How To Use A Gravel Vacuum

Admiring your fish tank and noticed an unattractive layer of grime in the gravel or substrate at the bottom?

Don’t worry!

There is a super quick and simple way to get rid of this dirt to keep your tank and fish in shipshape condition!

There is absolutely no need to tip everything out of your tank and scrub away in the sink.

Instead, you can use a gravel vacuum that will get rid of this unattractive mixture of fish waste and leftover food, keeping your fish healthy and happy.

We have put together this quick guide to help you get the most out of this essential aquarium cleaning gadget.

What You Need

To successfully vacuum out your tank, all you need is a gravel vacuum – otherwise known as an aquarium siphon, a siphon kit, or a gravel cleaner – and a bucket to catch all of the dirty water.

If your tank is very large or you plan to do multiple tanks in one go you may find it easier to put this receptacle on wheels – water is very heavy!

You may not even need a bucket if the hose of the gravel vacuum can easily reach a sink or even outside.

When buying a gravel vacuum, you need to get one that has a good-quality hose.

This is because your tubing needs to be flexible but rigid enough that it does not get any kinks or is easily twisted.

If your hose does kink and twists easily then you may find it harder to successfully vacuum your tank.

Tank Prep

You do not need to take your fish out of the tank if you are vacuuming as catching them, taking them out of their home, then putting them back in when you are done is far more stressful than vacuuming around them.

Just be sure to go slowly so they don’t get too spooked.

It is a good idea to remove any decorations that you have in the tank as detritus quickly accumulates under them and you will not get a good clean otherwise.

This is a good opportunity to give decorations a quick clean to keep them looking their best.

If you wish, part of your tank prep could include scrubbing off any algae and giving the filter a good clean.

Some people choose to do this before vacuuming as any bigger particles can be sucked up by the vacuum, rather than clogging the filter.

Time To Siphon

Once you have done all of your preferred tank preparation, you can begin vacuuming your tank.

The siphoning system uses gravity to suck up water that will hold the debris that is then deposited in your bucket or other receptacles.

You need to make sure that the end of the hose is firmly secured so that it only flows into the bucket.

You can purchase clips for this very purpose if you prefer.

To start the water moving, submerge the tube into your aquarium so it gets filled with water.

If you are having difficulty completely filling the vacuum tube you can tilt it upwards at a diagonal angle.

This should prevent any air bubbles and get the water flowing in smoothly.

Once filled you need to slowly raise the tube up and out of the water to hold it above the aquarium.

You need to wait for gravity to pull the water down the tubing, down the hose, and into the bucket at the bottom.

Remember to keep the end of the tube upright so that the tube comes out of the bottom – any other angle will stop the siphon from working.

Hold this position above the tank until 50% of the water in the tube has been drained into the bucket, then quickly plunge the tube back into the water so that it is submerged again.

Remember to find the same diagonal angle to make filling the tube easier.

You need to make sure that the tube is completely submerged in water or it will stop draining and you will need to start again.

Once you are sure that the water is moving freely and easily up the tube, down the hose, and into the bucket, you can point the tube downwards to the bottom of the tank.

You are now successfully siphoning and ready to vacuum the gravel in your tank.


Push the end of the tube into your gravel, or whatever substrate you have, and let some of it be sucked up into the tube.

Fish waste and leftover food are much lighter than tank substrate, so they should easily separate without any issues.

If you notice that the substrate is being sucked up, you can briefly pause the suction by creating a kink in the hose.

This will allow any substrate in the tube to fall back out, leaving the grime behind, which is then sucked down into the hose when you let go of the hose.

Pausing the suction can be done frequently as long as you are careful to not create too much of a kink in the hose to disrupt the siphoning system.

Cleaning your fish tank with a gravel vacuum

The most efficient way to clean the substrate is to work systematically in rows or columns.

Start at one end of the tank and move in a similar way to mowing a lawn.

If cleaning is taking too long and you are running out of water in the tank, it is best to stop and then clean the parts of the tank you missed the next time you clean.

Some prefer to work in a third or quarter of a tank at a time using this method, ensuring that the substrate in that area is thoroughly cleaned and leaving the rest for another day.

Finishing Up

Once you have cleaned the areas you wanted to, cover the end of the tube in the water with your other hand and lift the tube out.

The suction will firmly seal your hand to the tube which stops any diary water from falling back into the tank or onto the floor.

Hold the tube aloft and let the remaining water flow down the hose and into the bucket.

Congratulations! You have successfully siphoned your tank.

All you need to do now is fill your tank with water that is a similar temperature to the old, and add any necessary chemicals to keep your fish and tank healthy.

Bonus Tips

If your tank is too small to start the siphon off in the way described, there is another method.

Put the tube into the tank, ensuring that the end is completely submerged in water.

Now you need to suck on the end of the hose to get the water moving, then direct the end into the bucket.

It’s important to stop sucking at the right time – too soon and there won’t be enough suction to keep the water flowing but let go too late and you might get a mouthful of water!

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