What Is The Best Substrate For Angelfish? (Sand vs. Gravel)

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Setting up a tank for angelfish is pretty straightforward since they’re not too demanding.

But when it comes to the substrate, is there a preference between sand or gravel? Which one works best for them? Can they leave in bare-bottom tanks?

In this article, I’ll discuss all these questions and more, so you leave with all the information you need. Let’s get started.

Considerations for Selecting Substrate for Angelfish

When selecting a substrate for angelfish, it’s crucial to consider their natural habitat and behaviors alongside the practicality of tank maintenance.

Making the right choice can ensure the well-being of your angelfish and the overall health of your aquarium.

  • Natural Habitat: Angelfish hail from South American riverbeds with soft, sandy substrates. Mimicking this with a fine substrate provides comfort and familiarity.
  • Safety for Fins: Angelfish have delicate, long fins. A smooth substrate like sand reduces the risk of injuries, unlike rougher gravel.
  • Ease of Maintenance: Some substrates can trap detritus more than others. Consider how each substrate type might affect your cleaning routine, and how frequently you’re willing to maintain it.
  • Tank Aesthetics: While angelfish welfare is paramount, the visual appeal matters too. Sand gives a clean look, while gravel can offer color variety and depth to your aquarium’s appearance.

Also Read: Angelfish Tank Setup

What Is the Best Substrate for Angelfish?

When considering the perfect substrate for Angelfish, two types readily come to mind:

1. Sand

Angelfish naturally come from river habitats where the bottom is often sandy or muddy.

Sand provides a soft substrate that is closer to their natural environment and can benefit angelfish in various ways.

  • Natural Look: Sand replicates the riverbeds where angelfish are originally from, giving your tank a more authentic appearance.
  • Safe for Fins: With no sharp edges, sand ensures that angelfish, which have delicate long fins, don’t get injured or torn while moving around.
  • Beneficial Bacteria: Sand has plenty of surface area for beneficial bacteria to colonize, helping to break down waste and keep water conditions optimal.
  • Easy Food Retrieval: Angelfish will sometimes sift through the substrate for food, and the fine consistency of sand makes this process more straightforward and natural for them.

My recommendation: AquaNatural Sugar White Sand (link to Amazon).

2. Fine Gravel

Fine gravel is another popular choice among aquarists for their tanks.

While it doesn’t replicate the natural habitat of angelfish as closely as sand, it does have certain benefits that can make it a viable option for angelfish tanks.

  • Stability: Fine gravel provides a stable base for plants and decorations, making it easier to anchor things down in the tank.
  • Less Compaction: Gravel doesn’t compact as much as sand, which can prevent anaerobic pockets from forming and ensure better water flow through the substrate.
  • Easier Maintenance: Larger particles in fine gravel make it less prone to being stirred up, reducing the frequency of cloudy water occurrences after maintenance or water changes.
  • Versatility: Fine gravel comes in a variety of colors and types, allowing for greater customization of your aquarium’s look, matching the preferences and decor of the aquarist.

My recommendation: AquaNatural Gold Pearl Gravel Substrate (link to Amazon).

Is Sand or Gravel More Suitable for Angelfish Tanks?

When comparing sand to gravel for angelfish tanks, sand often emerges as the more suitable choice. Here’s why:

  • Particle Size and Compaction: Gravel can trap food and waste in its gaps, risking ammonia spikes; whereas detritus on sand stays on top for easier cleaning.
  • Aesthetics and Behavior: Angelfish naturally sift through finer substrates. In a gravel tank, this behavior is inhibited, potentially causing stress.
  • Safety Concerns: The coarse nature of gravel poses a risk to the delicate fins of angelfish, whereas sand offers a smoother, safer substrate.

How About Combining Sand and Gravel for Angelfish?

Combining sand and gravel can offer a unique aesthetic and functional solution for an angelfish tank.

By layering or zoning these substrates, you can enjoy the benefits of both while minimizing their individual drawbacks.

