Book Excerpt: Freshwater Aquarium Problem Solver

Featured Article

Issue: August 2013

Author: David E. Boruchowitz

Photographer: TFH Archives

When keeping a freshwater aquarium, there are many things that have the potential to go wrong, but a lot of these issues are easily remedied. In this TFH-exclusive book excerpt, we take a look at some of the more commonly encountered equipment problems and offer simple solutions to them.

Much of the equipment in your aquarium can be considered the life support system for your fish, and problems with it can be very serious.

My Pump Won’t Pump!


Most aquarium systems rely on an air pump, a water pump, or both. These are used both for filtration and for water movement and aeration. When they cease to function, conditions in the aquarium can deteriorate rapidly. It is a good idea to have a spare on hand, but let’s look at the various problems that may cause a pump to fail.

Ah! Vibration!


Although piston air pumps were once popular, they have been replaced by modern vibrator pumps. As you can tell from their name, these pumps have a vibrating motor that is the mechanism that pumps the air.

Many of the problems with vibration noises are caused by imbalance. Usually this is from the pump being on a non-level surface, or being in touch with a rigid or unstable object. In the first case, the pump itself vibrates erratically, producing the noise; and in the second, the object touching the pump resonates with the pump’s vibration, producing noise. Obviously, both situations are corrected by placing the pump on a solid, level surface. The use of a foam or other non-rigid pad under the pump will prevent its vibration from being transferred to the table or shelf on which it sits.

The other cause of vibration noise is from the pump producing more air than the system to which it is connected can handle. This causes back pressure, which, besides being noisy, reduces the life of the pump. There are two ways to handle this, the first being to increase the outlets. If you have nowhere else to use the air, you can open a valve at the end of the line, bleeding off enough of the surplus to quiet the pump. If your pump has an adjustable air output, you can also turn it down until the noise stops.

No Air!


You may find that your air pump is still vibrating away, but there is very little air coming out. First confirm that the pump is the problem by removing the airline and checking to see if air is pumping out from the unit itself. If it is, the problem is farther down the line.

In hard water, a buildup of scale (lime) can completely block the end of an airline that is underwater. The solution for that is to snip off the blockage and reattach the line at the clean cut.

If the problem is diminished output, it is likely that the pump’s diaphragm(s) need replacing. The rubber diaphragms can wear out or tear. In either case, the bellows-like effect is impeded. You can purchase repair kits for most models that will quickly and easily restore the pump to its original output, and it is a wise move to have a kit in reserve.

If an airpump with two outlets has not been in use long enough to justify worn out diaphragms, you may have an imbalance between the outlets, which causes the diaphragms to wear prematurely. The proper way to hook these pumps up is to attach a short piece of tubing to each outlet, then attach both of them to a tee (a small plastic or brass fitting that allows one airline to be split into two). Then attach the tubing that feeds your various devices to the third leg of the tee. In such a setup, there is an even backpressure on each diaphragm, and they wear evenly.

Water Pump Problems


Water pumps, sometimes also known as powerheads, are not usually part of a first aquarium setup, but you may very well be using one or more of them in your tank.  These submersible water pumps are quite reliable, but problems can develop.

Loud sucking or gurgling noises are typical when the powerhead’s intake is at the surface. Restoring the water level should fix the problem quickly. Occasionally air becomes trapped inside the powerhead. Simply tip the pump from side to side while completely underwater, and the air will bubble out.

My Filter Won’t Work!


Each filter design creates its own opportunities for problems, but these all fall into general categories.

The most common cause of starting problems is the loss of a prime. Almost all hang-on filters operate by suctioning water up from the tank and pumping it through the filter; it then returns to the tank by gravity. The standard outside filter needs to be primed—filled with water—in order for the pump to be able to pull water up from the tank.

Having the water too low on either side of the siphon will cause the prime to break, and the pump will labor in vain to pull water into the filter from the aquarium.  Thus, if the water level falls too low in the tank, or if there is insufficient water in the filter compartments, the prime will be lost.

Keep in mind that the pump can maintain a prime under conditions in which it cannot establish a prime.  That is, as long as water does not stop flowing, the filter will continue operating even with reduced water levels in the aquarium. If the water flow is broken however, as by a power loss, the pump may not be able to restart when power is restored. Sometimes replacing the water in the filter itself is sufficient, but with really low water levels, you’ll need to refill the aquarium, too. Of course, it’s never a good idea to let the water level drop that much in the first place.

