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To filter or not to filter, that is the question

(this article was taken from former Aquarticles - free aquarium articles) By John Fichtl (not Shakespeare) The question of filtering comes up on a daily basis on most forums. Which one is the best, cheapest, most efficient? etc. The answers are very diverse. Some people have nothing but undergravel filters and swear by them. Other couldn’t live without their Eheims. Then comes the DIY person. Mind boggling. Now along comes a fellow who will open the eyes of most. Who?... Me.

The Undergravel Filter. Let’s start with the trusty old undergravel filter. They are easy to install - in an empty aquarium that is - cheap to run, and hardly any maintenance...that’s what most people think. All the dirt in your water sinks to the bottom, or is slightly sucked down. The gravel acts as the filter medium. The outcome; seemingly clean water. What happened to the dirt? Where did it go? It is still there inside and underneath the gravel. It is like sweeping the dirt under the carpet. Room looks clean. But is it? - No. The same with undergravel filters.

So, one knows about the problem and starts doing something about it. Vacuuming. Not with a Hoover, but with an expensive big tube-like contraption. You insert it into the water and then suck on the hose. Half a litre goes into your mouth, but who cares? The fish are important, not your health. Then you keep on moving the gravel in order to suck up all the dirt which accumulated over a period of time. Tons of it. You sweep from left to right a few inches then quickly stop. Why? Your bucket is full - time to empty it. Mind you, all you have done is 3 square inches of gravel - another 300 to go. In the meantime half of your fish have coronaries. The other half are dead or severely stressed. But who cares? - the fellow who sold you the vacuum said it’s ok. That goes on for quite a long time. Why? - you want to do a good job. You haven’t touched the plant area yet. By the time you reach the plants, the place which was the last resort for the fish to hide in order to get away from you has been invaded by a monster - the vacuum tube. But again, it has to be done. So along you go through the plants, most likely ripping half of them out in the process. When you think you have a clean tank, although the whole tank is cloudy, you pack up. Then remove all the dead and wounded fish. Should you ever want to change that u/g filter, forget it. With fish in it is impossible, unless you give them tranquilisers or sleeping tablets.

Why do you have problems? Easy. Gravity is one. Where does the dirt go without the air suction bit? - directly straight to the ground. That’s called physics. It takes some time for the suspended dirt to reach the bottom, but we want a clean tank and to speed up the process of the disappearing trick of the dirt, so we hook up a power-head attached to the riser stem of the u/g filter. Hooray, an even cleaner tank and it was quicker! Quicker what? Sweeping the dirt under the carpet? Yes, we have achieved this. No more visible dirt.

The Canister Filter Now someone talks you into buying another filter - a canister. Must be a good quality one. So you buy it, hook it up according to instructions and there you go. You tell everyone you have two filters. But the dirt which goes to the bottom by gravity and the force of the power head usually stays there, so the poor expensive canister filter has very little to do anymore - the power head driven u/g filter beat it to the job. The intake tube of the canister filter patiently waits for some crumbs to float by in order to be sucked up. Now who wins, the power head driven u/g filter or the canister one? Who knows?

- A Story of the Fluval 204 After buying the canister filter and installing it, it is time to sit down and have a cup of coffee. Eventually, it is time for the regulatory maintenance - the man at the fish shop said so. It must be true then - he wouldn’t lie. Or if you are stubborn you do it your way, which would be better anyway. Now, whenever the canister slows down, you just take it apart and start cleaning it. But wait, I have a super-duper one - I can turn the water off with a valve near the canister filter. So there I go - switch the valve off, disconnect the hoses, and only a few drops of water get onto the carpet. No harm done - the wife will clean it up afterwards. Then you unplug the canister from the power. Very necessary, unless you bring the sink to the aquarium.

