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Old 11-20-2004, 09:41 AM   #1
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Hair Algae, Bio Balls and DSB???

Help! I was given a 90 gallon reef setup about 1.5 years ago and I have been constantly struggling with it. I can't seem to stop the hair algae growth. I don't know how much live rock I have, but it seems like a lot. It is stacked to the top of the aquarium from end to end. I have an overflow with a sponge filter that directs the water over some bioballs. I have a phosphate sponge and a protein skimmer. I have more than 10x flow with two powerheads. I have tried cutting back on my lighting (2X175 watt 10,000K MHs) and that helps , but then the algae comes back . It certainly seems to help when I do water changes, but I am doing the 10% per month and I don't have time or money to do much more. I have worked fairly hard to keep my chemistry correct with the help of this forum. I have reasonably good corraline algae growth. My phosphates are .03 ppm or below and my calcium is good. I can't detect any nitrates or nitrites. My substrate is the one that came with the aquarium. It is black and white and looks like crushed coral to me. I don't have very much as I remove it often when I do my cleaning.
I want to make the move to a DSB, but I would like to hear from some experienced folks to see if that is the right answer. I have also read here that bio balls can be a cause of nitrates and I am confused by that.
Where do I go from here?

Thanks in advance for any advice.
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Old 11-20-2004, 10:50 AM   #2
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I'm a little confused. You state that you have no detectable nitrates?? What is it you are trying to reduce then?
As for the hair algae, something has to be feeding it. Hermits crabs, emerald crabs and certain snails can help you combat that. As well as a Lawnmower Blenny. My Blenny helped clean mine out within a week or 2.
I removed my bioballs (very slowly) and it brought my nitrates down. A little clarfication would help.
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Old 11-20-2004, 04:02 PM   #3
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Well I was confused as well, so I decided to check my nitrates. Surprisingly to me they were very high . I hadn't checked them in over a year because in the past they had always read zero. My kit reads somewhere between 25 and 50 ppm, if I am reading the color chart correctly. Can you help me understand if the bioballs are the problem? I have read on several posts that they can be a cause of high nitrates. If this is the case, then why do people even use them? Should I go to using my live rock only or should I plan to go to a DSB?

Thanks in advance for any advice.
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Old 11-20-2004, 04:28 PM   #4
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Bioballs provide a lot of surface area for nitrifying bacteria to grow on. These bacteria breakdown ammonia into nitrites and then the nitrites into nitriates. This is where the problem with bioballs begins. The bacteria that breakdown nitrates need a lower oxygen environment to grow in. These bacteria will grow deep in porous LR and also in the DSB's. Now you have LR in your tank, the problem is that the bioballs are so proficient at processing ammonia and nitrite that they overload the tank with nitrates before any of the denitrifying bacteria can process it. Over the course of a few weeks slowly remove the bioballs and allow the LR to carry out your tank's nitrogen cycle. It sounds like you should have enough LR, just be sure you've got good flow in the tank provided by pump returns or powerheads.
As to the substrate question, I would continue to remove the CC and either go bare bottom or if you want go with sand. The bare bottom would obviously be easier to setup. Crushed coral can trap detritus and also be the cause of high nitrates and phosphates.
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Old 11-20-2004, 04:48 PM   #5
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Agree and make any changes slow. Try removing 1/4 of the bioballs per week and retest the water. You need to go slow to allow your biological filter to catch up with the change. After the removal of the bioballs, I would bet that you will see a big improvement. You can then evaluate if you want to add the DSB, it should not be needed IMO.
In the meantime, do a couple of water changes, that will help as well.
With all the rock you describe, it may be difficult to add a DSB without doing damage to your reef.
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Old 11-21-2004, 12:21 AM   #6
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Wonderful! Thank you for the advice.
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Old 11-21-2004, 03:33 AM   #7
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Take a quick step backwards. The Nitrogen cycle starts with waste producing ammonia. The amount of nitrates produced by nitrification in the bio-balls is directly dependant on their food source - ammonia. The bacteria can not outproduce their food source, no matter how effective the bio-balls are!

You haven't mentioned what you have in your tank, or how much, or how often you feed - i.e. what's your bio-load?

