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Includes articles on new aquarium product spotlights, guides, or detailed reports on product effectiveness in aquariums.

Choosing an Aquarium Filter

Choosing an Aquarium Filter. Where do we start? The modern aquarium hobby is full of a variety of options claiming to keep your aquarium cleaner easier, cheaper and more effectively than the next. Like any technology, weeding through what you need and don’t need can be a difficult task. Which is why the experts at That Fish Blog got together to create a complete guide on how to to choose the right aquarium filter for your tank and your situation.

 

Grading Scale

Below, we will go into the the types of aquarium filters and highlight some of the main points about each type.  We will grade each type on 6 factors independently.

Ease of Installation – Let’s face it – some filters can be a pain to install. Some of the more complex versions may require purchasing a drilled aquarium or a separate pump to sustain it.

Cost – Cost includes not only the price to purchase the filter, but the cost associated with installing it on your tank.

Upkeep – Some filters are basically set it and forget it – others require additional expense or maintenance along the way.

Space Requirements – Not everyone has room for a big filter in their setup. This category ranks not only how easy it is to fit under or on your aquarium, but also inside. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to stare at aquarium equipment when I’m trying to check out my Tropheus

Biological Effectiveness – How well do these filters maintain effective biological filtration? Biological filtration is the most important aspect of aquarium filtration so this matters a great deal.

Chemical Effectiveness – Does the filter offer a level of chemical filtration – and how good is it?

Mechanical Effectiveness – Does the filter offer a level of mechanical filtration – and how good is it?

Noise – Noise can be a real concern for some aquarists and some filters are definitely louder than others.

 

 

Sponge Aquarium Filters

A sponge filter is one of the simplest aquarium filters available. They rate high for ease of installation, but are pretty limited in their effectiveness in all areas of aquarium filtration. They work with aquarium air pumps too – so you’ll have to purchase one of those. Most aquarists use them exclusively as add-on filtration or in small tanks like quarantine setups or transport tanks. They’re basically bacterial beds – their ability to filter mechanically and chemically is, for the most part, non-existent on most models.

Ease of Installation – Easy

Cost – Low

Upkeep – Low to Medium

Space Requirements – Low

Biological Effectiveness – Medium

Chemical Effectiveness – Low to Medium

Mechanical Effectiveness – Low to Medium

Noise – Medium

 

Undergravel Aquarium Filters

Undergravel Filters are a tried and true way of providing aquarium filtration to most size aquariums. They work by providing a gap between substrate and aquarium where beneficial bacteria can grow and thrive – providing consistent biological filtration to your tank. They are controversial however due to the risks associated with large scale biological breakdown underneath the plates. They also require the use of an aquarium air pump or powerhead to keep things flowing correctly and oxygen moving. They’re also pretty much a pain in the neck if you try to install them in an already-established aquarium due to the fact that you have to actually remove the gravel before installation. Given their limited filtration options, most aquarists tend to use them in conjunction with a power filter, canister filter or internal filter to supplement their biological filtration.

Ease of Installation – Easy

Cost – Low to Medium

Upkeep – Low to Medium

Space Requirements – Low

Biological Effectiveness – High

Chemical Effectiveness – Low to Medium

Mechanical Effectiveness – Low

Noise – Medium

 

Internal Aquarium Filters

Also called ‘In-Tank Filters’, these filters typically feature a motor to go along with fairly basic mechanical, biological and chemical filtration options. A favorite of tanks with low water levels and terrariums, these filters can be placed directly inside your tank and offer a higher level of 3-stage filtration than most of the options above. Aesthetically, they don’t blend in the way an Undergravel Filter does, but they still typically have a lower profile in your setup.

Ease of Installation – Easy

Cost – Low to Medium

Upkeep – Medium

Space Requirements – Medium

Biological Effectiveness – Medium

Chemical Effectiveness – Medium

Mechanical Effectiveness – Medium

Noise – Low to Medium

 

Power Filters

If there is a ‘traditional’ aquarium filter, the power filter would be it. Brands like Tetra’s Whisper, Marineland’s Penguin & Emperor, & Hagen’s Aquaclear have become household names in the aquarium industry due the ease, convenience and effectiveness of the power filter. A simple, magnetic impeller design combined with easy-to-replace filter cartridges make power filters a very effective for their price and simplicity. A simple hang-on-the-tank profile makes them easy to hide while still providing adequate 3-stage filtration for small to medium-size aquariums.

