What Live Sand Is and How It Is Used in a Saltwater Aquarium

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Live sand, or LS is natural reef coral sand that is collected live from the ocean, or non-living coral sand that is cultured to make it live. What makes it live is the microscopic biological bacteria that grows on it, and the many tiny crustaceans and other micro and macro-organisms that reside in it.

Live sand can serve as the main base for biological filtration in a saltwater aquarium, while the organisms help consume organic matter in the sand bed. Some of the organisms provide a natural food source for many aquarium inhabitants as well.

What Type to Use

  • There are many types of sand to choose from on the market, but sand of coral origin, such as coral sand, reef sand, crushed coral, or aragonite are best. One top choice of many expert aquarists is Aragonite by CaribSea. Some sand sources other than aragonite types may have silicates in them, which is something you do not want in your aquarium. Silicates cause algae problems, and once introduced are next to impossible to remove.

    There a three basic choices for starting an aquarium with live sand:

    • You can use 100% LS, which can be very costly.
    • You can use a 50/50 combination of LS (bought or used from an already established aquarium) with non-living sand. By mixing the two together (seeding) you save money, and the LS will convert the non-living portion of the sand into LS over a shortened period of time as the biological bacteria and the living organisms multiply and populate it.
    • You can use nothing but non-living sand, as all sand eventually becomes live over time. However, starting from scratch does take much longer for the cylcing process to complete its task.

      Next Page > How Much LS to Use

      Unless you are going to be using the Jaubert/Plenum method of filtration, excessive amounts of live sand should not be used. The sand bed becomes too thick, which allows unwanted DOC's (dissolved organics compounds) to get trapped, that in turn can contribute to the growth of undesirable micro and macro-algae. Here are some suggested amounts of live sand to use:

      • As the author of "Simplified Reefkeeping", Robert Metelsky recommends a thickness of approximately 1-3/4 to 2 inches, which calculates to 1.45 pounds of sand per gallon. For a 55 gallon tank, this is 80 pounds.
        • The FINS Reefkeeper Live Sand FAQ's says that it is normally used at a rate of 10 pounds per square foot of bottom area, which yields about a 1 inch deep covering.

        Basically, the bottom line here is that anywhere from a 1/2 to a 2 inch layer to cover the bottom of the tank should be sufficient. Next Page > Purchasing or Culturing Your Own LS
        Previous Page < What LS Is and What Type to Use

        How do you know if you are getting live sand or dead sand? This is a good question. With live rock (LR) you can see that it is live, but with LS? The best way to insure that you are getting good quality live sand is to purchase it from a reputable supplier that collects it direct from the ocean or specializes in cultured LS, offering shipping with as little transit time as possible. Look at the store's state local in comparison to where you live.

        The shorter transit time it takes the shipment to arrive to you, the better! You can also buy it from a long established local fish store, but this might be costly. Just like with LR, some die off will take place during shipping, and the live sand will most likely go through a cycling process of some kind. How much cycling is necessary all depends on the viability of the LS when it was shipped, and how much die off takes place during transit.

        If you don't want to buy LS, you can culture your own by adding the stuff that makes it live. There are many types of live micro and macro-organism sand starters available on the market, such as the Cultured Detritivore Kit from Inland Aquatics, SurfZone Live Sand Activator Plus from IPSF, and others. For more information on culturing your own live sand, Luis Mercado of Reef Addictions has written a review about Albert Thiel's "How to Culture Your Own Live Sand" article contained in Thiel's Reef Infobase Netclub™ Library of Articles.

        To obtain this article you need to join Thiel's Netclub™ for a small fee, but from Luis' review it sounds like it is well worth the money, plus you get access to many other articles as well.

        Next Page > Adding LS to the Aquarium
        Previous Page < How Much LS to Use

        If you are using Live Rock in the aquarium, it is best to elevate the rocks off the bare bottom of the tank. Many marine animals burrow into the sand. As they do so, any rocks that sit on top of the sand will slowly get lower and lower in the substrate as it gets displaced. Allowing the sand to be placed "under" the rocks prevents them from getting buried deeper in the sand, eventually ending up sitting on the bare bottom of the tank.

        It also prevents them from being dislodged, or stacked rockscapes from becoming unstable where rocks might topple off, which can cause injury to tank inhabitants or damage to the tank.

        When adding Live Sand to your tank it should be done slowly to avoid excessive clouding of your water. If you are using LR in the tank, you should not pour the LS over or on top of it. The sand will cover and smother the LR causing oxygen depletion, resulting in the death of it. Once you are done aquascaping and elevating the LR, or any other large sized decorative non-living corals or rocks you are going to use, add the substrate.

        Next Page > LS Substrate Maintenance
        Previous Page < Purchasing or Culturing Your Own LS

        The aquarium should include inhabitants that will stir or turn over the live sand. These animals are referred to as sand stirrers or sifters, or tank/reef janitors, custodians or cleaners. Natural detrivoirs recommended are various types of Hermit Crabs, Shrimps, Crabs & Sea Urchins, Sea Cucumbers & Starfishes, as well as sand sifting fish like Gobies, Mandarinfishes and Jawfishes. Before adding janitors of any kind, it is important to learn about them first.

        Do your research on animal compatibility, dietary requirements (especially when it comes to the fish named), and be sure that the animals you choose are not toxic, like some cucumbers are, or dangerous in other ways to other tank inhabitants.

        With a sufficient amount and the right mix of reef janitors, a live sand bed should not need to be deep siphon cleaned. Don't get us wrong here, it is still important to follow good a maintenance routine. Taking the time to siphon any uneaten foods or excess debris off the "surface" of the sand bed, or from in between the rocks should still be regularly done when needed. In closing we would like to say that working with live sand is the same as with live rock. Test the water parameters to see what is happening in the aquarium, only add new occupants SLOWLY (one or two at a time), and only when the tank has completely settled through the cycling process, or any recycling that may occur after adding any type of new introduction.

        Patience and time are the key factors here, TAKE IT SLOW AND LET IT GROW!

        Previous Page < Adding LS to the Aquarium