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i use marineland filters exclusively, never had problems with them in sand or gravel substrates, but then again i used play sand that i woudl literally spend a hour or two washing before i put into the tank and i also would turn the fitler off for a hr or two if i was doing any planting or leveling from fish digging. which leads me to say even with digging fish never had the problem, also never used a pre filter sponge over the intake and the intake was maybe 2-3 inches from the top of the substrate this was all in a 55gal. have you tried taking the impeller out and cleaning it off? from the marineland filters i use they have no moving parts exposed except the magnetic driven impeller
 
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