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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.