There is no doubt that aquariums are really cool things to have in your home. Fish are awesome pets to have no doubt, but they do come with their own problems. One of these problems is that you have to deal with aquarium water and all of the organic processes that affects aquariums water.
Here we are talking about the unwanted addition and creation of phosphates in aquarium water. We also want to talk about their effects, how to prevent them from building up, and how to treat aquarium water when there is too much phosphate present.
Today we want to focus on how to remove phosphates from aquarium water but first it's important to understand the effects and actual desired levels of phosphates.
What Are Phosphates?
Phosphorus is an organic compound that is present in all organic matter, which includes fish, plants, and even fish food too. Phosphorus is actually very important for the body of fish and of people. It is used in the building of cell membranes, for bio-chemical processes, and a source of energy too.
Phosphates are actually a byproduct of the rotting or decaying of animals, plants, and other organic matter too. When these things decay, phosphorus turns into phosphates, and it can be very dangerous for the plants and fish in your aquarium (more on cleaning live plants here).
When fish food, plants, and other things decay, they cause phosphates to leach into the water, gathering on plants, in the substrate, and in the filter too.
A high concentration of phosphates in aquarium water has many negative effects on all aquarium inhabitants, so it is essential that you stop the buildup from happening before it occurs and to quickly take care of any phosphate problems as they occur. You want to be preventative here, but also reactive if necessary.
Effects Of Phosphate In Aquarium Water
What is at least fortunate about phosphates in your aquarium water is that they do not directly harm fish. This stuff can be present in really high amounts and still not be a direct threat to your fish. However, what is a threat is the fact that phosphates in high amounts, and even in relatively small amounts, can cause some big algae blooms to occur.
Not only are these algae blooms unsightly and a pain to clean up, but too much algae can cause oxygen levels in aquarium water to nosedive. Low dissolved oxygen levels in the water are a threat to your fish.
Your fish need to breathe oxygen, so if there is not enough of it in the water, your fish won’t be able to breathe. Therefore, it is pretty important to control phosphate and remove it from the fish tank as much as possible.
Desired Phosphate Levels In Aquarium Water
When it comes to the desired amount of phosphates present in aquarium water, the level should be no higher than 1.0 parts per million at most. Even that is already a favorable amount for algae growth.
Anything above that can easily cause algae blooms to occur. If the phosphate levels in the water reach 3.0 parts per million, you are pretty much guaranteed to suffer from a pretty severe algae outbreak.
You should definitely get yourself a phosphate testing kit (you can buy them here). They are easy to find at any pet or aquarium store. Keep in mind that these kits only test for organic phosphates, not inorganic phosphates, so you will technically only be measuring a portion of this substance in the water.
Dissolved organic phosphate levels should be kept to a minimum, with 0.5 parts per million being the level you should aim for.
Sources Of Phosphate In Aquariums
There are a few different sources of phosphates in aquariums, some of which are easier to deal with that others. So, what are the sources of phosphates in your aquarium. Where is this stuff coming from?
- Like we said, decaying organic matter is a prime contributor of phosphate into fish tanks. Therefore, one of the biggest sources is uneaten fish food. If you don’t clean this stuff out regularly, it releases phosphates into the water.
- On that same note, fish waste is also a contributing factor to increased phosphate levels. Fish waste still contains a lot of organic matter, even undigested food, that can release phosphates into the water as it breaks down.
- Another thing that can add phosphate into the aquarium water is plants that are decaying. All matters of decaying organic matter have this phosphate creating effect.
- If you have any dead fish or plants in the tank, the decay of those things will also cause a buildup of phosphates in aquarium water.
- One of the largest sources of phosphates in aquarium water is actually the tap water you use to fill up your fish tank. Tap water often contains a lot of dissolved organic matter, and therefore contains phosphates too.
- Carbon does actually release phosphates into the water. If you have an activated carbon filter, it could very well be releasing phosphates into the water. However, modern carbon chemical filtration units should be specially design to prevent the release of phosphates into the water.
- Also, there are various additives and pH buffers that are added into aquarium water which also contain phosphates or create phosphates.
In short, the sources of phosphate in the aquarium water include the following:
- Plant decay.
- Fish decay.
- Fish waste.
- Uneaten food.
