04-01-2011, 10:08 AM
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Hey there - I'm also new to this site, but have been in and out of the hobby for many years.
Just my $.02.... but, NO, you don't absolutely need a UGF, but it can offer very cost effective biological filtration...but it comes with caveats. The first being that it is a surprisingly good mechanical filter, pulling debris of fish waste and uneaten food down into the gravel. This keeps things looking neat, but can lead to a bad 'nitrate factory' if the gravel is not routinely cleaned. There are those I've read that claim there is fear if/when there might be a power outage such that the aerobic bacteria die and are replaced by (bad) anaerobic bacteria. Personally, I think this fear is grossly exaggerated as it would take a very long time for such a process to take hold and foul a tank - and likely wouldn't happen at all if if the substrate is properly maintained.
And there in lies the rub. Although very cost effective and efficient at bio-filtration, the UGF requires routine media servicing (gravel vacuuming) to remain in good condition. Just for perspective, a tank w/o a UGF has around say 1/2" or so of gravel - a breeze to vacuum at weekly water changes, especially with the aquean or python type cleaners. But the UGF requires 2-3" of gravel so cleaning is more of a chore and may not be done well in a 25% water change.
So, I'd say given the maintenance requirement, the UGF may be great for 30g or less, not so much for larger tanks. You might be best served with a canister (or other) filter that included good bio filtration media.