Aquarium gravel vacuum & water change siphon product review: it’s always a great feeling when you find a box from Amazon on your doorstep when you get home–even if it is “just” a fish tank vacuum.
The auto-siphon bulb on my Aqueon auto-siphon cleaner stopped working. I had this thing for years. No concerns about quality, I would be comfortable buying that brand again. But I did want to see what was out there in terms of possible replacements for my old and no longer operational piece of aquarium maintenance equipment. Water changes are not my favorite thing to do–so if there is something out there to make my aquarium maintenance and aquarium water changes a little more pleasant, I’m all for it.
I don’t actually have gravel in my aquarium or quarantine tank, I have a deep sand bed in my display tank and a bare bottom in my QT, so I feel a little strange calling it a gravel vacuum, or an aquarium gravel cleaner,but I believe that to be the most popular term for this piece of equipment, so I’m going to stick with it.
The first model I checked out was the Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System. On the surface, this looked like the easiest way to change out aquarium water and clean your tank, but will it hold up to the scrutiny?
Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System
I was intrigued by the premise of the no-spill system. It looks so cool, and like such a good idea. No more need to lug buckets across the room. Inevitably, I end up spilling some of the water from at least one of the buckets, as I lug it across the floor. Could this gravel vacuum and water change siphon be the answer to my problems?
Well, at this point, I don’t know, because I didn’t go with it.
I think this product is probably the ultimate water change product for anyone with a freshwater aquarium.
I absolutely love the idea of no longer having to lug the buckets of wastewater around, but since I’d still have to make buckets of saltwater (and lug those around), I didn’t actually think it would be as helpful as I wanted it to be. Not to mention, I couldn’t figure out how to calculate how much water went down the drain (to be sure I drained the right amount of money).
The $65 price tag was enough to keep me on the sideline for this product. But I have to admit, I’m very curious about it.
Low tech options
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Python system, there were a handful of very low tech and inexpensive fish tank vacuums:
Those models are similar to the siphons I used when I first started in the hobby, all those years ago…but I’ve moved on…I don’t want to start the siphon out the old fashioned way…
So I moved on. If you’re on a budget, and you don’t mind the shenanigans it takes to get the siphon started, they work fine,b, but I was looking for something a bit cooler.
Standard Auto Siphon Vacuums
Not too cheap, not too expensive, the auto siphon gravel washers were just what I was looking for. The two most popular models were:
There was no major difference between the two products, in terms of features, price and product reviews, so found that I kept searching…and searching…until I found this:
Free hawk Fish Tank Autosiphon
The model I bought
The model I bought to clean my tank was labeled as Freehawk Fish Tank Auto-siphon in one description and just as a squeezing aquarium auto-siphon in another. It works like the other fish tank vacuum with a priming bulb. Part of the way down the tube, there is a bulb, with a one-way check valve, that you squeeze to start the flow of water. So this siphon met my minimum requirements. The price was very reasonable, but what immediately caught my attention about the Freehawk Fish tank auto-siphon were two features that I hadn’t seen on the other models.
- A flow rate control valve
- A plastic clip to hold the hose in place during the water change
From the look in the picture, the clip seemed like it was probably pointless…but I was intrigued by the flow rate control valve.
The price was about the same as the other models, so I made an obvious choice and went with the model with more product features. And yes, I am addicted to the free shipping I get on Amazon. That was certainly a factor.
Unboxing my new aquarium gravel vacuum
As much as I was looking forward to opening up my new gravel vacuum siphon, I admit that the unboxing was a bit disappointing (or is the right word strange?).
Underneath the air pockets was a silver, unlabeled pouch. It looked like this. I flipped it over (not shown below) and the words “Made In China” were stuck on, but otherwise it looked the same.
The plastic was that auto-glued stuff, so I had to rip the pouch open. No big deal. But the product that I bought on Amazon.com that was labeled the Freehawk Autosiphon Aquarium Cleaner was actually a Yu Mei Instant Siphon Gravel Cleaner, apparently model YM-20
I knew I hadn’t purchased a brand name fish tank vacuum I was familiar with, but I didn’t actually think I was buying a product with (I’m assuming) Chinese labeling. I flipped it over, and things got even more amazing.
This product had the most amazing picture I have ever seen to demonstrate the proper (or I suppose to highlight clearly improper) siphon starting technique.
I’m very excited again about this purchase–and the fact that I can now do water changes in cufflinks and a tie, without the hassles of having to start the siphon by mouth. Although I’m still not sure about the air movement under my armpit in the right-hand picture.
This product is worth the price, for the collector’s artwork on the back alone.
Ok, enough shenanigans, time to open it up.
There are no instructions, so if you are deathly afraid of putting things together without guidance, you will not like this device…but it is super straightforward.
