UV filtration in your fish tank or small fish pond Answered
Year after year the topic "I have a fish tank" seems to go more out of control.
What was once a hobby just to have some fish can now be a design feature both in your home and inside the tank.
Realistic looking lasdscapes, optical illusions that make you think the tank is much bigger and the list goes on.
But one thing that now always pops up is the must have thing of UV filtration.
Or to be precise: UV-C sterilisation!
Now, if we trust Wiki and our big water suppliers then UV-C will literally kill anything alive that comes into contact with.
So of course it would be a good thing to have for your tank - or not?
UV-C is very dangerous for your eyesight and quite harmful for your skin!
Looking into a proper UV-C lamp without protection means you can go blind!
Even good sunglasses might not have enough protection in the UV-C range, so only use them for additional protection but never without and glass between you and the lamp!
Don't be a fool! Treat UV-C seriously!
You would not look into the full sun with your sunglasses and would not expose your eyes or skin to a powerful laser, UV-C is to be treated the same way!
Let's start by using some boring text to explain the concept a little bit.
On a large scale special and quite powerful systems are used to treat our drinking or pool water.
Here special UV-C lights with a wavelenghts of 260nm or below are used to shine through the water passing by.
There are two key factors here.
a) the wavelenght
b) the water flow rate and the corresponding time the water is in contact with the UV light
To ensure all bacteria, viruses, algae and other harmful organics are dead the water must circulate for long enough so even the last water molecule had a few seconds of exposure.
All this only works good with "crystal clear" water for obvious reasons as otherwise the UV has to be even more powerful to pass through.
Single cell organisms literally crack into pieces similar to being exposed to gamma rays, more complex cells like algae have their cell membranes damages and the DNA suffers as well causing reproduction loss and early death.
Even some chemicals break down, most importantly here chlorine based substances.
Differences within the UV-C range!
If you bothered to check Wiki about the topic of UV-C you will already know that only certain wavelengths within this spectrum will actuall be powerful enough to do what we want it to do.
And here is the first problem for us hobby users.
Most cheaply advertised "sterlisation lamps" you find in places like Ebay are actually totally useless.
Stating to be selling a UV-C light to sterilze your water in such a case is still not considered to be fraud though.
Simply because it still does what it supposed to do, just very slow and with very little effect.
Only the so called "short wave" UV-C range is powerful enough!
To avoid loosing business during the times of the biggest hype in 20 years no seller will actuall state the available wavelengths.
That means without this info anywhere you can be certain the advertised lamp is of little to no use.
Even those advertised to be short wave UV-C might not be the real deal.
However, if a decent manufacturer is behind the actual lamp used it is possible to check the datasheet for these performance figures - but again most cheap systems come with no-name lamps inside.
Check the prices for a reputable UV-C light with the same lamp fitting, e.g. G23 and you will see it might cost more than your entire system.
Ok, you have a poper short wave UV-C lamp or consider getting a canister filter with one in it....
Never, ever test your lamp without proper protection!!!!!
UV-C will damage your eye within seconds!
If you system or lamp does not provide a viewing port or shine through area then you have to place a piece of glass between you and the light!
UV-C won't be able to penetrate normal window glass but will pass through quartz glass.
Place the lamp in a box and cover with the glass.
How make proper use of UV-C sterilisation...
The replacement lights are quite expensive, so let's see how to get the most out of them.
As said before exposure is the key factor so the flow rate of the UV system must match tank size and flow rate of your filter system.
Canister filters with a build in lamp should be designed to match but I will tell you later what to look for ;)
Most of us will prefer to have a in-line system if there is already a good canister filter at work, so I will focus on those and rop in solutions.
If you compare in-line system you might notice that some quite small and low power units claim to allow for the same flow rates as for example 40W units.
Some are fraud and just want to sell while others use simple physics to make the claim true.
A good system will utilise an auger like "ramp" that forces the water to circulate around the tube many times - causing up to ten times longer exposure rates.
Others create this sprial effect more like a vortex with some diverters and modified inlets.
The later seems to be less efficient though with low power lamps.
An in-line system should be on the outlet side of your canister filter so the best quality water will pass through it.
A drop in solution should be used alone and without the existing normal filter pump you might have in there.
Ok, got it, but how do I actually use it now?
Despite common thinking a UV-C system should not run 24/7 like your normal filter.
You really only need it to solve problems you should not have in a healthy tank!
It is not a magical solution to make your underlaying problems go away ;)
Let's start with the most common reason someone buys a UV-C system: An algae or bacterial outbreak causing greenish or milky water.
If that developed slowly over a period of weeks then you would be better off to do a good clean of the tank and filter plus a decent water exchange.
A few drops of meds will do the rest.
And if you constantly get algae growing on your glass, ornaments and plants then your nutrient levels and water quality is not right anyway and needs a good check.
But of course there is also the problem of light - too much for too long and unwanted gree appears everywhere.
If in doubt reduce the light power, shade out natural light or reduce the on time for your lights.
Having said that we now face the problem of a sudden outbreak after introducing new fish or plants.
If you don't have a quarantaine tank chances are that sooner or later you get unwanted or even harmful guest into your tank.
Here the UV-C will be beneficial, which is why a canister filter with build in light should have a seperate switch or power supply for the light.
After an outbreak or while introducing new life into your tank the UV-C will remove a lot of the things that we don't want to bring along.
For new life I leave the light on non stop for a week, that is for a small 4ft tank with 200 liters.
To control an outbreak it depends on how bad it is.
I assume here you can still see the back of your tank but that the water either appears greenish or slightly milky from bacteria.
