Up Aqua Aquasand Substrate for Planted Aquariums Review

I recently rescaped our Fluval Spec V aquarium and decided to swap out the Black Flourite substrate for something a bit more high end. For all the effort of breaking down the tank, I wanted a substrate that looked more attractive and that provides nutrients more efficiently to the plant roots. I eventually chose Aquasand substrate from Up Aqua. This product has been up and in use for more than a month now and I am very happy with it. I will get into a review of this substrate and discuss what makes it desirable and some shortfalls.

Up Aqua Aquasand: A High Performance Alternative to ADA Aquasoil Amazonia

My decision to go with new substrate during the tank breakdown lead me to switch to a nutrient rich variety as opposed to the innert type that I was currently using. To backup, planted aquarium substrates can be divided into two categories. Innert varieties, such as the Seachem Flourite that I was using as well as Eco Complete, are clay based and do not have much in the way of direct nutrients. They work by absorbing nutrients you add to the water column in the form of fertilizers and releasing them into the plant roots. This category of innert substrates trade optimum plant growth and health for one major positive: longevity. Innert substrates do not loose their nutrients since they don’t have much to begin with. They do not break down easily over time and can last for years and years. It was this longevity that was the reason I initially chose Flourite.

The second category of planted tank substrates are organic. These are made of mixtures of clay and actual, organic soil. They are maufactured through a process of pressure and heat. The difference, and advantage over inert substrates, is that they contain nutrients to directly transfer to the plant roots and water column.

grain size of UpAqua Aquasand Substrate

After our aquarium had been up for a year I found myself in the situation of needing to replace driftwood that was disintegrating.  At the same time, I wanted to change the plant layout. Desire for change is a common theme for those who have planted tanks. So in the end, longevity was not the advantage I thought it would be since I could easily swap the substrate out during this rescape. Knowing that I would probably follow in this pattern and rescape about once every year or two, I decided to choose an organic variety of substrate.

The king of this organic variety of substrates is made by ADA, most notably Aqua Soil Amazonia. It meets the demands of the best planted tank aquascapers in the world. This performance does come with some notable disadvantages. The first being that the product does seem to predictably break down into what users call ‘mud’ in as little as a year. What starts out as neat spheres of substrate will fall apart over time and make a silt like dirt that will cloud the tank with any disturbance. The second major disadvantage to ADA Aquasoil is that the product leaches ammonia (or ammonium) heavily during the first few weeks of use. This requires that water changes be performed often (possibly daily to start) to keep ammonia levels down for your fish and shrimp, often for a period of weeks. Given that I did not want to maintain our quarantine tank for that amount of time, this ammonia leach was a big disadvantage.

My research lead me to an interesting thread over on Tom Barr’s forum about an alternative product from a company called Up Aqua. The features and advantages touted of Up Aqua Aquasand are:

  • Increased longevity – the product last longer than ADA AquaSoil before breakdown
  • lowers PH to a range of 6.5 to 7.0
  • Does not leach ammonia into the water column at startup
  • Does not cloud the water column on setup

It seemed that this product solved the two biggest disadvantages I had with ADA in that it would resist breakdown over time and it would not make my tank toxic on setup. I decided it was the way to go and got some on order.

Setting Up with Up Aqua Aquasand – Appearance and Performance:

The first obstacle to overcome was finding a source for the product. I will discuss that more later on, but eventually a box including a bag of Up Aqua Aquasand made its way to our doorstep.

New bag of UpAqua Aquasand Substrate - 5 kg size

One unknown with ordering a bag of this substrate was how much would it cover in an aquarium. The bag is advertised as 5 kg. I don’t know about you but mass doesn’t tell me much. I think of substrate coverage in terms of volume. Internet searching did not turn up anyone who knew the volume of this substrate in a 5 kg bag. I made sure to carefully measure the volume in hopes this would help others out. Our 5 kg bag contained 4.4 Liters of substrate. Hopefully you can convert this to a conventional volume like cubic centimeters or cubic inches to plan on the number of bags needed. Better yet, check out my substrate calculator.

