Fish Tank Air Pump Vs Filter: Which is Required for Your Aquarium?

Air pumps and filters are both essential components of a fish tank, but they serve different purposes. The air pump increases oxygen levels, while the filter removes debris and harmful substances in the water.

They are different altogether, and comparing them is like comparing apple to orange, not apple to apple.

Anyway, in this in-depth article, I’ll describe both filters, and air pumps, how they function, what’s their benefit, how they differ, and do you need both of them or not. Stay tuned!

Sponge filter in an aquarium
Sponge filter in an aquarium

Understanding Fish Tank Air Pumps

Fish tank air pumps are an essential component of any aquarium setup. They play a vital role in maintaining the overall health and well-being of your fish.

Functionality And Purpose Of Air Pumps

Air pumps are small, motorized devices designed to create water movement in your fish tank. They work by drawing in air from the environment and then expelling it into the water through a series of outlets or diffuser stones.

The primary function of air pumps is to increase the oxygen levels in the aquarium, ensuring an adequate supply for your fish and other aquatic creatures.

How Air Pumps Improve Oxygen Levels

Sufficient oxygen levels are crucial for the well-being of your fish. Here are the key points explaining how air pumps contribute to improving oxygen levels in your aquarium:

  • Aeration: By introducing air into the water, air pumps enhance the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide at the water’s surface, facilitating vital respiration for your fish.
  • Increased surface area: The bubbling action generated by air pumps increases the water’s surface area, allowing more oxygen to diffuse into the water.
  • Microbubble formation: Some air pumps produce microbubbles, which further enhance gas exchange by maximizing the contact between the air and water.
  • Water circulation: Air pumps promote water circulation by creating gentle currents, preventing stagnation, and maintaining a healthy environment for your fish.
Air pump
A newly bought air pump

Key Features And Types Of Air Pumps

Air pumps come in various types, each offering specific features and benefits. Consider the following points when selecting an air pump for your fish tank:

  • Size and power: Choose an air pump with sufficient power to cater to the size of your fish tank. Larger tanks may require more powerful air pumps to maintain optimal oxygen levels.
  • Adjustable airflow: Some air pumps come with adjustable airflow control, allowing you to regulate the amount of air entering the aquarium.
  • Noise levels: Air pumps are usually noisy, but some air pumps operate quietly ensuring a peaceful environment for you and your fish. But, you need to pay extra for such air pumps.
  • Backup battery option: Some air pumps offer a battery backup feature, providing oxygen circulation during power outages.
A rechargeable air pump
A rechargeable air pump

Benefits Of Using Air Pumps In A Fish Tank

Using an air pump in your fish tank brings several advantages that contribute to the overall well-being of your aquatic friends:

  • Healthy oxygen levels: Air pumps ensure the continuous supply of oxygen, creating a healthy and thriving environment for your fish.
  • Stress reduction: The added water movement and surface agitation brought about by air pumps help reduce stress in your fish, particularly for species that prefer flowing waters.
  • Improved water quality: The increased water circulation and aeration provided by air pumps enhance filtration efficiency, resulting in cleaner and clearer water.
  • Enhanced biological filtration: The water movement created by air pumps helps to ensure that your fish tank’s filtration system is effectively processing waste and maintaining a beneficial bacteria colony.
  • Decorative elements: Some air pumps come with unique designs or features like led lights, adding an aesthetic touch to your fish tank and creating an eye-catching display.

Air pumps are a valuable asset in maintaining a healthy aquarium ecosystem. By improving oxygen levels, promoting water circulation, and providing various other benefits, these devices play a crucial role in the well-being of your fish and other aquatic inhabitants.

Choose an air pump that suits your tank’s size and requirements, and enjoy the benefits it brings to your underwater world.

Exploring Fish Tank Filters

Fish tank filters play a crucial role in maintaining the water quality and overall health of your aquarium. They not only help to keep the water clean by removing impurities but also contribute to oxygenation, creating a healthy environment for your fish.

Let’s delve deeper into the significance of fish tank filters and explore the different types available in the market.

