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Canister Filter vs Power Filter: Benefits & Drawbacks

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

Are you getting a new aquarium and need a filter? Maybe you already have one but are now second-guessing your choice. Yes, there are lots of filtration units out there for aquariums, with canister filters and power filters being some of the most popular choices.

However, the canister filter vs power filter debate is a BIG one. We are here today to provide you with all of the info you need to make a decision between these two, so you can get the type of filter that works best for you and your aquarium.

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The Canister Filter

Canister filters are usually quite large and powerful filtration units used for aquariums. When it comes down to it, you probably won’t find a more powerful or efficient filtration unit than the canister filter. (They also come in nano options.)

Generally speaking, canister filters function from outside the tank. Yes, they are not actually inside the fish tank, at least nothing except for the tubing used to draw in water. These things consist of a large canister that houses all filtration media.

Water is drawn up through tubes from the aquarium and fed into the external canister filter. The water then passes through a variety of filter media in order to be cleaned.

fish tank filter hose
Image By: mariait, Shutterstock

Some canister filters have the water flowing top to bottom, some bottom to top, and some front to back or back to front. This really depends on the model of the canister filter.

Canister filters are often quite large and can handle an insane amount of water volume per hour. At the same time, they usually always allow the user to control what type of filter media is on the interior, and how much of it too.

This is one of the reasons why they are so versatile because you can usually choose your own mix of mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration. In other words, you can customize the media to suit the specific needs of your aquarium.

Make no mistake about it, because these things are big, they are a bit hard to maintain, and yeah, they are quite expensive too, especially for a decent one. With that being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find another type of filtration unit that is more versatile in terms of media, powerful, and efficient.

  • Easy to customize and combine media
  • Powerful pumps can handle a lot of water
  • External housing saves aquarium space
  • Don’t cause water loss or suck in fish
  • Pricey
  • Hard to maintain
  • Fairly noisy
  • Bulky

wave dividerThe Power Filter

Power filters are another popular and good option, but unlike the canister filter, these are best for beginners, people with smaller aquariums, and people who don’t want to spend a fortune on water filtration.

A power filter is a simple filter, also known as HOB or hang on back filters. These filters are also somewhat external, as the bulk of them hangs over the back of the rim of the aquarium. They can be space savers indeed.

A power filter is also fairly easy to install, as you just have to place them over the rim of the tank, plug them in, turn them on, and they are good to go.

glass aquarium tank
Image Credit: Unsplash

Water is sucked up through the intake, passes through various mechanical, biological, and chemical media, and is then deposited back into the aquarium via the spillway.

Now, they usually don’t allow you to customize media very much, and they aren’t that powerful, although the name would suggest otherwise. However, they are fairly inexpensive, easy to maintain, and great for small aquariums and beginners alike.

  • Compact inside & outside the tank
  • Easy to install, operate, and maintain
  • Inexpensive
  • Help with water aeration and oxygenation
  • Less powerful, with a smaller water capacity
  • Hard to customize media
  • Less durable
  • Don’t work with hooded aquariums
  • Can cause water evaporation

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Detailed Canister Filter Pros & Cons

As is the case with all products, there are always going to be pros and cons to everything, and this includes the good old canister filter. Let’s take a look at both the advantages and the drawbacks that canister filters bring to the table right now.

Benefits of Canister Filters

In terms of pure filtration power, you probably won’t find much better than a good canister filter.

1. Media

When it comes to room for housing filter media, canister filters tend to have a whole lot of it, being able to fit an ample amount of filtration media for some really clean and clear water.

A canister filter usually allows you to customize the amount and types of media you use thanks to the media slots. They allow you to choose a certain amount of mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration so you can get the combination that works best for you.

2. Pump Power / Water Volume

In relation to this last point, canister filters tend to have the most powerful pumps and motors out of all aquarium filtration units. In other words, these things are designed to handle a whole lot of water volume.

When it comes down to it, you would be very hard-pressed to find any kind of filter that can handle as much water on an hourly basis as a good canister filter. Their ability to process and filter large quantities of water on a consistent basis is a big bonus no doubt.

3. Space Saver

Another bonus associated with canister filters is that they help save lots of room inside of the aquarium. These things, while they are big, they are usually always housed externally, outside of the aquarium.

