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Bioballs - Still not convinced

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Very interesting discussions going on here concerning bioballs, no bioballs, and nitrate removal - I think we all agree high nitrate levels in the aquarium can be detrimental to the health of the aquarium inhabitants. Typically, I have mostly dealt with fish and invertebrates other than corals, and so I was never too concerned with the nitrate levels. My goal was keeping nitrate levels low, but really, anything under 20ppm was doable. Consequently, keeping healthy corals is still a new process for me. I have just begun to understand how levels of nitrates over 5ppm can be very harmful to corals and nitrate levels below 2ppm are the better goal to shoot for. So, all discussion on nitrate levels, and how to battle the pesky creatures are welcomed with an open mind. I really believe it is a husbandry issue, not a bioball issue - our systems are only as good as we maintain them.


With that said, I think I’ve got the bioball controversy nailed down to the following three arguments:


Argument 1: Whereas the use of bioballs was once an acceptable method of biological conversion of ammonia to nitrate by reef aquarium enthusiasts, at some point in history, it became an unacceptable method (for various reasons not necessarily substantiated) and non use of bioballs presently remains the general consensus of thought. This argument seems to be based on, “I removed my bioballs and the nitrate levels went down” and “this I how it’s been done for a long time”.


Argument 2: The level of bioconversion through the use of bioballs is high (meaning it works well in converting ammonia to nitrate); however, those nitrates basically accumulate within the sump, and are not afforded the chance to be denitrified. This argument suggests the removal of the bioballs in order to concentrate the nitrate formation – reduction within the live rock crevices.


Argument 3: Bioballs work; however excessive amounts of detritus collect on the bioballs, rendering them useless in addition to bioball detritus building up and contributing to nitrate and phosphate production. This argument suggests excessive detritus builds up because the bioballs basically are serving as a trap – no bioballs, no trap, no detritus build up. This argument may also suggest excessive amounts of biowaste accumulation formed from the heavy loads of beneficial bacteria growing on the bioballs – again, remove the bioballs, remove the accumulation of the biowaste or detritus.


My response to all three arguments:


First off, I want to explain my use of the term bioconverter as opposed to biofilter. Think about it – we are not filtering out ammonia and nitrites – we are bioconverting the two products. I like the term bioconverter, and I am making every attempt to use it.


A healthy bioconverter produces nitrates – it’s a sign that the system is working. Nitrate production is directly related to ammonia production and ammonia oxidation to nitrite, and nitrite to nitrate. Within a stable and balanced bioconversion system, we can safely say the more detritus (dead stuff accumulating within the tank) we have in the system and the more food we feed, the more ammonia, nitrites and nitrates we’ll have in the system. Thus, more detritus = more ammonia = more nitrates (typically). Of course too much ammonia introduced too suddenly may negatively affect the bioconverter, and instead of having an increase in nitrates, we will have an increase in ammonia and nitrites (That’s a different topic for later discussion).


Moving on, this beneficial bacteria needs a home (a specific amount of biomedia surface area) upon which they can attach; however more biomedia surface present than what we actually need to house the bacteria that are present, does not equate into a production of extra bacteria which some would say subsequently equates to higher levels of nitrates (the nitrate factory syndrome).


Let’s be clear, in very basic terms, nitrate levels are determined by three factors:

1. Detritus levels

2. Ammonia and nitrite oxidation

3. Means or lack of means of removing nitrate


Reducing detritus levels: First step to lowering our nitrate levels

Increase mechanical filtration – clean mechanical filter material often

Increase and redirect water movement within the tank

Routine substrate siphoning

Weekly water quality checks for ammonia – to determine if something has died within the tank

Feed appropriate amounts to our inhabitants – remove excessive uneaten food

Introduce tank cleaners – crabs, snails, etc

Use a foam fractionator (a protein skimmer) but keep in mind the skimmer is there to remove detritus and protein solids before they decompose and oxidize down to nitrates. Protein skimmers are a pre-bioconversion factor – not an end-of-the-line, after bioconversion factor.

Manage the bioball sump: Have plenty of void space around the balls allowing more water movement around the balls, introduce aeration into the bioball mass, and provide a sump clean-out valve allowing biomedia biowaste to be easily removed from the system – get rid of the detritus and the detritus trapping means rather than removing the beneficial bioballs housing the beneficial bacteria.


