Best Aquarium Canister Filter: Reliable Quality Motor & Tubing For Various Tanks

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My friend, Ben, decided to start a Cichlid tank as his pandemic hobby.

When he asked me for help selecting the best aquarium filter, I said his best bet was a canister filter.

Here’s the deal…

Some fish, like Cichlids, originate in water with robust circulation. The best aquarium filter for them is a canister filter.

The Penn-Plax Cascade Aquarium Canister Filter is one of the best canister filters because it’s reliable and comes in several sizes.

We spent more time studying different canister filters and saw some that would be the best external aquarium filter for other tanks.

The 5 Best Canister Filters Reviewed

1. Penn-Plax Cascade Aquarium Canister Filter – Best Overall

Most fish are anywhere from 6 weeks to a few months old when you buy them. Some can take several years to reach their full size. This means your fish tank is going to have double, triple, or even greater increases in bioload over time.

If your filter is already at its limit, there is a good chance you will have problems keeping your fish alive.

One of the things I like most about the Penn Plax canister filter is you can easily buy a bigger filter than your tank needs. After you set the filter up, all you need to do is lower the filtration rate to accommodate the current bioload. Later, as your fish grow and take up more space, the filter’s capacity will grow with their needs.

Pros

  • All models have adjustable flow rates. 
  • Multiple size options make it easy to buy an oversized filter for your aquarium.
  • Will work perfectly well with generic or custom media, making it budget-friendly.
  • Canister trays make it very easy to preserve the biofilter.
  • Roomy canister trays let you keep some old media to preserve biofilter.  
  • Valve taps rotate so that you can create the best position for your aquarium

Cons

  • Tubes and connectors may be prone to cracking and wear. 
  • Shutoff for cleaning doesn’t always work right.

Takeaway

This is the best aquarium canister filter for beginners because it is fairly easy to set up and operate.  It is also the best canister filter for aquariums that you intend to keep in operation for several years.

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2. SunSun HW-304B UV Sterilizer – Best Multi-Tasking Filter

Over the years, I’ve been known to say the sudden appearance of algae in a new tank is a sure sign it’s finally on the way to being a healthy aquatic habitat.

The problem is algae is very unsightly and can pose a suffocation hazard to your fish.

When fish don’t have enough dissolved oxygen in the water, they will get sick more easily.

One of the most useful modern inventions for aquariums is UV sanitizers. It will kill off algae in both newly cycled and established tanks. UV will also kill off any bacteria, and some other disease-bearing organisms that might pose a threat to your fish.

This is why the addition of a UV light to the SunSun canister filter makes it one of the best aquarium canister filters for new and established aquariums.

Pros

  • UV light helps eliminate algae in new and established tanks.
  • Only need 1 outlet to manage two distinct device functions.  
  • Reliable motor, connectors, and tubing will last for years.
  • Includes spray bar, which you can use to spread out the flow of water back into the tank. 
  • Spraybar also increases disruption of the water surface, thus increasing oxygenation.
  • Spraybar also reduces the harsh impact of water flow back into the tank.   

Cons

  • Doesn’t have adjustable flow rates. 
  • Fragile fish and shrimp may not do well even if the spray bar reduces the impact of water flow.
  • Can be difficult to prime the pump.

Takeaway

The Sunsun Canister Filter With Uv Sterilizer is a game-changer for established tanks with algae problems.  You can also use it in brand new tanks in order to help prevent algae from showing up in the first place.  

Its multi-function capacity makes it the best external filter for aquarium owners that don’t want to use harsh chemicals to get rid of algae.

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3. Eheim Classic 2211 – Best Small Canister Filter

When I first took up aquarium keeping, being able to afford a 10-gallon tank was a big deal. As a result, I found a lot of ways to do more with less tank space.

One of the best things about the Eheim Classic is that you can use it comfortably in tanks ranging from 20 gallons to around 40 gallons. Since the design is also fairly straightforward, it’s the best aquarium canister filter for people getting into the lower end of mid-sized tanks.

The other thing I like about the Eheim Classic is that the motor and seals last for a long time.

Consider that healthy fish in a well-established tank can live for 10 – 20 years. A filter that lasts for at least 10 years is very important.

Pros

  • Quieter and easier to prime than other models featured in this canister filters review.
  • Fewer parts to wear out and leak than more complex models
  • The manufacturer has a reputation for building long-lasting, reliable products.

