It can be a reef aquarium or fish only aquarium, large or small, but whatever it is there is a need for high water quality. When an aquarium system has been running for a time, the water quality can start to fall.
Good husbandry practices can slow down the drop in the quality of the seawater. Efficient bio-filtration, protein skimmers, perhaps activated carbon, calcium reactors, reverse osmosis top-ups etc all assist. Nevertheless routine water changes are a great aid.
Many of us aquarists are not particularly scientific or technical, but nevertheless it seems obvious that the seawater that filled the aquarium is not going to remain in the same state. The life forms in the aquarium see to that. Their life functions change the seawater state – an example is the pressure on pH. Acidic pressures caused by life forms try to reduce pH, and it is only the buffering capacity of the seawater that resists this. If this buffering capacity, or alkalinity, fails then the pH will be in trouble. So for a start, particularly in a reef system, alkalinity needs to be monitored. This of course isn’t the only change that occurs.
The general guideline for the amount of seawater to change is 10% weekly. This should start as soon as the system is active. By changing routinely the seawater is freshened, and trace elements partially replaced. The possible slow build up of nitrate (and other unwanted items) is reduced.
The 10% guideline is a good starter point, particularly for beginner and inexperienced aquarists, who simply need to know ‘what to do’. Once experience is gained and the trends of the aquarium are understood, then, with care, the replacement amount can be reduced. In some cases it may need to be increased, often because of nitrate worries, which in turn is often because of overfeeding. Overfeeding is a pitfall beginners could fall into. It doesn’t take long to realise the error though. If the amount of seawater changed is being decreased, the amount mixed and placed in the aquarium can be the same but at wider intervals, for example every two weeks instead of weekly. Or the weekly change could be reduced of course.
If the routine change is being altered it is important to monitor the seawater parameters. This can be relaxed up to a point when the checks on quality show that all is well and consistently so.
It doesn’t happen often because dry salt mixes are expensive, but aquarists have been known to do large or very large changes in the belief that it ‘must be doing good because it is fresh’. This has been known with nano systems where a large water change (relative to the capacity of the system) is easily done.
A new seawater mix is heated to the temperature of the aquarium seawater and also mixed with an airstone or a powerhead for around 24 hours before it is used. This is to ensure that the salt has mixed completely, and it is fully oxygenated.
There is more to it than that though. The new seawater is still ‘raw‘. The seawater needs to age and this occurs when it is in contact with all the various influences that make up the captive environment – fish, corals, bacteria, tiny reef life, algae etc. This only occurs within the display system, not in the mixing bucket.
So large water changes done routinely are not good. The change gallonage should be tailored to the needs of the system, and the need is discovered by careful testing and a watchful eye.
In my opinion, all systems should have seawater routinely changed. I believe I’m correct in my belief that the majority of aquarists agree.
There are occasions when a larger water change could be beneficial. For example, a fish only system may have been dosed with copper to fight a disease. At the end of the treatment, activated carbon could be used to clear the seawater. Following this the carbon is disposed of and a larger than normal seawater change completed. This change should not be over large, say 20%. If necessary, the change could be done in two goes spaced a few days apart if the aquarium system is a big one.
Nitrate is a problem in quite a few systems, and aquarists advise doing large water changes to try to reduce the level. It is right to try and do something about excessive nitrate but large water changes are not the best way. They may be a temporary solution.
Nitrate only appears if there is something to generate it. Again, feeding is a regular culprit, and it may be that the aquarist is causing, or partially causing, the problem. There are other potential causes. The need is to discover the reason and rectify it, not reduce the problem by large water changes.
Water changes (of normal proportions) take longer to achieve the dilution result than might be thought. The link below is interesting for anyone who wants this explained. The author uses a nitrate problem as an example, along with others.
So routine seawater changes are necessary because they are beneficial. It was, I think, the aquarist and researcher Dr Ron Shimek who found that seawater in a captive system was quite unlike real seawater. Our seawater remains ‘natural’ enough as fish and corals thrive in it, and it is clearly necessary to do all that is possible to keep it that way.