Choosing the Right Aquarium Substrate

Flowerhorn Cichlid

Aquarium substrate has various functions and should be chosen according to the type of tank, i.e. freshwater, planted, fish-only, reef, etc.

In general, the substrate provides the fish with an orientation. Glass bottoms can irritate the fish, especially if the light is being reflected from the fixture on top of the tank. Next to “orientation” and a more natural look, the substrate is breeding and colonizing grounds for the beneficial bacteria and other microscopic life forms.

Substrate for the Fish Only Aquarium

The substrate for a fish only aquarium serves the purpose of providing a surface for the beneficial bacteria to build colonies. With today’s filter technology, the size of the gravel doesn’t actually matter, but it is recommended to use a finer gravel if bottom feeders are home in the tank. The substrate should be about 2 – 2.5 inches in height, or roughly 10 pounds of substrate for approximately 150 square inches of tank surface.

Deeper layers especially with finer gravel sizes can pose a danger, given that food particles will sink into a less oxygenated area. This will over time produce hydrogen sulfite (rotten egg smell), which is highly toxic for the fish.

Substrate Options for Fish Only Aquariums are:

Common Aquarium Gravel & Sand

Substrate for Marine and Reef Aquariums

Next to the general purposes of the substrate – a natural look and colonizing grounds – the substrate for marine and reef set-ups also provides an environment for crustaceans, crabs and other bottom dwelling creatures. The substrate should also be 2 – 2.5 inches in height.

Another difference to other gravel options is that marine environments need more calcium and magnesium which will buffer the pH to higher levels.

Substrate options for Marine and Reef Aquariums are:

Aragonite & Crushed Corals

Substrate for the Planted Aquarium

Next to the lighting, the substrate for planted aquariums is the most important factor in the successful growth of plants. The substrate for a planted tank should have the ability to store and provide nutrients for the plants. The majority of the nutrients should be in the gravel and not in the water column. Plants do get their nutrients and minerals through the root system (hair roots).

The substrate of planted tanks should contain 2 layers. First a nutrient rich substrate as a lower layer. To prevent a possible washout of nutrients and as an anchoring device for the plants, regular gravel or sand should be used as a top layer.

The lower level should be as high as the plant roots, generally 1-2 inches. The top layer should be about 2 inches in height.

Substrate options for Planted aquariums are:

Vermiculite & Laterite

Types of Aquarium Substrates


Sea sand is not recommended for use in aquariums because of impurities. Sea sand holds many living organisms which can die off and pollute the water. Small sea shells and coral pieces will raise the pH, it can also compact itself rather densely, which is not necessarily beneficial for bottom dwellers, crabs and other sand loving fish and species.

Painted gravel or glass pebbles should not be the first choice. Glass pebbles can diffuse the light, which can irritate the fish. Painted gravel can loose its outer coating. Risk to your fish can be avoided from the start.

Common Aquarium Gravel

Probably the most used substrate for aquariums. The gravel comes in fine or more coarse varieties and consists almost entirely of quartz. It is safe to use and does not influence the water parameters at all. This gravel is suited for fish only aquariums and as top layer for planted aquariums. Regular maintenance by vacuuming the gravel is a must in order to remove uneaten food particles.


In combination with a good filtration system, sand can be the cleanest substrate of all. Sand will compact itself and food particles can not penetrate the surface. A strong filtration system will simply remove the particles from the surface. In many cases, the filter intake tube will have to be adjusted in order to avoid the sand being pulled inside the filter. With good filtration in place, the sand does not have to be cleaned as frequently as compared to common aquarium gravel.
Sand as a substrate will also provide a more natural habitat for many species and bottom dwellers.

Two rather cheap sources of sand are sandblasting sand, which is more coarse than regular sand and mostly consist of quartz, and play sand, which has a finer consistency. Play sand is sterilized for the good of our children, and therefore suitable for the fish as well.

To calculate the amount of sand needed, multiply (in inches) the length x width x depth of the sand you would like. The result divided by 20 will give you the approximate quantity needed in Lbs.


Aragonite is a calcium carbonate mineral. Aragonite sand holds a lasting reservoir of calcium carbonate, which is slowly but constantly released to buffer and to hold up the pH. Using aragonite can push the pH to about 8.2 The released calcium is a valued trace element for corals and overall functionality of the aquarium. Aragonite sand can be mixed with live sand or crushed corals. Due to the pH raising character it is suited for marine and reef set-ups only.

Crushed Corals

This substrate was a long time favorite before the use of aragonite. Sharing the same values in providing buffers to stabilize and enhance the pH, crushed corals usually push the pH up to 7.6

Most commercially available crushed corals are mixed with aragonite or similar calcareous materials such as dolomite and calcite which are similar to aragonite.

Crushed corals and the mixtures thereof are suited for marine, reef aquariums, brackish water and African chiclids in freshwater.