Cons

  • Might be prone to clogging depending on how filtration media is arranged in the canister.
  • Lack of dedicated trays makes it difficult to keep media separate. This makes it harder to preserve the biofilter because some media lasts longer than others.

Takeaway

This filter combines a simple design with reliable performance. If you are looking for a reliable canister filter for a 20 – 40 gallon tank, the Eheim Classic will suit your needs.

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4. Marineland 360 – Best for Tanks With New Biofilters

When I started up my first 40-Gallon tank, I was amazed at how much longer it took to complete the first nitrification cycle. During the first year, I also had to baby the biofilter in that tank more than in smaller tanks.

If this experience taught me anything, it is that big filters with plenty of media are essential. This is why I like the Marineland 360 for both starting new tanks and long-term use.

Fish illness is one of those situations that no aquarium keeper likes to deal with. It doesn’t matter if the disease comes from a new fish, immune system collapse from hidden stress, or injury.

The need for adding antibiotics to the water almost always kills off the good bacteria that make up the biofilter.

A larger media surface area won’t prevent that. But it does give you more room to mix colonized media from another tank with new material.

Pros

  • Can be primed manually or you can use self-priming. 
  • The canister and inner trays have a lot of room, making them easy to handle.
  • Large trays also make it easy to preserve biofilters.
  • Very easy to try custom media, regardless of size and shape.
  • Preserve biofilter easily because there is room to leave some old media behind.
  • Standard tubing and other component sizes make it easier to use generic replacement parts.

Cons

  • Doesn’t come with a spray bar. There is also no compatible accessory provided by the manufacturer.
  • Can’t adjust water flow, so it is very hard to control how water enters the tank.
  • Uneven water flow may cause social disruption among tank mates.
  • Aggressive tankmates may push weaker fish into the higher water flow area.
  • Increased risk of fish injury from excess water flow.

Takeaway

The Marineland 360 Canister is a solid choice for anyone starting up a new tank. It is one of the larger-sized filters on the market, meaning there is plenty of room for extra media.

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5. Fluval 07 Series – Best for Space and Strength Challenges

I never realized how difficult it could be to manage aquarium care until I started having serious carpal tunnel problems. Even though I’d cleaned all my tanks and filters before surgery, it was still several months before my hand returned to normal.

During that time, I developed a firm appreciation for how easy the Fluval 07 filter is to open and manage. Unlike other filters, I was able to do almost everything with my good hand, including opening the top of the canister.

As an aquarium keeper, you are always going to be on the lookout for new filters and media types.

This filter offers reliable performance and ease of maintenance. If you have a hard time managing media changes in other filters, the Fluval 07 will be the best canister filter for your tanks.

Pros

  • Filter media baskets are easy to remove and fill.
  • The canister is easy to open even in tight spaces.
  • Easier internal access for people with reduced hand flexibility or strength.
  • 4 separate media baskets give you plenty of room to try out different media types. 
  • Fluval brand media is readily available, or you can try generics.

Cons

  • compact size limits the amount of media you can add to the filter.
  • Can’t rotate the inlet and outlets. 
  • Difficult to arrange the tubing for optimal appearance and pumping.

Takeaway

The Fluval 07 Series Performance Canister Filter is an ideal choice if you have limited space or hand-related challenges. You will find it easier to maintain than most other filters.

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Factors When Buying a Canister Filter

Water Flow Rate vs. Natural Habitat

When you visit the local pet store, it may be hard to imagine how each species of fish lives in its natural habitat.

As you watch the water in each separate tank moving at the same rate, you may not even realize how damaging this can be.

For example, tetras tend to do much better in slow-moving water.

First, they are much weaker swimmers compared to fish like tiger barbs that come from fast-moving water.

Second, their gills aren’t made to process fast-moving water that well.

Considering water flow in the fish’s natural habitat is essential if you hope to pick a canister filter that will maximize the well-being of your fish.

If you plan to keep fish that need slower moving water, start with a canister filter that allows you to adjust the flow rate.

It also helps to make sure you have a spray bar so you can break up the output across the tank instead of it being in just one spot.

Bioload, Fish Size, and Filter Capacity

Tiger barb in a freshwater aquarium

When a fish as small as tiger barb doubles in size, it isn’t that much of a big deal in an established tank.

On the other hand, their relatives, the tinfoil barbs are sold when they are 2 – 3 inches long.

By the time they reach maturity, they will reach about 14 inches in length. Since most of that size is taken up by the body as opposed to fins, the increase in bioload is enormous.

