Sand vs Gravel Substrate for African Cichlids?

The substrate is one of the most important choices you have to make when setting up an African cichlid tank (and any other tank, for that matter). It’s not optional, but mandatory!

Not only does a good substrate enhance the look of your aquarium, but it also comes with added benefits like improved water quality. A substrate also helps you emulate the cichlid’s natural environment, which is equally important.

A bare-bottom aquarium is the furthest you could go from a natural look. But as important as the substrate is, one question remains. What type should you choose? The two main choices you have are sand and gravel. Each has its pros and cons. In this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know to make the right choice for your tank. Let’s get it started!

Sand or Gravel – Which is Best for African Cichlids?

African Cichlids are happy with either substrate type. They’re both great, but they also have some major differences. You can use either one of them, but you should weigh the pros and the cons of each. Overall, I recommend gravel. You get a great look with a variety of colors, and it’s also easy to maintain. But let’s take a closer look at both options:

– Sand substrates

Sand is an aesthetically pleasing option. It generally comes in light colors ranging from white to wheat and very light brown. This is probably the closest you can get to simulating the cichlid’s natural environment.

Most African Cichlids in the wild prefer areas with a sandy substrate and many large rocks and caves. They’re natural bottom feeders, and they spend a lot of time sifting through the sand and digging holes.

There are two major downsides to a sand substrate though. First, sand is very fine and compact already. When you add moisture and water pressure on top of that, sand gets compressed easily. This creates dead zones all over the aquarium where oxygen can no longer penetrate the substrate. This is a recipe for bad bacteria overgrowth and suffocated plant roots.

Secondly, sand is difficult to clean. It’s too fine, so it’s easily sucked up by most substrate vacuums. The same applies to the filter too. Lightweight sand grains can float around aimlessly and get sucked up into the filter.

– Gravel substrates

Next up we have gravel. Gravel comes in a wide variety of colors, from off-white to dark brown, reddish, and even candy-colored. Whatever look you’re going for, you’re going to find the perfect color for that.

Gravel might not be as easy for your fish to dig into though. Instead of burrowing, cichlids might move the pebbles around with their mouths. It’s not as close to the cichlid’s natural environment. But it has two major advantages that make the choice worth it.

Unlike sand, gravel doesn’t get compacted. The hard pebbles maintain shape under pressure. The spaces between the pebbles let the substrate “breathe” properly. Finally, gravel is easy to clean due to the higher grain size and weight.

Whichever substrate you choose, you can also add some crushed coral and crushed oyster shells. This addition turns any substrate into a high-quality water enhancer! The added minerals increase both water hardness and pH— exactly what you want in an African cichlid tank!

How Much Substrate do African Cichlids Need?

You’ll need to add enough substrate to reach a depth of 2-2.5 inches. Some people say 1-2 inches is enough. But remember African cichlids like digging around. They can easily uproot plants with shallow roots. That’s why you should stick closer to 2 inches. Exactly what sand or gravel quantity you need to achieve this depth will depend.

How large is your aquarium, and what are its dimensions? Cichlids are bottom-dwellers, so the aquarium should have more floor space than it does height. Cichlids are also very territorial, aggressive, and energetic swimmers. They need a lot of space to prevent fights with other fish.

Even smaller cichlids need at least 20-gallons worth of tank space each. Some larger species need around 30 gallons. Assuming you’re only keeping one cichlid in a 20-gallon tank, you’ll need 40 pounds of substrate to reach the ideal depth. That’s 2 pounds of substrate for each gallon of water in an aquarium with average dimensions.

How to Keep the Substrate Clean?

So, you’ve chosen your ideal substrate. Now you have to prepare for weekly maintenance. Whichever type of substrate you choose, you’ll have to perform regular cleanings. This gets rid of trapped debris and bacteria that could otherwise cause problems down the line. Let’s see how to do it.

– Cleaning Sand Substrates

As I’ve already mentioned, sand is tricky. Cleanup is difficult. But not impossible! You just have to prep things a little differently beforehand. First of all, remember to stir the substrate regularly to free any debris trapped inside. You can use your fingers, or a gravel rake. This also helps prevent sand compaction and dead zones in the aquarium.

Ensure there’s good water flow in the aquarium. This helps the filter do its job properly, removing the majority of surface debris. To prevent the filter from sucking up the sand particles, you can equip the filter uptake valve with a sponge. This will keep the sand where it belongs, and also helps build up beneficial bacteria.

