What Is Surface Agitation? Why Is It So Important?

I have always pondered over the incredible potential of aquariums to sustain fish life for long periods of time.

Aquarium owners can closely relate to the dire importance of surface agitation for making water suitable to underwater life

What is surface agitation and why is it so important?

Here is your answer:

Agitation is a disturbance caused in surface water of aquariums and surface agitation moderately boosts the surface gaseous exchange. The immediate thought of concern directs us at exploring the role of enhanced surface gaseous exchange for fish living in an aquarium.

Divulging The Concept Behind Surface Agitation

From fountains in a pool to powerheads installed in domestic aquariums, each of these equipment can be seen playing a similar role: disrupting the stillness in water bodies.

You may wonder why designers tend to incorporate this equipment in water bodies sustaining life.

The answer is surface agitation.

Although the term may sound new to your ears, this phenomenon is quite ubiquitous.

You may be interested in learning that water bodies tend to retain certain levels of oxygenation in them.

At a broader prospect, you can say that a specific concentration of gases can always be found dissolved or floating in water bodies.

The matter of concern here is that underwater life depletes the level of these gases, mainly oxygen, during the process of respiration and breathing.

Ultimately, the oxygen concentration may fall to a dangerously low level which can cause fatalities.

Surface agitation offers a safe solution to this problem.

Surface agitation is basically any disruption caused in the water bodies to stimulate gaseous exchange.

It is beneficial because:

  • It promotes the faster gaseous exchange
  • It helps in replenishing oxygen concentration in water
  • It assists in getting rid of excess Carbon Dioxide
  • It stimulates even distribution of nutrients and other water contents
  • It breaks the thin layer of oil which may form on the surface of still water
  • It relieved breathing stress for the ease of aquatic life
  • It lets aquarium owners keep more fish in the same tank
  • It increases the surface area of water in the tank by manifold
  • It eliminates the chances of algal and bacterial blooms in fish tanks
  • It enhances the overall visual impact of aesthetic fish tanks

Given this list of several benefits, the importance of surface agitation is more evident than ever.

Let’s dive in to find out more about this phenomenon.

Inducing Surface Agitation in Aquariums

Many aquarium owners tend to neglect this aspect of fish keeping, which is quite unfortunate.

Here are a few ways in which you can offer better living conditions to your aquatic life:

Air stones:

Air stones and air pumps make the perfect combination for water aeration in fish tanks.

Commonly, air stones are made from highly porous materials, such as wood.

The perforations create bubbles just when air is passed through them using a pressure pump.


Filters are the most commonly used equipment for inducing surface agitation.

These filters are designed to create air bubbles which form a current in water as they rise to the surface of the water in the tank.

Want to know the best part?

You can also induce natural surface agitation by using wave-makers or simple hand movements!

Neglecting Surface Agitation can Endanger Fish

No matter how many plants you use in your aquarium, there is absolutely no replacement for surface agitation.

As a necessity, surface agitation is essential to maintain appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide for aquatic fish and plant life.

Low oxygen levels cause suffocation in fish whereas; reduced carbon dioxide levels in tank water endanger plant sustainability.

It gets worse:

Low oxygen levels in fish tank water are major causes of bacterial blooms.

In severe cases, algae start to grow which results in nutrient depletion and overall contamination of tank water.

In order to save your fish from suffocating and starving to death, surface agitation is necessary.

Role of Surface Area in Surface Agitation

After the above discussion, it is needless to state the importance of surface agitation in ensuring the sustainability of aquarium life.


Wherever gaseous exchange takes place, surface area in contact between two mediums plays a significant role in determining the rate of exchange.

Still, water bodies have limited surface area for gaseous exchange which results in a slow rate of gaseous exchange and low oxygen levels.

However, in the case of surface agitation, there is a constant change in the layer of water which gets in contact with the air.

Thus, as the agitation increases, the gaseous exchange also speeds up, although no changes in dimensions of your fish tank take place.

What’s the bottom line?

If you want to stock more significant number of fish in the same fish tank, surface agitation can help you by increasing surface area and accelerating the rate of gaseous (Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide) exchange.

Attaining optimal surface agitation

Contrary to the common stance of “the more, the merrier,” surface agitation is all about control and optimization.

As a fish breeder or aquarium owner, you do not want to create more than required disturbance in water bodies which may result in stressing your fish.

There are two methods for inducing surface tension:

  • The vertical method or the bubble method is localized. The air bubbles are created and burst in a limited area only.
  • The horizontal method often involves the use of powerhead which is situated in a horizontal direction near the water This method is more inclusive as the agitation can reach far off areas in the fish tank and help in reducing surface tension.

Here’s the deal:

Horizontal method of inducing surface tension is capable of delivering optimal results as it maximizes surface area which accelerates the rate of gaseous exchange.

Related Questions

Can you have too much Oxygen/Surface agitation in a tank?

Although surface agitation may look like a positive phenomenon, it demands control just like every other process.

You can neither have too little nor too much of surface agitation as both would be unfavorable for aquatic life.

There is nothing new in the fact that surface agitation causes a gaseous exchange.

What’s surprising to learn is that excess of oxygen or nitrogen in water can lead to fatal gas bubble disease in fish.

Ultimately, these creatures suffer as oxygen diffuses out of the solution present in their body by creating bubbles around their eyes and in their skin.

It is best to maintain controlled levels of surface agitation.

Why do fish gasp for air on top of the water surface?

Have you ever wondered why your fish are swimming close to the water surface? In rare cases, you may spot some of them gasping for air.

Although the former situation can be considered normal, the latter case is quite alarming as it indicates potential life threats to aquatic life.

There are two main reasons why fish gasp for air near the water surface:

  • Higher levels of oxygen near the water surface
  • Deepwater is often warmer and has reduced oxygenation as compared to the water near the surface

Why should you install a powerhead in your aquarium?

Have you ever observed powerheads submerged in aquariums?

Well, they are actually electrically powered, sealed motor units.

Their functions range from creating surface agitation, enhancing water circulation and driving an under gravel filter.

Powerheads are ubiquitous because they are inexpensive, economical and offer numerous benefits to living in an aquarium.

If you are planning to buy one, make sure that it is of high-quality and does not create any noise.

Are there any exceptions for surface agitation?

Almost all kinds of fish love fair levels of oxygen in water brought about by surface agitations.

You will be surprised to know that there are still some fish species which simply distaste any kind of movement in the water.

Betta splenden (Siamese fighting fish) does not like water agitation at all. Even the slightest bubble formation caused by air stones stresses these fish.

In such cases, it is best to avoid any artificial means of creating surface agitation.

The best alternative is to replicate water movements naturally as found in their natural habitats (paddies and marshy areas).

You can pair them with Goldfish, so they don’t feel lonely.

What type of equipment is available to induce surface agitation?

You can use any of the following equipment/tools in your new aquarium, pool or small pond to induce surface agitation:

  • Lily pipe: A glass pipe which is carved in the shape of a flower which is installed in an aquarium near the water outflow.
  • Spray Bar: You can picture it as a small piece of pipe with perforations.
  • Wavemaker/Circulating fan: Recreates natural water movement by inducing waves of natural frequency as found in oceans.
  • Powerhead: This pump helps in boosting power movement.
  • Bubblers: These are the most affordable option for creating surface agitation for beginners.

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