Sand substrate decisions

Image from

So you’re thinking of swapping your gravel for sand, or you’re starting a new tank and want to use sand for the first time. Regardless of the scenario, you want sand in your tank but you aren’t sure what kind to use. The answer to that question lies with the type of fish you have, how much you want to spend, and other factors.

There are many sand varieties and types available and usable for the aquarium hobby. Just like anything else related to the hobby, you should do some basic research before deciding on which kind of sand you choose.

There are numerous brands of aquarium sand such as Carib Sea, Nature’s Ocean, Aqua Terra, Imagiterium, National Geographic, just to name a few. But you don’t have to use sand specifically sold for the aquarium hobby. Many hobbyists use play sand, pool filter sand, and even blasting sand. So what’s the right sand for you?

Answer these questions:

  • Is/are my tank(s) glass or acrylic (acrylic scratches easier than glass)?
  • What kind of cichlids will occupy the tank(s) with sand (e.g., sand sifters, New or Old World cichlids)?
  • Do I need a pH and hardness buffering sand mix (e.g., do you have neutral or lower pH source water or soft water and need to change it based on the question above)?
  • What color of sand do I want or will work best with the cichlids I want to keep?
  • How much sand do I need (a good rule of thumb is 1-2 lbs of sand per gallon)?
  • What is my sand budget?
  • How easy is it to get the sand I want (e.g., via my LFS, other local store, online)?
  • What kind of filtration will the tank(s) have (yes, some people still use under gravel filters, which don’t work well with sand)?

Once you have a good answer to those questions, you can begin narrowing down what will work best. If you’re more familiar with sand substrates and not a complete novice in the hobby, I would recommend that you investigate the use of non-aquarium sand (e.g., pool filter sand). One trade off with these types of sand is cost versus silica content. Non-aquarium sands are typically much less expensive than the aquarium specific varieties. However, some of these sands contain higher concentrations of silicates and other elements, which can exacerbate diatomaceous algae issues and create other problems. Also, aquarium sands often have much finer granularity (i.e., the sand particles are smaller) than non-aquarium sands, which is nearly analogous to comparing powdered sugar with regular sugar.

There is a ton of online information available on sand substrates for cichlids. I would encourage you to do some leg work and see what other hobbyists use and say about their sand choices. To do that, you may need to join a cichlid forum or cichlid FB group and simply read posts about choosing sand, types of sand, etc. Fellow hobbyists are some of your best resources for additional information about the hobby. However, fellow hobbyists also share advice that is simply wrong, so tread with caution when visiting such sites.



Leave a Comment