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Taking a step back from my usual saltwater aquarium focused articles like choosing the best reef salt or best protein skimmer, let’s focus today on one of the most basic and comprehensive filters in the aquarium hobby, the power filter.
Keeping fish can be an amazing experience and everyone starts out with a simple tank and a power filter. The best aquarium power filter will properly encompass the main stages of the nitrogen cycle and will keep your fish and other inhabitants healthy. Because in a basic aquarium setup they are the heart of your system, it is very important to select one that is reliable and works with your budget.
What Is A Power Filter In An Aquarium?
A power filter is a filtration unit that hangs on the back of your aquarium. It suctions water out of your display tank into the filter chamber. It pulls water out of your aquarium with a pump where it enters the filter box. Most power filters will comprise of 3 stages of filtration: mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration.
Each stage works together to complete the nitrogen cycle and keep your aquarium healthy. Some filters have separated filtration stages while others operate like a big filter box similar to a canister filter.
The Nitrogen Cycle
Since we are talking about the nitrogen cycle, let’s explain what is it using this graphic from Fluval Aquatics (above) and video below from AGamer’s Wife. I like her video because she breaks down the cycle without all the scientific technical explanation and talks about how plants can be used as part of the nitrogen cycle. I’ll cover planted tanks in a later post, but this should be plenty to explain and get you started:
HOB (Hang On Back) Filters vs. Canister Filters
There is a big debate on HOB vs. Canister Filters and what works best for an aquarium. Since this blog post is focused on basic filtration and setups, a HOB Filter (or power filter) is going to be cheaper, easier to use, and easier to maintain then a canister filter. If you are a first time aquarium keeper and want simplicity a hang on back power filter is going to be the way to go — they are also a lot cheaper than canister filters!
A Canister filter is a larger filtration unit. It holds a much larger capacity for filter media and biological filtration than a power filter can, their flow rate can be a lot more , and they are rated for larger tanks. A canister filter is able to hide easier in your aquarium and can equip inline heaters.
They are more complex, but you get the added value of keeping things hidden in your cabinet with a canister filter and being able to run more advanced filtration/systems such as inline heaters, and stand alone uv sterilizers. Canister filters are also much quieter than power filters. Noise as you will see with the reviews done on this post, is the main Achilles heal of power filters.
The Candidates – A Quick Comparison
Now that you know why it’s important to have a filtration unit that covers the nitrogen cycle, let’s take about the best power filters out in the market today. All the power filters I’m going to cover here are quality filters and will meet all budgets.
In a hurry? I recommend the Hagen AquaClear!
|Hagen AquaClear||Click For Best PriceBuy On Amazon|
|SeaChem Tidal Filter||Click For Best PriceBuy On Amazon|
|Penn-Plax Cascade||Buy On AmazonBuy On Chewy|
|MarineLand Penguin Bio-Wheel||Buy On PetcoBuy On Amazon|
|Fluval C Power Filter||Buy On ChewyBuy On Amazon|
|Aqueon QuietFlow||Buy On PetcoBuy On Amazon|
|MarineLand Emperor Bio-Wheel||Buy On PetcoBuy On Amazon|
|Aquatop PF Series with UV||Click For Best PriceBuy On Amazon|
The Top 8 Reviews (2023 Update)
Let’s find out why these 8 power filters made our list!
1. Hagen AquaClear – An Oldie But Goodie
The Best Aquarium Power Filter
The worlds best selling and most reliable power filter on the market. Unchanged for years because it's so reliable and versatile
The Hagen AquaClear has been around for ages. It’s literally the Honda Accord of power filters. It is extremely reliable and has been relevantly unchanged since the 80s. It is the best selling hang on back filter in the world for a reason.
The Aquaclear has been around for many years with many field test testimonials. It has a stellar reputation not only in the freshwater hobby, but in turtle tanks, and in saltwater tanks. It’s just about the only power filter I recommend for saltwater tanks because it is so versatile filter and reliable.
It’s versatility comes from the fact that the filter is just a big container of filter media. You can pick and chose what chemical media you want or upgrade the biological media. Want to upgrade to better carbon? Just grab a bag and purchase some high end carbon. Want to use better biological media like BioHome, easily done.
There are also various 3rd party mods available, like inTank, which makes mods that convert the filter into an all in one unit. I had also seen people make algae scrubbers and hang on refugiums with them.
Another factor that makes this power filter great is that it runs off foam for mechanical filtration. The foam is reusable, so you do not have to worry about replacing it. This removes the ongoing cost of running the aquarium. Your chemical media is the only piece that you need to replace with an Aquaclear!
It’s easy to see what makes the Aquaclear so great. It looks outdated with it’s clear tubing and retro style filter box, but it has stood the test of time and truly earns its title of best selling power filter of all time!
- Extremely versatile chambers – which many 3rd party mods available
- Field tested over the years with great reliability
- Reusable filter media – only the carbon is disposable!
