Freshwater Aquarium Substrate - Your Choices

Published: 16th February 2011
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Freshwater Aquarium Substrate Explained.

Substrate refers to the matter, generally gravel or sand, that is placed on the bottom of fish tanks. Though you can opt for a bare bottom, it is not very appealing. Using substrate creates an orientation point for your fish and minimizes glaring reflections from the glass, which is known to cause aggravation in a lot of aquatic animals.

There is a significant difference between the freshwater aquarium substrate and those that may be used in saltwater aquariums. The chemical properties of the waters are different and to use corals in freshwater tanks will elevate the pH to unsafe levels for virtually all freshwater fish species.

It is highly recommended to use aquarium approved items that are sold as sterilized, neutral material from neighborhood or online pet retail establishments. You could collect your own from natural sources however that choice is only recommended for those with proper knowledge on the subject of organic substances and the resulting impact on your water composition.

Absolutely do not use sea sand collected from the beach it contains live organisms and contaminates that will foul your aquarium. If you opt to source your own material, make sure you perform extensive water tests on it for several weeks before "surprising" your fish!

Why Should You Use Freshwater Aquarium Substrate?

The the best reason for including substrate is for its biological filtration properties. The use of coarse gravel or sand as your bottom matter allows for massive volumes of growing surface for the beneficial bacteria colonies to prosper. The size is important not just for the surface area but also for the aeration value. If the gravel becomes compacted, as smaller substrates are prone to do, oxygen depleted areas will be created allowing for the growth of anaerobic bacteria, the ones that create that rotten egg smell. This can prove to be lethal for your aquarium pets!

As everyone learns at some point, nothing is ever perfect. The pH needs for most freshwater aquatic species are very narrow and the pH range of your household water resource may not fall within that range. Certain materials can be introduced to your fish tank that will increase or decrease the pH and water hardness levels, enabling you to use your tap water and still maintain good stability in your aquatic eco system.

What Substrates Are Common?

Gravel is most frequently used. The bags of vibrantly colored gravels on the shelf are commonly epoxy covered quartz, but there is an ever increasing selection of natural products from global locations that are inert, sterilized and safe to put in your freshwater ecosystem.

Sand is another popular selection. If you do not source aquarium approved sand, make sure it is either play sand, which has been sterilized or sandblast media. As mentioned above, do not use ocean sand!

Aragonite, dolomite and crushed corals are safe products that can be used to elevate your water hardness and pH levels. Exercise caution, these can create rapid changes; there are others, such as marble that has a gentler result.

Peat is an excellent choice for reducing (softening) your water hardness and pH and is a great choice for a planted freshwater aquarium.

Regarding plants, using the specialized substrates available for aquatic plants is not required but it certainly enhances their growth potential. These special compounds posses a high cation exchange rate, simply meaning that they have distinct properties which improves their ability to gather and store nutrients for consumption by the plants roots.

Vermiculite and laterite are two such materials that are placed on the bottom of aquariums with additional layers of gravel or sand placed on top. Other products on the market, such as Fluorite (by Seachem) or Floracor Red (by Activ-Flora) can be added as a single layer.

There are lots of considerations to take into account when starting a freshwater aquarium and all are equally important, however the substrate you select will define the theme of your entire tank, so be sure to put some serious thought forth before making your choice.

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