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Thread: DIY Protein Skimmer for Ponds

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    DIY Protein Skimmer for Ponds

    I was inspired by Ethan's threads about making a Foam Fractionator (FF), and wanted to experiment with another method of removing dissolved organic compounds (DOC's) that is modeled after the Protein Skimmers I have used before on my salt water aquarium.

    I had an extra 55 gallon barrel and some extra PVC pipe & fittings. So here is a drawing of what I put together after some trial and error. I'll follow it up with pics and some discussion about the results.

    Basically, I made a protein skimmer inside of a barrel, so that water flows down through the 4" pipe into the barrel, in the opposite direction of the air going up the 4" pipe. I narrowed the opening to 3" pipe at the water surface, causing the bubbles to accelerate and push up the 3" PVC pipe.

    The 3" pipe is 17" long, giving plenty of "adjustment" room so that water stays in the pipe, but bubbles and foam want to push out the top of the pipe.

    In order to prevent the bubbles (which are coated with the DOC's) from landing back in the barrel, I cut a hole in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket, and used PL Adhesive to attach the bucket to the pipe (a bulkhead or fitting of some sort would be a better option).

    Another issue to address was that I didn't want the collection bucket to fill with slime/water and get heavy, so I added a drain down low on the bucket and directed it to a bucket on the ground which is easy to carry off and dump.

    The upside down ice cream bucket on top of the 3" pipe is suspended so that it does not actually touch the pipe. It serves to shield the forming bubbles from wind, and to keep little splashes from popping bubbles from flying all over; instead, it all hits the inside of the ice cream bucket, and falls into the collection bucket.

    I used a bungee cord to help hold the unit upright inside the barrel.

    I did not glue most of the pipe fittings inside the barrel to allow for adjustments. Here's the concept drawing:
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    Pics of the DIY Protein Skimmer

    Here are some pics of the system as it stands now. Unfortunately these pics came out in reverse order; not sure how to change their order in this post.

    Anyway, the first picture is obviously the last stage in the process...the bucket full of nasty stuff that you'd never want to throw in your pond--that's the good feeling that comes from getting it out of the pond!

    I got half a bucket full out in the past 24 hours. The previous 24 hours it only accumulated about 1.5 inches in the bucket; then I turned the air up, and more formed, but it is also not quite as dark as the first batch. Still experimenting.

    I hope the other pics are self-explanatory. I do not know whether it has had, or will have, any measurable positive effect on the pond water. But I will say that the end product is some pretty nasty stuff--good to get it out of the pond water.
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    In one of the "overall" pics above, instead of the upside down ice cream bucket that is "suspended" over the 3" bubble outlet pipe, I tried a different plastic container. My thought was to drill holes around the side of it, and then thread some picture wire through the holes, making a sort of "wire web" about 1.5" off the bottom of the container. Then, turning it upside down, the wires would hold the container up and off the end of the 3" pipe, and I figured the bubbles would just go around the wires. I did not do extensive testing of that prototype, but I believe that the wires actually slowed down the production of bubbles, or at least kept as many of them from going out the top and over the side of the pipe and into the collection bucket. Here is a pic or two of the prototype "cap" container.
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    Any before and after on water quality/clarity?

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    No, actually I don't, although it has not been up and going long, so I could still do that. Mostly I hoped for a change in water clarity, but during this time, my UV bulbs were failing, so I ordered some new ones. The new ones are now installed, and hopefully going to "catch up." Meanwhile, with the water green, it is difficult to see what effect this protein skimmer is having on clarity. What water parameters would you expect it to change...ammonia or nitrites? Would it have an effect on PH? Thanks for ideas about that, and I'll continue to report.

    By the way, the pond is 8000 gallons; one thing I wonder is whether, or how long, it will take a unit this size to make a visible difference in water quality. These pics are from this morning--the bucket is 3/4 full after 48 hours of operation. The jar will give you an idea of what is coming out.

    As you can see from the photos of the jar, the results are not "pure sludge," but some pretty dark brown water, and in pretty steady quanitites so far (the overflow line is like a fast drip...enough to produce 3.5-4 gallons of this stuff in 48 hours.)
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    I should patent it and sell it--I'll call it Koi Tea! :-) Specially brewed in the heart of the midwest! Any orders??? :-)

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    Nice looking counter current foam fractionator. Here is some early discussion on the concept.

    Counter Current Foam Fractionator

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    Thanks Matt for that reference. It is interesting to see the similarities between these and the one I made. I figured mine was not a "new invention," but it is new to me, and of course it is fun to try something like that and see if it works.

    I think it would be interesting to see if it would work better if the 4" vertical PVC went up higher before the reducing fitting. That should result in a longer column to mix water and bubbles, and make the foam contain less water.