Ease of Installation – Easy

Cost – Low to Medium

Upkeep – Low to Medium

Space Requirements – Medium

Biological Effectiveness – Medium

Chemical Effectiveness – Medium

Mechanical Effectiveness – Medium to High

Noise – Low to Medium

 

Canister Filters

Canister Filters are great for providing a higher level of biological, chemical and mechanical filtration when compared to their power filter counterparts. Larger media areas and more stationary designs let you maintain larger bioloads and to maintain larger tanks in general. They’re also really easy to customize if you’d like to add additional filter media, while their specialized designs ensure a great water-to-media contact ratio so you maximize filter media effectiveness. However, what canister filters add in filtration capacity, they give back a bit in ease of installation, cost and space requirements. These big boys tend to cost a bit more and take up a bit more space under or behind your aquarium. They’re not always a walk in the part to install either.

Ease of Installation – Intermediate

Cost – Medium to High

Upkeep – Medium

Space Requirements – Medium

Biological Effectiveness – Medium

Chemical Effectiveness – Medium to High

Mechanical Effectiveness – High

Noise – Low

Wet/Dry Filters

Wet/Dry Filters are the pinnacle of aquarium filtration effectiveness. Most large scale aquariums employ some variation of wet/dry filtration in conjunction with an external sump system to maintain crystal clear, biologically sound environments in both fresh or saltwater. Their higher ratings for chemical and mechanical filtration are derived from the idea that, given that it’s a large, external sump, you can quickly and easily add large amounts of filtration pad or chemical media to facilitate your tank’s clean-up, but water contact is not ensured the way it is in a canister filter. But these filters are not for the timid. Large wet/dry sumps take up a lot of space. You also may need additional equipment or tank modifications to get yours to work correctly. Make no mistake, wet/dry filtration is the gold standard for biological aquarium filtration, but be prepared for a more complex installation, a higher starter cost, and greater space requirements than the other filters on this list.

Ease of Installation – Intermediate to Hard

Cost – High

Upkeep – Medium

Space Requirements – High

Biological Effectiveness – High

Chemical Effectiveness – Medium to High

Mechanical Effectiveness – Medium to High

Noise – Medium to High

So there you have it. Now that you’ve made it this far – we’ve thrown together our recommendations in a handy infographic as well. You may also check out our filter guides for information on specific types.  Good luck with your filter purchase and aquarium setup. As always, if you have any questions – please shoot us an email at marinebio@thatpetplace.com or give us a call at 1-888-THAT-PET.

Choosing an Aquarium Filter Infographic

Blue LEDs: The Invention That Revolutionized Modern Lighting

Blue LEDIsamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuki Nakahmura are three men you have probably never heard of.  If you were Cliff Clavin, you would probably refer to them as three men who have never been in your kitchen.  Their work however, you are most certainly aware of, and probably use it in some form or another every day.  These three men were responsible for inventing the first blue light emitting diodes (LED) in the early 1990’s, which revolutionized the way we light our world.  For their efforts, they have been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for physics.

 

For aquarists, the use of blue LED Aquarium lights has been widespread, especially reef aquarium keepers who are keenly aware of the stunning ability of blue LEDs to promote fluorescent colors in corals.  Nothing makes coral colors pop like they do under blue LED light.  The amazing growth in the genetically engineered GloFish craze, is largely due to the ability of blue LED lights to really bring out their amazing glowing coloration vs. traditional blue light sources.

 

Nobel prize winners

Why are Blue LED lights important enough to win a Nobel Prize?

LED lights had been around for many years, with the first patents and commercial products showing up in the 1960’s, starting with red LEDs used as indicator lights.  Other colors of LED were developed in the following years, including green LEDs, but the Blue LED development would elude scientists for decades to come, until Shuki Nakahmura demonstrated the ability to produce blue LEDs in 1994, and then with Hiroshi Amano and Isami Akasaki developed a high efficiency, high output blue LED in 1995. This started the modern LED lighting revolution.

 

The Blue LED was the missing ingredient for creating white LED light.  Mixing red, blue and green light produces light that appears white to the human eye, which can be seen in many modern applications of RGB LED light fixtures.  With the foundation of the newly invented Blue LED, scientist quickly developed a white LED light with the use of a phosphor coating on the Blue LED chips.  The White LED has changed the world, they are energy efficient, environmentally friendly and long lasting.  As production costs have decreased, and efficiency and output have increased over the last 20 years, LED lighting is rapidly replacing other forms of light in just about every application imaginable, from your homes, to your cars, to street lights to your cell phones.  The combinations of white and blue LED lights now dominate the aquarium lighting market.

 

Thank you gentlemen, the world is a better place for your efforts, and our aquariums look nicer too.

