Keeping your fish tank clean is not just important for the way that it looks – it’s essential if you want your fish to be happy and healthy. With that in mind, how often should you change your aquarium filter media?
Mechanical filters can be cleaned and reused for 3-6 months, chemical media should be replaced monthly, and bio-media needs to be changed every year or two. Of course, you’ll still need to wash the mechanical and biological filter media during this time.
Read ahead in this article to discover why the different types of filter media last for different lengths of time and when exactly you need to be ready to clean or change yours to keep your aquarium as fresh and safe as possible.
How Long Does Aquarium Filter Media Last?
So, how long does an aquarium filter media actually last? Well, it’s a difficult question to answer because it depends entirely on which type of filter media you are talking about. Some filter media rarely needs to be replaced, while others may need to be changed almost every single week.
Three main types of aquarium filters are used in most homes: chemical, biological, and mechanical. Inside each of these filters, there will be a filter media, which is essentially a porous material with a large surface area that traps debris, removes impurities, or otherwise cleans the water that passes through it.
Chemical filters work by utilizing a chemical reaction to trap gases and dissolved impurities from the water, and they usually have carbon or ammonia as their filter media. Mechanical filters use a physical barrier to catch debris, usually foam or a sponge. Biological filters use a sponge or ceramic to “house” helpful bacteria, which convert toxic biological waste into harmless by-products.
Bio-media lasts the longest of the three, and it can actually still function without ever being replaced, though it is still best practice to change it every now and then. Mechanical media can often be cleaned and reused, but it still will only last for half a year at the most. Chemical media generally only lasts for between a week and a month before it stops being effective.
How Often Should You Clean Your Aquarium Filter?
Now that we’ve had a quick look at the different types of aquarium filters that you might be dealing with, let’s talk about how to keep them clean and working their best. Although your filter media might not need to be completely replaced right away, it will always work better if it is clean and not clogged up.
Mechanical Filter – Coarse Filter Media
Most coarse mechanical filter media, like the foam or sponge that is most common, can be rinsed and reused multiple times before it needs to be replaced. This type of filter should be cleaned about once a month, even if you are not changing the media for a new one.
Each sponge filter media should be graded in pores per inch (PPI). Anything from 10 PPI to 20 PPI shouldn’t clog too quickly, but if it is graded at 30 PPI or above, then you may find it clogging every couple of weeks.
Mechanical Filter – Fine Filter Media
Fine mechanical filter media, like filter floss, cannot usually be cleaned and reused because the pores are too small to rinse effectively. To keep this type of filter working effectively, it’s best to replace the filter media entirely every month or so.
Biological Filter – Bio-Foam
Most biological filters have a foam media, which is where the bacteria are able to grow. These will clog over time, and they can be cleaned to keep them working effectively. You should give these a clean about once every six weeks.
Biological Media – Ceramic
Ceramic biological filter media, like Fluval Biomax, usually comes in a bag that’s filled with little rings. You can easily take these out and shake them around in some old tank water when they get a bit clogged up – about once every 3 months.
It is also recommended that you replace half of the rings with a new set every 6 months to keep it working as effectively as possible.
Chemical Filter – Carbon and Ammonia
When it comes to chemical aquarium filters, cleaning is not really an option. Once they are no longer reacting effectively, then the chemical material has essentially been used up and will need to be replaced. This usually happens about once a month, but they can need replacing as often as once every week.
How To Clean Your Aquarium Sponge Filter?
Sponge filters are the most common type of mechanical and biological media that you will encounter, and they can both be cleaned and reused multiple times. You can’t just throw them under the tap, though, so let’s take a look at some tips for how to clean your sponge filter the right way.
Keep An Eye On The Sponge
To know when it’s time to clean your sponge filter, you can simply look at the sponge itself. Don’t wait for the water in your tank to become cloudy or filled with debris – check in on your sponge every week to see if it has become dirty or clogged.
Coarse Sponge vs. Fine Sponge
All sponges are not created equal. Coarse sponges will need to be cleaned less frequently, but they will filter less debris out of the water. Fine sponges offer better filtration, but they will need to be rinsed more often – and some will be very difficult to clean completely.
