Undergravel filter, yeah or nay

  • #1
What is the general consensus here at Fishlore on Undergravel filters with a powerhead on a stick (tube)?

I've had my 55 freshwater set up with a pair of undergravels and a HOB Aqua-clear for the better part of 16 years now, my chemistry is rarely off, even when I'm less mindful of the tank (summer motorcycling season). But after looking through the members tank section and doing a quick search, it seems undergravels are viewed in a less than favorable light here. Why? Or am I imagining the bias?
  • #2
For myself the turning point was when I took the UGF out of my 29G and found all the gunk underneath. I decided right then that couldn't be good. The UGF was good in it's day but there are better/more convenient ways to filter a tank now.
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  • #3
Without the ugf, do you rely on simple siphoning to remove the sediment and detritus that does go down into the gravel? And will a single HOB filter provide enough circulation/oxygenation?

Not trying to be difficult here, but to open up possibilities in the arrangement of the tank without breaking the bank for some elaborate system to replace something simple and cheap.
  • #4
The UGF with a powerhead is a decent setup, but you've got to make sure you're vacuuming the gravel. Otherwise, you get a buildup of gunk and potential anaerobic areas, which could grow nasty bacteria. If one of these pockets then opens to the rest of the tank, they can poison the tank.
  • #5
I also vote nay.

For just a little bit more, get a decent over the side filter.

About a 1/4 down this page are Millenium 3000's ( $29.95), they would be excellent filtration for a 55.
  • #6
I never used any UG filters so maybe I am not qualified to give any opinions about them. But from reading about how they work alone, I'd never get an UG filter, never. I can't imagine how a filter, which sucks the water through the gravel, can ever be an effective one. Not to mention you can't clean your gravel properly with a filter like that. And what if it breaks? Then you have do tear down the whole tank just to take out the filter - this is ridiculous in my opinion. And even if you just want to clean the filter, you have to take your tank apart. All of this sounds like more headaches and troubles to me, rather than any benefits at all. I'd avoid filters like that at any cost.
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  • #7
I just went through the articles and read the ugf writeup, I guess my hesitation is I've relied on the extra flow and current and I'm hesitant to ditch the powerheads and the system I've been comfortable with all these years. Just double checked, my HOB is an Aquaclear 70 (the body is old enough it says 300 on the lid, replaced the motor once.)

I'd never rely on strictly an undergravel, or even consider it as the primary system, that would be silly, but to have it as a secondary system made perfect sense to me. I think my fear is relying on strictly a biological system (no plugs, motors or things I can tinker with or even touch and see) for the substrate. Guess it's time for me to let go of the old and try something new. Oldthinkers unbellyfeel new tech.

Pardon me while I go research this some more...
  • #8
With powerheads, I wouldn't worry too much about the filter going bad. I agree with you, it's not a good idea as a primary, but because of its simplicity, it is a solid backup, and a good addition for biological and mechanical filtration. There is nearly nothing in the filter that can break. The frames for the UGFs are pretty stable, so the part that's likely to stop working is the powerhead, which is more easily replaced.
I've got a small UGF adding filtration for my wife's mollies' tank, and I also have a UGF with airstones in my first tank. (I haven't been able to afford powerheads for that one, yet.) Aside from a panic that was pretty much unwarranted, I haven't had any problems.
  • #9
I use a UGF in my 150 with powerheads as well as a canister. I'm considering removing it next time I break down the tank. I'm just tired of having to vacuum the gravel constantly. You have to clean it out every few days. At least once a week. More is better. I don't know. I'd like to be able to put the powerheads in better locations too. I don't have any other complaints about them though. Not much can go wrong and I'm a big believer in biological filtration. I can get better biofiltering in a canister though. All in all, the UGF had it's day. It's day is over. There are better options these days.
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  • #10
So Gozer, if I'm reading your post correctly, you are planning on keeping the powerheads even after you ditch the UGF. What are you going to do with the powerheads if they're not on the UGF tube? Is it feasable to cap the bottom of one of those tubes, slot the side of it just above the gravel line as an inlet to establish a pull from the lower end of the tank and have the exhaust in the upper layer? The HOB grabs from the center and exhausts right above that which sets up a great circulation at that end of the tank, but there's 40" of length that would still need to be addressed.

