Sunday, November 29, 2009

DIY Automatic Gravel Vacuum Cleaner

Automatic. No water change. Simple.

- Problems with algae?
- Yes!
- Regular water changes?
- Yes.
- Overfeeding?
- Of course not! Well, maybe a little bit.
- Gravel cleaning?
- Uhmm, what?
- How often do you vacuum your gravel?
- Am I supose to even do that?

Since I established my early (still growing) setup, I had a problem figuring out how to efficently and more conviniently clean the gravel from food and other debris, independently from regular water changes. No matter how many Plecos, Amano shrimps, Snails, Ancistrus and Siamensis Algae eaters with Plants as their compagnion you may have, you can never replace a good vacuum cleaning device from time to time. Very much like our homes that need regular fresh air and vacuuming.

I did use regular syphoning to do 2 jobs in 1 - while changing water I cleaned as much gravel surface as could, but soon realised that syphon drains water way too fast for such task, so either I had to re-pump portion of water back (slow) or invent something smarter.

Currently, there are many commercial solutions, but to tell you the truth I got a little bit tired testing (by which I mean buying) every possible gadget of this kind just to see it is a complete failure or over-priced product. Very time-consuming and expencive process.

So, it is time for yet another Do-It-Yourself. Inspiration for this device is obvious: SERA Gravel Cleaner which uses an air-pump (not included) to drive dirt above water surface level and gravity (free fall) to pass it through the filtering media and let the clean water return back into aquarium. Technical explanation can be found in physics, under section that covers fluid mechanics. In concept, it is the same principle as EHEIM Automatic Gravel Cleaner, but that model is a bit more advanced (and thus is the price) since it uses battery operated pump integrated into cleaner's body. SERA model is not expensive at all, it really works and if you want to save yourself any trouble, then by all means go ahead and buy it. On the other hand, since this device is essentially so simple, you can save a couple of bucks and spent it elswhere. It would be petty not to try to build it at least.

I used a cheap syphon (2$) I already had. I was very dissapointed at first when I bought it because it was almost usless for gravel syphoning, but later unscrewed few parts and figured it works better without them and can acctually be a very valuable tool with minor tweakings. From the video you can see a detailed process to make automatic gravel cleaner.

At the end, things to consider: wider sucking pipe requires stronger air-pump, but it will give you a wider cleaning area. Also, if you get a strong suction force that overfills your filtering section on the top try lowering air-pump position (e.g. put it down on the floor) or use cheap regulating valve to limit amount of air being pumped. On the other side, watchout for the fish and little organisms like snails and shrimps!

Now you can do your regular gravel maintenance. Happy vacuuming!


  1. i tried this today,but the air pump isn't powerful enough to rise a consistent water flow,i will upload a picture tomorrow, maybe you can help me, thanks.

  2. Sorry I didn't spot comment eralier. Yes, air-pump power needs to be matched with aquarium depth and plastic pipe's width in order to raise water high enough. I do not know any meaningfull formula to easily calculate this, but most recommended pumps for appropriate size aquariums will usually work. Since for this job you do not need any special air-pump brand (since noise is not a concern for this short-period task) you can get pretty powerfull pumps for cheap (Atman, Boyu or any other similar manufacturer).

  3. that was the problem, the plastic pipe was about 15-20 cm higher than the water level, but i have fixed it and now works great.
    greetings from chile

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  5. Could u tell me the materials of this process?

  6. Wow! Thanks a lot for sharing this. I just made mine today with some modification. Instead of filtering the water at the end of the tube, I connected it to the hose of the siphon and let the water go down to the bucket. This way the dirty water does not go back to the tank plus I reduce the bad elements in the tank like ammonia.

    Cheers! Happy new year!

  7. the air bubbles that comes from the air-pump pushes the water to come out of the tube right?
    Is it really that powerful enough to vacuum the gravel?

  8. Yes, for small particles like dirt it is powerfull enough, and it can even lift small pebbles to a point. As I explained before, you have to adjust correct air-pump strenght with pipe's lenght and diameter, and it will work. For more powerfull cleaning you can always use ordinary siphon.

  9. Hi there.

    I have had a tank for about two months now, I have been using a normal siphon for regular water changes but I've just noticed today how much waste there is still left in the gravel. I came across your video and I've managed to construct everything, all I need now is the air pump. What kind of an air pump do you use? Or better yet, what would you reccommend for an 18l tank, 38cm x 21cm x 20cm?

  10. I am no expert in those thing, you know, that requires special knowledge from specific physics area about pressure, water column height etc. but I am almost certain any kind of smallest pumps with 1 liter/minute will be absolutely enough for your aquarium. For example, I own Atman CX-0078, which according to their catalog has 1.5 liter/minute and is ok for 80-200 liters tanks. It is barely enough to raise water above 40 cm hose and it is usable (switch set on max speed). Do not clean everything in gravel, leave something for gravel bacteria, look at this procedure in the same way as with filter media changing and cleaning. Hope this helps. Happy Holidays.

  11. That's perfect. Thanks so much for your help!

  12. dude..i make an gravel cleaner..but the grevel is not going up..maybe because i have choose the worng pipes for tank is 15-200 liter tank..what pipe should i use for it? and what air pump should i use..i have an air pump air output 200 litre/h that ok for my tank?

  13. The pump 200 l/h shoud be more than OK, do you have speed adjustment on it? Turn on to maximum. Did you used tiny soft silicon hose to bring air from the pump and did you drilled very small hole on the tip of the PVC pipe? That section is the hardest, silicon hose must fit tightly through it, so all the air is forced upwards THROUGH the PVC pipe and not outside of it. Try to make new one, you may missed something.

  14. This is such a wonderful and interesting blog I read. Thanks for the opportunity to read the entire post, I will keep it and always remember that this blog caught my attention.-gravel pumps-

  15. i watched your video and i am planning to make one vacuum cleaner.thanks for the idea.i am from philippines.