UpAqua Aquasand plant substrate manufactured in Taiwan

I setup our aquascape and put in a generous depth for planting. In our Spec V, we had quite a bit of substrate left over that I put in a ziplock bag to store for possible future use.

The grains of Up Aqua Aquasand are beautiful. They are a variety of sizes, but are generally very uniformly spherical in shape. I measured with digital calipers and a representative large grain is around 3.1 mm in diameter; small grains are around 2mm. There was very little dust in the bag – just a bit in the bottom. I squeezed one of the grains between my fingers and they are very durable; I was unable to crush it.

UpAqua Aquasand has grain size of around 3mm

I slowly put just enough water in the tank to cover the substrate and started planting. Planting in this substrate is an absolute revelation compared to Flourite. Flourite is much more heavy and dense and it is a struggle to push plants down deep enough while not damaging the plant. Up Aqua Aquasand on the other hand is very light. I could easily bury my Bacopa Caroliniana stem plants down to submerge two sets of leaves and ensure they would stay put. Also helpful was using my new aquarium planting tools; I only knew to use fingers when I planted the tank the first time.

Filling a tank with fresh UpAqua Aquasand substrate

After I got everything planted it was time to fill it up. I was leery of plants floating up because I was afraid the lightweight substrate would not hold things down. I put the water change fitting into the filter section of the spec and turned the water on the absolute slowest flow. It took quite some time to get it filled, but was extremely gentle. Surprisingly, I had much better luck with plants staying in place with this lighter weight substrate compared to Flourite, mainly because it was no problem getting them buried deep enough. I had a few stray Cryptocoryne Undulata plants coming loose every few days for a week or so, but other than that, everything stayed put beautifully.

I experienced absolutely no clouding of the water after the tank was filled. It was actually stunning how clear the water was right after the tank was filled. I never experienced any clouding or lack of water clarity at all.

I could not be happier with the appearance of the substrate. The spherical shape is so uniform and lends to a very contemporary and neat appearance. We had some company over later in the weekend after it was put back together and several people (not familiar with planted tanks) comment on the substrate and how good it looked.

UpAqua Aquasand is great with red cherry shrimp

The color is generally very nice, although it appears grey instead of black. This is especially true comparing the product as it comes out of the bag to when it is fully wet and illuminated (in our case, by the Finnex Fugeray Planted + light). I think I would count this coloration as a slight negative, not that it is in any way bad, but that I would prefer it to be a bit darker.

The only surprise with getting setup with Up Aqua Aquasand was a slight detection of ammonia with the API freshwater test kit. 4 hours after I filling the tank, the ammonia reading was 0.5 ppm. At this point I had already added the fish and red cherry shrimp back into the tank. Probably a bit quick and I was left wondering if I needed to perform a water change. It then occurred to me that with the water being just put in, it was possibly a reading of ammonia or ammonium (the API test can’t differentiate between the two) from the tap water. I didn’t bother testing straight tap, but decided to let it stand and re-test. The next day, ammonia was back to 0.0 ppm.

Assessing Up Aqua Aquasand After One Month:

The tank has been setup for just about one month, and I am very thrilled with the way this substrate performs and looks. I tested the basic water parameters for the first few weeks and never saw anything out of the ordinary other than that first night. Ammonia and Nitrites are always zero and Nitrate is usually around 20 ppm. Plants are still staying put and I am seeing good root development. Honestly, I can’t see a big difference in the speed that the plants grow, but that is limited by light as this is a low to low/medium light tank. I do think that the nutrient rich nature of this substrate has lead to healthier plants, especially for the Cryptocoryne Undulata. Cryptocoryne plants in general tend to be fussy when you move them around. I didn’t see nearly the leaf melt that I expected after replanting everything and the quality of this substrate probably contributed to this.

UpAqua Aquasand in a Fluval Spec V Nano Aquarium

One surprise is that the ph of my aquarium doesn’t seem to be altered one bit.  The product states that it holds ph from 6.5 to 7.0.  This tank usually held a ph of around 7.5 with the old Flourite setup.   With the new Aquasand, it is exactly the same.   I worried about a change to lower ph and how it would affect my fish and especially my nerite snails (snails don’t care for acidic water),  In the end, it is a moot concern.

