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Translated in Dutch by Joost Abrahams
Proofread by John de Lange

7. Filter Media

Photo of author

Author : David Bogert

Published :

Time To Read :
10 minutes
Difficulty : Level 5

Excerpt :

The media in an aquarium filter is the most important variable when setting up a filter.
A Confession
The author would like to be able to say he knew what this testing revealed all along and has been using 100% foam, pot scrubbers or K1 in all his many canisters over the 53 years he has been keeping aquariums. That would be a lie. For some 45 years the author had used a combination of all the media that came with a canister, a ton of a huge variety of media which was on his garage shelving, and media he bought. Most of his canisters were filled with a pretty random combination of Matrix, ceramic rings, lava rock and bioballs.

The author simply felt that the media in a filter wasn’t very important and they were all pretty much equal. The author was wrong, dead wrong. Whoops!

OB Peacock
OB Peacock

I think a comment by one of the readers of this website is apropos now:

After reading through many of the various articles you confirmed what I suspected for many years regarding ceramic media. I always had a nagging suspicion that biofilm was found predominantly on the surface (not internal pores) of all this expensive media I have purchased. My suspicions were confirmed earlier this month when I foolishly replaced all of the outer foams on both my FX6 filters. The filters’ internal baskets were filled with “high quality” spherical sintered glass media which should have housed all of the beneficial bacteria but the tank had a tremendous bacterial bloom after that sponge replacement which made me think that the outer sponges were housing a significant portion of the bacteria. I stumbled across your page a few weeks later and was kicking myself.

I have since replaced both FX6 filters with two Eheim filters which combined hold 4 gallons (16 liter) of media. I owned Eheim filters in the past but it got rid of them because I fell for the “maximum tank turnover” provided by the large FX filters based on youtuber claims (mistake). I gradually swapped media and filled the two new Eheim filters with Kaldnes media in a static configuration and I’ve been monitoring parameters and the water quality is great (zero ammonia and zero nitrite). I opted for Kaldnes as a static media over 30ppi sponge to avoid early clogging in an African cichlid tank holding 25 fish between 2 and 3 inches long (5 and 7,5 centimeter).

To see what this commentator is talking about just read on.

Nimbochromis livingstonii
Nimbochromis livingstonii

What is the “Best” Filter Media?

What has to be emphasized here is that most people key in on only ammonia and nitrite oxidation when looking at filter media. If a canister filled with lava rock gives zero ammonia and zero nitrite than the lava “works fine”. Ammonia and nitrite oxidation requires very little from a filter media. So media like lava rock “works fine”.

What is being missed is the concept of crystal clear water. That is water so clear that if you look down the length of a six foot (1,8 meter) aquarium you would think the fish are swimming in air. Crystal clear water requires twenty times more surface area that does ammonia oxidation, confirmed by controlled testing.

And the need for “crystal clear” water goes beyond aesthetics. Fish which are in crystal clear water will almost always be very healthy fish that don’t get diseases. This is because crystal clear water is very clean water. The cleaner the water the healthier the fish.

So the choice of which filter media to use just boils down to a personal choice depending on what one wants from their aquarium. An aquarium with no ammonia and unhealthy fish OR an aquarium with both no ammonia and crystal clear, healthy water. The choice is up to the hobbyist.

image of an aquarium fish Cyphotilapia frontosa Tanganika Moba
Cyphotilapia frontosa – Tanganika Moba

Abstract of a Filter Media Tests

A series of some six tests were run on the capacity of filter media:

  • To test the ammonia oxidizing capability of various aquarium filter media 10 five gallon (20 liter) buckets were set up. The filter media was put in ten air operated corner filters. This test was replicated three times (thirty tests total) and replicated well. The testing data correlated well with the mathematically calculated effective surface area of each media. In turn the ammonia oxidation ability of the media by surface area correlated strongly with six research literature references on ammonia oxidation surface area.
  • Clarity of the water was measured for eight weeks of cycling ten 40 gallon (160 liter) aquariums with different filter media in canister filters and a heavy load of food. Two full tests and one partial test were run. This was a total of 25 tests using canisters and aquariums. The second test used half the media that the first test used. The third test used twice the media of the first test. These tests largely confirmed that crystal clear water requires some twenty times the filter media effective surface area that ammonia oxidation requires. These tests with aquarium and canister filters also largely confirmed the first tests with buckets and corner filters with regard to the ranking of various media.

