Aquarium filtration systems, how do they work?

Before you enter any store asking for advice about which filter will suit your aquarium. We recommend you go armed with this basic knowledge about filtration systems. This will help you to make an informed decision and it will save you from future headaches.

Let’s start by understanding what filters are designed for. A 50 gallon tank may look like a huge container of water for you and me, but it is nothing in comparison with any natural body of water where the fish originally came from. In such limited space the following problems soon will arise: the water gets polluted by you fish waste, uneaten food will decompose, small plant debris and organic particles will be present, and many times algae will appear. All these factors will change the initial crystal clear water of your aquarium and turn it into a yellowish one. So filters need to perform four main tasks:

1. Get rid of your fish waste, which in your tank will assume the form of dangerous levels of ammonia. This is known as Biological Filtration and it is the most important of all.

2. Eliminate dissolved organic materials, which will be present in the form of copper, phosphates, and other metabolites. This is known as Chemical filtration and is basically achieved by circulating water through GAC: Granular activated carbon. Chemical filtration or the use of activated carbon will prevent your water from develop a yellow appearance and it will help to keep it clear. Activated carbon is not rechargeable so it has to be replaced every month.

3. Remove solid particles like uneaten food or debris, etc. This is known as Mechanical filtration and it consist in passing water through a sponge. In the old times aquarist used undergravel filters. This is just a rudimentary and yet effective method in which the bottom gravel of the aquarium is used as mechanical filter by adding a plastic net under the gravel and allowing the water to pass through.

4. Water in the tank needs to circulate, thus requiring an air pump.
Before continuing I’d like to expand a little bit more on the Biological filtration (BF).

The BF will not get rid of the ammonia. Ammonia will be eliminated by helpful bacteria established on your aquarium once it’s been cycled. All BF does is to promote bacteria growth by providing them with two essential components: surface and oxygen. The more surface, the more room there is for these bacteria to colonize. Unlike other filter media, you should never clean your BF; doing so will remove the already established bacteria.

So now that we have some basic understanding, let’s take a look at the different filters available in the market.

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