The only negative after a month is that the substrate doesn’t look quite as neat now that I have some algae on a few patches of the surface and I can see some algae next to the glass below the substrate line. I don’t think there is any way to avoid a bit of surface algae given the constraints of a non-CO2 injected aquarium.

Up Aqua Aquasand – Assessing the Cost and Availability:

Other than wishing for a slightly darker tone, I don’t have any complaints about the performance of Up Aqua Aquasand. The only complaints I have relate to availability and cost.

I had a bear of a time finding a source for this product. Note that it is manufactured in Taiwan and channels of entry for this product seem limited. At the time I was searching, I could not find any online or retail store to purchase from. Several online stores had it shown but listed as out of stock. I contacted the United States distributor of Up Aqua products and he provided a store in my area, but they did not have it in stock. Eventually I found it for sale through Amazon in a purchase arrangement where I order it and Amazon notifies me when it is in stock and then charges my credit card. I had not seen this before. In the end it came up as available in less than a week and was delivered promptly. I’m hoping that as time goes by the channels for sale of this product will increase.

Fluval Spec V after a reshape with UpAqua Aquasand substrate.

I paid $36 USD (plus tax) for a 5 kg bag (free shipping). I consider this to be expensive – thank goodness one bag is all that I needed. I have compassion for those with much larger tanks where many bags would be needed. When you compare to ADA Aquasand Amazonia, I see the comparable Amazon.com price to be $74 USD (includes shipping) plus tax for a 9 liter bag. Broken down as a cost per Liter: ADA Aquasoil Amazonia is $8.22 USD/Liter and Up Aqua Aquasand is $7.65 USD/Liter. I’m surprised to see after doing the math that the Up Aqua product cost lest per volume. I think given the advantages of Up Aqua Aquasand over the comparable ADA product, it is well worth investigating. I certainly am very happy with this product and would recommend it for planted aquariums.

Not much is written about this substrate; I hope this review is helpful to those looking for the perfect substrate for future projects.

Update: November 2016:

I just completed a rescape of our Spec V, which involved a total substrate replacement.  I had some of this Aquasand left over from 2 years ago and started to fill the tank first with it.  Then I opened the new bag (purchased last month) and made a very nice discovery; the new bag is much darker than what I purchased 2 years ago.  So much so that I could clearly see the transition from old to new by a distinct line (grey / black).  I scooped as much of the old stuff out as I could and only used the new.  It is possible the bag bleached over time just sitting (dry) in our garage; however, I’m pretty sure they changed it to make it darker.  It is greatly improved and looks much better under water!

Planting was a breeze.  I planted Hemianthus Callitrichoides (aka ‘HC’, aka ‘Cuba’, aka ‘dwarf baby tears’) over 1/3 of the tank.  This is a finicky little plant to place, known for floating up.  It stayed in very nice.  The substrate is light enough to allow you to bury it nicely with your pinsettes and not damage the plant.  The beads of substrate fill back in easily (rolling back into the void) to hold the plant down.

I know that ADA aquasoil is a more nutrient rich product, but that comes with some challenges that I’m not willing to deal with.  I’m very happy with this substrate and will continue to use it now and in the future.

39 thoughts on “Up Aqua Aquasand Substrate for Planted Aquariums Review

  1. hi, Tom Barr review was about up-aqua soil.
    But yours is up-aqua sand. They are Different substrates.

    • Good catch. I had compared the two (up aqua aquasand vs aquasoil) and had determined in my mind that the aquasand was superior to the old Aquasoil. But you are right, they are two different products. I’m having a hard time even finding the UpAqua Aquasoil. Is it possible Up Aqua discontinued the ‘Aquasoil’ product and replaced it with ‘Aquasand’?

      • It looks like it’s a different brand called S.T. International Aquasoil I think they were talking about. Regardless, I’m stuck between the aquasoil and UP Aquasand for a rescape.

  2. Hi Nate,
    — Upaqua-soil includes many fertilizers (as other soils include)
    Upaqua-Sand has not include fertilizers.
    — It means in a newly setup tanks up-aqua Soil doesnt need fertizers
    but Up aqua Sand need fertizers
    –In Turkey we also cant find up-aqua soil, but instead we can fınd up-aqua soil.

