Back at the start of the aquarium hobby in this country, the Holy Grail for serious aquarists was the so-called "balanced aquarium." This was achieved by a perfect balance of livestock, plants and décor. There was no filtration, aeration, artificial lighting or heater and food consisted primarily of natural items. Needless to say, very few people achieved perfection.
When I started keeping tropical fish in 1965, I remember a fish store in Philadelphia that displayed a singular freshwater environment—a very large aquarium for that day and age. At well over 100 gallons with no visible frame except for thin strips of wood, it was like a miracle. The tank sat in the front window of the shop for everyone walking by to stare at in amazement. The occupants consisted of a wonderful selection of common community tank dwellers, you know, tetras, barbs, danios, rasboras, a few sharks, Corydoras catfish, angelfish, small gouramis, and something as exotic as rams or miniature species of catfish, such as Otocinclus or bristlenose plecos.
The owners of this store had a plaque on the stand that held the tank. The inscription said, "This aquarium was set up in 1938 and has been maintained without interruption in ‘perfect balance’ ever since. The only maintenance performed on this environment consists of regular water changes and pruning of the extensive aquatic foliage."
It’s sad to say this tank crashed in 1966 when the Philadelphia Water Department made a switch from chlorine to chloramines without informing anyone. By the time pet shops and hobbyists discovered the change, most of them had lost all their fish. Back then, there was only one product on the market that would deactivate chloramines. Lucky for me, I only had a few tanks up back then, probably five or six. Even luckier, I had a degree in chemistry and I was working for a water treatment firm which had been proactive enough to be informed of the upcoming change.
About one week prior to the switch, I started using the chemical that worked while most people did not. This event became known as the "Philly Aquatic Massacre." Just across the river in New Jersey, there was no such problem. People in Philly were actually buying water jugs and transporting water from Jersey to Philly. It was a very tense situation. But, I digress—this column is concerned with aquarium filtration. Let’s get to it.
Proper filtration can go a long way to keep captive fish alive, but it cannot replace frequent partial water changes. This is my mantra and I will preach it until my last aquarium is taken down. In the meantime, filters must be cleaned on a regular basis or they will quickly become useless. In fact, they can become downright dangerous if not maintained properly.
It’s simple enough to make a chart for your regularly scheduled filter cleanings. If you leave such tasks to your intuitions, you had better be a genius when it comes to fish tank maintenance. Few of us are, and that’s one great reason to over-filter aquariums. This is a philosophy you should espouse in your store with signage that reminds your customers that clean fish tanks make for happy fish.
I always recommend two smaller filters over one large filter for tanks of 30 gallons or more. In fact, they should be two different size filters—one small and one large. With filter cleanings, it’s always recommended to change some water. You might as well get your maintenance done at the same time.
So, a 55 gallon tank is best served by two filters, one on either side of the tank. If a customer prefers a canister filter, this "dual" filtration is even more important because you can’t see how dirty the inside of the canister filter may be. Sure, you can guess, but that makes you that person again. You know, the aquarium savant who can predict just how long a filter can run before it MUST be cleaned.
If two filters are employed, my recommendation is to make one a canister and one an over-flow, so the over-flow can show you just how dirty the canister may be. To the complainers who object to the sound of water falling back into their tanks, I tell them that if you can hear the water falling, then you know the filter is working. When returns are underwater, there is typically no audible sounds. Personally, I enjoy the sound of running water. It’s rather pleasant, if not hypnotic. Besides, a full hood or glass top will usually block a good deal of noise that comes from the running water.
Type of Filters
There are many types of tank filters. The most primitive is probably a corner box filter run by air. Next comes a sponge filter that either runs by air or is an integral part of a power filter and after that, things get a little more sophisticated with under-gravel filters run by air or motors. Most people consider such "hidden" filters to be archaic, but in reality, they perform their duties quite well. Cleaning them, however, is tedious and the process greatly interferes with the fish’s environment.
Moving on, the canister filter seems to be the most popular choice for tanks of 60 gallons or more. Filters that hang from the back of the aquarium work quite well, but they are visible unless the tank has a full hood. My main objection to these is the use of proprietary cartridges. Online companies can sell these much cheaper than brick-and-mortar stores.
Secondarily, while the engineering may seem clever, there are too many things that can go wrong. For example, if the impeller stops running or breaks, the entire filter is useless. In the old days, aquatic shops stocked replacement parts for many brands of filters. Now these parts are sold online at outrageous prices but still well under what a retailer would ask.
Canister filters are hardly any better, but at least they do a better job of filtering. If a tank owner has a cabinet stand, they’re out of sight. If he doesn’t, they are these top-heavy motor-driven filters that glare at you from under the tank. In order to fill a canister filter to the proper level, you typically must put in so much water that when you set the motor-filled top back on, you overflow the canister. I would never set one of these up unless it was standing in a plastic box that can catch the overflow.
Still, not all canister filters are this way. Some are self-priming, but, beware: most canister tops are closed with clips that must engage perfectly the receiving area on the canister proper. If you don’t get this right, the gasket ring will not be seated properly and, therefore, the canister will leak. If you are getting the idea that I am not enthralled with most aquarium filters, you are correct. I have spent too much time in my 55 years of fishkeeping fiddling around with motor-driven filters. They are not what I would call user-friendly.
Importance of Tank and Price
Is there a perfect filter for aquariums? The answer is maybe. It all depends on what fish are in the tank. If you’re talking a marine tank (with or without live coral), you will want to employ and sell to your customers external sumps. These are simple to use (in most cases), highly flexible and easily cleaned without disturbing the tank environment. The big problem is they will probably cost customers more than they paid for their tanks. If the aquarium in question is not drilled to receive a sump, then an overflow box must be used. These are problematic. but a persistent person will eventually be able to adjust the flow until it is satisfactory.
The price point is the main thing to consider. If customers are not willing or cannot afford to pay the price, then they must select a different path for their filtration solution. At this point in the evolution of marine fishkeeping and coral reef aquariums, I would hesitate to use any other type of filtration. If a tank is 75 gallons or larger, it needs a sump. And in that sump, there must be a protein skimmer, interchangeable filter socks, a bubble trap and probably a refugium. Think of the sump as a second aquarium where water is treated and/or purified, so it can return to the main tank cleansed of its pollutants. As an added thought, you can throw on a UV-sterilizer to kill off unwanted random parasites.
Filtration is an essential part of today’s aquarium hobby. No one wants to go back to the good ole’ days when you needed to be an expert to maintain a balanced tank. The joy in having an aquarium is observing the fish, not fiddling around with a temperamental filter. As a retailer, one of your major goals should be to sell the very best filters on the market and still be able to make money on them. If you don’t know how functional a filter really is, you should not sell it. It would be like selling a car that’s a lemon. Now get out there and do a great job—your customers are counting on you to be the expert. PB
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.