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Aquarium air pumps – do you need one?

aquarium air pumps sponge filter surface agitation

Aquarium air pumps

I’ve mentioned in a few posts now some of the issues with social media fish help groups. These pages are a good idea, but they don’t always work.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of posts of people asking for help with various issues, where it has been suggested that they add an air pump to their aquarium. However, I could not see a reason for an air pump being the solution.

So that is what inspired this article, as I feel it would be useful to clear up what an Air pump does do for your aquarium.


What does an aquarium air pump do?

Silly question, I know. An air pump does exactly what it says on the tin, it pumps air. Air pumps are frequently seen in aquariums and they do have their uses.

Pumping air into the aquarium via an air stone creates the classic flows of bubbles that are regularly seen in the aquarium. Air stones come in multiple shapes and sizes, some light up, and some create a full curtain of air bubbles across the tank.


aquarium air pumps



There is a common misconception that this air is adding oxygen to the water, it is, but not as it’s flowing upwards.

Gas exchange takes place at the surface of the water, so as the bubbles hit the surface and pop, it creates surface agitation. This adds oxygen to the water, and that is great for your fish.

Oxygen in the aquarium is vital, despite living underwater, fish need oxygen. They just absorb it differently to how we do (most do anyway). Without it, they will die. This is why you will find very few cases of fish living in stagnant water in the wild. Stagnant water doesn’t contain a lot of oxygen, so it is uninhabitable.

Well-oxygenated water is vital with sick fish, particularly fish in shock. Fish in shock appear to gasp, this is because being in shock makes it difficult for them to breath. The more oxygen there is dissolved in the water, the easier breathing is and the more likely they are to recover.

As well as your fish, the bacteria that keeps your tank clean needs oxygen too. Most of the bacteria that live in your filter etc use oxygen to convert deadly ammonia and nitrite into less harmful nitrate.

So, adding an aquarium air pump to your set-up can help you to keep the water oxygenated. This helps to keep fish healthy and bacteria colonies thriving. But for an air pump and air stone alone, this is pretty much where the benefits end, other than a little extra water movement.


What else can an air pump do?

Aquarium air pumps can be a little more useful than that. Whilst adding air to the aquarium and oxygenating the water, they can drive sponge filters. So rather than just an air stone, you get some extra filtration too.

Sponge filters are available in a range of sizes, so they need to be too invasive. If you do have an air pump fitted on your setup, I would highly recommend adding a sponge filter to double the benefits that you get from running it.


aquarium air pumps sponge filter



Oxygenation – Surface agitation

A large concern for some when they see an aquarium without bubbles flowing in it is that there isn’t any oxygen being added to the water.

As I mentioned above, Oxygenation happens at the surface of the water, so there are other ways to oxygenate your aquarium water without the use of an aquarium air pump.

Surface disturbance is necessary for most aquariums so that the water remains oxygenated. So, unless you only keep fish with a labyrinth organ that breath at the surface, such as a Betta, you will need to ensure that the surface of your water has some movement.

Surface disturbance can be achieved simply by having your filter positioned so that the outflow does this for you. Another option is to add a powerhead or wavemaker to achieve this.

Often, this method actually works better than an air pump. This is because the flow of the filter can affect more of the surface of the water than a stream of bubbles can. The power of the filter causes more surface agitation, therefore causing more gas exchange.


aquarium air pumps surface agitation



So, do you need an aquarium air pump?

Do you need an air pump? In most cases, the answer is no. Air pumps have their uses and can no doubt add some benefits to your aquarium, particularly if you attach them to a sponge filter, rather than an air stone. However, it isn’t essential.

Having oxygenated water, however, is vital for most fish. So if you do not have an air pump in your aquarium, you will need to ensure that the water is still being moved at the surface.

This is easily achieved by using the outflow of your filter instead, often to greater effect.



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I am a fish keeping enthusiast with over 20 years experience. I currently keep American Cichlids (CA) which are my favourite fish to keep so far. I started Seriously Fishy as I noticed a large volume of people on various web pages looking for help with Aquarium basics. I created the first Seriously Fishy book to solve the issue in 28 pages, that led to the Seriously Fishy UK fish forum and blog.

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