I didn’t expect have an update so soon, and this is a brief update. This is more of a tip if you’re trying this setup. Be sure to properly bury your plant seed capsules. It looks like a few of mine weren’t buried properly so some of the seeds began to float to the top.
Most of the seeds are still properly submerged so I’m not too worried. This planted tank has a pretty shallow gravel bed in this spot, so it’s not unsurprising that some stuff got knocked loose.
Protein skimmers are a necessary but often expensive part of marine reef aquarium keeping. Good models can cost hundreds of dollars. Being on a tight budget, I decided to try out a more wallet-friendly solution, the Lee’s counter-current Skimmer.
Skimmers, for the most part, have the same basic functionality. The devices use a mist of fine bubbles to which floating toxins and other assorted crap adhere. The bubbles then rise, lifting the junk into a collection cup for removal.
Naturally, some devices are better at it than others. But those devices can cost a crazy amount of money and boast all kinds of features like special pumps and programmable memory, alarms and so on.
The solution I went with, the Lee’s skimmer offered none of that. It’s a simple air-driven skimmer. You supply your own air pump to drive the bubbles and the intake. The good news is that it only runs about $30 on Amazon (interestingly, the smaller model is more expensive than the medium I got).
Naturally, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, but it had four stars on Amazon and it was about 10% of the price of the high-end models. I even had my own air pump, so I was golden.
Two days later, I got my hands on the skimmer. As expected it’s a simple affair. There’s an outer body that is essentially a tube. An included wooden airstone runs up to the top of the tube and is covered by a conical top cap.
The bottom cap of the skimmer features a riser tube to which the second airline is attached. Bubbles rise through the tube which forces tank water to be sucked in via small openings at the top of the skimmer.
Finally, the collection cup sits on top of the skimmer which has a tapered tube inside it. This allows the bubbles to rise from the water and deposit… muck into the cup.
While the box says the unit comes pre-assembled, it was very much not assembled when I opened the box. I quickly found out why.
The fit and finish of the tubes and caps and stuff are not great. Actually they have about the same build tolerances as a 1987 Pontiac Fiero.
In other words, the thing falls apart if you look at it the wrong way. None of the parts fit snugly together. As soon as you try to place it in your sump or adjust it, something is going to pop off. While you try to fix that part, a different part will come off.
Finally, I broke down and decided to make some improvements. I used silicone tape around the body on the top and bottom to make the sections slightly thicker. With the added thickness, the caps fit very snugly. Superglue was also necessary to affix the suction cups to their posts. Without superglue, the suction cups would dislodge whenever I tried to adjust the Lee’s protein skimmer.
One other quick fix I did was to make the water level line visible with a grease pencil. You simply can’t see the little line once the skimmer’s on the tank. As it turns out, however, that wasn’t necessary because the water level line was far too low and the bubbles would never make it into the collection cup.
It took a little trial and error but I finally got the thing dialed in and actually doing something. It took the better part of an evening, but I finally beat the thing!
One thing to note here is you’ll need either two lower powered air pumps or one larger pump to drive the two air sources. A single small pump simply won’t cut it.
After I got everything going, I have to say the Lee’s counter current skimmer actually did perform its job. It didn’t take long before icky brown crud filled up the cup. Since a decent air pump is pretty reliable, I don’t expect a lot of issues out of this protein skimmer once it’s set up and running.
You just have to work for it to save some money with the Lee’s protein skimmer.
Here’s a handy list of items (including the stuff I had to use to fix it) in case you want to give this thing a go. These links are affiliate links, so I’ll get a (very) small portion of the sale if you buy anything via the links.
The U.P. Aqua CO2 atomizer is a tiny gizmo to inject CO2 into your planted tank. It works with a canister filter and pressurized CO2.
I recently purchased the U.P. Aqua CO2 Atomizer to replace my no-name internal CO2 diffuser. I chose the UP because it had good reviews on Amazon, and I wanted something that sat inline with my canister filter and not in the display tank itself.
Just a heads up: if you use that link, I’ll get a small percentage of the sale price as a commission. Don’t worry, it costs you the same either way 🙂
The first thing that caught my attention was how small this thing is. I’m used to diffusers with a lot of real estate to give the CO2 time to dissolve into the water. This thing fits in the palm of my hand.
The way it works is pretty straight forward. Inside that contraption I’m holding is a core not unlike in-tank ceramic diffusers. Water from the canister filter’s outflow goes through the tube. CO2 is held outside the ceramic center under pressure which pushes the CO2 into the water stream in the form of micro bubbles.
