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The Silent Aquarium

by Frank Panis

Has it ever occurred to you that an aquarium can cause some serious noise nuisance in your living room? Do you also have all the latest bubbling, rattling, gurgling, humming, trickling and splashing technological solutions to make sure the best possible water conditions for your cichlids are maintained between the frequent water changes? Yes, our cichlids will thrive and spawn like crazy, but can our nerves handle the continuous flood of sounds coming from our beautiful cichlid tank, that is generally accepted as an ideal remedy to calm down and to get rid of all daily stress? To speak the truth, mine didn't! I want complete peace and silence in my living room, all the more because I also like to listen to a nice piece of music or watch a movie on my stereo surround set without the need of cranking up the volume too much to overpower all ambient noises. Well... let me tell you; I finally succeeded to combine my fish keeping hobby and HiFi passion with great success. 
Should I share my experiences?  I think yes...

My noisy story

The initial luck of owning a small 150L/40G tank back in 1996 made me blind for annoying sounds. Of course this aquarium didn't need powerful pumps at all. Yes, there was the shaft and bushings in the second-hand Eheim canister filter that showed signs of wear, so it was rattling all the time. I kept that canister in a closed cabinet under the tank what kept the nuisance down to a tolerable level. After I broke that shaft during a maintenance accident, I was even able to keep that canister running by mounting it upside down! 
In 1997 I bought a second-hand 400L/105G tank that needed more water movement. It had an internal glass filter compartment and the pump that came with it was an old Rena. Yes, it moved a good quantity of water, but it hummed like crazy. Soon I decided to replace it with a modern Hydor powerhead that proved to be a good improvement. After some time I also discovered that keeping that powerhead away from the glass sides resulted in an even lower hum. 
In 1998 came the massive 1000L/260G tank which needed a really solid pump. I chose the Eheim 1060 for it's robustness, reliability and the 2280L/h pumping capacity. Power it had plenty, but it also produced a fairly loud hum. I tried to insulate it by wrapping it up with tailor-cut aquarium sponges, but I never really succeeded to mute the noise that this brute produced. Whatever I tried, there were always parts of the hose that touched one or another glass side, so the vibrations were transferred and amplified. I acquiesced with the situation, but couldn't resist to shut that pump down when I wanted to enjoy some music. Needless to say that this was not a very sensible solution, but it didn't take very long, as both my kids were just about to be born. Gone were the listening sessions as they needed their sleep constantly. Around the end of 2001 we also decided to sell that 1000L tank because - you can probably already guess it - it was too space consuming! Gone was the tank, enter the crib, toys, bouncy seat, changing table and other more or less usable baby gadgets.
Although I can be a favourable husband, I also have my limits! 2 years of severe "punishment" were enough, and as soon as our kids got less dependant on us and our care, plans were made to reclaim all my "lost territory", so...
... In 2003, a new 750L Amazon tank was planned with silent operation in mind. This time everything would have to be perfect right from the beginning. I had some ideas about a normal built-in filter for easy maintenance, external pumps to avoid humming and an overflow outlet for a smooth re-entering of the filtered water, so I ordered a custom built full glass tank equipped with all necessary connections. I bought an Eheim 1060 pump that can be used outside the tank and I also took one of my Eheim 2329 canister filters away from a tank that was running in my cellar fish room. After finishing the tank, it was time to test the setup. Everything seemed to work out fine, but the Eheim 1060 became the biggest disappointment. The noise that it produced was just impossible to beat. I used rubber in the clips to insulate the vibrations of the hose near the pump: no result! I mounted the pump on a sturdy base filled with sand: no improvement! I wrapped it up with sound proofing foam: only little less noise! I decided to replace this pump with an additional 2229 canister filter, but was not happy with the flow. Then I went to the bathroom shop where I bought a central heating circulation pump. This turned out to be a real revelation!!! Much to my relief no sounds or vibrations at all were observed, only a whisper quiet and strong water movement. I still need to finish the last details on this tank, and I'm even thinking of replacing that other canister with a second central heating pump. This kind of setup will probably be used in all my future freshwater tanks, although I'm still playing with the idea of moving all the filters to the cellar below, so I would get rid of simply all sources of unwanted sound. Am I exaggerating? Maybe yes, but a completely silent tank surely is worth the effort in my opinion!

My best achievement: the moulded-in outlet allows a smooth and silent return of the filtered water.


The water height is the key to the aeration/noise level.


The central heating pump still in the testing phase: directly placed on the hard floor and not even the tiniest trace of annoying sound!

