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  1. #1

    Default Filtration, a repost of my original

    0 Not allowed!
    Filtration is a big issue with aquarium fish. It is an investment, which means although it may be a high initial cost, it will pay you back. It is easy to understand that the extra money invested into a better filtration unit could pay for itself by the fish it saves. There are a vast number of types of filters out there, and among each type is a huge array of filters from all sorts of companies. Filtration itself needs to be understood before the filters themselves are even looked at.

    There are two main types of filtration, mechanical and biological. I do not consider chemical filtration as an essential part of filtration because I have stopped using it and see no adverse affects. It can be used to remove odor or discoloration, but in either of these cases it is treating a symptom and what you need to deal with is the cause. The only other use for chemical filtration is the (hopefully rare) removal of medications. When chemical filtration (carbon) is needed, there are some things that need to be understood. Carbon effectively grabs many types of chemicals in the water, from medications to trace elements. There is a wide range of quality levels in carbon. In general you will get what you pay for, so the highest quality carbon will be more expensive. Carbon does not last forever. The lifespan of carbon is dependent on two main things, quality level and amount of chemicals in the water. On average and along with most recommendations carbon is not effective after about one month. I do not use carbon on a regular basis because it can remove some beneficial substances such as trace elements that the fish need. If proper water changes are carried out the possible consequences of not using carbon should not come in to affect.

    Mechanical filtration is the physical collection of particulate matter in the water. It will trap physical debris and hold it until you clean the filter. While it is in holding it still has a chemical affect on the water. As it breaks down it will end up as nitrates. So although a filter may not be so clogged that it has stopped running, it is decreasing water quality. So the water stays crystal clear, giving the impression that the filter is still working fine even if it is having a horrible affect on the fish. This is why filtration upkeep is a must, even if things look fine. Different media for mechanical filtration will trap different sized particles. Large course media should be the first thing water encounters in the filter. After that point you can have fine mechanical media. There is no point in adding courser media in the filter where the water will have already gone through a finer media because it will not catch much f anything and ill become a media for nitrifying bacteria. Every tank is different so in some tanks the fine mechanical will collect a lot of debris while the course mechanical media seems new and clean, in other tanks the opposite will occur.

    Biological filtration is the most important to the fish. An efficient biological setup is essential to any system. Nitrifying bacteria that consume ammonia and nitrite will live on surfaces where the conditions are ideal. That means the ideal temperature, oxygen levels, and food sources. In an aquarium the temperature is generally uniform, so this will not affect where the nitrifying bacteria will colonize. Oxygen levels and food availability will greatly affect the nitrifying bacteria. Sitting in a corner on the glass or on the gravel will not supply them with the same amount of food as being in biological filtration media where there is a constant high flow of new nutrients and oxygen. This is why the nitrifying bacteria will tend to colonize in the filter on the high surface area biological filtration media. There are many forms of biological filtration media. Surface area is a must. The bacteria need to be exposed to the water so they have to be in thin layers, almost a single layer thick, in order for them all to live. The high flow will bring in the nutrients for them, so as long as there is a decent flow rate that will be taken care of. Oxygen levels are frequently the limiting factor for how efficient the biological filtration is. If the oxygen level in the water is high enough canister filters and other submerged media filters can be quite effective. But these usually require a lot more surface area to compensate for the relative lack of oxygen in order to be as affective as other forms of filtration. Wet-dry and other forms of biological filtration that expose the surface of the media directly to the air are a very efficient way of ensuring high oxygen levels because there can be up to 30,000 times as much oxygen in the air as in the water. By briefly exposing the bacteria to this high oxygen environment their efficiency greatly increases. Cleaning biological media needs to be kept to a minimum to prevent the loss of nitrifying bacteria. This usually means lightly rinsing the media with tank water when debris deposits are visible on the media.

    There is a huge number of filters on the market, all with their benefits and consequences. There are three things that you are looking for: efficient biological filtration, effective mechanical filtration, and the availability to use carbon when it is needed. When these are equal you can look at ease of use and cost.

    Not every tank is the same. So what may be ideal for a highly stocked Lake Malawi mbuna tank may not be ideal for a lightly stocked discus tank. Because of this there is no ‘best’ filter out there. Because of this there is one important issue to keep in mind, the ability to customize a filter. By being able to customize the filter you can meet different or changing needs. The best filter type for this is the canister filter. Most now have multiple trays that allow you to use whatever media you need to. Best of all you do not have to have an exact media. This means that you can use another company’s media (or a cheap generic media) instead of one that has to be made to fit the filter. Most Hong-on-back filters use a slide in cartridge that usually contains the mechanical filtration and the carbon. Many of these actually have the carbon sealed within the mechanical media. In addition most of these cartridges are not interchangeable between brands, so the hang-on-back filters are not nearly as customizable as canisters.

