Nitrates In A Reef Tank: 12 Easy Ways to Reduce Them!


Nitrates are part of the Nitrogen Cycle. You may have heard about ‘Cycling Your Aquarium’ and Nitrates are the last part. In fact, your tank is in a constant state of cycle every time you feed your fish, your fish goes poop or you add a new member.

Our goal is to try and let mother nature balance the Nitrogen Cycle however, for most of us, life can get busy at times, we just can’t resist that bargain at the fish store or we just want to feed that little bit more! This is when we can start to see your nitrate level begin to creep up and step needs to be taken to prevent it from poisoning your livestock.

Ways To Reduce Aquarium Nitrates:

  • Remove Detritus
  • Reduce Food Quantity
  • Regular Water Changes
  • Rinse Frozen Food
  • Reduce Fish Quantity
  • Get a Clean-Up-Crew
  • Increase Nitrification Bacteria Habitat
  • Install a Refugium or Algae Scrubber
  • Install a Bio Pellet Reactor
  • Install a Nitrate Reactor
  • and many more…

High Nitrates are ALWAYS because of your actions! If you have one fish in a 200 gallon tank, your Nitrates would always be zero! But who wants just one fish!

Overstocked Aquarium
Overstocked Aquarium

Main Causes of High Aquarium Nitrates:

  • The aquarium is too young for the livestock within it
  • Overstocked. Too many fish
  • Not enough Live Rock/Live Sand/Beneficial Bacteria habitat
  • Overfeeding
  • Little or no water changes
  • Small water change volumes
  • Too much detritus
  • No protein skimmer or protein skimmer is too small

How To Safely Reduce Nitrates in Aquariums

Depending on how high you have let your Nitrates get will depend on how much work you have ahead of you. The main thing to remember with everything in this hobby is to MAKE ANY CHANGES GRADUALLY!

Doing a big 50% water change on a 200 gallon tank is just going to cause more trouble. If you have a major pollution incident, that is a different matter, but for Nitrate reduction, it is just silly.

The main thing most people are recommended to start by doing is a multi-angle approach to reducing Nitrates. What I mean by this is adjusting a few of the easy steps first and see how your Nitrates drop.
If nothing is happening after a few more weeks, then we try the next step.

Patience is key here. You need to make a change or some changes, then give your aquarium some time to adjust before you see the result.

Free Ways To Reduce Aquarium Nitrates:

1. Remove Detritus

Vacuum the sand regularly with each water change. This will help to remove trapped detritus. Get a Turkey Baster and blast all your rockwork just before you do a water change. You will be surprised how much crud will come out of all those tiny holes and pockets.

Remove any animal/coral as soon as you see it dying or dead. A rotting corpse will always skyrocket your Nitrates.

Ensure you have a good aquascape that allows for good water flow throughout your entire tank. Install more powerheads or more wave makers to ensure no ‘Flow Dead Spots’.
Having a ‘Rock Wall’ and not being able to access behind your rock is an instant way to have high Nitrates

2. Reduce Feeding Quantity

This is the easiest and one of the biggest causes of high Nitrates because we all love to keep our fish ‘Fat & Happy’! However, what we don’t see is all the tiny particles of food that dosen’t get eaten. They fall into the holes and begin to break down.

Your fish will survive with a smaller quantity of food. You may be surprised that most Reefers will slowly increase the feeding quantity over time without realizing it.

Try feeding half your normal quantity and watch your Nitrates drop, and remember to only feed enough that can be consumed in one minute!

3. Increase Water Change Volume & Frequency

Manually removing the water that is laden with Nitrates and replacing it with Nitrate-free water will slowly reduce your Nitrate level. If you are doing water changes every two weeks try changing to every week.

If you are already doing weekly water changes, try increasing the volume you change. If you are changing 20%, try upping the volume to 25%.
Every little helps!

4. Rinse Store-Bought Frozen Food

Commercially produced frozen food is full of Nitrate rich material. Always ensure you rinse your frozen food in a mesh sock, or a fishnet to rinse as much of the juice away. Smell the food too once it has defrosted, if it smells really bad do not use it. The food may have been accidentally thawed, re-frozen, and spoiled in the process.

I create my own frozen food using good quality grocery store-bought seafood with a mix of flakes, pellets, coral food, liquid supplements, nori, and concentrated garlic extract. It is then blended ( which stinks! ) then frozen flat in a zip-loc bag. I can then cut off the desired amount, defrost and feed every night. It is much cheaper and contains far fewer Nitrates!

Kent Garlic Extreme
Kent Marine Garlic Extreme

5. Overstocked? – Reduce the Bio Load

This is the second biggest cause of high Nitrates, Too Many Fish!!!!
We are all guilty of it and it always creates more problems for us. How many times have we been at the store and found that fish at the top of the ‘Want List’ sitting right there in the tank!

Freshwater seems to give a length of fish per total gallons but that does not work for saltwater. There are too many factors that can make two identical tanks have completely different Nitrate readings. Filtration, bacteria, flow, rock, sand, Clean-Up-Crew, all play a part.

If your aquarium is just mayhem then you will most likely be slowly figuring out why your Nitrates are so high! See if you can swap some fish for store credit!

Cheap Ways To Reduce Aquarium Nitrates:

6. A Good, Diverse Clean-Up-Crew

Having an army of tank janitors to tackle every part of your aquarium is essential to help you and mother nature do her thing. A good mix of snails, crabs, shrimp & microfauna will help to keep the detritus at bay.

