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Related FAQs: Freshwater Maintenance, Freshwater Maintenance 2, Freshwater Maintenance 3,

Related Articles: Freshwater Set-up, Freshwater LivestockTreating Tapwater For Aquarium Use, Frequent Partial Water Changes

Inexpensive Filter To Assist With Cleaning Debris:
Clean Debris the Gravel Vacuum Can't Get!



By: Tim Bachman


For less than $75, this simple addition to your cleaning routine will help remove more debris from your aquarium.

All 'good' aquarium keepers know you need to clean your tank and perform partial water changes on a regular basis.  One of the more common methods is to use a gravel vacuum to clean the gravel and remove some of the water. This does a good job cleaning and helps with the water change.  But what do you do about areas you can't reach because of delicate plant matter and how do you clean the finer medium that the plants like to grow in without sucking it up? Another common method for periodic cleaning that I learned from a local pet store is to attach a separate aquarium filter on the side of the aquarium to filter any debris you stir up from the bottom. I tried this method at home but found that the hang-on filter just didn't do a very good job; I thought there must be something better. An external canister filter seemed the most likely device to work, but cost and awkwardness of use stopped me.  These are great filters as a permanent addition for a single aquarium but the floppy hoses and potential for spills was a concern.


This filter is not intended to replace or extend regular water changes.  Its only purpose is to help with removing debris from areas that are hard to reach with the gravel vacuum.

The idea

As a homeowner with a well system for water, I am very familiar with filtering water for home use.  While changing the cartridge on my whole house water filter, I wondered if one of these filters could be adapted for aquarium cleaning.  Since I had recently upgraded my filter system on my well, I used the old one to experiment.

The filter

After some experimentation, the setup has the filter housing mounted on a board for stability and to aid in changing the cartridge.  Two vinyl coated hooks attached to the board allow the whole setup to hang on the tank.  To move the water through the filter I use a small pond pump and PVC pipe.

Local availability

Everything needed to construct the device as well as the filter cartridges can be found locally. The filter housing and cartridges I used are listed below and are very common.  You do not need to use the exact brand or type that I use but make sure you price out the filter cartridges before beginning.  The cartridges I use cost between $1 and $5.  Some other types, like the quick change filter that fits under the sink or a refrigerator, use cartridges that cost up to $30 each.

Version 1.0

My first design had just the filter housing with the PVC pipes glued together and the pump attached to the input end of the pipe.   I quickly learned that the filter requires support and effort to change and I didn't trust the PVC pipe to hold the whole setup on the tank (sorry, no pictures of it). 

Version 1.1

On this version I mounted the filter on a board to make changing the cartridge easy and added two vinyl coated hooks to hang the whole setup on the rim of the tank. I ran the PCV through the board to protect it and made the pump detachable.  I also created a little kit with various PVC connectors and lengths of pipe to be used interchangeably on the output line.  This allows me to change depth, direction and length of the output.



Version 1.2

I purchased a new filter housing and piping. I kept the inlet and outlet above the aquarium's water level and use parts from the accessory kit to set depth and direction of the input and output.   I added an inlet adapter to the accessory kit so the depth of the pump can be set for various size tanks.


Parts list

Omni whole house filter OB1 Series A                                                              $11.00

Adapters to convert outlets on filter to PVC glue pipe      2 x $.27                                 $.54

 Â¾' 90 degree elbow                                                    10 pack                                    $1.80

¾' PVC Valve                                                                                                 $3.00

¾' PVC pipe                                                               5 feet                            $2.00

Large coated bicycle hooks (screw in type)                   2 pack                          $3.00

Adapter to attach the threaded barb                                                                  $.50

3/4' to 5/8 nylon barb (male)                                                                            $2.00

5/8' nylon tubing                                                                                               $2.00

            (Barb and tubing should be sized for the specific pump you use)

1/2 ' -  3/4" hose clamp                                                                                    $.75

Alpine Stream pump (400gph)                                                                          $42.00

2'x4' (short piece)

3/4' plywood (small piece)

wood screw (4 or 5)



Wrench large enough for the fittings on the filter

Pipe thread compound

PVC primer and glue




Filter assembly


1.      Cut  the 2'x4' to 14' length

2.      Cut a piece of plywood  to 8'x14'

3.      Cut a slot in each end as shown

4.      Hold the tank against your aquarium to find where the hooks should be placed. Drill and screw them in place.

5.      Hang the filter back on the tank to measure and put the piping together (don't glue yet).

hooks.jpg hookpipe3.jpg

6.      Remove the filter from the tank and glue the pipes together.

a.       Thread the fittings into the filter.  Make sure to use a lot of thread compound and make them tight.  If they leak after everything is assembled you have to cut the pipe, tighten and add a coupler to glue them back together.

b.      Glue the rest of the pipes together.


hookpipe2.jpg hookpipe1.jpg

7.      The last fitting on the input side is a nylon barb to allow me to attach and remove the pump easily.


Filter Assembly

1.      Attach  a 6' piece of Nylon tubing to the pump

a.       This will allow it to reach close to the bottom of a small tank.  The accessory kit has an adapter to reach deeper tanks.



Accessory Kit

The accessory kit allows you to change the input and output for different aquariums.

1.      90 degree elbows

2.      45 degree elbows

3.      Straight couplings

4.      Several different lengths of PVC (between 2 and 8')

5.      10' nylon tubing attached to a nylon barb coupler


6.      The filter several attachments


Tips for choosing a cartridge

The first step is to choose a cartridge. There are various options and I listed the ones I have used;

·        OMNI Filter RS1; 20 micron pleated media for general purpose cleaning costs about $1

This is the cartridge I use most often.  It does a good job cleaning and doesn't clog easily.

·        OMNI FilterRS2 ; 5 micron wound filter for a little finer cleaning costs about $3

I've used this size a few times but I really haven't noticed the tank getting any cleaner and it clogs pretty fast.

·        OMNI Filter T01 ; 5 micron carbon filter for removing medicine or an algae bloom costs about $5

 After any treatment I do a 20%-30% water change and run this filter on the tank for an hour or two.   The filter also does a very good job cleaning the water after algae blooms but remember, it does not cure the problem, it only cleans the water.


Tips for using the filter

·        Do not use this as a replacement for standard cleaning and water changes.

·        Tighten the filter only as tight as needed (usually by hand).  Home water systems have a constant 30-60psi water pressure and the filter needs to be tightened with a wrench, this system has no pressure and I found that tightening by hand was good enough to prevent leaks.

·        To prevent a lot of air bubbles and water splashing, restrict the flow with the valve and then open the valve and add the attachments to the output side after water has begun flowing out.

·        For a freshwater fish-only tank you can stir up the gravel by grabbing a handful and picking it up a few inches then letting it release between your fingers.  If it's too deep you can use something to reach down and push the gravel around.

·        For a freshwater planted tank you only want to clean the debris on the surface; it's important not to disturb the soil or the plants.  Create a current by holding your fingers together and moving them back and forth to create a small current to stir up the debris on the surface and around the plants.


Example of using the filter on my planted tank


1.      Remove the ornaments and the Hornwart  that is wrapped around a rock

2.      Clean the algae from the glass.

3.      Clean with a gravel vacuum to clean the gravel and perform a water change.
The substrate is small so I use a 1' vacuum so I don't remove the substrate.


4.      Create little currents with your hand to stir up the debris.


5.      Hook up the filter and pump and let it clean the water.


6.      Put the hornwart and ornaments back in and it's done!

clean complete.jpg

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