    Sponge Filters: The simplest filters are internal sponge filters. They are powered by air and are a good biological and mechanical media in one. These are best for simple breeding setups where a single pair or group needs to be isolated for ideal breeding. There is no money spent after the purchase of the filter itself, which is cheap. Routine cleaning is a must, usually involving rinsing the debris from the sponge with tank water to conserve the nitrifying bacteria. Simple low stocking tanks are about all these things can handle on their own.

    Internal box air filters: These filters are usually a small plastic box that is air powered and has a cartridge similar to that on a hang-on back power filter. Because the cartridges usually need to be replaced, at least long term, these filters are not as good as the sponge filters at conserving nitrifying bacteria when cleaned. They have a low initial cost but require media replacement.

    Under Gravel Filters: These are an all time classic favorite for many aquarists. These include a perforated plate under the gravel. There are a few variations to this setup. One includes air powered uplift tubes. The second involves a powerhead or other pump to power the uplift tubes. The third uses a powerhead to push water down the tubes, this method is called reverse under gravel filtration. Some even hybridize this with other filter methods and attach the uplift tubes to hang on back or canister filters. This filter uses the gravel itself as a media. The gravel functions as a biological media as well as mechanical media. The high surface area of the gravel provides ample space for nitrifying bacteria. Because of the gravel functioning as a mechanical media, it can trap a lot of debris. This requires that the aquarist keep up with water changes that always include a gravel vacuuming in order to keep the gravel free of debris. Two major problems occur with too much debris in the gravel. The first is that debris can build up and actually choke out the nitrifying bacteria and cut off their oxygen supply. The second problem is that debris buildup can lead to excessive nitrates as the debris slowly breaks down. The plate of the under gravel filter itself can allow debris buildup on the bottom of the tan, out of reach of the aquarist. This leads to excessive nitrate buildup. Many fish are diggers and since water takes the path of least resistance, unless the gravel is the same depth throughout the tank it will not evenly go through the gravel. Once a fish digs down close to the plate, the under gravel filter itself is almost useless. This means that the effective area for nitrifying bacteria is only a fraction of all the gravel.
    Aquarist since 1995
    Biologist and Published Author in Multiple Aquarium Magazines
    Owner: Aquarium Maintenance Company
    Advanced Aquarium Concepts: Articles about many aspects of aquarium care.

  2. #2


    0 Not allowed!
    Internal Power Filters: These are usually an elongated media chamber with a pump at one end. These can provide good mechanical filtration as well as biological depending on their layout. These require that the aquarist actually goes into and disrupts the tank to clean the filter. They can also be hard to tell when they need to be maintained depending on the design. These also use up valuable in-tank space that the fish could use.

    Hang On Back Power Filters: These usually include a box that hangs off the back of the tank with an intake tube going into the tank. They do not use much room at all in the tank. They provide moderate surface agitation depending on design and water level. They are not usually customizable as far as media is concerned. These are generally moderate as far as cost goes. They do require a continued investment in cartridges. Some come with carbon built in so there is no way to not use it, others come with it included, but not built in so you may or may not use it. Many hang on backs have separate biological media. This may involve what is equivalent to a course mechanical media after finer mechanical media. Others include bubble aerated plastic plates, wet-dry functions where the water level itself rises and falls in the filter, and even paddle wheels exposing the media to the air. These filters are easy to maintain, but some designs may take longer. There is generally a low and fixed media capacity.

    Wet-Dry Trickle Filters: These generally involve a large chamber filled with biological media that the water slowly trickles over, exposing the nitrifying bacteria to the water and air. These usually sit under the tank and are gravity fed. The water collects in a sump where it is then pumped back up to the tank. These frequently include separate mechanical and chemical media chambers. The biological media can collect debris leading to excessive nitrates. So these do require occasional breakdown and rinsing to keep the media clear of debris while preserving the nitrifying bacteria. These are generally used on large systems with large bioloads and relatively sensitive fish.

