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Substrate Struggles


skipper
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Back when I knew absolutely nothing about fish tanks (aka January of this year), I set up a 55g. Watched many videos about substrates. Decided I wanted sand. Ordered pool filter sand on Amazon, received play sand, returned it. Went to LFS, owner of LFS told me the sand I picked out (the only 40 and 20 lb bags they had in the color I wanted) was good for freshwater (I specifically asked) AND told me not to rinse it. 

Said sand goes in tank, goldfish go in tank after initial cloudiness dissipates. They live happily for about a month at which point improperly quarantined zebra danios from big box store go in tank (I can’t even). Danios start disappearing, saga of events occur that in sum lead to the death of everything except 1 danio. I felt absolutely horrible. 

I leave the tank alone except for Mexican dwarf cpo crayfish and mystery/nerite snails which were entirely unphased by all of these happenings. I add back the lone surviving danio and sit tight for a month. Everyone is fine. Weekly water changes ~30 to 50% because cloudy water is unsightly. I kick myself for not rinsing the sand. Parameters not noteworthy, ammonia/nitrites 0, nitrates 0-5, gH ~7 degrees, kH ~6, pH up there in the high 7s.
 

about a month ago, I decide to try livebearers bc hard water. I slowly add 6 mollies 3 at a time (quarantined in bare-bottomed tank with gradually increased then decreased salt). I get the zebra danios a handful of friends.

Present day:

stock: 6 adult mollies, 5 zebra danios, 2 mystery snails, 2 nerite snails, 2 CPO crayfish. Bunch of baby mollies. Everyone appears happy and healthy. However. The water is STILL CLOUDY ALL THE TIME. I’ve added multiple brands of water clarifiers, they make it looks like it’s snowed inside the tank. I have to do at  least a 50% water change 2x/ week or the pH climbs to 8. I completely dismantle my HOB (tidal 75) every week and it is unbelievably filthy. I have been putting pillow stuffing in the basket for fine filtration. It turns black. I am careful to clean everything with dechlorinated/78 degree water to preserve BB, and also have a separate sponge filter running which stays remarkably clean all things considered (ACO coarse sponge). Thought maybe cloudiness from bacterial bloom and skipped cleaning the filter for a week. Cloudiness only got worse.
 

I decide to revisit which sand I bought. I go through pictures of Carib sea products to see if I can recognize which one was the one I bought. It was the ocean direct sand. For saltwater tanks 🤦🏼‍♀️ Based on what I’ve read on saltwater sites, I wonder if the calcium in the aragonite is precipitating into the water. Is that a thing that can happen in freshwater? Aside from tearing down the entire tank and putting new substrate, is there anything that can be done about this? I have a hunch that the only thing that can be done is tearing the tank down. Perhaps I’m telling this story for affirmation of this hypothesis. 
 

I have been battling diatoms recently as well, my tank is in front of an east facing window. Recently upgraded lighting to fluval 3.0, custom schedule with siestas/max power 75%, no blue/red, time 8h/day and I have noticed a gradual improvement in the diatom issue since the light upgrade (plants are doing splendidly, I dose easy green twice a week bc I can’t leave my water alone long enough for nitrates to accumulate).  

Parameters below, but note they are pretty close to my tap bc constant water changes. gH/kH/pH slightly higher than tap, I assume because I am a dunce and put saltwater substrate in a freshwater tank. If I skip a water change, gH/kH/pH rise. 

If you’ve read all this, you are a saint. Thank you. 
 

gH: ACO test strips: 150 ppm, API 6 degrees

kH: ACO: in between 80 and 120, API 5 degrees

pH: ACO 7.6, API 7.8

phosphate: API 0.5 ppm

ammonia/nitrites/nitrates: API 0, ACO nitrates 10, nitrites 0

 

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So, a few things are going on here and I’ll address them individually:

1. Cloudy water: this could be due to bacterial bloom rather than from the substrate. It could also be from suspended organics in the water column. Cloudy water can usually be cleared up with some filter floss, I actually recommend just getting a small internal filter to stuff with floss and letting it run for a few days. Everything that isn’t bacterial will hopefully be caught in the filter floss. Rinse the floss as often as necessary to keep water flowing through the pump, you can keep using the same wad of floss for a long time. I use this stuff because it’s cheap and I can get it at the local craft store, but if you go this route make sure it doesn’t have fire retardant on it (it will say so if it does). You can also get floss specifically made for aquarium use, if the idea of using pillow stuffing isn’t appealing. 

