I read a post in the Facebook group for the Philippine Cichlid Association, where someone, whom I assumed was a newbie, posted a picture of his newly set up tank, which was quite big. It was custom-sized, not one that had standard measurements, and I assumed it to be anywhere between 75 and 100 gallons in capacity.

It was outfitted with a standard overheard filter. It had about two inches of white sand. The tanks was filled with what seemed to be really murky water, to the point that one couldn’t see aquarium’s back panel.

He then asked if it was really supposed to be that cloudy if an aquarium was newly set up. He claimed to have washed the sand four times.

To this, I replies with a simple “no.”

The thread became quite popular that day that it generated 40 replies from different experiences. I analyzed the replies and could generally classify the comments as one of following.

1. “Yes, it’s normal.”

The most common reply, comprising 15 out of 40 or 37.5% is, “Yes, it is normal and will clear out soon.”

How soon the water should clear out, the respondents were of different opinions. Some said it would take a few minutes to a few hours, others said it would take days.

Some even said it was normal once the sediments settles, but they recommended an 80% water change. If one had to do an 80% water change even after newly setting up, was it really normal, then?

2. “No, you didn’t wash the sand well enough.”

The second most popular answer, comprising 11 replies out of 40 or 27.5% was that he didn’t wash the sand well enough. The respondents were sure that rinsing the sand four times was not enough as evidenced by the cloudy water in the tank.

But as to how much was enough, no one had a definite answer. In fact, two respondents said even if you rinsed the sand 30 times, the water would still be cloudy, but perhaps not as much in his situation.

Others even recommended leaving the faucet on and just running the water until the sediment had washed away. They had their won approached to rinsing the sand, but among these respondents, it was clear that rinsing four times was not enough.

3. “No, it’s not normal.”

To my surprise, my reply belonged to the minority. I was the only one who said it wasn’t normal for his tank to become cloudy. Only one person liked my comment, but that might not even count because he was a friend.

I replied in the negative simply because you would never set up a tank with water that cloudy. Give me a 100-gallon tank, an overhead filter, and white sand, and I would set it up with clear water.

4. “Buy a water clarifier”

One person, or 2.5% of all commenters said, “Go buy a water clarifier.” Another one said, “Go watch YouTube.”

5. “Do something with the filter”

The next most popular reply – 7 out of 40, or 17.5% of all responses – required upgrading or adding another filter. Some said the overhead filter was not enough for the tank. Others said he needed to add a sponge filter. Others still recommended adding activated carbon to the filtration.

For this group of people, the filter was to blame.

6. “You can do better”

Four out of 40 respondents, or 10% suggested that there might be a better way. I must comment these four guys for seeing it my way. Yes, there was a better way of setting up a tank.

Truth be told

Actually, 87.5% of the 40 comments were party correct. I am not denouncing these 35 replies. After all, they came from veterans who have been caring for cichlids for most of their lives. But they did not hit the nail squarely on the head.

Yes, it is normal that when you set up an aquarium with white sand, it is difficult to get water crystal clear from the start. White sand has calcium and the more you stir the sand when rinsing, the more you release tiny particles of it, making the water cloudy.

Yes, if you do not rinse the white sand well enough, then there will still be some impurities that will make the water dirty. Rinsing white sand is really a very hard and tedious job. Certainly, four times is not enough. Ten, 20, and, as two commenters mentioned, 30 times may still not be enough. If you are to use white sand, better be ready to toil and not seek rest, and to labor and not seek reward. You will have to put in a lot of work.

Yes, if you do not have an adequate filter, filtration won’t be enough to clear up the tank. All filters work, but there is one that works best for you. Filters are very important piece of hardware, but it takes about a month before they are biologically capable of polishing water. Thus, upon tank setup, mechanical filtratrion will be the only thing working since biological filtration has not yet been established. The mechanical filter will trap tiny particles, but it can’t make water crystal clear just yet.

Yes, water clarifies work; otherwise, no one would be buying them. But again, why the need to use water clarifiers if you can otherwise set up the tank correctly?

Yes, watching YouTube helps if you watch videos that make sense, but these are not necessary if you can read about setting up tanks with white sand correctly here in Animal Scene.

White sand, right setup

If you are going to have white sand in your tank, you have to work harder than with a bare tank. Otherwise, just go with a bare tanks, which is so much simpler. However, for those caring for Malawi or Tanganyikan cichlids, having white sand has more benefits.

The first step is to rinse the white sand very, very well to remove all the dust, dirt, dried leaves, wood, pieces of pebbles, and other impurities.

How to prepare white sand

There’s an art to preparing white sand so that a tank doesn’t become cloudy.

1. Rinse thoroughly

In a pail, add water and vigorously turn the sand over to rinse it. Do this over and over until the impurities are gone and you can say with conviction that all you have in the pail is just white sand.

Whenever you fill the pail with water, you will see cloudy white stuff – this is the calcium leaching out of the sand. The more vigorously you stir the water, the more it will turn milky white. You can’t do much about it because this is a natural property of white sand. Keep rinsing until the water is relatively clear – then, you are ready for the next step.

2. Carefully scoop sand into tank

Remove as much water as you can from the pail. If you can remove all, then so much the better. Then, empty the pail by scooping out the wet sand into the previously rinsed tank.

You may want to spread out the sand evenly in the tank, making sure all are as covered. Create slopes if you wish.

3. Slowly fill water

Once you have filled the tank with sand, then you are now ready to do the most critical step: filling the tank with water without disturing the white sand.

Keep in mind that stirring the sand will only turn the water a milky, white color. Fill the tank without disturbing the sand as much as possible. To do this, you will need a few things: plastic sheet, four pieces of rocks, plate, jar and horse.

Spread the plastic sheet over the sand, then put the plate at the center. Place the four rocks at the four corners of the plastic sheet to weigh it down. Put the jar on the plate. Put the end of the hose inside the jar and secure the hose so that it does not move once you turn on the water.

When the setup is ready, turn the faucet on.

In this situation, it is best to fill the tank as slowly as your patience allows. The objective is to fill the tank with as little disturbance to the same bed as possible.

The hose will slowly fill the jar, overflowing to the place, which catches the rush of water. The water then overflows to the plastic sheet, preventing sand agitation.

4. Remove materials

Turn off the faucet when 90% of the tank is filled. Remove the hose, jar, plate, rocks, and plastic sheet. Set up the filter, decorate the tank, top the tank with water, and turn on the filter. It may have taken a little bit longer to fill, but your tank is now clear and it will allow you to see the back panel.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November-December 2020 issue.

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