AQUARIUM FILTRATION (Filter Information, Review),
By Carl Strohmeyer-PAMR 35+ years experience
The purpose of this article is to help the reader choose the right filter or filters for their aquarium filtering needs and also help with troubleshooting of existing filters (or even bring back to life a "dead" filter as in the case of canister filters with failed motors).
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE:
I give my OPINION/REVIEW with each of these types of filters, based on 36 + years maintaining a large aquarium maintenance company in Los Angeles, California. I used many different types and brands of filters during this time, and continue to try new ones out.
As well many reviews are NOT only based on my professional use (often dozens or more of any one filter), but also based on feedback from other informed aquarium professional maintenance colleagues I generally talk/meet with at least once per month.
These reviews are not meant to be the end all, as it is far from a complete list, but hopefully this can help readers with similar filters make good decisions.
More importantly as I noted earlier, the troubleshooting tips for many of the "types" of filters reviewed here are more universal and objective. Hopefully reader will find these very useful, even when they might disagree with a review.
Further Reading: My Aquarium Keeping Bio/Experience
A few notes before I get started here:
In each section below, I discuss the attributes (and weaknesses) of each type of filter and I give trouble shooting tips for each as well.
For Marine Aquarium filter systems/combination suggestions, please see this article: “Marine (Saltwater) Aquarium Filter Set Up Suggestions”
For Freshwater Aquarium filter systems/combination suggestions, please see this article: “Freshwater Aquarium Filter Set Up Suggestions”
Important Filter Parameters to aid in Choosing a Filter:
These parameters are important to consider. I will rate a few different brands in these categories where applicable (please only use this as a guide).
*Capacity; by this I mean the amount of bio load and debris a certain filter can hold. I will rate this (based on comparisons to similar size filters, in other words a Hydro Sponge I will not be compared to Via Aqua 750 Canister Filter).
*Bio Load capacity; similar to above, however this pertains to bio filtration (nitrifying, not de-nitrifying) abilities in particular.
*Flow By; this is the efficiency of a given filter to trap particulates of a given size without the water going around the media. I have determined this by measuring a micron filter insert, sponge or other Media’s debris collection after a given time.
*Head Pressure; this is the ability of the filter or pump to lift vertically. Many pumps and filters will claim 300 gph at 0 head pressure, however when devices such as a UV Sterilizer are added or the filter/pump has to lift vertically any distance (such as a canister filter on the floor), many pumps/filters will have much lower gph. This is a common problem with Fluval Canister filters for instance.
Please Reference this article for much more about Head Pressure (a MUST Read):
Head Pressure in Aquarium and Pond Water Filters/Pumps
UNDER GRAVEL (UGF);
An old standby that is good for biological filtration (the conversion of fish waste from ammonia and nitrites to less harmful nitrates), but is poor for mechanical filtration (the removal of debris- organic and inorganic).
The bottom line is if considering, DO NOT, rather consider a Sponge Filter or if your budget allows; a Fluidized Sand Bed Filter (which the TMC model is unsurpassed by ANY bio filter in capacity and efficiency).
*Hydro Sponge Premium Aquarium Sponge Filters
*TMC Fluidized Sand Bed Filters
Potential UGF Problems/Maintenance:
Make sure to use a bottle brush to keep the lift tubes flowing smoothly, vacuum regularly especially around the lift tubes to prevent organic build up that can impede flow.
Flow will be poor if too fine a gravel or sand is used, #3 gravel works best. If you use too coarse of gravel (especially do not use marbles), bio filtration will not be effective (and mechanical filtration will also be poor). If gravel is too shallow near the lift tubes, you will get a poor circulation pattern. Make sure gravel is deepest near the lift tubes.
As noted earlier, make sure to siphon underneath the plates to keep problem causing mulm/sludge to a minimum.
HANG ON BACK-POWER FILTERS (HOB);
HOB filters (hang on the back- power filters) are quite popular for good reason. They are generally inexpensive and simple to operate.
Most of these filters are good for mechanical and chemical filtration, while many are generally poor to fair for bio filtration as the single cartridge HOB filters do not retain healthy bio colonies.
This does vary widely with the model and can be improved via add-ons as well.
The Aqua Clear is better than most for biological filtration and is very popular for this reason among many experienced aquarists.
However its flow design and filter media type tends to lead to flow-by, resulting in poor mechanical filtration especially for more fine debris/organic mulm.
For those doubting this, I performed tests using a “light” compost in the water and the Aqua Clear faired worse than all others tested.
I should also note that the Aqua Clear Filters have poor impellers, and from my records (based on literally 100s of Aqua Clear applications), have a higher than average break down record due to the impeller.
The small Aqua Clears are really no better than any other HOB in terms of capacity than comparable Whispers, Rena SuperClean HOB Filters, SunSun, etc.
Before I seem too hard on these filters, they do have a lot of capacity and flexibility in the larger models, which is where I would recommend their purchase.
*Rena Smart HOB Filter; Model 20, 30, 55 &
*SunSun HBL 501 & 701 Dual Bio Sponge Cartridge Aquarium Filter
I do not buy the argument by supporters of Aqua Clears that the cartridge style filter is more expensive to operate and vastly less efficient biologically.
The design of the SuSun, SuperClean, VitaLife, & other filter cartridges allows for multiple rinsings before the fiber degrades.
As well, with a pre-filter, the cartridges can last a long time (often a few months) and many of the better models, such as the Whisper, Rena Smart Filter & SuperClean, Aqueon, SunSun, etc, come with grids, bio stars, ceramics, or sponges to improve bio capacity.
