How to set up an aquarium sump

Written by aimee boyle
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How to set up an aquarium sump
(corail image by Christophe Fouquin from

A sump serves many purposes. It adds to the overall health of your aquarium by helping to oxygenate the tank, and it provides a place to "hide" your equipment. There are literally hundreds of ways to set up an aquarium and sump combo. This article will focus on setting up a simple sump with an internal overflow-equipped aquarium.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Sump
  • Submersible return pump
  • Vinyl tubing
  • Flexible pvc tubing
  • Plastic hose clamps
  • Submersible aquarium heater
  • Level
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Skimmer (optional)

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  1. 1

    Rinse out the sump and wipe it clean with distilled water if possible.

  2. 2

    Place the sump into the back of the stand and use a level to make sure its placement is evenly flat.

  3. 3

    Rinse out the tank and wipe clean with distilled water if possible. Look for the overflow chamber. This will be a wall of plastic with slots, usually curved, where the water flows out of the tank. Rinse this chamber out as well and make sure there is no debris in it.

  4. 4

    Screw it in the drain bulkhead if it doesn't come pre-installed. Make sure the wide end is inside the overflow. Placing a small amount of petroleum jelly on the nut will help to tighten it against the glass or acrylic (underneath the tank). Use caution not to over-tighten: hand tighten only. Repeat for the return bulkhead.

  5. 5

    Place the return pump into the return section of the sump.

  6. 6

    Measure the distance from the return bulkhead output to the return pump outlet and cut the appropriate length of vinyl tubing.

  7. 7

    Place a plastic hose clamp over one end of the line and secure the line to the return bulkhead outlet. Place a house clamp over the other end of this line and push over the return pump outlet. Gentle pressure and a slight twisting motion will help the line onto both ends so that the barb on either end is firmly embedded in the line. Tighten the hose clamps by hand only.

  8. 8

    Measure the distance from the drain bulkhead outlet to the skimmer chamber (this is usually the largest chamber in the sump). Cut the flexible PVC drain line to match.

  9. 9

    Place an appropriately-sized house clamp over one end of the drain line and fit to the drain bulkhead outlet. Secure the house clamp by hand tightening only. Place the other end of the drain house into the skimmer chamber.

  10. 10

    Place your skimmer and submersible heater into the appropriate chambers. Note: be sure the heater element is never in contact with any part of the sump.

  11. 11

    Fill the tank to the overflow line.

  12. 12

    Fill the sump to the sump waterline. This should be a similar height to the shortest baffle in the sump.

  13. 13

    Fill the overflow with water.

  14. 14

    Plug in the pump.

  15. 15

    After a few minutes of operation, if the water level in the sump drops, add more water until it stays consistent at the manufacturer-indicated water line.

  16. 16

    After you've established there are no water level issues, you may now plug in your heater, skimmer or any other equipment associated with the tank.

Tips and warnings

  • When working with water and electricity, there is always the possibility of electrocution. Plug all devices into a GFCI for added safety!
  • When using a sump, there is the possible chance of overflow and flooding. This article is a general guide. Consult your sump or aquarium manufacturer for their specific product's instructions including overflow rate and pump size.
  • Only use a UL listed submersible pump with an in sump application.

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