk in the gravel while not hurting any of your plant roots. The algae and gunk will start floating in the water.

After you work the gravel in between your plants well enough, immediately remove half of the water from your aquarium.

This will remove a lot of the buildup from your gravel while leaving the beneficial bacteria in the water you don’t remove.

Add Some Scavenger Species to Your Tank

There are several species out there that are easy to find at your local aquarium store or to purchase online. These guys you are about to read about will actually dig and forage down into your aquarium gravel and eat things such as leftover food and algae which is what you are usually sucking up with an aquarium vacuum. With that being said, here are the most well-known species that will forage and clean your aquarium gravel.

Best Scavengers to Help Keep Freshwater Gravel Clean


snails cleaning the fish tank

There are many different types of snails out there that are great for cleaning tank bottoms. They are probably the best scavengers because they will eat anything. Just be careful with these guys because they can reproduce and spread like crazy. If you get overrun by snails just read about loaches below.

Amano Shrimp

Amano Shrimp

Maybe the best cleaner of the group only because their wiry legs can fit into places that their closest competitors like the snail can’t. Be careful with these guys though. They shed their shells so they need more nutrition in the water than other scavenger species.

Eartheater Cichlids

Eartheater Cichlids

These fish actually grab substrate from the bottom of your tank and filter it through their gills so plants can break down whatever is left easier. They are more ideal for larger tanks as well. Because of the way they filter substrate, they are better for sand than gravel.


flagfish PetAquariums How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

They have mouths especially shaped for eating blackbeard algae and hair algae.



Different types of cory catfish come in sizes from 1 – 4 inches. Hence their name, they have whiskers like a cat that gives them special skills at foraging for just about anything that isn’t substrate at the bottom of your tank.



A crazily hungry fish that also has a mouth shaped especially for algae to help keep the bottom of your tank clean. They are great for keeping an aquarium clean because they are always rummaging for food.

Rainbow/Redtail Sharks

Rainbow/Redtail Sharks

Better for larger tanks with fish of the same size. They like to eat extra food and algae. They will even clean it up around decorations. They are territorial so do your homework when deciding who to have as a tank mate.



Great scavengers will keep your entire aquarium clean but most of them eat snails. There are some snail safe species out there.



Crazy fish are pretty common even though they aren’t exactly the easiest fish to take care of. They love to scavenge for food but keep them away from your live plants except for anubias and java fern. They actually rummage through the substrate at the bottom of the tank, eating waste, even algae.

Bristlenose Plecos

Bristlenose Plecos

A type of suckermouth catfish that can get 4-5 inches long. They are algae eaters and come in several colors.

Best Scavengers to Help Keep Saltwater Gravel Clean



Probably the most popular cleaner for aquariums, saltwater snails move pretty quickly for their name. They are great cleaners that eat algae and leftover food but are famous for their skill at cleaning algae off live coral without causing them harm.


Hermit Crab

Always hungry for leftover food and certain types of algae. Hermit crabs are the most popular because they are cheap and small.



Cleaner shrimp are famous for their unique relationship with fish because they actually clean parasites off of fish.

They are so valuable to fish in the ocean that even predators that could eat them leave them alone because of their parasitic value. They use their wiry legs to get to the bottom gunk that other cleaners can’t reach.

Sea Stars


These guys are great for eating algae, even from the aquarium glass. However be careful with the salinity, pH, and oxygen in your water because it can severely affect a sea star which is also called a starfish.



These guys are also great for cleaning algae off your rocks and glass. They are easy to mix with fish because they are protected by their spines.

Setting up an Aquarium that Cleans Its Own Gravel

An aquarium that cleans its own gravel works best with plants to help with nitrogen filtration. Any time it comes to aquarium maintenance or filtration, it’s all about the nitrogen cycle. You have to get rid of the nitrogen.

These methods to keeping your gravel clean are more unorthodox and less recommended than the methods discussed already. However, if you are short on time and don’t want to do aquarium maintenance, you might give them a try.

Keep in mind you should always test your water for nitrogen levels, especially with these methods, to make sure the nitrogen in your tank isn’t getting too high.

Getting Rid of Nitrogen with a Low Flow Filter so Your Gravel Stays Clean

All you need to do here is get a filter that can handle a large volume of water and adjust the water intake so that the water is flowing slowly enough to achieve denitrification.

This is done with a large volume of coil tubing in the filter that the water has to flow through.  

The water is depleted of oxygen at the beginning of its course through the filter. This allows beneficial bacteria to grow in the rest of the filter where the oxygen is depleted.

These beneficial bacteria eat the nitrates that would be the result of a normal filter with regular water flow.

As discussed above in the nitrogen cycle nitrates aren’t bad as long as their volume compared to the amount of water in the tank stays at an acceptable level.

This is why people change their tank water and clean their gravel, is to keep these nitrates from getting out of hand.

Deep Substrate – Keeps Your Gravel Clean

Put at least 4 inches of substrate in the bottom of your tank. It should be a fine substrate like gravel or sand. The nitrates which are NO3 will sink down through your substrate.

By the time, they get to the bottom they will be stripped of their oxygen, thereby becoming nitrogen again which is a gas.

You will see the gas bubbles coming up out of your substrate because gas rises and goes into the atmosphere.

Again, the reason we change our water and clean our gravel is to keep the nitrate level in our tanks down.

If your aquarium system keeps the nitrates down on its own, you won’t have to clean your gravel or change your water.

You will just have to top your water off every now and then because of evaporation.

Using Live Plants to Help Filter So You Don’t Have to Vacuum Your Gravel

You can use aquarium plants as another wave of filtration in your tank so that you don’t have to clean your gravel or substrate.

Again, when you feed your fish, they poop and release ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates into the water. Y

our filtration system takes care of most of this, but you are still left with nitrates which are NO3, which is nitrogen and oxygen.

Plants actually consume ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates and use them to grow. So, you can also use plants in conjunction with your filtration system to filter nitrogen out of your aquarium water which will help keep your gravel clean without having to vacuum it.

An important tip to remember here is that some fish, such as goldfish, will eat too much or completely demolish your aquarium plants.

If you want to keep live plants to help with your aquarium maintenance or just for appearance, you can always make a terrarium.

A terrarium is just another compartment in your aquarium or another aquarium entirely where you can grow plants and keep your fish from getting to them.

The concept here is to make sure the water with the nitrogen circulates through the compartment or aquarium with the plants and back to the area with the fish.


I would start with the beginning of this post and use these methods in order.

I wouldn’t go past getting scavengers in your tank unless you are an experienced aquarist.

Once you start getting into the scavengers and beyond, you should seek the help of a pet store or aquarium specialist unless you really want to do your homework and study all the details.

If you’re really not wanting to get that deep into the knowledge behind an aquarium, I would just save yourself the headache and buy an aquarium vacuum.

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Pet Aquariums

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