The Aqua Clear Models I do recommend are the 70 (old 300) and the 110 (old 500), these are useful filters in terms of capacity and versatility. The model 110 is a good choice for aquariums over 70 gallons especially if backed up by another filter type.
One more point in favor of Aqua Clears (or at least the Model #70 and # 110), these can also be converted into a pretty good Nano Reef Filter with some live rock fragments (about 1”), SeaChem Matrix, or volcanic rock and even a small mud filter with the mud or even live sand in a fine nylon bag placed in the bottom of the filter.
Hopefully some of the impeller problems I have experienced in the past will be improved as the larger models of Aqua Clears are very versatile filters that I recommend.
For smaller models, I still recommend the API/Rena Smart for a premium HOB, the API/Rena SuperClean for a good Value HOB, the and SunSun HBL line of HOB filters for economy along with some others which I discuss below.
*Volcanic Rock Bio Media
*SeaChem Matrix Premium Aerobic and Anaerobic Bio Media
Summarizing from my experience and tests as to Aqua Clear;
The potential buyer should consider what their aquarium filtration needs will be, so I cannot make a blanket statement to purchase or not to purchase, however I can make an educated generalization that there are better HOB filters in terms of filtration and price than the smaller Aqua Clears, but for large HOB filtration the Aqua Clear #70 & #110 are more difficult to beat for larger aquaria.
This said, even here my personal preference for freshwater aquariums (especially when value is considered) would be to add two SunSun, Rena Smart, etc. or BETTER, two different filters 'TYPES' such as a Hydro Sponge #5 PRO filter, Fluidized Bed Filter, or Wet/Dry Internal filter AND a smaller HOB such as the SunSun HBL-701 or Rena Smart Filter rather than one Aqua Clear 110 for an 80 gallon aquarium (although a Aqua Clear 70/110 can be complimented as well with another filter for more bio capacity and important filter redundancy).
One suggested product link: ATI Premium Hydro Sponge
The Penguin & Emperor has good mechanical filtration (little flow-by), but are not as good for bio filtration even with the Bio-Wheel, which is vastly over-rated as per the tests I performed through my aquarium maintenance business. I removed the bio wheel on penguin filters in comparable aquariums with comparable bio loads and fish and found no discernible ammonia spike. Yet when HOB filters that had running Sponge Pre Filters attached to their intakes were removed, there were discernible ammonia spikes. What this means is that the Bio Wheel was NOT the primary source or even an important source of bio filtration for the tanks with the bio wheels.
For more FULL information about my experiments with Bio Wheels, please read this article:
Do Bio Wheels really work?
There are NO penguins I recommend, ESPECIALLY the Emperor models as I have had so many impeller problems with these, not to mention they have the problem of becoming "Nitrate factories".
In fact as per Emperors Filters in EVERY case where I removed an Emperor Filter and replaced it in one test with a Hydro Sponge #5 and Internal Filter, along with the use of either SeaChem Matrix (SeaChem de-Nitrate in previous years) or Purigen; tank conditions improved considerably.
Why might one ask? The reason is simple, and that is the basket arrangement in the Emperor is similar to many canister filters, with the exception that it does not allow efficient anaerobic de-nitrification with products such as SeaChem Matrix, de-Nitrate, volcanic rock, Purigen, live rock crumbles, etc. and simply becomes a nitrate factory!
Product Resource: SeaChem Purigen
While I would not throw away one of these filters if you already own one (as these filters can and do work); the bottom line as to Emperors/ Penguins despite some anecdotal hype around these filters, DO NOT waste your money on one if you are in the market for a new filter.
If you already have one, back it up with a Sponge, Internal, Internal Wet/Dry, Fluidized, etc. (which you should with ANY filter anyway).
I will also note that the Aqua-Tech sold by Walmart is simply a stripped down Penguin with no bio capacity at other than the cartridge, which when thrown away destroys all nitrifying bacterial colonies. At least the Bio Wheel maintains some bio colonies, but his filter does not and should be avoided more so than the Penguin if used as the ONLY filter!
From my experience, your money is better spent with an Aqueon, SunSun or Whisper, or especially the premier HOB (when used CORRECTLY with a pre-filter); the Rena Smart Filter.
Product Resource: Rena Smart & SuperClean Filter; Models, 20, 30, 50, 55
The New Rena Superclean, and older Via Aqua VitaLife and Millineum are the excellent "Simple" Hang-On filters for freshwater tanks under 60 gallons, with the SuperClean & VitaLife getting the edge due to the surface skimmer feature (not to be confused with a protein Skimmer), lower price (and thus better value), & reliable impeller design.
While I would rate the Rena Smart HOB Filter over these filters, it is more pricey and less simple (with a pre-filter required for best results).
The SuperClean & VitaLife filters also have a low “flow by rate” and are thus much better for mechanical filtration (these cartridges are easily rinsed and re-used as well).
The SuperClean utilizes a unique plastic "fence" where highly porous ceramic bio media are placed (supplied with filter), that is a simpler and more reliable way to maintain nitrifying bacterial colonies than a bio wheel
While the VitaLife & Millennium have a bio grid, which although not as effective for hosting nitrifying bio films as the before mentioned API SuperClean, these are still excellent for bio film colonies.
Unfortunately, both the ViaAqua VitaLife and Millineum filters have suffered from the down turn in the economy that started in 2008 and are no longer available (except for a few of the M100 models). However a cheap "knock off" off of the VitaLife is now made by by a rather unethical aquarium supply company (that will go un-named), avoid this filter that might look like a Vitalife, but is not the same filter in quality.
