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With the right aquarium filter, you can ensure that your aquarium remains safe and clean. If the water becomes polluted, your fish will ultimately become sick, and we don’t want that! Check out our top picks below.

Filtration Stages

In order to find the right filter for your aquarium, first you must know a few things about what they do and how they function.  There are three stages a filter uses to keep your fish tank clean and healthy.  Some filtration systems use one stage while others use two or all three.

Stage One: Mechanical

The first stage is mechanical.  As the name implies, in this stage the filter mechanically removes debris by passing the water through either a filter pad or a sponge filter.  This is the most primary stage, and most filters offer this type of filtration.

Stage Two: Chemical

In the chemical stage, toxins are neutralized using filter media.  This is the second most common state and typically uses activated carbon or a resin to absorb the toxins produced from both food and fish waste.  Filter media are replaceable and typically sit in a bag, a cartridge, or an internal basket inside the filtration system.

Stage Three: Biological

In the third stage, fish waste is biologically converted into a safer form.  This happens by using a filter that is designed to promote the growth of good bacteria.  The good bacteria then consumes both the ammonia and nitrites in the water converting it to a safer form.  High amounts of ammonia and nitrites can make your fish get stressed out or sick.

#1 – [Top Pick] – Aqueon Quietflow 30 Filter

The Aqueon Quietflow series are great filters for your home aquarium at a price point that won’t break the bank.  It uses a high-quality pump that is fitted to the intake tube creating the water flow through the filter chamber.

Another great feature about this filter is that it starts as soon it is plugged in.  Other models will take a few minutes to get started or will require the reservoir to have water in it before working.  The Quiteflow does not.  It starts instantaneously and is very quiet.

As for the filter insert, it is a high-quality carbon pad that is designed to fit perfectly into the Bio-Holster.  The Bio-Holster is Aqueon’s patented device which is engineered to allow for the growth of beneficial bacteria.  The good bacteria help to remove ammonia and nitrites from the water that could harm or kill your fish.  Using a biological filtration system, it converts them to non-toxic nitrates.

  • Multi-stage filtration system
  • Starts automatically
  • Features Aqueon’s patented Bio-Holster
  • Cannot adjust the flow rate
  • Small filtration capacity

#2 – [Best Reviews] – Marineland Penguin 350

The Marineland Penguin 350 is a hang-on-back filter that comes in five different sizes: 75 GPH (aquariums up to 10 gallon), 100 GPH (aquariums up to 20 gallons), 150 GPH (aquariums up to 30 gallons), 200 GPH (aquariums up to 50 gallons), and 350 GPH (aquariums up to 70 gallons).  It also features a patented rotating Bio-Wheel.  This technology provides wet/dry biological filtration that eliminates toxic ammonia growth.  As it rotates, it exposes the beneficial bacteria to the air which helps it work harder and faster and thereby keeping your aquarium ammonia-free.

Additionally, the multi-stage filtration system delivers mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration to help maintain a clean and safe environment.  Each filter contains Black Diamond Premium Activated Carbon for fast acting efficiency.

Finally, all Bio-Wheel filters use a noise-reducing vented cover.  The Penguin Bio-Wheel Power Filter brings its filtration technology to tanks up to 70 gallons and filters 350 gallons per hour.

  • Can be used in both freshwater and saltwater tanks
  • Patented rotating Bio-Wheel
  • Multi-stage filtration system
  • Not suitable for tanks with a lot of vegetation or high waste producing fish
  • Filter requires regular maintenance

#3 – [Best Budget Pick] – Hydro Sponge Filter

The Hydro Sponge filter by Aquarium Technology, Inc. is multi-stage offering both mechanical and biological filtration and is best used in aquariums up to 40 gallons.  Aerobic bacteria colonize in the sponge which provides a bacterial substance to help the nitrogen cycle.  It also traps larger waste particles, thereby mechanically cleaning the water.  Both of these functions are important for creating a happy safe environment for your fish to live and thrive in.

Moreover, most other sponge filters cannot move as much water as the Hydro sponge filter can with a one-inch diameter lift tube.  The heavy base allows the filtration unit to be free-standing and helps to keep it stable.  The raised sponge is great for preventing dead space from underneath. 

Generally speaking, this filter is best used for hatcheries and breeding facilities.  They are also ideal for hospital tanks as they do not contain filter media.  It can operate with either an air pump and stone or a powerhead.

  • Affordable and low maintenance
  • Heavy base for free-standing filtration system
  • Great for aquariums up to 40 gallons
  • Does not neutralize toxins or remove odors from the water
  • Requires the use of an air pump or powerhead

#4 – [Best for Large Aquariums] – Aquatop Canister CF500UV Filter

Aquatop Cannister is ideal for both freshwater and saltwater tanks up to 175 gallons.  This filtration system uses an integrated 9 watt UV sterilizer to help keep your fish tank healthy and the water crystal clear. 

