Knowledgebase > How to Plumb an Aquarium Sump or Wet/Dry Filter System by Keith MacNeil, MarineDepot.com Reef Squad
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Q11033 - HOWTO: How to Plumb an Aquarium Sump or Wet/Dry Filter System by Keith MacNeil, MarineDepot.com Reef Squad
Before we dive into the actual plumbing aspect of the article, we will go over exactly what a sump is, what a wet/dry filter is and which would be the best choice for your aquarium system.

We will then show you how to get water from your aquarium into a sump or wet/dry filter and ways to return the water back into your tank.

What is a Sump?
A sump (in aquarium terminology) is a vessel or vat set below your display tank to receive drainage. Unsightly equipment like heaters, protein skimmers and fluidized bed filters can be setup incognito inside the sump outside your display.

What is a Wet/Dry Filter?
A wet/dry filter is essentially a sump with biological filter media. The media is stored in a container above the water inside the wet/dry filter so water can trickle over it (instead of having it submerged). Bacteria will utilize oxygen from the air instead of your aquarium water, thus helping to keep the water more oxygenated.

Berlin Sump Wet/Dry Filter
Berlin Sump Wet/Dry Filter
Do I Need a Sump or a Wet/Dry Filter?
Live rock acts as the biological filter in reef and Fish Only with Live Rock (FOWLR) systems so there isn't a need for a wet/dry filter. But for Fish Only (FO) systems without live rock—or freshwater systems—the addition of a wet/dry filter can improve water quality and help breakdown fish waste. So, in summary: reef or FOWLR, sump. Fish only (without live rock) or freshwater, wet/dry filter.


Getting Water into a Sump or Wet/Dry Filter

One of the easiest (and best) ways to get water flowing into your sump or wet/dry filter is to purchase an aquarium that has a built-in overflow box. These tanks are often marketed as "reef ready," but don't let the name fool you: these aquariums are great for fish only saltwater or freshwater tanks.

The overflow box skims water from the aquarium's surface and drains it into your filter system. Inside the overflow box are holes drilled and fitted with bulkheads. Flexible or PVC tubing can be attached to the bulkheads to allow water to drain into a filter.

Overflow boxes are made out of glass or acrylic and sold in vertical and horizontal configurations. Vertical overflow boxes reach from the top of your aquarium to the bottom where holes are drilled into the tank. Horizontal overflow boxes are positioned behind the aquarium near the water surface. Holes are drilled into the back pane of the tank for bulkheads (read more about horizontal overflows on the MarineDepot.com Forums).

Behind-the-scenes look at a vertical overflow box. Note the water level and splashing. This caused quite a bit of noise and was later fixed by making the water level higher.
Behind-the-scenes look at a vertical overflow box. Note the water level and splashing.
This caused quite a bit of noise and was later fixed by making the water level higher.


If your aquarium isn't "reef ready" and you are unable to drill the tank, CPR produces several hang-on back alternatives. Hang-on back overflow boxes hang over the back rim of your aquarium and siphon water from the tank down into your filter system (view a demonstration here).

Now you know how to get the water out of your aquarium. Up next: how to connect the overflow to the sump or wet/dry filter.

The easy answer is tubing. But which type of tubing works best? Is it rigid PVC (like schedule 40), flexible PVC, spa or vinyl tubing? Actually it's whichever works best for your individual needs. With limitless combinations of overflows, sumps, wet/dry filters and tank sizes, having the freedom to select the plumbing that works best for you makes installation that much easier.

For example, if it's a straight shot from the overflow bulkhead(s) to the sump or wet/dry filter inlet, rigid PVC is ideal. If your overflow bulkhead is on the right side of your tank and the filter inlet is to the left, flexible PVC, spa or vinyl tubing will make setup much easier than conventional PVC.

After you've determined which type(s) of tubing work best for your aquarium system, begin hooking up the drain lines. Best piece of advice: keep it simple. Avoid bends. If you have questions, contact us! You can also snap a few photos with a digital camera and post them with your questions to our forum to illicit feedback from us and your peers.


