art, science and business of aquascaping

Carbon in the aquarium – Tank on Fire #2

Carbon in the Aquarium | Tank on Fire Podcast episode 2

Below is the transcript for Carbon in the Aquarium:

Good morning, how are you today?

Most people listen to this podcast in the morning on their way to work, so I’m going to be in the customer saying good morning and if it’s not morning for you, I do apologize. I wish you the best.

Anyway, thank you for listening to Tank on Fire podcast. My name is Art Pennom and this is episode number two, The Dos. Thanks for sticking with me. I think this journey should be fun and I hope you’re able to get the value that I intend for you to have with it.

So very thankful that you’re here. As I mentioned yesterday, I am intending to start the podcast with a short series talking about activated carbon or activated charcoal. It’s the same thing. I think it’s an overlooked area that most of the aquatic plant hobby hobbyists tend to not really think about or use. I think they’re missing out on the benefits that carbon has. Any negatives that it may have are, in my opinion, greatly outweighed by those benefits. We’ll talk about them. I think there’s some misconception as well and misinformation out there in the hobby. So I want to clear that up as well.

Straight up front, I’ve I used twenty four seven carbon, so I have for many years without problems. I find it very beneficial. I have a set up that allows me to change it when I need to change it. And we’ll talk about that as well. And again, open and honest disclosure as I hope our relationship is the first product that I’m offering for sale is going to be a very high quality carbon that you can use in your aquarium. And it’s at a great, great price, very low price compared to everything else out there.

Carbon in filter

So it’s a great value. And again, as I mentioned yesterday, it’s my way of trying to cover the cost and the expenses of bringing you this podcast on a daily basis. So, again, if you use carbon or if you decide to use carbon, I hope you consider buying from us and supporting the show. Again, it’s it’s the carbon I use.

So let’s talk about activated carbon. What is it? And today I’m going to cover what it is and how it’s made and what’s important and why there’s differences among the activated carbon that’s out there. Activated carbon is not just activated carbon, big differences out there.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about some of the myths and misinformation that are out there to try and clarify that it’s going to be real focused on whether or not it strips out nutrients that we care about.

And then lastly, in the following day, I’ll talk about how how should you use it? What’s the best way to use it? But let’s dive into what it is first.

So. Activated carbon, which is how I’m going to refer to it, is simply coal, it could be coconut shells. It is it could also be even bone. I’ve seen all of those made, but typically it comes from coal. And what you do is you take the coal and you heat it up and essentially cook it to temperatures of six hundred Fahrenheit, thereabouts and perhaps even more and really burn off all of the organics that that are tied to coal as it comes out of the ground. This removes most of those organics.

And what you’re left with is just essentially that carbon, this carbon is then submitted to a process called activation. And usually it’s steam activated. And again, it’s put into this special I don’t want to say oven, but how how would I explain that? And I’m going to link some in the show notes showing how steam is used in these huge tanks to essentially cause pores to be created in the carbon. So it’s a network, a series of pores created by steam that creates the porous structure to the activated carbon. So anyway, that was a little bit of a tongue twister. I hope you understood what it is. There’s a number of YouTube videos that you can just go and read up on or see to see how activated carbon is made. The point is you have chunks of coal, carbon that are extremely porous and one teaspoon of this activated carbon is equal to an acre and one gram of it is equal to a football field.

So the surface area that you’re going to get out of these sizes, various sizes, sizes is is incredible when you really start to think about it in a little chunk of coal, a teaspoon of coal, how much surface area you get there. And that’s why it is the product of choice for purifying a lot of different things that you and I use from things that are gaseous.

So it’s used in gas masks, toothpaste, decaffeinated coffee, soap, beverages to take away the color. Almost anything and everything you can think of in some way was tied to some level of purification through activated carbon.

And because it is so varied and used for so many different things, different carbon specialist carbon is used for different things. The big differences are a those that are used for gas sort of purification like a gas mask and those that are used for liquids.

Like what? We would use it for a water filter to purify water and. What we want to focus on and make sure that we’re using are the ones obviously that are used for aquatic environments, in other words, liquid. Unfortunately, what you find in the hobby is these very large pellets. If you look at in particular the big box stores and your cheapy brands, you see these large coal or charcoal pellets. Those are designed to be used for air, not for water.