Vermiculate is a mineral mixture of aluminum, iron and magnesium. After the mining process, vermiculite is heated to eliminate water pockets. The result is an increase in volume of 15 – 20 times it original size. The heating process where temperatures reach up to 1000 C (1800 F) makes vermiculite sterile with a high water holding capacity, high surface, and a neutral pH.

Vermiculite has a high cation exchange rate, which is how plants utilize the available nutrients and minerals.

Vermiculate also slowly releases valuable nutrients such as potassium and magnesium over a long period of time.

This substrate type is ideal as a lower layer for planted aquariums. Since it has a tendency to compact itself over time, it should be mixed with laterite or common aquarium gravel to maintain the porous structure.


Laterite is weathered clay from tropical or subtropical areas burned by the sun over thousands of years. Its porous appearance contains high levels of iron-oxide (the more reddish – brown appearance, the more iron), contributing to a high cation exchange rate. i.e. laterite attracts nutrients and holds them in “storage” until the plants can utilize them through the root system.

Laterite does not release minerals, but can store nutrients for the plants. Laterite for aquarium use is generally baked for sterilization purposes. Cat litter is the cheapest form of laterite, but should be handled careful as most cat litters contain perfumes and clumping additives.

Laterite is an ideal lower layer or substrate for planted aquariums.

Leave a Reply

10 Comment threads
9 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
11 Comment authors
Notify of
Roseann Silvestri

I’ve read that river rocks are a very desirable substrate. I see no mention of it here. Can I use it as a top layer in a planted tank?


Yes you can use river rocks, which are just rocks in a river, as a top layer for a planted aquarium.

Roseann Silvestri

thank you


Can I pour the substrate in with the fish in the tank?


No, wash it out for about an hour

Reymundo gonzalez

Is there a place I could buy laterite? I’ve try to find it and no luck if you can give me a source I be greatly appreciated.

Indeed, it appears difficult to find. You can search for ‘red potting clay for aquariums’ on google to see if it is an alternative you want to try in your aquarium.


The substrate is not the problem. Algae need nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, dissolved organics, and light to grow. The substrate might harbor some nutrients especially if there is uneaten food or other organic material decaying. Three aspects to consider, is the tank overstocked? Are you overfeeding? Most important wither way is to vacuum the gravel during water changes. This will eliminate waste from accumulating.

Fish keeper

I have aquarium gravel in my tank and a lot of algae grows very quickly on it. Is there an alternative substrate that will help with this problem?


The substrate is not the problem. Algae need nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, dissolved organics, and light to grow. The substrate might harbor some nutrients especially if there is uneaten food or other organic material decaying. Three aspects to consider, is the tank overstocked? Are you overfeeding? Most important wither way is to vacuum the gravel during water changes. This will eliminate waste from accumulating.

Fish keeper

When it is cleaned i vacuum and then clean the stones. I don’t over feed, so is it possible that there could be something wrong with the filter/water?

Dominic Avery

Ok, but overall what is the best for a tank with angel fish, skirt tetras, and cories and snails

Personally I would set this up in a 30 gallon or larger. Angel Fish also require plants for hiding. They are not the most active fish and like to take cover in plants. Real or fake plants will do for this. It’s also a good idea to go to a fish store that offers true expert advice. They will be able to steer you in the right direction for specific species and tank & equipment recommendations. Small independent pet stores are a great place to start.


In the section on sand: What unit of measurement is used for the length, width, and height of the sand? 4 feet /20 is very different from 48 inches/20.

Thanks for pointing this out. You should use inches for this calculation. We will note that in the article for clarity.


The perfum and other nasties in cat litter hopefully would dissapear during the six weeks of cycling the aquarium

Tank keepers

Also if your going to bake anything you first need to know what temp and how long for example aragonit will blow up due to super heat the air trapped inside or 2 you can bake sand into an unusable partly glass clump at 350 if given enoff time about 1 hour

Tank keepers

To follow up for one sulfate is only toxic if u desterb the sand bed and release it and for 2 not all plants are root feeders so nutrients not being in the water column is wrong as sever plants are leaf feeders and only establish roots as a hold fast and when it come to macro algie it is all a water column feeder and only has hold fasts

Thilo @ Algone

We provided the above as a basic overview. Most topics are addressed in more detail for those seeking a deeper knowledge. It is a starting point. Nutrient uptake of course is more complex. Macro and Micro nutrients as well as deficiencies and environmental aspects such as light, CO2, pH etc play an equally important role. The information above holds true for the vast majority of plants offered in pet stores. With any plant or fish for that example, it is always advisable to provide either with the proper environment to thrive. Your comments are welcome and will hopefully engage our… Read more »

Click to Hide Advanced Floating Content
Cart Menu Button Image0
Your Cart