We all know that water filtration is of paramount importance for maintaining a clean and healthy aquarium. It might sound quite a task, but it becomes laughably easy with the right filtration system in place.
Aquarium filters are essentially used for removing the physical and chemical waste buildups from the aquaria. It also helps aerate the water. Filters are undoubtedly valuable equipment for aquarists.
Now, when it comes to choosing the best filter for an aquarium, newcomers might feel overwhelmed with the number of brands and different types available out there. Moreover, the thing with aquarium filters is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
You need the right aquarium filter based on your specific needs, not the mere ‘best.’ Don’t worry if you aren’t sure how to make the assessment because we can guide you through it. In the following article, you will find basically everything you want to know about making the proper selection for an aquarium filter.
Common Types of Aquarium Filtration Systems?
Aquarium filters provide three means of water filtration, namely mechanical, chemical, and biological. Most filters are capable of performing all three, but some are more or less good at one type of filtration or another.
Mechanical filtration: it is responsible for removing the solid waste particles from the aquarium. When water circulates through the filter media, the physical wastage gets trapped in it. The mechanical media is made up of tightly bunched polyester fiber that is capable of straining out even tiny particles.
Mainly, the density of the material determines the particulate matter’s size going to be filtered out during the water circulation.
You’ll be required to frequently clean or, in some cases, replace the media, as it prevents the filter from getting clogged. Overall, mechanical filtration helps aquaria get rid of the free-floating waste and prevent it from building up and decomposing.
Chemical filtration: it helps remove the dissolved pollutants from the water using granular materials such as activated carbons, ion exchange resins, and other absorbents.
Activated carbon or charcoal is the most widely used media for chemical filtration. It absorbs organic impurities from the water and helps to fine-tune its quality. Carbon media can also be helpful for treating the aquariums that often get yellowish tinge over time.
Chemical filtration isn’t used as often as mechanical and biological.
Biological filtration: it is a natural breakdown process by which beneficial bacteria convert harmful ammonia to nitrites and then to compound nitrates making it less toxic for the aquarium’s life. It is also known as the Nitrogen Cycle.
The addition of bio-media provides a place for bacteria to grow and flourish in the tank environment. For the beneficial bacteria to settle and form stable colonies, it requires permanent media, which is not usually changed or replaced. An aquarium must retain good bacteria to maintain a clean and healthy ecosystem.
The efficiency of the biological filter media is best determined by the high surface area provided for the maximum bacterial growth. It consists of porous media such as ceramic, sintered glass, plastic balls, or sponges.
Types of Aquarium Filters
There are numerous types of aquarium filters designed for specific purposes and different tanks setup. Below we have listed some of the most common and widely used filters in the fishkeeping fraternity.
This section will introduce you to the different types of filtration systems used for aquariums. You don’t have to worry about which one to go for yet; we will deal with this question in great detail in another section.
As the name implies, sponge filters are nothing more than a sponge fitted over a tube attached to an air pump. It remains immersed in the water and is sufficient for both mechanical and biological filtrations. But it has no means to provide chemical filtration, so that’s the only downside.
Sponges come in different sizes, so based on your tank requirement, you can go for the appropriate one. Due to its gentle flow, sponge filters are best suitable for fry, shrimp, and other slow-moving fish that don’t like higher flow or agitation.
These filters are the easiest to use and can be maintained for the long term. However, sponge filters aren’t in any way robust. It’s widely used by breeders who run multiple nursery tanks because it is cost-effective.
You can go for these filters if you are just getting started with a relatively small tank and less bio-load. But if you are planning for a display aquarium, you might not want to use sponge filters because it simply doesn’t look aesthetically appealing.
Also known as hang-on-back filters, these come into the category of external power filters. HOB filters are said to be the most popular and reliable filters for small to medium-sized freshwater tanks.
They are easy to install, use and maintain, which makes it a go-to choice for both beginners and experienced aquarists. Hang-on-back filters come at different prices that vary by brands and do a really excellent job of biological, mechanical, and chemical filtration. Isn’t that all required?
There are many reputed brands in the market that make HOB filters of different designs and sizes. When it comes to choosing a hang-on-back filter for your aquarium, don’t think much; simply go with the one that suits your needs and comes in your budget.
Pro tip: HOB filters can be noisy sometimes, so always try to go with a filter with the motor inside the tank. It helps to make them quiet.
HOB filters are overall a great choice, but they aren’t ideal for bigger aquariums. It is tough to generate a good amount of circulation throughout the tank using these filters.
However, for betta tanks, hang-on-back filters could be the best option because they don’t create too much flow, and as we know, betta doesn’t really like to be blowing around. Thus, they go well together.
