Fish are fantastic pets, but they’re not the cleanest animals on the planet. Whenever fish do their business, everything is left floating around in the tank for all to see. To ensure a clean and healthy habitat for your fish, a filter is essential. The best aquarium filters maintain consistent water quality and provide crystal-clear tank water. This allows you to enjoy watching your fish thrive in a friendly and livable habitat.
The better the habitat you create in your aquarium, the better health your fish will have and the longer they’re likely to live. They’ll swim around more happily, shine with brighter colors, and keep you entertained. Even the smallest fish tanks need filters. Tiny tanks actually need them just as much as larger tanks, because the small space inside causes water quality to change more quickly because ammonia and other waste cannot dilute as much. There are filters built for every size, shape, and type of tank you could imagine. It’s up to you to choose the best aquarium filter to run in your home or commercial tank!
What to Look for in an Aquarium Filter
There are a few things that will be listed on product descriptions for filters. There’s no outright best fish tank filter for all tanks, so you need to understand a few things about what differentiates one filter from another to make an appropriate choice for your own tank. Here are the main things you need to know:
Product descriptions of aquarium filters provide essential information for making an appropriate decision. There is no outright best fish tank filter, so understanding the factors that differentiate one filter from another is crucial. Here are the key points you need to know:
It’s worth emphasizing again that aquarium filters need to be matched to aquarium size. You can’t tell water quality by looking at the water itself, but it could be affecting the health of your fish, live plants, and other marine life. Filters should not be overworked.
Matching the size of the aquarium filter to the tank is crucial. Water quality cannot be determined by appearance alone; it directly impacts the health of your fish, plants, and marine life. Filters should not be overloaded.
For example, if your tank holds 55 gallons, the filter should handle at least that amount, if not more. It is better to choose a filter with a higher capacity. Your fish and plants rely on the filter to maintain a healthy environment. An undersized filter could result in the loss of aquarium life.
Fish and Plant Population:
In addition to tank size, the number of fish and plants in your aquarium affects filter selection.. A good fish tank filter should be able to keep up with your fish load without the water quality reducing too quickly. The more fish you have, the stronger your filter (or filters) needs to be to keep up with all of their waste.
A general rule of thumb is to allow 1 inch of fish for every gallon of water in the aquarium. For instance, a 30-gallon tank should accommodate no more than 15 two-inch fish or 10 three-inch fish, or a combination thereof. Consider this as an upper limit rather than a recommendation for fish stocking. Tanks with a higher fish load require a more powerful filter, often rated for a larger tank, to maintain optimal water quality.
Filters are rated based on capacity and power (to determine how many gallons they can handle), but flow rate is another important consideration. Flow rate refers to the speed at which tank water passes through the filter.
Ideally, the filter should be capable of completely cycling the tank water within four hours. For example, a 30-gallon fish tank requires a filter with a minimum flow rate of 120 gallons per hour (GPH). Note that the listed flow rate represents the maximum GPH under ideal conditions. In reality, the actual flow rate may be lower, so keep that in mind during your filter selection process.
Aquarium Filter Brands:
As with any product, certain brands are known for producing reliable filters. Some well-known filter brands include Tetra, Fluval, Marineland, EHEIM, Penn Plax, and AquaClear.
While these brands are not the only reliable options, they have gained recognition for consistently delivering quality products. Choosing trusted brands doesn’t guarantee a superior filter, but it increases the likelihood of finding a product that performs as expected.
Top 10 List of the Best Aquarium Filters
1. AquaClear Power Filter
This is a hanging external power filter from AquaClear. It’s available in 5 different versions to accommodate tanks of different sizes. You can purchase it for 5 – 20, 10 – 30, 20 – 50, 40 – 70, or 60 – 110 gallon tanks. These different sizes are capable of pumping 100, 150, 200, 300, or 500 gallons per hour respectively. Here you can find the AquaClear Power Filter!
