Dear Chris & Jennifer:
It’s good to hear from you again but it’s unfortunate that your RO unit let you down when the membrane outlived its usefulness and the hair algae got started in your tanks as a result.
No doubt about it, hair algae is stubborn and difficult to eliminate once it gets established in an aquarium. There are some other things you can do aside from adjusting the photoperiod and cutting off the available light, but it sounds like you’re ready have a pretty good handle on the situation.
Most often nuisance algae is associated with excess nutrients in the aquarium, and the best way to get rid of it for good is to cut off the supply of dissolved organics that are fueling their growth. For one thing, be sure to rinse the shrimp juices up of your frozen Mysis very thoroughly before you enrich it and feed it to your seahorses — that stuff is like rocket fuel for nuisance algae.
In case you haven’t already seen them, here are some additional tips along those lines (be sure to check out the online articles on controlling hair algae I listed at the end of this post):
Controlling Nuisance Algae
Hair algae can be most unsightly but it is not directly harmful to seahorses. It is, however, an indicator of poor water quality since it thrives on excess nutrients in the aquarium (especially phosphates and nitrates), and of course marginal water quality can certainly be detrimental to our seahorses in the long term. And if you don’t nip a problem with hair algae in the bud, it can take over your entire aquarium and ruin it.
The appearance of hair algae in your aquarium most likely indicates that nitrates and phosphates are building up in the tank, but it may also indicate that your aquarium bulbs need to be replaced. As they age, the spectrum of light put out by aquarium lamps changes, shifting more towards the red and of the spectrum, which favors the growth of hair algae rather than coralline algae or macroalgae. So you might consider replacing your aquarium bulbs with new ones at this time, LordProcrastinator.
Here are some other suggestions for controlling phosphates and nitrates and getting hair algae under control. I realize that some of them may not apply to your case, but please read through all of them carefully anyway because they may give you a much better idea of why hair algae gets started in an aquarium and how to get rid of it once and for all.
The best way to get rid of hair algae for good is to eliminate the excess nutrients that fuel its growth. There are a number of chemical filtration media products that will absorb phosphates from the water; any good LFS that has reef tanks and carries marine fish and invertebrates should have a number of such products from which to choose.
If you use activated carbon in your tank, it’s also very important to make sure that your carbon is phosphate free and that you change it religiously, replacing the old carbon with fresh new carbon every couple of weeks or so. (If you don’t replace the activated carbon regularly, it will begin to leach the wastes and organic compounds it has absorbed back into the aquarium water once it reaches its capacity.) Carbon is activated two ways, either with steam or with phosphoric acid. The type of carbon that is activated with phosphoric acid contains phosphates, which can likewise be leached back into the aquarium water and promote the growth of nuisance algae. So you will want to avoid that type of of activated carbon, particularly when you’re having a problem with hair algae. The carton or box that the activated carbon came in will be clearly labeled that it is "steam activated" or "phosphate free" or something to that effect if it’s a suitable brand for your aquarium. Activated carbon that is low ash and phosphate-free can help control an outbreak of hair algae if it is change the replace with fresh carbon diligently; however, activated carbon that is not free of phosphates or that is not changed regularly can actually contribute to a problem with nuisance algae and degrade your water quality.
In and of themselves, nitrates are relatively harmless and midrange levels are nothing to be too alarmed about. Ideally, though, we’d like to keep them under 20 ppm, and if your nitrates are running on the high side and you have a problem with hair algae, you need to try to reduce them as much as possible. In case you haven’t already seen it, I am going to provide you with some information on nitrification and denitrification that explains where nitrates come from and then offer you some suggestions on how to reduce them.
The amount of nitrate that accumulates in your aquarium is related to how much nitrification and denitrification your system provides. Nitrification is the process by which aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying bacteria break down toxic ammonia to relative harmless nitrate in a series of steps. Nitrification thus ultimately causes nitrate to build up in an aquarium. Denitrification is the process by which anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria then convert nitrate into completely harmless nitrogen (N2), which eventually leaves the aquarium. Denitrification thus removes nitrate from your system. This entire process is known as the nitrogen cycle.
