How To Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without A Vacuum?

Move your fish into a separate tank so you can clean the fish tank without harming them. Use a cup to scoop out as much gravel as you can. Then clean the tank using a water and vinegar solution. Once dried, you can move the water and your fish back in.

Fish aquariums tend to become quite nasty over time. An accumulation of fish excrement, plant decay, deposits of algae, and food that the fish did not consume will leave disgusting deposits in the tank. 

This is not only dangerous for the fish but can become unsightly and even put off vile odors.

Knowing this, it is easy to see why it is impossible to skip having a routine of cleaning your fish aquarium. This is not only something that you do for yourself and the residents of your home or office but is also vital to the health of your fish. 

How Often Should I Clean My Fish Tank Gravel? 

This answer depends on how many fish you have and how large the aquarium is. In most cases, every week or two is sufficient for cleaning the aquarium gravel. Smaller aquariums require cleaning more often, while larger ones are okay waiting for a bit longer.

Let’s dive into how you can clean your fish tank gravel without a vacuum.

Step 1. Prepare An Alternate Tank

The first thing you will need to do is prepare a separate tank that you can move your fish into while you clean their aquarium. 


  • Container or small fish tank to hold your fish
  • Vinegar
  • Empty spray bottle
  • Freshwater
  • Bowl large enough to hold all of the aquarium decorations, faux plants, etc.


First, completely sterilize the new container where you plan to store your fish while cleaning their aquarium. 

This should be done with no chemicals, soaps, or detergents that could harm the fish.

  1. Mix one part white vinegar with one part water and funnel into an empty spray bottle.  
  1. Spray the alternative tank down generously with the vinegar mixture.
  1. Let the tank sit from 10 minutes to a few hours, depending on how badly the tank needs cleaning.
  1. Put all the aquarium decorations into the large bowl and cover in the same vinegar mixture. Let these sit for several hours.
  1. Rinse the tank thoroughly.
  1. Rinse the decorations thoroughly.
  1. Let the alternative tank and the decorations air dry for 24 hours.

Once the tank is sterilized, you can continue preparing it for the fish. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Siphon or cup
  • Small fishnet
  • Sterilized tank

Then follow these steps:

  1. Using a siphon or cup, move at least half of the water from your aquarium into your alternative tank. 
  1. Gently move your fish from their aquarium into the alternative sterilized tank using the small fishnet.

Step 2. Clearing The Aquarium And Washing The Gravel

Next, you will need to clear the aquarium to be emptied, and the gravel can be removed.


  • Cup or scoop
  • Sieve or colander
  • Empty bowl
  • Running water, preferably with a spray nozzle
  • Towel


  1. Take all the filters, heaters, and any remaining equipment out of the aquarium.
  1. Unplug any equipment that connects to electricity.
  1. Remove most of the aquarium gravel using the cup or scoop and move it into the sieve or colander. If your aquarium is not too large and heavy, you can pour the gravel into the colander.
  1. Set aside at least one or two cups of the dirty gravel by pouring it into the bowl. This gravel will be important later since the beneficial bacteria is being cleaned from the aquarium. These dirty pebbles will help to recolonize this good bacteria. 
  1. Under the water spray, rinse the rest of the aquarium gravel in the colander or sieve. Using your hands to move the rocks around, continuously wash them with the water. 
  1. Repeat until the water runs clear.
  1. Spread the washed gravel out on a towel and allow it to air dry.
  1. While the gravel is drying, it is good to clean the aquarium.

Step 3. Cleaning The Aquarium

When cleaning the gravel in your fish aquarium, it only makes sense to clean the aquarium as well. You can do so safely with a vinegar solution.


  • Algae scraper or algae pad
  • Aquarium gloves
  • Razorblade
  • White Vinegar
  • Plain water
  • Paper towels
  • Funnel


  1. Put on the aquarium gloves.
  1. Clean the sides and bottom of the aquarium with the algae pad.
  1. Scrape away any stubborn spots with the razor blades.
  1. Wipe away any powder or debris from the scraping.
  1. Mix a solution that is one part white vinegar and one part plain water and funnel it into the empty spray bottle.
  1. Liberally spray the inside of the aquarium with the vinegar solution.
  1. Allow the aquarium to air dry.
  1. Wipe the inside of the aquarium with dry paper towels to remove residue.

Step 4. Putting Everything Back Into The Aquarium

Now that everything, including the gravel, has been cleaned, you can begin to add it all back into the aquarium.


  • Clean aquarium
  • Cleaned gravel
  • Uncleaned gravel
  • Water that has been properly conditioned for your aquarium type
  • Aquarium decorations
  • New filters, carbon packets, or sponges, depending on your aquarium uses.
  • Electric heater and other parts.


  1. Once the gravel has dried, add it to the unwashed gravel set aside in the bowl. 
  1. Add all of the gravel back into the clean aquarium. 
  1. Replace all of the aquarium decorations.
  1. Add the new filters, carbon packets, sponges, or whatever your aquarium requires.
  1. Replace all of the electric parts and equipment in and on your aquarium.
  1. Fill the aquarium back up, using the water set aside and the freshwater you have conditioned.
  1. Plug everything back in, and ensure that the water is at the correct temperature, PH level, etc.
  1. Carefully add your fish back into their clean aquarium.

Should You Let The Water Sit Before You Put The Fish Back Into The Fish Tank?

There is no need to wait if you have used a conditioner to remove chlorine from the water and you are sure that it is the correct temperature for your fish.

FAQs on How To Clean Fish Tank Gravel Without a Vacuum

What If My Aquarium Has Live Plants With Algae Growing On Them?

You can lightly scrub nuisance algae from live plants, but you might instead add algae eaters such as Amano shrimp to get rid of the issue naturally.

Do I Have To Remove The Fish Every Time I Clean The Aquarium?

Unless you remove all of the gravel and clean the entire inside of the aquarium, you do not have to remove your fish. You can perform a water change without removing the fish.

What If My Fish Tank Is Accidentally Contaminated With Spills Of Drinks, Food, Or Other Substances?

In such cases, it may be necessary to replace all water, but do so carefully. Unless the gravel was heavily exposed to the contaminant, you should still be able to use some of the dirty gravel to maintain the good bacteria.

Scroll to Top