Do I Need a Fish Tank Air Pump?

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As you go about setting up an aquarium fish tank, you have a lot of factors to consider.

How big a tank should you get? What kind of animals will you fill it with? Should you include plants, or lights, gravel or decorations?

fish tank bubbler

Among this, there is one more thing you should definitely consider installing on your fish tank. It’ll improve both the life of your aquarium critters and the general look and appeal of the fish tank.

Of course, we’re talking about: a fish tank air pump. An air pump, often referred to as a “bubbler,” may be a vital piece of equipment for your aquarium.

It can increase the oxygen levels in the water, alter the currents, help your fish tank filter operate more efficiently, and create bubbles that both look cool on their own and that power all kinds of fun action ornaments or decorations.

But what exactly is a fish tank air pump? What does it do, and how do you know whether or not one is needed in your tank? Here we’ll discuss everything you need to know about fish tank air pumps! Let’s dive in.

What is a Fish Tank Air Pump?

A fish tank air pump is a small device, which moves around the air in your aquarium. Usually, the air is pressurized.

This air pump uses an electromagnet to make a rubber diaphragm in the device quickly vibrate, pressurizing and moving the air.

Air pumps cause the appearance of bubbles in a fish tank, hence why they’re often referred to as a “bubbler.” In their cycling process, they often create some amount of noise, because of the vibration.

In addition to the aesthetic effect of bubbles, air pumps can be used to induce a current in the water of a fish tank, keeping the water moving and avoiding stagnation.

What Tanks Benefit Most from a Fish Tank Bubbler?

Some Animals Require Them

Not all tanks need a fish tank bubbler because many fish can survive perfectly well without one. However, there are several reasons why you may decide to invest in one.

aquarium bubbler

For example, some semi-aquatic animals require a higher level of circulated fresh air. These animals include crabs, newts, frogs, mudskippers, and shrimp.

An air pump will make sure that these animals do not suffer from lack of aeration. However, if you have a lot of plants in your tank, you may want to avoid installing an air pump altogether.

Planted tanks require a higher level of carbon dioxide than other fish tanks, and air pumps tend to force carbon dioxide out of the water as they send in more oxygen.

Some Filters Require Them

Some fish tanks have certain kinds of filters that are driven by air, such as under gravel filters, sponge filters, and corner filters.

If you have one of these in your aquarium, then you will need either an air pump or possibly a water pump to ensure the water in your tank stays clean and filtered.

On the other hand, most canister filters and hang-on back-filters will provide enough surface agitation of the water to keep your tank properly filtered and aerated.

They Create Currents

Air pumps can also create a good current in the water of your tank, which keeps the water from becoming stagnant.

This is especially useful if your aquarium contains fish which are used to swimming in a current in the wild.

Some Decorations Require Them

Additionally, if your fish tank contains action ornaments or other decorations that require an air pump to function, then you will want such a device to ensure these can operate properly.

They’re Pretty!

Finally, some people like the aesthetic appeal of the bubbles from an air pump and install one for that reason alone.

Fish Tank Air Pump vs. Air Stones

bubbles in a fish tank

While looking up information about your new aquarium, you may have heard of something called an air stone.

An air stone is not an air pump; rather, it is an attachment to the air pump, which increases the surface area of the air pump and causes the production of more bubbles.

Is this sufficient, or do you need something else? If you purchase an air pump, do you need an accompanying air stone? Let’s find out.

How Do Air Stones Work?

Though it may look like the air stone is introducing oxygen into the water through the bubbles it releases, that is actually not the case.

The air stone does not put oxygen directly into the water. Instead, it increases the surface area of the air pump, and the bubbles created as a result increase circulation in the water.

Put simply, since the water moves around with greater speed and volume, more water comes into contact with the oxygen-full air at the top of the tank. This results in greater oxygenation in an indirect way, since more of the water is able to release carbon dioxide and take in oxygen.

The air stone also helps water reach the filter more efficiently. This can result in a cleaner tank that requires less maintenance.

Of course, if you have a strong current in your tank already – either from the air pump itself or another device – you may not need an air stone. However, if your tank does not have enough oxygen, even with the air pump installed, it’s worth adding an air stone to your set-up.

You’ll realize this necessity if your fish begin to gasp or swim close to the surface of the aquarium more frequently. That’s a sign that your tank may have a too-low oxygen level.

Air Bubbler FAQs

Aquarium bubblers can be expensive, and who wants to install an unnecessary device?

So before you make your purchase, let’s answer some common questions and concerns.

fish tank air pump

Freshwater or Saltwater?

It is important to remember that not all air pumps are built for all types of water. For instance, saltwater is far more corrosive over time than freshwater.

