Before looking at specific filter designs, you should understand aquarium aeration and surface agitation.
At the surface level, water and air undergo a natural exchange of gases. Oxygen goes from the air to the water, and carbon dioxide goes from the water to the air. This is how the oxygen that fish breathe enters their habitat and how the carbon dioxide that they produce by respiration is removed from their habitat.
When the surface of aquarium water is disturbed, the rate of gas exchange between the water and the air is increased; more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and more dissolved oxygen is taken by the water. The surface tension of the water must be broken for sufficient gas exchange.
Fortunately, creating surface agitation is easily done with aeration, or pumping air into the water so that it forms bubbles. The bubbles rise to the surface and burst, thus breaking the surface tension.
This also creates water movement in the tank, in effect stirring the aquarium ever so slightly, so that all of the materials and compounds in the water -- both the beneficial ones and the harmful ones -- are evenly distributed throughout the tank.
One way of providing the necessary aeration in an aquarium is to use air stones connected to an air pump. The air stones can be made from wood or other highly porous materials. When air is forced in one end of the air stone by the pump, it is released as bubbles from the other end.
Many filters, however, use air bubbles as a part of their design. As air bubbles move upward, their movement causes water to rise up with them, in effect creating a current that circulates all the water in the tank. These air-lift filters use this technique to pull water through their filter media and thus clean the entire tank.
Any filter that uses air bubbles to operate will provide the aeration, as long as the bubbles are driven with enough air to actually break the surface tension of the water. Filters that do not use air bubbles to create circulation often have available attachments that provide aeration.
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Mechanical aquarium filtration is accomplished by moving water through some kind of material that acts like a sieve, catching the solids and removing them from the water. Ideally, the most effective mechanical filter removes particles down to very small sizes, but there is a trade-off here.
The smaller the particles are that the filter removes, the faster the filter material will clog. Because clogged filter material severely reduces the rate of water flow through it, the material must be cleaned or changed. The more effective the filter material is at trapping small particles, the more often you will have to clean the filter.
For this reason, most filter material is designed to catch only the larger, more visible solids. Of course, as the filter material catches large particles, the openings in the material through which the water flows become increasingly smaller and thus trap increasingly smaller particles. The material does clog eventually, but it takes much longer.
Let s explore another type of aquarium filtration -- chemical filtration -- in the next section.
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Chemical aquarium filtration is needed because a number of dissolved, invisible compounds accumulate in aquarium water and they can t be removed by mechanical filtration.
These compounds are not toxic to the fish but can inhibit their growth and cause chronic, low-level stress that eventually leads to disease. Most of these compounds are dissolved organic substances produced by natural biological decay.
The dissolved organic substances eventually reach concentrations high enough to become visible as a yellowish tinge in the water. You can see this when a sheet of white paper is held behind the tank so that half of it is viewed through the water.
If the water is healthy for the fish, the paper viewed through the water will be as white as the other half; if not, the paper will have a yellowish cast to it.
Chemical filtration removes many, but not all, of these compounds. However, some substances that affect the growth of the fish can only be removed by making partial water changes on a regular basis.
If this isn t done, the fish will never grow to normal adult size. This stunted growth will result in fish that never achieve the beauty of mature fish, and it can cause other related health problems.
There are many ways to accomplish chemical filtration, but for all practical purposes, the only method that is both effective and relatively economical is to pass the aquarium water over granular activated carbon.
Granular activated carbon is usually made from an organic material, such as coconut shells, that is ground into small pieces and then heated to 2,000° Fahrenheit to drive off gases in the material. This "activation" produces carbon that can adsorb the molecules of compounds in the water and hold on to them. Adsorption is the adhesion of a thin layer of molecules to a solid (in this case, the activated carbon).
The carbon eventually becomes saturated with molecules and must be replaced. It cannot be reactivated by hobbyists because of the special ovens needed for the process.
Granular activated carbon should not be confused with charcoal, which is sold in some stores at a much lower price but does not provide effective chemical filtration.