Bioconversion and bioconverter management: Second step to lowering our nitrate levels

Provide the biomedia

Keep the media free of detritus (By the way, this means live rock too – a build up of mulm, detritus or whatever on our live rock will inhibit bioconversion there too)


Provide plenty of void space allowing movement of water through the biomedia


Nitrate removal: Third step to lowering our nitrate levels

Lower detritus levels

Lower nutrient levels

Do weekly water exchanges

Consider a mechanical denitrator

Introduce plants to the system – within a refugium

Understand how the beneficial bacteria operate within the balanced aquatic ecosystem


In conclusion:


I’m really not trying to staunchly defend bioball usage, but we can not dispute the fact they are proven to work quite well. In fact, some would say too well, but they would be wrong – bioballs do not produce nitrates – it’s the beneficial bacteria attached to the bioballs that produce the nitrates. In my opinion the real culprit is detritus build up and lack of removal of that detritus – remove the detritus, not the bioballs. Really, when we discuss nitrates in the aquarium, we are discussing two equally important processes – nitrate formation and nitrate removal. Nitrate formation, is directly related to bioconverter, beneficial bacteria management. Nitrate removal is a whole different beast, but for sure, the less nitrates we have to remove, the less denitrification needed. Even so, I think it is very important to realize nitrate formation is a great sign that our bioconverter is working, and if we have a well working bioconverter, yet still have high nitrate levels that really becomes a husbandry issue, not a bioball issue.

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Results are in the eye of the beholder for this argument. Too many variables to make a clear case on any side.


We use bioballs in every system, come into our store and check our tanks out.



Ricky Soutas Jr.

-Soutas Saltwater & Reef Inc.-


if I keep finding myself in agreement with you I may have to come check out your store.

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The decrease in bioball use is directly proportional to the efficiency of protein skimmers... as they became more and more efficient at removing waste before it could break down, the need for the extra nitrogen conversion "real estate" went away, and could be met simply with in tank or sump live rock.


This is not to say that they can't be used, only that technology has allowed us in many cases to leapfrog past that means of achieving the same end result.


Alternately, people developed a more effecient refugium technique, which used natural (as opposed to mechanical) means of nutrient export, which again allowed for the removal of the balls.


There is little documented evidence of bioballs being an actual hindrance, but by utilizing more modern techniques anecdotal evidence (in the form of low nitrates in systems lacking them) points to situations where they are not beneficial.


There are a lot of ways to lower nitrates... space, time, and budget will ultimately dictate the best way for your system to meet these goals.

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I can tell that you have had many discussions and have put much thought into your post above. In my experience and involvement in the aquarium industry all of your points are correct to a degree. I think that "most" (including myself) reefers are always looking for "better" means of filtration that allow us to enjoy our tanks with as little work as necessary. Let's be honest, I do not know anyone that just dreams of going home to clean their tank or do a water change.


I have had bioballs in my systems in the past and had always had problems with nitrates when using them. I believe that bioballs are very proficient as a "bioconvertor" as you have refferred to above. I have also been to Soutas shop and his tanks are beautiful. But I think that as the industry has moved towards live rock as a more substantial means of filtration we now have a system that is much more of a biofilter than a bioconvertor which will reduce the maintanence necessary if only using bioballs.


I personally run a fluidized bed filter in the clownhouse which is commonly referred to as a "nitrate factory", but in my application is one of my best options as I commonly have huge fluctuations in the bioload on the system and a fluidized bed can react much faster than most means on the market. I consistantly add the bioload of 150+ larval fish to my system in a 24 hour period with almost no detectable changes in ammonia or nitrites. There are not many forms of filtration that can handle these big swings in bioload which actually happen on average of twice a month. I also have to do frequent large water changes to deal with the nitrate production and am installing a mechanical denitrator to counter act the nitrate production.


I personally believe that a good protein skimmer is worth its weight in gold. Any organic solids and proteins that can be removed before breaking down is a wonderful thing. If the organics and proteins are removed then they do not need to be converted in the nitrification cycle therefore directly reducing nitrates....


I am not trying to discredit bioballs, I just feel that there are better means of filtration.


I know I have discussed things that people may or may not agree with but anyone that knows me knows that I'm ok with it. As long as people can discuss ideas and thoughts without making it personal then we all can benefit and learn :)



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no I don't have to post agreement with everyone. But I post agreement when I agree. Usually that is how it works. That is how people can weigh out their options. When good, informative posts, such as Krux's, come up I tend to agree or support.


(Directed to whoever hides behind the rep posts asking if I post agreement with everyone. Back to topic. sorry to deviate.)

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Bioballs are just another tool and their use must match the application. Bioballs, if submerged, are employed to address insufficient real estate for bacterial populations. This will occur in fish only systems that have little or no porous live rock rock.... or in a coldwater systems where native rock is far too dense to support adequate bacterial populations....or in an artifical reef where there is no rock.


Bioballs have no use in a conventional system with a normal amount of porous live rock. They will do no harm.....but, they do trap detritus and must be cleaned occassionally.


