My Point Of View on Bio Media....

  • #1
So, I want to remind everyone this is a point of view... that means that the odds are you will not agree, and that's fine! I just ask you remember I'm just trying to have a discussion. I am often met with hostility, condescending remarks or sarcasm when I have tried mentioning this in YT comments and other message boards. This isn't a debate, I don't want to argue, I'm not saying anything one way or the other! I am simply stating thoughts I had... that's it. Think of it as me playing devils advocate. I know its sad I have to write all this out before making a simple post but you'd be amazed at how people react when trying to have discussions like this....

I am curious what everyone thinks about Bio Media and its usefulness/ its importance… I know most people are convinced its an absolute necessity ALWAYS but for better or worse, I tend to question things a lot more than the average person.
I remember having tanks as a child back in 1990s. I remember I had a few, friends had some, classroom had one etc. I distinctly know none of the tanks I setup or saw used a cannister filter, it was always a basic HOBs. Now we all know those basic HOBs don't house bio media. was always just a filter cartridge. I remember having to stare at an empty tank for 3 weeks waiting for the tank to cycle, but never buying media.
Yet mysteriously, all those tanks thrived.
Suddenly, it seems like sometime within the past 8 years bio media busts into the aquarium hobby scene and suddenly you don't dare start a tank without it.

I have been trying to research when bio media was introduced to hobbyists and I can't find any details. What I did find is basically the stuff was designed for commercial distributors/ breeders ( who Petco and LFS get their fish from) that use bare tanks and have them overstocked with tons of fish and koi ponds that don't have substrate, basically just the plastic pond shell with little to no décor. 2 tidbits of info doesn't give me much to go off of, but between the two I see two major similarities which are: 1) it was specified the bio media was designed for setups where the aquarium/ pond did not use any substrate AND had a higher than normal bio load. 2) it wasn't designed for casual hobbyists/ home aquariums.
I am thinking as long as you have a few inches of sand/ gravel/ rocks, drift wood, plants, décor it gives an adequate amount of surface area for bacteria to grow and colonize the tank ASSUMING your tank isn't overstocked like crazy. Got to remember, just because the substrate doesn't look porous doesn't mean it isn't, bacteria are microscopic...obviously. The size of pores they will live on and in cannot be seen, but trust me there is plenty of surface area on gravel alone. Under a microscope you see its covered in tons of tiny imperfections and scratches from rubbing other rocks... every one of these microscopic scratches increases the amount of living space for millions of more bacteria.... Sand, eco complete, drift wood and large decorative stones are even better. Now when you think about just how much surface area all your substrate and décor gives you, it just seems silly to throw a handful of 25$ clay chunks into your filter and think its going to make any real difference. The amount of surface area on your substrate is probably exponentially more than any amount of bio media you can fit into your filters even if its not as porous. Again, this is assuming your tank isn't overstocked like crazy.

I am thinking of doing a controlled test because despite all these people endorsing it and all the companies selling "special" plastic balls and clay tubes I have yet to see any actual test of how effective adding this stuff is, which types are more effective and in what types of situation. It'd be simple, two tanks minimum, but possibly more ( I'm thinking 20 gallon ) , identical parameters & equipment, identical amounts of substrate into each tank but no livestock.... I will have one tank filter with bio media, the other without. Ill feed the tank fish flakes just as if its stocked to max capacity, or dose straight ammonia at certain time intervals and measure the nitrite/ ammonia/ nitrate at a time interval relative to the dosing schedule..... I will be far more in depth than this, Ill put a lot more though into it to ensure accuracy, but I want to see if putting some fancy clay balls in a filter changes anything. This is a general outline, if you want to add to it and if enough people are interested I will actually do it and the benefit would be you know its coming from an unbiased hobbyist instead of someone hired by the bio media company haha.

My guess is it will only make a difference if your aquarium has minimal surface area for bacteria ( less than 1" of substrate, no décor etc. ) or if its extremely overstocked and you simply need more room for bacteria to grow. I could see this being an issue in pet stores.

