The best aquarium substrates are important components of a fish tank. It provides a healthy environment for both the fish and plants to thrive.
More than just elevating the aesthetic appeal of an aquarium, the right substrate is also important for holding plants. Plus, it introduces beneficial bacteria in the habitat.
For a novice, choosing a substrate can be an overwhelming task. From gravel to sand, the options will be endless. This does not mean that they can offer the same benefits.
Your choice of the substrate will depend on a couple of things. If you need help in your search for the best aquarium substrates, keep on reading! We will help you make the right choice.
Why You Need an Aquarium Substrate
Before we list down some of our top recommendations for an aquarium substrate, let’s first talk about why you need them in the first place.
We want our aquarium to look good. Often, it is also a decorative fixture and a conversation starter. The right substrate will help elevate aesthetics.
Make Fish More Comfortable
When building a tank, one of your priorities is to keep the fish as comfortable as possible. Substrates will make this happen. It will replicate the natural habitat of the fish, making the tank a more comfortable place to live.
In the case of most fish tanks, they will be incomplete without plants. Using substrates will help plants to thrive. To add, it can also provide the support that plants need to stand.
An aquarium substrate also has a crucial role to play in maintaining a clean and healthy environment. It will trap food and waste in the bottom instead of letting it float in the water.
Another good reason to use an aquarium substrate is to introduce beneficial bacteria in the fish tank. This will also be a crucial component in nitrogen cycling.
The Main Types of Aquarium Substrate
A substrate is a general term that refers to the materials you can use at the bottom of a fish tank. It is available in several types, including those listed below.
This is one of the long-time favorites when it comes to aquarium substrates. The gravel needs to have smooth edges. Otherwise, you are risking damage to the fish. It should also not dissolve in water. Plus, it should not have chemicals.
If you want something smaller than gravel, then it will be hard to go wrong with sand. Waste and dirt will accumulate on the top, making it easier to clean. It is also a good choice if your fish likes digging.
Also called coral gravel, it is made of calcium carbonate, which will dissolve slowly in the aquarium. This is for those who like a high pH level or if you need to counterbalance the presence of acid in the tank.
One of the best things about clay is that it is an inert material, which means that it will not alter the chemical composition of your aquarium. If you will have root plants in the aquarium, clay will need fertilization.
Our Top Picks for the Best Aquarium Substrates
Clueless about the substrate to buy? Below are some of the top products that should be on your radar!
#1. CaribSea Eco-Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate
If you have a freshwater planted aquarium, this is one of the best substrates to consider. Using this substrate will let you experience lush plant growth!
The best thing about this product is that it comes with an enhanced formula. It is developed specifically to encourage root development, making sure that plants will grow in the aquarium.
One of the secrets of this product is the use of basaltic volcanic soil. It has the essential nutrients needed in a planted aquarium, such as sulfur, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron.
It also has an Iron-Rich Eco-Complete formula. This was developed by the manufacturer to eliminate the need for laterite. It also has highly-porous spherical grains that will be beneficial for plants.
The Bi-Modal Grading is another impressive feature in this option for the best aquarium substrates. It naturally separates into two layers to create a conducive fish tank environment.
#2. Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum
Premium quality – that is what you can expect from this 4.4-pound bag of aquarium substrate. It is rich in minerals that can stimulate healthy plant growth in your aquarium.
This substrate is made exclusively of mineral-rich particles collected at the foot of Mount Aso Volcano in Japan.
One of the things that we love the most about this product is the porous structure. It allows the rapid colonization of beneficial bacteria in the aquarium. This is beneficial in terms of nitrification.
When the roots grow, they will easily spread on the substrate and absorb the minerals in the rocks. This way, the plants will have the nutrients essential for their survival.
This is a great choice if you have shrimps in the aquarium. It cradles newborn shrimp to protect them from predators. When the shrimp is large enough, it will easily emerge from the substrate.
#3. Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel
If you have bright or light-colored fish, this aquarium substrate will make the perfect contrast. It is made of stable porous clay, which is a great material to introduce in a planted fish tank.
Even when the gravel is used alone, it will be effective. There is no need to mix it with other materials, including laterite.
Safety is another good reason to choose this product over many of its competitors. It does not contain any harsh chemicals. There is no chemical coating that can alter the pH level in the tank.
When it is delivered, it is already pre-washed. Nonetheless, do not put it straight in your tank. Rinse the gravel to remove any residual dust.
#4. Nature’s Ocean Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Reef Sand
If you want sand for your aquarium substrate, this is one product that you will not regret. It contains natural live marine bacteria, making it instrumental in creating a healthy aquatic habitat.