As a coldwater keeper of a heavily fed non photosynthetic tank that uses native granite rock, I use alot of bioballs.....but, I would not in a conventional reef with adequate live rock. Their use in a convention reef setting provides no real benefit and their trapping of detritus is a real negative.


In the future, as live rock may disappear from the market place, we might find their use become more ubiquitous.....but, for now, bioballs have their uses when properly matched with the right type of setup.


Krux.....I find your avatar quite disturbing......perhaps something more in purple and gold (and starting with an "L" and ending in "akers") would be far superior ???

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Here's another perspective. I've been reefkeeping since the late 70's.....so, I witnessed their birth. Here's how it all went....


Late 70's...


Saltwater tanks were just starting out. They consisted of mostly fish...undergravel filtration.....no sumps or skimmers...bleached coral decorations.....and no live rock was available. The tanks were less than inspiring and rapidly developed issues with nitrite, nitrate, phosphate, etc....although we didn't know it back then.


Early 80's.....


The problems of saltwater keeping were "solved" by the new technology of the Dutch mini reef systems. The heart of these systems coming out of Europe was a sump....bacterial growth sites....and plants. The whole concept revovled around the new "wet/dry" sumps. These wet/dry sumps used a "DLS" roll (double layer spiral) for bacteria to grow upon. It was basically a thin fabric that was rolled into a spiral with the layers seperated by a plastic gutter guard material to allow air flow through the roll. It worked great.....except that it trapped detritus...and eventually fouled the tank. These systems rapidly converted nitrite to nitrate. Nitrate was now viewed as the main problem (we didn't test for phosphate back then yet).....so, the tanks needed vast amounts of this newly introduced saltwater plant called "caulerpa" to help nutient export.


Mid 80's.....


Eventually, no one really liked the look of the planted looking caulerpa tanks (and the caulerpa over ran the whole tank)...so refugiums began to spring up......and we started to realize that the DLS material was really a detritus trap that even pre-filters couldn't save. So, we needed an inert, plastic, high surface area material that could be cleaned occassionally......and bioballs were born. Our problems were solved....except for the end product... nitrate.


At this same time, two major advances were coming into the marketplace.....live rock and skimmers. The skimmers were removing the excess nutients and the live rock made the tanks look realistic.


Early 90's....


We started to realize....probably by chance....that the live rock was actually just as good as the bioballs in providing adequate bacterial growth sites. We removed the bioballs from their dry compartment and placed them in the wet compartment or removed them altogether. The dry compartments of a wet/dry filter was to have water "trickle" through this highly aerated section and super charge the bacteria into converting nitrite to nitrate. After the bioballs were removed from the dry sections, the tanks vastly improved.....eventually, by the mid 90's, bioballs were no longer used and live rock became the media of choice since (unlike bioballs), it had anerobic sections to remove nitrate along with the aerobic sections that created nitrate. At this same time, deep sand beds starting into fashion via the work of Jaubert.


Along with improved skimmers, we were off and running now......and bioball use became a niche media.

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Thanks Steve. I have the original 6-part 1986 "Marine aquariums- Is it time for a change?" FAMA Magazine articles by George Smit, which pretty much started "mini-reef" keeping with the "wet/dry" filtration in the USA. If anyone wants a photocopy, let me know.

I really need to add these to the PNWMAS Library!

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Nice setup Garrett. Most prefer to use the macroalgae Chaetomorpa (commonly called Chaeto - pronounced Kee'-toe, not Cheeto DOH!(whistle)) as it is not as prone to release of gametes and crashing. I've found that regular pruning of Caulerpa will help prevent this. Caulerpa is still legal in Oregon, by the way.

For macroalgae identification, I recommend the book "Marine Plants of the Caribbean" by Littler & Littler.


*I just wanted to add without making another post, that I brought some Halimeda to HMSC on the 18th, both attached to rock and unattached. How is that doing, Dennis?

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Thanks Jon!

I too have a preference for Chaetomorpha sp. It seems that it has the least amount of care needed and the maximum nutrient exportation of any macro algae that I have tried. I have grown 6 or so species of caulerpas including the ones you see pictured. I also am a big fan of Halimeda and if cared for correctly Gracilaria is great in many ways. All do a great job at nutrient exporting and all serve their own purpose.


As far as I know Caulerpa taxfolia is the only species of Caulerpa in Oregon that is illegal. The only reason it is illegal in Oregon is because it is illegal nation wide. Just too invasive and out competes native macro species.


Macro algae is amazing stuff. It is crazy the number of microfauna that are present in a good refugium. I sometimes just sit and watch all of the critters. Makes for some good seahorse, pipefish, and mandarin food too ;)

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