An Ultimate Guide - (2023)

Drain pans have been used to filter aquariums for decades. They have always been very popular with the fish keepers who have set up marine aquariums, but less popular in the freshwater fish keeping community. In this article, I'll be looking at sumps for freshwater aquariums and reviewing many of the pros and cons.

What is an aquarium swamp?

Let's start with the consideration"What is an aquarium swamp?"Basically, an aquarium sump is just a container for water in which the filter media can process the aquarium waste. Water enters the sump, flows through the medium, and is returned to the aquarium.

Basically, aquarium sumps can be made out of anything provided they hold water. Some aquarists are willing to spend literally thousands of dollars setting up a sump. In reality, you don't have to spend a lot of money at all.

An old aquarium can serve as a swampas well as a plastic carrier bag. I've visited fish rooms that used a plastic garbage can as a catch basin, and I've used really useful storage boxes (like this one from Amazon) as a catch basin myself.

A swamp doesn't have to be pretty, it just needs to hold waterand be big enough for all the media and devices you want to store inside.

How does an aquarium sump work?

Aquarium sumps can be as simple or complex as you want them to be. In their simplest form, aquarium sumps are like any other filter, only on a larger scale.

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In case of aunder the aquarium swampWater drains from the aquarium above, usually by gravity only, into the sump.It then passes through any number of chambers containing either media or devicesbefore returning them to the main aquarium. The image below shows what a very simple swamp can look like.

An Ultimate Guide - (1)

Swamps can have as many or as few chambers for the water to flow through as the aquarist desires.

With'over aquarium swamps'water is normally pumped from the aquarium to the sump where it flows through the media chambers and returns to the aquarium by gravity.

Above aquarium tubs are usually used in really large aquariumsplywood aquariumswhere there is no possibility of placing a sump under the aquarium.

What are the advantages of an aquarium sump?

Using a sump in a freshwater aquarium has many advantages. These include:

  • The sump increases the total volume of water in the aquarium
  • Devices such as heaters can be placed in the sump instead of in the main display aquarium.
  • Swamps are highly customizable
  • Swamps are easy to maintain
  • The swamp can provide a haven for fish that need to be kept separate
  • Drain pans can be used to store additional "cycled" media for use in other tanks
  • Increased aeration of the water

Increased water volume

Adding a sump to your freshwater aquarium increases the overall water volume of your aquarium. The more water an aquarium has, the easier it is to keep the parameters in this water stable. If you put a 50 gallon sump under your 150 gallon aquarium, the total water volume will be 200 gallons.

By increasing the total volume of water, you increase the stability of that water. There are many fish in our hobby that will do well in less than perfect water conditions, provided those conditions are stable.

hide equipment

Let's face it, nobody wants to see aquarium equipment in their aquarium. If we have a swamp under our aquariums, we can place this equipment somewhere.

I have used my sumps as places for heaters, air vents, CO2 diffusers and evenalgaeWasher. Anything we can squeeze out of our aquariums will create more space for fish and a more enjoyable viewing experience when looking into our tanks.

Placing equipment in the sump rather than the aquarium has a few additional benefits. It may be easier to service equipment or replace heaters when they are in the sump, especially in an aquarium with a heavy aquascape.

Keeping boisterous fish like Oscars or other large cichlids can easily damage heaters and other equipment. If it's in the swamp, the fish can't smash into it and break it.

Swamps are highly customizable

The reason I love using sumps so much is that I can tailor my filtration to the needs of an individual aquarium.I currently have a sump running that uses sponges, K1 media, gravel, filter floss and charcoal to filter the water.I've taken the time to set it up exactly how I want it and I know there's an opportunity to change it in the future if my needs change.

Service friendly

Ease of service should not be neglected. I can clean or replace the sponges in my sumps faster than in my canister filters. The same applies when replacing bags of activated carbon or removing limescale around heaters or pumps. Since swamp plants are so easy to maintain, most of us are more likely to maintain them.

