Understanding The Workings & Biology Inside Any Pond Bio Filter ... The Nitrification Cycle
The waste products from the fish in their initial form are mainly expressed as
ammonia which is poisonous in even small quantities and especially so under
certain water conditions of high pH which will be discussed later.
In a mature pond a class of bacteria in the biofilter removes the ammonia almost
as soon as it is formed.
The ammonia is converted into other nitrogen chemicals called nitrites.
These chemicals are less polluting and toxic
than either ammonia or nitrites both of which are poisonous. The bacteria are
called nitrosomonas and nitrobacter and other complementary types but let's just
consider these 2 and ignore the rest as not being important for us
These chemical processes are occurring all the time and will not stop unless the
biofilter system stops working or the source of nitrogen is removed ie no fish
in the pond, or the water becomes devoid of oxygen.
The health of the pond is determined by this relentless ongoing conversion of
ammonia to nitrates. It must NOT stop for the sake of your fish.
If pond water is changed frequently then to some extent the poison levels are
controlled. The more fish in the pond then the more the waste products to get
rid of. Koi produce 3 times more waste than goldfish of the same size - because
they eat 3 times more.
The food used has a significant impact upon the amount of waste produced. Try to
use of foods with high ash contents - this indicates low quality raw materials have
been used in the food manufacture which result in water pollution levels being
higher than necessary.
In a natural stream or lake fish concentrations are generally low. Waste
products are converted to relatively harmless nitrates by naturally occurring
bacteria. Rocks, submerged trees, plant roots, etc all help to purify the waste
products from the fish by providing holding points for the bacteria to live on.
The more bacteria there are the better the purification.
The bacteria need oxygen to survive and they get this from the circulating water - oxygen is
absorbed by the water due to the action of waves, waterfalls and wind.
In a garden pond a biofilter is installed to make up for the unnatural
conditions prevailing. A biofilter is designed to allow large concentrations of
bacteria to operate effectively in a small volume within a garden pond
Correctly specified and installed pond bio-filters create healthy environments in
which fish can live for many years and grow to their full potential.
In small ponds the filter can be installed directly in the pond. For larger
ponds the filter needs to be installed outside of the pond. The pump connected
to a biofilter must run 24 hours every day otherwise the bacteria will die from
lack of oxygen contained in the circulating water. It is a good idea to have a
waterfall and a fountain to increase the oxygen content of the water.
It is difficult to add too much oxygen to a pond.
Should the bacteria in your pond filter die it will take approximately 5 more weeks for them to
regain a population close to their previous levels.
What is happening inside a biofilter? ... thanks to
The Pond Professor for this
I created this picture below to help explain what happens inside a biofilter.
Imagine the red balls are ammonia excreted by the fish. Also imagine water is
flowing over the biomedia from left to right.
You can see lots of red ammonia molecules are flowing into the filter although
they are dissolved in the water in reality. Look carefully and you will see dark
grey Alfagrog biomedia underneath the coloured balls. Look even more carefully
and you might see the oxygen bubbles also dissolved in the water.
The ammonia mixed with oxygen in the water is continuously flowing across the
biomedia. The yellow bacteria can be seen sitting on the surface of the biomedia
just waiting for ammonia (this is the food for bacteria) and
oxygen to come along.
At the point where the water meets the biomedia (i.e. where the bacteria live) the
red ammonia molecules are broken down (oxidised is the correct term) by the
bacteria which keep taking deep breaths of oxygen in order to complete the
conversion of ammonia and nitrites to those blue molecules that you see starting
to appear. These blue molecules are nitrates. You do not need to be a chemist to
understand the next line .
NH3 is converted by one type of bacteria to become NO2 this is converted by
second and different type of bacteria to become NO3
All I want you to take notice of is that ammonia has no oxygen, nitrite has 2
atoms of oxygen and nitrate has 3 atoms of oxygen in its molecule. If the water
did not have oxygen dissolved in it then this conversion could not happen.
Notice the mixture of pretty colours in the middle of the picture this is
where the conversion and intermingling action is taking place. You can
possibly imagine lots of things are happening at the same time in this region
... because in fact there is a great deal of chemistry taking place.
The nitrates become the fertiliser for the plants and stay in the water until
consumed by plants or pumped out of the pond with a water change.
You will notice that there are still a few red ball bits of ammonia left because
the bacteria did not manage to get to them first time around circuit these
get eaten next time or maybe even the next.
Just after feeding fish the red balls increase by an enormous amount and as such
you will nearly always measure ammonia in the water shortly after feeding.
However if the biofilter is mature and working well this is rapidly brought
I have just described in simple terms what is called the nitrification cycle
that occurs in all ponds and natural waterways.