Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rust in the aquarium / Passivating stainless steel

OK, so I owe the titanium fanboys an apology. In my original post about aquarium chillers, I asserted that a stainless steel chiller coil would not rust in a saltwater aquarium. The coil in my tank rusted after about 6 months. Take a look:

I decided to sandblast the part so that I could see how extensive the damage was.

Yeow! The metal must have been exceptionally thin, and the sandblasting blew right through it!

I used 316 SS filler rod, and TIG welded the hole shut. The blue tube is an argon hose to protect the inside of the stainless tube from oxidation while welding.

Now it's all patched up. The heavy corrosion was localized around the area where the stainless coil entered the plastic filter box (see top picture) . My guess is that vibration from the pump caused the rough surface of the plastic to abrade the passivated layer on the stainless, thus causing a localized spot where the metal was unprotected. I've heard that passivated the stainless in an acid bath can create a stronger, more uniform passive layer. There are two common acids used to passivate stainless: nitric and citric. Nitric acid is nasty stuff, and it's possible to damage the stainless parts if the procedure is done incorrectly. Citric acid seems to be just as effective as nitric, and it's non-toxic. Here is the best reference on citric acid passivation:

I mixed a %15-by-weight solution of citric acid in water. I got 2lbs of citric acid on eBay for under $10 shipped. I submerged the stainless coil in the solution for 2 hours at room temperature. I could see the surface changed a bit -- the shade of gray was a little different. Hopefully this means it built up a nice strong oxide layer.

I've put the coil back into the aquarium, and added some silicone pads to the filter box so that the plastic would not scrape away at the stainless coil. I'll keep you updated to see how effective it is.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Ben, I read your whole post and found it very interesting and no doubt you have did great job. Also agree with you that citric acid is great option instead of nitric acid as both delivers the same properties.