A unique feature of this filter is that it is completely customizable.  It comes equipped with all of the plumbing necessary for installation and includes large filtration media compartments.  This allows you to add the filtration media of your choice. 

Also, for an increased mechanical filtration, all models come with both fine filter pads and a single coarse filter sponge.  Add that to their premium activated carbon, ceramic rings and bio-balls and you will have yourself a clean and clear fish tank. 

To top it all off, each system comes with a prime pump which eliminates the need for siphoning.  Taking all of this together, the Aquatop Cannister CF500UV is a great choice for your aquarium filter. 

  • Offers UV sterilization 
  • The unit is customizable
  • Comes with a prime pump
  • The canister does not have handles
  • Poor manual instructions

#5 – [Best for Small Aquariums] – Tetra Whisper EX Filter

The Tetra Whisper comes in four different sizes and was designed to be convenient and simple to use.  In fact, it is out of the box ready with no priming required. 

This filter boasts a scientifically engineered water flow that provides continuous flushing.  The continuous flushing action helps to prevent debris buildup while also maximizing water agitation and oxygenation. 

Perhaps the best feature of this filter is it offers time-strip technology.  When it is time to replace the filter, it lets you know.  This silent, multi-stage power filter uses carbon as its filtration media.  Unlike other filters, the Whisper EX runs water through multiple densities of floss which removes particles.  The carbon filter abolishes discoloration, odors, and impurities while the bio-scrubber removes ammonia and nitrates that can harm your fish.

  • Features a self-priming mechanism
  • Ready to use right out of the box
  • Continually moves the water optimizing oxygenation
  • Can be difficult to clean


There are many types of aquarium filters: sponge filters, HOB (hang-on-back), canister filters, wet/dry filters, internal and submersible filters, and undergravel filters.  Choosing the right one for you depends on the size of your tank, substrate, and type of fish you are keeping.


Sponge filters are a gentle filtration system typically powered by an air pump.  They are most commonly used for hospital and breeding tanks because of their gentle nature.  Their primary function is to remove large debris particles and waste from the water.

Newer sponge filters can include a biological stage which is great for longer-term use versus a short period of time for a sick fish.  No matter their intended use, they do require frequent weekly cleanings to prevent them from getting clogged.


HOB filters – “hang-on-back” – are perhaps the most popular units.  They are a really good option for both freshwater and saltwater tanks.  They are designed to hang on either the back of your tank or the side and have an intake tube that carries the water up to the filter.  This type of filtration system is very easy to maintain without the need to put your hands in the tank.

In this particular system, the main unit holds the electrical pump and filtration stages.  As mentioned above, the water is pulled up through the intake tube, then through the stages.  It is returned to the tank through the outflow vent.  HOB setups are two and three-stage filtration systems.


Canister filters are powerful electric filters that are typically placed underneath your aquarium.  They are tucked away and nicely hidden by your fish stand.  With these models, the water is pulled from the intake into the canister where the filter pad and stages are.

Because they can move a lot of water through the stages, canister filters are ideal for large fish tanks.  Less water is lost to evaporation because the device is closed, and they are quieter than HOBs.  Also, the outflows are adjustable which minimizes the current and splashing.

Another attribute of this type of filtration system is that they have multiple filter pads and can remove microscopic debris.  The chemical and biological stages are customizable so you can get the exact mix that your tank needs.  A drawback however is that they are more complicated to operate and maintain.


Wet/dry filters are also known as sumps.  They provide biological filtration slowly and gradually.  Sumps are great for saltwater or reef tanks.

This filtration device sits either under the aquarium or next to it.  A siphon overflow allows water to be gravity fed into the sump.  The water is then oxygenated and cleaned as it cycles through the stages.

While they are a great option for saltwater tanks, sumps use a large amount of space and offer less aggressive biological filtration.  As such, they are not recommended for freshwater aquariums.


This type of filter is a newer style and can be as simple as one or two-stage or can be a full-blown three-stage system.  The one and two-stage units are ideal for fishbowls and nano tanks.  They are also a good option should you not have the space for a HOB or canister filter.

Some three-stage electrical models have a flow rate sufficient to support planted aquariums so long as there aren’t too many fish or bottom feeders.  However, the more simple air pump-powered versions are typically inadequate for planted tanks or ones with a larger community of fish.


Undergravel filters have three parts: a plastic mesh screen placed under your gravel substrate, an outflow tube that holds a replaceable cartridge holding the filter pad, and an air pump.  The pump is connected with a plastic tube and both the pump and the plastic tubing are purchased separately.

This type of filtration system offers a limited two-stage filtration.  First, it pulls the dirty water through the substrate then it passes through the filter pad.  Larger debris is caught in the substrate and is broken down by bacteria.  Any debris that is not broken down by bacteria is typically removed by bottom feeders or when vacuuming the gravel during water changes.

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