The only thing inside of the aquarium is the water intake tube, as well as the return tubing for the filtered water. This helps to save prime real estate inside of the tank for fish, plants, and decorations.

4. No Loss of Water

Canister filters are also nice because they don’t cause a loss of water or fish. Other types of filters, such as power filters, can suck in fish, something which a canister filter won’t do. You also don’t have to worry about fish jumping out of the top of the tank.

At the same time, power filters cause a lot of water to evaporate, resulting in a loss of aquarium water, which is something else a good canister filter will never do.

Drawbacks of Canister Filters

1. Cost

There is no doubt about the fact that a good canister filter is going to run you a couple of hundred bucks at least. Yes, they are big, powerful, and versatile, but this also means that they always come with one heck of a price tag.

2. Maintenance

Canister filters require a whole lot of maintenance and knowledge. You have to know which filter media goes on which slot, how much of this media you need, and how much of that media you need. You have to know how to open them up properly and how to clean all of the individual components.

Simply put, canister filters are a bit of a pain to maintain, especially with all of that tubing and all of those moving parts. There are many things here which can break and get dirty, especially when not well maintained. Both installation and maintenance are not easy here.

3. Noisy

Just on a small side note, because of their big-time filtration capabilities and pumping around so much water, these things tend to be fairly noisy.

4. Size / Tank Space

Finally, canister filters are very big and bulky in their own right. Sure, they don’t take up space inside of the aquarium, but on the outside they surely do. You need ample dedicated space outside of the tank in order to house a canister filter.

A green beautiful lush planted tropical freshwater aquarium with fishes
Image Credit: Bukhta Yurii, Shutterstock

wave dividerDetailed Power Filter Pros & Cons

Now that we have looked at the pros and cons of canister filters, let’s do the same for power filters.

Benefits of Power Filters

1. Tank Space

Power filters do not take up much space in general, as they are quite small. They do not take up space inside of the fish tank, thus saving real estate for fish and plants.

At the same time, the part that hangs over the back of the tank is also usually quite small and doesn’t require much space.

2. Installation & Maintenance

Power filters are very simple in their operation and installation. Installing them only takes a couple of minutes and there aren’t many parts to deal with.

In terms of operation, they are also very simple and don’t require too much maintenance.

Occasional cleaning and filtration changes are about it when it comes to maintaining a power filter. They are easy to install and to clean, and really don’t take much knowledge or skill to keep running.

3. Cost

Power filters tend to be quite inexpensive. Sure, they aren’t all that powerful, but they won’t cost you a fortune either. They are also easy to find and can be found online or in virtually any pet store.

4. Aeration & Oxygenation

The spillway which lets the water back into the tank often forces air into the water, thus assisting in water aeration and oxygenation.

Image credit: hedgehog94, Shutterstock

Drawbacks of Power Filters

1. Water Capacity

There is no doubt about the fact that a power filter just cannot handle nearly as much water as canister filters. They just aren’t designed for high water volumes.

2. Filter Media

While some power filters might allow for minimal media customization, generally speaking, they don’t. Yes, they do engage in all 3 major forms of filtration, but you won’t be able to choose and customize the amount of each type.

3. Durability

Power filters tend to be a bit cheaper made than canister filters and just are not as durable or long-lasting.

4. Fitting To Hooded Aquariums

Power filters have trouble fitting on hooded aquariums. If your aquarium has a hood, unless it is custom-made, you won’t be putting that power filter on it.

Moreover, because the top of the aquarium is open, power filters often cause or suffer from a high level of water evaporation, and even fish loss too.

aquarium plant divider

Final Thoughts

There you have it, folks. You should have all of the info you need to make an informed decision here. When it comes down to it, canister filters are bigger, way more powerful, and are versatile in terms of their filter media, but they do take up space outside of the fish tank, they cost a lot, and are hard to maintain too.

On the other hand, a power filter will take up less space, they are much more affordable and much easier to maintain than a canister filter, but they just don’t have the same power, durability, or versatility as the canister filter.

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Featured Image: Power Filter: Fluval C Power Series / Canister Filter: Cascade Canister Filter

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