Nutrient Export For Reef Tanks (The Methods You Should Use)

Controlling and exporting nutrients from your reef tank is one of the most important maintenance tasks you should address from the start. It’s critical that you plan ahead and choose a proper method for nutrient control and removal before adding corals into your saltwater aquarium.

nutrient export for reef tanks

In this article, I will show you the best methods to use for removing excess nutrients from your system.

What is nutrient export?


Nutrient export is the removal of dissolved organic compounds from your water column. Naturally, over time, organic compounds and nutrients will build up in your tank. This will cause poor water quality conditions which will affect the overall health of your fish and corals. Our job is to remove those excess nutrients to maintain a healthy and stable environment for our livestock to thrive in.

I’m sure there are in-depth scientific explanations for it, but I like to keep things simple.

There are different methods in which you can use to control and remove nutrients.

  • Biological filtration
  • Mechanical filtration
  • Chemical filtration
  • Natural filtration
  • Protein skimmers
  • Water changes

Toxic nutrients to remove

  • Nitrate
  • Phosphate
  • Ammonia
  • Nitrite


Why do nutrients build up in the first place?


Overfeeding your fish and corals is one of the worst things you can do with your saltwater tank. Excess food that does not get eaten will build up in a section of your tank and decompose.

This will become a nutrient source and the more excess food there is, the worse it will be.

I recommend target feeding your fish and corals. It is a great way to ensure there won’t be uneaten foods floating around or sitting somewhere in your tank.

I mention is this article how important it is to use RODI water for your saltwater tank. Tap water is not recommended and it will contain nitrates, phosphates, chloramines, and fluorides. Tap water will most certainly cause nutrients to build up in your tank.

Another reason why nutrients build-up is due to overstocking your tank. Read this article to understand if your tank is considered to be overstocked. Keeping a low fish population is key to keeping nutrient levels low. A heavily stocked tank will have excess nutrient issues and can cause poor water quality and health concerns to your fish and corals. 


Marine Depot Aquarium Supplies

Methods to remove nutrients from your reef tank

Biological filtration



Biofiltration is the most commonly used and effective method of nutrient export. Live rock plays the biggest role in biological filtration and having plenty of live rock in your tank is important.

Rock that is porous will have plenty of surface area for bacteria to grow and colonize reducing the number of harmful nutrients. 

You can use biological filtration to both control and remove excess nutrients. Some people like to use certain media like bio-bricks or Marine Pure bio media. These high-performance media have plenty of surface area for bacteria to populate and be effective in removing nutrients. 



Mechanical Filtration


In a nutshell, mechanical filtration is basically a method of trapping particles. You can do this by using a filter foam pad, filter floss, sponges, filter socks. The problem with mechanical filtration is that the excess nutrients won’t be removed unless you manually remove them.

So these filter pads etc.. have to be removed and replaced on a consistent basis. This can become a bit of a nuisance task and if you don’t do it on a routine schedule, you will cause more harm than good. Mechanical filtration can be great for removing and capturing particles from your water but it’s only effective if you do your part as well. 

These filters can cause poor water quality and create a home for nitrifying bacteria to populate if they are not removed quite often.

Protein skimmers


Protein skimmers play an important role in your saltwater tank. They help remove organic waste before they have a chance to break down in your tank releasing nitrogen compounds.

As the bacteria population grows in your tank, it’s important to keep them at an acceptable level. You can do this by using a protein skimmer.

A good quality protein skimmer can do a great job at removing nutrients. Waste, uneaten foods, bacteria, toxins are all things that a protein skimmer will help remove from your tank. 


Chemical Filtration


Chemical filtration is another effective method for removing nutrients from your system. Certain media like GFO and carbon are commonly used inside a media reactor which can remove phosphates and other nutrients which get absorbed into the media. 

You can use these media inside of a filter bag and place it in your filter or sump area. Most people will use the media reactor as they will generally be more effective. 



Natural Filtration


The natural filtration method of removing nutrients is very similar to the biological filtration method. Natural. With this method, you can use algae to control and remove nutrients. 

The most commonly used algae used is a macroalgae called Chaetomorpha. This is very effective as it will grow inside of a chaeto reactor or refugium while absorbing excess nutrients. 

Cheato is used to eliminate the growth of nuisance algae inside of your tank. The rate of nutrient absorption is directly related to the algae population. 

Many people also choose to use an algae scrubber which is highly effective as well. Algae Turf Scrubbers use algae as a natural water filter to remove nitrate, phosphate, and other pollutants from your aquarium water.

Rather than having algae grow uncontrolled inside your display tank, an algae scrubber allows you to grow algae in a controlled setting where it can be easily removed—thereby removing contaminants from your tank in the process.



Water changes


Performing regular water changes on a schedule is another effective way of removing nutrients from your aquarium water. 

I recommend that you perform frequent partial water changes which will help lower your nitrate levels and reduce dissolved organic compounds. By adding fresh saltwater mix back into the tank, you are allowing for more trace elements to be added as they are used up by the corals. 

Of course, there are other important reasons for performing water changes, but for the purposes of this article, they are an effective way of removing nutrients from your aquarium.




Regardless of the methods you choose to remove nutrients from your saltwater reef tank, you should always make it a priority to perform the required maintenance and ensure nutrients are not building up. Keeping nutrients low are very beneficial and will go a long way in ensuring the success of your reef tank!