Best Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium – 5 Reviews, Guide, FAQs & More

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It’s difficult not to agree with us when we say that buying substrate for freshwater aquariums can be quite a hassle for both novice as well as advanced fishkeepers. 

However, it doesn’t have to be. We tested out all the popular freshwater substrates so you could find the most appropriate one for your specific freshwater aquarium setup. 

Today, we’ll delve deep into the strengths and weaknesses of different freshwater substrates and discuss what a freshwater aquarium normally needs from its substrate. 

Top Pick

This product comes in a nifty little bag that makes it easy to handle. Its appearance is aesthetically pleasing and also natural so as to make fish feel at home.

Runner Up

This product also looks quite natural and comes in the form of polished gravel. It’s purposefully designed to discourage the buildup of waste between it.

Also Great

Made from rich and textured volcanic soil, this product is perfect for tanks with fish fry and shrimp. It’s great for planted aquariums as well as breeding tanks overall.

Substrates can be difficult to rank in terms of performance but after months of observation, we can conclusively say that these three are the best of the best. 

Now, let’s get into the reviews for the top 5 best substrates for freshwater aquariums.

Best Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium - Top 5 Reviews

1. Overall Best Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium - Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular Review

This product is a wonderful option for you if you’re running a freshwater fish-only aquarium. It can even work for a planted aquarium if you have only water column feeders. The texture of the substrate is malleable enough so that it’s able to hold the plants in place and not only that, it also has enough space between it to let the water circulate through it easily. 

You’ll find that your more shy fish will have no trouble burrowing into it despite it being gravel and not sand. The polished gravel ensures your fish are not cut up or harmed in the slightest. 

Features of Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular – Best Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium

  1. 5-pound bag
  2. pH-neutral
  3. Light brown in color
  4. Non-toxic
  5. Size of single gravel piece is between 2mm and 4mm 
  • Allows fish to easily burrow into it
  • Polished gravel
  • Non-reactive with water
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to handle
  • Rinsing it takes a much longer time than most of its competitors

If you want reliable gravel that doesn’t go bad for a long time and also looks great, then this is the product you’re looking for. It comes in a convenient 5-pound bag and its texture makes it very easy to spread.

2. Best pH-Neutral Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium - Carib Sea ACS00832 Peace River Gravel Review

Freshwater aquariums are often small in size and the water conditions in those kinds of aquariums are usually very difficult to control and keep stable. The last thing you want is your substrate to be another contributing factor to the rising or lowering of pH inside your aquarium. This product solves that problem by giving you a substrate that’s completely inert. 

Your fish will love this substrate as it looks natural and it’s also pleasing to the human eye. 

It does not contain any artificial dyes, paints or preservatives that might be harmful to your fish or aquarium plants. 

Features of Carib Sea ACS00832 Peace River Gravel  

  1. 20-pound bag
  2. Discourages waste buildup
  3. Natural brown color
  4. Does not alter pH
  5. No paints or preservatives used 
  • Gives aquarium a natural aesthetic 
  • Smooth and polished
  • Affordable
  • Does not require a lot of maintenance 
  • Easily malleable 
  • Quantity may be too much if you have a smaller aquarium

If you’re worried about the pH levels of your aquarium fluctuating due to substrate then this product is perfect for you. It looks great in aquariums of all sizes and it does not react with water at all.

3. Best Fry and Shrimp-Safe Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium - Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum Review

If you have a tank that contains fry or shrimp, you’re going to need a substrate that is able to adequately accommodate their needs. That’s where this product steps in. It has a porous texture that allows them to hide themselves from predators and other fish while also providing them with enough water and sustenance that they are able to hold out on their own inside it. 

The mineral-rich substrate also works great if you have aquarium plants that are root feeders. It contains all major and minor trace elements that are required for effective root growth. 

Features of Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum

  1. Bags come in three sizes: 4.4 pounds, 8.8 pounds and 17.6 pounds
  2. Rich in minerals
  3. Made from volcanic soil
  4. Safe for fish fry and shrimp
  5. Promotes mildly acidic pH
  • Great for planted aquariums
  • Acidic conditions great for most freshwater fish
  • Easy to handle and spread
  • Lasts a long time
  • Porous texture makes burrowing easy for fish
  • Quite expensive

If you’re running a breeding tank or just have fry or shrimp in your aquarium then this substrate is ideal for you. You’ll find it’s very easy to use and doesn’t require a lot of maintenance either.

4. Best Inexpensive Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium - Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel Review

This product has always been a popular choice among many aquarists. Novices usually don’t like the color since they want something more natural but more experienced fishkeepers know that its striking jet-black color looks absolutely wonderful as a backdrop for your brightly-colored freshwater fish as well as your bright-green aquarium plants. 

This product is just as impressive functionally as it is aesthetically. It features a lot of iron which means it does not require any extra ingredients such as laterite in order to get started. The fact that it’s clay-based gravel also makes it very easy to spread on the base of your aquarium. 

