Filter Finesse

Pumps and filters are essential components of any tank setup, so retailers need to craft a finely tuned selection of high-quality products to meet their customers’ needs and preferences.




You can’t have an aquarium without pumps and filters. They are almost as important as the tank itself. Together, they make up two wide-ranging and firmly intertwined categories that retailers should display and sell in close proximity to each other. I recommend putting pumps on one side of an aisle and filters on the other. The bond that connects pumps and filters is obvious—you can’t run a filter without a pump. Pumps move water or air, while filters clean water through biological, chemical and physical techniques. Your customers may be bewildered by the variety of pumps and filters available, so it is critical to employ adequate signage and have a sales associate who knows the segment inside out. 

Let’s get technical. Is a sump a filter? The answer is unequivocally yes. Even though it’s rarely described as a filter, that is exactly what a sump is. For the sake of argument, let’s restrict sumps to three types: biological/mechanical, Berlin and refugium. Originally, sumps had two chambers—one for filtration and one for water treatment. As they evolved, so did the concept of protein skimmers. The Berlin sumps typically have three chambers. The first compartment houses filter materials, the second receives water—now free of debris—and runs some of it through a protein skimmer. Technically, this is mechanical filtration, but it has an effect similar to chemical filtration, as it strips the protein from the water. The third chamber has the return pump and, if desired, a UV-sterilizer as well.

Refugium sumps also have three chambers. First, the water flowing out of the tank runs through filter socks and/or sponges. Then there is a deep area in the middle section. Here, using sand as a substrate, you plant macroalgae that use nutrients from fish or invertebrate waste as a food source. In this way, the offending compounds are naturally removed and are no longer a constituent of the water chemistry. The refugium must have a light that is active counter to that of the aquarium. Finally, there is the chamber with the return pump and a UV-sterilizer.

A high-capacity sump capable of handling a large tank can be quite expensive. Even sumps that manage smaller aquariums, such as 75 gallons, may cost more than the tank itself. 

While a retailer typically has competition from internet outlets when selling pumps and filters, this is less of a concern with sumps—or wet/dry filters, as they are alternately called. These bulky items cost a good deal to ship and can be damaged if handled roughly, since most of them are made of acrylic. Many shoppers will not take that chance. Besides, they may want to see the product in person before investing in such a pricey item. Take advantage of one of the few areas where you can compete with online prices by building a diversified stock of sumps.

Carrying a variety of sump types and sizes can take up considerable space. Place them on top shelves where they are easily visible but safe from inadvertent bumps and scratches. Make placards to hang with each sump to delineate specifications: dimensions, type, equipment supplied and the size of aquarium it is rated for. Remember, sumps work best with tanks that are drilled, but they can be used if you substitute an overflow box for the internal overflows. 

The size of return pump you use in a sump will depend on the number of returns (usually two), the size and type of the sump and the height of the tank. The greater the differential (or head height) between the return and the pump, the stronger the pump needs to be. I prefer water to be turned over quite fast, since many corals and fishes benefit from rapidly flowing water. To augment this flow, you can also use power heads attached to the tank walls. These pumps simply jet water from one location to another, creating an artificial current in the tank. The more expensive brands and models can be electronically controlled with remote controls or from a laptop. Pulsing one set off and one set on creates a tidal effect.

Power heads come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all attach to something, usually the side of the aquarium. In the old days, they were used to power under-gravel filters and suck water up the vertical return tubes after it was pulled through the substrate. These filters are virtually prehistoric equipment now, but they certainly polished the water quite well and may still be available.

Recently, a new category of pump has come to my attention. These small, in-line pumps pass water in a straight line rather than perpendicular like power heads. They are used to pull or push water through canister filters that lack a motor, which I classify as “dummy” boxes. The in-line pumps come in kits, but they are also sold separately. These pumps must be attached to hosing that leads to or from the canister boxes. I would always put the pump on the return side. This way, you can tell when the filter is getting dirty as the flow of incoming water slows down.

Pumps are extremely versatile pieces of equipment, and many of them will function out of water as well as in. When out of the water, the chamber of the pump, which houses the impeller, must be thoroughly watertight to prevent leaks. Also, such dry-operating pumps should be located in a well-ventilated area since there is no surrounding water to absorb the heat produced by the motor. Never sit one directly on a wooden surface, and use rubber feet to elevate it off any substrate. I prefer to use a piece of ceramic tile that quickly dissipates the heat.

Filter Facts
The major problem I have with most filters sold today is their dependence on proprietary cartridges or filter materials. This sounds like a good way to make more money, but it frustrates customers when they have no choice in what to use in a filter. Previously, you could fill a box filter with just about anything. Depending on my goals, I could use carbon, bio-rings, bags of resin, filter wool, marbles, peat and even oyster shell. Box filters can be great biological, chemical and mechanical filters, but they must be run by air. Don’t discount these in your inventory.

Canister filters are extremely popular because they cast a low visual profile if they are hidden in a cabinet stand. It appears as though the tank has no filter, but it is frequently a pain to disconnect, clean and reassemble. A really great advantage of the canister is its ability to remove water from one end of the tank and return it at the opposite end. This flow-through arrangement of the filter components will scour hard-to-clean spots around ornaments and rocks. 

Finally, air pumps are critical pieces of equipment. Not only can they run filters, but they also increase the oxygen content of the water through agitation. No tanks of 20 gallons or more should be without aeration from air stones, which help to establish an ambiance that almost all fish enjoy. And just think of all the extraneous sales you will have with air pumps: air stones, weights, tubing, gang valves, etc. 

Ratings for filters are frequently a bit too optimistic. Let’s say a filter is rated for a 75-gallon aquarium. In most cases, such a filter might adequately maintain a 55-gallon tank. Any tank four feet or more in length should have two filters to distribute the load equally on opposite ends of the aquarium. In the case of filters, more is always better.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.


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