    Regards

    • CORRECTION
      –In Turkey we also cant find up-aqua soil, but instead we can fınd up-aqua sand

  3. Nate great article and review of this product. My wholesaler carries the Up-Aqua Sand and Mr. Aqua Aqua-Soil. If any of your readers in the US are interested in these products I would be happy to stock these on a regular basis. Keep up the good work!

  4. I’ve found your blog today and CAN’T STOP READING! I was drawn here because my betta fish stays by the filter and I wanted to know what I could do to help him. Turns out, I had the filter in my SPEC III on max flow (groan). As soon as I get home I’m turning it down and putting the holes in the tube. I’ve added the heater and countless other items mentioned on the blog to my amazon wishlist http://amzn.com/w/N5Q1AHMC1BVT (including this sand!)

    I was curious where/what kind of drift wood you use, and what the names of all of your plant types are. I will continue to scour this blog for photos of your tank and items therein, but I’d love to know! I really want a SPEC V now, too!

    • I’m so glad the site helps. I started with no knowledge last year and was frustrated with how hard it is to learn this stuff, so I set out to share some of it.

      Plants I have: Cryptocoryne Undulata, cryptocoryne parva, bacopa caroliniana, annubias nana petite.

      I got the driftwood from a well known planted tank guy: Tom Barr. If you go to his forum you should find a way to order a box of sticks from him. http://www.barrreport.com/

      I believe he provided me with manzanita driftwood. http://www.barrreport.com/forum/barr-report/trades-swaps-sales/222624-manzanita-season-starts-again

      • Thank you for replying! One last question, how did you get the moss like pieces to grow on your wood? It’s lovely!

      • Not sure what you are seeing. I don’t have moss on the wood; at times, I have had some good ol’ algae. It comes and goes based on how much light and how hungry the shrimp are. Not all algae is bad.

  5. Just wanted to say….what a great review! I am ‘new’ to teh world of Aquascaping, and am in the throes of rescaping my Rio 125 to a planted tank, and have been unsure whther to go for dirtied tank, or substrate….if so, which soil/substrate etc… Finally edging ever closer to a “complete substrate”…then which…and I found that my supplier for my CO2 system had this UP Aqua Sand….but I was unable to find any reviews on it… But yours has been a Godsend – tahnk you…. I’m going to order some now!

    Thankfully, here in the UK it seems fairly readily available….and, I think, not too expensive (to be honest, i’m finding all this aquascaping malarky mighty costly…but hey, i don’t like soccer…I don’t spend my money on gaming…and I have a wife, so no dating outlay)….gotta spend my cash on something!!

    Thanks very much – now I have stumbled across your site, it is bookmarked here in Oxfordshire.

    • You’re very welcome – glad it helped. Interesting that it is available in your country – glad to hear it! I haven’t checked to see if availability in the USA has improved since I wrote this.

      This substrate has been in use just short of a year in our little tank. I still like it very much.

  6. Nate, I thank you for sharing all your experiences in the hobby on your website. The information shared is giving my daughter and I a head start into the planted tank realm. She wanted to study betta fish for a science fair project. Since we want to give each of them a good home for years to come, we decided to purchase two Spec 3 systems and implement your tips for making them betta friendly.

    I’ve never used live plants in an aquascape before but I feel more confident doing so thanks to you. We are both excited to tackle this Father/Daughter project together. Wish us luck!

  7. Nate, I currently have plain gravel and know it’s not going to cut it (plus I don’t like the look) anyways I was wondering when you do your water changes can you “vacuum” it like normal Gravel? Thanks in advance for your time answering this!

    • Good question. I personally don’t do this, mainly because I simply don’t have a proper ‘gravel vac’. It is very lightweight, but yes, I think you could vacuum it if you wanted.

      I also don’t do this as most of our tank has plants and vacuuming would disturb them. The buildup of detrius is getting heavy after more than a year in use; I manage by stirring up portions with a pipette prior to a water change. This gets some of the debris up in the water column and I remove that way.

