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When I first got an aquarium, I ended up changing the substrate and removing an undergravel filter so I could grow plants.

I went with fine gravel + laterite - I wouldn't do this again as it can be messy when you rearrange plants.

As far as changing your substrate goes...

1) Go to the store and get a plastic storage tub, should only set you back a few dollars... try and get one that is at least 50% the volume of your tank

2) Drain as much tank water into the tub as you can, put your flter and heater in the tub too. Move all your fish to the plastic tub

3) Drain off the rest of the water and get rid of it, remove as much of the substrate as possible

4) With most of the substrate gone, take the tank outside and use a hose to get any remaining sand out (you can skip this if a little sand doesnt bother you)

5) Put in the new substrate... move the old tank water back in to the tank, then the equipment and fish. Try not to let the water temperature fluctuate too much! You could try and squeeze a bit of mulm from your filter media into the bottom of the tank before you add the substrate if you want to "seed" it with beneficial bacteria.

The rest is just like a water change, simply fill the tank up to the top with conditioned water and you're done.

This process will be time consuming, good job for a Sunday :)

Alternatively, you could get a 10gal tank + small heater and set up a temporary home for your fish - this is a lot easier and less stressful on your livestock.

As far as the substrate goes, if you can afford it get Eco Complete or Flourite. Eco Complete is particularly desirable as it is a no mess, no fuss substrate and it comes with some beneficial bacteria in the bag (apparently). Looks good too!
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