A sanctuary

Occasionally a fish needs its own space. Maybe it was attacked by another fish and needs to recover, or maybe it was the one that attacked and a spell in captivity could do everyone some good.

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Either way, a chamber in the swamp can be used as a sanctuary where the fish can be placed alone, but doesn't have to live in another aquarium.

A sanctuary can also be useful when your fish spawn without your knowledge and you need somewhere to house the fry until you find a home for them.

Storage of "circulated" media

By keeping a bag or two of Biorings or an extra sponge filter in the sump, you'll always be ready should you need to set up another aquarium on short notice.You can simply take the medium out of your sump and put it in the filter of the new aquariumand you're ready to go You don't have to wait for the cycle of the new aquarium.

Increased aeration of the water

Almost all fish like to live in oxygen-rich water. However, many aquarists do not want to see a stream of bubbles from an air stone in their aquarium. The answer?Place an air vent directly in front of the return pump in the sump.

When the pump sends the water back to the main aquarium, it will be full of dissolved oxygen. The result is highly oxygenated water returned to your aquarium.

How big should an aquarium sump be?

There are no hard and fast rules as to how large a freshwater aquarium sump should be. Needless to say, the bigger the better, but that's not particularly helpful.

As a rule of thumb, you should aim for your sump to be at least 20% of the volume of your main aquarium. For example, for a 100 gallon aquarium you would need a sump of at least 20 gallons.

When deciding on the size of your swamp, there is one important factor that many newcomers fail to consider. If your power goes out, some of the water from the display aquarium, as well as whatever is in the plumbing, will drain into the sump. If you have not taken this into account, the first time there is a power outage, there will be water on the floor!

aquarium sizeSuggested sump size
100 gallons20 gallons
125 gallons25 gallons
150 gallons30 gallons
180 gallons36 gallons
200 gallons40 gallons
250 gallons50 gallons
300 gallons60 gallons

The answer to"What filter media should go in a sump?"is extremely simple, anything you want. You can use sponges, bioballs, ceramic rings, gravel, old socks, or just about anything else.

Filter media is just a habitat for bacteria. With one or two exceptions, bacteria colonize almost every surface.

There used to be an aquarium store in Seattle that literally used dirty gym socks as filter media. The bacteria didn't care and neither did the fish!

What order should the aquarium sump media be in?

In what order should the filter media go into a sumpis something that is often misunderstood, even by experienced aquarists. Regardless of which filter you use, the media should ALWAYS follow the same format.

An Ultimate Guide - (2)

Simply put, this means that the water should first be mechanically filtered to remove all solid components from the water. The sponge is the most widely used medium for mechanical filtration. Always rank your sponges from the coarsest to the finest.

In this way, the largest pieces are removed first, then the medium-sized pieces of waste, followed by the finest particles of waste.Inserting the sponges upside down will cause the fine sponge to clog prematurely.

After the water in the sump has gone through mechanical filtration, the next thing it should do is go through the biological phase. In the case of a swamp, these are usually biospheres or ceramic rings or something similar.

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Biological filtration is when good bacteria convert the fish waste from ammonia to nitrite and then from nitrite to nitrate. It is important that the water spends so much Time going through this phase of the filtration process as long as possible.

If the path goes too fast, the bacteria don't have a chance to do their job.

The final stage of normal aquarium filtration is thechemicalStage. This usually means passing the water through activated charcoal or some other product that chemically alters the water.

Chemical filtration is too big a topic for this article, but a key factor is that the water should be as physically clean as possible prior to the chemical filtration stage, which is why it is always the last stage before the water is returned to the aquarium to sue.

Should an aquarium sump be below or above the aquarium?

Placing the sump either below or above the aquarium is perfectly acceptable. In smaller aquariums, the sump is usually placed under the aquarium. When using sump in aquariums over 1000 gallons, the sump is usually placed on top or "overhead".

There is no right or wrong place to place the swamp. The decision is based on the conditions of the respective aquarium.

Are there any disadvantages to using aquarium sumps?