    Another change: instead of the 90 degree fitting on the bottom, the airstone could come through the bottom of the barrel (the air hose keeps wanting to float up and pull the stone out of place), the 4" PVC could sit on the bottom of the barrel right over the stone, and some simple slots or holes in the bottom of the pipe would let water out of the bottom of the 4" PVC pipe and into the barrel.

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    Booo!





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    seriously though, good job. It's doing the work, and it will take awhile and you may not catch up with that big of a pond, but either way, it is working well!
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    Your foam is too wet! You shouldn't be getting near that much "liquid" in that amount of time. I would think raising the height of the 3" and adding more air might produce a drier foam product.

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    Hi Ethan!!! Thanks for the comment and the inspiration to try to invent something like this...and you made me LOL when you said "Boo!" :-) Gotta get together sometime soon...

    Mike and Ethan, I agree with both of your comments...I don't know if this is doing enough good to make any real difference on 8000 gallons, especially a pond with so much surface area. I am not sure how to "measure" that either. Again, right now water clarity is hard to gauge because I also have green water and new UV bulbs that are trying...slowly....to catch up. And should this kind of unit make a difference in nitrites or PH or some other measurable level? I would think it might boost oxygen levels a bit, but maybe not anything significant. Any chemists out there want to comment on what effect, if any, it might have on the above?

    As to the wetness of the foam, I agree with that comment too, Mike. It is clearly more "liquid" than what I've seen pictured coming out of FF's I've seen on Koiphen. So, a couple of questions: because the DOC's are diluted with water when coming out of this system the way it is adjusted now, does that mean that it is not as effective? (I understand that it does mean that one gallon of diluted DOC's might only equal 1/4 gallon of "concentrated" foam DOC's out of a different system...but I'd think the real key is simply getting the DOC's out...whether or not it simultaneously removes an unnecessary amount of water. And in this case, we're not talking about THAT much extra water when the bucket after 2 days is just now getting full. On the other hand, if adjusting the foam so that it is more concentrated means that it will be removing the DOC's at a faster rate, than I am sure that is an important improvement.

    I don't think the airstone I'm using right now is getting small enough bubbles, and I also agree with you, Mike, that the bubbles/foam is getting pushed out before it has time to break down and get more concentrated. And the part of your suggestion about adding more air is probably, if I had to guess, the part that will increase the amount of DOC's being removed...more air passing through the water should remove more DOC's....is that accurate?

    As far as increasing capacity of this unit to "keep up" with the larger pond, what if I modified it to include two, three or four such vertical 4" pipes with separate airstones in each. If I did that, it might require a larger air pump and of course more air stones. BUT, dividing the flow of the water between three or four tubes would provide a lot more "dwell time" in each tube for the water/bubble interface, and of course would triple or quadruple the number of "units" that shared a single barrel. The water speed would still be limited by the 2" overflow pipe.

    I do think that a "cluster" of three or even four pipes would fit in the barrel, and catching the foam coming out the top could probably be done by cutting three or four holes close together in the bottom of a tupperware dishpan with a drain down into the collection bucket.

    As far as how to plumb it, I suppose one way would be to use a four-hole 1.5" PVC "X" style fitting. Water would come in one side and out the other three. Might have to use flexible 1.5" hose to hook up to fittings near the top of each of three vertical 4" pipes, and might also need ball valves on at least two of the three outlets (yes...I know...cost).

    Anyway, let me throw out that idea...a way to modify and multiply the number of vertical tubes...and see what thoughts others might have.

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    I would suggest first, getting this one fine tuned to work more efficiently. Then add one additional unit at a time until you hit the "sweet spot" for your system. Counter flow fractionators have been around a long time in the aquarium hobby. But, for outdoor ponds, they seem to have their limitations, especially with regards to location. I still think Ethan's Phoam Phractionator is one of the best DIY ideas that has come along in quite awhile. My partner installed one on his pond and loves it. He's using a single 4" model on his 4500gal pond and after the initial spring/pollen period, his foam production is greatly reduced until the heavier feeding season. Then it seems to work the best from evening to early morning. But, the foam that extrudes from Ethan's unit appears to be a much drier foam, something more on the lines of the Clarity units that are just ridiculously priced for what they do, IMHO.

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    The foam I was getting when I used a counter-current FF was about like that. Even with Ethan's you can have wetter foam, it just takes some tweaking of flow on the output of the pump and the restriction amount on the ball valve on the exit of the FF.

