Ultimate Fish Tank Air Pump Setup & Selection Guide

Estimated read time 10 min read

Are You Ready To Learn How to Select, Use, Install & Fix a Fish Tank Air pump?

Fish Tank Air Pump Setup & Selection Guide

I agree setting up your first fish tank can be a bit challenging!

You can’t simply purchase a tank and assume that the fish you keep is going to survive if it’s not set up correctly.

You need the right equipment.

One piece of essential aquarium equipment that can help maintain the health of your fish is the Air Pump.

But is an air pump really needed?

Although the air pump may only be needed for ornaments and some equipment, most people overlook the benefits of using one.

This article will explain some of those benefits and show you exactly how to select, size, set up, use and fix an air pump, so you can get well on your way to successfully set up your new fish tank.

Let’s begin.


Top 4 Fish Tank Air Pumps

Does a Fish Tank Need an Air Pump?

Most beginners and some experts alike believe you need an air pump with air stones in your aquarium.

The fact is you don’t need an air pump at all for your fish to survive.

Air pumps do however provide two benefits in your aquarium;

  1. Increase surface area
  2. Improve circulation

However, they do not give oxygen to the water, which is a common misconception in the hobby.

Check out the Top 5 Best Aquarium Pumps available today. Full detailed reviews to help you find the Best Aquarium Pump For The Best Price

Is an Air Pump For a Fish Tank Necessary?

Depending on what type of equipment you intend to use in your aquarium, an air pump might not be necessary at all.

That said, there are a few reasons you may want to use an air pump in your tank.

  • Using a filter that requires an air pump like a sponge filter.
  • Using decorations that require an air stone or air.
  • Using air stones to create bubbles, some people just like the look of bubbles.

Can Fish Survive Without an Air Pump?

Molly Fish and Air Pump Bubbles

Photo Credit: Clemens v. Vogelsang

Fish can survive without an air pump, but you need a few things in place to be sure.

Oxygen enters the aquarium when the surface water is agitated. This pushes oxygen into the water by way of gas exchange–more on that later.

Most hang on back filters, and canister filters provide sufficient surface agitation allowing your fish to survive without an air pump.

However, under gravel filters and sponge filters require an air pump, not only to operate but also to agitate the water surface.

All this aside, here are three things to consider if you are not using an air pump.

1. Water temperature and medication

Warm water holds less oxygen, and if your fish are being treated for a disease, it usually means you are using medication and chemicals.

Some of these medications require you to raise the temperature and may also develop a film on the water, which prevents oxygen from entering the aquarium.

Air pumps provide a quick and easy way to increase the oxygen levels in these situations.

2. Going on vacation.

If you are not home for any extended period, be sure to use a battery-powered air pump.

A battery-powered air pump will ensure your fish tank has sufficient oxygen in the event of any power failure that may cause your filter to shut down.

3. Not enough oxygen

Sometime you just might not have enough oxygen in your tank, and your fish will let you know.

If you notice any of your fish gasping or swimming near the surface of the water, you may have low oxygen levels.

If you notice this, you will need to add an air pump with an air stone.

As mentioned above, this will increase the surface area by agitating the surface water allowing oxygen to enter the tank.

Watch this great video from Everyday Aquarist, who answers the question, Do Aquariums Need Air Pumps?

What Does an Air Pump Do in Your Aquarium?

The pump is used to provide oxygen from the atmosphere into the water by disturbing the surface of the water as well as keeping the water circulating.

This water movement helps with the oxygenation of the water and gas exchange at the surface.

Good oxygen circulation is not only beneficial to the fish; it also helps the aquarium bacteria necessary for water filtration to survive.

An air pump will cause the water to circulate so it won’t become stagnant, as well as provide air bubbles and oxygen that your fish and beneficial bacteria need to breathe in to survive.

It does this in two ways;
  1. Increase surface area
  2. Improve circulation

How Does a Fish Tank Air Pump Work?

Aquarium Air Pump Bubbles

Photo Credit: Martin Fisch

The air pump works in the two following ways.

Increased surface area:

Air pumps work by agitating the surface water, which increases the surface area of the water allowing oxygen to enter the water by way of gas exchange.

Gas exchange occurs at the surface of your tank when your aquarium releases excess carbon dioxide and other gasses into the air and takes in oxygen.

When the air pump creates bubbles, it increases the surface area of the water, allowing your tank to release more carbon dioxide and take in more oxygen.

Water circulation:

An air pump also improves circulation by moving oxygenated water from the surface to the bottom of the tank.

This allows carbon dioxide containing water at the bottom of the tank to move up to the surface where it can release the carbon dioxide and take in oxygen.