Until next blog,

Dave

Aquarium Clean-Up Crew: How Many Snails Do You Need?

Hiring staff for any job can be tricky. You need to make sure you have the right number of qualified employees to handle the job, not just a lot of employees on your payroll that eat into your bottom line or ignore the job you’ve given them. Choosing a clean-up crew for your saltwater aquarium is similar; you need to make sure you have the right snails and crabs and other cleaners for the tank without too many that can deplete your resources or just not even do the “right” work at all. “How many snails do I need?” is only part of the question; making sure you are getting the ones best suited to the job is just as important.

 

 

The White-speckled Hermit Crab. Cute, but NOT an algae eater!

The White-speckled Hermit Crab. Cute, but NOT an algae eater!

Job Description and Qualifications

 

Hiring an employee without knowing their qualifications or describing the job doesn’t make much sense, whether it is renovations on your home or clean-up within your aquarium. Not all snails eat algae. Not all snails that eat algae eat the same kind of algae. Not all “algae” is even algae at all. And snails may not even be the best (or only) cleaners for the job; “detritivores” that eat the leftover food and waste (“detritus”) are also necessary for keeping a tank clean and healthy. The first step to choosing a clean-up crew is to identify what the problem is that you’d like them to help you solve. Algae is normal in any aquarium and having a basic clean-up and scavenger crew is a good idea but beyond that, if you have a specific problem like a cyanobacteria bloom, hair algae, green water or other issues, you may need a solution beyond a few snails. You may be seeing a symptom of a larger problem like poor water flow or lighting quality and unless that problem is addressed, it will keep coming back no matter how many snails or other clean-up crews you throw at it.

 

What are the working conditions?

 

It takes a different kind of person to paint the walls of a house than it does to paint the cables at the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. It also takes a different kind of critter to clean up a nano-reef than it does a rock-filled bare-bottom aquarium or a deep sand bed. Some hermit crabs can have difficulty reaching into small crevices and some snails can’t flip themselves over if they tumble off of the glass or rockwork. Some snails, starfish and other animals popular in aquariums also eat other snails or invertebrates and corals. Are the animals you are choosing suitable for the environment you have?

 

It’s all in the job security

Some of the most popular saltwater clean-up crew snails

Some of the most popular saltwater clean-up crew snails

Contrary to popular belief, snails and hermit crabs are not disposable or short-lived or robotic lawnmowers that feed on nothing but salt and sunlight. If they have plenty of food and proper care, they can live for a long time. If they run out of the right food, they won’t survive so overloading a tank with cleaners to keep it spotless is only going to end up with losses. When snails and other cleaners die and decompose, they affect water quality. When water quality goes down, algae will bloom. When algae blooms, you’ll need to add more cleaners. Starting to see where this cycle goes wrong? Avoid the urge to overload on a massive cleanup crew and start with a basic foundation. Once you can observe where they need the help, supplement with some helpers for that purpose (like aerating the substrate, cleaning the glass, targeting hair algae or other trouble areas).

 

The magic number is…

 

Just like the old “inch-per-gallon” rule that is still floating around for fish, there are some stocking guidelines for clean-up crews. Some of the most common include a snail per gallon or a hermit crab per five gallons but again, this only works if that snail or hermit crab is suitable. To help you out in making some selections, we have basic Algae Packs with recommended tank sizes. You can start with the one closest to your tank size and give it some time. You can always supplement later or get a specialty algae pack to target a specific need like detritus or hair and buble algae. Remember, hiring is always an ongoing process!

 

You're hired!

You’re hired!

 

Aquarium 101: Starting a Siphon for Water Changes and Acclimation

Starting a siphon to move water from one container to another is a basic function in aquarium-keeping. Among other random uses, we use it in water changes, emptying or filling an aquarium, acclimating new livestock, and making filters work correctly. Since it is something that we use so often – especially in a retail environment like That Fish Place, it can be one of those actions that we take for granted and just assume everyone knows how to do but everyone has to be taught before they know, right? So here are some tips and tricks to have you siphoning like a pro in no time.

 

siphon principle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by user Tomia

How it works

Before we discuss how to do it, it helps to know what is happening. A siphon uses a vacuum inside of the tubing to move liquid in a way the same as using a straw to drink. When you use a straw, you suck on the end to remove the air from the tube. As the air is removed, there is a vacuum inside of the straw and the liquid in the cup moves up to fill the space. If there is a hole or crack in the straw or if your mouth isn’t completely sealed around the end of the straw, it won’t work.