There are a few things to keep in mind when using granular activated carbon. The smaller the granules of carbon, the greater the total surface area available to adsorb molecules for any given amount of carbon. The total surface area of the carbon determines how long you can wait before it is necessary to replace it.
A good rule of thumb is to use one ounce of carbon for every four gallons of water. If the tank is not overstocked with fish, the carbon should last at least a month and probably twice that.
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Biological aquarium filtration -- is the most important of all. The lack of effective biological filtration is probably responsible for the deaths of more fish than any other cause. The particular dissolved compounds controlled by biological filtration are very toxic to fish even at low concentrations.
In newly set up tanks, the effects of these compounds can kill fish very quickly. In aquariums that have been running longer but are overstocked with fish, there can be constant low levels of these compounds in the water. This creates chronic, long-term physical stress, resulting in diseased and dying fish.
To understand biological filtration, it is necessary to understand a basic process in the aquarium: the nitrogen cycle. Ammonia is one of the key elements in the nitrogen cycle. Fish produce ammonia directly both as a by-product of respiration and as a waste product from the digestion of foods.
Solid wastes are also converted into ammonia, which is why it is important to remove them with mechanical filtration. Uneaten food, plant materials, and other organic items that decay in the tank are also converted to ammonia.
Ammonia, a nitrogen-based compound, is extremely toxic. In an aquarium, it can build up quickly and threaten all the fish in the tank.
Nature, as usual, has a solution to the problem. A species of bacteria known as Nitrosomonas will actually consume ammonia, as long as there is enough dissolved oxygen in the water to support the bacteria.
Nitrosomonas bacteria are everywhere, so you don t even need to add them to the aquarium; they will grow there naturally. However, it takes them a while to multiply to a population size capable of consuming all the ammonia in the water.
As the Nitrosomonas consume the ammonia, they convert it to nitrite. Nitrite is also toxic to fish and in the long run tends to be a larger problem than ammonia.
Another species of bacteria, Nitrobacter, will consume the nitrite and convert it to nitrate, a relatively harmless compound that can be used up by plants and algae.
As with Nitrosomonas bacteria, it takes some time before the Nitrobacter are able to multiply to sufficient numbers to handle all of the nitrite. Unfortunately, until the Nitrosomonas are able to increase to numbers sufficient to control the ammonia in a new aquarium, the high ammonia levels inhibit the growth ofNitrobacter, thus allowing the nitrite levels to increase quickly and remain high.
While it may take a week or less for the population of ammonia-consuming Nitrosomonas to grow to sufficient numbers, the delay in Nitrobacter growth means it can be six weeks or more before nitrite is under control.
This process of starting the nitrogen cycle, which generally takes a total of six to eight weeks, is known as "breaking in the tank." If there are too many fish in the tank during this process, and not enough water changes are made, many of the fish will die.
This situation is known as "new tank syndrome." It s also the reason so many new hobbyists are unable to keep their fish alive and healthy.
Some aquarists report that they successfully break in their tanks using fish, but add a one-step water conditioner that neutralizes the toxic ammonia. The neutralized ammonia can still be consumed by theNitrosomonas bacteria so they can multiply, but it will pose no danger to the fish.
However, the Nitrosomonas bacteria will still produce nitrite, and the fish will have to battle the increasing concentrations of that chemical until the Nitrobacter colony is established.
The end product of the nitrogen cycle -- nitrate -- will not harm fish unless it reaches rather high levels. Because nitrate can be used by plants as food, live plants will help control nitrate levels. Without aquatic plants, however, the nitrate will be used as food by simpler plants -- algae.
One way of controlling problems with excess algae is to lower the nitrate level by making partial water changes, which should be a normal part of aquarium maintenance anyway.
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Featuring live plants in your aquarium not only makes it more attractive, but is much healthier for your aquarium s inhabitants. Live
plants provide your fish a natural food source with the ability to replenish.