- Clear intake and outdated looking style
- Not quiet
2. Seachem Tidal – An Vastly Improved AquaClear Clone
Everything that makes the Aquaclear great plus more. Features a maintenance alert for ease of care
The Seachem Tidal Filter is a new player in the crowded power filter market. However, this one really stands out. The Tidal is a premium power filter that improves on everything that makes the Hagen AquaClear so great. It starts with the design itself being made by Sicce. Sicce, for those of you who haven’t seen our other posts, is an Italian Company that builds premium equipment that is built to last. I’m a huge fan of all the products they make.
This Tidal filter literally took everything that makes the AquaClear great and improved everything. The filter comes with a heater holder for you to place your heater next to the filter making sure the heated water is circulated to the aquarium. The filter has an intake and a surface skimmer, doubling the filtration efficiency way above the others listed on this list.
The filter uses a removable filter bracket that holds all the filter media. Seachem really makes maintenance easy for you as you can simply lift out the bracket for easy cleaning with no mess. The bracket incorporates a open media design allow you to put anything you want in there. It’s literally a hang on canister filter with their design.
The standard out of box filtration components are actually pretty good here. Seachem gives you standard foam (which is reusable), Seachem Matrix Carbon, and Seachem Matrix Bio Media. The carbon is a premium level carbon and the matrix is a great starter biological media.
I’m not even through with the offering of this power filter package. This filter has adjustable flow right on the front of the filter that is easy to access. There is also a maintenance alert feature that raises up to tell you when you need to replace media. That finish this all off with a self-priming Sicce built pump that is a workhorse and Sicce quiet (which means dead quiet). Even the power consumption on this feature is incredible. The largest 110 model only consumes 12 watts. That is low enough to add this to a UPS and literally never worry about power outages again! Oh yeah, it has an extendable 5 year warranty.
So what is there not to like here? Well, it is one of the most expensive power filters on this list and some of the features I talked about like the heater holder are not available on the smallest model.
- Made by Sicce
- Flexible media design
- Premium features
- Not all features are available on smallest model
3. Penn Plax Cascade – A Value Priced 4 Stage Unit
An afforable 4 stage hang on filteration unit by Penn Plax. Available in many sizes from nano to large tanks
The Penn Plax Casade filter offers an affordable power filter for those with smaller tanks. They have models that can work for tanks as small as 7 gallons making them ideal for pico sized aquariums. The filter is pretty comprehensive for a budget power filter offering a 4 stage filtration system. There is a mechanical and chemial stage that comes form the filter bag and a foam biological section. There is a plastic 4 stage biological filtration chamber that operates somewhat like bio balls. The filter has an adjustable nozzle to control the flow and has a telescoping intake so you can adjust to the desired height.
It isn’t as commonly available as say the Marineland and Hagen filters, but it is cheaper than both. You will still need to purchase the filter bags so there is monthly replacement costs associated with them (the bags are also more expensive then the penguins).
Overall, this is a pretty solid filter, especially if you have a smaller tank.
- Features for the price
- Small models available for pico sized aquariums
- 4 Stage filtration
- Harder to find parts
- You can’t pick your own media with filter cartridges
4. Penguin Biowheel – Wet/Dry Filtration At An Affordable Price!
Wet/Dry filtration at an afforable price. Superior biological filteration from a quality name brand
The Marineland Penguin Biowheel is a power filter that offers wet/dry biological filtration. This provides superior biological filtration out of the box over other competitor power filters. In freshwater aquariums, the wheel actually changes color as it matures. The price for this filter is very reasonable for what it offers and the replacement cartridges are very east to find and cheap making your ongoing costs very low. They come in a variety of sizes so you can use this with both small and larger tanks.
The main downfall with this power filter is there isn’t space for adding option chemical media. You have to use the rite-size cart which limits you with only being able to use the carbon that comes with the cartridges. The biowheel can also get stuck over time, which can hinder the performance of the biological filtration as time goes on. This adds some additional maintenance.
- Wet/Dry Filtration
- Replacement cartridges and very reasonably priced
- Great price for features
- Not as flexible with putting other filter media with lack of space
- Biowheel can get stuck and make noise over time
5. Fluval C Series – A High End Product
A 3 stage power filter that features wet/dry biological filteration
Fluval’s Power C filter series is a high end power filter with quality at all three stages. The first stage is a dual stage mechanical filtration chamber. the first stage is a more coarse foam that is reusable and the the second stage is a finer poly layer that is disposable. The second stage is a chemical media chamber. Well it is limited in space, it is a quality stage even when working with Fluval’s stock carbon.
The third stage is what I really like. It has a wet/dry section for biological media. This brings me back to the old Second Nature WD power filters. For use old timers, the WD was considered one of the finest power filters in its heyday as it had it’s own separate wet dry chamber. I’m so happy to see that Fluval is implementing this lost style of filtration on this power filter. Adding in a cleaning indictator, which tells you when you need to clean out your mechanical stages this is a very comprehensive package.