Instead of moving the water up a straw, a siphon uses gravity to move water  from a container at a higher elevation down into a waiting lower-level bucket or other container. When a vacuum like the straw is created in the tubing, the water rushes in to fill it and gravity keeps it going into the lower container until both are even or the siphon is “broken” by allowing air to get into the tube (usually just by removing the higher end from the water). It is creating that vacuum that can be the tricky part for aquarists.

 

 

 

  • Method 1: By mouth
  • I’m going to get this one out of the way because it is the most common but also the least adviseable. Its easy, its quick, we’ve all done it…and most of us have ended up with a mouthful of aquarium water in the process at some point. This isn’t the safest method and is why every gas pump you use will have big “do not siphon by mouth” warnings on them. In this method, the higher end (End A for the rest of this blog and the left side of the graphic above) is put into the aquarium and the lower end (End B and the right side of the graphic) is held below the level of End A. You would then put your mouth over End B, suck on it like a straw under the water starts flowing and release it into the bucket before getting a mouthful of it. There is a risk of getting anything left in the tube in your mouth as well as anything in your aquarium water; DO NOT use this method if you have medicated or used any other chemicals in your aquarium!!

 

  • Method 2: SubmersionSubmersion
  • In this method, we start off with the air removed from the tube by completely submerging the tube in the aquarium first. Once all the air is out, plug both ends with your hand or a finger and remove End B from the water. Once End B is lower than End A and over your second container, let go of both ends. The tube would then empty into the bucket and start the siphon from the aquarium. Alternatively, you can also fill the tube with water first if you can’t fit it safely into the aquarium to submerge it; just hold the ends closed until you have them in place. This method tends to work better with slightly larger tubing (0.5” diameter or more) rather than thin airline tubing like those used for acclimation.

 

 

  • Method 3: Power-startingPower starting
  • Instead of drawing the air out through End B, this method forces it out from End A. If you have a powerhead or pump in the aquarium or a powerful output into the tank, you can use that to start the siphon. Hold End A up to this source and seal it as tightly as possibly with your hand until the water is coming out of the other end of the tubing. When you remove End A then (and get it in the water immediately without allowing any air in, if it is above the surface), you should have a good siphon going. Again, this tends to be more effective with larger-diameter tubing than the thin stuff. Some companies also make gravel vacuums that fasten directly to a faucet and use a similar method of starting the siphon “automatically”.

 

  • Method 4: Siphon “Starters”

Syringe

  • Some gravel vacuums have starter bulbs built into them for this but if yours doesn’t, you can create your own. The built-in starter bulbs would act like your mouth and lungs in Method 1 by sucking the air out of the tube to start the siphon. For thin-diameter tubing like the airline tubing used for acclimation, you can use a syringe plunger like the ones that come with most test kits as a starter. With End A in the aquarium, put the tip of the depressed plunger into End B, then draw out the stopper. This sucks the air out of the tube and starts the siphon for you. While this one isn’t as effective for the bigger diameter tubing, you can try larger syringes,  turkey basters, or irrigation bulbs from the health and first aid aisle at the drug store for this purpose.

 

The Breaking Point

To end your siphon, just take End A out of the water, raise End B higher than End A or allow air to get into the tube and it will be “broken”. Alternatively, if your siphon stops, check to see if any of those things have happened or if something is clogging up your tube. If you do notice that your gravel vacuum keeps getting clogged where the wider vacuum attaches to the more narrow tubing, just tilt it a bit more or tap it lightly and the heavier gravel should fall. If you are using your siphon to acclimate your new livestock, you can tie a loose knot in the end of the tubing or add a small valve to help control the flow once you’ve gotten your siphon started. If you have any questions or problems starting your siphon, or if you have a method that I haven’t mentioned, let us know!

Aquarium Gravel and Substrate vs Bare-Bottom tanks: Pros and Cons

One of the first purchases most aquarists will make for a new aquarium, be it freshwater, saltwater, reef, discus, goldfish, cichlid or any other – is the gravel and substrate. It could be sand, crushed coral, Fluorite, neon pink pebbles, glass marbles or countless other materials  but it all tends to be the very first thing to go into an empty aquariums. But….why? Do you really need it? Are there alternatives? Much like the eternal home decorating debate of hardwood-versus-carpets, the battle brews among aquarists over what covers the bottom of their aquariums, a layer of substrate or nothing at all.

 

So why has substrate become such an integral part of the aquarium culture, and why are some aquarists now looking past it in favor of the bare glass or acrylic bottom of their aquariums? Much of it has to do with our understanding of the aquarium ecosystem now over what we knew years or even decades ago. Even as recently as five or ten years ago, undergravel filters were thought as indispensable for all types of aquariums and as such, gravel was thought vital to their function. We’ve come a long way with filtration technology since then, and we’ve also come a long way with understanding how the water chemistry in our aquariums functions. Alternatives and advancements have made the old undergravel systems nearly obsolete and the aquarium gravel that went on top of them is become more of an Option instead of a Requirement.