- Fits well on most tanks
- Very little noise, even for the larger sizes
- Cartridges can be exchanged for any type of filter media you prefer
- Works with both freshwater and saltwater tanks, with filter media adjustments
- Easy to clean when necessary
- Small grain sand substrate can clog or disrupt the filter
- Motor does not always self-prime, which can cause issues with power outages and resetting
As a larger power filter, your tank will get mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration from this filter option. There is space inside for three cartridges, one for each type of filtration media. The space allocated to cartridges provides a large surface area for each, making for better biological filtration throughout.
Each cartridge can be individually replaced, so you can choose what to put in each slot and you can change them one at a time to avoid losing beneficial bacteria in the process of cleaning. When you purchase the filter, it comes with an AquaClear foam insert for mechanical filtration, and AquaClear activated carbon filter cartridge for chemical filtration and an AquaClear Biomix filter with ceramic rings for biological filtration.
Water is drawn into the filter from a long tube that sits inside the tank. At the bottom of the intake tube, there is a protective piece to block fish from being sucked inside. The intake brings water through the U-shaped tube and into the bottom of the filter, where the water then rises through the filter media and pours back into the tank.
It’s recommended to clean this filter every two weeks. Filter media does not need to be replaced every time the filter is cleaned, so you won’t have to do a lot of regular upkeep. You can adjust the flow speed to customize your filter’s performance and to help accommodate fish who may not like a higher flow rate.
2. Penn Plax 1500 Elite
This canister filter that’s available in a wide variety of different choices. The smallest is the Cascade 500, rated for up to 30 gallons, while the largest and most powerful is the Cascade 1500 elite, rated for up to 200 gallons with a 350GPH flow rate. There are different sizes between regular and elite models. The elite models are black while the regular is blue, and the elite has more features, customization, and added value than the regular version. Here you can find the Penn Plax 1500 Elite!
- Everything needed for installation and setup is included in the package
- The motor makes virtually no noise, only water trickling back into the tank
- Strong plastic used the little risk of breaking
- The low flow rate won’t disturb plants and fish in your tank
- Air bubbles in the intake can ruin pressure and may make it hard to set up
No matter which size you get, this canister provides mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. The elite versions also include an algae magnet to help keep the tank cleaner and free of unwanted algae. Each piece of filter media is stored inside its own separate tray, with each tray stacking on top of the other inside the pressurized cartridge. Each filter kit comes with bio-foam, bio floss, ceramic rings, and pro carb while the elite kit also includes the algae magnet.
Tubing and syphon suction heads help to create the pressurization for the filter. Tube heads can rotate 360 degrees, so you can place the filter anywhere around your tank without worrying about directional access to the water. Media trays are large enough to accommodate an effective amount of each type of media and do not need to be changed often. The canister itself has an air-tight seal, so it stays cleaner inside and keeps noise at a minimum.
3. Penn Plax Cascade HOB Filter
Appropriate for smaller tanks, this hanging power filter comes in six different sizes: 20, 80, 100, 150, 200, or 300 GPH. The largest model, the 300 GPH version, is well-suited for tanks from 55 to 100 gallons. The smallest size is a great choice for small tank owners who still want great filtration, as it’s rated for around 7 gallons. Here you can find the Penn Plax Cascade HOB Filter!
- Easy to replace filter cartridges and clean the filter out
- Very silent operation
- Large surface area leads to great biological filtration
- Clears up water quickly and keeps it clear while running
- A fantastic choice for filtering a smaller tank
- Standard filter cartridges that come with the set are low quality
- Larger models may burn out more quickly than similar filters
With plenty of space inside the filter area, you’ll get mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration through different cartridges. There’s a wide surface area for each filtration media, making it highly effective for the growth of beneficial bacteria.
It’s very easy to set up and clean out the filter whenever it needs maintenance. Cartridges don’t need to be changed every time cleaning is done and can be replaced incrementally to save the biological media. Bio floss and activated carbon cartridges are included so you can get started as soon as it arrives.
This is a hang-on filter that can be attached to any part of the back of the tank. It slips over the top of the glass to fit seamlessly in any aquarium. There’s a leveling device to help make sure the filter will operate properly even if it’s not exactly level and centered on the aquarium. A motor powers the filter and causes it to draw water from the tank through a long U-shaped tube. The water goes to the bottom of the filter and flows slowly up through the filtration media, pouring back down into the tank from a waterfall. The flow rate is adjustable to lower settings.