    My understanding with the counter-current models is that the finer the bubble you can produce the better. I did try some of the wooden air stones and had to weigh them to keep them at the proper level. You might see some improvement using those. Lots of aquarium supply places can help you find an air stone suitable for a protein skimmer.
    All things considered though, I don't think a 3/4 bucketful in the course of 48 hours is that bad. Better out than in.
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    i AGREE mARILYN!
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    I've been using a simple counter-flow protein skimmer for a few weeks now and its really made a difference. My foam issues resolved within days (however my pond is really dinky at just 1200-gallons). After the initial gobs of foam produced in the first couple days of operation, it's now settled down to a mostly steady drip-drip-drip of thick, smelly 'goo'. The picture below shows the type of stuff produced in the bucket after it'd been operating about a week or two, quite different from the mountains of tan foam in the early days... and today there is very little foam to be found on top yet the watery portion of it is still quite thick and black. I've found it relatively easy to adjust the flow of the 'black water' dripping by adjusting the air going to the limewood air stones. Obviously it must still be producing foam in order to make the 30" climb up the 2" PVC tube to reach the bend and then travel all the way across and back down a 1" PVC tube into the bucket... but by then it breaks down enough to just become a steady dripping (though sometimes at night I might catch the glimpse of a foam glob coming through but its rare to see one anymore). However it must still be working at removing long-chain organic molecules from the water column since it pours out like a SAE 5w-10 used motor oil when we put it on our plants... it also even looks like well-used motor oil. BTW, it foams quite easily when poured into another container, again proof of long-chain molecule removal.

    Design notes: The body is 6" PVC @ 32" height (its bottom is down in a 12" hole)... gets reduced at the waterline of the 55-gallon barrel filter feeding it to 4" and then to 2"... actual waterline is right where it reduces to 2" (I need to modify that a little I think). At the 4" reducer there is an internal floor drain grid I used for more foam support. I have 6 - 6" limewood air stones and a 5"-dia round Alita air stone pumping out air from a Hakko 40L (which reportedly puts out ~60 lpm at that depth). I believe the 'trick' to getting the most out of this type of protein skimmer is having adequate bubble generation (the finer the better). The down side, as I see it, in using this type of set-up for a pond is the rather slow flow-thru rates of pond water necessary to get this to work well. Currently mine is flowing through ~180 gph so I'm now working on a modified design I hope will flow to ~350-400 gph and still clean the water as thoroughly as this slower flowing model does.

    In the early days of operation it was kicking out an overflowing 5-gallon bucket of thick, foamy gunk every 10-12 hours. Today it'll produce maybe 2-gallons a day... somedays less even.
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    Last edited by monomer; 06-16-2012 at 11:23 AM.

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    Hi Monomer,

    Wow! That is an impressive system, with great results! I have actually been searching for some wood air diffusers, thinking that would help get finer bubbles (mine are not fine, and I think that is one of the keys to getting a lot of foam). By comparison, mine is also flowing water much faster through it than yours (although with a larger pond, I think that is important to have good water flow through it).

    Trying to learn from the differences, I note that yours is going through a six inch tube and mine a 4 in tube...yours would give much more "dwell time" with the bubbles, I am sure...slower flow through a larger diameter tube, so I think that is a factor I need to look at (and anyone else wanting to try something like this).

    I also note you are using a Menard's bucket to catch the foam, and I am using a Home Depot bucket. I wonder if the green color attracts foam better than the orange? (Just kidding!) :-)

    Another question I would have for your system...it looks like water from the barrel gravity flows into the top of your tube...is that correct? If so, you are essentially "skimming" water from the barrel, whereas my design is pumping water directly into the top of the tube. That water, in my system, comes from a mixture of the pond skimmer and the bottom drain. Anyway, I think having water from the surface to process in one of these units is another factor that helps--yours may do a better job of that since mine is "cut" with water from the bottom of the pond. If there was a way I could process water from the skimmer alone, I think that would be better, since the DOC's accumulate, as I understand it, at the top of the pond.

    I assume that at the bottom of your 6" tube, which is underground, you have a reducing fitting (or two) with a pipe that returns to the pond...is that right?

    Thank you much for sharing your system...since mine is "experimental," at least to me (although others have already obviously done this before), it helps to see what others have done the same and different.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Windsong Acres View Post
    ...I also note you are using a Menard's bucket to catch the foam, and I am using a Home Depot bucket. I wonder if the green color attracts foam better than the orange? (Just kidding!) :-)

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    :-) Really, the question in life is often whether you are out to "Save Big Money" (which would indicate a Menard's approach), or whether you are a believer in the "You can do it, we can help" mantra, as my orange bucket would testify...although I must say that once I did buy a bunch of building supplies, ready to do the project, and waited half the day for the "we can help" part to materialize. Nobody showed all day, so I just watched TV. :-) Ok, late Saturday night, I'll get off Koiphen and back to the TV. :-) Please go on to the next comment.

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    Not to veer too far off topic but I must say the Menard's "jingle" is amongst the most irritatingly addictive songs that rings in my head. They did a good job.

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