Now you'll probably say, Jon... the substrate in the aquarium gets clogged with detritus which prevents harboring beneficial bacteria but I also found out these nitrifying bacteria can grow on gunk just as well as a rocks surface. But to me it just seems unlikely that if a bacteria colony lived on a pebble(s) in your tank, that the pebble would become covered in gunk so fast and suddenly it would completely cover and smother the bacteria colony before the bacteria had chance to grow over the gunk or before the fish waste would break down into smaller pieces and fall away either via aquarium flow, gravel filter or other bacteria that break down sludge... Fish waste breaks down pretty quick... Sure, after months it'll start collecting in fine particles at the very bottom of the substrate but that's where your anaerobic bacteria will thrive ( low flow, no oxygen environment).
You might also say : tanks might've done okay back then, but they do even better now because of the bio media!!! I considered this as well, but I don't see any real evidence of that....If you can explain your logic Id love to read it!

Basically this entire thought experiment was inspired by this one fact.... for dozens of years hobbyists didn't use this stuff but they all did fine. Suddenly this stuff pops up on the market, and everyone seems to think its make or break?
Why did tanks always work before?

I know most people will tell me bio media is necessary and you know it works because you saw your tank get clearer after using it or something along those lines , I'm glad to hear that but that kind of testimony doesn't help much unless you were doing water testing at the time to eliminate other possible causes for the increase in water quality... I hope that makes sense.
I mainly just want to hear peoples logic... I feel all my thoughts could be considered good points.... But what I want is someone to tell me why they're not lol. I LOVE friendly "debates". Many people just take it as arguing and get defensive but I believe the ability to debate objectively for the sake of knowledge instead of winning could be one of mankind's greatest strengths.
  • #2
Sure, and not just in the past, lots of hobbyists even now don’t have dedicated bio media. Just a tank with gravel, ornaments and a basic filter, all of which BB are happy to colonise. I have bare bottomed fry tanks that rely only a cycled sponge filter and with proper management of the filter there are no problems.

But having dedicated bio media in a filter does provide an extra safeguard and likely provides a more ideal and stable environment for BB, with undisturbed media being supplied with a constant flow of oxygenated water passing through it. I can vary my stocking loads and clean my substrate, other surfaces and other media knowing that there is minimal risk of a minI cycle occurring. "Why did tanks always work before?" They didn't always work without issues. I think we tend to hold a rather rosy view of the 'good old days'.
  • #3
I will be extremely interested in the results of your experiment. The lack of comparative data is frustrating. Do a controlled comparison of all the major media, it would obviously get expensive given just the types of media let alone the variations among a single type.

I'd love to see Poret foam Matten filter vs Matrix vs Biohome vs Eheim Substrat Pro vs Fluval Biomax vs conventional air-driven undergravel filter. I'm sure if I thought about this a couple minutes I could come up with a dozen other variations.

Another aspect of this is ammonia-to-nitrate filtration vs complete nitrogen cycle ammonia-to-nitrogen-gas. Most HOBs and canisters aren't going to do complete cycle unless they have special media.

As to your larger point, I think the active bio filtration is considered necessary because most people want to stock their tanks well beyond the point that passive filtration provided by plants and substrate can deal with. The substrate and plants approach works in nature because there's a huge amount of substrate for each fish in most settings. You also have a volume of water most of us can only dream of. When you're doing one inch of fish per gallon of water (and most people probably exceed that by a wide margin) the very slow flow of water through the substrate makes it difficult for it to keep up with the load.

A minor point, but the bacteria that take care of nitrates are not truly anaerobic, just very low oxygen. You ideally want 0.5ppm to 0.1ppm oxygen for them to deal with nitrates. They can't exist with oxygen below 0.1ppm and purely anaerobic bacteria can't exist in environments with 0.1ppm or more oxygen. They need almost no measurable oxygen to survive. That's one of the reasons for using a plenum under the substrate. It helps with water circulation and maintaining the very low oxygen levels needed for nitrate processing, while keeping the oxygen levels high enough that you don't get huge colonies of anaerobic bacteria.
  • #4
I was planning to do a "Nitrogen and you" experiment with a big 40+ gal garbage can. I was going to fill it with water and then add cure to it.
After that I was going to see how long different filters take to clear the nitrates from Cure #1.
The I was going to get nasty and try cure #2 (nitrites).
I have lots of HOBS, some foams, the tower of power, canisters with various media (default, hydroponic sintered clay, vermiculite, etc [no biohome as I can't afford it]), etc. I would need to build a moving bed filter and age it in but I take motivation where I can get it.

