A pair of EcoWheel tanks in the making


20 and over club
Premium Member
Hi everyone,

I know questions about the Eco-Wheel based filtration system seem to pop up here from time to time, but from what I can gather, there are only a small handfull of people on this board who actually have one.

So, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a little feedback on this lesser-known system from someone who has recently set one up. Something along the lines of a written chronicle from inception, through the first year or so of operation.

If nothing else, my ramblings might offer a small diversion from the usual repetative fare that traverses our doorstep on a day-to-day basis.

Hopefully, Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ll not only be able to keep my objectivity and offer an unbiased opinion, but also provide a little documentation on this rather unique system.

But before I get started, I want to be up front and say that I have no affiliation with the manufacturer beyond that of a customer, nor am I financially benefitting in any way from what I am posting here.

So, without further delay.........
For those of you that are unfamilar with an Eco-Wheel, here is a brief overview:

Eco-Wheel, by design, is an ââ"šÂ¬Ã‹Å“algae scrubberââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ based system designed by a company called Aquatic Engineers, Inc. According to their website, A.E.I. was established in 1998 to provide ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œintegrated environmental planning, consulting and design engineering services.ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚

The Eco-Wheel unit consists of either a 1/2ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ or 3/4ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ thick acrylic tank that contains a large rotating PVC wheel on which various species of algaes are cultivated for the purpose of water filtration.

Once installed, the filter operates on an equalibrium which necessitates that the unit be mounted at a specified level placing it slightly higher than that of your aquarium. It does however, allow for remote installations. You could easily place the filter in another room and route the pipes through the wall.

The design incorporates a large air uplift entering from below that floods the chamber with a churning mixture of air and water. This air/water interaction is so great that a protein skimmer-like foam actually developes on the surface of the water within the filter. This large volume of rising air also becomes trapped under the paddles on the wheel, causing it to slowly rotate. A twin 96w quad PC light fixture sits on top of the tank and illuminates the upper portion of the rotating wheel. This allows the algae to be exposed to an alternating mix of frothy, nutrient rich water and light.

The surge action within the aquarium is accomplished through a hollow chamber inside of the wheel that picks up water during each rotation and then deposits it back into the filter several times a minute. This causes a uniform rising and lowering of the water level within the filter that is then transferred to the aquarium through the attached piping.

The part that is most intriguing about this process is that the entire operation is accomplished by a single air pump - there are no additional powerheads or pumps required.

The Bioballs that you see definitely envoke visions reminiscent of wet/dry filters, but they remain submerged at all times, and their primary function is to act as a baffle, preventing microbubbles from being returned to the aquarium. But in all fairness, the Bioballs are constantly bathed in a flow of oxygen saturated water, so Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢m sure there is most likely some level of biological filtration occuring in spite of their intended use.

When the sytem is operating it flows approx 20 gpm/1200gph via an approx 8ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ wide wave of water that enters the aquarium from a specially designed enfluent box. This incoming water is then supplemented by the periodic surging that adds a boost of additional water to your tank several times a minute.

And thatââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s basically it in a nutshell. I know this is an overly simplified description, but hopefully, it will give you a general idea of how this thing works.
Here is the big delivery day back in June. Everything arrived compliments of FedEx Fast Freight - 5 pallets in all. It took nearly 6 hours for me to break it all down and get everything sorted out.

The complete system is over 8ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ long and almost 7ââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ tall, and in order to get everything to fit through interior doors the cabinetry had to be built as 5 seperate assemblies that would then be bolted together once everything was in place.
And here is everything assembled and in itââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s final location in the living room.

The overall system was designed to my specifications by Aquatic Engineers, but the tanks and stands were actually subââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢d out to Tenecor and a company named Critterwoods/Reef Tectonics

The tank on the left measures 48x30x30 and is the future home of my existing 90 gal mixed reef that I set up back in 1995.

The tank on the right measures 24x30x30 and is tentatively destined to be a low-light, filter feeding type of setup. Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢m looking to house animals from areas where the lighting is more subdued, and non-photosynthetic organisms thrive. Hopefully, this will allow me to experiment with some of the more colorful gorgonians, sponges and tunicates. If things go well, I may even expand upon that to include some members from the family Scleronephthya.