    Canister Filters: Canister filters involve a large canister chamber that sits under the tank. Hoses connect it to the main tank. The canister is gravity fed and a pump returns the water to the tank. These involve a large volume that can be used for an assortment of media. Most use trays to divide the canister into separate sections, each of which can include a different media. These provide a very large media capacity which allows them to handle large tank volumes very efficiently. They require a moderate amount of time to maintain, depending on the amount of debris collected. They are one of the more or most expensive types of filtration. Many include or allow for media that can be easily cleaned and reused, greatly reducing continuous cost. They can sometimes be a headache get started initially and after they have been cleaned and restarted.

    I have found that the best way to determine filtration needed is to simply cut whatever the ‘up to’ rating is in half. This provides enough filtration for a moderately stocked community type tank. High sticking levels or high waste producers like goldfish and cichlids will need even more. I ignore gallons per hour (gph) ratings altogether. Focusing on these can lead to a lot of movement without much cleaning. Remember that the filters are not cleaning x many gallons, they are cleaning up after a certain bioload. Also remember that all the filtration in the world can be undone by insufficient water changes.

    Overall I have found a combination of HOB and canister to be the best filtration. This applies to all of my tanks. It combines the high capacity of the canister with the surface agitation of HOB. I use Fluval canisters on all tanks over about 30 gallons. They have almost no cost to upkeep because I reuse the media and do not include carbon. I use Whisper HOBs because they are effective, cheap, and have cheap cartridges.
    Aquarist since 1995
    Biologist and Published Author in Multiple Aquarium Magazines
    Owner: Aquarium Maintenance Company
    Advanced Aquarium Concepts: Articles about many aspects of aquarium care.

  3. #3

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    0 Not allowed!
    good article!

  4. #4


    0 Not allowed!
    This is such a good thread, Fishguy.

    I'd like to see you send the link to this thread to William for his articles.

    Meanwhile, I will stickie it but it would make a great article, too.

  5. Default

    0 Not allowed!
    that is a great article.....thank you for posting it...

  6. #6


    0 Not allowed!
    Hey! Excellent article and thanks for the time you took to do this! These sorts of articles are perfect for beginner like myself who are trying to figure everything out without disaster. Thank you so much!

  7. #7


    0 Not allowed!
    thanks. I had no idea about carbon.

  8. Default

    0 Not allowed!
    Great article. Thank you for posting this.

  9. Default

    0 Not allowed!
    that is good clarification fishguy2727. i must remember to start switching over to the ceramic cylinders of matrix instead of those bioballs. Why are you using a fluval and an internal filter? And one other question why is it that some people over do the filtration? Like why would you run two xp 3 on a say 129 gallon tank.i have a 125 running a xp3 adn one 125 running an xp4. They are running well and believe me that is enough filtration. Wouldn't that kind of filtration be harmful to fish? Two xp3 running a 125.....the water flow on the surface of the water would be too much.

  10. #10


    0 Not allowed!
    When I wrote this I was usually using both a canister and a hang on back (HOB). This gave me surface agitation and effective mechanical filtration.

    Any filter's 'up to' rating needs to be cut in half. They all over-rate themselves. So if it goes 'up to' 100 gallons, it is only worth about 50 (depending on the type of fish). So if you have a 150 gallon tank in general you should have enough filters so that they claim in total to deal with 300 gallons. This is just a guide though. So if you are lightly stocked with fish that do not produce a lot of waste, you may be able to get away with less filtration. The other issue is having backup in case something happens. I had a canister simply stop running. Fortunately I also had two HOBs on the tank and did not even notice the canister had stopped. Stuff happens and when it does it is good to not have a tank running on one single filter (if that filter fails you and your fish are in a tough position).

    There is no such thing as too much filtration. There can be too much flow for most species, but even in these cases there are ways to reduce the flow. Two XP4s on a 125 would not be too much. The worst case would be if you had fish that like slow flow, in which case you can use spray bars, have the different sources of flow in the tank counteract eachother, use decor to break up the flow, point the sources of flow at the glass, etc.

    These are just guides though. There are two things filtration does, removes particulates and converts ammonia into nitrate. So if the water is clear (particulates have been removed) and there is no ammonia or nitrite by definition there is adequate filtration. But as fish grow or if a filter stops working you now need more filtration. It is better to have extra and not need it then to have barely enough and then suddenly need more.
    Aquarist since 1995
    Biologist and Published Author in Multiple Aquarium Magazines
    Owner: Aquarium Maintenance Company
    Advanced Aquarium Concepts: Articles about many aspects of aquarium care.

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