Putting in a substrate is biomedia and that will affect your tests. Be cool to run an under gravel to compare.

Originally I considered getting a 20 or 29 tank for this but concluded that hooking an FX6 to a 20 as a test would be biased due to the amount of water already in the filter.
  • #5
Bio media is the biggest waste of money [possible rip off but there are many of those ] the fish industry has going IMO.
They have literally pulled the wool over most peoples eyes ..Altough I have to admit most people have very little true understanding of what it does really ..They think more will help/improve water when the tank already show no ammonia or nitrite ..Not sure how it could help/improve that but they think it ...
My tanks are bare bottom with sponges filters and HOBs .I for the most part don't even use the media supplied with my Aquaclear HOBs ..I just double up on sponges !
Water quality is the most important part of fish keeping so I take it seriously ..
  • #6
There are different objectives for different types of bio media. Biohome is trying to establish anoxic zones so the bacteria can process nitrates. Other media can do the same. This is different than simply providing surface area for aerobic bacteria. Whether this works or is simply marketers trying to pull the wool over people's eyes is somewhat a different discussion.
  • #7
Ill follow. I'm curious too lol
  • #8
Personally I think even classic filters are held up to this magic standard. I wonder if many people who aren't that good at biology or chemistry understand what it really is that a filter does. It's just increased surface area for your bacteria to settle, nothing more.

I currently have 9 filterless, well-stocked tanks running, and another that ran filterless for a month before I put in an (uncycled) sponge filter because I liked the way it agitated the surface better than the air stone did. One of these I just put filter cartridges in the box behind the circulation pump two weeks ago so I don't have to cycle the tank I'm setting up at the moment. That's really the only thing I use the cartridges for. I have actually moved 'cycled' soil between tanks before but it was a mess and the risk of losing the cycle is too big so I now prefer this. Though rocks also work, but then I usually end up liking them too much where they are to move them after a bunch of weeks

So does this new style of media seems to be better? I haven't tried it but I tend to be skeptical about it like you.
  • #9
what about instant cycling a new tank with old biomedia?! must be witch craft.

I started with 2 brand new tanks, and did fish in cycling which took many weeks. my other 4 tanks were instant cycled b/c of having bio media in my filters. I don't use substrate either, so no sand or gravel.
  • #10
correction: I meant perlite not vermiculite.
  • #11
In the old days, before electric powered filtration, the term "cycled tank" was not used. The term was "Aged". An aged tank had a deep layer of gravel (saturated W/BB) and was heavily planted. It took a lot of dedication, skill & patience to be a successful fishkeeper back in the day. It also took a good understanding about life sciences.
I had my first real tank back in the 1960's. A five gallon tank with steel reinforced base & corners. It came with a small air pump & in tank charcoal & polyfibre bubbler filter. My guess is (Polyfibre) is the first modern day bio media.
I rarely gravel vac my deep gravel substrate. I use AC 110's for filtration, relying only on the sponges as media. After all the AC filters are really just big sponge filters.
OP, you had many good points, and a good discussion, but its no secret that aquarium equilibrium can be achieved w/o modern commercial bio medias.
  • #12
correction: I meant perlite not vermiculite.
Oh, that's completely different.

Here's something from

What are Perlite's physical properties after expansion?
Perlite is a natural combination of mixed glassy silicates making it inert and resistant to chemical attack, except for hot concentrated alkalI and hydrofluoric acid. It slows thermal conductance, is incombustible (melts above 2000°F) and has no buffering capability. Each Perlite particle resembles a glassy froth of bubbles. The internal structure consists of numerous tiny closed air-filled cells. This structure imparts lightness, natural insulating properties and limited compressive strength. Liquids cannot penetrate the cells. Perlite's external surface is composed of broken bubbles surrounding the closed frothy cells and is open, extremely large and jagged. This irregular surface adsorbs or holds matter making it an ideal filtration media.

