For most hobbyists who are interested in botanical-style/blackwater aquariums and other "natural" systems, it seems like the real "thirst for knowledge" part of the equation is to locate the fishes, aquascaping materials, botanicals, etc. related to the work we're trying to do with a specific aquarium. However, it seems like the more "practical", nuts-and-bolts stuff, like filtration is just sort of "accepted."
Like, we don't think about it too much..until these questions arise.
And of course, at Tannin, we spend a great deal of time contemplating the look and feel of our botanical-syle aquariums, and wrapping our head around the various "mental shifts" necessary to really appreciate and embrace this approach...You know- learning not to fear the tinted water, decomposing botanical materials, biofilm, detritus, etc.
And that's really great. It's foundational.
However, I must admit that another one of the "foundational" things we don't talk about as much as we should is filtration. We receive a surprisingly large number of questions on the topic.
Yeah, the ubiquitous, necessary, and highly important function of filtration in our aquariums is definitely something we, as lovers of leaves and botanicals, need to give a little thought to when we set up our systems.
Of course, I could totally launch into a boring, been-there-done-that review on the various filtration types available in the hobby and what they do and blah, blah, blah...However, you wouldn't read it and you'd be yawning the whole time. I mean, there's a 50/50 chance you might be anyways, but hey...
Yet, filtration is less than exciting to many of us. It's like a hobby "must have" that, once we figure out, gets little more thought. Yet, in the context of our botanical-style tanks, it IS fairly important.
Now, first- my "disclaimer" of sorts: I'm no filter "expert." I'm not an aquarium "gearhead." In fact, I really don't care much for the gear. It neither excites me or stimulates ideas for me. I view it as something necessary to operate an aquarium. Ouch! Sounds like I'm the PERFECT guy to write a piece on filters, hue? My thoughts on this topic are based, like everything I write- on my personal experience and ideas, laced with a healthy dose of "opinions" and stubbornness... 🤔
So, here's the "long and the short" of this topic:
You can use just about any type of filter available on your botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. The real considerations, IMHO, are: A) where in the water column you are bringing in water, and b) Where the outputs are aimed. Oh, and C) what media you're using in the filter.
So, let's look a bit closer.
I have used all sorts of filter systems on my BWBS style systems over the years, but the ones that I tend to use will surprise you...maybe. Maybe not.
As a reefer, I love my tanks with built in overflows and sumps.
(My friend Marc Levenson makes all sorts of badass sumps, btw...so look him up.)
I love sumps. I love them because:
a) You don't see any of the ugly shit (heaters, etc.) in the tank proper. Oh, and even that freakin' "glassware"- yes, I know that YOU may not think they're ugly, but I"m no fan of them as they are now. They completely and utterly suck in every way, in my humble opinion. I hate them. Why? We can have that discussion some other time, okay?
b) Sumps add water volume to your tank. As the sayings goes, "Dilution is the solution to pollution"- and stability!
c) Sumps provide an area where you can keep filter media, biological media, botanicals, wood, etc. to influence environmental conditions in the display aquarium. Like, if you hate the look of leaves and decomposing stuff in your display, but love the blackwater look and biodiversity, sumps are a good choice. No, a great choice!
d) They rely on surface overflow "weirs" to supply water. Overflow weirs skim water from the surface, removing the film which accumulates and can interfere with gas exchange...Important when you have lots of botanicals in your tank breaking down, right?
"All in one" tanks, like my Innovative Marine "Fusion Lagoon" system, or my ULtum Nature Systems AIOs, offer a great "hybrid" of a sump and an external filter, making an affordable, simple, aesthetically clean, easy-to-maintain-and-operate system.
Now, I realize that not everyone wants the expense, logistics, challenges, and additional considerations (return pumps, space under the tank, etc.) which go along with the use of sumps. I also realize that the majority of freshwater hobbyists utilize glass aquariums without overflows and such, so there are numerous other options.
Enter the canister filters!
Where would the hobby be without Eheims, Fluvals, and all the other canisters out there? These are wonderful choices because they provide you so much flexibility.
Flexibility is really important in what we do.
As is the ability to hide the "visuals" of ugly canister filters for obsessive types like me...there are plenty of approaches you could take...
And of course, they offer "functional flexibility"...You can keep botanicals, like various leaves, cones, catappa bark, "Fundo Tropical", etc. in filter media bags/cartridges, again giving those of you who like the tinted water but not the botanicals and their associated decomposition, biofilms, and detritus- the ability to keep them outside of the display proper.