A better choice is the NEW Rena Super Clean HOB Aquarium Power Filter.
These are a top notch filter as per construction, low water flow by, and includes a skimmer feature, all a price that competes well with economy filters for what is arguably a "high end" aquarium Power Filter.
A useful feature beside the fact that these filters are supplied with the well documented BioChem Zorb which is superior to carbon used in other filters, these filters will have the option of cartridges with NitriZorb (for ammonia/nitrate removal)& Phoszorb (for phosphate removal)
Prices are from about $20 for the 20 model and $35 for the 50 model.
My only negative with the SuperClean (as with the Filstar Canister & Smart Filter HOB) is the company itself; "Mars Fish Care".
This company has bought out API/Rena, which previously was a company committed to getting their products in the hands of true aquarium professionals first and still supporting these professionals providing the products were purchased in some reasonable quantities.
HOWEVER since "Mars Fish Care" took over, they have given discounters special deals that their original supporters cannot get, nor do they return emails, phone calls, or letters from aquarium professionals looking to pool their funds for a fair price to compete.
My opinion is to avoid their products unless you can afford to purchase from those who have spent much time using, educating, and give you the full information of how to properly use their products.
API/Rena SuperClean HOB Aquarium Power Filters
The older Whisper Filters are an industry standard for simple economical Hang-On Aquarium Filters with additional bio filtration. While not the best, these are reliable filters with a popular following for good reasons.
The new Aqueon and Whisper EX series aquarium power filters feature the pump (power unit) outside the aquarium instead of at the bottom of the filter as most Aquarium HOB Filters are configured.
The even newer SunSun HBL 702 series HOB filter also has this new feature.
This has its advantages and disadvantages; the main advantage is there is not a need to prime the filter by adding water to it or the risk of debris such as carbon getting sucked into the impeller well, thus jamming the filter impeller.
The later advantage is definitely a selling point.
The minor disadvantage is it is possible for the filter minimum water level to be obtained via evaporation, especially if the aquarium owner is out of town. This can and has resulted in filter failure. With normal maintenance, this is problem that should not occur.
The Whisper EX version of this design has a “time strip tab” to indicate the exhaustion of carbon, however my opinion of this is it is a gimmick, as most persons over use carbon in healthy established aquariums and over rate its need.
See this article: “Aquarium Filter Media, Types and Uses”).
I would recommend the lower priced Aqueon over the Whisper even though it does not have the “time strip tab” feature. Neither the Aqueon or the Whisper EX offer the bio bag, however the filter cartridges are easily rinsed or purchased in multi packs for better economy.
A note as to Filter Cartridges: Whisper has come out with a new filter cartridge that does not hold up well at all. Even the popular Bio Bag (which I have used for years and have enjoyed its versatility), is made from a weakly “spun” poly fiber that does not hold up as well as many better cartridges, however the price of these bio bag cartridges when bought in bulk boxes generally made up for this.
However this new cartridge is not as inexpensive as it once was, and does not even hold up as well as the previous cartridge.
Another point that is often missed in this subject of cost, is effectiveness. As the better made cartridges such as those offered for the SunSun HBL, Via Aqua M100/200 have a much better and tighter weave that traps more and smaller micron debris.
This is a good example where the cost of a product may not truly reflect its value, since I have rinsed many of these VitaLife as well as those for the similar SunSun HBL series Filter Cartridges over a dozen times before disposing of them, which actually makes them a better price for a vastly better cartridge.
Premium HOB Filters;
The relatively new Rena Smart HOB Filters are an excellent idea for an HOB/Power Filter as they have the lowest flow-by of ANY HOB filter as they operate much like a canister filter by their unique design pulls water through filter columns as well as passing water through a 4-sided filter cartridge which contains Bio Chem Zorb and Bio Chem Stars for excellent chemical and bio filtration.
See replacement product links: Bio Chem Zorb & Bio Chem Stars
The only negatives of the "Smart Filter" in my opinion (based on my professional aquarium service partners) are that the cartridges are expensive to replace and can clog quickly due to high filter efficiency. As long as the user is aware of this and checks the cartridge sleeves regularly, especially when the filter is newly installed on a dirty tank, this should not be a problem.
As well, for BEST results, I highly recommend and ONLY use Filter Max Pre-Filters along with the Rena Smart Filter. This can greatly reduce this problem of quick clogging cartridges in the Rena Smart Filter, and in fact adds additional filtration (both bio and mechanical) that combined makes this far and way the best HOB style aquarium filter when correctly configured!!
See product links: Rena Smart Filter, Models 20, 30, 55 & Filter Max Pre-Filter
What is unfortunate, is the uninformed anecdotal reviews (such as at Amazon) that permeate the Internet condemning this filter for what is actually a positive. As noted earlier this filter is so efficient, that it can clog easily; this is NOT a flaw, rather users simply should be aware of this and maintain this filter accordingly and add a quality pre-filter as recommended by aquarium professionals!
It is noteworthy that there is NO PROBLEM with the leveling feet, rather it is the lack of use of a pre-filter as previously noted that can cause this filter to leak out the back due to clogging.
Unfortunately Amazon has "no skin in the game", provides no service or scientific knowledge to the products they sell and most importantly since they have no knowledge of how the Rena Smart Filter should be properly set up, do NOT sell this product with the correct pre-filter, thus resulting in the irresponsible and incorrect reviews.
Reading reviews on Amazon and then purchasing many aquarium products there is akin to doing the same for your medical needs then complaining to your Doctor when they do not work correctly!