Providing your tank isn't overstocked, your likely culprit is overfeeding. Without knowing the specifics, I would say cut back on the amount you are feeding and feed only every two to three days for about two weeks. Chances are your algae problems will disappear and your nitrates will drop significantly.

Rather than removing the bio-balls, try adding either Eheim EHFISUBSTRAT" or "Kent Nitrate Sponge" filter media to the bottom of your sump - make sure it is submerged in water. Eheim substrat media is typically used for nitrification just like bio-balls, but unlike the balls, is highly porous (made of sintered glass) and can support both aerobic nitrification but also anaerobic denitrification in low oxygen environments.

Kent Nitrate Sponge is a zeolitic material which in addition to absorbing ammonia, is also highly porous and also supports denitrification.
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Old 11-21-2004, 09:25 AM   #8
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Great! I have been wondering about that. I think I have a very light bio load and I don't feed very often, i.e. once every week. I have one fish, a spotted hawkfish, 2 brittle stars, and a red lobster. I also have a small cleaning crew of about 8 large snails and 6 blue legged hermit crabs. That is all I have right now. I have lost several fish over the last 6 months and I was considering dismantling the aquarium out of frustration. My efforts up to this point had focused on phosphate as the culprate and I think I have that one solved. I wonder if the problem didn't start this past summer when a large yellow tang died while I was on vacation. I came home and the aquarium was filled with algae. I am still scrubbing the live rock with a brush and constantly cleaning my sponge filter. I went for a couple of weeks without turning the lights on to try to get the algae to die off.

I will plan on doing as many water changes as I can over the next couple of weeks and purchase a nitrage scavenger.

I still want to go slowly towards a DSB since I think I will like the look better than a BB.

After all the information I am thinking that the high nitrates are coming from the large amount of organic material from the algae. Does this make sense? Any more advice would be most appreciated. This has been wonderful!
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Old 11-21-2004, 11:16 AM   #9
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I'm having the same problem right now, I'm battling a nasty hair algae outbreak and dealing with the results of the algae dying off. The dying algae will decay and produce ammonia and could lead to higher than normal nitrates. I clean out the sponges in my canister every couple of days, do water changes every 2 days or so, and I try to suck out as much of the gunk as possible.
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Old 11-22-2004, 12:14 PM   #10
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OK, so what is an exceptable nitrate level and at what level is it harmful to any of my livestock? It seems to me that as long as I have bio balls I am going to be putting nitrates into the main aquarium. Why not just get rid of them and force the chemistry to take place on the live rock rather than the bio balls where the nitrates can also be broken down anaerobically. Why is there this debate or uncertainty about whether to remove them or not?

Once again, I am confused?

Thanks in advance for any clarifying replies.

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Old 11-22-2004, 12:25 PM   #11
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With all the rock you have, I have little doubt that it would be benefical. Just do it very, very slowly . Don't want to shock your biofilter.
Run a poll, I would bet it would be overwelming in favor of removal.
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Old 11-22-2004, 12:52 PM   #12
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Thanks again! Are my nitrates too high to consider adding a lawnmower blenny at this point?

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Old 11-22-2004, 04:05 PM   #13
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Why do some people swear by Macintosh and others by Windows....some things are just never solved. My take is this...I have a twenty gallon reef tank with about 30lbs of LR and 20lbs of LS, I run a prizm skimmer and just recently added a Fluval for flow and GAC etc and to aid in mechanical filtration. To date I've never detected nitrates in my tank.
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Old 11-22-2004, 05:06 PM   #14
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The bio-balls are such and effective medium for aerobic nitrification, that they are the best means of dealing with ammonia spikes. Unfortunately, the capacity and ability of lr, to keep up with the spike in nitrates is lacking which is why many people opt for a refugium. In the fuge, macro algae like calupra use the nitrates as fertilizer to speed growth.

As far as what level is harmful, it depends on what you keep. In a FO tank, nitrates as high as 40ppm can be tolerated. In a reef tank, nitrates should be kept below 5 and as close to zero as possible.
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Old 11-22-2004, 07:07 PM   #15
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OK, so for reef tanks where you would want the NO3 levels to be extremely low it is important to have a DSB and or a refugium. However, for a FO tank where nitrates can be quite a lot higher, one can get by with just live rock or bio balls and live rock? Is it safe to say if you maintain high NO3 levels you will probably always be fighting hair algae?

