How to Plumb a Sump – Basic, Intermediate and Advanced

Basic Sump

A sump is essentially a container that houses your aquarium filtration equipment.  To learn more about how a sump can benefit your aquarium you can check out our post, What is a Sump.  A basic sump system consists of all the major filtration elements needed to sustain a reef tank.

Your overflow draws water from the surface of your display tank and drains it into the sump. The overflow design is a safe and easy way to supply water to your sump while also pulling proteins from the surface of your water to be removed via your filtration. 

Bulkheads are used to provide a water tight seal through your glass and allows you to permanently attach various plumbing parts and components. From the outside of the bulkhead you have a drain pipe attached, this can be plumbed with hard or flexible tubing. Your drain pipe feeds water into the first stage of your filtration, a filter sock.

Filter socks are mechanical filtration and offer a great way for removing undissolved waste and other particulates from your aquarium. Once the water has traveled thought the filter sock it will travel to the protein skimmer.

Protein skimmers help aerate your aquarium water and also pull out dissolved and undissolved waste. The waste is collected in the collection cup area of the skimmer which is then removed during maintenance.

A sump is a great place to house your aquarium heater, this removes unattractive cords in your display tank and still provides your tank inhabitants with the correct water temperature they need to thrive.

The layout of your sump may differ, but a key design in every sump is a bubble trap. A bubble trap is a series of baffles or walls in the sump that direct the water into your return pump chamber and helps to prevent bubbles from entering your return pump which can then enter your display aquarium as pesky "Micro-bubbles".

To return the water back to your display aquarium you will need a return pump. This is the heart of your filtration system because this pump is what moves water back unto your display aquarium from the sump. Water travels from the return pump, through your return pipe and back into your display aquarium.  

To keep things organized it is recommended to have a power center. This gives you one main location to plug in all the devices from your sump. It is important to install this power center above the water line and in a dry location. When plugging in devices into your power center it is important to use proper drip loops to prevent any water damage. During the setup of your power center it is a good idea to label your outlets so you can easily identify what that particular plug powers. It is also recommended that you use a surge protected power center to help protect your equipment from power surges and connecting to GFCI protected outlets can help prevent some serious hazards, after all water and electricity do not play well.  

Intermediate

As you gain experience keeping an aquarium you will soon learn that additional equipment and devices can be added to your sump. These upgrades help you more easily maintain a beautiful display because they make it easier to maintain stable water chemistry in between water changes.  

Filtration media comes in many forms is a great way to help keep your water clean, clear and odor free. Carbon, GFO and various other media types are most effective when used inside of a filter media reactor because the reactor will increase contact time with the media and ensures that all water passing through the reactor will come in contact with the media. A media reactor can be placed inside the sump, hang on the side or even be placed outside of the sump in most cases.  You can then feed aquarium water through the reactor via a small pump/powerhead or use a tee off your main return line (pictured above).

Maintaining the proper temperature in your aquarium is key to keeping happy healthy animals. While a heater will raise water temperature to the desired range, a water chiller can be equally important in the instance water temperature rise beyond acceptable levels.  Rising water temperatures are typically caused from high ambient air temperatures in combination with all of the heat transferred into your aquarium water from your pumps and lighting.

A chiller is connected to your system via a pump that sends aquarium water through the chiller and then back into your sump or display tank. You can feed your chiller using your main return pump (pictured above) or a separate dedicated water pump. When using your return pump, it is important to make sure your return pump can provide enough water flow to your display tank and the chiller.

Advanced

While knowledge and experience are certainly a common denominator among the best reef keepers, automation equipment is something that will really help to take your reef tank to the next level by further increasing stability and helping you to keep a close eye on the conditions inside of your tank. 

An aquarium controller is a device that gives you the ability to control and monitor most all of the equipment on your aquarium.  We are not talking simple timers either, these modern devices have some amazing capabilities. The more advanced controllers give you the ability to monitor various water parameters such as temperature, pH, ORP, Salinity, and more! You can then program the device to control your equipment based on any one of these parameters. You can store data logs, access your tank remotely via the internet, install leak detectors, receive text or email alerts and so much more!  Think of an aquarium controller as the brain of your tank that keeps things running smoothly and gives you the peace of mind that your tank will thrive in your absence.  

In saltwater aquariums, freshwater evaporates constantly and therefore it is required that you replenish the aquarium with freshwater on a regular basis to not only maintain water levels but also keep your salinity levels stable.  An ATO or automatic top off system is an automated device that will add freshwater to your aquarium as it evaporates from a dedicated freshwater reservoir.  This relieves the mundane daily task of manually adding freshwater to the aquarium.  Some aquarium controllers even have an ATO function built right in!  

Adding a refugium in the sump is a natural way to help export nutrients via macro-algae and also helps provide a safe haven for beneficial micro-fauna to reproduce. Refugiums are widely accepted to be very beneficial for reef tanks for these reasons. You can employ a refugium a number of ways but many sumps have dedicated sections that are built-in for this exact purpose.  A typical refugium will consist of a substrate such as sand or mud, along with some small pieces of live rock and various species of marine macro-algae such as Chaetomorpha or Caulerpa and finally a small refugium light that will keep your algae growing. Inside of a sump, the refugium should be located after the protein skimmer and before the return pump chamber for the best results.  

A calcium reactor is an awesome yet somewhat complicated device that will automatically replenish major elements to the aquarium water that corals uptake to build their rigid calcium carbonate based skeletal structures. We have some great articles available all about how a Calcium Reactor works. Since a calcium reactor needs a reliable dedicated water feed, the best method to feed the reactor is using a manifold off your return pump (picture above) but you could also utilize a dedicated pump/powerhead to feed the reactor instead. 

A manifold is typically created using PVC pipe from your return pump that allows you to feed aquarium water to various pieces of equipment in your sump. Using a manifold as shown gives you precise control over the flow rates into these devices.

Notice the return pump in this advanced diagram is located outside of the sump which is typically found on larger and more advanced aquariums.  External pumps offer higher flow rates, more pressure and often times transfer less heat into your aquarium water.

A closed loop is something usually only found on large aquariums (150 Gallons +) and provide a very efficient way to increase water movement inside the aquarium and get water moving in every nook and cranny of the tank. While a powerhead will typically suffice for smaller aquariums, you will often needs 3, 4 or more powerheads to efficiently mover water inside of a large aquarium which clutters your display tank with unsightly pumps.  The closed loop system pulls water from the display, through an external pump which then returns the water right back into the display aquarium through multiple nozzles.

A sump system is the most efficient way to filter your aquarium and the beauty is no one sump is exactly the same.  Proper planning goes a long way in setting up a a successful sump system but then again they can also be quite modular giving you the ability to add various components as your experience and budget allows.