 

The noise top 5 at random:

1. Airstone (also bubble bar, bubble wall):
Principle:
this tool is mainly intended to aerate our cichlid aquarium, but also used as a decorative highlight. Normal air is pressed through an air hose by an air pump and driven through an airstone where it escapes as tiny bubbles that rise to the surface. On their way to the top the excess of Carbon Dioxide that is released by the fish is replaced by Oxygen that's present in the bubbles. This can be an effective way to ensure that our cichlid don't suffocate on warmer days, but this cannot be an excuse to permanently overstock our tanks though!
Noise:
The humming of the pump and the bubbling of the air can become annoying, especially when the pump is placed directly on a hard surface. Also the amount of sound rises proportional with the increasing air volume.
Possible cures: Only the airpump can be silenced by suspending it with an elastic.
Alternative solution n°1: An oxydator is absolutely quiet and much more effective, as it releases bubbles that contain 100% Oxygen, while normal air only contains about 20%. This tool has the big disadvantage that needs a regular refill with expensive and corrosive Hydrogen Peroxide solution though.
Alternative solution n°2: Understock your tank or buy a bigger tank and keep the same amount of fish so there is more room to handle critical situations.

2.Airlift: 
Principle:
Similar to the airstone. This tool uses air to bring water to higher levels, so it acts as a pump. It's cheap and consumes only very little energy, but their turnover rate limits their usability to small tanks in fish rooms. It has an extra advantage that the water get aerated at the same time though.
Noise:
The humming of the pump and the bubbling of the air can become annoying, especially when the pump is placed directly on a hard surface. Also the amount of sound rises proportional with the increasing air volume.
Possible cures: Only the airpump can be silenced by suspending it with an elastic.
Alternative solution n°1: a small powerhead lacks the aeration feature, but has a higher output and produces much less noise.

3. Powerhead and canister filter:
Principle:
These tools are used to pump water through the aquarium and through various filter materials. A wide range of capacity and power makes them suitable for almost every tank.
Noise: These pumps contain mechanical parts that rotate. This rotation causes vibrations, and depending on the quality of the parts, the pump volume and the attrition of all moving parts, they can vary from being relatively silent to really noisy! 
Possible cures: At first we can keep our pumps in the best possible condition by cleaning them regularly. Also worn-out parts like shafts and bushings should be replaced in time to reduce excessive sounds and also to ensure reliability. Powerheads can be kept quiet by avoiding contact with the surrounding glass. I even managed to mute a whopping 5000L/h pond beast by hanging it in the middle of a large sump. As soon as I moved it to a side it was remarkably more audible.
Alternative solution n°1: I use a central heating pump that's located outside of the tank. These pumps are extremely solid,  very well balanced and consume only little energy, as they are intended to work for years in a closed water circuit in our homes. My experience with them are still quite limited, but up till now I'm 100% satisfied, as mine is completely silent. Their only big disadvantage is that they cannot be used IN the tank. A minor issue is that their internal body contains metal, what could be harmful over time. Frequent water changes should prevent the buildup of those metals in the aquarium water though.

4. Filter or pump outlet - spray bar - trickle filter - bio-wheel:
Principle:
After the water flows through the filter, it has to return to the tank in one way or another. You can lead the water straight back into the tank, or use additional equipment for extra aeration or biological filtration. When the water is lead straight back into the tank, some hobbyists use the strong flow of it to stir the water surface for aeration reasons.
Noise:
Depending on the height difference between filter outlet and water surface or the position of the outlet hose near the water surface, more or less air will be trapped and cause much or only little noise.
Possible cures:
There is not much that can be done to avoid trickling, dripping and flow noises if they're the consequence of the need to maximize the aeration in the tank. A sponge can be mounted under a biowheel or a trickle filter to break the fall of the water drops. Always check that the water flow isn't obstructed too much though. Carefully applied synthetic filter wool can be used to dampen the sound of spray bars. Hoses can be positioned just below the water surface to avoid too much turbulence.
Alternative solution n°1: Understock your tank or buy a bigger tank and keep the same amount of fish so the normal filtration equipment will suffice to keep the cichlids healthy.  

5. Sump overflow plumbing:
Principle:
When a sump is used for filtration purposes, then we'll need to transport the water with a decent siphon to keep the dynamic system running without overflow risks. 
Noise:
The gurgling sound of air that is sucked into the siphon can be really aggravating.
Possible cures:
There are different techniques to dampen the gurgling noise. The Durso standpipe is a very convincing solution.
Alternative solution n°1:
Try to avoid the use of a sump as much as possible if you're concerned about the noise that it produces. Multiple canister filters can be used as a costly alternative, but they do not offer the same filtration functionality.

 

Conclusion:

For the people who really care, there is a lot that can be done to make a tank like it's intended to be: a really relaxing fishy experience! Little interventions are often enough to make a screaming loud aquarium much more pleasing. Of course when you're about to setup a new tank you can pay more attention to avoid noises right from the start.
A final consideration is that I regret that the most popular aquarium pumps for BIG tanks are not as silent as they should or could be. You end up spending lots of money for a whisper quiet solution like the marine-ready Red Dragen series from aquaconnect or apply a half solution like the central heating pump. Anyway there is a lot of space for improvement for the established brands, and certainly *I* would be their happy customer!

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