This was a total of 55 tests of media. All the tests correlated well with foam, pot scrubbers and K1 media significantly outperforming ceramic rings, Matrix and Biohome in ALL the tests.

These tests showed:

  • A typical large canister filled with 30 ppi Poret foam (“sponge”), static K1 media or plastic pot scrubbers will give good ammonia oxidation with 700 five-inch (12,5 cm) mbuna and crystal clear, healthy water with 35 five-inch mbuna.
  • A typical large canister filled with ceramic rings, lava rock or BioHome filter media will give good ammonia oxidation with 80 five-inch (12,5 cm) mbuna and crystal clear, healthy water with 4 five-inch mbuna.
Otopharynx tetrastigma
Otopharynx tetrastigma

Media Ranking and Selection

One very important decision to make in the area of filtration is what media to use in the filter. In many ways this is more important than choosing a filter. The most important function of the media is ammonia oxidation.

A test of ammonia oxidizing capability of various filter media was run. The first number, the “efficiency” is the average ammonia oxidizing that 15 In³ (246 cm³) of media accomplished over a 90-day period. The second number is the “effective” surface area in square feet per cubic feet calculated from that test. The third number is the effective surface area in square feet per cubic feet calculated by simple mathematics. The correlation between the test results and the calculated surface area is very significant and means the testing was accurate.

Media“Efficiency” from two tests *“Effective” surface area ft²/ft³ ft²/ft³ from math“Effective” surface area m²/m³m²/m³ from math
Fluidized K1 medianot tested600na1980na
30 PPI foam1734040011221320
Pot scrubbers1428080924264
Static K1 media13260200858660
20 PPI foamnot tested220180726594
Aquarium gravel6120120396396
Blue Matala pads5100120330396
Eshoppe bioballs510060330198
¼ to ½ inch lava rocks36060198198
Biohome ultimate2403013299
Ceramic rings24040132132
* average ammonia oxidizing that 15 cubic inches (245,81 cm³) of media accomplished over a 90-day period

Note that for the metric system simply multiply any of the square feet per cubic feet numbers by 3.3 to get square meters per cubic meters. For the metric system 100,000 ft²/ft³ thus equals 330,000 m²/m³ or 330 m²/liter .

The higher the numbers here the better the media. This makes 30 ppi foam the best static media and ceramic rings the worst media for canisters. The complete test procedure used to come up with these numbers is outlined in the following link:

7.1.3. Filter Media Test

Oxyeleotris marmorata Marble Goby
Oxyeleotris marmorata – Marble Goby

Because of reticulation and free volume considerations the surface area calculations are not very dependable. Extrapolating from the testing and giving aquarium gravel the most dependable surface area calculation, gives the following “effective surface area” by media. This is the surface area which should be used for calculating the required volume of filter media for a given weight of fish.

Biomedia“Effective” surface area ft²/ft³“Effective” surface area m²/m³ft³ to get 5ft²m³ to get 0.46m²ft³ to get 100ft²m³ to get 9.29m²
Fluidized K1 media (60% loading in sump)5401782160.453209.06
30 PPI foam in canister or sump3401122250.7150014.16
30 PPI foam powerhead operated sponge3401122250.7150014.16
30 PPI foam air operated sponge30099029580
Plastic pot scrubbers28092431620
Static K1 media26085833660
20 PPI foam in canister or sump26085833660
20 PPI foam powerhead operated sponge26085833660
20 PPI foam air operated sponge23075938751
Powerhead operated undergravel filter140462621240
Aquarium gravel in canister or sump140462621240
Air operated undergravel filter120396721440
Blue Matala pads120396721440
1/8 inch garden pumice or perlite100330861720
Bio balls100330861720
1/2 inch lava rock601981442880
Seachem Matrix601981442880
Biohome Ultimate401322164320
Ceramic rings401322164320
Ceramic balls30992888.165760163.11
Expanded clay pebbles30992885760
Cubic inches to get 5ft² = (5/E.A.)x1,728 100ft²=(100/E.A.x1,728)