There are some known disadvantages to using sumps to filter aquariums. The first major disadvantage is the cost. Typically, an off-the-shelf sump costs 2 to 3 times the price of a canister filter for an aquarium of the same size.

The beauty of using a sump, however, is that a clean Home Depot plastic bin can be turned into an equally effective sump at a fraction of the cost.

Another big problem with swamps is that if something goes wrong, they can cause your house to flood. The odds of an improperly set up sump flooding your home are much higher than with any other type of filter.

Precautions should be taken, especially with regard to possible power outages. You don't want your entire display aquarium being dumped into the sump should the return pump fail during a power outage.

My final thoughts on swamps

I'm a big fan of swamps.I'm a real filter freak and being able to customize my filtration to set it up exactly how I want it for a custom aquarium really gets me going. If your aquarium setup allows for a sump, I would seriously consider one.

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Drain pans allow you to spend as much or as little on your filtration as you want, and they allow your filter to adapt to changes in your aquarium.

About the author

I have been keeping, breeding and displaying tropical fish for almost 30 years. In that time I've done everything! I've had great success and made some really stupid mistakes (like when I bought an Asain Walking Catfish).Continue reading…

Richard James


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What is the hardiest pet fish? ›

Zebra danios, Danio rerio, are just about the hardiest tropical fish you'll ever keep. They don't mind if the water is hard or soft, still or flowing, warm or unheated, and they are the single best fish for new fish keepers and new aquariums.

What is the easiest fish to keep alive? ›

Some of the easiest fish to take care of include white cloud minnows, cherry barbs, goldfish, guppies, neon tetras, and cory catfish. All of these species are relatively peaceful, non-demanding fish that do well in a beginning fish tank.

How do I keep my fish tank clean without changing water? ›

Vacuum the Gravel Fish feces, shed scales, uneaten food, dead bits of plants, and other debris will settle to the bottom of your tank. Vacuuming the gravel every week will remove much of this debris and refresh the tank, brightening the gravel and keeping the tank healthier.

How many fish can I put in a 10 gallon tank? ›

Two, you can use the area to provide a more comfortable environment for the existing fish. Going by the numbers, however, you can put up to 8 to 10 fish in a 10-gallon aquarium tank. However, we would not recommend adding 10 fish in a tank unless the fish are tiny and do not generate too much waste.

What is the coolest pet fish? ›

10 Amazing Fish You Can Keep as Pets
  1. Angelfish. Let's start with angelfish, one of the most recognisable species on our shortlist. ...
  2. Corydoras Catfish. ...
  3. Bettas. ...
  4. Plecostomus. ...
  5. Discus. ...
  6. Swordtail. ...
  7. Pearl Gourami. ...
  8. Zebra Danios.
Oct 29, 2020

What is the most friendliest fish? ›

The Batfish – Clowns of the Sea

Have you ever wondered to yourself “What is the friendliest fish in the ocean?” Well, wonder no more! The answer to this question is actually quite obvious, it's the ever so curious batfish.

Which fish is not dying? ›

Common goldfish. Betta (Siamese fighting fish) Plecostomus.

What fish can survive months without water? ›

The fish, whose scientific name is Rivulus marmoratus, can grow as large as three inches. They group together in logs hollowed out by insects and breathe air through their skin instead of their gills until they can find water again. The scientific breakthrough came after a trip to Belize.

What is the longest lasting pet fish? ›

If you are looking for a fish that will be around for up to 10 years, think about neon tetras, angelfish, Oscars, and plecostomus. The longest lived of all the popular freshwater fish is the goldfish. If provided proper feeding and a clean, healthy environment, these fish can live up to 15 years.

Do you empty all the water when cleaning a fish tank? ›

It is possible to keep your fish in the tank while you clean because you don't need to remove all the water to clean the tank properly. Completely replacing the water in the fish tank is a bad idea because it will remove beneficial bacteria that live in the tank and reset the nitrogen cycle, which could kill your fish.