Features of Seachem Flourite Black Clay Gravel

  1. 15.4-pound bag
  2. Black color
  3. Clay-based gravel
  4. Rich in iron
  5. Does not alter pH
  • Does not require laterite
  • Long-lasting
  • Easy to handle
  • Budget-friendly
  • Provides a unique aesthetic
  • Makes the water murky initially 

If you’re looking for a substrate that’s not too harsh on the pocket then this product is ideal for you. It looks wonderful in all kinds of aquariums and it also has no effect on pH.

5. Best Organic Substrate for Freshwater Aquarium - Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil Review

This organic substrate is rich in all kinds of nutrients that are needed by freshwater plants in order to grow effectively. Not only that, this substrate is designed to lower the pH slightly below the neutral point so your aquarium is thrust into slightly acidic water conditions. This assists your aquarium plants in absorbing and breaking down the nutrients much more efficiently. 

The fact that it comes in a 2-pound bag is also quite unique. It’s the smallest sized bag out of all the entries on this list. While this may be inconvenient if you have a larger aquarium but if you have a smaller one, this bag size will ensure you don’t have any substrate leftover. 

Features of Mr. Aqua N-MAR-066 1 L Fine Pet Habitat Water Plant Soil

  1. 2-pound bag
  2. Lasts up to 12 – 18 months
  3. Extends water exchange periods
  4. Black-colored
  5. Mildly acidic (pH of 6.6 – 6.8) 
  • Promotes plant root development
  • Easy to distribute
  • Small bag perfect for smaller aquariums
  • Affordable
  • Requires little cleaning
  • Bag size makes it quite inconvenient to use it for a large aquarium

If you’re looking for a substrate that’s made from completely natural and inert ingredients, you’ve just found it. This substrate is non-reactive with water and is also quite inexpensive. 

best substrate for freshwater aquarium

Buyers’ Guide

Does my freshwater aquarium really need substrate?

Some aquarists do argue that you can get away with an aquarium that has no substrate inside and there is definitely some substance to that statement but the truth of the matter is that the number of benefits that substrates have for your aquarium tremendously outweigh the amount of money and work you’ll have to put in in order to maintain it. 

If you’re running a breeding tank or a hospital/quarantine tank, you may want to run it without any substrate, if it’s anything other than that, we suggest you get substrate for it. 

Substrates hold a number of benefits for freshwater aquariums. 

First of all, they provide your fish with a sense of familiarity. Fish are used to seeing soil, pebbles or similar things at the bottom of the river so if you go the extra mile and provide them with that using substrate, it will relax them and make them feel much more at home. Many fish use it as a hiding spot by burying themselves underneath it.

Secondly, many substrates are designed to keep your aquarium’s water chemistry in check. For example, if your aquarium has a problem with decreasing pH, you might opt to get a substrate that has a rich calcium content. This type of substrate gradually dissolves into your aquarium over time and it helps balance out the pH by raising it. 

If you have aquarium plants then substrate is absolutely essential inside your freshwater aquarium. Not only they give your plants a secure and firm place, but many aquarium plants also get all of their nutrients from substrates that are rich in minerals and trace elements.  

What types of substrates are most appropriate for freshwater aquariums? 

For fish-only aquariums, aquarium gravel is normally the way to go. It’s the most common type of aquarium substrate and it’s polished well so that your fish don’t hurt themselves when they play with it. They are available in many different sizes and you can also mix and match with different colors and shapes to provide your aquarium with a unique aesthetic. 

For planted aquariums, you’re going to want to opt for aquarium sand, specifically, soil-like substrate. This is because this type of substrate normally contains nutrients that are essential for plant growth. 

What are some factors to consider when buying substrate for my freshwater aquarium?

Here are some factors to keep in mind when buying substrate for your freshwater aquarium: 

  • Particle Size 

This is by far the most important factor to consider. You can determine what particle size would be most appropriate for your freshwater aquarium by looking at what your inhabitants are going to be. If you’re going to have just fish inside your aquarium, you have a lot of options when it comes to aquarium substrate. Just be sure to get substrate that has been properly smoothed out if you have fish that like to play in it. 

If you’re planning on having aquarium plants then you probably would want aquarium substrate of smaller individual size because you would want the substrate to be able to grip your aquarium plant’s roots firmly so it doesn’t get dislodged and float about freely inside your freshwater aquarium. 

  • Bag Size 

A lot of aquarists don’t think about this but the size of the bag that the manufacturer ships their substrate in is actually quite significant. For example, if you have a large 50-gallon aquarium that’s going to take 40 pounds of substrate to fill up effectively, you don’t want to get substrate that comes in small 1-pound bags. It would take forever to open, rinse and wash them. 

Similarly, if you have a small aquarium that needs just 5 pounds of substrate, you don’t want to get it from a manufacturer that only sells 20-pound bags as you would have a lot of substrate leftover. 