Oh, and where the water comes back into the tank is pretty important, too!
IMHO, you should direct the return from canister filters near the surface, to create agitation and to facilitate gas exchange. Unlike pure planted aquariums, where there is a definite benefit from using those $&%#@@ "Lily Pipes" and such to return water well below the surface to preserve CO2, I personally believe that heavily-stocked botanical-style aquariums benefit from this surface agitation.
Did I mention that I hate those pipes? Just wanted to make sure.
I mean, you can return some of the water towards the lower levels of the tank to keep things "stirred up" just a bit, without blowing shit all over the tank. (that's a technical term, by the way).
And of course, outside power filters do the same thing- keep everything relatively neat and tidy, and potentially outside of the tank if you like.
Oh, and sponge filters are great- and those Matten Filters, too- because they are primarily biological filters and are relatively easy to hide in displays...
Now, I have spent a fair amount of time alleviating the fears of you weirdos who don't want to see leaves and pods and such in your tank physically by explaining that you can just toss these things into your filter or sump! And of course, it goes without saying that you can utilize all of these filters with the botanicals present in the display, as well, of course.
The real "issue", if you want to call it that- with filtration in regards to our BW/BS-style aquariums is what media you utilize. Again, I call on my reef-keeping experience to tell you that I am a huge fan of activated carbon. I use it on every tank I set up- even the ones with the gnarliest (yes, it's a word- I'm from L.A.- it's a word. Deal with it.), darkest "tint" imaginable.
I love activated carbon.
Yes, carbon can remove some of the tint and probably even some of the valued humic substances and other beneficial compounds exuded by botanicals. It's not selective. That being said, it also can remove impurities, like volatile dissolved organic compounds, urea, some metals, etc. It's valuable stuff. The key is to just not overdo it. Of course, if you want leaves and such in your tank, but not the tint- as we've discussed many times- just use the 'typical" dose of carbon and you have the best of both worlds- at least, aesthetically.
Better as chemical filtration media would be stuff like specialized ion-exchnage or "organic scavenger resins" and zeolites- stuff which requires more research, trial and error, and testing. But it is possible, at least in theory, to incorporate filtration media which removes the undesirable pollutants and retains the desired humic substances and tannins. Oh, and proper biological function in low pH systems, fostering the "biome" of these tanks.
I like "Poly Filter", as it removes organics and can remove stuff liek ammonia even in low pH systems. In my years of working with this stuff, I have not seen it remove the "tint" in the water caused by tannins from botanicals. This is hardly a scientific assessment of the stuff, but I believe in it. I've used it for decades in pretty much every type of aquarium- fresh, brackish, reef- that I've maintained with excellent results.
And back to those "specialized resins" and such...
These things are are all something we will see more of in the future...trust me. There are numerous materials out there, used in other water purification work , that will definitely work with our aquariums.
In the mean time, you can continue use materials like carbon, Purigen, etc. to do the trick; just be aware of the way they work and what they will do. If you go "full power" (ie; the typical manufacturers' recommended "dose"), you'll have a really clear tank- if that's what you want.
Nonetheless, I adore Seachem Purigen.
It's a "macro-porous synthetic polymer" (aka "organic scavenging resin") that removes soluble and insoluble impurities from water by adsorption. In other words, it cleans up stuff.
Like, really well.
I think every aquarist should have Purigen in their "box of fish stuff...not just for regular use, but for...well...emergencies and stuff. It's really good stuff.
And of course, we recommend mechanical filtration media, like plastic "noodles", filter pads, floss, etc., and of course, biological media, too- you know, the ceramic beads and such.
And no, I didn't even touch on how to optimize the placement and utilization of filter media in your filter, etc. That stuff has been written about for many years by people who are way more interested and knowledgable about it than I am. Don't be lazy- Google it, if you're so inclined.
In summary- my advice is to use whatever type of filter system you like. The key is how you utilize it- what media you employ, where you draw the tank water into it, and where it's returned.
And, like with everything else we play with in this arena, there is plenty of room for experimentation, innovation, and even breakthroughs in regards to filtration in our BWBS systems.
This is a real "open source" component of what we do. An invitation and opportunity for YOU- the working aquarist- to make a big impact on the hobby, fostering benefits perhaps as yet not understood...
So, yeah- use what works for you, benefits your fishes, and creates the best outcomes. At its best, this is a summary of ideas and hopefully, a brief dossier on potential "things to do in the future."
Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay inquisitive. Stay innovative. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.