Installation is pretty straight forward. You cut your return hose and place the atomizer inline. The intake is at the bottom of the atomizer and output is at the top. There’s a port for the CO2 hose at the top of the device.
All connections including the CO2 intake are barbed with lock nuts ensuring nothing will slip off while in use. This being a direct from Asia sort of product, its barbed connectors are metric. That happened to be perfect since I use a Sun Sun canister filter, which is also metric.
If you’re just going to put this setup inline hanging from your hose, it’s pretty straight forward. I decided to get all fancy, however. I already have an inline heater (another awesome thing to have) and adding the CO2 gear along with that outside the tank was getting a bit excessive. I took a detour and routed my output hoses and inline gear along with my CO2 setup through my tiny storage area in my aquarium stand. It was a lot more work, but I can’t argue with the results.
With everything in place, I turned on the system. The first thing I noticed is how much I had to crank up the pressure to get the CO2 to diffuse. A DIY CO2 system won’t do at all here, you need some serious pressure. It takes a little more pressure to get going at first. The first time I started the system I cranked my valve so high, I blew the lines off the bubble counter.
It took a few hours for the ceramic core to break in and I got the gas flowing at around 1.5 bubbles per second. At that setting, I can see a very fine mist of micro bubbles coming out of the filter’s output and into the water column.
That means that there’s less than 100% CO2 absorption going on there. But, based on the bubbles I see, there’s definitely some absorption going on there. I did play with the CO2 output. The mist seems to almost completely go away at around 1 bps.
My old in-tank setup also let some gas escape. It output larger bubbles and you could see them spit out every once in a while. These bubbles are much more fine in the new system. Because of that I’m not sure I can really compare the rates between the two.
What I do know is it looks one heck of a lot nicer than the old setup, so I think I’ll stick with it.
For under $20 it’s a pretty good option if you have a canister filter and a pressurized CO2 setup. Here’s that link to Amazon again: UP Aqua Atomizer on Amazon.
Just in case you’re wondering, I frequently partake in the deals I post on this site. I picked up the Aquarium DIY CO2 Generator from BangGood a while back. The interesting thing about this setup is that it uses citric acid and baking soda in two bottles to generate CO2 for the aquarium.
Now that I’ve had some time to play with this toy, I thought I’d share my impressions and maybe add some more information on using this method for CO2 generation since there’s not a ton of information out there about using citric acid and baking soda instead of yeast to create a CO2 reaction.
This setup adds a pressure gauge, plus an emergency release valve along with a needle valve to control the output of CO2 from the generator. You bring your own two liter soda bottles plus additives to complete the thing. Consider it semi-DIY if you prefer.
The basic idea is that you put citric acid (more on this later) with water in one bottle and baking soda and water in another. Squeeze the bottle to begin siphoning citric acid water into the baking soda bottle and a reaction begins to produce CO2 gas which is then sent through the needle valve and out to your planted aquarium.
There are a couple of different versions of the product. The one I’ve been using and is pictured in this review is the D-501 model. This model has a rigid bridge between the two bottles that makes everything an easily-contained single unit. There’s also a model 301 that features the same gauges but attaches via individual specialized bottle caps and might offer some more flexibility for placement in the bottles.
A D-201 model also exists, but it seems like the components are much more cheaply made than those in the other two. There’s only a couple bucks difference between that one and the 301 and 501, so I’d just skip the 201.
Did I mention all of these units are under 20 bucks each? That would explain what it’s doing on this blog.
I sprung for the extra 3 dollars to ship my CO2 generator express. That option got me my product within 3 days via DHL. Well worth the price since normal free shipping takes up to 3 weeks.
Sadly, the pressure gauge broke off my unit shortly after getting it. Customer service had me e-mail them a picture of the broken piece and then happily sent me a replacement. No complaints there.
Once I got a working unit in hand, it was time to begin the great experiment. The instructions that ship with this product are in Chinese, so that’s not exactly helpful. Fortunately, the product description on BangGood’s site has an English translation.
Even more helpful is this article you’re reading right now where I can explain everything in plain English.
To begin you’ll need two 2-liter soda bottles. Use soda bottles, not juice or punch as soda bottles can handle much more pressure. When you’re done with the setup there will be quite a bit of pressure held in these bottles.
I’ll be referring to the DIY CO2 Generator in terms of left and right. Looking directly at the unit, the side with the pressure gauge will be the left, the needle valve on the right.