- Carbon filter media.
- It can already be in the water.
- dH buffers.
- pH buffers.
- kH buffers.
- Aquarium salts.
- Dying and decaying algae.
How To Remove Phosphates From Aquarium Water
Dissolved organic phosphate does build up fairly easily, but thankfully, it is not all that hard to remove. It tends to settle in the bottom of the tank and on decorations, plants, and rocks.
It may sound like a pain in the butt, but the fact that phosphate is dissolved in the water and tends to settle on objects is actually somewhat of an advantage when it comes to removing it. How to remove phosphates from aquarium water is what you are about to find out right now.
One of the fastest ways to get rid of phosphates in aquarium water is to do a partial water change. You can do a 25% or even a 30% water change per week if there is way too much dissolved phosphate in the water. Just remember that due to water chemistry changes you can’t change all of the water in the tank at once.
You will want to take an algae scrubber and tank glass cleaner to remove as much residue from the interior tank walls as possible. Like we said before, this stuff tends to cling onto surfaces, so cleaning the large walls of your aquarium should help quite a bit. At the same time, you should also use an aquarium vacuum to suck up as much phosphate releasing debris as you can.
Cleaning Plants & Decorations
At the same time, you also need to clean various rocks, pieces of driftwood, plants, and other decorations too. Using a mild bleach solution to clean them is a good idea. Soak the plants and rocks in a 10% bleach solution, then soak them in water for 10 minutes, scrub everything off, rinse it off, and place everything back into the tank.
Using A Phosphate Absorber
There are special phosphate absorbing liquids that you can use to get rid of phosphate in the water. These can be a little pricey, but they are specially designed just for this task. Be sure to follow the directions on the bottle closely because using too much of this stuff can have other negative effects.
A protein skimmer is a great way to remove phosphates from the water (we have reviewed our top 10 skimmers here), plus a great way to remove debris that is releasing phosphate. Just keep in mind that protein skimmers only work for saltwater tanks, and not for freshwater tanks.
Fix The Underlying Issues
We have discussed all of the causes of elevated phosphate levels in aquarium water above. You need to fix these underlying issues to stop buildups from occurring, plus to make the above methods of phosphate ridding effective.
How To Prevent Phosphate Buildups In The Fish Tank
Yes, you can definitely remove phosphates from the water once they are there, the majority of them anyway. However, the best way to deal with this issue is to be preventative, not reactive.
So, the best way to start off is to prevent the buildups from occurring in the first place. How do you prevent phosphate buildups?
- Flake and pellet food is a massive contributing factor to elevated phosphate levels. Therefore, make sure that you do not overfeed your fish. Uneaten flake food releases a whole lot of phosphates as it dissolves. You should aim to find a flake food that is free of phosphates as it will help a lot. If you do use phosphate containing food, use it sparingly.
- Overfeeding your fish also causes them to produce more waste, which in turn causes elevated phosphate levels. Making sure to not overfeed your fish is a great way to help combat this problem.
- Remove all kinds of things from the water that could be contributing to elevated phosphate levels. This includes uneaten fish food, fish waste, dead and decaying fish, as well as dying and decaying plant matter.
- Keep engaging in regular water changes and cleaning. Yes, water changes and tank cleaning are great ways to get rid of elevated phosphate levels, but they work even better when used as preventative measures. This includes 10% weekly water changes, cleaning tank walls, vacuuming substrate, and cleaning plants, rocks, and decorations.
- Make sure that you have a filter that is up to the task. First and foremost, make sure that the filter is always clean and free of debris. Debris can cause inefficient filter function, plus it can release phosphates into the water too. Moreover, make sure that if you are using carbon in your filter, that it has been specially treated to prevent the release of phosphates into the water.
- Don’t use water treatments unless absolutely necessary. pH and dH treatment chemicals can cause elevated pH levels. If you have to use any of these kinds of products, do a lot of research and make sure to choose the ones with the least possible amount of phosphates in them.
Ok, so elevated phosphate levels may not be your number one concern because they are not a direct threat to your fish. However, the resulting algae blooms and oxygen depletion in the tank can very well be dangerous, or just annoying at the least.
So, as you can see, there are many ways to prevent phosphate buildups, plus some good ways to deal with this situation once it occurs.