Are Power Filters Worth It?

Whether you are just getting into aquariums or you have had one for a while; the question always comes up. Are power filters worth it? Weighing in on the pros’ and cons’ can be challenging when everyone has a different opinion about power filters.

Are Power filters worth it? Yes, power filters provide mechanical and sometimes chemical filtration for your fish tank. Removing debris, chlorine, excess fish food, medication, algae, and other contaminants from your fish’s environment.  Using power filters can be beneficial either alone, or when used with other filtration methods.

Power filters need to be chosen carefully based on the needs of your aquarium.  Power filters are worth the investment unless you have a canister filter set up. Cannister filters are for more advanced aquarium owners but do provide better filtration.

Are Power Filters Worth the Cost?

Power filters are an almost necessary element to any tank greater than 20 gallons. A Power filter can save several hours of expensive cleaning and fish replacement.

Power filters are generally inexpensive, and depending on the tank size, filter options and brand can start at very reasonable prices for a ten-gallon tank. The maintenance of the power filters varies depending on the filter itself. Having low to medium maintenance costs can be beneficial as it will save you money in the long run.

One of the cons to power filters is the replacement media filters being expensive. To alleviate this burden, take a look not only at the price of the filter itself but the replacement costs of the media filters, as well as how many media filters you will need. Sometimes it will save you some money by getting the more expensive filter because the maintenance costs are lower.

You will also save your fish from debris toxicity, in the tank, the food and fish waste can build up rather quickly. Even in a smaller tank less than 20 gallons, a power filter will be extremely helpful in keeping any fish tank clean.

What Does a Power Filter Do?

A power filter works by taking the dirty, contaminated water in the fish tank, running the water through media filters, and then returning the clean water to the fish tank. Power filters hang on the backside of the tank, placing the intake hose inside the tank to capture the dirty water.

Power filters have exchangeable media filters that can be removed, or replaced at any given time point depending on the tank size, the amount of fish inside the tank, and the type of contaminants you are trying to filter.

The dirty water is either lifted by air bubbles into the filter, using an air pump combined with a filter box or sucked into the filter by a water pump. The filters need to be taken care of and are usually manufacturer-specific.

The filters contain carbon, and fine mesh to filter out any particles, and re-charge the water, the fine mesh also catches any debris that slipped passed the carbon filters.

Different Types of Filters

There are several different types of filters available on the market for your specific fish tank needs. Depending on the type of tank you have, or the size of the tank, the amount of fish, different filtering options should be considered.

  • Canister Filters
  • Diatomic Filters
  • Internal Filters
  • Trickle Filters
  • Under Gravel Filters
  • Sponge Filters

Finding the correct filter setup for your tank is more a matter of science than anything else, you need to have three different types of filtration for your tank, and sometimes a power filter alone simply won’t cut it. If you have a simple set up, then a power filter may work the best.

Power Filter Versus Canister Filter

Power filters sit on the top of the tank and have an internal filtration system that uses switchable media cartridges to filter contaminants out of the water. This system usually provides a larger opening above the tank, which allows more oxygen to come into the tank. 

The downside to the power filter is that the media may be expensive, and the water may not become as filtered as you want. The output is in the same area as the input, so sometimes the water that is being filtered has already run through the filter once before.

Canister filters stay beneath the tank on a stand or mounted underneath the tank and use hoses to intake and distribute the water. The dirty water is sucked in through one hose, ran through the media filters inside the canister, and then returned clean by the other hose.

Cannister filters are not recommended for beginners as they do require some heavier maintenance and extra care over a good quality power filter. Canister filters work in freshwater aquariums as well as saltwater aquariums just as effectively.

Power Filters and Internal Filters

Internal filters are used in conjunction with power filter for an additional filtration method, or in smaller tanks that may not require a power filter. An internal filter is a box inside the tank, that contains the media to filter out any debris, or fish waste.

The internal filter is placed in a corner in the back of the tank, with a hose to place the filtered water near the surface of the tank. These work best on tanks that are less than 20 gallons and pumps are fully submerged in water.

The intake for the internal filter is located on the bottom rear of the filter, which allows most sediment to be captured. These are used sometimes together with power filters to provide a good filtration system when a canister filter is not ideal.

Power filters work well with internal filters or as a replacement for an internal filter, just make sure you get the correct size for your tank.

Diatomic Filter Adds Ins?

Diatomic Filters are used to rid the tank of parasites and other microns that can accumulate inside your tank. A Diatomic filter is made with Diatomaceous earth, which is a fossilized one cell plant called a diatom.

These types of filters should not be used as a primary filter, or too regularly as they can remove nutrients that your fish may actually need. If you are using an outside pond, maybe doing this once a month is a good idea to get rid of common parasites.

Using a Diatomic Filter for an inside tank is recommended as a maintenance procedure in addition to your regular filtering needs. The diatomic filter is a one-time use filter and needs to be replaced after use.

These filters also clog easy, so should not be used to clean up dirty or discolored water; this type of filtration is an added filtration. Some power filters will have a diatomic filter add in depending on the manufacturer. However, these filters are useful but are also only an additional benefit of the power filter. This is usually the last step in the filtration process.

Trickle Filter

A trickle filter is really good with bacterial filtration and works using a tower, an overflow, and a sump pump. The water gets into the trickle filter through the overflow at the top of the tank and then is distributed into the trickle tower.

After entering the trickle tower, it “trickles” down through different media filters, filtering out different biological issues out of your water. This is not a good mechanical filter but is extremely effective for a biological filter.

The trickle filter can be a bit pricy and does take some advanced knowledge to get it done correctly. You can find some good trickle filter setups on youtube. This can cut some of your costs down for making your own trickle filters.