Cycling your aquarium simply means to build up a healthy population of beneficial bacteria in your tank that can carry out the nitrogen cycle and breakdown your fishes’ waste products. Ammonia (NH3), nitrite (NO2), and nitrate (NO3) are all nitrogenous (nitrogen containing) wastes. All living aquarium animals whether they be fish or invertebrates excrete these wastes, and they are also produced by the decay of protein-containing organic matter (uneaten food, detritus, dead fish or inverts, etc.). The nitrogen cycle breaks down these wastes in a series of steps into nitrogen gas (N2) which leaves the aquarium as bubbles.
The nitrogen cycle begins with ammonia, which is highly poisonous. In the first step of the cycle, Nitrosomonas bacteria reduce ammonia to nitrite, which is also very toxic, but slightly less so. In the second step of the nitrogen cycle, Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrite to nitrate, which is relatively harmless but can become harmful when it accumulates in high enough levels. In the third and final step of the cycle, denitrifying bacteria then convert the nitrate into completely harmless N2, which of course bubbles out of the tank as nitrogen gas. In this way, thanks to the nitrogen cycle, dangerous wastes are converted into progressively less harmful compounds and finally removed from the aquarium altogether.
When we set up a new aquarium, and wait for it to cycle, we are simply allowing a big enough population of these different types of bacteria to build up in the biofilter to break down all of the wastes that will be produced when the aquarium is stocked. If we don’t wait long enough for the cycle to complete itself and the biofiltration to become fully established, and hastily add too many specimens to a new aquarium too soon, they will die from ammonia poisoning or nitrite toxicity. This is such a common mistake among us impatient aquarists, that when fish get sick and/or die from ammonia/ntrite poisoning, it is commonly called the "new tank syndrome."
When your aquarium has completely cycled, the ammonia levels will stay at zero because, now that your biofilter is fully established, there is a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrosomonas bacteria to reduce all of the ammonia to nitrite as fast as the ammonia is being produced. The nitrite levels will likewise stay at zero because there is also a large enough population of aerobic (oxygen loving) nitrifying Nitrobacter bacteria to convert all of the nitrite to nitrate as fast as the nitrite is being produced.
The nitrate levels ordinarily continue to build up, however, because there are simply not enough anaerobic (oxygen hating) denitrifying bacteria to convert all of the nitrate that’s being produced into nitrogen (N2). Since nitrates are being produced faster than they can be transformed to nitrogen, the excess nitrates accumulate steadily in your aquarium.
That’s perfectly normal, since the denitrifying bacteria that carry out that final step, the conversion of nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen (N2), are anaerobes that can only exist in the absence of oxygen. For our aquariums to support life, and for the fish and invertebrates to breathe and survive, our tanks must be well aerated and well circulated so that there’s plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water at all times. That means there are normally very few areas in our aquariums where anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can survive, limiting their population accordingly (which is generally good, since some anaerobes produce deadly methane and/or hydrogen sulfide gas during the decay of organic matter and would poison our tanks if allowed to proliferate).
Consequently, most aquariums lack a sufficient population of anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to complete the nitrogen cycle and convert nitrate to nitrogen as fast as the nitrates are being produced. The only way to keep the nitrates from building up to harmful levels in such setups is with regular water changes and by harvesting Caulerpa or other macroalgae periodically after it has utilized nitrates for growth. Overcrowding, overfeeding, or under filtration exacerbate the problem by resulting in more nitrates being produced and more frequent water changes being required to control the nitrate levels.
Live rock helps because the oxygen-poor interior of the rock allows anaerobic denitrifying bacteria to grow and break down nitrates. A deep live sand bed (DLSB) also helps because anaerobic denitrifying bacteria can flourish and break down nitrates at a certain depth below the sand where oxygenated water no longer penetrates, but a DLSB can sometimes be difficult to set up and manage properly if you’re inexperienced with live sand. Both live rock and deep live sand beds give aquaria denitrification ability — the ability to complete the cycle and convert nitrate to harmless nitrogen. Ordinarily, about 1-2 pounds of live rock per gallon is recommended – that amount of LR will provide your aquarium with all of the biofiltration you need, as well as adequate denitrification ability. You will then keep nitrates at harmless levels by performing regular water changes, harvesting Caulerpa macroalgae periodically, and good aquarium management.