So they’re really ineffective when you try and use them for what they weren’t intended for. So if you’re out there and you’re trying to shop for activated carbon and you see these larger pellets, don’t go for that, please. It’s not intended for what we needed to do.

Ok, so the size of it, the particle size, the granular size, that’s what’s called granulated.

Activated carbon is what you’re looking for. You’re looking for a smaller size that’s going to work in your system, not powder, although powder will have a very high surface area because it is powder. It’s there’s no way for us to really use it in a bag or in our reactors or canister filters. So you’re really looking for a particular size of granule that I’ll speak to in the third episode when we’re talking about activated carbon. But let’s talk about how how does carbon really work and the different pore sizes, which is what you really want to look for.

There is something called ad absorbtion, which is not absorbtion with a B, but ad resorption with a D and carbon works through mostly ad resorption. It is and I think I read somewhere the material that is the most ad sorbent in the world, and hence it’s used so much at what ad absorbtion is is a sticking to a surface of a of a substance, another substance. It doesn’t absorbs it. It’s not being pulled into the actual surface. It’s just held there on the surface. Sorry about that. So you can think of it in the way I think about it is let’s say you spilled your coffee and you want to pick it up and you have two pieces of paper next to you. One is a paper towel. The other one is a piece of regular old notebook paper. If you put the paper towel on it, what’s going to happen? That liquid is going to be absorbed. Abha will be absorbed into the paper towel and it’s going to hold it in there becomes part of that paper towel and some good ones are really absorbent. Ones are what we all want and they cost a little more, but they work great. Right? They really hold on to it and get it done. Now, if we had put the piece of notebook paper on it, you know what would have happened? It would have become wet.

It would have picked up some of that liquid, but it wouldn’t have been absorbed into the paper towel. It was it would just kind of be sticking to its surface. It would not be very ineffective and the stickiness would not be held very strongly, weakly. It would be held to the paper that is adsorb in its adhesion. So what activated carbon does is it adheres particles from the water. Let’s speak about water to its surface. But because it’s got such a incredible surface area, a lot of it, it’s going to get absorbed into its porous structure and held in there through not only add absorption using a very weak bond, but also because it’s a maze like structure. Molecules and compounds get stuck in there and held so that think of a football size or we think we have a global audience. So a soccer size, I guess football will work. American football or European football size field, piece of notebook paper. If you had access to that and you put that on your spilled coffee, chances are that simply because of its sheer size, it’s going to pick up most of that liquid. So kind of the same principle.

I hope that makes sense. It’s a weak bond. It’s not a something that holds on very quickly. So I’m sorry. Strongly so. For example, if I had a glass of water with some dye in it and I dropped a carbon activated carbon chunk in there and waited a little while, the color would be gone. It would be add absorbed into that carbon. However, if I now put my hands in that glass and shook the carbon, all of the dye would come streaming right out and would taint the water again. So the forces that are holding it to the carbon are not great. OK, this is important when we talk about how to use it, but this is how it works, so depending on the type of molecule that I’m trying to remove from the water, let’s call them impurities, the poor size is important and carbon comes in three types of pores, micro pores, medium size pores and macro pores. The largest one, coconut shells, coconut carbon is micro pore. They’re tiny, tiny pores. And those tiny, tiny pores work best for air purification, things that are in the air. They’re tiny molecules, really tiny compounds that you really need that small pore structure. However, that type of micro pure carbon is not very good at removing an element that has a bigger size because it will it won’t get trapped in there.

It can’t walk work its way into the pores. The compounds that we have in our water in the aquarium are medium sized and large sized compounds, mostly dissolved organic organic compounds. You’ve seen that D.O.C., right. We also want to pull out of water volatile organic compounds. Vox you’ve seen that as well, Veoh. See, a lot of those are toxic. There’s phenols, there’s tannin’s, there’s colors that are in there, mostly as byproducts of decomposing organic matter that hasn’t fully decomposed. So these are the things that we want to pull out. I will also add to that a LELO chemicals. I know that’s somewhat controversial for those of you that know what that is and those of you that don’t. It is for chemicals that are put out by plants and algae. And it is theorized that these chemicals are irritants to other plant or algae species. And it’s a way, a mechanism that is used to outcompete. So I know you long timers in the hobby have run into situations where you have one aquarium where you just can’t get something to grow, but you have another one or it’s growing just fine. Those sorts of situations give rise to a potential, allelo chemical issue.

