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  • The Complete Guide to Algae Turf Scrubbers: Part 2

    Marine Depot

    ocean-water-with-algae-and-rocks.png

     

    Now let’s answer the first question most aquarium folks have about algae scrubbers: Should you buy or build?

     

    Before the year 2010, there were not really any commercially available algae scrubbers available for purchase.

    Fast-forward to today: Now you can buy tiny-to-medium size algae scrubbers in the upflow style as well as medium-to-large sizes in the waterfall styles.

     

    In terms of doing it yourself (DIY), there are discussions on aquarium message boards that detail just about every algae scrubber that anyone’s even attempted to build—complete with growth examples and nutrients measurements completed over time. There are some truly amazing DIY scrubber builds out there.

     

    We won’t go too deep into specific DIY plans in this article, but there are many available online. You may even find some on this very forum! If you’re super curious, you can check out builds going back 20 years on AlgaeScrubber.net.

     

    A DIY algae scrubber can be made fairly easy if you are skilled in building stuff. The typical materials of PVC pipe, acrylic sheet, glue, airline tubing, etc. are needed, just as if you are building a DIY reactor, overflow, or sump.

     

    One difference with algae scrubbers, however, which makes them a bit more difficult, is the lighting that’s needed for the growth. Not only are you now dealing with electricity, but unlike DIY display lights which are above the tank in a dry air environment that you rarely touch, the lighting for an algae scrubber is in a humid or wet environment (or even underwater) that you touch daily—with wet algae dropping on top of it—all while possibly standing on a wet floor (maybe even with bare feet).

     

    Long story short, you probably won’t want to make a complex algae scrubber your first-ever DIY project!

     

    Some advantages of buying a scrubber are that you obviously don’t need the time or space to build one. But other reasons are that it’s hard to DIY some types of scrubber designs, even if you are good with DIY. Things like underwater lights for upflow scrubbers, or gravel-epoxy surfaces for algal attachment, or the long slot in a waterfall pipe, takes a few tries to get it right (meaning your first try will probably not work).

     

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    Buying a pre-built unit, however, is limited to what is for sale. Currently the only models available are waterfalls (which Santa Monica Filtration invented in 2008 and are now made by SMF and others) and upflows (only made by Santa Monica Filtration), and these are in certain sizes only.

     

    There are a very few number of horizontal river models. However, these come from China and are tiny without any lights. And there are no dumping bucket designs available at all, probably because of their complexity.

     

    The biggest advantage of DIY is, of course, saving money.

     

    Most $300 commercial models can be DIY’d in a week for $60 in parts, and most of the costs is in the lighting. But DIY also lets you choose the exact style, size, and layout you want to fit into your exact space. If you need a very large model, such as for small exhibits at public aquariums, you will have to DIY.

     

    DIY waterfall styles are generally going to need some acrylic or plastic gluing, unless you can find the proper size plastic box to start with. Cutting the slot in the waterfall pipe is the hardest part, and although it can be done with a Dremel moto-tool cutoff wheel, most people end up doing it over again with a table saw, router, or other shop equipment.

     

    The lights are easy. Usually low cost Chinese plant-grow lights can be used from eBay, as long as you follow safety steps properly. Most DIY folks can do the PVC pipes, so that’s not a problem. Waterfalls are not really suitable for freshwater because the growth gets long and clogs drains and pumps. Also, waterfalls work best when placed over a sump — not externally on their own — because they can overflow, leak, and also drip from the waterfall pipe.

     

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    DIY bubbling upflow styles can be the easiest if they are similar to the Hang-On-Glass styles that Santa Monica Filtration makes.

    These styles need no acrylic gluing or PVC pipe. The LED lights just stick to a plastic cover on the outside of the sump or tank wall using magnets or suction cups. The airline tubing for the bubbles is as easy as a goldfish tank. Cheap LED lights and a power supply from Ebay will do because they stay dry and are low voltage (no 240/120 volts at the light).

     

    These designs might be suitable for first-time DIY projects if you can get help with the lights and are great for freshwater too because the long growth is kept mostly inside the growth compartment. Lastly, they can’t overflow, leak, or drip because they are already underwater.

     

    DIY horizontal rivers are relatively easy to build — at least the river water part is. But again, the lighting can be a challenge over the long narrow pathway. One workaround for this is to put it under your display lights, but that’s too cumbersome and unsightly for most people. And if you put it over a sump, these designs tend to cover the top of the sump like a lid, so you can’t get access to anything.

     

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    If you have multiple tanks, a good piece of advice is to first try a scrubber on the smallest aquarium. Especially if it is freshwater, because that way you can get a feel for placement, lighting, cleaning, noise, etc. before working up to a bigger one.

    Santa-Monica-Filtration-SURF2-Algae-ScruSanta-Monica-Filtration-SURF2-Algae-ScruSanta-Monica-Filtration-SURF2-Algae-ScruSanta-Monica-Filtration-SURF2-Algae-Scru

    Meanwhile if you want to take a look at modern algae scrubbers, here is a Santa Monica SURF2 floating model — shown below floating in a saltwater reef pond.

     

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    Happy Scrubbing!


    If you missed the first entry in this series, read The Complete Guide to Algae Turf Scrubbers: Part 1 to learn more about the history of algae scrubbers. 



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    Clint Jorgensen

    Posted

    Im gonna go right out there and show my complete ignorance to this lol and ask why?  what does this achieve in a reef tank?

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    Marine Depot

    Posted

    6 hours ago, Clint Jorgensen said:

    Im gonna go right out there and show my complete ignorance to this lol and ask why?  what does this achieve in a reef tank?