Don’t Use Tap Water
Tap water contains a lot of chemicals that you don’t want to introduce into your fish tank. Chlorine and chloramine can kill the helpful bacteria, which is essential for the health of your aquarium and can render a biological sponge filter almost completely useless.
Rinse In Old Tank Water
To make sure your sponge filter stays healthy and safe for your tank, you should clean it in old tank water. The easiest way to do this is to clean your filters at the same time that you are doing normal tank maintenance and use the water that you’ve siphoned out of the tank while you are cleaning it to rinse your sponge.
Only Clean Half of a Biological Sponge Filter
If you are cleaning a biological filter rather than a mechanical one, then you don’t want to clean off all of the helpful bacteria in one go. To keep your filter working effectively, just clean half of the sponge at a time. If you have more than one filter, then this is easy to do, but if not, you can cut your filter in half.
It usually takes about 6 weeks for a biological filter to have built up all the bacteria it needs, then you can clean the other half.
Don’t Be Too Rough
It’s tempting to give your sponge a good, rough clean, but you don’t want to damage it too much. Eventually, every sponge filter will wear down and need to be replaced, and you don’t want to accelerate this process.
How Often Should You Change Aquarium Filter Media?
No matter how efficient and regular you are with your cleaning, every filter media should be replaced eventually.
If you are regularly cleaning your mechanical sponge filter media, then it should last about 3-6 months before you need to replace it. Most biological filters, whether they are ceramic or sponge, should be replaced about twice per year.
Chemical filters are the ones that need to be changed most frequently. These can last up to about a month but may need to be replaced as often as once a week.
Tips For Maintaining The Aquarium Filter Media
Now, we know that you need to be maintaining your aquarium filter media if you want your water to stay clean and healthy, but it’s not always easy to actually stay on top of it. Here are a few tips for maintaining the different types of filters that are out there.
In-Tank and Hang-On Filters Are the Easiest to Maintain
If you want to make life easy for yourself, in-tank and hang-on filters are the easiest to maintain. You can quickly remove the filter without disturbing the overall tank, so there is less planning that needs to go into the whole process.
Canister Filters Can Be Awkward
Many canister filters don’t need to be replaced or cleaned as often as other types, but they can be a real pain to take apart and maintain. You are also more limited with the replacement options that you have when the time comes to put a new filter media in.
Undergravel Filters Are Harder to Reach
Undergravel filters are great for keeping a tidy-looking tank, but they are hard to get access to when you need to give them a clean or change the filter media. Fortunately, you will be vacuuming your gravel for basic maintenance every couple of weeks anyway, so this is the perfect time to clean or replace your filter.
Clean The Filter Housing Often
Whether you’re cleaning the filter media itself or not, rinsing the housing that it lives in can really reduce the rate at which it clogs. You should be giving the filter housing a bit of a rinse, a wipe-down, or even a scrub, about once a month.
Make A Schedule
Whatever different kinds of filtration you have in your tank, you want to get yourself into a cleaning/replacing routine and stick to it. It’s better to clean different filters at different times, so you can’t just rely on a single maintenance day every month. Write down a schedule and follow it – soon, it will just become a habit.
How Do I Change My Aquarium Filter Media Without Losing Bacteria?
To change your filter media without losing bacteria, you need to introduce the new filter to the old bacteria in some way. You can either leave the old filter in place for a while when you put a new one in or only change half of the media at a time.
What Do You Do With Old Filter Media?
Some old sponge filter media can be reused as a way to introduce healthy bacteria to a new media, or it can be rinsed and used again for a time. Once they are no longer effective, however, they need to be disposed of safely.
Recap: How Often Should You Change Aquarium Filter Media?
So, how often should you change aquarium filter media? Well, it depends on the type of media you are talking about.
Sponges from a mechanical filter can usually be cleaned and reused for around 3-6 months before they need to be replaced, and most biological filters only need fully changing every 6 months or so. Chemical filter media, on the other hand, needs to be changed every 1-4 weeks, depending on the size of your tank and the number of fish that you have.
Keeping a clean and healthy aquarium does come with a few extra chores, but it’s worth it to see your fish living happily in crystal-clear water.