Do Aquariums Need Air Pumps?  

Do Aquariums Need Air Pumps

Air pumps are commonly used in the fishkeeping hobby, and to this day it is touted as a good aquarium accessory which does a great job at aeration, improving surface agitation and gaseous exchange. They are often used together with filters e.g. sponge and undergravel filters, aquarium decorations, and other air-driven equipment.

However, it may be the case that actually you don’t need the air pump for your tank setup.

Also, I need to start off by saying that I am not going to compare different products (models of the air pumps) here. This is not the goal of this article.

In this article, I will highlight the role of an air pump in a tank, how it works, different roles in the aquarium hobby, and lots more.

What is an Air Pump?

An air pump is basically a versatile aquarium accessory or equipment that provides a means by which a stream of bubbles make its way into an aquarium, thereby increasing water movement and circulation.

It is a mechanical device that is driven by electricity or battery power to pump air into an aquarium. The air it produces actively moves from the pump to the aquarium decoration e.g. air stone using airline tubing.

Keep in mind that this device doesn’t go inside the aquarium, it can either be placed at the side of the tank or housed in a cabinet, however, you are required to connect it to an aquarium device (which will be placed inside the tank) using an appropriate airline tubing.

The air pump works by forcing air into the water surface. The surface of the water is where gaseous exchange (transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide) takes place between the water and air.

Air pumps produce lots of air bubbles that rise to the surface and pop, thus agitating the surface and breaking the surface tension. That way, water movement improves and the transfer of dissolved oxygen into the water column is brought about.

The Role of an Air Pump in a Fish or Shrimp Tank

I have heard that some people say that you do not need to aerate your tank water because H2O is already part oxygen.

Well, this is simply wrong.

– Surface Agitation:

It is common knowledge that fish and other aquarium inhabitants need oxygen to live, and air pumps promote the availability of oxygen by increasing surface agitation, they force air into the aquarium and this is distributed through air stones.

Well, some people may ask what is surface agitation?

Basically, surface agitation is when the top of the water in your aquarium is moving. It creates waves, ripples, and breaks up the tension. Without surface agitation, our tanks will be covered with surface scum (biofilm) in no time.

So, air pumps speed up the exchange of gases and keep the water agitated at all times by providing bits of water currents in the water column.

It is important to understand that bubbles breaking the surface is where most of the gas exchange takes place, not the column of bubbles passing through the tank’s water!

Do not think that bubbles dissolving in the water make the difference. By simply dissolving in the water, they do not trigger the gas exchanging! The gas exchanging can happen during surface agitation.

In situations where the water is quite warm and the filter is not powerful enough to create adequate movement and surface agitation, additional aeration is required and an air pump can be utilized, it will act quickly and increase the dissolved oxygen levels in the tank.

Note: In low-tech planted tanks it will help to add CO2 when the plants deplete it from the water via the atmospheric exchange. It boosts the plants’ growth that makes them more efficient against algae.

– Increase Oxygen During Treatments with Medication

Also, air pumps should be installed during a fish or shrimp disease treatment with medications, this is because most medications are capable of depleting the oxygen levels and impeding oxygen exchange at the surface. Hence, air pumps are much needed in such cases to help increase oxygen content in aquarium water.

– Decorative Pieces

Air pumps also serve as decorative pieces, most times they are attached to air stones and other moving ornaments which promote water movement and circulation.

They are nice additions to fish tanks because they complement the overall aesthetics; as it is quite soothing to watch numerous air bubbles form hurriedly from the attached decors and float to the surface of your tank.

– Power Air-driven Filtration Devices

Furthermore, air pumps are used to power air-driven filtration devices such as sponge and undergravel filters, and also protein skimmers in marine aquaria.

These aquarium equipment require an air pump or powerhead to operate, without it, they cannot carry out their functions.

– Fixing Dead Spots Issues

Moreover, there is also the issue of dead spots or zones in tanks. These are spots where water is sitting still longer than in other areas. For example, behind decorations, driftwood, rocks, etc. Unfortunately, these spots can happen even in the tanks with powerful filtration.

The dead spots won’t harm your fish right away, but it is something you may want to avoid all the same. Because with time it may collect so much waste, that it will cause an ammonia spike.  

The addition of an air pump will break up the dead spot, thereby allowing uneaten food, detritus, and microbes in that area to be swept away. The whole point is to have all the water circulating throughout the tank.

Is air pump compulsory in a fish or shrimp tank?

It depends on your setup and fish/ shrimp requirements. For example, you don’t need an air pump in your tank as long as you have a powerful and efficient aquarium filter and there is enough surface agitation i.e. movement on the surface of the water. Also, there is no point in adding an air pump if you already have a powerhead available.

