Undergravel Aquarium Filters

Are undergravel filters an outdated piece of equipment for a freshwater aquarium?

Glowlight Danio. Danio choprai. Via Mirko_Rosenau/Thinkstock
Glowlight Danio. Danio choprai. Via Mirko_Rosenau/Thinkstock


My local fish store (LFS) recommends using an undergravel filter in a freshwater aquarium. When I go to an online forum almost everyone tells me not to use one of these units. Should I use an undergravel filter like my LFS recommends or are they, as one forum user put it: “outdated.”

Sherry Turner


Undergravel filters were once a great piece of aquarium equipment that many fishkeepers used in their aquariums. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that undegravel filters were standard in most any aquarium (marine or freshwater). I can remember some of my first freshwater aquariums that used undergravel filters with powerheads to promote good aquarium water quality. These plastic-bottomed units with two plastic tube risers are inexpensive and easy to use, likely one reason they became so popular. The undergravel filter argument is popular on Internet forums because there seems to be a core of aquarists that are still proponents of using them and many new aquarists that are totally against the idea.

Today, using an undergravel filter as your only means of filtration seems like a bad idea. With the technological advances in power filtration it seems out of place to solely rely on an undergravel filter. The theory behind undergravel filters is sound and simple. Undergravel filters employ your aquarium’s gravel as their filter media along with uneaten fish food and fish waste. They provide oxygen to the bacteria living within the gravel via a powerhead or airstone mounted at the top of the supplied plastic tubes. This encourages the bacterial breakdown of wastes.

While I can’t recommend using an undergravel filter as the only filtration for any aquarium, I will say that it is a tried and true method of bacterial filtration. It provides bacteria with the necessary elements it needs to proliferate and thrive. When used in conjunction with power filtration, an undergravel filter could be a decent aquarium keeping tool.

These units do require regular maintenance. One important thing to consider is gravel vacuuming. This process, done with a siphon, will remove excess waste particles from your gravel, freeing up room for oxygenation. This will prevent anaerobiosis, or the creation of areas in the gravel bed where bacteria are not efficiently working to break down wastes. You must be careful not to over vacuum your aquarium gravel and therefore remove so many microbes from the system that it enters biological shock. One recommendation is cleaning only 50 percent of your aquarium’s gravel per cleaning. Using this method you can rotate areas cleaned and not fear that you have removed too much beneficial bacteria from your aquarium.

One instance where an undergravel filter has no place is in either a reef aquarium or freshwater planted aquarium. In either instance the undergravel filter is a hindrance and does not combine well with the other items needed to make those aquariums flourish.

Undergravel filters appear to be little more than plastic plates and tubes and are not nearly as interesting as more modern forms of filtration. The truth is the undergravel filter is a proven piece of aquarium equipment that is inexpensive and easy to implement. Many traditional aquarists who keep freshwater aquariums still use undergravel filters with good success.

To help settle the debate you have experienced online, I’ll say this: Neither the LFS you visited nor the aquarium forum users you spoke with are right or wrong. The undergravel filter can be an effective piece of aquarium equipment. Anything that works efficiently, is inexpensive, and easy to use, is never really “outdated.”

Article Categories:
Fish · Freshwater Fish


  • The “out dated” argument makes me laugh. Either it works or is doesn’t. The nature of water and fish has not changed with technology. If it worked in the 90s it should work just as well today! I think the real issue is that fish supply companies make LOTS more money from the newer filters which have to be constantly replaced.

    My personal experience is that when I was a teenager I was into tropical fish keeping. I used an under gravel filter (UGF), which was the norm at the time, and never had trouble with water quality. I rarely changed the water, and when I did I siphoned the gravel. The main maintenance I had to do was clean the algae off the sides of the tank, because it was in a well lit area. Of course algae doesn’t hurt the fish, it just makes the tank less appealing to the human eye.

    Now my 7 year old son has a gold fish tank. We couldn’t find one with a UGF so we went with the charcoal filter that hangs on the side of the tank and looks ugly (and is costly to keep replacing filters). Gold fish are messy fish and we dumped a lot of money and stress into trying to keep the ammonia levels down, with no success. The tank was always in the danger zone. Finally I found an after market UGF and put it in and we’ve not had any trouble since. It works so well that we forget to do regular water changes (like I did as a teen) and still haven’t had any trouble. This time around we removed that ugly dangling filter to see if the UGF can keep up all by itself, no answer on that yet.

    Now my problem is that the Gold fish are getting big enough to suck the gravel into their mouths and my son is worried that they will choke on the gravel. Does anyone know of a larger sub-strait that will still work with the UGF?

    Steve October 18, 2016 10:44 am Reply

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