For the major negative of these filters, please see the note in the API SuperClean Filter section.
In summary, the initial filter purchase price is high, but the filter sleeve part of these cartridges can be removed and then rinsed clean with a strong jet of clean water so as to extend the life of cartridge sleeves.
That said, for those willing to spend the money, this is otherwise the BEST HOB/Aquarium Power Filter Money can buy, with the highest efficiency, along with one of the more reliable and quiet motors of any HOB aquarium filter.
The SunSun HBL-501 or SunSun HBL-702 are very good economy HOB filters (there are several "good" economy HOB Filters), with both cartridge AND Bio Sponges/Grids.
Another plus, while being a top notch economy filter, they only start at $11.99.
Product Resource: SunSun HBL-501 & 702 Economy HOB Filters
The 501 model has a small skimmer/aerator feature, while the 702 model has the new and popular feature of an "in tank" motor (similar to the Aqueon & Tetra) that makes for a very easy start up and more importantly lowers the risk of the impeller drawing debris that settles inside the filter impeller well, often from stray carbon.
As well, these filters come with a cartridge that is actually superior to many more pricey HOB Filters such as the Whisper or Penguin in that it is easily pressure rinsed for re-use in mechanical filtration.
Also, these filters have proven to be reasonably reliable and quiet; again at least comparable to the Aqua Clear, Penguin and other filters I have used in the 100s over the years.
With the 'double' SunSun HBL-702, I often recommend removing one of the Bio Grids and replacing with SeaChem Matrix or SeaChem Purigen for Nitrate Control, especially these are to be used and small saltwater aquarium.
SeaChem Matrix & Purigen
The only negative I have found, is that the directions are somewhat "sparse", however this is only a very minor flaw as anyone with any familiarity with aquarium HOB power filters should have no problem connecting a SunSun HBL Filter to their aquarium.
The "in-tank" pump feature is both a positive and negative. As a positive it makes staring these filters more simple than eve, however as a negative, if you are one who lets your tank evaporate several inches, this may not be the feature for you as the motor can then run dry and malfunction. Also for tanks used for turtle, frogs, etc where you actually want the water level to be low, this filter along with the Aqueon and Tetra Filters with this feature are not for you.
Another Economy HOB filter is the Top Fin which is actually a mass market version of the Whisper Filter, however it does not include the bio sponge insert that is available with higher end Whispers, as well the Top Fin is prone to some impeller problems.
The Top fin is not a bad choice for those on a budget, however I strongly recommend that these filters be improved biologically with a Pre-Filter Sponge or simply be complimented with an additional filter such as a Hydro Sponge Filter since these economy filters do not maintain bio filtration capacities each time the filter cartridge is changed.
Product Resource: Filter Max Aquarium Pre-Filters
There are many other Economy Aquarium Power Filters available, too many to mention, but from my use of many, as well as simply knowing from experience which features are important for a healthy aquarium; the SunSun HBL series is certainly the best of the bunch and often outperforms many much more expensive filters including the Penguin.
Further Hang-On Filter Suggestions, Information:
I generally prefer/recommend cartridge filters with additional Bio Sponges or grids for a good mix of mechanical, chemical, & bio filtration.
However, you need to look at what you need your filter for. If you have little debris in your aquarium (requiring good mechanical filtration) but a high bio load, the Aqua Clear may be for you (their mechanical problems aside).
As I will note elsewhere in this article, a pre-filter will vastly improve bio-filtration in many cartridge style HOB Filters, although many Whispers, SunSun, & similar come with a secondary sponge or bio grid for added bio filtration (the VitaLife & Millennium have a bio-grid).
However with small economy HOB filters often sold at Walmart or PetsMart such as the TopFin or small Whispers without any bio filter capacities, a Pre-Filter Sponge will considerably aid in bio filtration & is strongly suggested (for only about $6).
See product link: Filter Max Sponge Pre-Filters
Even though HOB Filters are not first choice for marine aquariums, they can and do work here as well, usually in smaller applications (under 60 gallons).
I generally prefer the Aqua Clear, Via Aqua VitaLife M200 (although now discontinued), or even the the SunSun HBL-702 for this application.
For whatever your choice may be, the addition of Live Rock fragments, SeaChem Matrix, SeaChem Purigen, or volcanic rock via a filter bag will improve marine aquarium filtration (I remove the bio grid in the M 200 and substitute the filter bag instead).
Product Resource: Volcanic Rock
One more note about the older style (not the new EX series) Whisper HOB filters; one nice thing about these filters is you can buy the “Bio Bag” filter inserts in bulk boxes cheaply at many local fish stores. I like this feature as it gives you options of economy and ease of carbon removal for treatment or established aquariums (which I rarely use carbon in except occasionally).
You can “cut” the carbon out of Penguin, VitaLife, Sunsun, or other filters or simply let it become a bio media by not removing it and only rinsing the fiber part of the cartridge, thus saving money on new cartridges.
I often clean my VitaLife & SunSun Cartridges with a strong jet of water and use them over many times, which unfortunately the Bio Bags are too cheaply made to tolerate this “jet” of water or even a simple rinsing without falling apart (this is one of the reasons I like these two filters is the economy of filter cartridge reuse).
Many years back I performed a few tests on “flow by” on Aqua Clears vs. Whisper and a couple other HOB filters (for mechanical filtration and chemical filtration).
*Test ; Using a bare tank (20 gallons) and original carbon. I added Methylene Blue and the Whisper removed the Methylene Blue quicker.