  8. Hey, Great blog!! been following it closely.
    My question might seem very stupid, but i would like to know if it is an ABSOLUTE necesary to add soil to the substrate ? Please please do let me know.

    Thanks a ton!

    • Not sure I follow your question. I did not add anything to my tank (soil, additives, etc) other than what is reviewed here: Up Aqua Aquasand.

  9. Hey there, amazing site! I’ve been browsing around it with the mods you’ve done to your spec v, as I have one as well and they work perfectly. I’ll keep my story short but informative to lead up to my question; I started fish keeping and ultimately, I didn’t do things correct the first time over, leading with fish deaths and uncycled tanks and sad times. I then had an ammonia problem in the spec v that just wouldn’t go away until recently, so things have become stable now. The thing is, originally I wanted to do a plant based tank just like how you have yours, but I have regular rock gravel, which I see is terrible for plants in general, as I’ve gotten anacharis from petsmart/petco and it’s not really rooting or surviving well, even with the finnex light and seachem excel I dose. What this leads to, is I have 4 celestial pearl danios, and 3 guppies in the tank itself. What I want to do is change the substrate from that rocky gravel I have in it currently, to the substrate you have listed here. Is there a way to not stress out the fish and change the substrate, or am I just out of luck at this point? Also, if it is possible to switch substrate, how would it go down? For example, would putting new water in the spec v with the new substrate shock the fish, since the beneficial bacteria that they’re used to is potentially gone? Or is it okay since most of it is residing in the biomax in the filter section? I just want to make sure I don’t cause another fish death due to lack of experience.
    Thank you so much for your time, you’ve given a lot of people great ideas for the fluval series. I just wish they made a 10 gallon version of the spec. Attached is my tank; I’m just using the stock light for now to adjust the finnex screws.
    http://postimg.org/image/exiwaljep/

    • Nice tank! You can rescape your tank. I’ve been meaning to do a writeup on these two subjects: quarrantine tank and cycling your tank. Do some research but know this: Beneficial bacteria lives on surfaces, not in the water. you don’t loose any beneficial bacteria by changing out all the water. you loose some with the gravel, but if you treat your filter media properly during the switch, beneficial bacterial should remain viable and adequate after.

      I’d go to petco and get a 5 gallon tank to use as a quarantine tank (cheap) and get a sponge filter / air pump for the quarantine tank. Set the sponge filter in your tank for a few weeks to get beneficial bacteria seeded on it. Then, when your ready to rescape your tank, setup the quarantine tank with your sponge filter / air pump (make sure to use dechlorinator!). Move the fish and plants into it. set your spec V filter media in the quarantine tank. move your heater into the quarantine tank.

      Then you can tear down your spec V; remove all the gravel, add the new substrate, replant, put your media and heater back in the V, put your fish back.

      I didn’t see any ammonia leaching from this product, but keep your eye on it. If you test ammonia, perform a water change.

      • Thank you so much for your detailed response, I wanted to make sure hands on how to do this procedure, as I came across a couple videos that seemed like they did it right away without a waiting period, but the only reason I could think of, is because their filter media is different from the spec v. For example, this one; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm0f0Z69acs has her filter on in the tupperware that she put everything into while she changed the substrate. Also, I just put the foam block with the biomax and seachem purigen in it, into the quarantined tank? That wouldn’t hurt the fish in any way? I only assume since it’s seperated from the fish and I want to make sure. My original thought after browsing videos was to do the same as the video I shared, since I would just transfer back all the water from the spec v onto the new substrate and assume it would be all right.
        Also wanted to ask, do you think the finnex stingray is more than enough for this tank? I’m aiming to go for a planted tank, but not so much that it’s heavily dense and I wouldn’t be able to see my fish most of the time, but good enough that it looks nicely decorative. I’m debating whether to switch to that or the finnex fugeray planted+, which I can give to a friend. Thank you so much again! 🙂

      • I think you are on the right track with your plan. You can put the filter media in the same container as the fish – no problem.

        The stingray will be good for low light plants and will be an improvement over stock. The planted + might lead to algae depending on lots of factors: plant density, duration the light is on, additives (excel).