Trickle filters use all of the particle filters, and active carbon to return the clean water to the tank. This type of filtration system could replace your power filter, but it would be recommended to use it with your current power filter unless you are an advanced user.

Under Gravel Filters

These are probably one of the most valuable filters that you can get for your aquarium, also to be used in conjunction with your power filter.  The Under Gravel Filter works by pulling water down through the gravel into the tubes underneath. This stimulates bacteria growth to increase the natural nitrogen levels in the water.

The under gravel filter does not filter out Particles that make it past the gravel, and so a good mechanical filter, such as the power filter, should be used to rid the tank of particles. These are not good chemical filters but are excellent as biological filters.

These typically don’t have carbon cartridges, and if you get one that does, it probably isn’t enough carbon to last more than a few days. 

The Under gravel filters are low maintenance and only need to be cleaned when you clean the fish tank. The reason for the under gravel filter to be cleaned is to clear up any particles that block the intake valves under the gravel. This will significantly improve the life span of your under gravel filter, and your fish.

Sponge Filters

The sponge filter is used as a biological filter within the tank and as a mechanical filter in fry tanks. Essentially all mechanical filters also serve as biological filters because they contain active carbon as one of their filters.

Similar to the biological filter, the sponge filter works by pulling water through the sponge, and into a filter. The sponge filter can also act as a secondary filter for a sick tank.

The sponge filter can eliminate the waiting period for helping sick fish by providing a ready use of a biological bacterial colony for the tank. They can also be used in a fry tank after colonizing in the adult tank.

FilterPower FiltersCanister FiltersInternal FiltersDiatomic FiltersUnder GravelSponge Filter
Type of FilterMechanical/chemicalMechanicalmechanicalbiologicalbiologicalbiological
Difficulty levelbeginneradvancedbeginneradvancedbeginnerbeginner
Gallon10-100+1-400Upto 20N/AN/A10-400


Power filters require some regular maintenance, including filter changes, regular washing, and even parts replacement. Depending on the power filter that you choose, the maintenance will be different, and most manufacturers will require the use of their specific media pads.

Some power filters can hold several media filters, including the active carbon, and ion resin filters. Changing these filters regularly is the only way to ensure a healthy environment for your aquarium. Not completing the maintenance can lead to toxic water and clogged power filters.

Using other filtration methods, along with the power filter can reduce the amount of maintenance that is required to maintain the water filter. You can’t over filter water in your fish tank, but you can under filter the water.

If you have a saltwater tank, then you are going to want to measure the ph levels in your environment and apply the correct level of nutrients until your tank reaches the optimum levels for your fish.  This may mean switching out certain media filters more often than recommended from the manufacturer or using a combination of filters to achieve the desired result.

Types of Filtration

There are three main types of filtration that occur inside a fish tank, mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. All three systems are needed, and power filters can provide all three if you get the correct power filter.

The main filtration method is mechanical filtration, which removes particles and other debris from the water. This is the most popular form of filtration and is usually what people think of when you mention the words power filter. 

Biological filtering occurs on a microscopic level and is most commonly used with an under gravel system. The biological filter increases nitrogen and ammonia to levels that support biological growth of good bacteria. Simultaneously, a biological filter will limit bad bacteria through this process, as well.

Chemical filtration removes heavy metals, compounds, and other chemicals that are in the water, leaving the water crystal clear and chemical-free. Using all three of the filtration models together leaves your tank with a healthy environment for your fish.

Chemical Filtration

Chemical filtration is optional and probably the least popular of the three filtration methods. Chemical filtration filters everything that a biological and mechanical filter does not.  The chemical filtration process can take out heavy metals, compounds, medication, and other chemicals that can be found in the water.

Carbon is a good chemical filtering media that filters out heavy metals such as copper. The carbon can also filter out chlorine, proteins, and carbohydrates, antibiotics, and other sulfa drugs used to treat sick fish.

Ion exchange resin filters work to filter out nitrate, ammonia, and some dissolved organics. The exchange of ion molecules works when the pollutants are removed prior to the nitration process.

Chemical filters are extremely useful in an emergency when your fish’s life is at risk because of high pollutant content within the water.

Biological Filtration

Biological filters provide an environment for bacteria to colonize and increase the nitrate level through a natural process. Biological filters allow for ammonia concentrates to increase, which turns into nitrites as the bacteria eats them, and eventually into healthier nitrates.

There are different types of biological filters available, depending on your tank, size, and type. Some of the separate tank filters can be useful and are popular in today’s fish aquariums, such as sponge filters.

A Highly porous rock can act as a biological filter, capable of cleaning an entire tank. If the porous rock is used, it should be the first inhabitant with a new tank, and you should place this in the tank a few weeks prior to introducing any fish.

When using this natural method, don’t be discouraged if you see a cloudy or murky coloration in appearance, this will clear up as the bacteria eats the ammonia and turns it into nitrates. The overpopulation will eventually starve, and the water will clear up.

Mechanical Filtration

The most common type of mechanical filtration is the power filter. The power filter comes in different styles and combinations. The power filters’ primary function is to remove debris and particles from the water, such as fish droppings, excess food, and any other solids.

The mechanical filter requires the most maintenance out of all of the filters. The power filter sucks water in and blocks all of the particles, or solid waste debris, and returns clean water to the tank.

Most power filters will have a mechanical filter in place, as well as either a chemical /biological filter, or both. If the water is not cleaned out regularly, it can cause a spike in nitrite within the water. Nitrite is harmful in the aquarium environment and can be cleaned with a chemical filter.

The coarser the media, the larger the pores, and the finer the media, the smaller the pores. Power filters have different mechanical filter options that can be used, from fine grain to coarse filter for larger debris. A good method with mechanical filtering is to start with the coarser material and then move to the finer material and then back in the water.