Product Resource: Kordon Methylene Blue
*Test ; I added a washed gravel slurry again to a bare 20 gallon aquarium and again the Whisper removed the debris much quicker this time than the Aqua Clear. I also have used the Penguin and Via Aqua Vita Life; both were also quicker at removing the debris as well (the Via Aqua was the fastest). During this test I used an air stone on the bottom to keep the debris suspended.
This experiment included these filers at the time it was conducted:
Aqua Clear 150 (now the #30), Whisper 2 (#40), Penguin 170 (replaced by 200), and Via Aqua Vita Life 200.
This brings me to the point that many HOB filters can be equipped with Pre Filters (the Filter Max is the best due to its patented sponge technology).
Pre Filters vastly increase bio filtration, are inexpensive, prevent baby fish from being sucked into the filter, and provide a measure of bio stability when the cartridge is changed.
It should be noted that with Aqua Clears, pre filters are not as necessary for bio filtration (they still improve it though), although these pre-filters still prevent fry from being sucked into the Aqua Clear.
A complaint with pre filters I have occasionally heard (not from experienced users) is that they end up performing all the mechanical filtration duties of your HOB filter; HOWEVER this is not true.
With cartridge style HOB filters (Penguin, Whisper, Via Aqua, etc.), the pre-filter will remove most of the medium to coarse debris BEFORE passing into the cartridge where the cartridge will then remove the more fine debris. This will have the added benefit will be longer periods between cartridges which will also save you money.
Potential HOB Filter problems (Trouble Shooting):
Not as common a filter but a much less costly alternative to expensive and bulky canister filters. Internal filters are basically a power head with a filter of varying capacity attached.
I will briefly mention Power Heads here as well as many internal filters are simply glorified Power Heads (I do not mean that in a bad way either).
Popular filters for larger aquariums in particular, Canister filters are known for their large capacity (most canister filters with the exception of Magnums are the ‘Kings’ of capacity), which sometimes can be their problem.
Many aquarists will not clean canister filters often enough as they are “still running well”, but in reality have a large build up of organic sludge turning them into ‘nitrate factories”.
I GENERALLY recommend them if they are serviced regularly, as their ability to hold large amounts of different filter media and their excellent mechanical filtration set canister filters above many other filters, although their general use is in freshwater aquariums and even then filters such as the Fluidized Sand Bed Filter generally have more bio capacity and are preferred for planted freshwater aquariums.
Canister filters, despite many improvements in designs and features, seem to be a filter that not only is time consuming in changing, they presents many difficulties in initial set up and subsequent cleanings for many (which is why later in this article I provide an extensive troubleshooting guide), for this reason these are often not the best filter for many, and why a high performance sponge filter may be a better choice.
Reference: Sponge Filtration; Often the Better Bio Filter
OR better yet a Fluidized Filter which depending upon the model can out perform ANY canister filter (see later in this article in the Fluidized Filter Section).
Canister filters are still one of the best choices for a filter for fresh water aquariums over 100 gallons, especially when well maintained with regular rinses in de-chlorinated water (including foam and ceramic media).
If used in marine aquariums, I recommend the use of cured live rock crumbles, SeaChem Matrix or volcanic rock (better than bio balls or ceramic rings) to keep these filters from becoming nitrate factories.
The use of SeaChem Purigen near the final phase (where carbon and other chemical media is placed) may also help considerably with nitrate production.
For more information about this, please refer to this article:
Marine Aquarium Information
* Volcanic Rock
For MORE about filter media, please see this article:
AQUARIUM FILTER MEDIA
Most Canister filters have a water flow pattern that flows from the bottom (not in the Magnum though); in these filters I would start with coarse filter media at the bottom of the canister.
I would use products such as Nirox Bio Care ceramic media for coarse filtration and bio filtration (rinse this with used tank water- never tap water!), then I would use a Medium Fiber or Ehfi-Fix, then I would use filter fiber or poly filter pads and place any chemical filter media between the fiber or even in a nylon bag.
For soft water (Amazon River Aquaria), I recommend Peat, Frog (Pillow) Moss, or Nirox Bio Lif which softens water like peat, but also helps trap pathogenic bacteria such as Aeromonas.
For "VALUE", I prefer the SunSun (which is also sold under different names, but many including the SunSun vary considerably in quality), although these are not necessarily the best canister filters, these are an excellent choice when price is a major consideration.
However I would caution potential SunSun, Grech, Perfect, or similar Canister Filter buyers that there are some flaws in the return and intake piping, and unfortunately almost all retailers of this filter are not aware of this and do not provide the retrofit of this problem.
I strongly suggest avoiding the Amazon, eBay, and other retailers that do not make this correction and instead sell an inferior version of what is otherwise one of the best economy aquarium canister filters for the price once this correction is made.
I suggest purchasing here (ALL SunSun Canister Filters are properly retrofitted here):
SunSun Canister Filters at American Aquarium
Other similar value canister filters include the now discontinued Via Aqua line, and the Hydro PRO series which has many design similarities to the Via Aqua 750 and other models.
The Hydor PRO is a well constructed canister filters without any gimmicks.
It does not include s UV or more advanced bio media such as is supplied with the API Filstar or even the Properly Retrofitted SunSun Filters (which are only sold at AAP), but it is a solid canister filter that has the same proven disconnect system that Via Aqua employed.
My only negative with the Hydor PRO is the price, as it is a very well made, but economy canister filter that is priced more like a more complete high end canister filter.
