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Welcome to the forum!! Hope we can answer all your questions and see photos of your tanks.

I usually open up the canister for the 1st time after 2 months to see how much gunk has accumulated. Another way to tell is when the output pressure is reduced. A lot depends on the size of your tank, how many fish, how often & what you feed your fish.

When it is time to clean the filter, just rinse the 'hard' media in a pail of clean fish tank water. The coarse blue media pad is rinsed in dechlorinated water & the fine white pad is usually replaced though sometimes I rinse mine out if it's still white looking.

I only use the optional carbon when removing medications from the tank.
 
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