DIY DE "Diatomaceous Earth" filter. (Memoirs of a filter junkie) - The Planted Tank Forum
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post #1 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 02:05 AM Thread Starter
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DIY DE "Diatomaceous Earth" filter. (Memoirs of a filter junkie)

Preface: I setup my first aquarium when I was about 12 yo using a broken tank from my middle school science teacher that I repaired myself. It was one of those great metal cornered tanks. From the very beginning I always wanted "More Filtration"! Fast forwards 30 years and several tanks someone gave me their old Vortex D1 DE filter. It turned my tank from a cloudy murky mess into a crystal clear beauty... I was hooked.

My first DIY DE filter: Unfortunately the Vortex D1 filter would clog after running it for about 5 days straight depending on water conditions and worst of all would suck down the electrons due to a very inefficient motor driving the pump. There had to be something better. After tons of reading and research I ended up with a Hayward EC40 DE pool filter (the big cylinder in the following picture).

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In the front row with the black pond tubing wrapped around it is the original Vortex DE filter.

The Hayward DE filter was the best filter I have ever used. It kept my over stocked 110g cichlid perfect clear. It was pared with the trickle sump on the far right which gave gobs of biological filtration and kept the water full of oxygen. If anyone wants to build a sump I would highly recommend copying this simple effective sump design!

My 12 yo daughter has been bugging me for almost a year to setup a tank because she wants fishies! A couple weeks ago I brought the hex tank up from the storage room and set it up as a dirt under gravel planted tank. The initial fill went great but the water quickly turned brown with tannins. During our first water change we had a mishap and blasted the organic soil up through the gravel for a near water blackout! At that point I hauled the old Hayward EC40 DE filter upstairs and had the water crystal clear in about an hour. My love for DE filters was refreshed! BUT for some reason my daughter doesn't think a pool filter in the middle of our great room is appropriate... crazy kids! I relented and started planning a DE filter that would fit through the narrow 11" door on the stand and this is what I came up with...

DIY DE filter: Bigger than the Vortex but smaller than the pool filter I decided to use a whole house (Big Blue) cartridge filter I had lying around. I had a new 30 micron filter cartridge packed away with it so I decided to start there. The whole setup is very easy. Tank -> pump -> filter cartridge -> tank. Loading the cartridge is very easy, I just slowly dump pool filter diatomaceous earth directly into the intake in the tank. The pumps sucks the DE up with the water and quickly coats the filter cartridge.

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Things I have learned over the years about 24x7 DE filters.
1) You really don't need a big pump. When I started with the EC40 I originally put an 1/4hp Little giant pump. Then I down sized to the 1/8hp Little Giant pump in the picture. Then I further downsized to the little QuietOne 3000 you see on my latest DIY filter. Even on the 110g tank the QuietOne 3000 pump was more than enough flow!
2) The Diatomaceous Earth lasts a LONG time! On my very dirty 110g cichlid tank I went 5 years, 24x7x365 without EVER changing the DE!!!! When the flow would start to slow I would turn off the pump, pump the handle on the filter to knock all the DE off the filter screens then turn the pump back on. A little DE bloom would hit the water but the filter would clear up up in no time.
3) The EC40 is not the perfect fish tank filter. The one downside of the EC40 is that I could never get it 100% sealed and leak free. It would leak about 1/4 cup of water a day. I kept in a rubbermaid container and the water would evaporate fast enough that I would never have to empty it.
4) Pool DE media is REALLY cheap and from what I can tell is identical to the expensive Vortex DE powder! 5 years and the fish never hay and health issues. From what I read DE will filter out parasites like Ich which makes it a perfect fish tank filter media.
5) I thought I would need a higher pressure pump to compensate for the much smaller surface area on the big blue cartridge filter. I started with the LittleGiant 1/8hp high pressure pump on my latest DIY filter. It was too strong, it worked but I had to do put a strainer on the output into the tank to break up the heavy stream. The QuietOne 3000 pump is working perfectly!
6) A simple sponge on the intake in the tank makes a perfect prefilter to catch the big chunks. The sponge takes about a minute to pull, wash and replace.
7) When the pump is turned off most of the DE falls to the bottom of the filter. IT IS MUCH BETTER TO RUN THE CANISTER FILTER UPSIDE DOWN! When the pump starts the water stream will push the DE up from the upside down top of the cartridge filter and it will cover the filter cartridge much faster and more evenly!