Forgive all my questions, even though I've had this tank set up for many years, I never thought outside the initial setup that was recommended to me when I brought it home. For whatever reason, now I'm wanting to go to something different and make it a better system, but not break the bank on new equipment.
  • #11
I have undergravel filter in my 10g, I also had undergravels in my 75 g.
  • #12
Here is the way I see it... Why have a filter that holds the gunk in the aquarium, when you can have a filter that holds the gunk outside the aquarium..
  • #13
Powerheads can be attached to a pre-filter (in fact, the one I bought came with one). This is just a sponge that attaches to the input of the powerhead. The water being sucked through the sponge is affected in much the same way as what happens with the UGF. My only complaint about the pre-filters is that the sponges are really ugly.
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  • #14
Well, is it ugly enough to offset the ugliness of the powerhead itself? ;D
  • #15
I for one swear by UGF filtration. I use it in most of my tanks and it's just about the most stable and easily maintained system around IMO. I use air to run them and vacuum the gravel every week as normal. Once every three months or so, I dig out the wet/dry vacuum, connect it to the risers and clean the UGF. It only takes a couple of minutes and they never give any problems.

If I relied on other forms of filters, I am sure that I would have serious problems with the overcrowding I have at the moment. The beauty of UGF is that with the addition of an additional riser, you can double the effectiveness of it, something that no other filter that I know of has the ability to do.

At the moment, I have a 200 gallon system with around 40 adults and 500+ fry, all being filtered by two 4' UGF's and the aquaponics garden. The water conditions remain stable even with the horrendously overstocked situation. I would have to spend a great deal of money to filter this system any other way this effectively.

saying that, this is only my opinion, and there are down-sides to UGF if you don't take care of them properly. Gas buildup has already been mentioned, but I hasten to add that this happens with any substrate, not just UGF. It is important to clean the substrate anyway!
  • #16
So Gozer, if I'm reading your post correctly, you are planning on keeping the powerheads even after you ditch the UGF. What are you going to do with the powerheads if they're not on the UGF tube? Is it feasable to cap the bottom of one of those tubes, slot the side of it just above the gravel line as an inlet to establish a pull from the lower end of the tank and have the exhaust in the upper layer? The HOB grabs from the center and exhausts right above that which sets up a great circulation at that end of the tank, but there's 40" of length that would still need to be addressed.

That's not a bad idea. My canister draws from the bottom but only in one corner. Maybe I'll try that with one of the powerheads and riser tubes. In all reality I have 4 powerheads running my UGF so there is a lot of flow through it. I don't really get much gunk underneath the plates. I can see the bottom of my tank from inside my stand so I can see if there is build up. Since I vacuum my gravel so regularly the build up isn't truly a concern for me. The reason for getting rid of it is it's unnecessary in my setup. I do like having the powerheads to move water. With them I have about 9X per hour circulation. I like to have around 9 or 10 in my fresh tanks. Also, I'd like to be able to use the venturI option to get some air. Attached to the risers they can't draw air. The depth is too deep for them. I have a deep water air pump but it didn't last long pushing air that deep.
Anyway it won't be for several months if I do decide to remove it. It really depends on how ambitious I get in cleanning it out. I guess we'll see when I get there.
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  • #17
Well, I yanked the UGF yesterday. It has been in place since 1991. I had initially planned on doing only one half per Dino's suggestion in another thread, but I found so little gunk under there that the clouding of the water was at a minimum. I guess between reversing the powerhead flow and Tim's Shop-vac trick, the accumulated goo really never accumulated.

The only spots that were nasty were under the field stones, as soon as I lifted them there were little clouds of muck, so those areas were vacuumed thoroughly. I ended up dropping 2 bags of Eco-complete in with the gravel to offset the loss of depth and to give my micro swords a finer substrate to latch onto. But I'll be darned if I can get my center two stones to stack just right again...

I'm also considering ditching most of my Java Moss, as I said before, the stuff is like dog hair, it ends up everywhere but where you want it. Mudhog, you'll be getting some moss with your fern plantlets once they grow out a bit bigger, most of them have 3/4" leave right now, I'll pack them up once they hit about 1 1/2 or 2"

The only snag I've hit is my 305 Canister filter is to tall to fit under the shelf the tank is on. I'm going to have to get very creative in placing it.
  • #18
I have the same problem with my XP3 canister. It barely fits under my tank. I haven't pulled the UGF from the big tank yet but have decided I will in Spring.