Now you start to take the canister apart. But where? On the edge of the sink? - no, it can fall down. So in your wisdom you put it into the bathtub. A slipped disc or a dislocated shoulder later you manage to put the canister into the tub. Any spillage goes down the drain. Then you carefully take the head off and turn it around. Now you look at the opening of the impeller - it looks dirty - you take it apart. Whoops, it slips out of your hand, falls onto the hard floor and breaks. Then you have to wait for a replacement. In the meantime the hoses, which are still connected to your tank, are still there. Full of bacteria, which incidentally are all over the aquarium. The poor bacteria in your hoses won’t get food or air. So they die. You don’t really care anyway. You never saw them in the first place. Too small.

But let’s assume you didn’t break the impeller. You then take all the baskets out and wash the lot thoroughly. Forgetting that the ceramic noodles should not be washed. They are the home of the bacteria - they eat there, they live there quite happily, play and frolic in the light. You just destroyed their home. No you didn’t - you are smart, you know the ceramic noodles should not be washed. Good, now it’s time for the other baskets. The one with the dirty filter wool, it gets changed for a clean lot. Then you change the charcoal. Has to be changed because the packet in which it came in says so. Every 2 to 4 weeks. You remembered that well. From now on you change the charcoal every 2 to 4 weeks. You forget that the canister filter would run quite happily for up to nine months without cleaning. But that’s not important. The packet says every 2 to 4 weeks, so that’s what you do. Costs you a fortune, though, not realising that the charcoal does very little in the cleaning department.

Anyway, all baskets filled and ready to go. But wait, the canister has no water in it. What should you do? Fill it up with tap water or established water from the aquarium? Decisions, decisions. You decide you are going to use the established aquarium water. Wise choice. Carry the whole lot back to the aquarium and attach the hoses. The hoses are the new type, ribbed for ease of bending. Then you open the valve to the head. You can hear the gurgling of the water rushing into the canister, from both hoses. Then some back flushing. The aquarium turns white. Why? You forgot to clean the ribbed hoses to which the dirt, bacteria, and all other gunk adhered for a few weeks. But you persevere - an hour later, the tank is clean and clear. And if you stick to the 2 to 4 week charcoal exchange rule, you go through the whole process every 2 to 4 weeks. After six months and 6 to 12 filter changes, you realise that a different type of filter might have been a better choice. But you won’t admit it.

The inside filter - The trusty old air driven box filter.

Now we tackle the inside filter. Endless choices. Got very little money? - then the shop talked you into an inside box filter. Air driven of course. Cheaper. You fill it with filter wool - what else? - there isn’t much room for anything else. That poor filter has to work overtime to achieve what you want it to do. Clean the tank and try to get bacteria in it to combat the fish’s sanitation problem. After all, they don’t have toilets. They do their poo-ing and wee-ing in the tank - isn’t it inconsiderate of them? Now it is in the corner and you wait for the tank to get clean. A long, long wait. At last the tank is clean. But not for long. By now the little air driven box filter is blocked. You didn’t realise that before - how could you? All you saw was pretty air bubbles coming out of that box. Then someone tells you that filter is only good enough for something the size of a cucumber jar. Your eyes light up. Quickly get a jar, put that little box filter into it, and have a Betta splendens thrown in so that the filter doesn’t get lonely. After awhile, the Betta dies. So what now? You put a few cucumbers into the jar, then tell your friends you have the cleanest cucumbers in town.

The Story of the RIO 200 ® Had enough of that box filter? Of course. Someone talked you into buying a powered inside filter, so you go out and buy a RIO 200. You can have one, two, or more compartments for the filter material. You insert it into the tank, carefully, because there are fish in the tank. Put the suction cup plate onto the wall and then hook up the newest acquisition.

After 3 to 4 weeks you won’t see an improvement. The sponges inside that filter are so coarse that your tetras swim in and out of the filter. Eventually the filter gets somewhat blocked. Must be because you overfed your fish. Now it is time to clean the sponges in your RIO 200. The first thing you do is switch the power off. There is no more suction, so most of the dirt falls off the filter walls. It probably looks dirtier than ever. Next time you will follow the shop’s advice and put a plastic bag over the filter before you switch it off, so that all the dirt stays inside the bag and not in your aquarium.