  • Layering Basics: Start with a bottom layer of fine gravel, about 1-2 inches thick. This acts as a solid foundation and facilitates better water flow through the substrate.
  • Sand Layer: Over the gravel, add a 1-2 inch layer of sand. This offers a smooth surface for your angelfish and mimics their natural environment.
  • Zoning Technique: Instead of layering, consider zoning areas with gravel and others with sand. For instance, place gravel around plants for anchoring and sand in open areas for the fish.
  • Maintenance Tips: When cleaning, gently vacuum the top layer to avoid mixing. Over time, some mixing may occur, so occasional adjustments might be needed to maintain the distinction.

Alternative Substrate Choices for Angelfish

Besides sand and gravel, here are some other options to consider:

1. Glass Beads

These are smooth, reflective substrate choices that can offer a visually stunning foundation for your tank.

While they can look appealing, care must be taken in size selection and setup to ensure safety for your angelfish.

  • Aesthetic Appeal: Glass beads can magnify the tank’s lighting, creating a beautiful luminous effect and enhancing the vibrant colors of angelfish.
  • Safety Precaution: Opt for larger glass beads, ensuring they’re too big to be ingested by angelfish. This will prevent any potential ingestion hazards.
  • Setup and Maintenance: Always rinse beads thoroughly to remove residues before introducing them to the tank. Using a gravel vacuum during water changes will help in cleaning spaces between the beads, maintaining a healthy environment.

My recommendation: CYS EXCEL Light Blue Glass Gemstone Beads (link to Amazon).

2. Large River Stones

Natural and robust, large river stones give your tank a touch of the wild.

Their weight and size provide a stable environment but also come with certain considerations for angelfish care.

  • Natural Aesthetics: Large river stones mimic the natural habitats of many fish, offering a serene and grounding environment for angelfish.
  • Stability: Due to their weight and size, these stones stay in place, ensuring that your angelfish won’t accidentally shift or disturb them.
  • Setup Tips: When introducing river stones, ensure they’re well-rinsed to remove any natural residues or debris. It’s also wise to arrange them in a manner that allows for easy cleaning and doesn’t trap detritus.

My recommendation: YISZM Natural River Rocks (link to Amazon).

3. Slate Tiles

A sleek and contemporary choice, slate tiles offer a uniform surface in the tank. Though not conventional, they offer certain advantages, especially in terms of maintenance.

  • Ease of Cleaning: Slate tiles, being flat and smooth, are straightforward to clean, ensuring minimal debris accumulation which is beneficial for angelfish.
  • Modern Look: This substrate provides a minimalist appearance, contrasting beautifully with the elegant patterns of angelfish.
  • Setup Consideration: Ensure tiles fit snugly without sharp edges exposed. Using non-toxic, aquarium-safe sealant between tiles can prevent small food particles and waste from settling in gaps.

My recommendation: Natural Slate Stone 3 to 5 inch Rocks (link to Amazon).

Can Angelfish Live in Bare-Bottom Tanks?

Yes, angelfish can live in bare-bottom tanks. However, it’s essential to be mindful of their needs and the overall aesthetics of the tank.

  • Ease of Maintenance: Bare-bottom tanks are simpler to clean, reducing risks of ammonia spikes from decaying organic matter trapped in substrates.
  • Stress Factors: A completely bare bottom might cause stress to angelfish, as they prefer some environmental features for hiding and comfort.
  • Decor Importance: In the absence of substrate, providing adequate plants, rocks, or driftwood becomes crucial to give angelfish spaces to hide and feel secure.

What’s the Optimal Substrate for an Angelfish Tank with Plants?

For angelfish tanks with plants, a combination of fine sand or gravel over nutrient-rich soil is optimal.

This setup ensures the plants get their needed nutrients, and the angelfish have a suitable environment.

  • Nutrient-Rich Soil: Using a layer of aquatic soil provides essential nutrients for plant roots, promoting healthy growth and vibrant foliage.
  • Sand or Gravel: A top layer of fine sand or gravel prevents the soil from being disturbed and clouding the water, while also offering a natural look that angelfish appreciate.
  • Consider Plant Types: If you’re incorporating rooted plants, they’ll benefit more from a soil-based substrate. For plants that feed mainly from the water column, a gravel substrate might suffice.