The bolding in the paragraph is mine. While the closing sentence says it makes an ideal filtration media, I would beg to differ as far as the aquarium goes. It's probably better than lava rock, but due to the closed nature of the interior it's not going to come close to competing with the sintered glass products or pumice, both of which have open structures that allow water to flow into and through the interior.

Now, perhaps if you ran it through a few cycles of vacuum and high pressure a lot of those closed cells would pop and open things up a bit more. I don't know. Just spitballing. As it comes out of the kiln though, I don't think it will be a very good media. You're going to get a lot of water just flowing around the outside due to the size of the pieces.

This is an okay trait in a media that will form anoxic zones in the interior, but not if you're just looking for surface area for beneficial bacteria. I'd think you'd get better filtration from 30 PPI foam just because the water would be forced to go through it.

I will be interested in hearing how it works out for you though.
  • #13
Yeah, what you do is dump a bunch in the chamber, pin it under your filter rinse water then draw it down.
Make sure there is enough space between the water surface and the intake where the pump pulls from (~5"), keep an eye on it, and be ready to close the intake valve while drawing it down otherwise you will be changing out all your pump's oil to clear the water (ask me how I found this out..)
Then you leave it overnight at full vacuum.
The next day you release the vacuum and scoop any remaining floaters (they can go in the next batch).
Everything that is on the bottom is full, almost all the walls have burst.

When your filter is full you can scoop the rest of the pieces out of the VC and let them dry.
The VERY important thing to remember is to stir up the chamber and dump everything at once that is left so the silt/dust in the bottom doesn't dry, you do not want to be breathing that as silicosis is a bad thing.. or wear a quality dust mask. I dump wet, straight down the toilet (plenty of silica already in the river that is of small particulate size so I'm not worried that I'm polluting).
  • #14
This may sound like I'm getting way off track, but bear with me. For the last year I've been making flavor extracts using alcohol (mostly vodka) and some food source (cinnamon sticks, lemon zest, raspberries, blackberries, etc.). To get the best flavor this is a long process. Some people leave it to steep for a year or more.

Being technically inclined and having spent most of my career looking for ways to improve processes, I naturally started looking for a better way. There is a device used in bars and restaurants that uses nitrogen or CO2 to pressurize things. I'm sure you've seen a version used to make instant whipped cream. Somebody came up with a slight variation that allows more generalized use of this kind of device for various purposes, including making "instant" flavor extracts.

You put the solvent (vodka) and the flavor supplier, say lemon zest, in the pressure container and close it up. Pop in a couple nitrogen cartridges and pressurize the container to several atmospheres, then wait 15 minutes. Release the pressure, allow the solvent to stop foaming, and you've instantly got the makings of Limoncello. I'm simplifying a bit, but that's the gist of it. Put the mixture under high pressure and the solvent gets forced into the flavor material, be it lemon zest or cinnamon stick. Release the pressure and the solvent comes back out nicely flavored.

I don't have one of these devices, and they're expensive to buy and use (ongoing cartridge costs), but I reasoned that I could approach the same process from a different angle. Rather than applying pressure, I could pull a vacuum. This would reduce the pressure in all the cavities in the flavor material. Then after a few hours at partial vacuum, I'd release the vacuum and the now greater pressure from the outside would force the solvent into those cavities. My objective was not to do "instant" extract, but to speed up the process significantly, so it was no great thing to repeat this process many times over the course of a month. Compared to a year of sitting in a cupboard, that's a great time savings. Sadly, I can't say my experiment met with great success as far as extracting flavor, but it was clear from all the little bubbles coming out of the cinnamon sticks that the theory was not entirely off base. Air was obviously being pulled from inside, creating pockets of lower pressure that the solvent would rush into once the vacuum was released.