      • All right that sounds perfect, i think i will go with the stingray, i just ordered both that and the substrate. So, in the same day with what i said sounds good to do to switch substrate? I will update you on my progress when i get everything together. Youve been a super great help, and i look forward to even more ideas you have in store in the future. 😉

      • I have one more question, what plants do you recommend in the spec v? There’s a ton of scientific names for each but I’m clueless what would be a good match with the finnex stingray. Also, do I need to dose seachem flourish excel daily with this light, or will it be efficient enough without it?

      • Search for ‘low-light aquarium’ plants and you should be able to find some options. I bought my plants from a site that has a great section on low light plants.

        I don’t know if Seachem Flourish will help as I don’t use that product.

      • Yeah i just ordered recently some plants from that site. I ended up with the current usa freshwater led plus that you reviewed, love the light.
        My only remaining questions are, I figured you used excel since you did a review about it and were doing drop doses, and what type of fertilizer do you put in the filter section ( or was it water column where the pump is? )
        Also with your review on excel, you stated that it doesnt do well with mosses and ferns.. I have java moss on my driftwood, but im uncertain whether or not the excel dosing made it turn brown, or it was the lack of light at time using the stock light. Thank you 🙂

      • I dose dry ferts (KNO3, KH2PO4, K2SO4, CSM+B) and I drop them in the filter section. I can’t say what is making your moss brown.

      • Do you dose these all at the same time? I read somewhere that dosing NPK and trace (CSM+B) at the same time could be harmful.

      • I do dose the trace elements separate from the others. So after a water change, I dose everything but trace elements; the next day I dose the trace element. It’s not harmful, but the two interact to make the CSM+B precipitate out, rendering them less effective.

  10. Amazon.com price to be $74 USD (includes shipping) plus tax for a 9 liter bag. Broken down as a cost per Liter: ADA Aquasoil Amazonia is $8.22 USD/Liter and Up Aqua Aquasand is $7.65 USD/Liter.

    WRONG CALCULATION: Price for Up Aquasand is $36.00 for 11 liters (5kg) = 3.27 per liter not $7.65

    • the price for up aquasand is $36. The product is sold by WEIGHT at 11 lbs (5 kg). They don’t list the volume. I measured the volume of the bag when I received it at 4.4 Liters. so, that is $36 / 4.4 liters = $8.18 / liter.

  11. Hi Nate,

    I’m using UP aqua sand in my tank now. I discovered it on your site and liked how the little balls look 🙂

    Its been about a week and I am noticing some of the balls cracking open and becoming a brown shell. Is this happening in your tank? I’m curious if its normal, and if not, what might be causing it. I’m new to the hobby. Tank is only 2 months old.

    • Yes, I noticed that with the last bag I put in. Some of the balls ‘shells’ peeled off. I think it might have been worse at the start, probably a few of the weaker pieces giving way. It is not a concern now that the tank has been up for half a year, mainly because the tank is so covered in plants I don’t see much of the substrate.

  12. Nate, thank you SO much for all of your wonderful information on the Spec V tank – mine is on the way and I’m so excited to get back into the hobby after over 5 decades with zero pets. I have already bought substrates – one is Carib Sea ACS05820 Super Natural Moonlight Sand for Aquarium, 5-lbs and the other is Spectrastone Shallow Creek Regular for Freshwater Aquariums, 5-lbs.

    So, my question is can I mix the two or would it be better to put the sand first and the gravel on top or vice-versa? I trust your experience and expertise now that I’ve spent days perusing & studying the outstanding & helpful info on your website.

    At some point down the road, I might look into this product you’re using but for now, with new substrate already bought, I am asking how best to put it to work. I plan to have a planted tank and after it cycles, to put in a betta, a couple of dwarf corys, a nerite snail and maybe some ghost shrimp. Thanks so much for your help!

    • Sorry for the slow response. Mixing two different substrates is tricky. Usually one is smaller than the other. Or lighter. Over time, they end up settling with one ending up on the bottom and the other on the top. That’s about the only insight I have regarding your choices. Good Luck!

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