How deep should my substrate be in my freshwater aquarium? 

If you have a fish-only aquarium, you can get away with having a substrate layer that is only 1-inch deep. 

If you have a planted aquarium, then you need to have a substrate layer of at least 2 inches. 

How do I clean my substrate before adding it to my freshwater aquarium?

You do this by rinsing it with aquarium-safe water. Aquarium-safe water refers to either water that comes straight from a cycled aquarium or water that has been treated with a dechlorinating agent and a water conditioning agent. 

Take a clean bucket of water and fill it with your substrate. Next, rinse it thoroughly with aquarium-safe water. Repeat this step until the water runs clear. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is sand good for a freshwater aquarium? 

Yes. In fact, if you have fish species that like to burrow or sift through the aquarium substrate then we would recommend that you definitely opt for aquarium sand over gravel. No matter how well-polished aquarium gravel, your fish can still hurt themselves when burrowing through them. Not to mention, aquarium gravel isn’t that fun to sift through anyway. Aquarium sand can work very well if your freshwater aquarium has a lot of bottom-dwellers such as Cory Catfish, Kuhli Loaches, etc. 

Can I put rocks that I found on my own in my freshwater aquarium?

You can definitely do this but we would strongly advise against it if you’re not experienced enough to disinfect them correctly. Rocks that you’ve found outside could have all sorts of bacteria, parasites, pests or viruses on them and if you introduce them to your aquarium without treating them properly first, the consequences could be disastrous. 

Do I need to have a special type of substrate if I have plants in my freshwater aquarium? 

Firstly, you have to think about the texture of your substrate. As we’ve discussed above, in the case of planted aquariums, you’ll need substrate that’s able to secure your plants firmly into place. 

Secondly, you need to do your research and find out whether the plants you have are water column feeders or root feeders. Water column feeders get their nutrients from the water and don’t need a special type of substrate. Root feeders require special type of substrate that is rich in nutrients. This is because the primary source of nutrients for root feeders is taken in through their roots so it’s important that you have substrate that is able to supply them with what they need.  

Can I layer different kinds of substrates in my freshwater aquarium?

Yes. In fact, that’s what most advanced aquarists do. Most of them have a bottom of layer aquarium sand that’s topped up by a very thin layer of aquarium gravel. For aquarium gravel, you can have one primary color and then accent it with different colored substrate for aesthetic purposes. 

How do I layer different kinds of substrates in my freshwater aquarium?

There’s really no secret way to layer your aquarium substrates, it’s really quite straightforward. The only thing you should keep in mind is that the finer substrate should always be at the bottom with the larger sized substrates being at the top. If you put aquarium gravel at the bottom and then top it with aquarium sand, the sand will just sink into the crevices in the gravel. 

My pH level has altered after adding my substrate. What can I do to fix this? 

This is actually quite common and is oftentimes the intended effect that manufacturers deliberately put in their substrates. For example, if you have a freshwater aquarium that contains fish and plants that thrive in slightly acidic conditions, you’re going to want a substrate that is slightly acidic. If you have inhabitants that thrive in alkaline conditions then you’d want a substrate that raises the pH.

If you’ve added your substrate and it is causing a change in pH that you don’t desire, then the only thing you can really do is replace your substrate. This is because even if you do a short-term fix and return your pH to the intended level for the time being, it’s still going to return to the pH that the substrate has been made for. 

Do fish like hiding in substrate in freshwater aquariums?

Yes. As we’ve mentioned before, there are several different types of fish that are shy which like hiding themselves inside the substrate. Shrimp and fish fry are also inhabitants that like to spend a lot of their time inside your aquarium’s substrate. 

Does the color of my substrate matter at all in terms of taking care of my freshwater fish?

In terms of taking care of your freshwater fish, the color doesn’t matter that much. Although, we’ve established before that fish become very relaxed and happy when they are surrounded by an environment that is familiar to them. If you get a substrate that mimics what fish see on the ocean floor, i.e., pebbles, sand or rocks that are slightly brownish in color, you might end up with fish that are much more at ease with their surroundings. 

Are there certain types of substrates which I should avoid having in my freshwater aquarium?

You should definitely avoid coral sand as that type of substrate is mainly intended for coral reef aquariums. 

What are the most trusted brands out there when it comes to substrates for freshwater aquariums?

Some of the most trusted brands that manufacture and sell substrate for freshwater aquariums are: 

  • Carib Sea
  • Spectrastone
  • Fluval
  • Seachem 

Final Verdict

Substrate in freshwater aquariums plays an invaluable role in regulating the water chemistry as well as providing your fish with the proper surroundings they need to thrive. 

In the end, we’ve given the crown to the Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular. It looks natural, it’s made specifically from freshwater aquariums and it lasts an incredibly long time. 

With that, we’re at the end of our post for the best substrates for freshwater aquariums. 

Let us know in the comments what substrate you’re using inside your freshwater aquarium.

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