Further reading: Does My Fish Tank Need A Bubbler

Most Common Types of Fish Tank Air pumps

General Purpose

Used mostly for decorative purposes such as ornaments and small sponge filters.

High Output Air Pumps

It would be used for very large aquariums that are odd shapes or deep.

Additionally, you would use a high output air pump if you intend to have multiple outputs to multiple devices or aquariums by way of gang valves or connectors.

Battery Powered

As it would sound, it’s just an air pump that is powered by a battery. You would use these if traveling in case of power failure or transporting fish.

What size Air Pump Do I need? How to Select the Right Size of Air Pump for Your Aquarium.

Planted Aquarium Air Pump Bubbles

Photo Credit: threephin

When choosing the right air pump for your tank, you need to keep in mind that all air pumps are rated for different sizes of tanks and should be visible on the packaging.

However, keep in mind that this rating is for standard tank sizes, and if you have a tall, long, or hexagon tank, you may need to dig a little deeper.

That said, here are a few things to consider when selecting the right size of an air pump for your aquarium.

  • Do you have a deep tank, something deeper than 18” you may need a stronger pump?
  • Do you want to run multiple ornaments of one pump?
  • Are you using a filter or protein skimmer that requires an air pump?
  • The type of air stone you are using may have too much resistance
  • If you split the tubing into multiple lines

Choosing the Right Air Pump

While there is no rule when choosing an air pump, it’s always best to pick a slightly larger pump than you think you need.

By selecting a larger air pump, you allow room to expand if needed, and you’ll be sure you have enough pressure to work any equipment or decorations.

For example, check out this post on selecting an air pump for a 5-gallon tank.

Where Does the Air Pump Go in a Fish Tank?

You don’t put the air pump in the fish tank. Only the tube and the object it attaches to go in the tank.

That said, if possible, it’s best to place the air pump near the top of the fish tank (water level).

This prevents water from flowing back into the air pump in case of a power failure. However, a check valve can be used if you must place your pump lower than the tank.

Also, try to set it on something soft. Air pumps tend to vibrate slightly, and if you place it on a hard surface, you will hear the pump.

Top 4 Fish Tank Air Pumps

How to Install and Setup an Air Pump for Your Aquarium

Setting up an air pump is pretty easy; just follow these four easy steps.

  1. Connect air tubing to the pump
  2. Install any check valves, T-Valves or Y-Valves
  3. Connect the tubing to air stones, ornament or equipment
  4. Plug in the air pump

However, here is an excellent video on how to set up an Aquarium Air Pump by ehowPets if you want to see someone do it.

How Much Electricity Does a Fish Tank Air Pump Use?

Air pumps do not use all that much power to run. Most air pumps will need around 5-8 watts. But if you’re unsure, just look at the packaging or on the bottom of the pump.

How to Fix a Fish Tank Air Pump (Trouble Shooting Guide)

I’ve listed a few common problems people have with air pumps along with videos on how to fix your aquarium air pumps.

Air Pump Not Making Bubbles?

The video below is from andrewesquivel, and he shows us how to fix an aquarium air pump when it’s not moving air.

How to fix an aquarium air pump when it’s not moving air video

How to Make a Fish Tank Air Pump Quiet?

One of the most common problems people have with air pumps is how noisy some of them can be.

Luckily this video from mark’s shrimp tanks show you how to Silence an Annoying, Noisy Aquarium Air Pump

Popular Aquarium Air Pump Accessories

Air Pump Decorations

There are so many different types of ornaments and decorations that require the use of an air pump.

Things like moving skeleton pirates & treasure chests that release bubbles.

Air Pump Check Valves

Check valves are used to prevent water or air from moving backward through the tube and entering the air pump.

Because check valves are pretty cheap and easy to install, you should install one on every air pump you use.

This will prevent your air pump from being damaged in the event of a power failure and water, causing failure of your pump or worse electrical damage.

Connectors (T-valves, Y-Valves)

These are simply a way for you to customize the flow of your air through multiple tubes.

Gang Valve

These are used when you want to supply multiple pieces of equipment or ornaments from the air pump. They typically come split into five outputs, and each output can be adjusted individually.

Aquarium Air Stone

This is the little stone looking thing that is connected to the end of the tubing and used to produce different types of bubbling effects.

Airline Tubing

The tubes needed to move the air from the pump into the water and connected to an air stone, device, or ornament.

Hopefully, this article provides you with the beginning steps of what to look for in the various air pumps available for fish tanks.

Proper setup of a fish tank isn’t as easy as it looks and does require a fair bit of research and understanding of all pieces of equipment, even air pumps.

If you enjoyed this post, please share the below image on Pinterest to help others learn about fish tank air pumps. Thanks for your support.

Ultimate Fish Tank Air Pump Setup & Selection Guide