Getting Water from the Sump or Wet/Dry Filter Back into the Tank

We should preface that there are many ways to approach this task. Entire chapters in books are dedicated to this very subject. We therefore offer a simplified approach. We hope the information presented herein gives you the confidence to undertake this do-it-yourself project. But when you do it with us, you're never alone! We can help you with the nuances of your sump or wet/dry filter setup.

Now that you've got the overflow hooked up, it's time to setup the return line to carry water from the filter back into the aquarium. To accomplish this feat, you'll need a water pump to push the water along.

You can go with a submersible or external pump. As the name implies, submersible pumps are submerged in the filter water. External pumps sit outside the filter. The sump or wet/dry filter must have a bulkhead fitting present in order to connect an external pump.

Once you've figured out which type of pump to use, you'll again need to decide which tube material works best. As a matter of preference, I like vinyl tubing. It's just easier to use. But there is nothing wrong with flexible or rigid PVC.

Next up: fittings. In addition to pump and tube options, you'll also choose between various types of fittings for your plumbing handiwork. We'll cover return lines using submersible and external pumps to ensure your setup is covered.


External Pump Instructions

Water will flow from the sump through the bulkhead into the return pump inlet. It will then travel through the outlet of the pump back into the aquarium. This can be accomplished in a number of different ways.

Step 1
Connect the filter to the pump inlet using a bulkhead. I HIGHLY recommend placing a union ball valve (single or double) between the two so you can easily remove your pump without having to drain the sump or wet/dry filter. I'd also like to recommend using PVC and not vinyl tubing in this instance.

Step 2
Attach tubing to your pump outlet to run up to the aquarium. Once again I recommend using a union ball valve here so you can leave all your plumbing in place when it comes time to clean your pump.

Step 3
You'll need to decide which type of tubing to use and how you'll ultimately return the water back into your aquarium. You have a lot of options here so this might end up being the most difficult step. Remember to keep it simple and avoid as many elbows as possible.

You can use a simple U-Tube return or plumb a return manifold (closed loop manifold plumbing is discussed in our forum). You can also utilize one of the many nifty wave making devices on the market, like the Sea Swirl or Vertex MOcean Wave Simulation Module. Or you can use a combination of different tube types.

Notice the two union true union ball (red) valves. Using ball valves allows you to remove your pump for cleaning without having to disconnect any of the plumbing. Can you spot my rookie mistake? Elbowing the line from the pump inlet is a no-no since it can cause cavitation and send microbubbles into your aquarium. I corrected this oversight by simply turning the pump around.
Notice the two union true union ball (red) valves. Using ball valves allows you to remove your pump
for cleaning without having to disconnect any of the plumbing. Can you spot my rookie mistake?
Elbowing the line from the pump inlet is a no-no since it can cause cavitation and send
microbubbles into your aquarium. I corrected this oversight by simply turning the pump around.



Submersible Pump Instructions

Step 1
Attach vinyl tubing to your return pump. You may need to add an inexpensive hose barb fitting if your return pump does not include the proper connection.

A submerged Mag-Drive 9.5 is used as a return pump inside a sump with vinyl tubing.
A submerged Mag-Drive 9.5 is used as a return pump inside a sump with vinyl tubing.

Step 2
Add any additional fittings that will make your system safer and easier to maintain, like ball and check valves. Add barbed insert fittings to the inlet and outlet valves using vinyl tubing.

Check valves prevent backflows of water when a pump is de-energized.
Check valves prevent backflows of water when a pump is de-energized.

Step 3
Finally, we'll need to return the water back into your aquarium. This may entail bringing tubing over the rim and into your tank.

Similar to step 3 in the external pump instructions, you've got some options to consider. You can use a simple U-Tube or opt for a wave making device like a SCWD, Sea Swirl or Vertex MOcean Wave Simulation Module.

Here is a quick shopping list of items you'll need for a submersible return pump:

Return pump » 3/4" hose adapter » 3/4" vinyl tubing » 3/4" insert fitting » 3/4" ball valve (or union ball valve to disconnect the pump without having to remove the return line) » 3/4" insert fitting » Vinyl tubing » 3/4" barbed "Y" fitting » Vinyl Tubing (x2) » U-tube with directional return (x2)

I use a Flow Accelerator on my return line to increase the velocity of the water entering the tank.
I use a Flow Accelerator on my return line to increase the velocity of the water entering the tank.