It is on the more expensive side for a power filter, but if you can budget up it is a solid consideration. If it is out of your budget, strongly consider Fluval’s parent company, Hagen, and their Aquaclear offering — which I reviewed earlier.
- Dual stage mechanical filtration
- Cleaning indicator
- Wet/Dry biological chamber
- More expensive than other options
- Fine stage mechanical filter will get used up quickly
6. Aqueon Quietflow – 5 Stage Unit That’s Great For First Timers
A 5 stage aquarium power filter that is user friendly for beginners. Backed by a 3 year warranty
The Aqueon quietflow power filter is a very common power filter that you will see at fish stores these days. They come with a lot of kits, and I’m actually happier to see these around more than the Whisper Power Filters I used to see (I don’t recommend Whispers – more on that later).
The Aqueon filter provides a 5 stage filtration system with the plastic grids on the filter acting as the biological media. While I find that unusual, it works and it keeps separate from the filter bag. The filter bad has mechanical and chemical filtration in one and is fairly reasonable to replace. Because Aqueon is a big name brand around fish stores, it is really easy to find replacement parts and replacement cartridges. Aqueon also supplies you with a 3 year warranty – a testament to Aqueon’s quality engineering over the years.
You will see a recurring theme here for power filters in that they are loud. The Aqueon is no exception. In my personal experience, it tends to be on the louder side and they tend to be on the low gallons per hour side. It’s a quality filter and great for first timers, especially with the LED that tells you when to replace the cartridge.
- 3 year warranty
- LED tells you when it’s time to replace filter cartridge
- Easy to find replacement parts
- Low gallons per hour
7. Marineland Emperor Biowheel
A high end version of Marineland's biowheel. Features great chemical media capacity and larger biowheels
The Marineland Emperor Biowheel is an upgrade version of the Penguin Biowheel that has a number of improved features. The biggest difference is that the emperor filters have a chamber for you to place optional media. It still is limited so you can’t use bulker media, but it does address the main issue of the Penguin models. The Emperors use a larger biowheel, which means you have even more biological filtration available and a slightly better built wheel an axel. Emperors also have a higher flow rate than the pegiun biowheels.
You get these upgrades for an increase price putting this in the premium category of power filters. There is a smaller Emperor 280 model available, but it still is too large for smaller tanks like 20 gallon tanks. Overall, this is a pretty comprehensive power filter.
- Wet/Dry Filtration
- Can add optional filter media
- More expensive than penguin biowheel
- Too large for smaller aquariums
8. Aquatop PF Series – With A UV Sterilizer
An aquarium power filter that comes equipment with a uv sterilizer. Well priced for what it offers
Aquatop has been getting more popular at the local fish stores and I’m not really sure how I feel about it. The PF Power Filter has a number of good features like a surface skimmer and their included UV Sterilizer. The UV is not powerful, but will work very well to keep your water from turning green. When you consider that it comes with a sterilizer, the price isn’t that bad as a total package.
However, I’m not a fan of the filter media cartridge. It’s an all in one cartridge, which means you are removing some quality biological media when you replace it. The UV is not a high end parasite killing sterilizer. Except the lowest end of sterilization, which is clarification (your water will look amazing though). If you are worried about green water problems and can’t afford or work with a stand alone UV sterilizer, this would be a power filter to consider.
- Surface skimmer
- UV is a good clarifier
- Harder to find filter media cartridges
- Low quality UV
- Replacing the cartridge = removing biological filtration
There are a lot of power filters out on the market and a number of these are quality built. However, two power filters here really stand out as the best aquarium power filter on this list.
These two filters would be the Hagen Aquaclear and the Seachem Tidal. The Aquaclear is a very versatile and reliable power filter that has stood the test of time and it’s large capacity lets you put whatever you want in it. You only have to worry about replacing chemical media with it. The Seachem Tidal is essentially an upgraded Aquaclear. It has amazing premium features and the out of the box media is great. I would recommend the Aquaclear if your budget is smaller and the Tidal if you can spend a little more for the extra features.
Cleaning a power filter is really easy to do. This is what makes them more attractive than Canister filters (aside from price). If your filter has a filter bag, you simply need to remove it and replace with a new one. If the filter bag has a carbon section in it, you will want to wash it off before putting it into the filter. For sponges, you simply need to take your aquarium water and wash it in the water.
Here is a good video from Chewy’s Bro Aquatics showing how to clean an Aquaclear filter:
Other things you will want to clean out routinely will be the pipes and the impeller motor. You will want a bottle brush/pipe cleaner to clean pipes. These can be used to clean the inside of the impeller chamber of the pump as well.
Carbon media will need to replaced at least once per month. Biological media you should never need to replace.
This was a nice throwback to me to go back to power filters and move into the freshwater side of things. I hope this guide helps you make an informed decision when purchasing a power filter for your aquarium. All these filters are quality filters. Chose the one that fits with your budget and aquarium needs. Thanks for reading :).
Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping – both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.