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A long time ago I drilled this tank and used a sump with it. I repurposed the overflow as an intake and it is working very well. The elbow is positioned so the sponge catches debree from the water surface.

Our tank is cycling well and the plants seem to be happy... when my daughter is back with my next week we will add our first guppies! I plan on building a hood for the tank with a light in it... another good project for my daughter and me.

I am also planning on mounting the cartridge filter, pump and an inline filter on a board that will fit into the cabinet as a single unit that I can remove for servicing. The current manifold on the pump has an extra spigot to east water changes. I think the manifold will be redesigned a bit in the final version. Right now I am seeing how long the 10" x 2.5" filter cartridge will last before it has to be rinsed and recharged. Big Blue also makes a 20" x 4.5" cartridge filter with obviously will have much more filter area. If the little 10" x 2.5" doesn't last very long I will extrapolate how long a bigger cartridge should last and consider upgrading.

Last edited by Oughtsix; 08-02-2017 at 03:33 AM. Reason: update
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post #2 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 02:16 AM
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post #3 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 02:39 AM
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Hi Oughtsix,

$250; 38 gallons per minute.....what a beast!

BTW, when I have a cloudy water issue I use the Marineland 350 Magnum with the micron filter and add some DE. I do remember the Vortex filters and I think they still make them but you are right the flow dropped fairly quickly in a dirty tank.

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75 Gallon, 2X55W AH Supply CF 8800K, 1X 59W Fluval Plant (3.0); 45 Gallon Tall, 1X 46W Fluval Plant (3.0); 30 Gallon Long; Fluval F&P 2.0; 20 Gallon, 1X26W AH Supply LED; all with CO2 & (Calcined) Montmorillonite Clay
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post #4 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 03:04 AM Thread Starter
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can't see a picture?
Sorry, I was in the middle of posting when the power blipped. When my computer came back the start of the post had already been posted. :-)

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Originally Posted by Seattle_Aquarist View Post
Hi Oughtsix,

$250; 38 gallons per minute.....what a beast!

BTW, when I have a cloudy water issue I use the Marineland 350 Magnum with the micron filter and add some DE. I do remember the Vortex filters and I think they still make them but you are right the flow dropped fairly quickly in a dirty tank.
Yep, that is the beast! I included some of my other filters in the picture as a size comparison. If you look closely you will see a Magnum 350 in there along with an original Vortex D1. If it isn't obvious I love DE filters. I know the DE will support a colony of beneficial bacteria but I am hopping to keep as much BB in the tank and only have mechanical filtration.
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post #5 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 03:25 AM Thread Starter
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Here is a close up of the intake. It is working well. As you can see the return is temporary... I am not sure how I want to do the return yet???? I am thinking a spray bar but I am open to suggestions!?!?!?!?

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I don't know if you can tell from this picture but the water is very clear... with a yellow tinge to it from the tanins leaching out of the soil.

Last edited by Oughtsix; 08-02-2017 at 03:47 AM. Reason: update
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post #6 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 01:54 PM
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The Vortex is still made. The thing about a DE filter is it is used to "polish" the water, not as a continuous filtering device. It filters down to 1 micron.
I've still got my original one I bought back in the early 80s.
If you need to run a DE filter 24/7/365 you're doing something wrong.

If you grind up some activated carbon in an old coffee grinder and charge the filter with it it will even remove organics post haste.

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post #7 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 02:52 PM
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Cool!

Using dead sea creatures too help living creatures!

How do you clean the "cake" ?

You said you never replace the media, so technically you are just storing debris?

Sounds like I might of missed a part..

I really like the upsidedown canister trick lol so simple yet genious
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post #8 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 03:57 PM Thread Starter
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Cool!

Using dead sea creatures too help living creatures!

How do you clean the "cake" ?

You said you never replace the media, so technically you are just storing debris?

Sounds like I might of missed a part..

I really like the upsidedown canister trick lol so simple yet genious
When I was running the big EC40 I had it positioned after the trickle filter. I washed the sponge in the trickle filter periodically and that removed most the big solids. The EC40 removed all the small stuff. This was in a tank without AQUATIC plants. Yes, debris would build up in the EC40 and after 5 years it must have decomposed... which would add significantly to Nitrates. I had a very effective Nitrate filter in a jungle of terrestrial Pothos plants.