The center section basically houses the filter. It measures 24ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚w x 7ââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ tall. And yes, it has already been suggested that I put a door knob and doorbell on the thing just for laughs. I requested that the center section be built slighty taller and slightly more forward of the two ends to try and break up the visual lines a little. I felt that having two tanks of unequal length that were built into one custom cabinet would give the thing a lopsided appearance. I decided it was best to work with the asymetrical design, rather than against it.
One of the early problems that I found myself dealing with was the apparent lack of a cabinet interior. I was pretty much expecting smooth plywood or something similar, and the open studs caught me a bit by surprise. I originally kicked around the thought of adding some plywood and a couple coats of paint, but quickly scrapped that idea knowing that I probably wasnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t going to be overly excited by the finished product. I was forced to rethink my design.
I came up with the idea of fabricating individual carpeted panels out of 1/4ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ plywood, complete with sectional electrical track and outlets. It turned out to be quite a project given the number and overall size of my cabinets, but it was still considerably easier than spending countless hours upside down trying to install everything from the inside out.

The pre-built panels were then installed and secured inside the cabinets relatively quickly using my trusty nail gun. Once everything was in place I pulled the wiring, hooked up the GFI outlets, and covered everything up. Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ll admit to initially being a little hesitant about using carpeting, especially after many years of dealing with salt creep and water spills, but surprisingly, I think it turned out to be well worth the extra effort.
Here is the near finished product. As you can see there is no sump, skimmer, refugium - nothing. Basically the space is mine to do with as I please.

The plumbing is pretty straight forward. I added labels on the pipes for ease of indentification by friends and family in my absence. I also took the liberty of substituting the included PVC elbows for ABS sweeps in the hopes of increasing the efficiency of the plumbing.

The line coming out of the filter splits into two pipes that connect to the aquarium. Ballvalves are used to adjust the flow between the two sides of the tank. The water enters the tank via enfluent boxes or what I refer to as ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œreverse overflow boxesââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ Basically, a box is mounted in each rear corner at a 45 degree angle and the water overflows from these boxes in a waterfall type of arrangement. On the upper front portion of these boxes is a sliding gate that changes the size and shape of the opening. If you adjust the gate to itââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s highest point, water flows under it and sends a horizontal type of wave across the surface of the tank. If you adjust the gate so it is at a lower position, water flows over the top and enters the tank at more of a downward angle. Optimally, you want the gates adjusted so water is flowing on a horizontal plane with the periodic surge coming up and over the gate to mix up the flow.
Here is the cabinet area for the smaller tank on the right - plenty of room over here to stash goodies such as a possible future calcium reactor, RO makeup device, or even my ever-expanding library of favorite saltwater authors.
Here is where all the action begins. This is the airlift assembly under the Eco-Wheel filter. The return lines from both tanks come together into a ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œTeeââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ at the base of the airlift. From there water is drawn upwards from the nearly 4cfm of air that is provided from the 120w air pump.

Directly behind the uplift is the ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œsupplyââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ line which is also ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œTeeââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢dââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ to direct the water to both tanks

The overall noise generated from this system is quite minimal for a something of this size. With the cabinet doors closed you can just barely hear the sound of air and water rushing up the airlift and the occaisonal ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œthump-whooshââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ as the wheel dumps itââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s load of water. The family can easily sit and enjoy an evening of televison without being distracted by the tanks.

Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢d like to take this opportunity to give credit to a fellow RCââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢er by the name of ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œPierchoââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ who was kind enough to post a step by step thread in the DIY section on airlifts. His ââ"šÂ¬Ã‹Å“how-toââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ describes how he was able to increase airlift efficiency through a custom designed do-hickey he calls an ââ"šÂ¬Ã‹Å“air ring injectorââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ Basically, a series of equally spaced holes are drilled around the perimeter of the airlift to more evenly distribute the injection of air into the pipe. This perferated section of pipe is then sealed inside of an outer chamber constructed from a larger diameter of pipe and a pair of adapter bushings. To this outer pipe a hose fitting is installed and an air pump attached. When the pump is on, the outer chamber is pressurized and in turn feeds the uplift through the drilled holes. When the pump is off, the outer chamber is flooded with water. According to his tests, the more uniform distribution of air, coupled with the absence of an air nipple protruding into the uplift, increases the efficiency considerably.

It was this very article that inspired me to incorporate his design into the airlift on my Eco-Wheel. Hopefully, with this change, as well as the use of the ABS sweeps, I was able to squeeze a little more flow out of my system.