4. Fluval External Filter 406
This Fluval canister filter offers great filtration for different sizes of freshwater or saltwater tanks. There are four different sizes: The 106 model is suitable for tanks up to 25 gallons and produces a flow rate up to 145 GPH. 206 is ideal for tanks up to 45 gallons and turns over up to 206 GPH. 306 is intended for tanks up to 70 gallons and produces a flow rate of 303 GPH. The largest, the 406 models, is suitable for tanks up to 100 gallons and has a flow rate up to 383 GPH. Here you can find the Fluval External Filter 406!
- Customizable to get the right filter mix for your water
- Works quickly to clear up the water
- Very quiet when operating, great for tanks in living spaces
- Powerful filtration works well even when the flow rate is lowered
- Good for fish tanks and pet turtles
- Setup is more complex and may take a little more time than a simpler filter style
- The top does not always close tightly without specific attention, causing microbubbles
All three types of filtration are provided within this canister filter. There are enough spaces for multiple types of cartridges, in case you want to focus on a certain type of filtration over the others. The square canister shape holds more water when in use than round canisters, giving greater surface area to filtration media and creating better water flow. All cartridges can be changed out individually and placed wherever you want them, giving you the freedom to customize the filter to suit the needs of your tank specifically.
Pressure is created through a closed intake system and air-tight canister. The intake hose has a clog-proof strainer to avoid sucking up small fish or larger pieces of debris from the tank. As a larger canister filter, it needs to sit outside of the tank on a stable surface and cannot be hung from the edges or the back.
5. EHEIM Classic External Filter
EHEIM offers a unique-looking translucent green canister filter. There are three different sizes for the filter. You can get the smallest one intended for tanks up to 40 gallons, the middle one for tanks up to 66 gallons, or the largest model which serves tanks up to around 92 gallons. Each option comes with the same accessories in the package. Here you can find the EHEIM Classic External Filter!
- Loose filter media can be easily used in whatever quantities you want
- Clears water very quickly
- Lids secure easily with a tight seal
- Maintenance is simple and repairs for common problems are easy to do yourself
- Long-lasting when regularly cleaned and maintained
- Instructions for setup and troubleshooting can be confusing
- Included mechanical filtration media clogs easily and must be cleaned regularly
Inside the filter, you can put any type of filter media that you want. It does not use cartridges, so you’re not limited by specific size and shape. You can use loose-fitting filter media poured one on top of the other, filter sponges of the right size to fit into the canister well, or some combination of both together. The kits each come with some filter media from EHEIM that will provide mechanical and biological filtration. You can add your own activated carbon or other chemical filtration if you feel the need to.
The intake hose connects directly to the bottom of the filter rather than taking water through a U-valve to reach the bottom of the filter area. Water is then pushed up through the filter media and returned to the tank through the outlet hose on the top. All accessories for setting up the filter, including an optional spray bar, are included in the kit. Oxygen enrichment during the filtration process helps beneficial bacteria to thrive while also putting more breathable air into the tank water.
6. Fluval Fx6 Canister Filter
From Fluval, this is an enormous filter intended for large fish tanks or tanks that need much power to stay clean. This unit is rated for tanks up to 400 gallons. It’s great for commercial use or for hobbyists with large tanks to maintain at home. This canister will naturally take up more space than many others and may be harder to place discreetly as a larger filter. It produces a flow rate of up to 925 GPH. Here you can find the Fluval Fx6 Canister Filter!
- Best filter for large aquariums (100+gallons)
- Programmed with in-built monthly maintenance reminders
- Runs quietly, despite the larger size
- Solid construction is sturdy and long-lasting
- The reliable function requires little to no repair if regular maintenance is performed
- Easy to use, requires little attention for regular daily operation
- The powerful suction can accidentally suck in fish
- Very heavy when full and awkward to move around for maintenance and cleaning
You will get mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration from this filter in any order that you choose. You can set up the filter media area to accommodate 3 different types of media in large quantities. There are 11.5 liters of area inside the canister, broken down into three even sections, to contain the filter media. When you seal the canister lid, you can lock it in place with multiple screw tabs to help avoid leaks.