Let’s start with the plastic gizmo (ironically, not displayed in their artwork above).
It is made from a hard but not brittle plastic. It doesn’t feel like it will break easily. Originally, I thought this was supposed to fit on the aquarium–but after installing it there, I realized it is probably designed to fit on the bucket to keep the hose in place and prevent it from slipping out–which has happened to me a few times before.
The vice fits well on the rim of the bucket. I was able to tighten it so that it didn’t wiggle much and it was designed to fit snugly just on the plastic rim at the top of the bucket.
Update: Several months later and I’ve really come to appreciate this clamp. In the past, I’ve had some major disasters when stepping away from the fish tank vacuum to go lug another bucket of water. With this clamp in place, the hose stays where it is supposed to be.
Next, I had to figure out what to do with these two pieces
Compared with my old Aqueon siphon, this part of the aquarium gravel vacuum seems more sophisticated. I’m excited. The blue tube is made of a solid plastic that will not bend. I suspect it will break at some point, which will ruin the siphon, but for now, I’m intrigued, there will be no bend in the tube at this point and it will be easy to move around the tank.
The wide section at the bottom, the business end of the siphon, is slightly different from the other models I’ve used too.
From an aesthetics perspective, the plastic appears a little mottled…in other words…it isn’t perfectly clear, it’s blurry clear…ok…seems like a downgrade from the other models but that isn’t important at all.
Next, notice the coarse plastic filter. That will keep fish and large clogging debris from getting sucked up into the line. It almost looks like a mini colander for making noodles. It seems like it could be designed to fit snugly in place, but it is a bit offset in my siphon, again creating a positive impression in terms of design and a negative impression in terms of assembly/materials.
My old Aqueon didn’t have any sort of screen, so all in all, I’m considering this an upgrade at this point. We will see how it works in practice.
There is a screw cap that keeps the blue plastic tube connected to the bottom piece, which is actually a very cool thing. As my Aqueon model got older, the area where the tube connected here loosened and would periodically fall off mid-water change.
To start the flow of water, I had to open the valve on the end–and with two squeezes of the bulb, the flow started, no problems.
Next, I wanted to try out the valve on the end. This is clearly the best part of this auto siphon product. A simple half-turn and the water flow stops. Completely.
This is extremely helpful when switching buckets. No more need to bend and pinch the tube to constrict the flow, dripping all over the place when switching buckets–or worse, putting up with the hassle of stopping and restarting the siphon, just shut the valve, move the hose to the next bucket and then reopen the valve.
I left the valve closed for a few minutes, to see how well the valve would hold and it stayed closed. There were a few very small drips, but for all intents and purposes, the flow was stopped and the tube can be safely moved around without making a mess.
There is one drawback to leaving the tube full of water but with the valve closed for a few minutes. The pressure in the line caused the water to back up and ‘bead out’ at the ball. I did have a small wet spot on the carpet under this part of the siphon.
So I quickly learned that the valve is to be used for short-term closing to switch between buckets.
While I feel like the marketing description and images could have shown the gravel cleaner packaging better (to avoid the surprise at all the Chinese descriptions), I’m impressed and excited about my new aquarium gravel vacuum.
- You have to figure out how to assemble this on your own. There are a few moving parts and no description
- The rigid blue tube actually concerns me–it works fine now, but it feels thin and cheap and is likely the first piece that will fail. I will keep you posted about that
- There are a fair amount of 1 star reviews on Amazon–most of them indicate that they couldn’t get any suction–as best I can tell–it seems like they didn’t open the valve–because I saw exactly what they described when the valve was shut…which makes sense…the air can’t escape. I’ll keep you posted if I run into any other problems
- Reasonable price
- Loaded with features compared with the other auto siphon tubes in this price range
- The rigid blue tube does extend reach and make it easy to move the siphon in the tank
- The coarse filter prevents accidental removal of fish or things that would clog the tube
- Adjustable clip to hold the hose on to the bucket
The biggest reason to buy this fish tank vacuum over the other options is the shut-off valve that is at the end of the tube. This feature alone, which seems so simple and straightforward, is a big help, if you have a big tank, and will be changing more than one bucket at a time.
If you’re looking for a siphon/aquarium cleaner or if it is time to replace your old one, the Yu-Mei YM-20 is an economical and efficient option and is the model I’m using currently. I’ll let you know how I make out and keep you posted.
If you are interested, check out this model on Amazon.com
Your description is quite clear and I going to buy the. Thanks Albert for sharing with us so many interesting things!
Gaspar, from the Canary Islands, Spain
Gaspar, thanks for the very nice comment. I appreciate that you read the blog. The Canary Islands sound fantastic!