Here is a video for the Hydor Pro Filter: YouTube; Hydor Professional Aquarium External Filter
The best from my aquarium maintenance use is the Rena (API) Filstar XP (although more money than the SunSun & similar), this canister filter is probably about the best with flow pattern, efficiency, solid construction, reliability, ease of use and surpasses the Fluval & many others.
Even with the popular and also excellent Eheim Classic Models, the Rena is the better choice.
Another advantage is that some sellers of the API/Rena Filstar include the super premium filtration media "Bio-Chem Zorb" which is vastly superior to carbon. This product is similar to a high grade carbon and Purigen combined.
As well, the Filstar is supplied by some sellers with Bio=Chem Stars which are also a superior bio filtration media to the ceramic rings many filters are supplied with. Product Resource WITH complete premium filter media:
*API/Rena Filstar Canister Filter Systems
ALSO for the media only:
*Bio-Chem Zorb, from AAP
*Bio-Chem Stars, from AAP
In fact from my experience, the Rena Filstar XP Filter Systems are the best canister filters at any price (when apples to apples models are compared)!
The only negative with the Rena Filstar head pressure, as although the head pressure is better than the Fluval it is not as good as the Via Aqua 750, Hydor PRO, SunSun and Magnum.
A few rumors also exist that the Filstar has leaking problems, but in dozens my maintenance company (& colleagues in the service business) have maintained, I have NEVER seen this to be a problem, and I would attribute this to "cut & paste" urban myths that likely got started when someone put their Filstar together incorrectly.
For those reading this article thinking to themselves that I am promoting the API Rena because I sell them should note that I do not have access to the cheapest source for API Rena Products and therefore in the end sell these at cost!!!
I sell these because I believe in them and hope that customers might purchase another product that I do make more money on.
For the major negative of these filters, please see the note in the API SuperClean Filter section.
For a installation/instruction video for the Filstar, please click here:
Filstar Installation, Instruction Video
As for the ever popular Fluval, I am often left scratching my head as to its popularity, as I have literally used 100s over the years in my maintenance business and found these to have poor head pressure, poor flow patterns and are often simply unreliable.
I have had dozens of Fluvals on my maintenance route over the years, and their longevity is less than most others, even in the newer ’04 & '05 models.
The Fluvals low head pressure, poor impellers, proprietary hoses (which do not easily lend the filter to accessories such as UVs), and more lead me to question why these vastly over rated filters are so popular, and I base this statement on years of use of these filters and other canister filters in REAL world applications.
Even the highly touted Fluval FX5 and FX6 which has some great design ideas (such as the placement of the power supply/pump at the bottom & enclosed impeller), is a flawed filter that often fails or falls short of other filters such as the Filstar XP4 or Eheim 2080, as well the FX5/FX6 is vastly over rated for bio filtration when compared to Fluidized Filters.
The Fluval FX5 also still uses the flawed flex tubing that is MUCH more prone to cracking and is very difficult to mate to UV Sterilizers or other equipment in-line.
One more feature of the Fluval FX5/FX6 is the so-called Smart Pump Technology, which continually monitors the pump, constantly measuring impeller speed and force. It also manages the filter’s self-starting feature and evacuates air that may enter or build up within the filtration system during a 12-hour cycle, during which the pump will pause and allow trapped air to escape.
Personally in the literally 1000s of canister filters I have used, I have never seen a need to monitor impeller speed. Nor have I had an issue with air unless set up incorrectly or with a cracked or similar issue, in which you need to fix this problem before it gets more serious, NOT have a system that lulls you into complacency!!!
In my professional experience this is simply a feel good gimmick to take money out of your wallets and a potential part to break down!
This all said, the Fluval FX5/FX6 is certainly in a different league of canister filter than their very flawed Fluval predecessors.
However if you going to spend the amount of money this filter requires, my choice would be for more redundancy with two Rena Filstar, SunSun or similar.
OR BETTER, pairing with a Fluidized Filter, which a modern Fluidized Filter is more effective for aerobic & even anaerobic bio filtration as per controlled tests than ANY canister filter by themselves, including the Rena, or even a Hydro Sponge #5 PRO Filter.
In fact even the small TMC #600 Fluidized Sand Bed Filter has a bio capacity of 35 pounds of livestock (fish) and there are models (in testing) with capacities of 350 pounds (this model in testing will be for ponds). With just a power head, the #600 still outperforms the Fluval FX5.
Product Resource: TMC #600 Fluidized Sand Bed Filter
Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the Fluval also performs mechanical and chemical filtration, hence I recommend a Fluidized filter be paired with another filter type, even a HOB (power filter).
As well all one has to do is type Fluval FX5 Review (such as at discusforums.com/forum) and find that I am not the only user that finds the Fluval flawed, even the high end models.
The Eheim is a generally excellent filter with excellent capacity, good solid construction, and an excellent flow pattern with little flow-by.
However the Eheim is sometimes over priced for the questionably better quality than other top filters such as the Filstar.
In fact in my use, reliability is no better than many others (impeller failure rates are no better than many economy canister filters) and head pressure is worse than the SunSun, Perfect and others.
Eheim has done an excellent job marketing their filters as they have convinced many in the anecdotal aquarium community that their filter is second to none which although I still find the Eheim an excellent filter, this is simply not correct. When compared apples to apples, I and many other aquarium maintenance colleagues still prefer the other European designed canister filter; the Rena Filstar.
The most popular Eheim Filters are the 2213, 2215, & 2217 Classics, and frankly are still the best value in Eheim filters over the over hyped larger Eheims such as the 2080 (the Eheim 2215 Classic is pictured above left).