Sponge filter with air tubing
Sponge filter with air tubing

Role Of Filters In Maintaining Water Quality

  • Filters act as a powerful tool to maintain water quality by removing debris, uneaten food, and fish waste from the tank. This prevents the accumulation of harmful substances and promotes a healthier ecosystem for your aquatic pets.
  • By eliminating excess nutrients, filters prevent the growth of algae, which can be detrimental to your fish’s well-being.
  • Fish produce ammonia as a waste product, which is toxic to them. Filters help in breaking down ammonia and converting it into less harmful compounds, such as nitrites and nitrates, through a process called biological filtration.

How Filters Contribute To Oxygenation

  • Fish require oxygen to survive, and filters aid in oxygenating the water by creating surface agitation. This movement increases the contact between air and water, facilitating oxygen exchange.
  • Filters also promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, which play a vital role in breaking down harmful substances. This helps in maintaining a healthy oxygen level in the tank.

Different Types Of Fish Tank Filters

There are various types of fish tank filters available, allowing you to choose the one that best suits your aquarium setup and specific needs:

  • Power filters: These are popular and versatile filters that use a combination of mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration techniques. They are easy to install and maintain, making them a preferred choice for beginners.
  • Canister filters: These filters provide exceptional mechanical and biological filtration. They are positioned below the tank and can handle large volumes of water. Canister filters are known for their efficiency and excellent water clarity.
  • Sponge filters: Ideal for small tanks or breeding setups, sponge filters rely on biological filtration. They offer a gentle water flow, making them suitable for fragile fish and fry.
  • Undergravel filters: Placed beneath the gravel substrate, undergravel filters utilize a system of uplift tubes to draw water through the gravel, facilitating biological filtration. They are cost-effective and easy to set up.
  • Internal filters: These compact filters are placed directly inside the tank and offer mechanical and biological filtration. They are suitable for smaller tanks and can be easily adjusted or moved around.
Internal filter inside the tank
An internal filter inside the tank

Advantages Of Using Filters In A Fish Tank

  • Filters significantly reduce the frequency of water changes required, as they help maintain optimal water conditions for a longer period.
  • They remove impurities and odors from the water, enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal of the tank.
  • Fish tank filters reduce the risk of diseases and mortality by ensuring a clean and healthy environment for your fish.
  • They provide stable and consistent water quality, minimizing stress on your aquatic pets.
  • Filters optimize the nitrogen cycle in the aquarium, aiding in the growth of beneficial bacteria that contribute to water quality.

Remember, a healthy and thriving aquatic ecosystem starts with proper filtration.

Comparing Air Pumps And Filters

Air pumps are primarily responsible for maintaining a steady flow of oxygen in the tank. They work by pushing air through a tube and releasing it into the water. This produces bubbles and surface agitation, which helps to oxygenate the water and create a healthy environment for your fish.

Filters, on the other hand, play a role in maintaining water quality by removing debris, waste, and harmful chemicals from the tank. They work by pulling water through a series of mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration media, effectively purifying the water and keeping it free from contaminants.

Differentiating Between Air Pumps And Filters [Comparison Table]

AspectAir PumpAquarium Filter
UsageProvides aeration for the aquariumRemoves debris and purifies water
FunctionalityIncreases oxygen levels in the waterRemoves physical and chemical impurities from water
CostGenerally less expensive (5~30 USD)Slightly more expensive (20~400USD)
Water PurificationLimited; mainly increases oxygenEffective purification of water
OxygenationExcellent at providing oxygenationLimited oxygenation capabilities
NoiseUsually noisyMay produce some noise
Power UsageConsumes low powerConsumes moderate power
Space RequirementTakes a minimum to moderate spaceFilters can take up space inside the tank. Only the canister filter can be set outside the tank
MaintenanceMinimal maintenance requiredRegular cleaning and replacement of filter media required
Filtration TypesDoes not perform filtrationCan perform mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration
CompatibilityCompatible with various setupsDifferent types available for different tank sizes and setups
Biological FilterDoes not offer biological filtrationCan support beneficial bacteria for biological filtration
Suitable forSmall aquariums or fish bowlsAll sizes of aquariums
Visual appealThe visual effect of bubbles can enhance the overall lookThe visual effect of bubbles can enhance overall look

Pros And Cons Of Using Air Pumps

Air pumps offer several benefits for your fish tank, including:

  • Improved oxygenation: Air pumps increase the oxygen levels in the water, ensuring a constant supply for your fish.
  • Stress reduction: The bubbles created by air pumps create a gentle water movement that can help reduce stress in your fish.
  • Aesthetic appeal: The visual effect of bubbles and surface agitation can enhance the overall look of your aquarium.

