While plucking debris and waste from your aquarium gravel with tweezers or a baster is plausible, it's anything but practical. Save yourself trouble with a gravel vacuum. Gravel vacs suck debris out of substrate without removing it. A variety of vacuums exist, and the key to them all is technique.
Types of Gravel Vacuums
Three primary types of gravel vacuums exist: standard, water-powered and filter. Standard vacs, which have vacuum tubes and siphon hoses, are generally the cheapest option, they are sometimes difficult to prime -- you typically have to shake the vacuum, squeeze a rubber ball or suck on the end of the hose -- and they require a bucket to hold the water you siphon out. A water-powered vacuum is generally more expensive. One end attaches to your sink faucet and the gravel vacuum tube sits in your tank. When you turn on your faucet, the water pressure begins sucking out the water, pulling it through a siphon hose and dropping it off in your sink. With a simple adjustment, the water from the faucet flows into your siphon hose and fills your tank. A filter vacuum is typically battery-powered. The filter returns the water back into your tank but keeps the debris. You can remove the filter and add on a siphon hose to remove water, but you need a bucket to hold the water you siphon out.
Into the Gravel
Once your gravel vac begins sucking water out of your tank, lower the vacuum tube onto the substrate and begin removing noticeable debris, waste, dead plant material and dirt. Once you remove the obvious grime from the top layer of gravel, gently shove the tube a smidgen into the gravel. You'll begin seeing the vacuum suck up cloudy, grayish water. When the water turns somewhat clear, move to another area. Focus on high-traffic areas. For instance, the area in which you feed your fish is high-traffic. It has lots of waste, both fish and food, that builds up each week. Don't worry about vacuuming areas you can't reach, such as gravel under a log.
Plants and Fish
Most fish see a vacuum tube coming near them and get the heck out of the way. Others are a bit on the slow side -- some aquarium inhabitants, such as snails and African dwarf frogs, are just too slow or blind too move. Just keep your eye on what you're sucking up and avoid bumping or hovering the tube over your inhabitants. If you have a planted tank, stay away from the plants. They use fish waste as a source of fertilizer and you'll likely uproot them if you vacuum near their roots.
If you're not using a filter vacuum, watch your water level. Turn off and unplug your heater and filter if the water level drops below the filter input or the heater itself. Heaters and filters can become damaged if left on out of the water. Additionally, warm heaters can crack when reintroduced to the cooler water.
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