Bubbles on Aquarium Water: Causes and Cures

bubbles on top of fish tank

Illustration: The Spruce / Emily Mendoza

If you have ever noticed foam floating on top of your aquarium water, you may have wondered where it came from or worried that it's a danger to your fish. Foam on aquarium water can come from many sources; some are harmless while others can be deadly. Here are the common causes of foam on aquarium water and what can be done to eliminate it.

Agitation

Bubbles form quite easily when liquids are agitated. Shake any liquid hard enough, and bubbles will be created on the surface. When filling or topping off an aquarium, it's not unusual to agitate the water enough to cause at least some foam, which is normal. If you want to avoid bubbles when you fill or top off a tank, pour the new water slowly against a clean plate held at an angle so that the water runs down the plate and into the tank rather than splashing forcefully into the aquarium.

If you have a spray bar or powerheads, these may agitate the water sufficiently to produce some foam. Generally, this pressure-generated foam will not occur in large quantities and is composed of large bubbles that dissipate quickly. This type of foam is completely harmless and is nothing to be concerned about. But other types of foam can indicate chemical hazards.

Soap

One of the common ways that soap gets into an aquarium is via the cleaning materials, such as the water bucket or scrubbing pads. Make sure your tank tools are not used for anything other than aquarium cleaning. Label your aquarium buckets, and educate everyone in the household about the importance of never using that set of tools for anything other than aquarium water.

If even a small amount of soap or cleanser finds its way into the aquarium, it will usually cause rainbow-tinted bubbles to form. This type of foam is ominous, as fish are likely to die; immediately move them to another ready tank (or to a clean bucket if you have no other tank). Any soap-tainted aquarium will have to be drained and everything rinsed thoroughly to remove every last bit of soap. Refill the aquarium with dechlorinated water at the same temperature as the aquarium, Be sure to strip the filter as well, replacing all the filter media and pads which will have collected soap residue.

Protein

Protein foam is the result of protein-based wastes coating small air bubbles, which causes them to stick together and form a "smelly" foam. It is far more prevalent in saltwater aquariums but is seen occasionally in freshwater aquariums as well. Saltwater aquarium systems can take advantage of the natural foaming of protein by utilizing protein skimmers; this process removes excess proteins from the surface of the water. However, protein skimmers are not effective in freshwater aquariums.

If protein foam is present, it is an indication that the aquarium needs a good cleaning. Make sure the filter is clean, and remove any debris in the aquarium using a gravel vacuum. Regular water changes, filter maintenance, and routine gravel cleaning will ensure that you do not have a problem with protein foam.

You may find that a fish has died in a protected hiding place behind plants or rocks. A disintegrating fish corpse is a rich source of protein, and frequently the root cause of protein foam. It is wise to visualize and count your fish daily to ensure none are missing. Decaying plants can also produce protein wastes, so trim dead leaves off your aquatic plants and remove them from the aquarium

Bubblenest Foam

If you have a male Labyrinth fish, such as a Betta or Gourami, patches of new foam might just be a bubblenest produced by the male fish. The blowing sticky bubbles into a floating foamy mat or nest is a mating display that attracts the female.

Males have no way of knowing that the only way a female is going to swim into the neighborhood is if you bring one home from the pet shop, so they will proceed with nest production. A bubblenest is actually an indicator that your male fish is quite content and healthy, so consider this foam a good sign rather than a problem. Try not to disturb bubblenests. Even if there is only a single fish in the tank, a disrupted nest can cause stress to its dedicated builder.