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How to Set up a Fish Tank Filter – a Comprehensive Guide

how to set up a fish tank filter
Written by Immanuel Baranov
Last Update: July 24, 2023

A filter is a very helpful and often times needed addition to an aquarium as it helps keep the water clean and regulated and removes unwanted muck that is potentially harmful to your fish. There are a number of different kinds of filters, each with its own process for setting it up.

The different processes for each can be a bit confusing. I’ll break filters down into their specific main categories and explain the installation process for each category so that you have peace of mind and will not need to repeat the process.

How to Set up a Fish Tank Filter?

Fish Tank Filter

Aquarium Filters by Type

1. Air-powered aquarium filters

This is one of the most commonly used aquarium filters in smaller tanks. It pushes bubbles up an air tube which sucks water up through the bottom and forces the water through a filter-type such as a sponge or small stones. The filter catches the unwanted stuff and pumps the water back in to the tank. This can be considered an internal filter as it needs to be placed inside the tank itself.

Installing one of these is quite simple. When you put it in the tank it will likely have suction cups that allow it to cling to the side of the tank. Ensure the pump is well below water level of course. I also recommend you check that the valves are one-way. If not, install one way valves in the filter so that there is no chance of backflow in the event of a malfunction or power trip-out. Once that’s done, plug it in and you’re good to go.

2. Under-gravel filters

This kind of filter also functions with the use of an air pump and bubbles but is placed underneath the gravel in a tank. Water is sucked through the gravel, which acts as a filter for debris, is then pumped up the air tubes, and back out again, creating a cycle of the water and generating an environment conducive to healthy bacterial growth that your fish benefit from.

To install this, your tank needs to be completely empty. Place the filter plate on the bottom of your tank and cover it with gravel. When the tank has been filled with water, plug it in and check that air bubbles are rising through the tubes on the side and water flow is being generated. I also recommend you ensure the valves are one-directional to avoid a backflow disaster in the event that the pump stops working.

3. Hang-on-back (HOB) power filters

This is another very common type of filter. It can be considered an external filter as it is seated off the back outside of the tank itself. An intake tube sucks water out the tank and deposits it into the outside filter box. The water is run through and filtered, and then pushed back into the tank via an outlet. The bonus of this filter is more space inside your aquarium but keep in mind you need extra space behind the tank.

To install a HOB filter, first mount it off the back edge of your tank. If it prevents the lid from shutting, cut a space for the filter into the lid. When you plug the filter in make sure to loop the cable running to your plug so that water that finds its way onto the cable cannot run into the power input in your wall. When the filter is plugged in and the tubes placed in the water of the tank, fill the filter box with water too so that the filter doesn’t suck air. Run the filter and give it some time to work properly. It may take as long as a whole day to stop being noisy while all the air is removed and the impeller places correctly in the filter.

It should also be noted that you need to ensure your HOB filter has little to no tilt. If it does water could end up spilling out. There is an adjustment lever on the filter box to set the tilt of the box as it rests against the tank sides. You also need to keep the filter box clean and free of build-up or the water may back up right out of the box and on to your floor due to it not being able to filter through fast enough.

4. Internal power filters

These are simply the internal version of the HOB the mechanics work exactly the same the only difference is the filter box is submerged in water inside the tank.

Installation is much the same and again, I advise you to check that the valves are correct for the job. You can manually adjust the amount of air intake and thus bubbles that are created. It is advisable to ensure the flow rate suites the size of your tank. If it is too high for your tank size it will create a mist above the tank that keeps everything damp. Try to avoid this.

5. Canister filters

This is the most advanced and comprehensive type of filter to have in your aquarium as it is a three-stage filtration system that combines the benefits of chemical, biological, and media-type filtration. Water will be pulled into the first stage and passed through a sponge that catches the larger debris. The water then flows through a chemical stage where something like a carbon pad chemically filters the water. It then passes through a biological phase to filter out the last phase before it is pumped back into the tank.

Installation of a canister filter is simple but needs attention. The canister needs to be set up lower than the tank itself, preferably underneath it, so that gravity pushes water down the intake to be filtered. When placing it you need to ensure there are no kinks in the hosing of the intake or outlet or water will have difficulty passing through. Also, ensure that there is not much slack on the hoses as this could lead to a kink or bend later. Keep in mind cleaning this filter requires emptying it in a sink and so you will be detaching and reattaching the hoses fairly frequently. It is, for this reason, I suggest you buy a canister filter that comes with quick disconnect hoses.

Additional Help and Tips

If you are in doubt about your filter setup or worry it may not be functioning as intended, don’t be afraid to outsource a bit. You can call the manufacturers, search for tips and guides on the web, or even ask a friend who has an already working filter. It’s always better to ask for help before a problem occurs than to seek help in fixing one. Your local pet store owner may also be a good source of advice and guidance when setting up or cleaning a filter.

Here was all you needed to know about how to set up an aquarium filter! The installation is a fairly intuitive and simple process and there are many sources of help out there for the more complex rigs. But once it is done, it’s done, and as such it’s better to make sure it’s done right the first time!

About the author

Immanuel Baranov

My life is pretty much defined by my avid outdoor activities. I’m generally obsessed with fishing, skiing and occasional hunting and whitewater paddling. I’ve been active since my early years. I inherited my passion for fishing from my father who made frequent family trips to the banks of Sacramento River. Growing up, I did a lot of fishing in the vicinity. Now that I have two sons, our weekends are full of fishing activities. I would say, you need good spots where you can go out a lot for the thing you love. I had the privilege to grow up near numerous water bodies and I’m proud to say that I made good use of them. It’s also great to do something with kids that helps them learn patience, endurance and preciseness.

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