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Related FAQs: Cleaning Cartridges

Related Articles: Mechanical Filtration

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Cleaning Filter Cartridges & Sleeves

Bob Fenner  

Some sale now! Oh how we used to smile knowingly and rub our hands together, seeing an aquarist come into the fish shop with a prematurely worn out filter element. I wish I had all the money in filter sleeves and cartridges that hobbyists are going to ruin this week. No, I don't really want that. Being a value investor, and fellow pet-fish addict I'd like to save us all the money lost from the early death of these filter elements. And only you can do it.

What Are These Filter Elements:

You know what; they're the whitish filter thingies you have to clean every now and then in many inside and outside power filters (e.g. Diatom, H.O.T., Magnum, Canistar, PEP, Sta-Rite, ad nauseum) used for continuous or periodic duty.

These elements have a general plan: some sort of internal skeletal support with synthetic sleeves or pleats arranged in folds to increase surface area. This person-made material is made to be used with or without other media (diatomaceous earth, carbon, other sleeving), acting as a two-dimensional sieve, trapping particles larger than filter-opening size on the incoming side of the element. These filter cartridges and sleeves require regular observation and cleaning, and there's the (non) rub as you will see.

What's The Problem?:

What not to do. The difficulty with these filter elements is not the parts, it's the people using them. Technology marches, hops, okay let's settle on jumps along. Cartridges and sleeves are built to last, and will give good service for many years when used and cleaned properly. The three big causes of filter element early death syndrome:

1) Infrequent Cleaning:  

Filter-pumps are designed, engineered and constructed with a range of pressure and flows in mind. Allowing the element to get and stay too-clogged hurts filter function, efficiency and shortens element life. Check your flow and/or operating pressure differential per the manufacture's specifications and routinely clean them (see below procedures) per their suggestions.

Do this along with other routine checks and aquarium maintenance tasks like water changes. If you're into such things, make a checklist or put it into your database file.

2) Scrubbing:


Don't scrub the elementDon't scrub the element, don't do it, das ist verboten, it's a bozo no-no, quit, nicht, nein, stop scrubbing. Whew, is this clear? Scouring physical contact wears and tears the material. See the next section on appropriate cleaning methods.

3) Over-Treatment:

Some folks endorse commercial preparations and other chemicals for deep and thorough cleaning. I'll give you my own home-grown remedy. These agents are meant to be used at a given strength for a stated period of time. Too much too long and your cartridge/sleeves will dissolve. Bummer.

Cleaning Maintenance:

When you perceive it's time, thoughtfully turn off, disengage filter, remove element(s), and without dripping on the floor...

1) Rinse debris off 

Sleeves, pleats with pressurized water. You're not scrubbing are you? Good.

Most of the time this is it. Re-assemble the filter, put it back on the system, fire-over and check for leaks; you're done. Periodically, you may want to sterilize and really clean the element. Proceed to number 2, sheesh.

2) Either acquire a specialty cleaning material 

Designated for pet-fish use and follow their instructions or go directly to step three.

3) Here you are. 

Now be careful here. We're going to use "ordinary" household bleach, but you do not want to be the next tabloid centerpiece as a consequence of carelessness. If you can procure your very own certified pet-fish (aka pickle) buckets or trash cans, so much the better. These you know are free of soap and detergent, or other noxious residue.

After the rinse in step one above, gingerly place the element in a bucket of dilute (about ten parts water to one part bleach) bleach solution. Leave this for one hour. How long did I say? How come such an arbitrary interval; "You don't know how big, grungy, hot the water is...". Enough already, an hour is long enough. Carefully remove the element and just as painstakingly dump the used cleaning solution.

4) Rinse the element and bucket 

With fresh water to remove most of the remaining chlorine bleach.

5) Now, if you've got big bongo bucks and more sense than the average bear, you can let the element air dry while you're employing your "extra". What? You don't have a set? Well let's get out that bucket and hose again, you cheapskate.

If you have the cash, two alternating sets of elements will last about three times as long as only having one; go figure.

6) Fill that bucket and submerge the element in clean water.  

Over-treat with dechlorinator (or if you want, dechloraminator). Let soak for, guess how long, yep, an hour.

7) Too chintzy?

To invest in a two dollar OTO (Ortho-tolidine for all the service people who always wanted to know what it stood for) swimming pool chlorine test kit? Too bad. You may very well bump off your livestock.