For maximum efficiency, filters are designed not to allow channeling, which is when the water finds a path of least resistance through the medium, bypassing it and exiting the unit largely unfiltered.  This means, however, that if the medium becomes so saturated with dirt that the water flow through the medium is impaired, the water flow through the filter will decrease.

Some filter designs have a back channel through which the water is diverted in such a case, alerting the aquarist to the problem, and others have meters built in that indicate when the flow is inadequate. With any filter, however, you can notice when the return flow has decreased. The solution, of course, is to clean or replace the filter media, restoring unimpeded flow and normal output.

It is important to operate the filter the way in which the manufacturer describes in order to avoid a more serious case of clogged media. For example, mechanical filtration properly takes place first, trapping suspended debris before the water arrives at the biofiltration medium. Since micropores are the heart of a biofilter, if you do not have the proper mechanical filter medium in place ahead of the biomedium, the latter will quickly get clogged with dirt.

Aside from a rapid decline in the water flow through the filter, this may result in the destruction of the biomedium. Foam, ceramic, and carbon media can be very difficult to clean when they are plugged with particles of debris, and they may need to be replaced. This means, of course, that you may have to recycle the tank, since you are removing the biofilter.

Many filters, especially those with biowheels or spraybar returns, rely on water spraying from a series of holes along a tube. The design places these holes after the filtration media, so they cannot usually be plugged by dirt.  They can, however, get clogged by algae or with calcium deposits left behind when hard water evaporates.

The solution is usually as easy as taking a toothpick and clearing the holes so that they all permit normal water flow. In cases in which the white crust is particularly thick and hard, soaking the tube in a small dish of vinegar for a half hour or so will loosen the scale so you can clean it off.

The impeller is the heart of a power filter. It normally sits at the base of the siphon uptake tube that conducts water out of the tank; it sucks water up from the tank and pushes it out into the media. If it is not operating properly, water will not flow properly through the filter.

The instructions that came with your filter will describe how to remove and clean the impeller.  A very common problem that slows down an impeller is fibrous material getting wrapped around it. Usually this is hair algae or some other plant material. In the same way that tall weeds can get wrapped around a mower blade or tiller tines, this material is wound around the impeller.  You may need to use a small pointed tool to remove it if it is wrapped too tightly to pull off.

You may be surprised at what you find when you open up a filter with impeller problems. If you do not have an adequate strainer on the uptake tube, a dead fish, chunk of plant, or some foreign object like a rubber band may have gotten sucked into the filter and jammed around the impeller. Live fish have been known to swim up the tube and meet their demise in the whirling impeller.

The impeller is the only moving part in many filters, and after whirring away 24-7, it can become worn or broken over time. In this case replacing it with a new one can greatly rejuvenate the filter.

Almost all filter impellers are magnetic driven; a magnet attached to the impeller spins in a well in the plastic filter body, a socket surrounded by the magnetic drive motor. This magnet and the hole into which it fits may get clogged with dirt, which will also impede the operation of the impeller.

Why Is the Filter So Noisy?


Most modern aquarium filters are virtually noiseless in operation. Usually the trickle of water is louder than any humming or buzz from the filter motor. If a filter loses its prime, it may make a chugging or gurgling sound, which is good, since it alerts you to reprime it.

A rattling sound usually indicates an impeller problem, with the rattle being caused by the magnet spinning irregularly, hitting the sides of the well in which it sits. Checking and cleaning or replacing the impeller will often solve this.

Sometimes people object to the sound of the water returning to the aquarium. Often just raising the water level in the aquarium slightly so the water will not fall so far will solve the problem. If not, you can adjust the water flow to eliminate the noise; almost all filters have a means of regulating the volume of the flow, the angle of the flow, or both.

My Heater’s Stuck!


A heater is crucial to most aquarium setups, so crucial that many aquarists throw out the heaters and replace them with a new one(s) each a year. Typically these are people who have had a disaster due to a broken heater. Heaters can certainly operate for many years, but if they malfunction, they can cook your fish.

Broken Glass


Many heaters have their components sealed in a glass tube.  A hard blow can break the glass, shorting out the heater.  Aquarists very commonly forget to unplug the heater when doing a water change. The high-and-dry heater becomes very hot, and when the tank is refilled, the cool water cracks the glass. This usually does not present a problem for the fish, but if you stick your hand into the tank, you can get quite a shock, since you provide a ground for the current.

Heaters with unbreakable stainless steel or titanium tubes are becoming more popular, and some models have sensors that turn off the heating element when the heater is removed from the water.  Ask your favorite pet retailer to show you the different models that are available.