One thing to note, is that with any air pump and air line, one has to be cautious of back-siphoning water from the tank that could damage the pump. Behind the Eco-Wheel filter there is a pair of 3/4ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ pvc pipes running up and above the tops of the tanks approx 12ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚. If power is lost, the airline can back-siphon only to the level even with my tanks. When power is restored, the pipes are repressurized and the airline is purged.

In all actuallity, this very scenario plays out once every 24 hours. In my attempts to try and reduce the amount of calcium buildup at the air injection site, I have connected the pump to a timer controlled outlet. Each morning at 7am the system shuts down for 15 minutes to flood the air ring injector assembly, and hopefully, slow the calcification process.

And that clear section of PVC pipe on the uplift? Well, I decided it wasnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t any fun to have all this interesting stuff going on if you couldnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t see it happening. I think it adds a little more interest to everything. My cat seems to agree, she appears to facinated by the rising bubbles.
I decided that this was the time to try out some lighting that I've had my eye on for a little while now. The actual final decisions were made from the discussions and information obtained right here on the board.

Main tank lighting consists of a pair of Reef Optix III 250 DE pendants mounted into the canopy along with 4x48" T5 flourescents overdriven with an IceCap 660 ballast. Currently I'm running a pair of Ushio 10k's with 2 Atinic T5's and 2 Blue Plus T5's.

The combo seems to give a really good spread of light, and except for it being a little too white for my liking, I'm quite happy with the setup.

A pair of 13w PC's with 50/50 combo bulbs are also in place to serve as my early morning and late evening transitional lighting.

I also installed a pair of 12" cold cathode tubes to serve as my nightime lighting.
One of the things I noticed about my existing algae filter is that the eggcrate under the algae screens became packed with bristle worms, sponges and tube worms. So, taking some cues from Steve Tyree and his research with cryptic zones, I decided to modify my Eco-Wheel somewhat (Apparently, I just canââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t leave well enough alone) by installing several stacked layers of black eggcrate in the lower portion of the filter. The exterior of the acrylic cabinet was then painted black to reduce light imput, and a special plastic woven material called ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œMatalaââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ was installed in the very bottom of the filter. It is my hopes that the Matala will function as a refuge and aid in the cultivation of Zooplankton, and the eggcrate will provide a surface for filter feeders to settle. Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢m not sure this is exactly what Steve had in mind when he described a ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œhigh flow, filter feeder zoneââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ in his book, but I had to work within the confines of the unitââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s design, and this is what I was able to come up with.

If it works, Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ve got a functioning POM (particulate organic matter) filter. If it doesnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t, Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ve got a giant detritus magnet.

I guess only time will tell.
I filled the tank on 08/20/03 and threw the switch. Everything came to life with not so much as a drip from any of the 50+ plumbing connections. (Guess Mr. Murphy must have been visiting someone else that day)

I had previously added 80 lbs of dry CaribSea Tahitian black sand mixed with 15 lbs of Aragonite dry to achieve a salt and pepper type of look. This created a sandbed of approx 1ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚-2ââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ in depth. (No DSB for this guy and Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ll save that discussion for another thread) My plans were to add just enough sand for my gobies to be happy, but still allow for manageable husbandry practices through periodic hydrovacââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ing.

A few days later A.E. had Inland Aquatics drop ship a couple of seeded algae screens to jump start the process.
And here is the wheel a few weeks later. You can see how the green stuff is beginning to spread, as well as the foam that is sitting atop the algae during the rotation.

Harvesting is pretty simple, you just scrape as you see fit once a week (or vacuum with a wet/dry ???) and remove the algae as your main nutrient export. Eventually all exposed surfaces will become covered with algae. According to Aquatic Engineers, the wheel is capable of supporting tanks up to 300 gallons.

The design of the wheel is incredibly solid -1/4" gray PVC with teflon bearings. It takes a pretty good amount of effort to lift it. When combined with the acrylic cabinet it requires 2 people to lift the whole thing into place.

FWIW, I was already a fan of algae filters in general, long before I stumbled upon this setup, so it fit right in with my thoughts on reef tank filtration.
Next, I added the base rock "structure" which I had built several weeks prior. I say structure, because I actually layed out my basic reef design using 150lbs of dry base rock obtained from "Capt Jerr" over at Reefer Rocks. Using Portland brand quick-cure cement, and a few days of my time, I assembled my reef not unlike a giant jigsaw puzzle. Several hours were spent turning and fitting various rocks together until I had achieved the exact look that I wanted. This gave me a base that was not only crafted to my specifications, but basically solid as.... well... a rock !!!! After many years, the day had finally come that I would be free of teetering rocks and precariously balanced corals.