However, there are also some downsides to consider:

  • Not suitable for all fish: Some fish species, such as bettas, prefer calm waters and may find the bubbles and water movement caused by air pumps distressing.
  • Noise and vibration: Air pumps can generate noise and vibrations, which may be bothersome if your fish tank is located in a quiet area.
  • Extra equipment and maintenance: Air pumps require additional equipment such as air stones and tubing, which adds to the setup and maintenance of your aquarium.
Air pump installed in one of my aquariums
An air pump installed in one of my aquariums

Pros And Cons Of Using Filters

Filters are an essential component of any fish tank setup and offer several advantages:

  • Water purification: Filters remove debris, waste, and toxins, helping to maintain clean and healthy water conditions for your fish.
  • Beneficial bacteria growth: Filters provide space for beneficial bacteria to grow, aiding in the breakdown of harmful substances and promoting a balanced ecosystem.
  • Reduced maintenance: With proper filtration, you can reduce the frequency of water changes and other maintenance tasks.

However, there are a few drawbacks to consider:

  • Cost: Filters can be more expensive upfront compared to air pumps, especially if you opt for high-quality models.
  • Space requirements: Filters can take up space inside the tank, potentially limiting the available swimming area for your fish.
  • Flow rate: Some filters may create strong water currents, which may not be suitable for certain fish species.
Hang on Back filter installed in a new aquarium
Hang on the Back filter was installed in a new aquarium

Can You Use Air Pump for the Purpose of Aquarium Filtration?

No, not at all, air pump can’t provide sufficient purification to aquarium water. They do this only to a limited extent as I discussed earlier by improving gas exchange that allows harmful gases to escape from the tank water.

However, that is not good enough where you can rely solely on an air pump. A filter is a must-have for effective filtration of the water.

If you have a filter you may not need an air pump, but if you have an air pump you can’t skimp on an aquarium filter. Filters provide oxygenation by water movement and in most cases it is sufficient enough that you do not need to buy an air pump separately.

I have a separate article where I have discussed a lot more details about why you don’t need an air pump if you have a filter. I request you to read that article for a better understanding.

Air Pump And Filter Combo [The Ultimate Oxygen Booster]

While air pump and filter functions are different, each plays a unique role in maintaining a healthy aquarium environment. Understanding how these two devices work together can help you create optimal conditions for your aquatic pets.

Understanding The Synergy Between Air Pumps And Filters:

By using both air pumps and filters, you create a synergistic effect that enhances oxygenation, and purification in your fish tank.

The air bubbles generated by the air pump helps to agitate the water’s surface, increasing the rate at which oxygen transfers from the atmosphere to the water.

The filter, on the other hand, removes impurities and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria, which ultimately leads to better oxygenation and water quality.

Some filters like sponge filters, undergravel filters require air as the driving force. So, you need an air pump to supply air. While using these types of filters you are already using an air pump and filter combo. But the downside is those filters are not suitable for medium to large tanks.

For other filters like canister, HOB, and internal filter you need to decide whether you need an additional air pump.

Canister filter is in operation in an aquarium
Canister filter is in operation in an aquarium

Benefits Of Using Both Air Pumps And Filters Together:

  • Enhanced oxygen supply: The primary benefit of combining an air pump and filter is the improved oxygen levels in your aquarium. Adequate oxygenation is crucial for the health and well-being of your fish, as it ensures the efficient functioning of their respiratory systems.
  • Increased water circulation: Both air pumps and filters contribute to water movement in the tank. This circulation helps distribute heat evenly, prevent stagnant areas, and maintain consistent water parameters throughout the aquarium.
  • Improved filtration efficiency: A filter alone may not be able to remove all debris and waste particles from the water column effectively. By incorporating an air pump, you enhance the filter’s efficiency by promoting better water flow and preventing particles from settling.