Plumbing an aquarium with a sump or wet/dry filter may seem complicated or downright scary. But if you plan ahead, keep it simple and don't over think things, you'll be a DIY plumbing expert in no time.

Tip of the Day: Measure tubing twice so you'll only have to cut it once!
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Approved Comments...
Simple yet informative Approved: 1/12/2013
very imformative Approved: 12/31/2012
explained very well, I just set one up myself and luckily it was pretty close to this, Approved: 7/16/2012
It gives you a list of what you need for parts and how to put it together. Approved: 5/1/2012
It help me on pump Approved: 2/17/2012
I need help in how to actually connect the tubes. (editors note: send us an email at customercare@marinedepot.com for assistance) Approved: 2/8/2012
I have a 200 gallon reef tank Im setting up using a Feeflo "DART". Looking for the very best hookup and plumbing design. Approved: 1/1/2012
Wow...good photos, explanations and references. I have seen bulkheads drilled in the bottom of tanks for the return and can infer from your article how this would work. Im new to the saltwater scene but very much a hands on guy. I searched for quite sometime before finding a how to article that I could easily wrap my head around. Thank you. Approved: 12/16/2011
Very good explanation fo the basics. Approved: 10/21/2011
NICE Article Approved: 9/26/2011
These might be rookie questions but it would be nice to know what type of filtration media is right for a sump and how to install it, also I was told that your pumps return gph should be a little less than the over flow box gph if this is true how much of a difference should there be? Approved: 5/27/2011
this is the first article Ive read about sumps. I wasnt sure what they were or how they worked. I appreciated the pictures. Im still not sure how to go about building my own sump, but I think reading this article a couple of times will be a great start. Approved: 4/15/2011
Great article. Im assuming the external pump was turned around 180 degrees? Approved: 4/27/2010
Great article that has answered many of my questions. I have been intimidated regarding this topic and have avoided making a sump for that reason, but now I feel like I have all the info I need to make it happen! Thanks for a great article! Approved: 2/21/2010
Well done for the most basic of info. But even in this article you could have put in more details. Also the photo of the pump with ONE mistake... the second is running a water line right in front of an outlet... and a water line with a double union placed right above the outlet! Yikes, were you looking to get electrocuted? (EDITORS NOTE: The plug wasn't being used and was "upgraded" to an outdoor plug with protective covers to prevent any issues such as that...great observation and should be considered by all). Approved: 2/21/2010
it was consise enough for the non handy person to understand Approved: 2/20/2010
Very helpful information, especially the part about cavitation. Line diagrams (in addition to photographs) might be easier to understand. Approved: 2/20/2010
As far as the one way check valve sounds like a good idea it is a bad suggestion for saltwater since calcium builds-up in the check valve and reduces flow over time without you really knowing it unless you are looking for something specifically. I made the mistake and my tank crashed suddenly after 4 years running. This was also something Sanjay Joshi spoke about at the USNYRS club events. Approved: 2/20/2010
Excellent description of wet/dry vs. sump and which to use. Easy to understand, well written article overall. Some discussion about the different tubing options and advantages/disadvantages would have been a great addition. One of the best articles on the subject Ive read- Thanks! Approved: 2/20/2010
I would of liked to know how many times the volume of water should be turned over per hour. If I have a 90 gal. aquarium, how many gal. per hour should the pump be? Approved: 2/20/2010
Presented simply, step by step, with technical jargon explained. Approved: 2/20/2010
What is the 3/4 y for? no good images of either system? Or different way to set up the sa,e system Approved: 2/19/2010
It was very helpful. Approved: 2/19/2010
no anti siphon Approved: 2/19/2010
Article Details
Created on 2/17/2010.
Last Modified on 3/31/2010.
Last Modified by Keith MacNeil.
Article has been viewed 44394 times.
Rated 8 out of 10 based on 92 votes.
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