Therefore, if you have a saltwater tank, you’ll need an air pump that is made of highly corrosion-resistant materials, making it suitable for that particular environment.

An air pump that is built for a freshwater tank cannot be used in a saltwater tank, because it will corrode too quickly.

However, an air pump built for a saltwater tank can be used in a freshwater tank. It’ll be unnecessarily durable, sure – but that can’t hurt!

How Big Does it Need to Be?

The size of your air pump will depend on the size of your fish tank. A bigger aquarium with a great volume of water will require a larger, stronger air pump in order to properly oxygenate the water.

As a general rule, the bubbler you pick should have an air output of at least 0.033 liters of air per minute per gallon of water.

This means that a fish tank with 20 gallons of water should be matched to an air pump with an output of 0.660 liters of air per minute. Meanwhile, a fish tank with 50 gallons of water will require a bubbler with an output of 1.65 liters of air per minute.


However, the temperature of your aquarium plays a role. If your tank is rather warm, it’s wise to buy a larger air pump than this general rule indicates.

This is because less oxygen can be dissolved in warmer water. Vice versa, a fish tank with a lower water temperature will require a smaller air pump.

Finally, freshwater is much better at holding oxygen than saltwater. So, if you have a saltwater aquarium, you should consider a larger air pump with a higher air output level per minute; this will maintain the level of dissolved oxygen that you want.

This video explains more on how to know if you need a fish tank bubbler.

How Much Do They Cost?

Depending on the size, air output, and brand, a fish tank pump could cost you from under $10 to over $200. Larger, stronger air pumps tend to cost more than smaller ones with a lower air output per minute.

Be sure to read the reviews for any product, as it’s easy for vendors to cut corners and leave you with subpar quality.

Also, be sure to know exactly what specifications you’ll need; a lot of jargon may be thrown around, and you don’t want your air pump failing to meet your tank’s standards.

How to Install an Air Bubbler?

Here are the steps for installing and setting up an air bubbler in your fish tank.

  1. Connect the air tubing to the pump. This tubing allows the air from the pump to move into the water and to any devices, air stones, or ornaments that are attached to the pump.
  2. Install any and all of the valves included with the pump, including Y-Valves, T-Valves, gang valves, and check valves. Check valves prevent the air from moving backwards through the tubing, keeping your air pump from becoming damaged because of a power failure. As such, they’re a vital and low cost piece of equipment. T-Valves and Y-Valves are connectors that allow you to customize the flow of air through multiple sets of tubes. You should use a gang valve if you plan to use one air pump to fuel multiple ornaments or pieces of equipment. The gang valve will allow you to split the air output into five different areas, which can each be individually adjusted by you to fit each ornament’s needs.
  3. Connect the air tubing to any air stones or other ornaments and equipment that you may have. These may include treasure chests that release bubbles, or other fun decorations to accompany your aquarium fish, such as moving skeleton pirates!
  4. Plug in the air pump to a power source to start it up! If you have a battery-operated air pump instead of one that requires being plugged in, then all you need to do is put in the batteries while installing the air bubbler.

aquarium bubbler

The air pump itself does not go inside of the fish tank. You will place the air tubing and the object that the pump attaches to on the tank.

It will be best if you place the air pump close to the very top of your fish tank’s water level, if at all possible. This will keep the water from flowing back into the air pump if there is a power failure.

If you have to place your air pump lower than the top of the fish tank’s water level, be sure to have a bubbler with a check valve; this will keep the water from flowing back into the air pump regardless.

Finally, if possible, set the air pump on a soft surface rather than a hard one. This will reduce the noise made by the air pump as it vibrates while operating.

How Long Do They Last?

Over time and use, the rubber diaphragm inside the air pump will stretch or crack, causing the pump to be less functional. You’ll notice its output decreases and the overall oxygenation of your tank falls.

Depending on the brand and size of the bubbler, some pumps may be able to last for over a year, or even five to ten years.

Obviously, more expensive bubblers will be more durable, while cheaper ones may wear out faster. Be sure to clean the air pump regularly to maintain it, and if it shows signs of breaking, it’s wise to invest in an upgrade.

Consider getting a battery-powered air pump as a back-up, especially if you plan on going away on vacation for a long period of time.

A battery-powered air pump will not stop working if the power goes out, safeguarding your fish! It will also come in handy if your regular air pump breaks down and you do not have time to buy a new one right away.

This video shows an example of how to set up a fish tank air pump.

Now that you know everything about these handy tools, the choice remains: Do you need one?

If your tank occupants require strong currents and higher levels of oxygen, if your decorations or filters call for one, or if you simply want to keep things bubbly – the answer is yes. It’s time to begin shopping!

Do you own a fish tank bubbler? What do you recommend?

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