Another inside filter, but this time a brand named one: Now that you are not happy with the last filter, you go straight back to the shop and purchase another one. But this time you are smarter - you get a big one and with a brand name attached to it. That name probably costs you half of the filter price.

The first thing you do is unpack that little monster. Looks good, smells good, was damned expensive... so therefore it must be good. You follow the instructions to a T. Put in the ceramic noodles again, charcoal, (can’t live without it), and the good old trusty filter wool, again which no real aquarist could live without. Everything is done. It is time to put that monstrosity into the aquarium. But where? On the left, you still have the riser stem of your undergravel filter. In the middle, you have tall stones, and on the right you have the other riser stem and the heater. Now you sit down, have another cup of coffee and a few headache tablets. In some shops they actually give headache tablets free with the purchase of certain filters! Now you have it - move the stones. That done, you proceed with the insertion of the filter. You don’t have to worry about the fish - they all disappeared into every nook and cranny to escape the mayhem you created by moving the rocks. The filter is in place at last. A bit tall, but that doesn’t worry you. A couple of inches into the gravel never hurt anybody. The next day, you look into the aquarium and see only bliss. Water is clean. The fish have recuperated from the previous days refurbishment of their habitat. Everybody is happy. Till it comes to clean the damned thing.

The outside hang-on filter:

-The story of the Second Nature Whisper Power Filter ® Now that your cousin has seen your fish tank, he naturally wants one too. But he won’t make the same mistakes as you. You already told him all about it. So your cousin gets himself an outside filter. Smart man, you have to admit. Now then, which one should he get? There are so many on the market. He tries the Second Nature Whisper Power Filter. Unpacks it. Reads the simple instructions and after the assembly hangs it on the back of the aquarium. The filter comes with a cartridge which is filled with charcoal. It is inserted. After filling the chamber with water, he turns it on. No sound. Why? Because the name gives it away - whisper quiet. Now that the filter is running and operational, the filter cartridge actually looks like a giant teabag, just like a competitor quoted. The charcoal in it subsequently sags - again gravity caused it. So you have a filter cartridge which is only half filled with charcoal now - but not to worry, the cartridge is still very useful. As a mechanical half chemical/ half biological filter in time to come. That filter runs quietly and reasonably efficiently for quite a long time. Until it clogs up. Then the whole procedure of filter changing starts again. It only takes 30 seconds. Throw the old cartridge away and insert the new one. Simple. But unfortunately, you also threw the bacteria away too. Pity. But there is nothing you can do.

Now comes a real filter, the Penguin 330 Same as the previous filter, only a bit more refined. Firstly the output is 1250 litres/hour. Quite impressive. Then it has two filter cartridges which have ribs like a quilted blanket, so when they are in the filter all the charcoal is exposed and therefore no wastage. Then there are two baskets, which can be populated with any media - it is your choice. But that is not all. There are two so-called Bio-Wheels which will be the home to millions of happy little bacteria. Why are they happy? Because they get 30000 times more oxygen than their cousins in a canister filter. Once it is switched on, there is also silence. Water gets sucked into the housing, goes through different media, then the filter with charcoal and lastly over the home of the bacteria, the Bio-Wheels. More and more bacteria adhere to the wheels happily gobbling food - microscopically small, but food just the same, and not forgetting valuable oxygen. And when it is time to clean the filter, you can do it standing. Fish can eat, sleep, or just swim around. They would not know you are changing the filter, cleaning it or whatever. You can even leave it switched on while you do the maintenance. The only time you have to switch it off is when you have to clean the impeller. Happy fish, happy owner and happy wife...and all that without getting your shirtsleeves wet.

This was the Author’s own experience.

More filters-devoted articles on Aqua-Fish.Net

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