Also Read: Do Angelfish Like Light?

Preparing the Substrate for Your Angelfish Tank

Preparing the substrate for your angelfish tank means selecting a suitable base material and setting it up correctly to support the health and well-being of your fish.

Proper substrate preparation is vital for the water quality, bacteria cultivation, and the aesthetic appeal of your tank.

  • Choose the Right Material: Opt for fine, soft sand or specialized angelfish substrate; avoid sharp gravel that can cut their delicate fins.
  • Determine Depth: Aim for a substrate depth of 1.5 to 2 inches. This is ideal for plant roots and houses beneficial bacteria colonies.
  • Rinse Thoroughly: Use a colander and rinse the substrate under running tap water until clear; this might take 3-5 thorough rinses to remove dust.
  • Layer and Slope: Pour the substrate starting at the front, gradually sloping upwards towards the back, creating depth perspective.
  • Introduce Beneficial Bacteria: Sprinkle a commercial bacteria starter or a bit of tank water to jumpstart the cycling process, aiding in a balanced tank environment. My recommendation: Aqueon Pure Live Beneficial Bacteria (link to Amazon).

How to Maintain a Clean Substrate for Your Angelfish?

Maintaining a clean substrate for your angelfish is crucial for their health and to keep the tank looking pristine.

Over time, the substrate can accumulate waste and debris, but regular upkeep can prevent this buildup and ensure a thriving environment for your angelfish.

  • Regular Siphoning: Use a gravel vacuum every 1-2 weeks, siphoning off waste and debris from the substrate without removing the beneficial bacteria. I personally use this Laifoo Aquarium Siphon (link to Amazon).
  • Avoid Overfeeding: Feed angelfish once or twice a day, giving only what they can consume in about 2 minutes to minimize leftover food settling in the substrate.
  • Introduce Clean-Up Crew: Add substrate-friendly cleaners like snails or corydoras catfish that naturally feed on algae and leftover food particles.
  • Rotate Decorations: Every month, slightly move or rearrange tank decorations. This disrupts settled debris, making it easier to siphon during cleaning.

Do Angelfish Consume Algae from Gravel?

While angelfish might occasionally nibble at the substrate, they are not primary algae eaters and shouldn’t be relied upon to control algae in your tank.

Relying on angelfish alone to consume algae is not an effective algae management strategy.

  • Natural Diet: Angelfish are omnivores; their diet primarily consists of small invertebrates, not algae.
  • Limited Algae Consumption: If they do nibble, it’s more out of curiosity or seeking tiny food particles, rather than a genuine appetite for algae.
  • Effective Algae Control: For efficient algae management, consider algae eaters like snails, plecos, or otocinclus fish.

How Often Should You Clean the Floor of an Angelfish Tank?

For an angelfish tank, the floor or substrate should be cleaned regularly to prevent waste buildup and maintain optimal water quality.

A bi-weekly to monthly cleaning routine, depending on the tank conditions, is typically recommended.

  • Regular Siphoning: Use a gravel vacuum every 2 weeks, ensuring waste removal without disturbing the established bacteria.
  • Monitor Waste Accumulation: The more fish or feed, the quicker waste accumulates. Adjust cleaning frequency based on observations.
  • Maintain Water Quality: Monthly water tests can indicate waste levels. High nitrates often suggest a need for more frequent substrate cleaning.

Also Read: Do Angelfish Need Hiding Spots?


For those of you who are just skimming through, here’s a short summary:

  • Angelfish naturally prefer soft, sandy substrates that mimic their South American riverbed habitats.
  • Sand offers safety for angelfish’s delicate fins, beneficial bacteria colonization, and easy food retrieval.
  • Fine gravel, while not as natural, provides stability for decorations and plants, better water flow, and aesthetic versatility.
  • Combining sand and gravel in layers or zoning offers a balance of both substrates’ benefits.
  • Angelfish can live in bare-bottom tanks, but decor like plants and rocks are crucial for their comfort.