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Aquatic Life Support System Components

By Ruth Francis-Floyd, DVM, MS, DACZM, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida

The basic components of a life support system are a vessel that houses the animals, and if water is to be recirculated, the filtration components, and a sump or reservoir (area to collect water before and/or after treatment). Understanding these component parts can help the practitioner appreciate the basic design and how it may impact animal health and disease management. Additional study is required for clinicians who plan to develop greater knowledge and skills for aquatic practice.

There are three basic types of filtration: biologic, mechanical, and chemical. All recirculating systems have biologic and mechanical components, and most also include a chemical component. Some types of filters provide more than one of these functions and may be dual purposed in the design. Practitioners should familiarize themselves with basic filtration and more complex system designs as their experience grows.

Life support system

Generic schematic of a basic aquatic life support system. Mechanical filtration should precede biofiltration. Mechanical filters help prevent channeling and anoxia in biofilters by removing large particulate matter. Biofilters must have a lot of surface area for nitrifying bacteria. Chemical filtration, although not required in all designs, polishes and cleans water before it is returned to the vessel housing the fish. Courtesy of Dr. Ruth Francis-Floyd.

Biologic Filtration:

Biologic filters remove nitrogenous waste from the system. Fish excrete ammonia directly from the bloodstream via passive diffusion across the gill epithelium. Biologic filters provide substrate and massive surface area for nitrifying bacteria to live. These bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment and grow well when nitrogenous compounds (ammonia and nitrite) are present in the water column. These bacteria require both oxygen and a carbonate source, which must be provided by the water and filter design. Examples of biologic filters are plastic plenums placed in the bottom of home aquaria, fluidized bed filters common in commercially designed systems, and an array of bead and sand filters sold for use in ornamental pond and aquaculture units.

Mechanical Filtration:

Mechanical filters are always placed before biologic filters in the system design. Mechanical filters typically receive water leaving the vessel housing animals and remove large particulate matter before water comes into contact with the biofilter. Large particles can clog a biofilter, resulting in channeling and development of anoxic areas that greatly compromise function of the unit. Mechanical filters can be as simple as floss or foam pads receiving a stream of water, or much more complex. Sand and bead filters are commonly used and have dual functions of mechanical and biologic filtration.

Chemical Filtration:

Chemical filters provide a way to treat the water. Activated carbon is very commonly used to remove toxins and colored compounds from aquarium water, which helps maintain clarity. Activated carbon filters may also be placed on inflowing water to remove chlorine and/or chloramine from city water. Activated carbon filters can also be used to remove treatment chemicals from water before discharge to city sewers. Other examples of chemical filters include protein skimmers and foam fractionators, which are commonly used in marine systems to remove proteinaceous waste (decreasing the load on the biofilter); ultraviolet light, which removes potentially pathogenic organisms from the water column; and ozone, which clarifies water and kills microbes. Ozone is common in large commercial aquaria and requires a de-gassing area before the treated water comes back into contact with fish. Malfunction of ozone units can be hazardous to people as well as animals housed in aquarium systems.

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