How to Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

No matter the size of your fish tank, cleaning it out can be a chore. Wiping all of the ornaments, changing gallons and gallons of water, replacing all of the different chemicals with pipettes - and the gravel. 

We don’t know what it is about the gravel, but it never seems to become clean. You can rinse, rinse, and rinse some more… with minimal results. There are now small vacuums that you can use to help speed up the process of cleaning the gravel, which is often recommended to any fish owner. 

However, not everyone wants to opt for a fish tank gravel vacuum and want to opt for a more traditional method. We’re here to walk you through it and prevent you from wanting to give up before it’s complete. 

Roll your sleeves up, put on some music, and get ready - we’re in for a long ride.

Gravel Cleaning Method One

First things first, remove all of the fish from your tank. Make sure that you know how many you have in there so that you don’t accidentally leave a man behind. If you’re unsure of the exact number, you can remove all of the ornaments first to ensure that there are no hiding spots for them to be lost under. 

Get a large and clean bucket and fill it with water from both the tap and the aquarium that you’re about to clean. Next, use a fish net to scoop them out of the water and into the bucket. You can cover the bucket with a thin piece of material if you’re worried about them jumping to their freedom. 

Now that all of the fish and ornaments are out of the way, you can begin cleaning the fish tank gravel. 

Use a cup to take all of the gravel out of the fish tank. Split it up into two containers - one that you won’t clean and one that you will. The amount of gravel that you won’t clean will be much smaller than the alternative, but it’s important to keep some unwashed gravel to one side as it houses some healthy bacteria that the fish will need in their new clean tank. 

So, keep this pile to the side, and let’s focus on the gravel that will be washed. Put as much that will fit into a sieve and run water through it. Stir it around in the sieve so that the water reaches every piece and continue to do so until the water runs clear. 

Keep doing this until you’ve made your way through all of the gravel. Now mix the clean gravel with the unwashed pile and add it back into the tank. It’s worth noting that you should always use clean supplies or things that have already been used for fish tank cleaning. For example, the sieve should not be used for anything else to avoid contamination. 

You can now add your fish and ornaments back into the fish tank and hook the filter back up. And voila! You’re all finished cleaning the gravel. 

Gravel Cleaning Method Two

The above method is the most effective way of cleaning the gravel in your fish tank without a vacuum, but it can also take quite a bit of time to complete. So, there are a couple more methods that take less time and effort on your part. 

The first method is to remove the fish and ornaments before stirring the water and gravel around with your hand. This will allow all of the dirt to be mixed up into the water and you’ll be left with a tank full of swirling water and filth - lovely. 

Now remove the water either by pouring it away or using a cup. The latter option works best if you have live plants that need to be worked around. You can leave around a third of the water in the tank and top it up with fresh water. 

Introduce the fish and ornaments back into the water and you’re done. This will not provide the gravel with as much of a thorough clean as method one, but it will save you time. Just bear in mind that you might have to repeat this process more frequently. 

Gravel Cleaning Method Three

The final method we have for you today requires very little effort on your part whatsoever. Sounds appealing, right? All you have to do is purchase some algae eaters that will crawl along the bottom of the tank and eat all sorts of dirt, fish food, and debris that they find. 

Some algae eaters will even help you to clean the glass of the tank as well, so it’s a win-win in our eyes! There are plenty of different algae eaters out there so it’s best to do your research before opting for one. 

You might find that your fish like to eat smaller algae eaters that they find in their tanks, so beware of this factor. Small species of shrimp are often eaten by bigger fish and therefore don’t last long enough to leave a lasting impression on your fish tank gravel. 

Siamese algae eaters are often the best option and can be found in plenty of pet stores. They devour old fish food, almost every type of algae out there, and any other dirt that might have accumulated at the bottom of your fish tank.


There are plenty of methods to go about cleaning fish tank gravel without a vacuum. You can either choose to be really hands-on and remove all of the gravel to rinse it with a sieve, or you can sit back and let your new algae eaters do all of the work for you. 

Bear in mind that methods two and three will not be as efficient as method one and the gravel will likely be less clean, but they will save you time. So, if you don’t want to waste half a day cleaning every piece of gravel in your tank, we suggest looking for a live-in helper.