Top Five Beginner Filter Media

Updated 2024

Filtration media offers great benefits, but it’s crucial to use them judiciously. As beginners, it’s easy to panic and add filtration media at the first sign of a problem. However, it’s essential to strike a balance and not overdo it, as excessive use can strip the water of essential elements. Instead, prioritize regular water changes, adequate live rock, and avoiding overstocking.

Most filtration media can be placed in a mesh bag and positioned in a high flow area of the tank, eliminating the need for a reactor. However, some items like activated carbon and GFO work more efficiently in a reactor.

Here’s a breakdown of some common filtration media:

1. Activated Carbon: Effective in removing odors, medications, heavy metals, and cloudy water.
2. GFO: Used to remove phosphate, but a refugium with live macroalgae can be a more natural approach.
3. Ceramic Media: Comes in various forms like balls, bricks, and plates, providing biological filtration to remove ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates.
4. Poly Filter: Combines mechanical filter pad and chemical filtration to eliminate ammonia, heavy metals, and phosphate.

While there are many other types of filtration media, some may require a more advanced understanding of the hobby, which may not be necessary for beginners. Personally, I occasionally use a bag of activated carbon every other month for a couple of weeks, as it freshens the tank and enhances water clarity. As for GFO, I prefer to address any algae issues by identifying and correcting the underlying causes like overfeeding, lighting, or insufficient cleanup crew.

5. Mesh Filter Bags

Mesh media bags are an excellent option for beginners. While a media reactor may offer superior performance for certain media like activated carbon and GFO, it requires space, which many hobbyists may not have, especially if they don’t have a sump.

The key to maximizing the effectiveness of media bags lies in their placement. Simply tossing them at the bottom of the filtration chamber or sump in an area with minimal water movement won’t yield much benefit.

Media bags are most effective when positioned in high flow areas where water continuously passes through them. This ensures optimal contact between the media and the water.

For most tanks under 40 gallons, the 4″ x 8″ bag will offer plenty of space. 

4. GFO

In my early days as a hobbyist, I relied heavily on GFO, and I even upgraded to the high capacity type, hoping it would solve all my algae problems caused by phosphates. But to my surprise, no matter how much GFO I used, I couldn’t completely eliminate the nuisance algae.

Interestingly, many modern reefers are actually aiming to maintain a small amount of phosphates in their tanks, believing it benefits coral health.

In my experience, GFO can serve as a temporary solution. If your phosphate levels suddenly spike, using GFO for a short period can help regain control. However, I wouldn’t recommend relying on GFO as a long-term solution.

For most beginners, the regular GFO on the right works perfectly well. If you have a larger system (above 60 gallons) with limited filtration space, the high capacity (HC) GFO on the left, which can absorb twice as much phosphate, might be a suitable option.

3. Poly-Filter

The Poly-Filter stands out as a truly unique filtration media in the market. As far as I know, it’s a brand-name product and no other company produces anything quite like it.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how it works, but I can vouch for its effectiveness. It’s available in various sizes, and you can easily cut it to fit your filter.

What makes the Poly-Filter special is its combination of simple mechanical filtration (sponge) with chemical filtration. The color of the Poly-Filter changes depending on the specific chemical it’s absorbing. This versatile filter can effectively remove ammonia, heavy metals, medications, and phosphate, so it seems like it incorporates some carbon or GFO elements.

While it might be a bit on the pricier side, there are numerous hobbyists who swear by the Poly-Filter’s performance, making it worth considering for your aquarium filtration needs.

2. Ceramic Bio Media

If you’ve got ample live rock, perhaps some live sand, and you’re mindful not to overfeed or overstock your tank, chances are you won’t really need ceramic bio-media.

However, adding ceramic media won’t cause any harm, and it can be beneficial by providing more surface area for beneficial bacteria to thrive, enhancing your biological filtration capacity.

Many hobbyists opt for ceramic media when their tanks are heavily stocked or if they don’t use enough live rock to handle their bioload effectively.

Ceramic media comes in various shapes and sizes and is typically placed in a sump or rear filtration chamber.

One crucial aspect to consider is whether a specific biomedia is designed for nitrate removal. Some biomedia host largely aerobic bacteria, while nitrate removal relies on anaerobic bacteria. So, before making a purchase, it’s essential to read the label to ensure you get what you need for your tank’s requirements.

1. Activated Carbon

Among the various shapes, sizes, and types of activated carbon, one that stands out is ROX 0.8. It doesn’t matter which company produces it; the quality remains consistent.

ROX 0.8 is top-notch carbon, known for being less dusty and its exceptional ability to absorb colors, metals, and odors. However, keep in mind that it is also the most expensive carbon option available.

In the past, I used to run carbon constantly in my tank, thinking it was the key to keeping the water fresh-smelling and clear. But now, I hardly use it at all! Every other month or so, I’ll add a small bag of ROX 0.8 carbon just to give the water a little polishing. But I only leave it in for about a week or so! It’s really effective, even with such minimal usage.

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