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The DIY air lift

An article by Frank Panis and Staf Peeters

A short explanation how an airlift works: air is injected at a certain height in a small tube that's fed by water in the last filter compartment. The air bubbles force this water to go up as it can't flow down as fast as the air rises and this way the water is lead to the top of the tube and back to the tank. An additional bonus is the good aeration of the filtered water which usually is lower in oxygen content after the biological filtration process. The only drawback is that the airlift can only overcome a very limited height difference.

My "Malawi cichlid" friend Staf runs multiple tanks in his fish room. The filter layout of these tanks is rather simple but very efficient. Staf always understocks his tanks so there is never a risk of a collapsing biological system and massive death of fish as a consequence. For moving the water through the filter Staf mainly uses these airlifts, as they are cheap and very reliable and aerate the tank. They also prevent that the electricity bill increases too much. It won't be a surprise that one solid air pump consumes much less electricity than separate powerheads in each tank! 19 of the 31 tanks in his fish room already work this way and Staf will convert another group of 6 tanks as soon as possible. He only needs a 16mm glass drill for making holes in the rear filter compartment near the water surface in order to achieve the optimal output, as the flow will be reduced to zero when the outlet will be too high above the water surface.


An airlift installed in a tank in the fish room of Staf. Notice that the hole in the glass is exactly at water level. Photo by Staf Peeters.

Of course Staf is always happy when he can make his own aquatic accessories, exactly like me actually. He uses cheap commercial 16mm PVC electricity tubing and has a long spring to bend it. This tool is essential for this job as the tube will collapse or even snap when you want to bend it as such. Of course it would be stupid to buy such a spring especially for this job, as separate elbow extensions that fit at the end of the tube also can be bought.


A complete airlift with glue, drill, saw and air hose connections.


The tube and spring.


Staf the magician at work.


Drilling the air hole about 6 cm from the bottom.

Then we are going to make the air connection. With a 5mm wood drill we make a hole about 6cm from the bottom of the tube. Then we clean the hole and glue the air connection in there. Special care needs to be taken to prevent that glue touches the tip of the connection that goes inside the tube because it can be blocked this way. We let it dry for a night so all hazardous glue fumes will be gone, and then the lift is ready.


The air connection glued in the tube with the hose attached.

Of course we tested the lift as we did not exactly know how much water flow they produced. We did a very unscientific test and found that depending on the height of the tube we had a rate of about 150-250L water/hour. This may seem to be a bit on the low side, but as long as the air pump can supply more flow, nothing prevents us from adding more tubes. Staf always uses 2 airlifts in each tank so they probably have a water displacement of 300-500L what is a very comfortable rate for his breeding and raising tanks.


A 30cm and a 50cm airlift in action. You can clearly see that the longer rear tube has the largest flow.

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