The newer "Eheim Ecco Pro Easy" models; 2232, 2234,& 2236 are excellent values for those who are sold on the Eheim name. These models have an excellent build, and feature a new prefilter which gives the user longer intervals between cleanings.
The only negative is the poor head pressure, making it a poor choice for running add on devices such as Fluidized Sand Bed Filters (although a separate pump to run a FB Filter is a good idea anyway for redundancy).
Two large (& pricey) Eheim, Filters are the 2262 & 2080 are without equals in capacity and water flow (the 2062 is my preference). However the head pressure is poor in relation to the water flow, as well I would personally recommend more filter redundancy rather than either of these large filters.
I HAVE maintained more healthy water conditions/parameters with multiple quality filters often of different types RATHER than one large filter.
As noted with the Fluval FX5; a vastly more effective filter system (especially when price is considered) would be a pair smaller Eheims, Rena Filstars or SunSuns (or many other canister filters) OR one mated to a Fluidized Sand Bed Filter. The bio capacity of a say an SunSun HW303 (or similar canister filter) combined with a TMC V2 1000 Fluid Filter would easily exceed either the Eheim 2080 or Fluval FX5.
Product Resources: SunSun HW303 & TMC Premium Fluidized Bed Aquarium Filter
Their Wet/ Dry Model (2229 W/D) is not a true Wet/ Dry rather it purges water in and out of the canister, this produces a poor flow rate for larger aquariums in particular and tends to prone to problems. This is the one Eheim I would consider a flop, with the largest Pet Supply distributor in North America (Central Pet) no longer stocking it due to problems.
In summary, if an Eheim is what you have decided on; I would recommend the 2213, 2215, & 2217 Classics or the Ecco Pro Easy 2232, 2234,& 2236. If your tank is large, rather than a 2062 or 2080, I suggest multiples, OR BETTER; a Fluidized Sand Bed Filter with a separate pump.
The Magnum has unique convertible features (the ability to switch between standard canister filtration and micron, which is a nice feature), as well there is NO easier canister filter for the ease of start up due to their bottom motor which resists "siphon-stopping" air pockets. The Magnum is one of the few canister filters that can be placed at tank level rather than under an aquarium for proper water siphon operation (although no higher as it still utilizes a siphon, it just has a bottom motor that is easier to start and maintain a siphon under marginal siphon conditions).
However their capacity is poor at best when compared to about any other canister filter. Before one dismisses Magnums for their capacity, they have about the best head pressure as compared to other Canister filters which is especially useful for running UV Sterilizers, Fluidized Filter, etc. The Magnums also have an occasional problem with leaking around the O ring, but generally good O ring lubrication maintenance can prevent this.
Although popular, I am far less than impressed with the Fluval Canister Filter. They have weak motors, poorly designed impellers, poor flow patterns (as per tests I have conducted) and poor head pressure. Micron Canister Filters include many canister filters that can be run either as a regular multi-media canister filter such as the Ocean Clear Filter, the Magnum, and others.
As well the Vortex and "Aquarium Cleaning Machine" can be considered a micron canister filter in many ways.
As a generalization the term micron filter applies to filters that use cartridges or pads to filter down to 20 -50 microns. Often without other filters or pre-filtration these types of filters can not be run long before the need to change or clean the filter media, this is especially true the smaller the micron size (such as 20 microns or less).
The Ocean Clear Filter has a very large cartridge and can go longer before changes due to the amount of surface area, however even smaller micron filters such as the Magnum can run for longer periods of time if other forms of pre-filtration are used or if the filter is simply used with other filters that will pick up much of the coarse debris before the micron filter can (such as in the diagram below that shows tow plumbed canister filters).
It is also noteworthy that many Micron filters require a separate pump such as the Ocean Clear and LifeGuard systems.
Finally as to Micron Filters; an aquarist can convert an efficient standard canister filter with low flow by (such as the Filstar, Via Aqua 750, & the Eheim) to a somewhat effective micron filter by utilizing fine micron poly pads. This does not usually work in most standard Fluvals (such as the 405) due to their design and high flow-by.
Hard Plumbed/Pre-Drilled Canister Filters:
Another often forgotten aspect of canister filters is that you can drill and use bulk heads to attach a canister filter. I have installed many canister filters from Magnum, Via Aqua 750, Filstar, to Ehiem, often powering UV Sterilizers and/or Fluidized filters this way in MANY high end filtration installations I have performed in my custom aquarium design and maintenance business.
Canister Filter Alternatives
Many aquarists are not aware that many high bio load capacity pond filters make EXCELLENT aquarium filters, often at lower prices to comparable canister filters.
WET/DRY FILTERS, Including Trickle and Sump Filters;
Popular with fish only marine aquariums in particular (although not so much with pure reef enthusiasts), these filters are great biological filters for control of ammonia and nitrites, but poor mechanical filters.
The Under Tank (Sump) Wet/Dry
This type (which is the most common, especially for Central Filter systems) uses a siphon or drain to take aquarium water out to the “sump” where the bio balls or other biological media are place in a "trickle" filter prior to reaching the sump, and then uses a pump or power-head to return the water.
Standard Sump Wet/Dry & Central Filter System Sump; DIY
You can easily build your own Wet/Dry or Mud-Wet /Dry combination. A simple over flow from your tank works well for the pick up (I prefer a bulkhead in the back or bottom of the tank).
