Do African Cichlids Like Sand or Gravel Substrate?

If you decide to set up a tropical freshwater aquarium with some of the most diverse and beautiful African Cichlids, you cannot forget about the perfect aquarium decorations and equipment.

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An essential part of any aquarium is the substrate. But do these colorful, warm water fish like all types of substrates equally? Sand or gravel or maybe another substrate type is more suitable for African cichlids?

In the following article, I will try to answer all the questions you may have. Stay tuned if you’re curious!

Sand or Gravel – Which Should You Use?

The substrate is an important element of an aquarium. Only in very exceptional cases is a substrate not used, for example when spawning or rearing fry.

Except in these cases, the substrate plays an important role: it provides a holding surface and a substrate for plants, it plays a role in decomposition and thus in the development of biological balance, and last but not least it provides a habitat for certain organisms and beneficial bacteria.

But which is the best substrate for African cichlids?

For African cichlids both sand and gravel are a good choice. However, whichever you choose, it’s a good idea to mix in some coral sand, crushed coral or crushed oyster shells, as these materials help to establish and maintain the right pH of the water, as well as the bright color and good health of the cichlids.

However, we cannot forget practicality. The most common problem with sand is that, firstly, its small grain size means that it can become so clogged that it can almost choke the roots of plants and, secondly, if you use a motorized filter, the flow it generates can stir up the substrate quite a bit.

In this case, some of the sand will end up piled up at one end of the aquarium and some in the filter, seriously damaging it.

This is why, overall, such a small substrate is quite difficult to manage.

Gravel, on the other hand, corresponds to the recommended substrate grain size of 0,39 to 0,79 inches maximum. The gaps between the grains are large enough to prevent compaction and still allow sufficient water flow, but small enough to prevent the mulch from settling. Furthermore, the grains are heavy enough in size that they cannot be lifted or carried away by the current.

This may also make it more suitable for our pets to burrow in the substrate.

How Much Substrate do African Cichlids Need?

It is considered that for every gallon of water you should count at least 1, but more preferably 2 pounds of the substrate, to ensure that the entire bottom of your tank is covered, 1-2 inches thik.

This is important not only to allow our fish to browse at the proper depth but also to provide adequate support for our decorative rocks and plants.

How to Keep the Substrate Clean?

Unfortunately, socket cleaning can very rarely be avoided. And in the case of sand and gravel, not at all. And while it may not be one of our favorite activities, the result speaks for itself.

So, let’s take a look at the correct cleaning method for these types of substrates.

The first and most important thing to mention is that any sand or gravel that is placed at the bottom of the tank should be cleaned before it reaches its final location. Cleaning should also be carried out regularly after the living space has been created.

Running your fingers over the sand bed regularly, thereby rolling and turning it over and over, can in itself help to remove a lot of dirt and debris. However, this does not achieve total cleanliness.

It is important to clean the substrate in small batches as this makes it much easier to work with. Wash each batch until the rinse water remains crystal clear! This, as already mentioned, is often only achieved after the umpteenth time.

You can also use the tools developed for this purpose: the socket vacuum cleaner and the socket cleaning roller.

The substrate cleaner is one of the most popular tools, as it not only sucks out the dirt but also replaces a small part of the water.

The real big gun, however, is the substrate vacuum, which sucks up gravel and sand into a wide tube. They tumble through the pipe while the vacuum cleaner removes the dirt and debris from them. The substrate then sinks back to its original position, while the sorted dirt is deposited into the vacuum cleaner’s bucket. 

Of course, gravel is easier to remove here too, as sand can be easily removed by the tool. Therefore, in the case of sand, try to hover the hose of the vacuum cleaner a little higher above it. This way it will not suck up the sand, just float it while the dirt is being sorted out.

Recommended Substrate for African Cichlids

– Gravel

If you have decided to go for the gravel substrate, you should choose the African Cichlid Substrates Malawi Mix for Aquarium, which is specially formulated for these fish. Not only is it suitable for the digging lifestyle of our fish, but it also reduces harmful nitrates while maintaining the correct pH level of the water and providing essential elements such as zinc and cobalt.

– Sand

However, if you do decide to give in to the challenge and prefer to incorporate sand into your aquarium decor, you should choose African CICHLID Aragonite Aquarium Sand, a naturally renewable oolitic aragonite. It is also completely phosphate-free and consists of calcium carbonate of almost 100% purity.


All in all, gravel is easier to handle, so we recommend its use especially for beginners.

It is worth taking the time to choose the right type and certainly doesn’t be stingy when it comes to quantity. Adequate substrate volume is essential for the survival of your fish, as is proper cleaning.

Although it is a nuisance, it is a necessary step and, believe us, in the end, the beautiful tropical fish life will make up for it.

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