8) Rinse the cartridge, sleeve in freshwater again. 

Can you detect any chlorine? Re-treat as in 6). Otherwise, it's time to slap that baby back into action. Easy, eh?

Killer Repair Technology:

I didn't go to college for twelve years and help run an employee-owned corporation doing aquatic maintenance for eighteen years including fourteen "on the floor" in pet-fish retail for nothing, no sirree-bob let me tell you. I did learn a couple of things of worth along the way. One was how to do repairs on torn filter sleeves and cartridges that really do work. The "magic" is in the "glue". Silicone rubber. "Yawn", you say? "The same stuff that glass aquaria are held together with?" Yes, that and giant skyscrapers.

Let the element material dry completely and apply over the tear. So, I saved you a bundle.

Oh, a few last notes. Silicone rubber for aquaria is "100% silicone rubber", not the stuff for shower stalls among other labeled applications. Either purchase at your friendly neighborhood pet store, or otherwise make sure it's 100%. One hundred percent is one-hundred percent. And for those wise-n-high-mers who have access to industrial or swimming pool bleach; yes you can use these instead of household strength. Dilute to about a five percent solution, and don't be a fool and be tempted to "goose" it with an acid.

So, tah-dah, that's all folks; easy when you know what to do isn't it? Don't throw your money away operating your pumps with clogged elements, ruining them in the process, or scrubbing the sleeves/pleats as it will wreck them. If you develop a tear, or a hole in your shoe or surfboard try the 100% silicone rubber solution; it works.


Cartridge Filter Cleaning

by Bob Fenner

Cartridges are employed in various filter arrangements of for freshwater, marine and coldwater systems. A standard method for sterilizing/cleaning is offered.

A cartridge filter system involves a cartridge filter element contained within a canister. This is a mechanical-physical-particulate filter working by sieving out particles larger than the pore size of the cartridge, typically 20 micron. In order to operate properly it requires periodic cleaning by hosing and bleaching.

A few points to emphasize: a regular regimen of treatment of your cartridges will optimize their operation, extend their functional lifetime and reduce electrical energy consumption. Having an "extra" set of cartridge(s) will do the same by allowing complete drying while the "other" set is in use. Make cleaning and switching of cartridges a matter of routine; once a week, change of a given amount in pressure, etc.

 Steps to completion:

1. Necessary equipment: 5 gallon bucket or trash can. Hose and spray nozzle. Bleach, and for biological systems dechlorinator. Possibly spare exchange cartridge of correct size, shape.

2. When its time to clean the filter as evidenced by reduced flow rate and/or high pressure-gauge reading (more than rated pounds per square inch change), turn off pump and close valves if necessary to remove cartridge(s) from the filter.

3. Place cartridge carefully in bucket or can to avoid dripping.  

4. Remove cartridge to area for cleaning, preferably outside.

5. Hose off cartridge with strong spray of water and if necessary, bleach in a 5% solution of chlorine and water for ten to thirty minutes (as long as possible). Use a bucket or trash can outside for this. Note: I specifically warn against the use of acids with or without bleach, or the use of "cartridge cleaner" chemicals. Especially for biological systems these saponifiers/detergents are contraindicated.

6. Rinse the bleached clean cartridge thoroughly. In biological systems refill the container with freshwater and treat with a dechlor overdose. If possible use a replacement/exchange cartridge and allow the freshly bleached one to air dry.

7. Carefully replace the cartridge back inside the canister, seating with O-ring(s) if present. Secure lid, making sure seal is in place and adequately lubricated. Hand-tighten lid. 

8. Turn pump back on, making sure lines are primed and right valves are open. Check operating pressure and flow rate. Be sure that there are no leaks before leaving site. 

The most expensive part of many cartridge filters are the cartridges themselves. Their appropriate implementation calls for monitoring flow rate and cleaning when necessary. Most should NEVER be scrubbed which will greatly shorten their life, or result in their "leaking"/tearing. Time to time thorough cleaning as detailed here is suggested to extend operation interval, effectiveness of filtration, give lengthier service and reduce operational cost.

The articles listed below may prove useful to emphasize important points here concerning appropriate order of filtration and careful use of chlorine.

Cleaning Coral, Plastic Plants and Other Aquarium Ornaments, FAMA 11/90

Upflow Filters For Biological Ponds & Multi-Tank Systems, FAMA 2/90


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