So nitrate is simply the end product of the process of nitrification, formed during the Nitrogen Cycle by the oxidation of nitrite by aerobic bacteria. Nitrates always tend to build up in a system over time, sometimes in sneaky ways you wouldn’t expect. For example, here is an article from Thiel Aqua Tech that discusses some of the hidden ways nitrate can enter your system:
Click here: No nitrate, removal nitrate, denitrating, denitration
One of the sneaky or hidden ways phosphates, nitrates, silicates and other undesirable compounds can enter our aquariums is through the tap water we use for water changes or topping off our tanks. If the water quality in your town is not what it should be, you may want to consider buying reverse osmosis/deinonized water (RO/DI) for your water changes. Most well-stocked pet shops that handle marine fish sell RO/DI water as a service for their customers for between 25 and 50 cents a gallon. If your LFS does not, WalMart sell RO/DI water by the gallon for around 60 cents, and you should be able to find a Wal-Mart nearby.
Natural seawater is another good option for water changes. Like RO/DI water, natural seawater can be purchased at fish stores for around $1.00 a gallon, depending on where you live. It sounds expensive, but when you consider the alternative — paying for artificial salt mix and RO/DI water and mixing your own saltwater — then natural seawater is not a bad bargain at all. It has unsurpassed water quality and seahorses thrive in it.
You should also be aware that freshly mixed saltwater can have residual levels of ammonia, but if you aerate the newly mixed saltwater for 24-48 before you perform the water changes, the ammonia will be dissipated.
Good ways to reduce nitrates in your aquarium include adding more live rock, installing a deep live sand bed (preferably in a sump), installing a protein skimmer on your tank if your not already using one, regularly replacing your aquarium lamps, and growing and harvesting fast-growing macroalgae such as Caulerpa.
I specially like the use of macroalgaes for controlling nitrate and nuisance algae. Macroalgae use nitrate for growth just like plant fertilizer and pruning the macros regularly is a good way to export nitrate from your system. However, if the macros die in your system, they’ll release the nitrate they’ve consumed back into the aquarium. Fast-growing Caulerpa needs to be pruned properly to prevent vegetative events and avoid this from happening, as discussed below:
Macroalgae act as an excellent form of natural filtration, reducing the available levels of phosphates and nitrites/nitrates. Be sure to thin out and trim back the fast-growing Caulerpa regularly; when you remove the clippings, you’re exporting phosphates, nitrates and other nutrients from the tank, thereby helping to maintain good water quality, and pruning the runners helps keep it from going sexual.
When thinning out or trimming back macroalgae, take care not to actually cut it. Remember, you’re not pruning hedges or trimming trees — the idea is to carefully pull up and remove continuous, unbroken fronds. Simply thin out the colony of excess strands, gently plucking up convenient fronds that can be readily removed intact. A little breakage is fine, but cutting or breaking too many strands will result in leaching undesirable substances into the aquarium water as the Caulerpa lifeblood drains away. Too much cutting or breaking can thus sap the colony’s strength and cause die offs or trigger the dreaded vegetative events that judicious pruning otherwise prevents.
Another product I like for removing excess ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate is the Poly-Filter Pad (by Poly-Bio-Marine) Here is a product review on Poly Filters that touches on some good ways to use them:
Click here: Saltwater Aquariums Product Review – Poly-Bio-Marine Inc. – Poly Filter Pad
Finally, commercially made denitrators (special filters housing a large population of anaerobic denitrifying bacteria) are also available. They do a tremendous job of controlling nitrates but are rather expensive and tend to be high maintenance, often requiring regular "feeding" and carefully controlled flow rates to operate properly.
The hobbyist should also be aware that dead spots and low flow areas, as well as low pH levels, favor the growth of nuisance algae rather than coralline or macroalgae and marine plants. Eliminating dead spots and stabilizing your pH at 8.2-8.4 can therefore help tip the balance back in the favor of macros and coralline algae, and help prevent problems with nuisance algae.
One simple measure that can thus make a big difference is to try positioning one or more small powerheads so that they increase the circulation in the area where the nuisance algae tends to grow. Better water movement and higher oxygen levels will naturally tend to minimize the growth of slime algae and hair algae in these problem areas.
In summary, some of the measures that will help control nitrates and phosphates (and excess nutrients in general), or otherwise help control nuisance algae in the aquarium are the following:
1) Make sure your protein skimmer is working correctly. A protein skimmer works 24 hours a day to remove excess waste and nutrients from a tank. If the venturi is clogged on a venturi skimmer or there is another problem with other skimmer designs, waste will not be exported from your tank and algae will take advantage of the waste.