All the parts necessary to use the filter are included with the kit. You’ll be the canister itself, all the hoses and tubes, as well as o-rings and seals and other auxiliary parts used for the setup. Nozzles that connect the intake and outlet hoses are multi-directional to give you more options when you’re installing the filter around the tank. It’s recommended that the filter be installed below the tank itself, not at the same level or above it, in order for the syphon suction to work at full capacity.
7. Marineland Penguin Power Filter
This hang-on filter from Marineland comes in 4 different sizes: 100 GPH suitable for up to 20 gallons, 150 GPH suitable for up to 30 gallons, 200 GPH suitable for up to 50 gallons, and 350 GPH suitable for up to 70 gallons. Because of the unique shape and design of the filter, it must be placed on a straight edge of the glass, meaning it’s usually a good fit for the back of the tank. The smaller three sizes all have a single filter cartridge area while the largest model (350GPH) has two filter cartridge areas. Here you can find the Marineland Penguin Power Filter!
- Cartridges can be changed without turning off the filter
- BIO-wheel helps to add oxygen to the water as well as build up beneficial bacteria
- Reliable and long-lasting, most repairs are simple and can be done at home
- The flow rate is easily adjustable without any modifications to the filter itself
- The filter can be noisy for a few days after setup before quieting down
- Replacement cartridges can get expensive
Your tank water will receive mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. Each filter slot is fitted with a complete cartridge containing all three types of filtration media. Cartridges are compatible with either Rite-Size A, B, or C filter packets, depending on the filter model, so you can easily replace them with the cartridge of your choice. A patented Tetra BIO-wheel rests at the water outlet to get rid of ammonia and to act as a habitat for the beneficial bacteria your tank needs.
A little setup is needed for installation once you get the filter. All parts needed to begin using the filter are present in the set, including the filtration cartridge(s) and BIO-wheel(s). You can easily turn off and disassemble the filter to clean it as needed. Filter cartridges are recommended to be changed monthly, but the BIO wheel doesn’t need to be changed at the same time as the cartridges.
8. Tetra Whisper Power Filter
Tetra’s Whisper filter is available in four different sizes. The smallest is suitable for up to 20 gallons, the 2nd for up to 30 gallons, the 3rd for up to 40 gallons, and the largest for up to 60 gallons. It’s a discreet black filter that hangs nicely on the back of the tank. The top of the filter has a closed-off design that gives it a sleeker look and helps to reduce the noise coming from water movement and return. Here you can find the Tetra Whisper Power Filter!
- An adjustable intake tube makes it easier to set the tube at the right length for your tank
- Flow rate can be adjusted easily for feeding or to accommodate different types of fish
- Simple assembly right out of the box
- The intake tube has a protective cover to prevent fish from being sucked in
- Good value for money
- It can be very noisy
- Not long-lasting filters may experience problems with the motor over time
You get all three types of filtration from this filter. All of the filter inserts needed to do the initial setup are included with the kit. You can easily replace any of the filter media to make sure you’re getting the best out of your purchase. There are three separate slots for filter media on each side, which you can arrange as you please. The intake tube is in the middle and brings water down to the bottom of the cartridge area.
All assembly pieces are in the kit to get the filter working in your tank. The intake tube in particular comes in three different sections equaling to 16 inches in length, but it can be shortened by removing as many of the sections as necessary. Water is cascaded back into the tank from the top of the filter. You can easily adjust the flow rate by twisting a knob on top.
9. Fluval C Power Filter
The C filters from Fluval come in three different varieties. The C2 filters 119 GPH and is suitable for a tank up to 30 gallons. C3 can filter are 153 GPH for tanks up to 50 gallons. C4 operates at a maximum of 264 GPH for tanks up to 70 gallons. Each model of the filter is made from dark, translucent plastic with a central filtration section and an intake tube on one side. Here you can find the Fluval C Power Filter!