Next, we have the powerful filters in the list highly capable for all three types of filtration. Canister filters are best suited for medium to large-sized aquariums, mostly bigger than 40 gallons. These filters are comparatively huge and thus require to be mounted beneath the aquarium stand.
Don’t be mistaken with its size; most canister filters are low in power consumption and remain silent during operation.
It draws the water from the tank using an intake tube. And runs it through the filter media in a pressurized canister, then pumps the filtered water back into the aquarium via spray bar or directional jet.
Since canister filters hold larger space for the filtration media, it allows the aquarist to get more flexible with the media options. More filter media also means more debris and harmful pollutants being removed.
These filters are primarily used in bigger tanks that have a lot of fish or are heavily planted because that’s where you need a robust system for proper filtration. Compared to the power filters, canister filters are much more reliable for saltwater and planted aquariums filtration.
Interestingly, it comes with easy installation with no messy assembly, so you don’t have to worry about that as well. Once you get the hang of it, it will be easy for you to maintain a canister filter.
Internal Power Filters
As the name suggests, internal filters are positioned inside the tank, fully submerged in the water. It comes with suction cups that make it easy to attach the filter to the glass at the rear corner of the tank.
The water is sucked in from the bottom of the filter and drawn through a porous sponge media that traps the debris in it before ejecting the water out. Although internal power filters are capable of three-stage filtration, they aren’t as powerful as external filters.
Suppose you are looking for a filter for heavily loaded tanks. In that case, this might not be a good choice because it contains little space for the media, which means less of all mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration.
Internal power filters come in different varieties. Some are more sophisticated than others in terms of functionalities such as adjustable flow rates and directional control.
UGF (Under Gravel Filters)
As you might get it from its name, these are the slotted plate filters designed to place under the substrate or gravel in the aquarium. It’s integrated with an air pump and uplift tube that draws the water through the substrate and up through the tube.
When the water flows through the substrate, it traps the particulate matter achieving the first stage of filtration. Moreover, for this type of setup, you will be required to clean the substrate and do frequent water changes to remove the trapped debris before it decays there.
It majorly supports biological filtration, while chemical filtration is nearly impossible. However, some models allow you to use carbon cartridges for the removal of ammonia. UG filters aren’t majorly used these days because now we have advanced filters that are also highly efficient.
How to Choose the Right Filter For Your Aquarium?
This might be the most bugging question if you are new to aquarium keeping. However, it doesn’t have to be difficult if you know what to look for.
Picking up the best filter for your aquarium will mainly be determined by the size of the aquarium and the types of fish you planned to keep. Secondarily, you may also want to take note of your feeding habits, maintenance practices, and, last but not least, your personal preferences.
Most beginners often make the mistake of deciding on a filter merely based on the size of the aquarium. You have to also consider the amount of fish you are going to keep in it and of what species.
For example, a 35-gallon tank with a few predatory fish that produces a lot of waste may require a larger filter than the same sized aquarium with dozens of small clean eating fish that poops less. Moreover, your feeding habits also count as to how much bioload the aquarium may produce.
It is always a wise idea to get a filter rated at least one size bigger than your aquarium. It will allow you to over-filter the tank whenever required. And you don’t have to worry about the flow rate because that can easily be turned down to meet your tank’s requirements.
If you are somewhat of a lazy person, you might want to go for a filter that doesn’t need much maintenance. Likewise, if you are planning for a display aquarium, you wouldn’t want a filter hanging at the side. Keep in mind that there are only a few necessities, and the rest is up to you however you want it to be.
To sum it all up, buy a filter that comes into your budget, is sufficient for fulfilling the filtration requirement of your tank, and is easy to use.
We hope now you got an idea of what you need to pay attention to when buying an aquarium filter. There isn’t any filter that is inherently best or perfect, but what caters to your needs efficiently.
Pro tip: An aquarium filter should be powerful enough to circulate the complete volume of water at least four times in an hour.
7 Best Aquarium Filter (Top Picks) – Tried and Tested
Below we have reviewed some of the best aquarium filters in different segments based on their performances and customer reviews.
Best Overall: MarineLand Penguin 350 Power Filter
Capacity: Up to 75 Gallons
Flow Output: 350 GPH
When we talk about some of the best HOB filters currently owning the market, MarineLand Penguin has to be in the conversation. It comes with a 3-stage filtration process that works flawlessly and always gets the job done beyond expectations. The USP of MarineLand Penguin is its patented ‘BIO-Wheels’ responsible for maintaining nitrifying bacteria, which results in the removal of the toxic ammonia and polishing the water.
It is an excellent feature, but it dramatically increases the noise when in operation, making it a less desirable option for bedroom tanks. Although the filter supports a two-piece vented cover for quiet functioning, it’s not that effective.
