Hobbyists today have the option of purchasing “Live Sand” already prepackaged and ready for the aquarium. With the popularity of the mini-reef aquarium there are several options for different types and styles of sandy substrates, from mixed size Caribbean sand to super fine Oolite. (Oolite is a spherical form of calcium carbonate while aragonite is a more crystalline form.) Not to be outdone, there are now many options available for freshwater applications from natural gravel substrates to specialize African Cichlid substrates and other mixes designed for freshwater plants.
The primary benefit of the Live Sand is that they are already rinsed and are moist in the bag. There will be no massive cloud of dust you usually get from new dry sand or gravel when you add it to water or pour water onto it in the aquarium. When adding sand/gravel to an existing aquarium, it is best to rinse and then place the substrate into plastic bags you can sink to the bottom of the tank and then cut away with a knife, leaving the new substrate in place without creating a dust storm. One possible drawback to the Live Sand, if you are using one of the marine Live Sands, you have to be using pre-mixed saltwater to avoid disrupting that beneficial bacteria in the sand. These bacteria are one of the main selling points for the live Sand as they will jump start the development of the biological filtration system and help eliminate high ammonia surges when you first start to add fish, corals or plants.
The specialized substrates for the African Cichlids include a mix of aragonite, magnesium and carbonates to help buffer the pH and keep it high. The plant substrates will contain iron supplements and other trace elements to promote the growth of the plants. This substrate is also very porous and helps provide good structure to promote root attachment.
These Live Sand style substrates allow the hobbyist to get the first step of a healthy aquarium set up with minimal fuss and by design will provide long term support for the aquarium ecosystem.