When can I put fish back in tank after cleaning? ›

Replace the water you removed with fresh, treated water at the same temperature of the aquarium. Any cloudiness will dissipate in a few hours. Place your fish back in the tank when you think it is ready. Sit back and enjoy your clean tank.

How often do you change the water in a 10 gallon fish tank? ›

A good rule is to change 10 to 15 percent of the water each week. If your tank is heavily stocked, bump that up to 25 percent each week. A lightly stocked aquarium may only require water changes every two to four weeks, but you should monitor it carefully. It is possible to do too many water changes in an aquarium.

How long should I wait before adding fish to my tank? ›

You're going to be excited and anxious to fill your new aquarium with fish. Be patient! Let your aquarium "settle" for at least 48 hours before buying your first fish. This will give you time to make sure the temperature is set and make adjustments to decorations, etc.

What is the top 1 rarest fish? ›

Ornate Sleeper Ray

This fish was first listed as an official new ray species in 1984. There are none in captivity, and only a handful of sightings have ever been recorded. For these reasons, this fish is probably the rarest in the ocean.

What is the most happy fish? ›

Meet the Parrotfish. The colors of the Parrot Fish will change several times over the course of their lifespan. But their mouths look like they are always grinning.

What fish is aggressive to humans? ›

One of the most dangerous fish in the sea, the Moray Eel is vicious when disturbed and will attack humans. The jaws of the moray eel are equipped with strong, sharp teeth, enabling them to seize hold of their prey and inflict serious wounds. There are more than 80 species of moray eels.

What is the most playful fish? ›


They will eagerly investigate new arrivals to an aquarium and they are known to be quite mischievous. Puffers will sometimes play with their owners – they will carefully watch you as you move about the room and dart around the tank like a hummingbird, especially around feeding time.

What kills the most fish? ›

Fish kills usually result from too little oxygen in the water. South Florida receives between 150 and 200 fish kill reports each year. While some result from spills or illegal discharges of toxic substances, most kills occur when oxygen dissolved in the water drops to levels insufficient for fish survival.

Why is my fish floating upside down but still alive? ›

Why Is My Fish Swimming Upside Down? If your fish is swimming upside down, it has a problem with its swim bladder. Your fish has stopped being able to control its swim bladder and has got stuck with too much air inside it. The reason for this could be constipation, a poor diet, eating habits, or an infection.

Do fish go to sleep? ›

While fish do not sleep in the same way that land mammals sleep, most fish do rest. Research shows that fish may reduce their activity and metabolism while remaining alert to danger. Some fish float in place, some wedge themselves into a secure spot in the mud or coral, and some even locate a suitable nest.

What fish can walk on land? ›

Snakehead fish have evolved to “walk” on land! They propel themselves forward by moving their head and back fin in opposite directions.

What fish bury themselves in the sand? ›

weever, any of four species of small marine fishes of the family Trachinidae (order Perciformes). Weevers are long-bodied fishes that habitually bury themselves in the sand.

What is the most venomous fish? ›

The most venomous known fish is the reef stonefish. It is an ambush predator which waits camouflaged on the bottom. The beautiful and highly visible lionfish uses venomous barbs around its body as a defence against predators.

What is the shortest living pet fish? ›

Killifish are among the aquarium fish with the shortest lifespan. They generally only live for a bit more than two years. Bettas are not far behind. There have been documented cases of bettas living five years or more, but that is not the norm.

Is it OK to clean a fish tank with dish soap? ›

NEVER use soaps or detergents of any kind; they're very harmful for your fish. Step 2: Thoroughly rinse off your chosen substrate (gravel, aquarium rocks, sand, etc.) and any other tank decorations with warm water.

Can I use vinegar to clean fish tank? ›

Cleaning a fish tank with vinegar is super simple and a great way to spruce things up in and around your aquarium. Vinegar is acidic, so it breaks down gunk and algae (most kinds at least), making them easier to scrub and rinse away.