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Old 11-22-2004, 09:40 PM   #16
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You are correct. For a reef tank, the lower the nitrates the better. For FO or FOWLR you can get by with a higher level. Under 20 is acceptable but between 10 and 15 is better. I agree, remove the bioballs slowly. You may also need to address your PO4 issue. Any detectable PO4 should be delt with. It may be the cause of your excess algea growth. What is your water source for changes and top-offs? Your tank is big enough that you could throw in some more snails and crabs to help with the problem. Good luck...Lando
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Old 11-22-2004, 10:52 PM   #17
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Thank you! I use the Rowa phos product and my phosphates are down to around 0.03 ppm. I use RO water for top offs and water changes. It checks out at 0 ppm phosphate. (I had a problem over a year ago where my membrane went bad and I didn't notice until I had a major algae outbreak. ) I am definitely light on a cleanup crew. I plan to get a sally lightfoot and a lawnmower blenny in the next couple of days to help out. It sounds like I should get some more hermit crabs as well? I only have 6 blue legged ones right now. They do an amazing job in their little territories. I really want to go to a DSB, but I can't find the correct sand at Home Depot.

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Old 12-03-2004, 06:06 PM   #18
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Well I have 1) made 2 twenty percent water changes and 2 ten percent water changes, 2) purchased a lawnmower blenny and a yellow tang, 3) begun removing my bio balls (plan is 25% per week) and 4) I have removed about 50% of my cc substrate. So far it looks like things have actually gotten worse, i.e. the algae growth, but I wonder if this isn't because I have stirred things up so much. I haven't measured my nitrates, but since the algae is going strong I am sure they are still high. I will continue with the water changes and removing the substrate this weekend. My plan is to go to a DSB, as I have located a good aragonite sand source at a local hardware store.

Please advise if anyone has any better idea on how I can reduce my nitrates.

Thanks in advance.

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Old 12-03-2004, 10:21 PM   #19
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This thread is starting to sound like a crazy comedy of errors. I'm sorry, but it is funny sometimes the things we do.

Your bioball have to go and have to go now. They are a Nitrate factory. This was a debate in 1990, but it was long ago put to rest and almost the entire reef keeping world no longer uses bioballs. And you definately do not need a refugium to run your tank. Live rock alone will filter this tank great, and sand will help if you decide to go that route.

Your hair algae is coming from 2 sources. Everyone seems to agree that the Nitrate is problem #1, but we know how to stop that as we discussed. The 2nd problem was pointed out by Lando and is probably the most important... Phosphate production. You need to remove your sponge filter OR clean it EVERY day. Also use airline tubbing to vaccum out any detritus buildup which settles in your sump and under your live rock. Any place you have detritus in your tank (including on your filter pads & sponge) is a source of Phosphate production. The biological process which occurs as water flows over, thru, and around detritus produces Phosphates. And definately add more blue leg hermit crabs to eat hair algae. I would add 20 more minimum.

As to the suggestion to add an additional nitrifying bacteria bed, I couldn't disagree more. We solved these problems in the early 1990's. No reason to backwards in the hobby.
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Old 03-07-2005, 03:51 PM   #20
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I forgot all about this thead or I would have responded sooner.

To date, with a wet/dry filter and bio-balls, LR and a protein skimmer, my fish are well and my corals are showing steady growth. My nitrates are measuring between 0-5ppm between water changes. I would hardly call that a "nitrate factory".

Just because an idea is discussed and methods are tried, does not mean we are taking a "step backwards" and just because there is a concensus about an idea in the hobby right now, does not make that idea correct or absolute. There have been several practices in this hobby that were dismissed, by in large, only to be proven as sound and put back in popular practice later.

And I think it is presumptious to say that lr alone will filter his tank "great." LR alone would not allow for much needed mechanical filtration and would not allow for ocassional chemical filtration.

I'm not proclaiming to have the answer here, but I don't think it's time to stop asking the question just yet. I've also been interested lately by the number of people using zeolitic materials as well as Purigen type products in their reef tanks with LR, DSB, and refugiums. Appently removing the bio-balls didn't solve everyone's problems. That's just the quick fix solution everyone throws out to anyone using bio-balls because they hear everyone else saying the same thing.

BTW, awillemd1 , what did you end up doing and how's your tank?
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