- Filters out even small particulates
- The Polyfoam filter can easily be rinsed out (in tank water) to clean it for us again
- Runs quietly for a hang-on filter
- Simple and easy cleaning as needed
- Trickle filter reduces noise while adding extra biological filtration
- Plastic is not sturdy, and feels flimsy
- Impeller requires frequent cleaning, may cause the motor to stop unexpectedly
These filters have five stages of filtration, separated into 5 different cartridge areas. Two stages are mechanical filtration, 1 is for chemical filtration, and the other 2 are for biological filtration. Foam pads, activated carbon, and biological filtrations media are all included with the filter to help you get it set up more quickly.
All water going through the filter is re-filtered multiple times to remove as many impurities as possible. Biological media included is a package of C-nodes, which can be replaced gradually in order to preserve beneficial bacteria growth.
The intake tube sticks straight down into the tank and can be extended with the proper tube attachment. You can adjust the flow easily by twisting a knob on top to either low, medium, or high. There are 15 total pieces that come with the kit (including filter media), with instructions to help you get it up and running right away. When cleaning is necessary, the filter has a built-in mechanism to alert you so you can always keep it in its best shape.
10. Hydor Professional Canister Filter
Unlike many other canister filters, this Hydor filter comes in a rectangular shape with a sleek, elegant design. There are 5 different sizes available: The smallest is the 150 model with a 190 GPH flow rate for tanks between 20 – 40 gallons. The 250 model pumps 225 GPH and is suitable for tanks between 40 – 75 gallons. The 350 model pumps at 280 GPH and works for tanks between 60 – 100 gallons. The 450 model has a 320 GPH flow rate for tanks between 75 – 125 gallons. The largest model, the 600, operates at 345 GPH and is rated for tanks between 90 – 150 gallons. Here you can find the Hydor Professional Canister Filter!
- Shaped to fit conveniently into a cabinet under your tank
- Sucks up debris well from around the aquarium
- Thick hoses increase water flow without causing leaks
- Clears up the water quickly after setup
- Sturdy and well built to last a long time
- Setup can be more complex than some other canister filters
- Water spills when you open it up to clean it
You’ll get all three types of filtration from this canister. Each filter media can be replaced separately and arranged to fit what you need most. You can choose to swap out any type of filtration for another type if you want to build up more filtration of a certain kind. All the media you need to get started is included with each filter kit, no matter which model you purchase.
Intake and outlet tubes create an air-tight syphon seal inside the filter system. The rectangular shape helps to provide a little more contact with the filter media inside without allowing water to slip unfiltered. An optional spray bar comes with this kit for the outlet bar, to let you adjust how water is returned to the tank to make it more suitable for different types of aquariums. The flow rate is adjustable as well, giving you a little freedom to make this filter work just how you want it to.
More Information on Aquarium Filters
Types of Aquarium Filtration
Before I say anything else, I must mention that there are three different types of filtration: mechanical, biological, and chemical.
Mechanical filtration removes particles from the water. This is what helps to keep your water clear and free of floating particles or debris. Mechanical aquarium filtration removes different-sized particles by running them through various types of media. Filter media is porous, with holes that are larger or smaller to remove particulates up to a certain size.
Biological filtration targets the micro-life inside your aquarium. Waste from fish and other life in the tank creates toxic byproducts in the tank water. In a wild body of water, natural inhabitants of the water break down waste, which you can simulate in your own aquarium. By harboring beneficial water bacteria, biological filtration encourages the breaking down of ammonia into nitrates, which can then be utilized by plants or removed through regular cleaning and water changes.
Chemical filtration is not usually accomplished by an aquarium filter, but may sometimes be needed for your system. This type of filtration deals with harmful, toxic, or unwanted chemicals in your water that affects water quality. Picky fish may have specific water quality preferences that require you to do some sort of chemical modification or filtration. If your normal tap water has high levels of harmful chemicals (such as chlorine), chemical filtration may be necessary in your filter to maintain healthy water chemistry. Water treatment outside of filtration can replace chemical filtration.
Types of Aquarium Filters
There are many different styles of filters you can get for your aquarium. The best aquarium filters just have to fit your needs, no matter what style they are. However, different styles suit different types of tanks better than others. Choose the style that will work best with your aquarium.