The manufacturer claims that the reef sand has been collected in its natural environment. It was then sealed in its packaging to preserve its natural state.
Simplicity is also one of its best assets. All that you need to do is to put it in the tank and add saltwater. You don’t have to rinse or soak this substrate.
Once the reef sand is introduced in the aquarium, it will instantly get rid of nitrogenous waste. This will make the aquarium a more conducive place for fish and plants to live.
Lastly, aragonite is also effective in maintaining the proper pH level of water. This is another way it creates an ideal environment for the tank.
#5. CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand
This premium aquarium substrate is pH neutral. This means that it will not increase carbonate hardness of the water in your fish tank, making it a great way to create a healthy environment.
It has small and smooth sand grains that fish will love. It does not have a rough texture, which will minimize the chances that the fish will hurt itself in the aquarium.
This sand is also packed with living and purifying bacteria. This will clarify and condition the water in the aquarium.
Its ability to reduce nitrates and nitrites is also worth noting. With the presence of the latter, the tank can be a stressful environment both for the fish and the plants.
Lastly, like many of our recommendations in this buying guide, it also does not contain chemicals and toxic components.
#6. Imagitarium Black Aquarium Sand
If you are looking for black sand to add to your fish tank, this is another option you should not miss for the best aquarium substrates.
Go bold in your aquarium and consider this for your substrate. You will love many things, including how it does not introduce harsh chemicals in your fish tank.
This substrate is designed in such a way that it can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. This will help in breaking down waste and lessening unhealthy debris.
This will be perfect if you have bright fish and iridescent coral. The aquarium is sure to stand out!
#7. Imagitarium Blue Jean Aquarium Gravel
This is from the same manufacturer as the substrate mentioned above, so you can expect the same great quality. One of the main differences is color. It is also larger than the previous one.
Like many of our recommendations, this is another product that will help in the propagation of good bacteria.
It is also made using fish-safe and non-toxic chemicals. It has a bright color, but the good news is that the coloring used will not harm your fish or plants.
Based on the recommendations of the manufacturer, for every one gallon of water, you should use two pounds of this substrate.
#8. Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular for Freshwater Aquariums
Looking for value for money? Then this is one choice for the best aquarium substrates you need to consider. It is also one of the most affordable of the products in our recommendations.
The pebbles are available in various shapes and sizes to give your aquarium a good appearance. They are all smooth, so you do not have to worry that the substrate will hurt fish.
Even if it is quite smaller compared to your standard gravel, it is effective in improving circulation in the aquarium. This is also one of the reasons why it is effective in the prevention of dead spots.
Lastly, as expected, it does not have a toxic coating. To add, it will not also affect the pH level of the water in your aquarium.
#9. Tropica Plant Care Freshwater Planted Aquarium Soil
This is a complete bottom layer for your aquarium. You can use it even without combining other materials, making it a cost-effective solution for many fish tanks.
One of the best things about this product is that it is from a Japanese volcanic material. It is packed straight from the source to maintain the beneficial properties of this aquarium soil.
As for the size, the grains are 2 to 3 mm. They are not uniform. They are compact when arranged on the bottom of the tank, leaving no or little room for debris to hide.
Being an active bottom layer, expect that this will have a slight impact on the pH level of the water in the fish tank. This means that it can alter the water chemistry.
To make the most out of this substrate, the manufacturer recommends that you change up to 50% of the water in the aquarium at least twice a week. Do this in the first four weeks of adding the substrate.
#10. Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil
Healthy plants are crucial for maintaining a healthy ecosystem in your tank. This soil will provide the nutrients essential for the survival of aquatic plants.
Another good thing is that this soil is effective for providing buffering capacities. This will help soften the water.
The soil will act as a fertilizer, making it easier to grow healthy plants in an aquatic setting. The manufacturer notes that the fertilizer in the soil can last up to 18 months.
It is also worth noting that it has a porous granular structure. It can be easily penetrated by roots, and in turn, will help in the growth of plants in the aquarium.
#11. UP Aqua Sand for Aquatic Plants
If you want to soften water, then this is another option worth considering for the best aquarium substrates. By slightly altering the natural composition of water, it can promote the healthy growth of aquatic plants.
One of the things that we like in this product is that it will not require preliminary rinsing. This means that you can add it directly to the aquarium.
Even if you do not need to wash this aquarium sand, no need to worry that it is dirty. It has no harsh components that can harm fish or plants in the aquarium.