Factors To Consider When Choosing Both Air Pump and Filter

When thinking if both an air pump and a filter are required, consider the following factors:

  • Fish species: Different fish species have varying oxygen requirements and preferences for water movement. Research the needs of your specific fish to determine if both an air pump and filter are needed.
  • Tank size: The size of your tank can influence the required level of oxygenation and filtration. Larger tanks may require more powerful equipment to maintain optimal conditions.
  • Aquarium setup: Consider the overall aesthetics and layout of your aquarium. You may prefer the visual effect of bubbles provided by an air pump or prioritize the discreet operation of a filter.
  • Budget: Determine how much you are willing to invest in your aquarium setup, taking into account the cost of both air pumps and filters.

Considerations For Optimal Placement And Usage:

  • Placing the air pump: To maximize its oxygenating effect, position the air pump near the water’s surface or use an air stone or diffuser near the outflow of the filter. This placement ensures that the air bubbles are dispersed evenly throughout the tank.
  • Filter placement: The filter should be positioned to create adequate water flow and circulation. Placing it near the opposite side of the air pump ensures efficient removal of debris and proper distribution of oxygenated water.
  • Noise level: Air pumps can produce noise, so ensure that you choose one with a quiet operation. Consider placing the air pump on a sturdy surface or using noise-reducing techniques to minimize any disturbance.

By understanding the dynamics between air pumps and filters, you can create a harmonious aquatic environment that supports the health and vitality of your fish.

The combination of increased oxygenation, enhanced water circulation, and improved filtration efficiency will undoubtedly contribute to a thriving aquarium ecosystem.

Air pump, and air line tubing
Air pump, and airline tubing

Frequently Asked Questions On Fish Tank Air Pump Vs Filter

How Does A Fish Tank Air Pump Work?

A fish tank air pump operates by drawing in air from the atmosphere and delivering it as bubbles into the water. This promotes oxygenation, crucial for the health and well-being of fish and other aquatic organisms.

What Is The Purpose Of A Fish Tank Air Pump?

The primary function of a fish tank air pump is to increase the oxygen levels in the water, ensuring the fish can breathe properly. It also helps in creating water movement and surface agitation, which aid in maintaining a healthy aquatic environment.

What Are The Benefits Of Using A Fish Tank Filter?

Using a fish tank filter helps to remove waste, excess food, and harmful chemical substances from the water. It keeps the tank clean, maintains water quality, and provides a healthy habitat for the fish. A filter also aids in the biological filtration process, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Can I Use An Air Pump As A Substitute For A Filter?

While an air pump can enhance water circulation, it cannot substitute for a filter entirely. Filters are specifically designed to remove impurities and provide comprehensive biological, mechanical, and chemical filtration that an air pump cannot achieve.

Should I Use Both An Air Pump And A Filter In My Fish Tank?

Combining an air pump and a filter in your fish tank offers multiple benefits. The filter complements the air pump by removing debris and maintaining water quality, while the air pump enhances oxygenation. Together, they create an ideal environment for the fish.

Can The Noise From An Air Pump Be Reduced?

Yes, you can minimize the noise from an air pump by placing it on a soft surface or using rubber suction cups to dampen vibrations. Additionally, consider using a diffuser or an air stone to reduce the disturbance caused by air bubbles in the water, resulting in a quieter operation.


Both the air pump and a filter play crucial roles in maintaining the health and well-being of your aquatic pets. An air pump is ideal for increasing oxygen levels and creating a gentle water flow, especially for fish that require high levels of oxygen.

On the other hand, a filter helps in removing debris and waste, purifying the water, and maintaining a stable nitrogen cycle. It is essential for tank cleanliness and overall water quality.

Remember, a balanced combination of both an air pump and a filter will provide the best environment for your fish to thrive. Now, make an informed choice and give your beautiful aquatic friends the healthy habitat they deserve.

Sujit Modak

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