It comes with a customizable flow rate that allows you to have the filter working at your conditions. MarineLand Penguin power filters are available in 5 different sizes, so depending on your requirement, you can go for the size that suits your aquarium best.
- Provides a 3-stage robust filtration process
- Revolutionary BIO-Wheels feature for enhancing the growth and maintenance of beneficial bacteria
- Adjustable mid-level intake for improving the water circulation throughout the tank
- Easy to install
- BIO-Wheels tend to increase the noise levels.
- After a water change or power outage, it may not self-prime, so you’ll have to re-start it by putting some water on it.
- The tops of the MarineLand Penguin don’t stay well on rimless and custom-shaped tanks.
Best for 20-Gallon: AquaClear Hagen
Capacity: Up to 20 Gallons
Flow Output: 150 GPG
AquaClear is a reputed brand, and its Hagen power filters have been around for a while now. It is an easy to install aquarium filter efficient for providing multi-stage filtration.
It comes with an adjustable flow rate that makes it an excellent choice for delicate fish and plants that require gentle water flow. Moreover, with the re-filtration system in action, you don’t have to compromise much with its filtration efficiency when keeping down the flow rate.
The best thing about this filter is its design – it comes with a large media box that allows aquarists to add plenty of media and filter floss and go with the many options available.
AquaClear Hagen has a media basket attached to it that prevents water from by-passing the filter media. Water is forced through the media instead of letting it flow passively. Evidently, AquaClear hits all the marks when it comes to powerful water filtration.
Also, the filter doesn’t splash water as much as other HOBs out there, all thanks to its unique design. It’s comparatively a quiet filter except for a minimal hum that shouldn’t bother you. AquaClear filters come in 6 variants, but its 30 and 50 Gallons capacity models are the most popular.
- Quieter filter motor and no water splashing sound
- Larger media box that allows you to hold more media volume
- Offers 3-stage filtration
- It comes with an adjustable flow rate
- It has a larger intake strainer that is not suitable for small fish. You can cover it with a sponge but, that will decrease the flow rate.
Best for 45-Gallon: Tetra Whisper IQ Power Filter
Capacity: 45 Gallons
Tetra Whisper IQ comes with some fancy engineering that makes it stand out from other hang-on-back filters. Firstly, it has a submerged motor that makes the filter self-priming, so now you don’t need to worry about pouring water during power outages.
The USP of this product is its adjustable intake tube that can be telescoped up or down however it fits your needs. Tetra Whisper IQ also provides an adjustable flow rate that can be reduced as low as 10 GPH – an ideal flow for Bettas and other delicate species and plants.
Well, the fanciest yet strange thing you will find on Tetra Whisper IQ is the motor housing being separated from the filter with a little gap in-between. This gap acts as a sound barrier to cut down on vibrations from reaching the tank wall & cabinet. Even though it’s a feature, not a bug, we think Tetra could’ve found other ways to isolate the motor noise instead of leaving the motor housing open.
- Much quieter
- Self-priming motor
- Highly customizable flow-rate
- The intake tube can be expanded deeper
- It comes with a modular cartridge system
- Somewhat bulky design
- Motor hanging down in the water off of rubber shock mounts isn’t likable by many buyers.
Best for 75-Gallon: SeaChem Tidal 75 Large Aquarium Fish Tank Filter
With a powerful flow rate of 350 GPH, Tidal 75 by SeaChem is probably the best hang-on-back filter for mid to large-sized aquariums. Likewise, all the top models, it comes with a self-priming pump which is an essential feature to have on an aquarium filter.
Tidal 75 also has a self-cleaning impeller, but it has been designed in such a way that you can’t access it. Many aquarists argued about it, and that’s certainly valid to some extent.
Interestingly, the design of the filter might seem a bit bulky to some, but we think it’s the best-built in terms of quality. It’s a powerful filter in action yet customizable. Using the built-in knob, you can easily fine-tune the flow adjusting it as per your needs.
If you are planning to buy a filter for your planted tank, you might want to go with this one as it also contains a skimmer that keeps the tank’s waterline clear by picking up the debris. On the other hand, it may not be the best suitable option for fry and shrimps because a skimmer isn’t considered safe for them.
Tidal 75 has a decent media storage capacity that gives you the flexibility to go with your choice of media and configure it as you may want. Apart from being easy to set up, HOBs are easy to clean and maintain as well. With the Tidal series, you get an alert feature that pops up when it’s time for the filtration system to be adjusted or otherwise inspected.
The filter is mostly quieter, but it might hum a bit if you are operating it at its full power.
- A powerful HOB filter with a skimmer
- Self-priming motor with an adjustable flow rate
- Considerably quieter than most HOBs
- Capable of holding a large amount of media
- Since the bypass is built right into the basket, it may cause water to escape without getting any means of proper filtration.