After you’ve enjoyed your beverage of choice, rinse the bottles out well. It doesn’t have to be perfect as only the gas is going into your fish tank, not the liquid (unless something VERY bad happens.)
Begin by closing the needle valve on the right side. Don’t go all crazy tightening it, or it’ll be a pain to loosen when the time comes.
Start with the citric acid bottle (the one on the left). You’ll want to keep these straight, I labelled each one with a Sharpie. Get out your trusty funnel and add 7 oz (200g) of citric acid powder. Then add about 20oz of water to the bottle.
A note about citric acid: you can find this stuff in the canning section of your grocery or discount store. It’s typically used in canning tomatoes. It’s also pretty expensive in that form. My store has 5oz bottles for about 4 dollars. A much better alternative is to hit up eBay. I bought a 5lb bag of the stuff for less than $15.
At this point, shake up the bottle and screw the bottle into the left side of the generator, under the pressure gauge. Then fill the baking soda bottle with 7oz of baking soda and about 7oz of water. Shake and attach that one to the CO2 unit on the valve side.
Now the magic begins. Squeeze the citric acid bottle firmly until you can’t squeeze any longer. Unless you’re the Hulk or something, don’t break the bottle.
When you release the bottle, citric acid solution will siphon into the baking soda side. If you remember your school science fair, this is the same thing that happens when you make the volcano with vinegar and baking soda.
Next, open the needle valve wide open for about 5 seconds and then close it again. Then repeat the squeeze and valve open again.
The idea behind this is that the pressure differences in the two bottles will cause the citric acid to siphon into the baking soda bottle until an equilibrium is achieved. Once that happens, the system will siphon citric acid as needed when the pressure drops.
You want to continue this process until the gauge reads around 2kg of pressure. This can sometimes can take some patience.
If you’re like me and not patient, after you do the valve thing a time or two, give up in frustration and give the assembly a gentle shake. This tends to speed up the reaction and builds pressure more quickly.
Don’t shake too hard, the system is setup with a pressure release valve that will open up if too much pressure builds up. That’s great for safety, but it kind of wastes your CO2.
Don’t sweat the pressure too much. Once you get the system up to around 1kg of pressure, it’ll pretty much get to the right level in use.
Once you have the reaction going, hook the needle valve up to your air hose (use silicone or specially designed CO2 hose). Hopefully you remembered to buy an air tube and some kind of CO2 diffuser or reactor when you ordered this thing. I’ll put a list of stuff to get for the full CO2 setup at the end of this article.
Hook all that stuff up and then open up the valve to get the CO2 goodness flowing. I tend to open it up a little wide at first to clear the tubing and then dial it back down to the desired bubbles per second in the bubble counter.
CO2 Generator in Action
Ok, so once everything was dialed in and hooked up I ran through a couple of cycles to get a feel for everything. Unlike yeast-based CO2 DIY setups, there’s no problems with pressure. While it might not pack as much pressure as a proper pressurized CO2 setup, there’s more than enough force to make a nice stream of micro bubbles from a standard glass diffuser.
Consistency on the other hand is a little bit different. I found that during the course of the day the flow of CO2 would decrease, requiring me to open the valve a little further in the evenings. To be honest, I’m not sure if this is a flaw in the needle valve or in the CO2 generation process itself.
According the the manufacturer, using the system 8 hours per day, you can get over a month of use running at 1 bubble per second (bps). A rate of 3bps is only good for about 20 days. My photo period is longer than 8 hours, so I tended to get a little under two weeks at 2-3bps. That’s where the eBay citric acid comes in handy.
Basically, in my opinion, this system sits between a yeast-based DIY system and a proper pressurized CO2 system. Performance is much more consistent than yeast, and more importantly, the output is controllable. You also don’t need to wait a day or so for the CO2 to build up in this system since it’s a chemical and not a biological reaction.
Yeast systems may last longer between charges, but they’re just kind of hit and miss. Of course a CO2 tank system is very consistent and lasts for months depending on your tank size. Those systems also cost a whole lot more than this setup.
Ultimately, if you want decent performance and aren’t quite ready to commit to a dedicated pressurized CO2 system, using a citric acid and baking soda CO2 system is a very good compromise.
As promised, here’s a list of gear you want to pick up to have a fully functioning DIY citric acid and baking soda CO2 system. All items are from BangGood because they’re inexpensive and you can get everything in the same place. There’s other options too, so look around.