The trickle filter removed the large debris and had the capacity to maintain a huge beneficial bacteria (BB) colony with the water dripping over the bio balls and an air stone underneath the bio balls constantly supplying fresh oxygenated air.

The EC40 trapped the minute debris (and free floating algae and fungus and parasites) and I am confident also maintained a healthy BB colony.

Between the trickle filter and the EC40 I had a very effective biological filter for breaking waste down to Nitrates. I had a large amount of terrestrial Pothos that loved the nitrates and sucked them up using them to grow.

The maintenance on the system was monthly water changes, clearing the sponge in the trickle filter, refreshing the DE in the EC40 and LOTS of Pothos trimming! My ammonia and nitrite levels were basically null. Nitrate levels stayed very low due to the Pothos. The water had an abundance of O2 thanks to the water stream being broken down to droplets by the bioballs with an air stone underneath them. The fish were very healthy, happy and I never had any kind of disease or parasite... everything was great until the 110g sprung a leak!

I enjoy the science of filtration and engineering a healthy minimal maintenance tank almost more than I enjoy the fish. :-) My goal with my new tank is to setup a new balanced ecosystem using aquatic plants instead of the terrestrial Pothos plants... hence why I am here... to learn!


I will post separately about the DE filter mechanics and maintenance.

Last edited by Oughtsix; 08-02-2017 at 04:18 PM. Reason: update
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post #9 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 04:14 PM
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Is there any significant advantage to using a DE filter vs a cheap whole house filter that goes down to 5 microns?

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post #10 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 04:35 PM Thread Starter
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If you need to run a DE filter 24/7/365 you're doing something wrong.
DE filters are simply extremely effective mechanical filters. The Vortex Diatom filters were designed for occasional water polishing, why should that preclude DE being used in a 24/7/365 filtration system? DE filters do much more than just make the water look pretty, they also remove pathogens making the water and aquatic environment healthier! DE filters run in swimming pools 24/7/365 why not an aquarium? DE filters are so safe they are also frequently used to filter beer.

By your reasoning wouldn't running any filter 24/7/365 mean you are doing something wrong?


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If you grind up some activated carbon in an old coffee grinder and charge the filter with it it will even remove organics post haste.
To me carbon is a crutch to lean on when something is out of balance in your aquarium. If I had a problem in my tank and I needed to quickly chemically filter the water powdered charcoal would do an excellent job. I would not want to contaminate the DE media with powdered carbon on a routine basis. The carbon will loose its effectiveness before the DE will loose its effectiveness.

Last edited by Oughtsix; 08-02-2017 at 05:35 PM. Reason: update
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post #11 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 05:02 PM Thread Starter
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Is there any significant advantage to using a DE filter vs a cheap whole house filter that goes down to 5 microns?
:-) Glad you asked! Definitely! Way back when... I tried many whole house filters of different grid sizes. The spun filament 5 micron whole house filter cartridges also produce beautiful water... for about a day. To get more than a days use out of them your need a pretty high pressure pump. Way back when I was experimenting with whole house filter cartridges I was running 3 x spun filament 5 micron cartridge filters in parallel (to triple the effective filtering area). I finally upgraded to a high pressure 1/4 hp pump to supply the needed pressure. I was devastated when I came home the first day after implementing the pump... all my fish were floating on the top of the water. The filter was functioning, the water was perfectly clear... but the water temperature was 130 degrees F. The heat from the pump and the heat induced in the water from the high pressure boiled my fish. I didn't have a tank for about 5 years after that incident.

In the lower right of my first picture you can see an Ocean Clear cartridge filter made specifically for salt water tanks (I have never ventured into salt water myself). The Ocean Clear filter cartridge has a MUCH larger surface area than a 2.5" x 10" whole house filter cartridge. With a prefilter I could get a week out of that filter before it needed to be cleaned and I think the cartridge was about 50 micron so it didn't clean the water anywhere near as well as a DE filter. I also could never get the Ocean Clear filter completely sealed and to stop leaking.

The advantage of a DE filter is the Diatomatous Earth offers a HUGE filtering area and a very small pore size. It filters very small particles and takes a long time to plug. The coat of DE on the filter screen is many thousands of layers thick. When the DE does plug you can simply turn off the pump, knock the DE off the filter screen then turn the pump back on to recoat the filter screen with a fresh layer of DE exposed.