By far the biggest benefit that live plants provide for your aquarium is that they produce oxygen (O2) and absorb the carbon dioxide (CO2) and ammonia (NH3) that your fish generate. Live plants in your aquarium mimic the natural ecosystem, and may be one of the most beneficial ways to keep your fish healthy.
Plants provide shelter and security for the fish. Because they compete with algae for nutrients, they can help to reduce algae growth. Live plants enhance the appearance and provide a much more natural environment for the fish. By improving water quality and reducing stress, live plants are a great way to improve your fishes health. Adding live plants, however, does not reduce the need for water changes. When selecting live plants, make sure that you select species that are truly submersible and that are suitable for your specific water type and fis species.
When first beginning to use live plants in your aquarium, it is wise to choose a large amount of hardy species such as plants from the genus Sagittaris,Sword Plants, or Moneywort. Once your aquarium is balanced, you can start including the more sensitive plant species.
Plant Selection & Placement Tips:
•To create a natural-looking garden aquarium, add a broad variety of plant species. The visual effect is lush and beautiful.
•While foreground and backgrount plants help define your composition, don t necessarily place only tall plants in back and short in front. Placing some shorter plants in back helps create the illusion of depth, like a tree viewed in the distance.
•Don t forget the reds! A bold splash of a red against varied shades of green creates a dramatic visual focus. Red varieties of Ludwigia and Rotala make great choices.
Caring for your maturing planted aquarium is both an art and a science. With the right technique and a creative eye, you too can enjoy the rewards of a beautifully sculpted garden. Here are some tips how:
•Tall stem plants like Rotala Indica will begin to bend over at the surface if not pruned back. While this surface growth is ideal for bubble-nesting gouramis, it also shades the plants below from precious light.
•Advantageous rooting plants can be pruned mid stem and replanted. Simply trim the bottom leaves of the cutting and place back into the substrate, using bendable plant weights if necessary to anchor. Replant with the same grouping for a fuller look, or experiment by interspersing these single cuttings among other established groupings.
•Sometimes, a young plant that starts out looking fine in one location soon outgrows its space. To thin out, either cut and toss individual leaves or carefully pull out half the cluster by the roots and replant the extra in another location.
Regular pruning of tall background plants and the thinning out of mid- and foreground plants will provide your aquarium with a defined and clean composition. It s the hobbyist s pleasure to watch nature grow wild in this small world we tend to, always pruning, shaping, clipping, and replanting for new roots to take hold.
•Full spectrum lighting at least 12 hours per day
•Temperature should be between 75-88° Fahrenheit
•pH between 6.5-7.4
•Five degrees KH (carbonate hardness)
•Eight degrees GH (general hardness)
•Co2 levels as high as possible, but lower than 40 mg
•Low to zero surface turbulence to help retain CO2
•25% water changes every other week
Appropriate substrate for root growth
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To create a natural-looking garden aquarium, add a broad variety of plant species. The visual effect is lush and beautiful.
Aquarium substrate has various functions and should be chosen according to the type of tank, i.e. freshwater, planted, fish-only, reef, etc.
In general, the substrate provides the fish with an orientation. Glass bottoms can irritate the fish, especially if the light is being reflected from the fixture on top of the tank. Next to “orientation” and a more natural look, the substrate is breeding and colonizing grounds for the beneficial bacteria and other microscopic life forms.
Substrate for the Fish Only Aquarium
The substrate for a fish only aquarium serves the purpose of providing a surface for the beneficial bacteria to build colonies. With today’s filter technology, the size of the gravel doesn’t actually matter, but it is recommended to use a finer gravel if bottom feeders are home in the tank. The substrate should be about
2-2.5 inches in height, or roughly 10 pounds of substrate for approximately 150 square inches of tank surface.
Deeper layers especially with finer gravel sizes can pose a danger, given that food particles will sink into a less oxygenated area. This will over time produce hydrogen sulfite (rotten egg smell), which is highly toxic for the fish.