 

That said, how do you make the choice? Like so many other parts of our hobby, it comes down to personal preference and your goals. Bare-bottom tanks are becoming more common and have their benefits of substrated tank and vice versa; substrate is still a better choice than going bare for some other types of tanks. Weigh your options carefully before you choose which one is right for you. We’ll go over a head-to-head comparison in the major factors to consider to help you make your decision.

Cleaning a Fish Tank

 

The ever-iconic Gravel Vacuum

The ever-iconic Gravel Vacuum

An aquarium that is easy to clean and easy to care for is the dream of most aquarists. Bare-bottom tanks win this category easily. Ever wrestle with starting the siphon on a gravel vacuum, then have it clog up repeatedly with gravel when you are cleaning? With a bare-bottom tank, a gravel vacuum isn’t needed; you can just use tubing to vacuum up any waste sitting on the bottom of the tank and water pumps or powerheads can be used to circulate the water underneath and behind the rockwork more efficiently. It can be a lot easier to scrub algae off of the glass bottom and sides without having to worry about missing some at the gravel line or getting bits of sand stuck in your scrubber as well. For tanks like reef aquariums with lots of rockwork, debris and detritus can get stuck under the rocks or in the back where your vacuum cant reach as well, causing the nitrate levels and algae blooms to increase. While not as vital in, say, a freshwater community tank, nitrate and algae can spell Doom (and Headaches) in a reef tank.

 

Aesthetics & Natural Environments

 

IMG_4312

A natural planted freshwater nano-tank

I have to give this one to Substrate. Surprisingly, flat panes of glass or acrylics just aren’t found at the bottom of most environments in the wild. Natural environments have sand, or mud, or pebbles or some other natural material. Besides just plain looking more natural, some animals also need this substrate to live normal lives. Some fish and snails bury themselves in it or find their food in it. Timid animals need it to hide or camoflauge themselves and in some specialized ecosystems, the substrate plays a vital role in the water chemistry. Most live aquarium plants won’t survive without a substrate to root into. Having a substrate also provides many more options in changing the look of the aquarium, whether its a natural substrate or a decorative one.

 

Aquarium Water Chemistry

 

This one is an even draw; both having substrate or having a bare-bottom can negatively and positively affect the water chemistry in an aquarium. Some substrates like crushed coral can buffer the pH and hardness of the water. For a saltwater tank with a target pH around 8.0-8.4, this is a good things. For a tropical tank with a target pH around 6.0-7.0, maybe not so much. A Flouorite substrate for planted freshwater tanks can give the plants some much-needed minerals and nutrients through their roots that a bare-bottomed tank can’t give them.

 

As much as this exchange helps, any waste that can get trapped in the substrate can hurt the tank. If waste becomes trapped, it will decompose and increase nitrate, phosphates, ammonia and other negative levels which can lead to fish illness and algae blooms. As we mentioned before, this waste is much easier to get rid of in a bare-bottomed tank.

 

Microinverts, hitckhikers and other “bonus” tankmates

 

IMG_2091

Our bare-bottomed 700 gallon store display tank

Unexpected new arrivals like bristleworms can be the ban of a saltwater aquarist’s existance, and tiny little nuisance snails or flatworms can harass a freshwater aquarists to tears. Most of these critters live or reproduce to some extent within the substrate and getting rid of the substrate to go bare-bottom will help get rid of them. Unfortunately, it will also get rid of the good critters like copepods and amphipods that can provide a natural food source to some of the pickiest fish and inverts. If you are making your choice to go bare-bottom to get rid of the nuisance critters, weigh the needs of the rest of your tank carefully to see if they can do without the good to get rid of the bad.

 

The (Bare-)Bottom Line

 

Choosing whether to add substrate to your aquarium or stick with the bare tank ultimately rests on you. Most aquariums will survive either way but one choice may be more successful than others. In our store, we have both bare-bottom tanks and tanks with substrate among our display tanks as well as the tanks we sell fish out of. Stocking these tanks is determined by the needs of the fish and the care that they need. Generally, coral-only reef tanks can go bare, planted freshwater tanks can’t; freshwater fish-only tanks might not need it but saltwater fish-only tanks (or fish-only with live rock) will do better with it. If you can’t decide which way will be more successful for you, we’d be happy to help you make the best decision for you and the success of your aquarium.