Note that for the metric system simply multiply any of the square feet per cubic feet numbers by 3.3 to get square meters per cubic meters. For the metric system 100 ft³/ft² thus equals 330 m³/m² or 0.330 m³/liter.

Note that the fluidized K1 media is for the volume of the sump, not the volume of the media in the sump. I.e. 540 ft² of effective surface area per 1 ft³ (1782 m²/m³) of volume containing K1-media AND water (in the dedicated sump chamber, with 60% K1 loading. Another way to say this is: (540/0.6) = 900 ft² of effective surface area per 1 ft³ (1782/0.6= 2970 m²/m³) of “dry” K1-media, when the “dry” K1-media is put in a fluidized sump chamber with 60% K1 loading.

Note that a fluidized K1 bed with 60% loading of K1 has, on a cubic foot of filter volume, a little more than twice the biofiltration capability of static K1 media. This makes the cost per square feet of biofiltration of fluidized K1 to be only 30% of the cost of static K1. This makes fluidized bed K1 a VERY cheap media when purchased in bulk.

Super Blue Hybrid Peacock
Super Blue Hybrid Peacock

Mixing Media

Most hobbyists do an interesting thing. They mix their media. It is not uncommon to see eight types of media in a sump or six types of media in a canister. Since all biomedia do exactly the same thing, namely provide surface area for beneficial bacteria to grow, this is just rather humorous. But EVERYBODY does it, including the author prior to doing this testing!

Since the media with the greatest surface area is also the media which will plug up the fastest, this use of many types of media can be counter productive. For instance, if a hobbyist has some 30 ppi foam in a canister filter along with some Matrix, bioballs and ceramic rings. The 30 ppi foam clogs at four months. so the hobbyist takes apart the filter and cleans ALL the media. Cleaning the Matrix, bioballs and the ceramic rings is decidedly counter productive.

Aquarium Fish Protomelas taeniolatius Red Empress OB
Protomelas taeniolatius – Red Empress OB

Marketing Hype about Filter Media

Filter media are very important in a fish tank. But there are a huge number of falsehoods about filter media spread by equipment manufacturers in order to make money. These falsehoods are spread around social media by well intentioned but mis-informed fishkeepers.

These falsehoods include:

  • Purigen™ creates crystal clear water and removes ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and toxins from aquarium water.
  • Matrix™, BioHome™, sintered glass media, and porous ceramics (blocks, balls, rings, noodles, etc.) are the best biofiltration media with huge amounts of surface area on which bacteria can grow.
  • Some ceramic media (De*Nitrate™ and BioHome™) remove nitrates by anaerobic decomposition to nitrogen gas.
  • Activated carbon, exchange resins, zeolites and chemical filtration media (i.e. Chemi-Pure™ and Poly-Filter™) are very useful in the freshwater aquarium.
  • Filtration media (cartridges, bio-rings, foam) needs to be replaced every month or every six months or “when they get dirty”.

These claims are all just marketing hype easily debunked. But these claims do serve the purpose of making a lot of money for some creative aquarium supply manufacturers and distributors.

Panaqolus albivermis L204 Emperor Pleco
Panaqolus albivermis – Emperor Pleco – L204

The links below are a complete review of all the filter media, discussions of each media in depth, the calculations needed to work out how much media one needs for various situations and discussions on media which just don’t work as advertised:

7.1. Review of Filter Media

7.2. Individual Filter Media

7.3. Calculating Required Media Volume

7.4. Chemical Filtration Media

7.5. “Denitrifying” Media

7.6. Aquarium Filter Media Surface Area Requirements