Internal filters sit inside the aquarium, usually at the top of the tank. They can be mounted with suction cups, nestled on top of the substrate, attached to the corner of the tank, or fixed in another way. Many of these filters rely on air to push up from the bottom of the filter and move water through it. They often contain sponges and may contain activated carbon. These are often low-flow filters intended for smaller tanks and fish loads.
Under gravel filters rest underneath the gravel substrate in your tank and work by drawing water in through slots on the top. They use either an air tube or a low-flow suction tube to bring tank water and waste into the filter. Most under gravel filters focus on mechanical filtration rather than biological or chemical filtration. They only work for smaller tanks and will take more maintenance than other types of filters.
Hang on back filters, also called power filters, hang on the outside of the tank with a small tube that reaches inside to cycle water through. The large hanging part of the filter can be broken down into multiple cartridges containing media for mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. External filters are easy to maintain and come in a wide range of sizes for different tanks. They are not ideal for aquarium life that can be easily disturbed by strong water flow.
Canister filters are installed outside the tank and form a pressurized flow of water. They draw water in with a syphon and run it through separate filtered sections that usually accomplish all three types of filtration. As a pressurized system that doesn’t require gravity or air to move water, mechanical and chemical filtration is excellent in these filters while biological filtration is limited. You can find canister filters sized for various tanks and fish loads.
Wet/dry filters have two parts. One part sits outside the tank while the other sits inside to collect water. Water is siphoned into the interior part and sent through a tube out into the external filter section. These filters don’t provide a high level of mechanical or chemical filtration, but their access to oxygen promotes biological filtration. While they don’t require much maintenance, they can be pricier than other types of filters. They’re one of the best filter styles for large fish loads, but not for heavily planted tanks.
Sump filters are receptacles that have all the necessary media for filtration, a heater, and a water pump. In the past, sumps were used only in saltwater tanks, but today they’re used in both saltwater and freshwater. They have a simple design and are very efficient, especially for larger tanks. It’s also worth mentioning that sumps or sump filters are great because they have the ability to store more media than your usual filter. With their help, aquarium owners can bring additional water volume to the system which is certainly beneficial for the tank.
Frequently Asked Questions About Aquarium Filters
Why do small aquariums need a fish tank filter?
No matter how large or small a fish tank is, the fish inside will always be producing waste. Using a filter helps maintain livable, healthy water conditions without you having to do water changes daily.
How often should you clean a fish tank filter?
Your filter should be cleaned out a minimum of once every 2 – 4 weeks. If it’s operating at the upper range of its abilities, clean it more frequently.
How do I properly clean my fish tank filter?
The main consideration with cleaning your tank filter is that you need to use tank water, not tap water, to clean the biological filter media. This helps make sure you don’t accidentally kill off the good bacteria with chlorine in tap water. Otherwise, you can safely clean your filter by any other non-chemical means.
What’s the best aquarium filter media?
I personally use Purigen (affiliate link). Although some of the other highly recommended filter media for fish tank filters include aquarium filter pads, sponges, ceramic, bio balls, foam, or gravel. Each type of aquarium requires a different type of media to be most successful.
Do all fish produce the same amount of waste?
Some fish are messier than others. This is something you need to know about before you finalize your setup. Cichlids and goldfish generally produce more waste than danios or neon tetras.
If your filter can barely handle the tank you have already, adding messier fish could render it ineffective. Messier fish need stronger filtration to maintain the same water levels.
Can I use a new aquarium filter immediately?
Yes, although biological filtration is a vital part of making sure water quality stays consistent. When you buy a new filter, it won’t contain the beneficial bacteria necessary for your tank, you can jump-start this process by using the media from an established tank.
For this reason, it’s recommended to let your new fish tank operate for a week or two before you put any fish into it, to let the filter build up beneficial bacteria. This is called “cycling”.
If you’re unsure where to start, the AquaClear Power Filter is a good one for beginners. It’s the best aquarium filter that’s great value for your money and will likely last you for a while. As long as it’s rated for your aquarium size, it’s a decent choice for most tank owners to try out.
Choosing the best aquarium filter is important for the livelihood of your whole tank. Understand what separates one tank from another and make the choice that best serves your specific tank and its inhabitants.