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Re: Algae Challenge
An Algae Primer
I have attempted to introduce a systematic way of
thinking about algae. This is largely based on my
personal experience and thinking, which in turn has
been influenced by many colleagues. I am open to
criticism, as this is a work in progress. I apologize
about the format. I did this on Word, and plan on
adding it to my website shortly, where it will be
easier to read.
Three main concepts:
1) inputs – light, macronutrients (including fish
food), micronutrients, co2
2) outputs – plant mass, algae, bacteria
3) equilibrium – inputs equal outputs. There is
neither deficiency nor excess of any input in relation
to plants’ needs (hypothetical).
Excess of Inputs
1) an excess of inputs in relation to plant mass, will
lead to an increase in algae and/or bacteria as they
multiply to take advantage of the excess. Think of
lions (plants) and jackals (algae). Not enough lions
in relation to carcasses (inputs), and the jackals
multiply. Too many carcasses, with a normal amount of
lions, and the jackals multiply. Just the right
amount of carcasses in relation to number of lions,
and the jackals go hungry. An example of this would
be a newly setup tank with not enough plants for the
amount of light and nutrients that have been added
Deficiency of Inputs
1) a deficiency of inputs in relation to what plants
require will lead to stunted growth and death of
plants. As this happens, algae and bacteria may step
in to take advantage of the inputs that the plants
can/are no longer utilizing.
1) dose to deficiency—identify the plant that is most
susceptible to deficiencies in macro/micronutrients.
When it starts to lose color, add more nutrients.
This is what I do. I am sure others will recommend
against this. It’s a matter of preference. I like to
know were I am in terms of excesses and deficiencies.
2) Test kits.
3) Knowing your tap water parameters. On my first
tank, the nitrogen cycle seemed to be taking an
awfully long time. Nitrites were high, even with
heavy water changes. Then I thought to check the
nitrites in my tap water. They were high! Don’t
assume anything about your tap water.
1) Newly established tanks are inherently unstable.
Bacteria that regulate the nitrogen cycle have not
fully taken hold. Newly added plants may be stunted
and stressed while adapting to new conditions. Plants
may not be present in sufficient quantity (for
example, you only have a quarter of the plant mass
that you intend to eventually have). An established
tank has millions of microscopic organisms. We
cannot underestimate their impact. Many processes
must occur for the tank to reach its natural
equilibrium, based on the maintenance protocol you
2) Herbivores (algae-eaters) graze on algae as it
forms/grows, and help prevent its occurrence in large
quantities. Think of them as a hedge against the
inherent inequilibrium of aquaria.
3) Water changes should be done on a regular schedule,
and appropriately paced based on fish load, GH, and
KH. Too much or too little can lead to imbalances.
Most tap water is adequate for growing plants, and in
general, I would recommend not reconstituting RO
water. Some people’s water may be bit more
challenging (very soft, very hard, high nitrogen) and
maintenance must be adjusted accordingly.
4) Drastic changes in maintenance regimen/ tank
conditions can lead to conditions ripe for algae.
Examples include switching from normal fluorescents to
compact fluorescents and removing many plants from
the aquarium. On the other hand, the lack of change
in maintenance regimen given changes in flora can lead
to problems. If I add fast-growing stem plants but
maintain my regimen for my slow-growing plants, a
deficiency is likely to crop up.
An Algae Algorithm
Is my tank newly established?
1) recognize that algae in the beginning stages of a
tank is normal. Some successful aquarists actually
promote a green-water phase, in the belief that it
helps prevent algae problems in the future. Institute
algae-controlling procedures (decreased light, water
changes, manual removal, careful consideration of
2) algae-eaters should be added before algae is
present. Add algae-eaters, probably in numbers
greater than you might think necessary. You may
return them to the LFS or give them to a friend later.
Was my tank previously at a plant-healthy, algae-free
1) have I changed my maintenance regimen?
2) Have I considered what may have built up in excess
or what nutrient deficiencies may have developed over
a long period of time, based on an inadequacy of my
Are my plants currently healthy (in addition to growth
rates, look at the coloration of the leaves)?
most likely an excess of inputs in relation to plant
· lights -- too much? on too long?
· macronutrients – what is the nitrate concentration?
Is there too much fish waste? Is a fish decomposing
in the tank? In short, what are the macronutrient
inputs, how do I measure them, and what should I do to
bring them back in balance?
· micronutrients -- consider that too much is being
added, in relation to what the plants utilize. Is the
iron level too high? Consider dosing to deficiency,
if this is a problem.
· Plants – healthy, but not enough biomass as compared
to inputs. Add more plants. Add fast-growing
· Co2 – an excess of co2 is an unlikely culprit
most likely a defiency of inputs as related to plants’
· lights – are they inadequate given the kinds of
species I am keeping?
· Co2 – is my co2 level high enough for the amount of
light I have the plants I am keeping?
· macronutrients – are nitrate levels adequate? What
is the phosphate source, and is it adequate? Are too
frequent water changes depleting macros (calcium)?
· Micronutrients – am I using PMDD? Is it adequate?
Does it contain the more rare trace nutrients? Are
ratios correct? Is it added in sufficient quantity?
Have I considered or used commercial formulations
· Plants – what symptoms are the plants displaying?
Have I attempted to match deficiency symptoms with a
Q) Should nutrients be added to the substrate, water
column or both?
A) People have had success with all combinations.
Personally I add only to the water column (my tanks
are largely fast-growing stem plants).
Q) Should I use PMDD or a commercial product?
A) I started with PMDD, based on a Fertilome iron
product. It lacked molybdenum, boron, and other
elements. I have noticed an improvement since
switching to Seachem Flourish and TMG.
Q) What test kits are necessary?
A) Ammonia and nitrite tests inform the aquarist if
the nitrogen cycle is functioning properly. A nitrate
test can give you an idea of the macronutrient
status. KH and pH can give you an idea of your co2
level. GH levels inform you of calcium and magnesium
levels (which can crash without water changes). I
have never used a phosphate or iron test, though many
find them useful.
Q) How long will it take for my algae situation to
A) This is highly variable in my experience.
Addition of algae-eaters can lead to a “miracle cure”
in some cases. Sometimes algae lingers for some time.
Be patient. Concentrate on making sure the plants
are healthy, and are in sufficient number to
Q) Are UV filters and diatom filters useful?
A) I do not have personal experience with either.
Many experienced aquarists have had good success with
these devices. Are they necessary? No. Are they
probably helpful? Yes.
Q) What organisms are best for algae consumption?
A) There are many. Some are more useful for certain
kinds of algae.
Q) How do I get rid of green-spot algae on my tank
A) In a high-light, high-co2 tank, I am not sure it
is possible to prevent its occurrence. I use a magnet
scraper once every week or two.
Q) Should I bleach plants to prevent algae?
A) Should you live in a bubble to prevent illness?
Like bacteria, algae will always be present. It is
the host’s condition (the aquarium) that determines if
algae will become a problem. Algae added to a healthy
aquarium will likely die/disappear in a short time.
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