This has been proven in the saltwater side between corals and not only stinging, but they also put out certain compounds. But a lot more research needs to be done. It may not be a huge issue, but I have always taken comfort that that those would be removed along with the other things that I need to be removed from our water. OK, chlorine is another thing that is removed by carbon. However, most of our tap water nowadays contains chloramine, which are much harder to be removed, and it would take a lot of carbon for that to get stripped out of the water as well. So maybe that’s a topic for another day. Another day. So let’s zero in on the type of carbon again, and I’ll keep working my way to the exact type of carbon that you want to get for your aquarium. So we talked about that in our aquarium, we have middle sized, medium sized particles that we want to take out in large sized particles that we want to take up.

Therefore, the carbon that we use should have a medium size power and a large size pore. Right, so that it works well. And small pores that are ineffective to removing these things should not be part of that carbon. And in fact, some of the nutrients, the inorganic salts that we want to remain in the water could potentially be impacted to a larger extent by micro carbon, micro carbon. Therefore, it’s important not to use it. OK, so again, thinking about what you’re going to go out and buy, it should be a carbon with medium and larger poor size. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in The Hobbit a long time and I’ve never seen and a manufacturer of carbon listing the poor size that it has. Unfortunately, some of them don’t realize that that’s an issue and some of them really don’t care. So you should care for what we want. So it’s important to understand the poor size. Now, the vast majority of carbon available in the aquarium hobby is bituminous coal.

Unfortunately, bituminous coal is a micro micropower, their smaller pores and therefore not very effective in what we wanted to do. The reason it’s so widely available is because it’s cheap, very cheap, and they can get it into the hands of hobbyist through the retailers at a decent price point. It’s also relatively hard, i.e. it’s not dusty, so you don’t need to spend a lot of time washing it, which is considered to be a really bad thing for retailing because customers don’t want to spend a lot of time washing and it’s kind of a pain in the butt. So because it’s so easy to use and cheap, that is what you find, unfortunately. So you need to be careful that bituminous coal is not what you’re looking for or getting the next type of coal that’s out there is lignite coal and that does have a large, poor size. Unfortunately, it’s extremely soft and dirty. So cleaning it is a problem as opposed to just rinsing it for 15 seconds to get the dust out lignite because it’s so soft and delicate, you probably need to spend a couple of minutes rinsing it out. At the end of the day, since most of its pores are large macropods, it’s going to remove some of the things that we want. But those things that are medium size that we want out, it’s not going to do a great job out. OK, so that’s better than Bituminous, but not ideal.

There’s this third kind that is commonly called specialty carbon Wizzit, which is a mixture of different normally coals so that it does have both medium and large pores in it. This is a variety which is perfect for what we want. It will take out the medium sized particles as well as the larger size particles. Very effectively. These tend to cost more money. Obviously, they are typically also acid washed, which removes a lot of the impurities from the carbon.

It’s an extra layer of processing that needs to happen. So hence it’s going to be more expensive, more processing. But all of that rumor that. You heard before about carbines leaching phosphate and that being a very bad thing, acid washing reduces not only that leaching of phosphate, but other impurities as well. Now, quick aside, all carbon activated carbon will leach a little bit of phosphate. It’s just remnants of what it used to have, those organic components. Anybody that tells you that their carbon is phosphate free run, they eat. They either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re lying to. You both are not good. However, the good grade of carbon will leach very little. And to be honest with you, it is insignificant compared to the phosphate that we add ourselves to the water as part of our fertilizing routine. So don’t make a big deal out of that, but really go with one that is acid washed because that is going to reduce other impurities as well. So how do we know that we’re getting the right carbon since it’s not listed in the packaging for most companies and. How do we test that it’s really a macro poor and a medium size poor? Well, believe it or not, their scientific tests out there that really look at the capacity of each carbon and tested in terms of how many how good is it with micro pores? How good is it with medium pores and how good is it with the large poor? So that is the iodine test, which is designed to test for small pores, the molasses test, which is designed to test for large pores and the methylene blue test to test for medium pores.

