Air pumps are commonly used with aquarium filters, decorations, and many other air-driven devices, but what exactly do they do and how do you know if your fish tank needs one? In this article, we explain when to use an air pump, how to pick the right one, and how to install it in your aquarium.
An air pump is a mechanical device that sits outside of the fish tank and uses electricity (either from a wall outlet or battery power) to pump air into the aquarium. The air travels from the air pump to the fish tank decoration or device using airline tubing. Once it enters the water, the air creates bubbles, which float to the surface and pop.
The rising bubbles help create movement in the water, as well as surface agitation. Good surface agitation is the key to proper gas exchange in the aquarium, so that excess carbon dioxide (a waste product produced by your fish) is released into the air and new oxygen from the air dissolves into the water for your fish to breathe. If your fish are gasping at the surface, read this article about adding an air pump with a simple air stone to increase oxygen levels in the water.
Does my aquarium need an air pump? Not necessarily. Some types of filters – such as hang-on-back and canister filters – use an electric motor to move water and do not work with an air filter. However, air-driven filtration devices – such as sponge and undergravel filters – use air to move the water and therefore require an air pump. If you’re still unsure, read the instructions to see if your equipment or decoration needs an air pump to run.
Sponge filters use air pumps to provide bubbles that pull water through the sponge and strain out particles floating in the water.
What is an aquarium air pump used for? Air pumps are used in conjunction with many fish tank decorations and devices, such as a:
An air pump is responsible for sucking in air from outside of the fish tank and pumping it into a submerged aquarium apparatus. Therefore, you need a few air pump accessories to guide the air flow in the right direction and at the right pressure. For most beginners, we recommend getting a roll of airline tubing and check valve to get started. The other items are optional, depending on your specific application.
This black airline tubing is essential for directing air flow from the air pump into the sponge filter.
Once you have purchased the air pump, aquarium device or decoration, and necessary accessories, follow these basic instructions to install the air pump:
Specific instructions for installing your air pump and aquarium device can usually be found in the user manuals, so please consult them for more details.
Can an aquarium air pump be adjusted? If the amount of bubbling in your aquarium is too much or too little, you may want to adjust the air flow. Some air pumps come with an adjustable dial to increase or decrease the flow. If your air pump isn’t adjustable, you can also attach an air valve to control the air flow.
Should I keep my air pump on all night? Generally speaking, you should leave the air pump on all the time to help your fish get good water circulation and plenty of oxygen to breathe. If you are worried about the noise caused by an air pump at night, see the section below for possible remedies.
If you bought an air pump from the pet store, most likely it’s a diaphragm air pump, which uses a diaphragm that rapidly vibrates back and forth to suck in air from its surroundings and then push that air into your fish tank. This vibration unfortunately can become quite noisy over time. Try these solutions to make it quieter:
Adding an air stone into a sponge filter or other air-driven filter significantly lessens the bubbling noise and improves the filter’s efficiency.
After testing dozens and dozens of air pumps over the years, we have settled on three units that have superior reliability, low noise level, and reasonable cost. Each pump is best suited for different types of applications, so choose the right one that fits your needs:
USB nano air pump
The USB nano air pump is well-suited for nano tanks, larger aquariums that need an extra air stone, and even outdoor mini ponds (if protected from extreme weather). Because the air output is slightly lower than your standard air pump, it operates almost silently, uses very little electricity, and provides slower flow for betta fish, shrimp, and baby fish.
The USB power cord gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes to powering the air pump. You can plug it into a regular wall outlet (adapter included with the product), a car with a USB outlet or cigarette lighter adapter, or a USB battery pack for surviving power outages and short drives.
Aquatop AP-50 and AP-100 air pumps
If you need a little more pressure to provide air to deep tanks, try the Aquatop air pumps. The AP-50 has one outlet for air and is rated for 20- to 50-gallon aquariums, whereas the AP-100 has two outlets for air and is rated for 50- to 100-gallon aquariums. Both models have an adjustable air flow dial to provide the right amount of bubbles for your aquarium. As with most air pumps, they plug directly into the wall outlet and therefore are not as portable as the USB nano air pump. Also, because of the greater air output, the Aquatop pumps are louder than the USB air pump.
Medo LA-45 linear piston air pump
If you have dozens of fish tanks in your care, you may not want to buy an individual air pump for every aquarium. The Medo LA-45 linear piston air pump is what we personally use in our retail fish store and personal fish rooms to run a central air loop system that feeds into each of our fish tanks. Rather than operating on traditional diaphragm technology, it uses pistons (like in a car engine) to pump 47 liters of air per minute, resulting in a quieter, more reliable machine. This pump handles roughly 47 fish tanks (depending on the size of each tank) and can be easily used in conjunction with another linear piston air pump to boost the output of your air loop system as needed.
The reason why many fish keepers prefer to use air pumps is because the technology is proven and dependable, the flow is very gentle, and the total cost is relatively cheap, especially when running many aquariums. If you enjoy articles like this, don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to receive a weekly email with a summary of our latest blog posts, videos, and products.
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