Best Planted Tank Substrates – 2020 Review and Comparison

substrate with cherry shrimp

A quality substrate is key for a healthy and successful planted aquarium. But what determines the best planted tank substrates. How do we analyze quality and what soil nutrients are the best for aquatic plants? In this article we break down the best substrates available in 2020 and analyze their cost, positives and negatives.

Aquarium plants need three things to survive. Light, water and nutrients. Nutrients are taken in by the plant in one of two ways:

  • through the plants roots via the substrate
  • and; through the water column via the leaves.

In this article we will only be looking at substrates. We won’t discuss liquid fertilizers. Both are important to your plant growth and shouldn’t be substituted for one another.

Planted tank substrates are more expensive than inert gravel. But, the cost of planted tank substrates are a small investment for long term plant health. Generally replacement of the substrate is rare over the life of the aquarium. Choosing a quality substrate is a great investment that won’t need to be replaced!

We can avoid algae, cloudiness and nutrient deficiencies by buying high quality substrate. Substitutions such as aquatic ‘potting soil’ or other DIY cheap alternatives are not worth risking your expensive plants and livestock. Try to avoid substrates that do not display their active nutrients on the packaging or are not meant exclusively for aquariums. Often these substrates can be high in sulphates or generally be of lower quality. We will review the best planted tank substrates and compare the lab analysis of each.

The best planted tank substrates give the necessary nutrients to your plants whilst adding to the aesthetic of the aquarium. Below we begin our comparison of market leading planted tank substrates.

Cost Comparison of Substrates

Taking prices from Amazon we can compare the relative cost of each substrate. These prices are all from February 2020 and may change in the future. It is difficult to determine value in substrates because of the different size bags from each company. We have made this very simple by working out the cost per pound of the best planted tank substrates. They are listed in the table below in order of decreasing value.

Substrate NamePriceWeight (Lbs)Price per lbPrice Rank
Seachem Flourite Red$16.2415.4$1.0551
Caribsea Eco-Complete$21.6520$1.082
Flourite Dark$17.9915.4$1.1683
Fluorite Black$21.6615.4$1.414
Carib Sea Eco-Complete Planted Aquarium$33.5820$1.685
Caribsea Flora-Max Sand$25.815$1.726
Onyx Sand$26.5215.4$1.727
Flourite Black Sand$29.0115.4$1.888
ADA Amazonia$39.9920$1.999
Fluval Plant and Shrimp Stratum$44.9917.6$2.5510
Up Aqua Aquarium Shrimp Sand$14.994.5$3.3311
S.T. International Aqua Soil for Aquarium Plants$204.4$4.5412
Mr. Aqua Aquarium Soil Substrate$19.992$9.9913
Substrate can get very expensive very quickly. Especially if you have a large planted aquarium. It’s clear from the comparison that the price per pound varies significantly between brands. Seachem Fluorite for example is half the cost of ADA Amazonia and almost one third of the cost of Fluval Shrimp Substrate per pound. For a very large aquarium its possible to save up to 50% of the substrate cost by choosing Seachem Fluorite over ADA Amazonia. This leaves more money to spend on fish, plants and hardware.
It is important to remember that price does not always indicate quality. In fact, the current highest selling substrate on Amazon (CaribSea Eco-Complete) ranks 2nd in price value. This substrate has great reviews and offers great value.
If you’re building a smaller planted aquarium (or a ‘nano’) you can be less cautious about price. You will require fewer bags of substrate to cover the base of the aquarium. In the next section we explore some recommendations depending on your situation and plant needs.

Recommendations

Below we have picked out top three favorite substrates for 2020. Close runners up were the  Seachem Fluorite Red and Fluval Plant and Shrimp Substrate (especially if you prefer round substrate pellets).

1. CaribSea Eco-Complete Black | 2020 MixImage result for caribsea eco complete"

Link to Product and current Price

Eco-Complete is a substrate that has maintained its position at the top of our list. We ranked this substrate as the number one in 2019 and now it is the number 1 for 2020. Our reasoning behind this was:

  1. It is excellent value for money. Eco-complete is the second best value per pound of substrate of all the 2018 planted substrates we compared.
  2. It has excellent reviews. On Amazon alone there are 800+ reviews giving this product more than 4 stars.
  3. Tried and Tested. Currently used by hundreds of aquarists ensures that there is good quality control. You can rest easy knowing this substrate won’t pollute your tank, change your pH or break down in the aquarium.
  4. Improves Contrast. Although subjective, we love the black color as it enhances the coloration in fish and plants.
  5. 25 Minerals and Nutrients. Caribsea does not release the exact nutrient numbers for its products so it is difficult to assess its chemical balance. They do specify there is a strong focus on iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium which is excellent news for plant enthusiasts.

For larger tanks there is no contention. Eco-complete will offer the best value for money and deliver a quality product for healthy plant growth. For smaller tanks you can opt for a niche substrate as only 1-2 bags may be required, reducing the saving cost.

There are a number of complaints surrounding this substrate are increases to the PH. This complaint is relatively uncommon and leads us to believe some bags either have a quality control issue or there was some external factor in the customers tank that caused this spike. Either way you should feel confident purchasing this substrate due to the overwhelming positive reception. Do realize there could be a slight increase in your pH. This issue has not affected the vast majority in growing plants.

2. Seachem Fluorite Black | 2020

Image result for seachem black flourite"

Link to product & current price

Seachem Fluorite Black is a little brother of long-standing legacy product Fluorite Red. The substrate is a porous, stable, fracted clay gravel. Clay gravel is typically inert and will not change your pH when placing it in the aquarium. Clay will also break down very slowly in the aquarium. This is a big advantage of the fluorite products. These substrates won’t have to be removed and changed over the life of the aquarium.

Pros:

  • Seachem continues to make excellent quality products in 2018, Fluorite Black is no exception.
  • Inert clay composition is unlikely to affect the pH of your aquarium. This is important when growing plants.
  • The black color of the substrate will increase contrast of your fish and plants.
  • Seachem ensures this product is specifically designed for plant growth.

Cons:

  • Seachem Fluorite are renowned for clouding the aquarium during water changes. Cloudiness may persist for a short amount of time but can be irritating.
  • Fluorite black has higher levels of calcium and lower levels of K (potassium) and Mg (magnesium) when compared to Fluorite Red. If you have an abundance of red plants consider dosing extra Iron when using this substrate.
  • RINSE! There is an incredible amount of dust and debris shipped with Fluorite products. Don’t make the mistake of adding this directly to the aquarium without prior rinsing.

3. ADA Amazonia

Image result for ada amazonia"

Link to Product and Current Price

ADA products are well regarded by hobbyists. If you have a smaller aquarium or cost is no issue, look no further than ADA. ADA Amazonia can lower the pH and is a beneficial substrate when this is a requirement.

Pros:

  • The darker color of the substrate will increase contrast of your fish and plants, especially HC on the foreground.
  • This is an excellent substrate for shrimp. The particle size, softness and pH create a shrimp friendly environment. The dark substrate will bring out the whites and reds in CRS and RCS shrimp.
  • Extremely high quality product that has a reputation of innovation. ADA has paved the way in the aquascaping hobby and take pride in their products. ADA Amazonia is no different.

Cons:

  • It’s less cost effective than Eco-Complete or Fluorite Red/Black.
  • Lowers the tanks pH (this is desirable in a lot of cases but we have listed it as a con as some users may not want the pH to be affected).
  • Has been reported to degrade over time and lose texture, this is expected in soil based products vs clay based.

 

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