Your vacuum chamber process is very similar, though without the month of repeated cycles of vacuum/pressure. So where I was headed with this was the idea of again flipping the process and using pressure rather than vacuum to pop the chambers on the perlite. I suspect air compressors are much more common than industrial vacuum pumps. If you filled a pressure chamber with the perlite, ran it up to 90 PSI, then quickly released the pressure, I wonder if it would have the same effect on the perlite? In theory it should be even greater since with the vacuum you're getting at best a ~14 PSI pressure difference, while with a compressor you can get several times that pressure difference quite easily. You'd just need to find an old pressure tank you could take apart and fill with perlite, then put back together so it will hold the pressure. If you had the right fittings and the stamina, you could probably use a bicycle pump to provide the pressure.
  • #15
You put the solvent (vodka) and the flavor supplier, say lemon zest, in the pressure container and close it up. Pop in a couple nitrogen cartridges and pressurize the container to several atmospheres, then wait 15 minutes. Release the pressure, allow the solvent to stop foaming, and you've instantly got the makings of Limoncello. I'm simplifying a bit, but that's the gist of it. Put the mixture under high pressure and the solvent gets forced into the flavor material, be it lemon zest or cinnamon stick. Release the pressure and the solvent comes back out nicely flavored.
To go further off track.
If you want top end Limoncello fast, sous vide. Not sure if it will work with the rest of your flavors (No point in not trying it) but it is magic for Limoncello.
  • #16
When it's working right - the HOB filter acts as a bio filter.. It just doesn't have that much surface area for beneficial bacteria and algae to colonize....

My take is that the addition of the "Bio media" significantly reduces the HUGE negative impact we used to see when replacing old filter media. It also allows people to run a filter more closely sized to their tank rather than running a filter 5x larger than they needed just to get the larger bio-available filter area...

Remember in the past that somebody would notice their HOB filter was overflowing and had an "Icky old filter element" as well as a lot of "Icky algae on it".... They threw it completely away and replaced it with a NEW shiny one... Super cleaned the tank.... And the whole tank went into a massive tailspin killing all the fish for a couple weeks (or months.)

And of course they blamed it on some sort of contamination from the OLD filter - not realizing that they had massively crashed the *entire* nitrogen cycle... They should have just rinsed out the old filter in water-change discard water and stuck it back in....

With the new "bio media" stuff - you can replace an old filter element without worrying (as much) about crashing the nitrogen cycle because the bio media is effectively never changed.
  • #17
in the past few days I've already seen 2 or 3 threads of members trying to cycle a new tank. one member already has an established tank, but using different filters, but are using the factory filter cartridges, so unable to use seeded bio media to instant cycle the new tank.

another member is starting his 1st tank, but has a friend that has a cycled tank, but they have different filters with different filter cartridges, so again, unable to borrow some bio media to instant cycle the new tank.

sure you can do it the old way, but technology and science continues to progress and innovate. there used to be steam engines, then diesel, then gasoline carbuerator engines, then injection engines, now we have direct injection engines, and electric engines.
  • #18
in the past few days I've already seen 2 or 3 threads of members trying to cycle a new tank. one member already has an established tank, but using different filters, but are using the factory filter cartridges, so unable to use seeded bio media to instant cycle the new tank.

another member is starting his 1st tank, but has a friend that has a cycled tank, but they have different filters with different filter cartridges, so again, unable to borrow some bio media to instant cycle the new tank.

What about placing seeded bio media in a filter bag and just hanging it near the filter outlet? Anyone tried that?
  • #19
What about placing seeded bio media in a filter bag and just hanging it near the filter outlet? Anyone tried that?

that's the point, bio media can be placed in most filters. but most filter cartridges are specific to the brand and size of the filter. like a Tetra 20 filter cartridge won't fit in a Tetra 10 filter, etc. I can buy a big jar of Biomax, or Matrix, or Biohome, etc and fill up any of the Aquaclears, or Tidals, or Penguins, or Whispers, or TopFin, or any Canisters, etc. Bio media is so interchangable and versatile and useful. And OP is talking about not using any bio media at all.

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