Even though canister filters are very efficient, they are also more expensive than other filter types. It is very important to consider how much bioload the filter will have to manage as the fish in your tank mature and age.

You will be better off buying a bigger filter with a controllable water flow rather than have to buy a bigger one later on.

Ability to Get Media and Replacement Parts

New canister filters usually come with several different kinds of media. While manufacturers will more than likely hope you stay with their brand, you can also use generics. This includes cutting down generic filter pads and sponges to fit the canister shape.

As someone that started with aquarium floss and carbon, I can tell you for a fact, there is little, if any need to buy proprietary filter materials. I’ve been known to toss proprietary media and resins in the trash and go with my standbys instead. This includes nitrate pads, water softeners (if needed), zeolites, activated carbon, and filter floss.

Replacement parts such as tubing, impellers, and gaskets are another story. It is worth your while to find out how easy it will be to get replacements for these essential parts.

Standard sizes are very helpful because that means you won’t have to rely on the manufacturer.

When it comes to impellers, I always look at the history of each model. If the manufacturer used the same impeller in older models, then there is a good chance they will stay with what works. Nevertheless, I always buy two extras so that I have them on hand.

Managing the Filter Media in an Emergency

Ben’s Cichlids will put on a lot of body size in their first two years of life. That is also the time when the biofilter in his tank is likely to be the most unstable.

This is also the time when the fish will be establishing their territories and more inclined to fight and seriously injure each other.

These emergency situations may require putting up temporary barriers as well as using antibiotics.   Without the ability to increase water flow, the barrier can have a very negative impact on water flow in the tank.

Since antibiotics tend to weaken or completely kill off the biofilter, this can have catastrophic consequences for water quality.

The ability to change media quickly, and adjust the water rate is something that will save fish lives from ammonia surges and other problems.

Making rapid emergency adjustments to the filter as opposed to doing water changes also helps reduce the risk of stress-induced diseases like ich, tail/mouth rot, and parasites.

Ease of Setup and Maintenance

A new aquarium keeper will tell you that you have to clean the tank every month and change the filter just as often.

People that have kept aquariums for a few years will tell you that you can go every few months between filter changes and cleanings.

A true veteran will tell you to mess with the water, the gravel, and filter as little as possible.

Personally, I take different approaches based on the age and needs of the specific tank.

Some develop a robust nitrogen cycle very quickly and need very little care after the first few months.

For other tanks, I’ve swapped out media well into the 3rd and 4th years.

During the stage when you may need to swap out media more often, it’s vital to get into the filter easily and make adjustments.

For example, if you need to add zeolites to control an ammonia surge, it shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes to make the adjustments.

Considering ammonia can kill all the fish in your tank in under an hour, ease of maintenance should be one of your top priorities.

As you can see in the following video, all canister filters have the same underlying functionality. Having some ideas about how the insides of the filter fit together can still make it easier to gauge how easy or difficult it will be to maintain the filter.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the best type of canister filter?

Each tank has unique needs. The best canister filter for a tank full of Cichlids may not be good for a tank with tetras.

Instead of looking for just one model or brand, start by understanding your tank’s current and future needs from a bioload and water flow perspective.

Is it better to use an external canister filter?

When you first start a new tank, it can look pretty bare. This may lead you to believe real estate inside the tank isn’t a big consideration.

Fast forward a few weeks or months to when your aquatic pets reach maturity and start nest building or engaging in more territorial behaviors. As the fish and their needs get bigger, real estate in the tank will become a premium.

An external filter will free up a good bit of room in the tank. If you plan to keep larger, more aggressive fish, it can also reduce the risk of your fingers getting bit when you need to change the filter media.

How do you know the right type of canister filter to use for my fish tank?

Aside from the water flow and bioload aspects, you should also consider how well you can manage the filter during routine care and emergency needs. If you aren’t able to open the filter and exchange media to manage an emergency, it’s best to find a model that meets the fish’s needs and yours.

Conclusion

When canister filters became more available to home aquarium keepers, I quickly adopted them for my bigger tanks. While some of my favorite models are no longer being manufactured, I believe the Penn-Plax Cascade Aquarium Canister Filter is the best available.

With the notable exception of betas and other fish that live in very slow-moving water, just about every species of fish will thrive with this filter.

As you read this aquarium canister filter review, I hope that you have some good ideas about which canister model will work best for your tank.

Last Updated: February 11, 2022

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