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How to Clean Saltwater Reef Aquariums For Nitrate and Phosphate Reduction

Information on reducing algae growth in marine reef aquariums by limiting it's food source.  A quick understanding of the nutrient cycle and how to control it through effective water changes and cleaning.

Everyone who has owned an aquarium knows the importance of water changes. Although, what needs to be removed with the old water is often misunderstood. Many people set up saltwater aquariums and have a balanced ecosystem for several years with simple water exchanges. At some point however, the organics (fish waste) accumulate to the point of depleting oxygen and causing algae growth. This is solved by removing as much waste as possible with the water.

     Algae doesn't use fish waste as fertilizer immediately. Fish waste is fertilizer in it's organic form. This organic form of waste must be broken down by bacteria and microbes, and converted into its mineral form to be more readily used by algae. This is the form that test kits are able to detect nitrogen (nitrate) and phosphates in. A test kit might show a low reading, but there could still be a reservoir of fertilizer seeping into the water. Therefore, if a balanced reef aquarium is created, these chemicals might stay under control through live rock and skimmers, but if the accumulation of waste becomes too great, problems arise.

    One of these problems is oxygen depletion. The bacteria that break down nitrogen are aerobic, meaning they consume and bind oxygen during their processing. The more waste in a tank, the more bacteria feeding on it. This is important because the fish and corals we love come from an oxygen saturated environment. These bacteria can use up too much O2 and cause stress, then disease and death of our inhabitants. One way to intercept this process is using a properly functioning skimmer. A protein skimmer removes these wastes before they are broken down. Also a skimmer raises the oxygen levels between cleanings.


  Cleaning the sand or crushed coral is important for long term health of fish and corals. The simplest way of doing this is buying a siphon with a tall tube and vacuuming the sand as you would an aquarium with gravel. The tall tube allows for the finer sand to swirl high without being removed with the water. You can clean a small section of the reef aquarium thoroughly with a water change, while leaving the majority of the sand untouched for bio-diversity. This will control the build up of organics over time that cause algae.

  One more tip before I go. Use a siphon that attaches to a sink or garden hose (Python) to clean out the detritus in the sump. This siphon is able to create suction without gravity feeding, and is perfect for cleaning the sump on the ground level. Thanks for readingBusiness Management Articles, Wes



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