The attached pic shows two distinct structures that I assembled out of 4 individual sections, constructed from several dozen rocks. Using this method I was able to build the largest possible sections that would fit through the top of my tank, and still ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œlockââ"šÂ¬Ã‚ everything together to form what you see here.

Additionally, I decided early on that I wanted a very open look to my reef structure. Not only did I want to model a small patch reef in an Indo-Pacific lagoon type environment, but I am a huge fan of the "Zen" aquascaping style favored by the Japanese aquarists.
By building my own structure I was able to create lotââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s of caves and pass-thruââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s for my fish and inverts. I was even able to incorporate several openings around the base for my trio of Engineer gobies to use once they move in.

For those of you that are sticklers for following directions, Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ll confess to curing the rocks for a mere 7 days in a freshwater bath before placing them in the tank. I figured the small amount of cement, coupled with my large volume of water in the system would balance each other out in regard to the elevated pH. Besides, I gave myself an ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œoutââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ by rationalizing that there really wasnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t anything in the tank to kill if I misjudged my abbreviated curing process. It seemed to work pretty darn well, the pH never climbed above 8.2 after I added the rocks to the tank.

But still, where would we be without legal disclaimers? So just let me add..... friends donââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t try these same shortcuts at home (LOL)
Throughout the cycling process I continued adding water from my existing tank at the rate of approx. 2 litres a day. I didnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t bother testing the water during the first few weeks for the basic reasoning that I KNEW Mother Nature would do her thing, and I just had too much going on to play the part of the cook waiting for the kettle to boil.

By the start of the third week I began to see a light growth of algae taking hold on various places of the wheel. One thing worth mentioning is that the wheel turns at approx 2 rpmââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s, but does so in kind of an unbalanced manner. That is, as the wheel is picking up water it slows to a near crawl, then increases speed as gravity carries the heavier portion over the top. This creates a situation where one side of the wheel grows algae faster than the other due to various areas having a longer contact time with the lighting. It doesnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t appear to be a problem, Itââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s just the way it works.

On 09/08/03, 19 days from startup, I finally grabbed my Salifert test kits and decided to see how things were doing. NO2=0.5, NO3=0.1 and NO4=0.5 .....Things were looking good.

At this point I decided to ....GASP! ....start moving livestock over from my existing tank. Mind you, I would never advocate jumping into something such as this, but being an algae filter guy for the last 4 or 5 years I feel that I have a pretty good idea of their abilities and limitations. Besides, I was growing extremely curious as to how hard I could push the envelope and was willing to take a few risks to see what this thing was really capable of. The only difficult decision was the one of which corals were to be my guinea pigs. I knew there were definitely some inherent risks and wanted to select something that Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢ve had relative good luck with. I selected 1 small LPS bubble, and 3 medium gorgonian frags. Much to my relief, 30 minutes after acclimation and transfer, all corals were open and looking pretty well adjusted.

From this point forward I continued testing water on or about every couple of days, while simultaneously moving rock and livestock. I limited myself to 5-10 lbs of rock, and 2 or 3 corals per day just to ensure I didnââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t get too carried away.
And here is the tank as it looked on 10/02/03. Exactly 6 weeks and a day from startup. Itââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢s definitely taken me by surprise that I have been able to progress this quickly. I certainly donââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢t advocate this avenue to others, and I am by no means encouraging anyone to follow my approach. The idea all along was to test the limits of the system, and I must say, I have been pleasantly surprised.

The influent boxes are the angled sections of acrylic in each rear corner. The incoming water rolls across the surface where it mixes in the upper front center. From there it swirls downward before splitting left and right again near the sandbed. I deliberately left a generous amount of room around the rocks, and the water flow naturally travels a path around both ends before circuling rearward where it meets before being drawn out by the center overflow and sent back to the filter.

I've added a few more things since these pics were taken, and will try to get some current shots up in a few days. I also have a few corals left in the old tank that have yet to be moved, but mostly it is stuff that is attached to some larger pieces of rock that I have no plans to add.

So, other than those last pieces, some smaller stuff to fill in here and there and the unforseen ââ"šÂ¬Ã…"œcoral buy of a lifetimeââ"šÂ¬Ã‚, I think Iââ"šÂ¬Ã¢"žÂ¢m about done on this end........ if there is such a thing
I just had to sneak this one in here....

A closeup of one of my more favorite accusitions. I think the color is pretty dead on.