The Importance Of Surface Area While Cycling Your Tank!


I see it often, whether it's at work, or here on the forum. People are still trying to cycle their tank after 2+ months of high ammonia, nitrite, and even nitrate combined. Sure, there's several possible reasons as to why it's not cycling correctly, but I feel as though a lack of surface area in your tank can often times be the culprit. I feel the need to say this because it seems to be a very underrated suggestion to people who are struggling. Coincidentally, people who are struggling are often times using filter brands such as Aqueon, Tetra, Topfin, etc. What do those all have in common? Low surface area. Additionally, when it's time to change your only filter pad filled with carbon, you take out almost ALL of your bacteria. If you have a filter that only uses one filter pad that's supposed to be replaced, I suggest you increase your surface area.

Why do I need to increase my surface area?

You need plenty of surface area to house your beneficial bacteria. Surface area that single pad filters don't provide an appropriate amount of. Without appropriate surface area, your existing bacteria simply cannot catch up quick enough. Here's a quick analogy. How are cities able to provide homes to so many more people than a highly populated suburb, even though they have the same amount of land? More productive use of surface area. (ex. tall apartment buildings). Your filter should be a city!

How do I increase my surface area without replacing my current filter?

If you don't have the money for a new mechanical filter, I would recommend sponge filters. Sponge filters are all about the city lifestyle, and can provide TONS of space for bacteria to thrive. Sponge filters are cheap, and highly effective. Let me explain how they work. A tube is stuck into a sponge, airline tubing (which is connected to an air pump) is connected to the larger tube stuck into the sponge. Air is pumped down through the tube and into the sponge. The air reaches the bottom of the tube and has nowhere else to go but back up, that air traveling back up creates a suction of water through the sponge which also exits through the top of the tube. Bacteria then thrive on these sponges by eating the ammonia and nitrates being filtered through the sponge. On top of creating a great place for bacteria to live, sponge filters also add extra oxygen into the water. I run these in all of my tanks, even though I have plenty of bacteria in my main filters. I do this as a back up in case my motor were to stop working, my tank would still be filtering and oxygenating the water. These should rarely, if ever, be replaced or even cleaned. The only reason you would replace the sponge is if it's literally falling apart. You can safely clean the sponge in a bucket of tank water.

If I have more room in my filter, what should I add?

My recommendation would be Seachem Matrix. This product is made from highly porous, volcanic rock called Pumice. Unlike plastic or ceramic bio-media, Matrix provides external AND internal surface area. This allows for not only anaerobic bacteria (nitrifying bacteria), but also aerobic bacteria to live in your tank. The aerobic bacteria, or denitrifying bacteria, convert nitrates back into atmospheric nitrogen (and the nitrogen cycle starts all over again). Without denitrifying bacteria or a very heavily planted tank, the only way to lower nitrates is water changes. It should be noted that any kind of bio-media (plastic, ceramic, etc) will do the most important job of cycling a tank. Matrix just has added benefits. Just like the sponge filter, these should never be changed, and can be rinsed off in a bucket of tank water.

What are some better filter brands?

You should't have a surface area issue if you have a canister filter, so I'm just going to list some good hang on back filter options. Seachem Tidal (comes with Matrix in it already), Aquaclear (comes with ceramic bio-media), and Fluval C2-C4. These are, in my opinion, the best hang on back filters you can get.

Thanks for reading everyone, I hope you enjoyed and maybe even learned a thing or two! I have attached some links to things I mentioned below!

Everything you need for a sponge filter:

Hang on back filters/media mentioned:



Great suggestions! I’m adding sponge filters to all our tanks as well. Also in the process of adding Matrix to all our tanks.


Great suggestions! I’m adding sponge filters to all our tanks as well. Also in the process of adding Matrix to all our tanks.

Good choices!

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