Go With the Flow

Retailers need to have a deep understanding of the pump and filter category to help customers find the products they need.




The variety of products that fall under the umbrella of pumps and filters is staggering. Yet, while they are diverse in many ways, at their core, they are the very heart of every aquarium. While selling pumps and filters is easy, selling them properly is a serious challenge. Perhaps in no other category of aquatic hardware is there more flexibility and, therefore, more room for error. This is a category in which retailers need to be on top of their game.

For starters, retailers need to have the right products displayed in the most logical and customer-friendly way possible. Many canister filters manufacturers can provide retailers with live-action displays that can be set up in shop. However, they are self-contained units that do not actually filter aquariums housing live fish and/or plants. While they may be adequate for instructional purposes, they do not really display the capabilities of the filter. Unfortunately, there is only so much room in any store for promotional displays. Interactive POPs, in particular, should be held to a minimum if they are to have maximum effect. Actually, the best location to feature these displays is usually on an endcap of the appropriate aisle. Yet, retailers that take this approach are logically restricted to featuring only one filter at a time.

This raises the question: How do you select which filter to feature? There is much to consider when making this decision. Every store should have a favorite when it comes to canister filters, but selecting one can be a complicated matter. While it is tempting to simply choose the newest product on the market, you will not be able to vouch for the functionality of a product until you have tried it.

New products are only good if they work, and they are only great if they work better than any comparable products that came before. I am always suspicious of new products until I have tested them myself. In particular, pumps and filters seem to be taking the route of becoming glamorous rather than functional. Frankly, who cares what a canister filter looks like? The main reason for using such a filter is so it can be hidden from view. I want a canister that is easy to clean, has highly adaptable filter compartments and sports a motor that will keep the flow rate high and steady, even as the media become dirty. A retailer’s best bet is to be able to test out a free sample before making a large financial commitment and, more importantly, a promise to your customers that you might not be able to keep.

Power filters—also called hang-on or over-flow filters—are the other side of the aquarium filter coin. If part of a filter is visible on the back frame of a tank, it is not necessarily a visible filter. Even canister filters have exposed drains and returns. Wet/dry or sump filters that are used with over-flow boxes do too. In fact, the only filters that have absolutely no parts on the external walls of the tanks are those used in conjunction with drilled aquariums. A long time ago, when I raised fish for a living, I had about 275 tanks, and none of them had holes drilled in the botto—or anywhere else for that matter. The concept seemed foreign to me and, even today, I am amazed by the number of people who are willing to use drilled tanks. They are certainly perfect for public display or home use where decór is the major concern. Other than these scenarios, however, the average tank owner would be better served by a system that has fewer failure points.




Within the pump and filter category, there is an ever-growing category of vastly diversified

products that were once simply known as power heads. Today, these items have different names,

depending on the functions they can perform.





The sump or wet/dry filter was originally introduced as a way to increase the level of biological filtration in marine aquariums. It took off like wildfire, and soon the concept was being used in virtually every aquarium application. The major drawback to using a sump is its cost—a wet/dry rated for a 75-gallon aquarium can easily be more than the tank itself, and even more when you add the cost of the pump necessary to run the filter. When you sell a sump, you are selling both a filter and a pump, and only a few of these are packaged as a complete unit. In most cases, it will be up to you to recommend the proper pump for different sizes of sumps. Also, you will need to sell either over-flow kits or over-flow boxes, depending on whether a customer has a drilled or non-drilled tank.

Choosing a sump and pump is not a decision that most of your customers will be able to make without your help. This presents another opportunity for retailers to gain customers’ trust or send them running to the competitors should the advice not yield the desired results. It really does matter what retailers tell customers about sumps and pumps, whether they are combined in one unit like the canister or power filters, or they are separate components of an integrated system, as in a wet/dry filter. Customers buying their first filters should always be counseled, but the final decisions must be left to them.

Within the pump and filter category, there is an ever-growing category of vastly diversified products that were once simply known as power heads. Today, these items have different names, depending on the functions they can perform. To generalize, power heads are under-water pumps that can be used to drive devices such as sumps, protein skimmers, reactors, etc. They are typically used to supply a current within aquariums for fish or animals that can benefit from this type of environment. In freshwater applications, they are best employed in rheophilic habitats where the fish need a constant unidirectional flow of water to simulate their natural ecosystems—for example, the Congo (Zaire) River and the up-stream habitats of the Asian hillstream regions.

On the marine side, however, power heads are essential for the proper care of corals, especially the stony or reef-building species. In the reef environment, a turbulent flow must replace the usual laminar flow. The difference is that seen between ocean tides and stream/river flow—both driven by gravity but the former is influenced by the moon, while the latter by elevation.

Technologically advanced power heads can now be controlled by remote devices, which in turn can be programmed by remote radio controllers. You can place a number of power heads at various locations inside a reef tank and change the flow patterns of each independently of the others. They can also be integrated with changes in aquarium lighting. This is high-tech big-buck equipment that coral hobbyists consider essential to success. Other customers will probably pass out when they see the retail prices for these units. Still, it is nice to have a few in use on a coral display tank, just in case there is a chance to make a sale.

Remember the good old days when power heads were used strictly to drive undergravel filters instead of old-fashioned aeration? What was wrong with the aeration, and why did it have to be replaced? I guess it can be chalked up to progress, just like the disappearance of the undergravel filter. Still, believe it or not, undergravel filters are still around, and they are pretty useful in freshwater applications. Likewise, sponge or foam filters, driven by air, are still available, and people ask for them on a regular basis. Finally, for us old-timers, the internal box filter, driven by air, is available if you search long and hard enough—you may have to search the Internet to find a supplier. I highly recommend you sell both sponge and box filters for customers with special needs, such as those raising fish fry or keeping micro-species. They are also good filters for hospital tanks.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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