    An algae scrubber is a water filtering device which uses light to grow algae. In this process, undesirable chemicals are removed from the water. Algae scrubbers allow hobbyists to filter the aquarium water the same natural way that oceans, lakes, and rivers do. Algae scrubbers require that the algae be removed ("harvested") periodically from the scrubber. This removal of algae has the effect of removing undesired nutrients from the water because the algae used the nutrients in order to grow. Check out part 1 of the series to learn more (part 3 coming next month): 

     

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    Clint Jorgensen

    Posted

    OK excellent thanks for the detailed description.  im assuming the reason to grow this algae in a remote location is simply for easy of removal from the system, as opposed to cleaning off of live rock and the tank walls?  Im in the stages of mapping out my first marine tank in about 15 years so all this info thats readily available now that wasnt back then is a huge benefit, if i can get my head around it lol :)

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    Marine Depot

    Posted

    1 minute ago, Clint Jorgensen said:

    OK excellent thanks for the detailed description.  im assuming the reason to grow this algae in a remote location is simply for easy of removal from the system, as opposed to cleaning off of live rock and the tank walls?  Im in the stages of mapping out my first marine tank in about 15 years so all this info thats readily available now that wasnt back then is a huge benefit, if i can get my head around it lol :)

    You are welcome! For most of us, algae grows in our aquariums.... so keeping it controlled outside of your display tank is ideal—since most of us consider it unsightly (even though it's completely natural). Then, as you said, it makes removal from the system much easier. Most hobbyists run their algae scrubbers or reactors opposite the lighting schedule of the display tank.  The idea is to balance the effect of oxygen production and CO2 removal. During the nighttime, photosynthesis stops inside your aquarium and the corals will no longer uptake CO2. This leaves an increased amount of CO2 dissolved in your aquarium water which then lowers your pH level. By running your algae scrubber at night, the algae inside the refugium will continue to uptake CO2 and help reduce the natural pH swing inside your tank that occurs each night.  

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    Clint Jorgensen

    Posted

    OK great, am i wrong in assuming that this somehow becomes a sacrificial element or magnet if u will drawing algae spores to the remote location and away from the display tank and other areas in that it would be the most ideal place in the system for algae to spawn?  as in its going to concentrate here rather than where u dont want it to grow? or does it still grow just as readily in the display tank? 

    I am blessed with room for what im planning to do with my setup so i can picture quite a large screen and waterfall setup in its own large sump in circuit so im hoping to reduce the issues with cleaning and overflow as described in ur article.  Is keeping the algae screen in a sealed environment crucial?  as in sealed off from the outside atmosphere where toxins in the air surrounding it could possibly "infect" the algae turf causing it to produce harmful toxins in the water passing over it?  or is this negligible?  

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    Marine Depot

    Posted

    24 minutes ago, Clint Jorgensen said:

    OK great, am i wrong in assuming that this somehow becomes a sacrificial element or magnet if u will drawing algae spores to the remote location and away from the display tank and other areas in that it would be the most ideal place in the system for algae to spawn?  as in its going to concentrate here rather than where u dont want it to grow? or does it still grow just as readily in the display tank? 

    I am blessed with room for what im planning to do with my setup so i can picture quite a large screen and waterfall setup in its own large sump in circuit so im hoping to reduce the issues with cleaning and overflow as described in ur article.  Is keeping the algae screen in a sealed environment crucial?  as in sealed off from the outside atmosphere where toxins in the air surrounding it could possibly "infect" the algae turf causing it to produce harmful toxins in the water passing over it?  or is this negligible?  

    Hi Clint! I actually asked Bryan from Santa Monica Filtration for help answering your question since he has way more scrubber experience than I do. Here is what he told me:

     

    Quote

    "It's not really the most ideal place in the system for algae to spawn, but it's the place with the best conditions for algae growth. It's the same reason algae grows in one part of your tank and not another; conditions are better there. So a scrubber makes the very best conditions, and also makes it easy to remove the algae out of the system.

     

    Keeping a scrubber in a separate compartment is not really needed or useful, unless you disconnect that compartment from the rest before harvest. But some growth still gets out at other times. Allowing growth to flow to the display is actually good free food, like real reefs. Reel reefs have no mechanical filters; all particles remain in the water to feed something.

     

    If physical access is the issue, then yes a separate compartment would help.

    The Rain model scrubbers however fit down into almost any available sump space.

     

    Sealing from room air is not needed at all, and would have no effect. CO2 will get in through the smallest crack, as the CO2 is pulled out of the air by the algae in the water."

     

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    Clint Jorgensen

    Posted

    Ok thanks heaps.  i was more concerned about things like airborne dust particles or even things like insects/vermin making contact or being attracted to it during the night.  Things like moths and night time insects are heavily attracted to lights in my part of the globe so this would be a common issue.  i think i will build the whole thing in a reasonably sealed room to keep problems like this from arising, i just wasnt sure if that actual screen should be in a sealed tank like a greenhouse environment.  As for the separate compartment mention, i had envisioned a smaller tank stood alongside my sump that would just allow diverted water to trickle thru the screen, collect in the bottom of the tank and then overflow back into the main sump either before or after sump filtration if there is a most opportune location.  I dont think it would be wise to divert all flow thru this scrubber filter but only a partial amount per cycle which would be infinitely adjustable with a simple ball valve on the feed.  Also i would assume trying to contain the light in the scrubber to directly onto the screen rather than flooding the whole area would be ideal, to prevent extra algae growing in the rest of the sump area.  

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