FLUIDIZED BED FILTERS;
This video below might be helpful for those looking to set up a 3rd generation FSB Filter:
FSB Filter Instructional Set Up Video
Here are a few other helpful YouTube Videos about FSB Filters:
*TMC V2 Bio Fluidized Sand Filter Cleaning 1
*TMC V2 Bio Fluidized Sand Filter Cleaning 2
*TMC V2 Bio Fluidized Sand Filter Cleaning 3
*Tips & Tricks TMC V2 Bio Fluidized Sand Filter Cleaning 4
Below is an example of a mounting of a Model #600 FSB filter along with a Rio 1000 Pump, Filter Max #3 pre-filter, & Vecton-2 8 Watt UV Sterilizer:
For parts used for the above example and source of these parts, here is a list:
Here is a Diagram of how I installed these with a Canister Filter & UV under the aquarium:
The one weakness with Fluidized Filters (when used without a canister filter, HOB, or similar filter present in the aquarium filter system) is the lack of chemical filtration (carbon, Purigen, etc.).
First it is noteworthy that a healthy established aquarium often requires little chemical filtration.
If chemical filtration is necessary (even in low amounts), this however can be overcome by placing a filter bag with carbon draped over or behind a pre-filter sponge (assuming this is used with a water pump/power head).
I have placed SeaChem Purigen in a bag just behind a Filter Max Pre-filter with aquarium substrate in front for aesthetics to help hide the sponge and filter bag.
The picture above left displays a Filter Max Sponge Pre-Filter with a carbon bag and Purigen in the left picture. The right picture displays the sponge pre-filter with just Purigen behind the filter and aquarium substrate in front (Please click to enlarge).
*Filter Max Aquarium Pre-Filter, from AAP
*Nirox Premium Activated Carbon
Another option is to power your FB Filter with an Internal Filter such as the SunSun 952 and then place carbon or other chemical filter media in one of the compartments.
The problem with this suggestion is most internal power filters have little room for chemical filter and more importantly most do not have the head pressure to run a FB Filter, especially larger models such as the 1000 or 1500.
The bottom line from my experienced use of FB Filters WITHOUT a canister, HOB, or similar mechanical/chemical filter is that this method of placing a filter bag with chemical media behind the filter works reasonably well for most aquarium needs, albeit not as well as a canister filter for chemical filtration (IF NEEDED!).
*For best results with a Fluidized Sand Bed Filter, a separate aerating power head/propeller pump and/or air stone (or air driven sponge filter) are suggested since Fluidized filter do not aerate water well.
Product Resource: Seio Superior Performance Aquarium Propeller Pumps
Potential Fluidized Bed Filter Problems (Troubleshooting):
For further information about the often unknown Fluidized Filter, please read this outside article:
“About Fluidized Filters” Back To Top
ALGAE SCRUBBERS, REFUGIUMS, & MUD FILTERS;
(For a larger view of this filter, please click on the picture)
Protein skimmers remove nitrogenous wastes (protein based organic waste) via foam refraction. The protein skimmer collects this waste in a cup, where it is then emptied. There are pump driven and air driven models. Within the pump driven there are different types: Venturi, Aspirating, Downdraft, and Spray Injection; the first two being most common.
The advantages of a Protein Skimmer are that they remove nitrogenous waste before they can go thru the nitrogen cycle and become nitrates. The disadvantages are they can be messy, take frequent adjustments (at least on many lower end commercial models), and in my experience, over rated especially for marine fish aquariums. I also have kept many reef aquariums successfully with and without protein skimmers although I do recommend protein skimmers for reef aquariums.
What I personally find interesting is that many of the aquarists that swear by protein skimmers totally trash UV Sterilizers, yet I have found from experience (I had to service what I sell, and if I sold trash, I had to service trash!) that often UV sterilizers had a more positive attributes than protein skimmers.
That said, a good Protein skimmer a useful tool in marine aquariums especially if an Ozonizer is connected to the Skimmer and/or when used in conjunction with the Berlin Filter Method for reef aquaria and should be considered, more so if you are planning on keeping delicate corals such as Acropora or Zoanthids!
The Tropic Marine V2 Skim is one of the better ones with the latest in technology. This skimmer has a venturi injection system which optimizes the perfect mixture of fine air bubbles and water and ensures intensive, efficient skimming and the removal of proteins and other harmful toxins (waste) from the aquarium. For advanced Marine Aquarists (or even beginners looking to step up) this is the Protein skimmer I would strongly recommend.
Product Resource: V2 Skim Pro Saltwater Reef Aquarium Skimmer
For a really simple protein skimmer for a Nano tank I recommend the Rio Nano Skimmer. As with the VA Multi Skimmer, this is an entry level skimmer and not intended for advanced marine reef aquarium keepers.
Product Resource: Nano Protein Skimmer, Power Filter, for Beginners
I do not recommend the Sea-Clone.
Potential Protein Skimmer Problems:
Protein Skimmers often need regular adjustment to achieve a proper foam collection level and sometimes the cup will also overflow when not checked often (this doesn't usually make a mess, just makes for an ineffective protein skimmer). In my opinion many Protein Skimmers are best for more serious hobbyists do to the sometimes regular attention they need, but does not mean you have to be a professional to own one, just not someone who more just wants to look at his or her pretty aquarium with little “hands on”.
Also the diffuser in the pump (in pump driven models) can easily get debris such as carbon caught in the pump and make noise and not function properly this is more common in units with filter cartridges. To correct this; remove the carbon insert container, clean everything out, scrub it with a brush to remove all traces of the carbon particles, and then put it back together.
BERLIN FILTER METHOD:
This is not a filter per say, rather a method of filtration for Marine Aquaria only that can employ many different filter types to accomplish it.
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