Pumping Up Sales

Understanding the ins and outs of the pumps and filters category is a great way for retailers to boost sales and help customers make the most appropriate purchasing decisions.


As the aquatics segment of the pet business continues to be marginalized by competing pet product categories—primarily dog and cat—it becomes increasingly important to develop a strategy for keeping aquatics sales robust. This challenge is made considerably more difficult by the proliferation of big-box and online retailers that are competing for the same business. So, staying in business nowadays requires some fairly creative thinking, and I can think of no category where this strategy applies more than pumps and filters. No one wants to buy these less-than-glamorous workhorses, but they are a necessary evil if you wish to maintain a healthy aquatic environment. 

In order to sell more pumps and filters, it helps for retailers to really understand the category and the products currently on the market. First, the vast majority of today’s filters require a motor to run them. This motor is actually a “pump.” It’s a motor that literally pumps water. A pump, on the other hand, is a motor that moves water along, but it is not sold with an attached filter. For example, so-called sumps, or wet/dry filters, require a pump to operate. The sump and the pump that runs it are sold separately. Savvy retailers usually bundle a pump and wet/dry together as a unit. Most sumps require a specific size pump to operate correctly. A pump that is too large may overflow the aquarium, while one that is too small will overflow the sump. 

When it comes to filters, be wary of package claims concerning the tank size  for which the device is rated. For example, if the box says the filter is rated for 20- to 30-gallon tanks, that may mean 20 gallons at best. A more helpful designation will offer simply a single choice: 55-gallon, 30-gallon, etc. I never recommend a single filter for tanks that are 75-gallon or larger. There are really big canister filters that claim to clean 300-gallon setups, but I don’t recommend risking a large environment of 100 gallons or more by using a single filter.

If you place two filters on a 125-gallon tank, you can alternate the cleaning schedule—one every fortnight. This keeps a tank cleaner over an extended period of time. It also gives you the opportunity to sell more media for filters. When there are multiple filters on a tank, always place them at opposite ends of the aquarium. They should be positioned in non-competing areas. Alternate your feeding locations so excess food does not end up in a single locale. If fish are fed properly, there should be nothing left on the substrate. Filters should primarily remove fish waste, not excess food. Never feed directly next to the intake of a filter. Some people prefer to cut off their filters when feeding, but this requires a level of attention that few people can muster.

There are two major types of motorized filters in today’s market—the canister and the power. Power filter is an archaic term used to differentiate the old-style filters powered by air from the new-style filters driven by a motor. I prefer to call power filters “hang-on” or “hang-on-the-back” filters, since that is exactly what they do. 

Canister filters are power filters as well, but they are typically hidden from sight below the aquarium or behind it. Both types of filters are designed to be as inconspicuous as possible. This is, ostensibly, for the sake of décor. I will begrudgingly admit that most customers will appreciate this feature. I believe, on the other hand, it contributes to poor tank hygiene, since out of sight is out of mind. If a person has to actively seek out the filter to see how dirty it is, it usually results in the filter running longer than it should without a media change. In the case of the canister filter, the media is hidden inside the cylinder, and it can only be inspected if the canister is opened up and the guts removed. There is rarely a reason to do this unless the filter materials are dirty. Some canister boxes used to be made of clear plastic, but they were pretty ugly to look at. These days, the boxes are basically opaque, so you cannot view the contents.

There are several differences between power and canister filters that cause me concern, and I always tell my customers about these issues so they can make informed decisions on the style of filtration to use. First of all, since power filters hang on the rim of the tank, they require the motor to pull water up and into them, with the returning water flowing back after passing through the filter media. Usually, the water falls back into the tank waterfall style. If the intake tube becomes empty, the filter stops running. Sometimes, the motor can refill the tube; sometimes it cannot. More often than not, failure is due to debris entering the impeller chamber and blocking the continued spinning of the impeller. Also, if the power blinks, the quick stopping and starting of the impeller can cause it to slightly move and become wedged in the chamber. Either way, the filter stops until someone does something about the problem. The water in the filter box is, of course, still in contact with the air, so it will not become anaerobic for a very long time, if at all. 

In a canister filter, should the impeller become wedged into a static position, you must open up the canister to reach it. Difficult enough, but let’s say you are not at home when this happens, or you simply do not detect the problem for a while. the water in the canister is now deprived of oxygen and it can become anaerobic very quickly. When the power restarts, it can kick the impeller on and push all that putrid water back into the tank. This may kill sensitive organisms such as coral, and it can even affect fish. Canisters usually return water to the aquarium below the water level, and that makes it more difficult to detect a problem.

Then there is the siphon problem that canister filters may experience. Since they pull water down below the tank, they must push it back into the tank. If the watertight seal on the canister fails or the siphon tube hose starts to leak, you can have a mess on your hands. Potentially, a large percentage of the water in an aquarium can drain out onto the floor, into the aquarium cabinet and onto electrical connections hidden underneath. Yes, the power versus canister debate is a real conundrum. I try to steer novices to the power filters and more experienced hobbyists to the canisters—or simply let people make their own decisions. A good option would be to use one of each, which parallels very closely my recommendations of using two filters on larger tanks. At least if one fails, there will be another filter still operating.

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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