In the EC40 there is a big handle on top. Actuating this handle knocks the DE off the internal filter screens. When you turn the pump back on the filter screens recoat with a fresh layer of DE exposed and you are back to full flow. This is how I was able to get 5 years out of one charge of DE media! The intake on the EC40 is at the very bottom of the tank so the incoming water stream disperses the DE media and evenly coats the filter screen... this is where I got the idea to run the whole house filter upside down so the incoming water stream disperses the DE media in the whole house filter.

For my whole house DE filter I plan to turn off the pump, shake the filter to knock the DE media off the filter cartridge then turn the pump back on with the whole house filter upside down. I will keep updating this thread as I get useful data on the life of the DE media.

Last edited by Oughtsix; 08-02-2017 at 05:37 PM. Reason: update
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post #12 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 05:09 PM
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:-) Glad you asked! Definitely! Way back when... I tried many whole house filters of different grid sizes. The spun filament 5 micron whole house filter cartridges also produce beautiful water... for about a day. To get more than a days use out of them your need a pretty high pressure pump. Way back when I was experimenting with whole house filter cartridges I was running 3 x spun filament 5 micron cartridge filters in parallel (to triple the effective filtering area). I finally upgraded to a high pressure 1/4 hp pump to supply the needed pressure. I was devastated when I came home the first day after implementing the pump... all my fish were floating on the top of the water. The filter was functioning, the water was perfectly clear... but the water temperature was 130 degrees F. The heat from the pump and the heat induced in the water from the high pressure boiled my fish. I didn't have a tank for about 5 years after that incident.

In the lower right of my first picture you can see an Red Sea cartridge filter made specifically for salt water tanks (I have never ventured into salt water myself). The Red Sea filter cartridge has a MUCH larger surface area than a 2.5" x 10" whole house filter cartridge. With a prefilter I could get a week out of that filter before it needed to be cleaned and I think the cartridge was about 50 micron so it didn't clean the water anywhere near as well as a DE filter. I also could never get the Red Sea filter completely sealed and not leak.

The advantage of a DE filter is the Diatomatous Earth offers a HUGE filtering area and a very small pore size. It filters very small particles and takes a long time to plug. The coat of DE on the filter screen is many thousands of layers thick. When the DE does plug you can simply turn off the pump, knock the DE off the filter screen then turn the pump back on and recoat the filter screen with a fresh layer of DE exposed.

In the EC40 there is a big handle on top. Actuating this handle knocks the DE off the internal filter screens. When you turn the pump back on the filter screens recoat with a fresh layer of DE exposed and you are back to full flow. This is how I was able to get 5 years out of one charge of DE media! The intake on the EC40 is at the very bottom of the tank so the incoming water stream disperses the DE media and evenly coats the filter screen... this is where I got the idea to run the whole house filter upside down so the incoming water stream disperses the DE media in the whole house filter.
Interesting. I have a spare housing that I may try with a wound cord cartridge. IME, they clog less that a spun film cartridge.

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post #13 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 05:45 PM Thread Starter
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Interesting. I have a spare housing that I may try with a wound cord cartridge. IME, they clog less that a spun film cartridge.

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I would like to know how it works for you? I think you will find it doesn't work very well in the long run. (I was told the same thing way back when... BUT I am the type of person that needs to know for myself how well it works).

What do you think you will use for a pump?

P.S. I think I paid $30 delivered for a 50lb sack of pool DE media. I have about 48lbs left! ... in case you want to try a DIY DE filter.
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post #14 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 05:51 PM
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I would like to know how it works for you? I think you will find it doesn't work very well in the long run. (I was told the same thing way back when... BUT I am the type of person that needs to know for myself how well it works).

What do you think you will use for a pump?

P.S. I think I paid $30 delivered for a 50lb sack of pool DE media. I have about 48lbs left! ... in case you want to try a DIY DE filter.

Probably either a powerhead if it is its own loop, or the mag 5 that I use for a return pump. The housings are only~$15 and 5 micron wound cartridges are $7 for 2. I probably won't get it done for a while since it isn't a huge priority.

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” -Jules Verne
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post #15 of 34 (permalink) Old 08-02-2017, 06:25 PM
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I still don't understand. If you never physically remove the contaminants, when you knock it down, it could very easily bypass the (now not present) filter and now need to be refiltered out.. right?

I get how you can never need to change the media with this method but im sorry I just don't understand how this benefits the aquarium without replacing the media, or, filtering the filterr so to speak
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