Should I clean my fish tank with dish soap? ›

Do not use any soap when cleaning a fish tank, as even traces of soap can be deadly for fish. If the algae won't come off by scrubbing, bring a pot of water to a boil, turn off the heat, and then place the items in the hot water for 20 minutes.

What happens if you put too much water clarifier in fish tank? ›

The only exception is if you add too much water clarifier. If this is the case, your water clarifier is going to go on a clumping spree and will very likely turn your water a cloudy brown color. If you use one of our top picks, an overdose should be harmless and sort itself out in a few days.

Is too much filtration bad for an aquarium? ›

What Happens If You Over-Filter a Fish Tank? As we mentioned above, you cannot over-filter a fish tank, but if you introduce the wrong filtration systems to your tank, you could create too much current. Filters that are too powerful for your tank could stress out your fish or keep aquarium plants from taking root.

Can you clean your fish tank too much? ›

First, you don't have to have to clean your tank daily unless it's truly necessary or something dies causing toxic waste. If you wish to clean your tank every day go right ahead, but it's not necessary. Also don't worry about over cleaning the tank unless you have sea critters that thrive off the waste of other fish.

How often should you clean a fish tank and change the water? ›

You should do a 25% water change every two to four weeks. There is no reason to remove the fish during the water change. Make sure you stir the gravel or use a gravel cleaner during the water change. When adding water back in to the aquarium, use Tetra AquaSafe® to remove the chlorine and chloramine.

How many times a day should you clean your fish tank? ›

Depending on how many fish you have, and how messy they are, most tanks require cleaning about once every two weeks. Cleaning should involve: ✔ Siphoning the gravel to remove any debris and uneaten food, and changing about 10-15% of the water. ✔ Check the filter is working correctly.

How long can fish be dead before cleaning? ›

Once fish are dead, it's best to clean them within two hours and eat them within 24 hours. You will need a method of holding your fish until you are ready to clean them. Some anglers use a stringer to keep the fish in the water. Other anglers place fish directly on ice in a cooler.

Where do you put fish when cleaning a tank? ›

Use a small bowl, mug or cup that has been thoroughly rinsed with distilled water as a temporary tank. Never place fish in containers that have been washed with soaps, as even a small amount of residue can be toxic. In a pinch, you can also use a large plastic zip bag.

Should you ever do a 100% water change in aquarium? ›

Completely replacing the water in the fish tank is a bad idea because it will remove beneficial bacteria that live in the tank and reset the nitrogen cycle, which could kill your fish. If you regularly clean your tank, doing a partial water change is the best option. Keep your fish's water clean, but not sterile.

How often do you vacuum gravel in a fish tank? ›

As with all the best maintenance routines, regular vacuuming, either once a week or once every other week, is best for your aquarium. Be sure to remove all your decor prior to vacuuming.

How do you know when your fish tank is cycled? ›

So, how do you know that your tank has cycled and it's safe to add fish? Test your fish tank water for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates. If the ammonia and nitrite levels are zero and nitrate levels are less than 30ppm, then the tank is cycled, and you can add a few small fish.

What is the easiest fish to take care of? ›

Some of the easiest fish to take care of include white cloud minnows, cherry barbs, goldfish, guppies, neon tetras, and cory catfish. All of these species are relatively peaceful, non-demanding fish that do well in a beginning fish tank.

What is the hardiest fish for fish in cycle? ›

The best fish for cycling a new freshwater aquarium are hardy minnows, such as danios. Besides being robust, these fish are also lively and constantly on display. Because they are so active, it makes it easier to spot signs of disease and anomalous behavior.

What is considered a hardy fish? ›

Examples of hardy freshwater fish include Poecilids such as the guppy, molly, swordtail and platy, most species of betta, zebra danios, and some tetras. Generally, fish are hardy only when they have been tank-bred, since wild-caught fish may take many generations to adapt to life in captivity.

What fish is hardy for a new aquarium? ›

Danios. If you've never maintained a freshwater tank before, danios are the perfect starter fish for your aquarium. They are very hardy and will survive in a variety of water conditions.


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