- The filter sometimes fails to handle the full flow when pushed on mechanical media.
Best Affordable: Cascade CCF3UL 1000 Canister Filter
Style: Canister Filter
Capacity: up to 100 Gallons
Flow Output: 265 GPH
Specialized for both freshwater and marine environments, Penn Plax Cascade comes at an unbeatable price for the performance it’s known for. If you are looking for something that is both reliable and cost-effective, look no further than this fantastic canister filter by Penn-Plax.
It’s made of sturdy plastic material and is translucent which allows you to see through it and figure out when it’s the time to clean up the canister or its components. Every unit comes with three large filter trays, start-up filter media, and input/output tubing so you can kick-start the system immediately.
The filter is highly efficient for providing all three stages of filtration necessary for a clean and healthy aquarium. The USP of this product is specifically its large-sized media baskets that offer flexibility to the aquarists to use any combination of media, maximizing its filtration efficiency. Keep in mind that it cleans from bottoms up, so use the filter media accordingly.
Penn Plax Cascade has a sufficient flow to it which you can further regulate using the 360* rotating valves. It also comes with a built-in push button primer that makes it easy for anyone to quick-start the motor.
It’s more on the side of quieter canister filters. But if you are experiencing any noise that seems to bother you, keep the output submerged in the water. It should help to a great extent.
- Highly reliable and affordable
- Quiet operation
- Sturdy built and ergonomic design
- Has a built-in primer and adjustable flow settings
- Large-sized media baskets to set up a desirable filtration process
- It contains gaps around the media baskets that might result in the bypass of the water.
- Customer service isn’t up to the mark.
Best Canister Filter: Fluval FX High Performance
Style: Canister Filter
Capacity: up to 400 Gallons
Flow Output: 925 GPH
Are you looking for something premium to get your hands on? Look no further than Fluval FX for that purpose. It’s a beast of a system specialized for high-performance aquarium filtration on multi-stages.
The filter comes with a self-priming pump and stackable media baskets that are sophistically designed to prevent water from bypassing. It has a vast capacity that gives you room to be flexible with the media options. Fluval FX also contains auto-stop valves that block water from leaking out or flowing back into your tank. It’s a much-needed addition that most canister filters are lacking.
You can also adjust the intake and output independently whenever you require to turn down the flow. Even though it’s a big and powerful filter that weighs around 19.9 Pounds, setting it up is nothing less than a breeze. Not just that, Fluval FX also doesn’t require frequent maintenance like other ordinary filters out there. When needed, you can easily pull out the filter trays to clean or swap media and then fix it back on the place. Additionally, for water changes, it includes a small tap that allows you to drain the water out without messing up the floor.
Keep in mind that the filter isn’t entirely quiet, thus you may hear some humming noise coming out of it. However, it moves a lot of water and keeps it crystal clear and sparkling. A trade-off worth making. Lastly, if your budget allows, then go for it. You won’t regret the decision in the long run.
- High-performance filtration system for professional-grade.
- Holds decent capacity for filter media storage.
- Easy to maintain with features like self-priming motor, dedicated water drainage option, aqua-stop valves for the leak-proof, anti-clog strainer, and more.
- Multi-directional output nozzles for customized water flow.
- Mediocre customer support
- It’s heavy and expensive and only designed for large tanks.
Best Under Gravel Filter: Penn Plax Premium
Capacity: up to 20 to 29 Gallons
Flow Output: depends on the air pump
Some aquarists might tell you that UGFs are outdated, but that’s not entirely true. Penn-Plax under gravel filter is one of the best and most popular products in the category. It’s mainly designed for bio-filtration, with some means of mechanical and little to no chemical filtration.
All units come with two carbon filter cartridges that help in removing odor and water discoloration. However, these add-ons aren’t of much use as they don’t last long in most cases.
Penn-Plax UGF can be assembled and installed in about less than five minutes. All you need to do is place the filter plates under the gravel and hook it up with your air pump. These filters are majorly recommended for small aquariums containing very few creatures as they don’t require much filtration. You may also incorporate it with your primary filter or as a backup.
Keep in mind that these under gravel filters aren’t the powerful filters out there, but they work great for enhancing the tank’s biological filtration capabilities.
- Least expensive
- Requires little maintenance
- Works unquestionably well for fostering beneficial bacteria
- It’s not suitable for populated fish tanks
- Doesn’t provide multi-stage filtration
- You’ll have to frequently clean the gravel before the waste decomposes there.
If you have made your way till here reading through the whole article, you must be out of your doubts now. Finding the best aquarium filter for your aquatic pets and plants can be a little overwhelming most of the time. But when you know how to assess your requirements and act accordingly, you see that it’s not really complicated.
We hope you have found the right filter for your aquarium. If you have any questions, comment them down below. We will be happy to help!