Substrate for Marine and Reef Aquariums
Next to the general purposes of the substrate - a natural look and colonizing grounds - the substrate for marine and reef set-ups also provides an environment for crustaceans, crabs and other bottom dwelling creatures. The substrate should also be 2 – 2.5 inches in height.
Another difference to other gravel options is that marine environments need more calcium and magnesium which will buffer the pH to higher levels.
Substrate for the Planted Aquarium
Next to the lighting, the substrate for planted aquariums is the most important factor in the successful growth of plants. The substrate for a planted tank should have the ability to store and provide nutrients for the plants. The majority of the nutrients should be in the gravel and not in the water column. Plants do get their nutrients and minerals through the root system (hair roots).
The substrate of planted tanks should contain 2 layers. First a nutrient rich substrate as a lower layer. To prevent a possible washout of nutrients and as an anchoring device for the plants, regular gravel or sand should be used as a top layer.
The lower level should be as high as the plant roots, generally 1-2 inches. The top layer should be about 2 inches in height.
Types of Aquarium Substrates
Sea sand is not recommended for use in aquariums because of impurities. Sea sand holds many living organisms which can die off and pollute the water. Small sea shells and coral pieces will raise the pH, it can also compact itself rather densely, which is not necessarily beneficial for bottom dwellers, crabs and other sand loving fish and species.
Painted gravel or glass pebbles should not be the first choice. Glass pebbles can diffuse the light, which can irritate the fish. Painted gravel can loose its outer coating. Risk to your fish can be avoided from the start.
Common Aquarium Gravel
Probably the most used substrate for aquariums. The gravel comes in fine or more coarse varieties and consists almost entirely of quartz. It is safe to use and does not influence the water parameters at all. This gravel is suited for fish only aquariums and as top layer for planted aquariums. Regular maintenance by vacuuming the gravel is a must in order to remove uneaten food particles.
In combination with a good filtration system, sand can be the cleanest substrate of all. Sand will compact itself and food particles can not penetrate the surface. A strong filtration system will simply remove the particles from the surface. In many cases, the filter intake tube will have to be adjusted in order to avoid the sand being pulled inside the filter. With good filtration in place, the sand does not have to be cleaned as frequently as compared to common aquarium gravel.
Sand as a substrate will also provide a more natural habitat for many species and bottom dwellers.
Two rather cheap sources of sand are sandblasting sand, which is more coarse than regular sand and mostly consist of quartz, and play sand, which has a finer consistency. Play sand is sterilized for the good of our children, and therefore suitable for the fish as well.
Aragonite is a calcium carbonate mineral. Aragonite sand holds a lasting reservoir of calcium carbonate, which is slowly but constantly released to buffer and to hold up the pH. Using aragonite can push the pH to about 8.2 The released calcium is a valued trace element for corals and overall functionality of the aquarium. Aragonite sand can be mixed with live sand or crushed corals. Due to the pH raising character it is suited for marine and reef set-ups only.
This substrate was a long time favorite before the use of aragonite. Sharing the same values in providing buffers to stabilize and enhance the pH, crushed corals usually push the pH up to 7.6
Most commercially available crushed corals are mixed with aragonite or similar calcareous materials such as dolomite and calcite which are similar to aragonite.
Crushed corals and the mixtures thereof are suited for marine, reef aquariums, brackish water and African chiclids in freshwater.
Vermiculate is a mineral mixture of aluminium, iron and magnesium. After the mining process, vermiculite is heated to eliminate water pockets. The result is an increase in volume of 15 – 20 times it original size. The heating process where temperatures reach up to 1000 C (1800 F) makes vermiculite sterile with a high water holding capacity, high surface, and a neutral PH.
Vermiculite has a high caution exchange rate, which is how plants utilize the available nutrients and minerals.
Vermiculate also slowly releases valuable nutrients such as potassium and magnesium over a long period of time.
This substrate type is ideal as a lower layer for planted aquariums. Since it has a tendency to compact itself over time, it should be mixed with laterite or common aquarium gravel to maintain the porous structure.
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