As a personal thing I prefer to to remove and clean my filter material before treating a severe outbreak.
Once done I fill the filter with a mix of activate carbon material and fine filter wool.
Reason for this quite simple:
The outbreak causing stuff is already in your filter material and will be a constant source of re-infection.
And since breaking down all this bad stuff causes even more bad stuff to be produced as biological waste we want to discard it properly once done.
Using just fine filter wool and activated carbon also reduces the flow rate bit if compacted ;)
Now we can turn on the light and pump and forget about it for a while.
It is not recommended to run UV lights on a timer as you want them on all time to prevent short lifespan and have ongoing treatment of the water.
Good idea to take a picture at the same of a day from now on to compare and check results.
After 3 days the water should definately be clearer, if not then either your filter material is packed too losse or the lamp is no good.
Once the water appears to be clear do a readin test - take a newspaper behind the tank and check if the text is clear - blurry means the water is still not clean.
You will reach a point where the water quality will not further improve as much as in the days before.
This is the time where you discard or clean out to dry your filter material and put the original stuff back in.
The activated carbon should be discarded of course.
You cleaned filter material will now need a certain time to grow enough good bacteria to go back to the old performance.
During this time you should still leave the light on.
In most cases with enough fish and plants in the tank a week should be sufficient.
After that you can leave the light off and keep the tank fit and healthy.
Special case: Algae everywhere!
Especially after getting a new plant you can end up with quite pesty algae growth.
Be it these long ghost hair types or in a bad case the black stuff growing on plants, ornaments and the glass.
I have even seen tanks with algae covering the entire bottom of the tank causing the gravel to look like carpet.
Here I can only advise to set up a quarantaine tank for your fish.
Then remove all infested material for manual removal and cleaning.
Infested plants should be cut clean and what can be boiled should be boiled in water for a few minutes.
Now start scrubbing in the tank with ongoing water replacements.
I prefer to let everything settle over night without any bubbler or pump running.
This way I can suck up a lot of sediment the next day.
If you can remove all plants and fish you can now use hydrogen peroxide and add it to your tank water.
But this is only feasable for small desktop tanks.
Before using the UV as above to cure an outbreak you should consider all water one last time.
Allow at least 2 weeks with ongoing water checks before adding plants back in and another week before placing your fish back in the tank.
The week before adding fish should be used to monitor the plats for any signs of algae you might have missed - if you find any remove it!
A week after the fish is back in you can turn off the UV light.
Underwater UV-C light!?
In most online stores you will find quite cheap UV lights to be advertised as underwater or in tank use.
Although it might sound tempting you should be well aware of the dangers of using them.
The glass of your tank will block the harmfull UV rays but the water surface won't, so either don't ever look at it or use proper sunglasses with real UV protection.
Apart from the dangers to you these lamps are not just cheap in price but also cheaply produced.
That means there is no way of telling how much or how little UV-C is produced.
If they are good then you still need to know in what type of tank setup you can use them.
As plants can tolerate a bit of UV a placement as far away from the nearest plant should do, especially if you can place a bubble wall betwenn light and plants.
The fish is another thing as some seem to be unaware of the danger in their tank.
This means they can get too close to the light but I have not found any articles explaining how harmful UV-C is to fish or their eyesight.
I guess once your fish starts to bounce into everything you know... ;)
My advise is to stay away from the idea of hanging a UV-C lamp in your tank, the risk for you and your tank is just not justified.
If you need to go cheap then get two or thre of these lamps so you have spares.
But use them externally ;)
Meaning: Take a UV proof plastic container of small size and place the light in there.
To be really safe tape the lid and all holes for the hoses with black tape.
Place the container above the water level of your tank and if you only have an internal filter pump push a suitable sized hose into the outlet to feed into you canister.
Check how high you pump can make it and place the outlet or overflow slightly below this level.
When to change the light?
If you made it all the way down here then you might already had the benefit of using light to "cure" your tank.
Now we are faced with the high replacement cost for the lamp itself.
Ususally only flouroscent tubes are used.
It is always good to check after purchase what type of lamp and manufacturer (if there is one) was used.
In some cases the system itself is like an inkjet printer: Just a cheap way to make you buy the consumables.
Let's say you new in-line filter was priced at $100 to have a nice round number, some are cheaper some much more expensive.
The lamp used might be an exotic type and not even be available easy, so before you buy your system check where you can get spares, not just the lamp of course.
A replacement lamp can be as ceap as 20 bucks or cost even more than your system if you need to order it elsewhere.
The quartz glass sleeve can break too meaning you then need a lamp and cylinder.
Going with a reputable brand and paying a bit more certainly helps to get spares in the future.
Let's just assume you either got your system in bulk due to the price of replacement lamps or can get them at a reasonable price.
UV-C lamps are not like your normal flouroscent light tubes you have around or maybe even on top of your tank.
Consider them like the tubes used in the now unhealthy tanning beds.
After a certain amount of time they no longer produce enough of the short wave UV light that we need.
As you can't see it and most of us won't have the means to specifically measure it we have to trust manufacturers recommendations.
For most good brands the numbers are the same: 8000 hours max.
Considering the costs it does make sense to keep written track of the usage.
Not too hard since we won't use them like normal lights but instead have them on for a week or more without turning them off.
I recommend to have a replacement at hand long before you need it.
A lamp can fail premature, crack or simply burn out.
The 8000 hours are based on 24 hour usage, so one day on, one day off.
This could mean for us the lifetime can be slightly longer but I would not go over 9000 hours.
As a rule of thumb: If the water does not show good signs of getting clear on day thre the lamp is due.