Now for the more difficult part, vacuuming. The filter won’t be able to get rid of it all. You’ll have to take care of the rest yourself. You’ll need a siphon-style gravel vacuum. These are inexpensive, easy to use, and gentle enough to use even on sand substrates.

The trick is not to stick the siphon into the sand. This will suck up parts of the substrate. Instead, hover the siphon above the substrate. It will gently take up the dislodged debris on top of the sand.

– Cleaning Gravel Substrates

Unlike a sand substrate, gravel doesn’t need additional prep before cleaning. The higher weight and surface area make everything a lot easier. Maintaining this substrate is as easy as straight-up vacuuming it once every 1-2 weeks. Just as with sand, a gravel substrate benefits from good water flow. Additionally, gravel can’t get sucked up by the filter.

When it comes to hands-on work, you have multiple options. For a gravel substrate, you can use either a siphon-type vacuum, an electric gravel vacuum, or even just wash the gravel yourself. When using a siphon on gravel, you can stick the pump deep into the substrate for a thorough cleaning. The pebbles won’t get sucked up, but the trapped debris will. This method is both gentle and efficient.

Electric gravel vacuums are more expensive, but they do a pristine job. You can use them to clean the gravel and water at the same time. This type of vacuum sucks up water and the substrate and uses a very fine mesh to separate the debris from the pebbles. Then, it returns the clean water and pebbles into the aquarium.

Finally, washing the substrate by hand is pretty self-explanatory. You’ll have to move your fish to another tank, then scoop up the pebbles and wash them with clean water. This helps loosen up hardened pockets of debris and bacteria that are harder to reach with a vacuum. This method is also free, but a bit more time-consuming.

Best Substrate for African Cichlids

You might already know what type of substrate you want to use. But then there’s another issue— which product do you buy? The market is oversaturated with many products that offer great promises. However, not all live up to the expectations.

To save you from a long process of hit-and-miss purchases, I’d advise you to opt for the following products. I’ve tried multiple types of substrates, but these are by far the best ones out there, especially for hardy fish like African cichlids.

– The Best Gravel Substrate

This Malawi Mix gravel by African Cichlid Substrates is everything you need to turn your aquarium from “meh” to “marvelous”. This substrate offers a natural and pleasing look and comes in a variety of colors including grey, ashy brown, and reddish-brown.

The grain size varies between 3.5-5.0 mm, providing plenty of surface area for beneficial nitrifying bacteria to colonize. This is an aragonite substrate. It not only looks good but is an active water quality enhancer! These pebbles contain 11 essential trace minerals and an especially high level of calcium chloride.

Thanks to its composition, this gravel helps alkalinize the water and also raises the hardness level. This substrate really ticks all the boxes. It looks great, maintains good water chemistry, and helps keep harmful nitrates in check. What’s even better is that the product comes in 20-pound bags and for an affordable price!

– The Best Sand Substrate

For those who prefer the soft look of a sand substrate, I recommend this African Cichlid Aragonite Sand by AquaNatural. This phosphate-free substrate is made up of 98% pure calcium carbonate, which offers an unsurpassed buffering capability. Apart from that, this sand also contains other important trace minerals like magnesium potassium, strontium, and molybdenum.

This sand is clean and very safe for all types of aquariums. Given its high purity and its chemical composition, you’re guaranteed this sand will help with water alkalinization and hardness. You’ll get a sizable quantity, as this product comes in 10-pound bags. Each bag of sand provides 4.5 million square centimeters of surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow. Good news, as this substrate also doubles as a mini biological filter.

Its aspect is also very pleasing. This sand is very soft and the grains are smooth, egg-shaped, and very consistent in size. The color is off-white, bright, and suitable for a strong contrast with the plants and colorful fish. Finally, if you’re ecologically-minded, you’ll love to learn that this product is sustainably sourced and comes from a naturally renewable source.


Overall, a gravel substrate has all the benefits of sand, without the major downsides. However, sand creates a soft and beachy look that’s hard to replicate. If you’re drawn to the light appearance of sand, you can still make this substrate work for you! Just remember to scrape the surface regularly to prevent compaction.

If you want an easy-to-manage substrate and prefer darker colors, gravel is the best choice. Whichever substrate you choose, remember that you’ll have to complete at least a bi-weekly cleaning. When choosing a substrate, opt for aragonite ones with high concentrations of sand minerals. These are the best for a cichlid tank. You can check out the products I’ve recommended, or any other similar substrates!

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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