I'm trying out the capped riser tube on a powerhead idea you had on my 55 reef. I LOVE IT. What a great idea. The ZooMed Powersweep comes with a small section of tube that has a cap. I pulled it out and stuck it on to a longer tube and drilled holes around the base. Helps pull water through my live rocks. Thanks for the idea.
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  • #19

I'm not really happy with how the new layout as it stands, I moved the micro swords over where the Bronze WendtiI was, isolated off behind a pair of field stone (ala the Angelfish garden) so they don't over run the whole tank. And no matter how much fiddle with the central pile of rock, they just don't look right. Oh well, I'm letting it all sit and just going to try to enjoy the tank and it's residents and save up for a 125 and the associated stuff. My hope is to recreate a little easier to maintain version of the tank that took best in show at the 07 AGA contest. Lots of nooks and crannies for the shrimp and small fish, and open range for the bala's and pleco.

I have noticed one big difference w/o the UGF though. There's still a bit of dust and crud in suspension 24 hours later. With the UGF installed, the water was crystal clear in 4 hours or less.
  • #20
Hmmm........I think nay. Although it's an excellent filter, it can do more harm than good. It's also hard to clean, for you have to take out the whole tank.

I used the filter twice, and it did terrible things to my tank. The gunk in the filter leaked into the tank and the fish received death.

Yes, the UGF is cheap, but I don't think you should buy one. An overhead filter is an excellent alternative. The only problem with it is that the air pump is placed inside the tank, taking more space and might be undesirable to look at.

Good luck!
  • #21
It's enough to drive you buggy! I am with timandkaren, though, I like my UGF, and use it with other filtration. They also shared with me about the shop vac, which I do. I have gotten into the cabnent under my 125 gal tank, and looked up, NO GUNK. I know this tank has been up for only 5 months, and has a canister filter also, but still....I have them in all my tanks, and have never had any problems.

Any time people decide to make a change like this, I would be the last to make them feel bad, but by the same token, if people want to use them, it IS just a choise. Then how they work with them and maintain the quality in the tank is also up to them, and they live with the work.

I hope it all works out for you. Let us know after awhile if your tank works better.
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  • #22
Well, so far so good, the readings are in good shape. Nitrates a bit higher than before, but it is only 4 1/2 days later. I always did keep up on the sweeping, but with my increasing plant load, deep sweeping was becoming harder and harder without disturbing the plant roots. Speaking of which, one of the Wendtii's roots were wrapped through the slots in the UGF and that couldn't have been good for it in the long run.

Now that it's gone and I've added a good bit more fine material to the substrate, next is to get some MTS to burrrow around in it. Anyone here got some they want to sell me? The few I got for free in November haven't been seen since I put them in there.
  • #23

Saturday is cleaning day, so I'll pull the 2 powerheads I have setup with extensions and post a couple pics for you. I used a MagDrive 3 intake screen for the second since I didn't have a cap. I like it better.

Here's some photos of the modification to my power heads I did after reading Mags idea. They both work fantastic. They aren't replacing an undergravel but are an experiment for when I remove the UGF from the big Freshwater tank.

Thanks for the idea Mags.
  • #24
The plus of using a powerhead like that is you make a water current for your fish to swim in. This makes small tank seem endless. Think of it like a fish treadmill.

Magpie, sounds great on the java moss. I'm not in a real rush for the plantsm so if you need them to grow more, no problem. Still only have my 17w cheapo depot light fixture and not sure when I will be able to get my new Satellite. In the meantime, if you need that decoration sooner, shoot me a PM and I'll send it out.

Back on topic, I've never used a UGF and honestly don't quiet know how they work. I've looked at a few powerheads to make a current in my tank and always seen "can be used with UGFs" in the item description.
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  • #25
Mudhog, the idea of an undergravel is that it sucks water down through the substrate, turning the entire substrate into a biological bacteria filter. Very simple design, the only moving part is the air pump or the powerhead that is used to provide suction. An air pump/stone at the bottom of the riser tube provides the current, or you can plop a powerhead on top for a good flow. The vacuuming of the gravel is the equivalent of wringing out the sponge filter on a HOB, removing the large debris.

Problems are, Rocks and decor create dead spots, which is a bigger issue with the undergravel, since the bacteria are used to a much higher oxygen flow than with a static substrate. That leads to sections of the anaerobic bacteria cultures with their nasty side effects. Second thing is, a static substrate builds a tiny bit of heat, much like a compost pile does, because of the bacteria doing their thing. The UGF can't, because of the flow of cooler water always being pulled through it. From what I read, the plants prefer the warmer roots. Lastly, If the roots go through the UGF slots and tangle down underneath, that can't be good for the plant to have them out in a high velocity space.

