Keeping fish can be quite the endeavor. The end goal is pretty obvious - a clean tank with clear water and colorful fish swimming around for our amusement. Getting there, however, can be a challenge. Keeping water clean and clear can be a challenge as well. Fortunately, you've got the Three Amigos on your side - Biological, Chemical, and Mechanical Filtration. These different types of filtration team up to remove harmful organic waste, most notably ammonia and nitrite, from your aquarium.
In general, Biological Filtration refers to the biological processes bacteria undergo in the aquarium. Various species of bacteria (most notably Nitrosomas and Nitrobacter species) feed on organic compounds produced by decomposing fish waste, uneaten fish food, etc., and render them less harmful to your tank inhabitants.
These bacteria grow on wet surfaces in the aquarium, and most require aerobic (oxygen containing) conditions. Aquarium gravel (when not clogged with fish waste or other nasties), the surface of filter pads, lava rock or ceramic pellets in a canister filter, and the like, harbor these bacteria. If flow/highly oxygenated water and plentiful surface area is not provided, or if the surface area is rinsed or scrubbed clean, these bacteria will not be present and your tank will not reap the benefits of biological filtration. These bacteria can also be introduced into the aquarium via various biological and bacterial conditioners.
Chemical Filtration uses chemical reactions to remove organic waste from the water column. There are many different filtration medias available that target ammonia, nitrite, and even nitrate. (Nitrite is the least harmful of the three that is typically removed via regular water changes). Activated carbon, zeolite, and Purigen are commonly encountered medias that contribute to chemical filtration. Medias that utilize chemical filtration often have to be recharged or replaced frequently, as the media is eventually used up or clogged as chemical reactions continue.
Mechanical Filtration is simply the mechanical removal of stuff from your fish tank. The most common form of this is a floss pad placed in a filter, where water is forced to flow through the pad. Particulates from uneaten fish food, plant debris, etc., are caught in the pad. They can then be manually rinsed off by the aquarium keeper (you!) and then reinstalled in the aquarium filter. This applies whether it's a hang on back power filter, canister filter, submersible filter, or a filter driven by an air pump.
By utilizing mechanical filtration properly, you'll have a chance to remove some sources of pollutants from your aquarium before they become an issue. Remember, without the all important step of rinsing off or removing the filter pad, you may keep the debris out of the water column of your tank, but it will still contribute to ammonia and nitrite levels as it breaks down in the filter.
The three different types of filtration all play important roles in maintaining a healthy aquarium. Although there are complex scientific principles behind how they function, the basic information in this blog will allow you to reap the benefits these Three Amigos can provide you and your fish.
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