2) Perform regular water changes. Regular water changes will decrease the level of wastes and nutrients in the water. But the water changes won’t do much good if your tap water itself contains phosphates and amines. Depending on how high the nitrate levels become, increasingthe proportion of water that you change each time may be necessary to help reduce those nitrates. There is an article about nitrate reduction at <<http://www.about.com/>> in the saltwater section that really explains water changes (gives you the math), on actually how little you are reducing nitrates with small water changes when you have high nitrates.
3) Make sure makeup water is pure. Phosphates and nitrates often found in tap water. Phosphate and nitrate test kits will show if your tap water is contributing to your algae problem. If phosphate and nitrate levels are more than 0 ppm (some tap water measures out at over 50 ppm nitrate), filter the water through a RO/DI unit before using it as makeup freshwater or as source water for saltwater changes, or purchase RO water from a vendor.
4) Add additional detritivores to your cleanup crew. If excess food isn’t eaten, it will decay and add to the nutrients and waste in the tank. More microhermit crabs, Nassarius snails and cleaner shrimp will help ferret out any uneaten Mysis before it breaks down and enters the nitrogen cycle to eventually end up as excess nitrate.
So if you’re having a problem with nuisance algae, consider bolstering your cleanup crew with additional snails and/or micro-hermit crabs that eat slime algae and other types of nuisance algae. Astrea snails, red foot moon snails, and Scarlet reef hermit crabs (Paguristes cadenati) all fit the bill and would be good additions in that regard.
Introduced as soon as possible to a new aquarium, as soon as the ammonia and nitrite levels are safe, Astrea snails effectively limit the development of all microalgae. In other words, they are good at eating diatoms, but will consume red slime and green hair algae as well. The Scarlet Reef Hermit Crab (Paguristes cadenati) is a colorful micro-hermit that’s a harmless herbivore. So cannibalism isn’t a concern at all for these fellows, nor are they likely to develop a taste for escargot. As hermits go, most of the time the Scarlet Reefs are perfect little gentleman and attractive to boot. I even use them in my dwarf seahorse tanks. Best of all, they eat all kinds of algae, including nuisance algae such as red, green and brown slimes, as well as green hair algae.
5) Introduce macroalgae to consume excess nutrients and nitrates. If regular pruning is done, fast-growing Caulerpa will maintain its color and high growth rates without going sexual. Better yet, an algal filter or "algae scrubber" can be established in a sump or refugium.
6) Chemical controls. Phosphate absorbers can remove excess phosphates, and Poly Filter pads can help absorb excess nitrates, changing color as they do so, which helps indicate= when the Poly Filter needs to be changed. Low ash activated carbon that is free of phosphates will also help remove such nutrients if it is change religiously and replaced with new carbon.
7) Controlled addition of food to tank. Don’t broadcast feed, scattering Mysis throughout the tank. Instead, target feed your seahorses or use a feeding station. Don’t overfeed, cleanup leftovers promptly, and observe fast days religiously. Thoroughly rinse your frozen Mysis before enriching it, since these shrimp juices that accumulate when the Mysis thaws can be rocket fuel for nuisance algae.
8) Eliminate dead spots and increase the water flow in areas where the nuisance algae tends to grow.
9) Maintain the pH in total alkalinity of the aquarium in the proper range. Monitor alkalinity or carbonate hardness and the calcium levels in the tank as well as the pH.
10) Replace your aquarium lamps regularly to assure that the spectrum of light they put out favors the growth of coralline algae and macroalgae. (Over time, as bulbs age, they begin to put out light shifted more towards the red-end of the spectrum, which encourages the growth of hair algae.)
11) Increase the circulation in the aquarium to eliminate dead spots, particularly in the areas where the hair algae tends to grow.
For more information, check out the following online articles which are loaded with additional tips and suggestions for controlling outbreaks of nuisance algae. Please read these carefully, since they’ll give you many more good ideas for combating your problem with hair algae:
Click here: GreenAlgContFAQs
Click here: Reeftank.com – Articles – Reeftank Maintenance – Algae Control FAQ
Best of luck eliminating the hair algae from their aquariums, Chris and Jennifer!