Algae Scrubber Basics

Slot Pipe

Please note: This is the version that was posted online in early 2012.  While the majority of the information presented here is still correct, there are a few things that are outdated.  I've been meaning to update this for quite a long time, if you have any questions, you can click the Discussion tab and ask!

Thanks,
Bud (Turbo)

The Slot Pipe

The principal component of the modern vertical waterfall Algae Scrubber is the slot pipe and plastic canvas screen.  The screen is inserted into a section of horizontal PVC pipe which has a slot cut into it.  The screen is typically held in place with a fastener through a cut-out section of the screen, like this:


Slot Pipe

The slot pipe itself should be Schedule 40 PVC at a minimum.  Don't use vent pipe, flexible hose, or thin-walled PVC.  The reason is that cutting a slot in the tube weakens it enough that it can bow over time and cause the slot to change width, and cinching zip ties tightly around it can make that worse.  This is especially true for a wide, tall Algae Scrubber.  Anything over 24" should probably have 2 slots, with a small section in the center left uncut (maybe 1/4") with some kind of means of support at the center.  It may look fine at first, but with heavy growth, you start to see this:


I'm not saying that it won't work, and I'm not critiquing the design pictured above.  It just got me thinking that it can't be good to have that pipe flexing that much.  So this is a recommendation I am making for Algae Scrubbers with screens over 24" wide.  But check out that growth!!!  That's 6.5 pounds of algae (drained).

NOTE: I left that above section in here because I just love that picture.  But the reality is that unless you are feeding about a 1/4 cup of food per day, you’ll never, ever need an Algae Scrubber this big.  Read on…

Pipe Diameter

When running an Algae Scrubber fed directly from the overflow, there is usually no need to deviate from the size of the drain pipe that you currently use.  But, that all depends on your total resultant flow to the pipe, length of screen, etc.  In the majority of cases, this doesn’t change anything.  However, if you had a large tank, and were combining four 1” drain lines together to feed one large Algae Scrubber, you have different considerations.

If you're doing a pump fed Algae Scrubber, either top of tank or sump, try to match the size of the slot pipe and other PVC components to the recommendations from the pump manufacturer, and if in doubt, err on the side of larger pipe.  Larger pipe puts less head pressure on the pump, which will increase the flow rate.

Cutting the Slot

The width of the slot should be approximately 1/8" wide, the same length as the screen which you are using (as exact as possible), and as straight as possible.  Cutting a straight, even width slot is arguably the most difficult and critical part of building an Algae Scrubber.  If the slot is crooked or uneven, the screen may not hang properly, and there may be areas where the flow is lighter and heavier.  This can result in sections of weak growth.

The width of 1/8” is what works best for a screen that has about 35 GPH of flow per inch of slot length.  This flow rate is the minimum ‘target’ flow rate you want to have.  At this rate, the water will ‘pile up’ in the pipe and purge the air out, and the water drain out fairly evenly across the entire screen.

Cutting the slot too narrow will result in low and uneven flow across the screen, resulting in areas of low growth.  If you feed the scrubber via the overflow, this can cause big problems.  Water can only flow so fast through a certain opening, and while this flow will increase with pressure, there is still a limit.

Cutting the slot too wide can also result in problems.  If the slot is too wide for the total flow, then the air does not purge from the pipe as easily, resulting in the water ‘shooting’ through the pipe and dumping out on the far end.  The only reason to widen a pipe is when you want a greater flow rate per linear inch of slot.  It doesn’t take much of an increase in width to allow a significant increase in flow.  If you think about it, the 35 GPH/in slot is 1/8”, and half of that is take up by the screen, which means 35GPH/in flows through a slot that is essentially 1/16”, maybe 3/32” if you don’t count the screen as completely blocking half the flow (since it is mesh after all).  So increasing the slot width by 1/16” can likely allow double the flow.  For your Algae Scrubber to be successful with a wider slot, the screen really needs to be rough enough, so just pay attention to that when roughing up your screen for a high-flow setup.

However you go about this, you might need a few tries to get good at it.  PVC is cheap, so practice on a small section so you get used to how this is done.  It’s going to take a little time and patience – don’t rush it.  Mark the slot, and cut carefully.  If you mess up, do it again.  Once you solvent weld an end cap and a union to it, it is not as cheap to replace (but still relatively cheap).

Doing it right means using a power tool.

You could use a Dremel with a cutoff wheel


An Oscillating tool:


A roto-zip (and a guide jig) or a router



Plastics like PVC are ‘grabby’, and using a roto-zip or router takes extra precautions - so this is not for the inexperienced, but it makes very straight slots.  With the right jig setup, you could also use a handheld circular saw, but then you are lowering a spinning blade onto the PVC (if you’re cutting the slot in the middle and leaving the ends uncut).

One of the best ways to cut a perfectly slot straight is by using a table saw.  However, there really is no way to cut a slot in the middle of a section of pipe (or across the whole length of one side of a pipe) without removing the anti-kickback device and lowering the pipe on to the spinning blade.  I have successfully done this, and it is definitely not for the person who is not fully respectful of power equipment and comfortable with the above mentioned method (or any of the other methods, for that matter)

However you decide to cut the slot in the pipe, remember to observe all necessary safety precautions.  Either that, or have someone else do it for you.

I read a post from one person who reported that they had their table saw grab the piece of PVC pipe while cutting the slot and shoot it across the room.  Turns out he had the blade too high and the pipe rotated on him as he wasn’t using a fence of any kind to guide the pipe.  Be smart and careful.