Aquarium Substrate Discussion for both Saltwater and Freshwater Aquariums

The Aquarium Substrate can be one of the most important parts of many of fish tanks. The right substrate can help you make a natural setting for your aquarium, create efficient biological filtration, provide nutrients for plants, or places for crustaceans and other animals to hide.

We are not going to spend time discussing basic gravels. Pick your color and make sure you wash it very well before using it. Gravel does make a great bed for biological filtration, provided you keep it clean. Use a syphon to remove the waste. We do not recommend or ever use undergravel filters, since they trap waste and it stays in the fish tank. They can lead to aerobic bacteria toxins if not properly maintained.

Substrate for a Planted Aquarium

In the planted tank, a good substrate acts just like good potting soil would for our gardens or house plants. It provides the roots with nutrients to help the plants grow. There are several popular varieties available right now. SeaChem makes several varieties of Flourite, CaribSea makes Eco-Complete and ADA makes several types of Aqua Soil.

Flourite is a great soil and we prefer to use the brown or black varieties. The red seems to be way to dusty and muddy for our tastes. Flourite allows plants to grow strong roots and look attractive in many tanks, especially those that incorporate driftwood. The down side of all flourite products is the dust. There is a simple trick for minimizing this though. When you are setting up your aquarium make sure you add the flourite first, then a small amount of water (1-2" above the soil) and then start to aquascape your tank. Add the plants slowly and spread them out well. Once you are down, take newspaper and lay it across the entire bottom of the tank. Now, SLOWLY fill the aquarium with water. If you go very slow and allow the water to hit the newpaper and not the soil you will have very little dust.

Eco-Complete has a similar look and feel to Flourite. It is not as dusty and many people really like using this substrate. We have had it turn very hard in our aquariums many times, almost brick like, so it is not one of our favorite options.

ADA Substrates are probably one of the most desired to use. They can be a bit difficult to find though, as only very serious planted tank stores carry this type of product. It is a little bit more expensive than the other substrates, but it is easy to use and creates a healthy planted aquarium. Amazonia 2, Malaya, and Africana are the three most popular mixes. If you can find this substrate, and are willing to pay a little extra, you will most likely be very happy with your results.

All of these aquarium substrates work great with tropical fish. There are no negative side effects, unless you add your fish too early when there is still some dust in the tank or if the ammonia levels in your tank are still high from the initial set-up. Once the dust is gone (usually a couple hours) allow the tank to start cycling and do regular water chemistry tests. Check your ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels regularly the first couple weeks.

Aquarium Substrate is just one step in setting up a successful tropical fish tank. Read about proper Aquarium Lighting here.

African Cichlid Aquarium Substrates

There are several very good substrates that are great for African Cichlid tanks. Eco-Complete makes both a live substrate which already has a colony of beneficial bacteria in the bag. The bag contains a small amount of water to keep the colony of bacteria alive. They also have this product in dry mixes, without the bacteria. Both substrates are very good at helping to maintain the high PH that the african cichlids prefer and provide a buffer for stable water chemistry.

There are many good sands available as well. Many hobbyists have even been successful using basic play sands from their home improvement stores. Just be careful that the sands do not have a high silicate content or you will see a spike in brown algae. If this happens, add a silicate removing resin to the filter.

Take your time to pick the right aquarium substrate. It is very hard to remove once a tank is established.

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Have you had success with any other substrates?

Feel free to ask questions about using substrates or about what substrates you have had success with.

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Saltwater Substrates

There are several types of aquarium substrates that you can use in the saltwater aquarium. The most popular are crushed corals and sands. Both come in a "live" form and in a dry form. CaribSea makes several good options of all of these and they also have many different colors you can choose from.

The difference between most of the aquarium substrates is what catches your eye, and if you want to have fish and invertebrates that can burrow. Sand is the best for fish like wrasses and for invertebrates like sandsifting stars that like to burry themselves in the soil. They cannot do this well in crushed corals.

If you are just setting up your aquarium, we do recommend using live sands. It helps to start up the biological filtration quicker and you will have a more stable aquarium sooner. If you are only going to be replacing sand in an established tank, then dry sand is just fine. Just be careful to keep the dust at a minimum when adding to your tank. The best way is to just add a small amount at a time.

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