It is also a good thing that it is made of a material that does not easily break. This means that it will last a long time, making it provide the best bang for the buck.
#12. Landen Aquarium Soil Black
This is a great product if you want a healthy root system for aquatic plants. It will be easier to ensure a healthy environment for them to grow.
Using this black soil is not just for plants. If you have shrimp in the tank, this is also a great choice for the substrate as it will be effective in making the water softer.
With the minerals and trace elements that are present in this substrate, it will be easy to grow plants in the aquarium.
Lastly, you will also love how it does not require rinsing. This will minimize the effort you need to exert since you can put the substrate directly in the aquarium. This is unlike others that you will need to wash.
#13. Stoney River White Aquatic Sand
This five-pound bag of the aquatic substrate is a great choice if you have dark-colored fish. It will create an excellent contrast for a good-looking aquarium.
To preserve the composition of the water in the tank, it is also a good thing that it does not affect the pH level. Plus, it has a non-toxic coating, making it safe for both fish and plants.
This is also an effective way to anchor plants because it is compact. It will create a harder surface without gaps unlike when you are using gravel.
#14. Pure Water Pebbles African Cichlid Substrate
Wrapping up our recommendations for the best aquarium substrates is another product that contains live bacteria. This will be effective in promoting natural cycling and establishing a healthy aquatic environment.
Speaking of live bacteria, it has autotrophic, chemolithotrophic, and heterotrophic bacteria. They are all preserved in their natural states, making them more beneficial.
The bacteria in the substrate will also aid in the filtration process. This will ensure cleaner water in the aquarium without relying on toxic chemicals.
Ideal for freshwater aquariums, this product will help in the removal of nitrogenous waste. It will help eliminate nitrite and ammonia, among other things that can harm both fish and plants.
Lastly, this substrate is packed in a large bag, which contains 20 pounds of pebbles. Best of all, it is affordable!
How to Choose the Best Aquarium Substrates
The options for the best aquarium substrates will be almost endless. Nonetheless, this does not mean that you should decide in haste. To help you narrow down the options, here are the things to consider.
The material will depend on the type of substrate. Earlier, we already talked about these materials, such as gravel, sand, and clay, among others.
The most important when it comes to the material of the substrate is that it should be non-toxic. Some have a chemical-based coating, which can affect the quality of water. This can harm both the fish and plants.
In most cases, choosing the color of the substrate is a personal preference. It is more of an aesthetic concern.
It is best if there is a contrast. So, consider the color of the fish in determining the color of the substrate. For instance, if the fish is light-colored, then your substrate should be dark-colored.
In the case of substrates like gravel, you will have two options – fine or large. The choice is personal, but each will have its respective pros and cons.
Smaller particles are more compact, which will prevent dirt and debris from being stuck. Larger particles will need more cleaning.
You cannot just pick any substrate and put it in the aquarium. You need to ensure suitability with anything else in the tank.
Consider the inhabitants of the tank. For instance, if there will be live plants, you will need substrates that will aid in their survival.
Care and Maintenance for Aquarium Substrate
To maintain a healthy habitat for fish and plants, you need to have a well-maintained substrate. Doing this can be quite tedious, which will depend on the type of aquarium substrate you are using.
In the case of most substrates, they will need to be washed before putting in the aquarium. This is to avoid introducing dust and dirt in the fish tank.
Regular vacuuming is also a must, especially if you are using gravel. Fish poop and food waste can be stuck under the gravel, so you need to clean them.
Regular replacement of the aquarium substrate is also necessary. Especially if it is soil, it can deplete over time, and hence, you will need a new one.
Got questions about aquarium substrates? We’ll try to answer some of them below before we conclude this buying guide.
Does an aquarium need a substrate?
No, an aquarium does not need a substrate. However, to make an aquarium look better and provide plants the foundation they need to stand and grow, it is best to use an aquarium substrate.
How many substrates do I need?
You will need around 2 to 3 inches of substrate in your aquarium. It will be up to 2 gallons, although, this will depend on the size of the tank and the substrate.
How often should I change the aquarium substrate?
There is no rule of thumb on when you should change your aquarium substrate. This will depend on the material. Clay substrate, for instance, needs a replacement every three to four years.
With the best aquarium substrates, you can bring your fish tank to life! More than just improving aesthetic appeal, substrates can also create a more conducive habitat for both the fish and aquatic plants.
Substrates are available in different types, such as gravel, clay, and sand. Choose one suitable for your needs, such as the fish in the tank.
To help you make the right choice, you don’t have to look far. Consider our recommendations above and you will have no regrets!