Thermostat Problems


When a heater’s indicator light stays on but it does not produce heat, obviously the device is broken and needs to be replaced, as it does when it sticks in the on position and just keeps pumping out heat no matter how low you adjust the setting. It is always a good idea to have a spare heater on hand for such situations.

Another approach is to divide the total wattage between two or more heaters; if you need 150 watts to heat the tank, use two 75-watt heaters, for example. This protects against both extremes. If the heater sticks on, the functioning unit will stay off if the water overheats, making the rise in temperature slower. In the event that one heater fails completely, the other one will keep the temperature from becoming dangerously low.

Hey, I Got a Shock!


Unlike water and oil, water and electricity do mix—but with potentially lethal consequences! If you receive a shock when you touch a piece of equipment or stick your hand into the water, this is a very serious matter, and you should unplug all electrical devices until you have discovered and remedied the problem. Much better still is to prevent such problems in the first place by using the correct setup. Whenever water and electricity are known to be in proximity (kitchens, bathrooms, swimming pools, etc.) special protection is required by law. You should feel a similar urgency about protecting your aquarium installation.

We’ve already mentioned the possibility of an aquarium becoming electrically charged by a broken heater, making touching the water much like sticking your finger into an electrical outlet. Many other hazards also exist, both from equipment failure and from human intervention, such as dropping the aquarium light into the water. Let’s look at several important things you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your aquarium.

Anything electric connected to your aquarium must be plugged into a GF(C)I device.  That stands for Ground Fault (Circuit) Interrupting, and it can mean the difference between life and death. Regular circuit breakers only monitor the total flow of electricity; if it exceeds the specified amperage, the breaker trips, cutting off the electricity. A GFI breaker also monitors the difference between the hot and ground sides of the circuit. If the flow through the hot side is greater than the return flow to ground (meaning there is a ground fault, a flow of electricity from the power supply to something other than the proper return to ground), it trips.

Thus, in the event that an electrical device becomes charged, the interrupter will trip the circuit as soon as a ground is completed. So, if a broken heater charges your aquarium water with 120 volts, when you stick in your finger, giving all that electricity a way out to ground through the soles of your feet, a GF(C)I device will trip, and you’ll stay standing.

There are different ways to get GF(C)I protection:

• A GF(C)I circuit breaker installed for each circuit into which your aquarium devices will be plugged. The circuit breaker affords protection for all outlets on its circuit throughout the house.

• A GF(C)I outlet installed in every box into which your aquarium devices will be plugged. An electrician can replace any duplex outlet with a GF(C)I duplex.  This will protect anything plugged into its two outlets.

• A GF(C)I power strip into which all your aquarium devices will be plugged.  Anything plugged into the strip is protected. Note that regular power strips or surge protectors are not ground fault protected. You must use one that is specifically rated as GF(C)I.

Air Pump Positioning


When an air pump is placed below the water level of the aquarium, in the event of a power failure, water will siphon back up the airline and drain into the pump. When the power comes back on, this can cause a shock hazard. There are two ways of preventing this: use a check valve, or place the air pump on a shelf higher than the water level. A check valve allows movement in one direction but not the other; thus, air can leave the pump and enter the tank, but water cannot siphon back down the tubing from the tank.

Drip Loops


There are many ways in which water that should be in the aquarium can find its way out of the tank. One that may not be noticed is the condensing of fine water spray on some surface above the water level. This water can then drip down wires that are hanging from lighting or other equipment.  As it follows the wire, it can find its way into the outlet into which the wire is plugged.  A simple drip loop prevents this from happening.

Arrange the cords so that they make a U-shaped loop before they are plugged into the wall outlet.  This places the lowest point below the outlet, and any water sliding down the cord will drip off at the lowest point, preventing it from reaching the outlet.

The wire can be secured with clamps, special staples, or heavy tape.

Secure Equipment


All equipment must be securely attached to the aquarium. Do not use makeshift installations. Specifically:

• Never place an aquarium on or above an electrical appliance like a stereo or a television. Even routine maintenance could send water into the appliance.

• Always unplug a piece of aquarium equipment before moving it—you might slip and drop it into the water.

• Use only appropriate covers and light fixtures that sit securely and completely on the top frame of the aquarium without wobbling.

• If using a hang-on heater, make sure the clamp is screwed tightly to the tank frame so the heater cannot fall into the tank.

• Make certain that water pumps (pumps, powerheads, power filters) are not allowed to run dry; they can burn out their seals and perhaps start a fire. D
Excerpted from the Freshwater Aquarium Problem Solver ISBN 0-7938-3761-8. ©T.F.H. Publications, Inc. Used with permission.

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