Methylene blue. Yes, you’ve heard that. It’s that medicine that takes your aquarium water blue. It’s a dye. So these are standard industry tests that you do to test and see this for size. This carbon is taking out the iodine, but not the molasses. Therefore, it’s mostly micro pores. Does that make sense? So when, for example, I was researching and looking for the ideal activated carbon for aquarium, I tested it with molasses and with methylene blue to see if it would remove effectively these two things, because I know that those are the ones that I want removed from the water. Right. Medium sized particles and large particles. And most of your very high quality carbon out there that’s designed for water will remove those two methylene blue and molasses. So I have a video that I’m going to finish cleaning up and putting out so everybody can see really comparing two carbons, the top of the line, RSX zero point eight, which is sold at I think the lowest price I’ve seen is twenty dollars for three hundred and thirty grams three.

It’s a quarter gallon court. And the one that I’ve put together an offering to you, which I call HHG Carbon to see, go head to head and see who is taking out the molasses and the methylene blue and how long it takes and how effective they are. So be on the lookout for that. But those are the test I so that I can tell you unequivocally that both are Rolex zero point eight and the carbon are excellent carbons. They’re both acid washed and they both pull out the molecule size that we want pulled out of our aquarium water. So there you have it, it’s a little long winded, I feel like I’m I wore you out a little bit. I’m a little bit tired. It’s just that so little is known by the general public or the hobbyists regarding activated carbon. People think that it’s one is the same as the other. Let’s just go for the cheapest. And that’s not the case.

You really want to go for best value, and that’s really an optimum the best quality you can get designed for, particularly what we want to take out at the lowest price. That’s what you’re looking for. That is the equation for the best value.

Do you need the absolute perfect laboratory grade carbon for your aquarium if it’s going to cost you one hundred dollars for a teaspoon? The answer is no. You can get by on a lot less, so that was my thinking when I was trying to identify one that was more reasonably priced than the RSX zero point eight and the value, the cost. One last point before I close. There’s other things that many of you use called synthetic + absorbents.

These are manmade particles, granules that are polymers that function very similarly to activated carbon.

And there’s a great company out there. They put out one that many people use. And so I decided to test the carbon against that as well. I’m not going to mention the name here. If you’d like to know the name, just shoot me an email at Art, at Tank, on Fire Dotcom, and I’ll let you know. But out of respect for the company and this is not the only company that puts this type of product out there. It’s been used widely, but this is the best known. So I went head to head with it again and again. The carbon outperformed it in the molasses and the methylene blue. In fact, the interesting thing for me when I ran that test was that this absorbent, synthetic absorbent, it really took out the molasses, but left the medium sized methylene blue in the water, which was interesting, but really speaks to these made products are the pure sizes is created to specifically pull out certain things and not others. And it’s very hard to have a very poor size like you can with carbon at a reasonable price point. Carbon can also be just like these synthetic carbons or synthetic materials can be impregnated with certain chemicals that have an affinity to certain things. So, for example, if you wanted to pull out phosphate or iron or something in particular, you can coat these carbons and these synthetic absorbance with something that causes it to attract that. Obviously, we don’t want that. We want our inorganic salts, our nutrients to stay in the water. So the carbon you get should not be coated with any of these specialty items. These are not widely available to the hobbyist market. So typically it’s not very much of an issue.

OK, so I heard I hope you’ve learned something new that you didn’t know about activated carbon and now you’re more of an educated consumer as to what it is you need and why you need it. And you’re going to ask some questions if the product doesn’t really state what it’s made of, the poor size, et cetera. Let’s talk tomorrow a little bit more about myth busting and what we commonly think in the planted that aquarium hobby about the use of carbon. And I’ll tell you why I use it. And I’ll tell you some of the studies that have come out, some of the work that was done years ago by some chemists and were I think more study is necessary. So I’ll give you an open and honest talk tomorrow. And then the next day we’ll talk about how best to use it. So for today, that is it. My friends, I hope you have a wonderful day. Go, please, to Tank on fire dotcom and join the fire tribe. Very easy to do. Just subscribe and you’ll be a member of the tribe that we can discuss the topics that we want to discuss as a planted aquarium hobby. I will, of course, give you in exchange for doing that the aqua scaping analysis form that I put together that I think will be very valuable for you. And I’ll also throw in a 30 minute audio explaining how best to use it, how I use it. So hopefully that’s useful to you and you get something out of it. So anyway, without further ado and keeping you take care, have a wonderful day and I’ll speak to you tomorrow.

Bye bye.

About the author

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded, and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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art, science and business of aquascaping

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded, and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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