Research into the types of crew available and what each critter will do is essential for you to build your army. Having the right amount of each species of animal is also important because if you have too many, the food supply will eventually run out for many of them, at which time they die and add to your Nitrate problem.

Cleaner Shrimp
Cleaner Shrimp

Stay away from the store-prepared Clean-Up-Crew Packages as they are all about making money. Do your research, see what’s available locally and purchase your own crew. Also, be sure not to add them all in one go!

7. Increase Your Bacteria Habitat

When your aquarium initially cycled you were actually growing huge colonies of Nitrobacter and Nitrosomonas bacteria that consume Ammonia and Nitrites which then convert to Nitrate.

The final part of the Nitrogen Cycle is the release of Nitrogen gas, therefore the more bacteria you can grow, the more Ammonia, Nitrites and then Nitrates get consumed and eventually converted to gas, which releases from the water column.

There are several ways to increase the surface area on which more bacteria can grow:

8. Install a Refugium

Installing a Refugium is a great way to grow Macroalgae and Microfauna. These both help to reduce Nitrates in the following ways:

  • Macroalgae are a form of saltwater plant. Plants consume Nitrates as they grow. By allowing the Algae to grow in the Refugium and then you dispose of half the ‘Algae Ball’, you are physically removing the Nitrates that are bound within the algae ball.
  • Microfauna are small and microscopic critters that work on consuming detritus and organic waste within your aquarium. They release tiny parcels of Ammonia as they excrete their waste, which is then dealt with by the beneficial bacteria as part of the ongoing Nitrogen Cycle.

==> To find out more on Refugiums you can read my ‘What is a Refugium?’ article HERE <==

9. Install a Bio Pellet Reactor

Bio Pellets are pellets made from a biodegradable polymer that provides a carbon-based food source for the beneficial bacteria that consume Nitrate. By keeping the Bio Pellets circulating in the reactor they provide massive surface area for the bacteria to grow and feed on.

BioPellet Reactor
BioPellet Reactor

As the bacteria feed on and consume the Bio Pellets you just open the reactor lid and add more pellets. Bio Pellets work very, very well at helping to reduce Nitrates, but be sure be using a good Protein Skimmer with Bio Pellets!

10. Install a Nitrate Reactor

Nitrate reactors are similar to Bio Pellet Rectors except they use beads of Sulfur to convert Nitrates into Nitrogen gas, which is then vented.
The Sulfur beads encourage the growth of Anaerobic Bacteria which oxidize the Nitrates to convert them into the gas.

As the media is consumed you just add more to the reactor, just like the Bio Pellets.

11. Use Liquid Nitrate Reducers

Solutions like Red Sea’s NO3:PO4-X and Prodibio’s Bio-Digest are liquid solutions you add to your water to give your Nitrate feeding bacteria a good meal to help grow and multiply. The more you grow, the more Nitrates are converted to gas and the lower your Nitrates will be.

These work in a similar way to the reactors but in a liquid form, which can be dosed to the tank by hand or automatically via a dosing pump.

12. Vodka/Sugar Dosing

Vodka and sugar dosing are also referred to as ‘Carbon Dosing’. Carbon dosing is providing your bacteria with a Carbon-Rich food source for them to grow, multiply and consume Nitrates.

These bacteria are then removed via your protein skimmer, which is then emptied by you, thus reducing your Nitrates within the system.

Both sugar and vodka are a means to provide the carbon source and there is lots of information with good results online on how to begin carbon dosing.

This carbon is not the same carbon as you use to remove dissolved organic material from your water. This form of carbon for the bacteria is the ‘Building Blocks of Life’ type of carbon terminology.

Ok, I said there were 12 ways to help reduce Nitrates but this last one has to be at the Top of your list!

13. Use only RO/DI water

This is one of the most beneficial things you can do to ensure a healthy aquarium. The amount of junk the city water departments add to your town’s water supply is unbelievable. High Nitrates are usually in there!

Investing in a good 4+ stage Reverse Osmosis & De-Ionised (RO/DI) filter system will be one of the best investments for your aquarium. Not only do you need to use RO/DI water for your water changes but also for your Top Off water.

You can find a great selection of RO/DI water filters specifically for aquariums Here at Amazon.com

RO/DI Water Filter
RO/DI Water Filter

To Finish

One of these solutions by itself may not lower your Nitrates enough, but combining as many of these fixes as you can will show a marked reduction in your Nitrates.
Start with the free and cheaper options, and then if you are still testing high levels of Nitrate, begin research into one of the more costly options.

I personally run Bio Pellets in a reactor and I have zero Nitrates, but I also pay close attention to all the free solutions and all my water is running through a 3 stage RO/DI system like you see above.

Prevention is better than cure!

Further Reading

For more information on learning about and selecting the perfect RO/DI unit for your system, you can read my article:
How To Select An RO/DI System For Your Aquarium.

If you are unsure what ‘Top Off Water’ is please read my article and see how you ever managed without one!:
What Is An Aquarium Auto Top Off?

Richard

Hi, I'm Richard and I have been an avid aquarist for over 30 years with a passion for Saltwater Aquariums. I love to pass on my knowledge to help others get the same amount a pleasure out of this hobby as I do. View my About Me page to find out more about me & my mixed reef aquarium.

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