However, you may have to use air pumps even with powerful aquarium filters when some species require so. In shrimp keeping hobby, there are several shrimp species that prefer strong water current (for example, Bamboo shrimp and Vampire shrimp).

Uses of an Aquarium Air Pump

Ideally, an aquarium air pump is used to improve water circulation, movement, and oxygenation within a fish or some shrimp tanks.

Apart from that, it can also be used with other aquarium decorations and devices which serve a specific purpose in an aquarium.

Let’s have a look at some of them:

  • Air stones: These are small bubblers or porous objects that produce tiny bubbles in the aquarium water, they aid in oxygenation and minimizing bubbling noise.
    The air stone is connected to an air pump through the airline tubing, and once the air pump is turned on— air comes in contact with the water resulting in bubbles.
  • Breeder box: Breeder boxes are used for breeding, acclimatizing, or isolating fish and shrimp. Air pump helps to increase flow and oxygenation in the box.
  • Sponge filter and undergravel filter: These air-driven filtration devices are powered by air pumps. They use air produced by air pumps to provide mechanical and biological filtration in the aquarium.
  • Moving bed filter: It uses air from the air pump to churn the biological filter media, and also to enhance the growth of beneficial bacteria.
  • Decorations like treasure chest and cars: These decors utilize the air from air pumps to open and close the hood/chamber at intervals.

Can Fish Thrive Without Air Pump?

Of course, you do not need an air pump in your tank for your aquarium fish to live. A vast majority of hobbyists are indifferent to the opinion of adding air pumps, since they already have good filtration systems in their tanks, hence negating the need of installing an extra accessory.

If you deem the roles I mentioned unfit to have a pump, then it should be left out. Moreover, unless you have a piece of aquarium equipment that needs to be driven by a pump to enable it function, there is no need to install an air pump in your aquarium.

However, if you see that most of the fish starts behave differently, for example, like they are searching for something and head to the surface of the water, it is a sign that your fish do not get enough oxygen.

Air Pump Accessories

Air valve: Air valve controls the amount of air coming from the air pump into the tank.

Airline tubing: It is used to connect or direct the air flow from an air pump to a variety of aquarium equipment and decorations.

Airline connector: This is used to connect two pieces of the airline together.

Check valve: The check valve prevents aquarium water from siphoning back from the tank into the pump amongst other dangerous things that might occur in the event of a power failure.

Gang valve: This is used to control/adjust airflow or flow rate from a single air pump across multiple lines.

Choosing the Right Air Pump

Air pumps are available in a variety of sizes, shapes, models, ratings and outputs. They are manufactured with a particular tank capacity in mind.

– The Amount of Air and Tank Size

Obviously, small air pumps are meant for small tanks while bigger pumps are suitable for bigger fish tanks, so you need to put this into consideration as you make a purchase.

However, it does not mean that the numbers should be exact! The point is that there is a weak spot at the connection points of valves, meaning the constant air loss. Therefore, it is recommended to add 20 – 30 % more to compensate for the air lost.

– Number of Outlets

The number of outlets or ports available on a particular model is also indicated in the product packages so as to enable the intending buyer make the best buying decision.

– Noise

Some brands manufacture low-noise or quiet air pumps with adjustable flow rates, though they may not be as inexpensive as models without these features.

Anyway, if your aquarium air pump doesn’t come with an adjustable dial that is used to adjust the flow rate (increasing or decreasing the flow), you can easily add an additional accessory: an air valve.

Also, acquiring a quiet air pump is very important because the sound of a noisy air pump can be quite disturbing especially at night.

As for me, I would recommend checking Tetra series and Uniclife air pumps.

These brands have already won our love and trust.

In Conclusion

Air pumps can play a crucial role in the health of your aquarium. However, as mentioned earlier, an air pump is not a compulsory part of a tank setup if you already have something that creates water movement in the tank.

Aquarists mostly consider air pumps when they are using air-driven filters which cannot operate alone, these devices work jointly to provide mechanical and biological filtration in your tank.

In addition, it is false to say that the combination of air pump and air stones will provide sufficient oxygenation to the tank to keep your fish healthy. All an air pump does is to push air through the water column and this promotes the exchange of gases within the tank.

Keep in mind that an air pump solely cannot do the work of an aquarium filter, hence you need a powerful filter present to boost dissolved oxygen levels and provide adequate water circulation in the tank, while the air pump forms multiple bubbles and ripples that help to create movements in the water, thus increasing surface agitation.

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