How to clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum

Last Updated on July 14, 2021 by cmoarz

Fish tank gravel, aquarium gravel, or any of the various types of substrate all have one thing in common if nothing else. They all need to be cleaned on a regular basis.

Normally this is pretty easy, and you would use a special siphoning hose called an aquarium vacuum to clean the dirty gravel.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always so easy-breezy, and you may have a type of dirty substrate that just can’t be vacuumed well or safely without damaging it. (Fluval volcanic rocks are one I use personally with this problem).

Or on the other hand, you might just not have a gravel vacuum to use at all for some reason. (If this is the case I highly recommend you pick one up!). It really does make it easier to clean the gravel.

In either case, there are methods you can use to clean fish tank gravel without any such suction wizardry.

Here’s how it’s done

How to clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum best methods

Method 1: The net

Equipment needed: A net (and maybe filter floss)

Using your aquarium net, gently use the wire or plastic sides to stir up the gravel at the bottom of the tank. Be extra careful not to damage delicate plants or your fish with the net as you stir. You can also use any other long slender object like a wood chopstick or tree branch, anything safe to add to your aquarium.

As the muck starts to cloud up, quickly but gently scoop it up with your net. The net you should be using will need to be very fine. If the holes are too large, You could end up losing too much fish waste out the back and just making an utter mess of the tank.

If you don’t have access to a smaller net, but do have some filter floss laying around, Peel off a thin layer and stuff it into the back of your net. This should help catch extra fish waste and excess food.

Just remember you will create a bit more turbulence as the water won’t be able to flow as freely around the net as before.

This method isn’t good for planted tanks.

Method 2: The turkey baster + net

Equipment needed: A net, a turkey baster

I bet you can already tell where this one is going!

Use a clean never used for food before turkey baster to blast the gravel with water. Then hover your net over that spot and catch as much of the fish waste and food as you can.

This method is really good for planted tanks because you’re not disturbing the substrate too much, and you can suck up some of that excess fertilizer with your net.

You will also avoid damaging the delicate root system of some certain plant, especially if you have a grass carpeted tank.

It’s much easier to get around decorations this way as well. In fact, Using the baster you can blast the decorations to get some of the muck off ’em.

Both these methods are really good for keeping clean fish tank gravel without a vacuum and without damaging or removing beneficial bacteria that live in that dirty aquarium gravel.

Depending on how planted or unplanted your tank is will depend on how often you should clean your fish tank gravel. It could be every other day, to at least once a week. If you’ve got a severely heavy planted tank and understocked fish counts, it could be as little as one month or even never in a balanced tank.

Always keep an eye out for an ammonia spike. The easiest way to bring one down is to do a water change and clean the gravel with or without a vacuum.

You can also cut down on the amount of gravel cleaning you need to do by feeding your fish less and making sure they eat everything you give them. If they leave anything behind, it means they were fed too much.


Owner of and also owner of actual Aquarium Gravel believe it or not! ;). Setting up beautiful aquarium sceneries and habitats since I was very young. Enjoy!