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Filtration for Your Cichlid Aquarium

Just like any other freshwater fish, cichlids need proper filtration in order to provide a healthy happy environment. There are two types of filtration to consider; a canister filter or a sump.

A canister filter is one of the most commonly used filtration systems for freshwater tanks because they are easy to use and you can find them at a reasonably fair price. Sumps are not used as often with freshwater but are used more in the saltwater hobby. Sumps are a bit more difficult to get set up, but you will soon find out that the advantages of a sump far outweigh the disadvantages. In this article, I will describe the advantages and disadvantages of the two.

Canister filters

Canister filters are most popular within the freshwater hobby because they are simple to install and are normally more than enough filtration if maintained properly on a regular basis. When a canister filter is purchased, pretty much everything is already together and all you need to do is add the filter media, place the intake and outtake in the water, and start it up. Below is a picture of a basic canister filter and its functions.

Water enters the canister filter on the left-hand side, running through filter pads that catch debris. Once the water has run through the filter pads it does a U-turn and flows up the right side where the filter cartridges are placed, then pumped back into the display tank. Of course, this is just a basic concept of how a canister filter operates; therefore you should know that different models will function differently.

Depending on your preference, you can put whatever media you would like into the cartridges. Personally, I like to place larger filter media at the bottom such as pre-filter media grams. This media is used to catch large to medium size particles. In the second cartridge, I prefer to fill about half with pre-filter media grams and the other half with a polishing filter pad. In the last cartridge, I normally use something that helps to clarify the water such as carbon. This is just my personal preference, and you can pretty much set up your cartridges however you’d like.

I have used canister filters for several years and I personally prefer Hagen Fluval filtration over the other brands. I used a Fluval 204 filter in a 40-gallon aquarium for over 6 years and never had any problems. I am currently running a Fluval fx5 in my 110-gallon tank and it does an awesome job at keeping my tank clean. I wouldn’t use anything else.

The only disadvantages of a canister filter are that it requires regular cleaning about twice a month. This does not mean that the media needs to be changed, but filter pads should be rinsed along with the canister to get rid of any unwanted buildup. Whichever media you decide to buy, the instructions will tell you how often it needs to be changed.


If you want to do a more complex filtration system, a sump may be for you. A sump or a wet/dry filter is a separate tank that is located below the main display aquarium that consists of compartments/dividers used to place filter media and equipment in. You can also add a canister filter into the sump for even more filtration. The idea of a sump is to dilute the bio-load of your main aquarium by adding the extra amount of water. Most people use a sump that is about 1/3 of the size of their main aquarium, but it can’t hurt to go even bigger. When it comes to the sump, bigger is usually better; more dilution.

Okay, this is how it works. The water enters the sump by using an overflow box. The overflow box is started by a siphon and drains down to the sump through plumbing. Water moves through the sump to the other end where there is a return pump. The return pump delivers the water back into the main tank, which also requires plumbing.

Here is a diagram of a basic sump setup:

Advantages of a sump:

  • A place to put equipment such as chillers, filters, and heaters eliminating clutter in the main tank.
  • Water level in the main tank always remains the same because evaporation takes place in the sump.
  • Overflow box always keeps the surface of the main tank clear, which also allows for better gas exchange.
  • Water changes can be done in the sump rather than disturbing the main tank.
    Dilutes bio-load which helps keep nitrates down.
  • Gives you the ability to fully customize your filtration to maximize its effectiveness.

From my experience with sumps, I can’t really say that there are any disadvantages other than the fact that it takes a little extra work to get setup. In my opinion, I personally enjoy doing things myself and taking the time to do things right to avoid complications later down the road.


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