To me, the maintenance was never an issue, that's what I started with and just never knew any different. TI'm and Karen's shop vac trick worked great, but I am also a firm believer in reversible powerheads being a huge help in keeping the gunk from accumulating. By pulling water from the top layer of the tank and forcing it down the riser tube and up through the UGF plate, whatever gunk is down there is stirred up and pushed back into the gravel. There you can vacuum it up, and what isn't removed is left where the bacteria have a second crack at breaking it down before it is pulled back down below the plates. I wanted rid of it so it was better for my plants and because every time I tried to move a rock somewhere else for a better look, there was a riser tube in my way.
Lord of Tetras
  • #26
Hey guys, I recently moved my fish from a 10 gal to a 30 gal. well anyway I got enough time today to clean out what was left from my 10gal.

heres a what i'm talking about

I thought the undergravel filter worked great, I was dead wrong. It was quiet and seemed to keep my gravel and rest of the tank clean. Changing the filters on it wasn't that great but otherwise it was fine. I wanted to clean out my old gravel in there and put this tank away. I took the bottom of the underground filter out and it was a nightmare. It had tons of waste and other things under it. It looked clean above it but below it was horrible. If I use this tank again I think i'm going to use a different filtering system. I suggest not to use this type of filter.

The thing I don't get is, I used to keep my tank pretty clean, but this happened. My LFS uses this the same filtering system also.. so I wonder what their tanks really look like?
  • #27
Yes under gravel filters are not good at all.
  • #28
It's amazing how nasty they can get under the plate.
The only way to tell is by tearing down the tank like you did or look at the bottom, which is impossible.

Glad you found out before it caused problems!
  • #29
It is strange how today this is a bad idea and no one wants it, but when it came out it was top of the line and everybody wanted it..
Lord of Tetras
  • #30
It is strange how today this is a bad idea and no one wants it, but when it came out it was top of the line and everybody wanted it..

That's what we call an advancement in technology my friend ;D
  • #31
Yeah, I've not see one good thing about underground filters. Ya know what's funny, that looks like the setup I had when I was a kid in the late 1980's. Had to put the air pump in a box on the floor since it was quite loud for my bedroom. I never knew what what the black stuff was at the end either.
  • #32
funny is when I was a kid in the late 60's we used angel hair and charoal in a corner filter.. and when the hair turned black we changed everything. we used tap water and the fish learned to like it.....lol..
  • #33
aaahhh yes, I remember the angel hair and charcoal filters....and undergravel filters. Now we understand it is the bacteria that does the work. Never heard of cycling!!! but some how those setups sure worked. I think there is more active bacteria throughout the tank than we give credit to. Ignorance was bliss. Plants grew beautiful....fish spawned easy....now we play chemists, mess with the water and kill fish....no really, its amazing how the hobby has changed into achieving pristine waters and eco-perfect setups....and ulcers.
  • #34
It is astounding isn't it? Dogs are the same... didn't used to be such a thing as kibble or canned dog food... table scraps for Fiddo!

I remember the filter box in the corner of the tank we had when I was a kid. It had a cover and light. All we ever did was change the angel hair and charcoal, top off the water and scrape the algae. No water conditioners, just let the it sit out overnight. My grandmother had a huge tank of goldfish in her kitchen, no filter, cover or light.

Last weekend I pulled the ugf in my newest 10 gallon and replaced it with an Aquaclear hob. Fortunately, it hadn't been in there very long (couple months) and the tank only has one betta, so while there was some "yuck", it wasn't as bad as I feared.
  • #35
And of course I remember that we didn't have such awful water treatment plants. Just add conditioner and you were good to go.
  • #36
My first LFS was at a mans garage half way down the block ... had about thirty tanks in it all with UGF and corner filters..I miss them days so much. sorry
Lord of Tetras
  • #37
its just weird, My LFS Sells emperors and penguins filters like that.. but they use these filters in like every tank
  • #38
Yea, I had a UGF on one of my tanks, killed all the fish apart from 1, so the tank setup was returned and I bought a bigger tank to replace!! (UGF was the only thing different from my other tank at the time)
David C
  • #39
I've known some people who have had luck with UGF as long as they use the reverse flow powerheads, but it's definitely outdated technology. I remember having a fish in the 80's that survived for over a year and we never fed it, but one day my mom felt sorry for the poor thing and fed it and it died I think it might have been an oto or some other algae sucker because there was plenty of that to eat. We didn't even do water changes, just topped off the tank every week.

  • #40
??? Got 75 gallon tank to be cleaned and gonna start setting up this week..... undergravel filter or no undergravel filter? That is the question! I have had so many mixed reviews. I want to do this setup right so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks so much in advance!

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