2. Aragonite sand isn’t inherently harmful, however it will always buffer your pH up to between 8.0 and 8.4. If you’re keeping livebearers, this is actually fantastic and will ultimately be good for fish health. Aragonite, however, is not great for planted tanks and if you ever wanted to keep plants, it will be difficult in such a high pH environment. You will also continue to have issues with algae just due to the phosphates in the water. A lot of people who keep African cichlids use aragonite sand to mimic the natural hard water they come from. If you want to plant your tank, or you want your pH to stay below 8.0, I would highly recommend cutting your losses and either capping the aragonite with something inert (like pool filter sand) or removing it and starting over. Capping the sand will only slow down the minerals from leeching into the water, though. It will still affect your pH, especially if the substrate is disturbed. 

3. Diatoms are perfectly normal in a new aquarium, and you’ll see it off and on for the first six months that the tank is set up. You can mitigate it by reducing lighting, like you already have, but it’s also just a pretty normal stage in the biological cycle of aquaria. Algae and mulm means life, and life is always a good thing when it comes to closed ecosystems. The only time you need to worry about these things is if they get completely out of control and tips the scales to severely unbalanced.

I hope this helps you out, if you have any more questions please let me know! 

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@Fish Folk and @Nirvanaquatics... thank you so much for reading and replying. I appreciate the help and thoughtful answers!  I’ve had the tank planted since it’s inception, the plants seem to be doing fine. I think they are all pretty hardy plants though- elodea, Amazon swords, crypts, anubias. If the fish will only benefit from the higher pH and my plants don’t overtly start dying, I’ll leave the substrate be. I’ll try the internal filter with filter floss and giving the substrate a gentle stir while vacuuming. I’m trying to get this tank to the status of my other tanks- top offs only with minimal/no water changes, effortless clear water 😂. I like the ecosystem vibe and spend more time than I should admit staring at the micro-critters in my 20L. I hate having to do all the water changes because I WANT the build up of good stuff, but I feel bad that the fish are living in a constant fog. Can’t wait for the diatom phase to pass... I am enjoying the stag horn algae though.  Thank you so much!

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Just now, skipper said:

@Nirvanaquatics oh wow that’s an amazing transformation! For a 55g tank is there a gph you recommend for an internal filter? I have baby fish I’d like to avoid blowing around if possible. Any particular brand you recommend? 

The tub I cleared was 55g, but you can use any flow rate pump you want, it will just take longer if you have less gph. The brand I used was called "uniclife" and I've had good luck with them, however there are many good ones to choose from. It's worth noting that the pump I used was one I had kicking around, if given the choice I probably would have gone with an actual internal filter. Way easier than the water bottle thing I did 😅. This one is rated at 185gph max and the reviews seem pretty decent. I've had good luck with nicrew products and the spray bar it comes with should help keep your fry from getting tossed around. 

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2 minutes ago, Nirvanaquatics said:

The tub I cleared was 55g, but you can use any flow rate pump you want, it will just take longer if you have less gph. The brand I used was called "uniclife" and I've had good luck with them, however there are many good ones to choose from. It's worth noting that the pump I used was one I had kicking around, if given the choice I probably would have gone with an actual internal filter. Way easier than the water bottle thing I did 😅. This one is rated at 185gph max and the reviews seem pretty decent. I've had good luck with nicrew products and the spray bar it comes with should help keep your fry from getting tossed around. 

Nice, thank you! I have a nicrew light on a 15g that I’m really happy with. I’ll give this a try. Hopefully I can reduce the frequency of my water changes. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'd like to add my 2 cents on the aragonite issue.  My tank is 40-ish gallons and primarily Fluval Stratum substrate.  My GH is high but I thought I was having low KH issues (a whole different can of worms) so I added aragonite, 1 pound per gallon as suggested.  My plants have had no issues with growing.  In fact, the valisneria is threatening to take over.  The crypts are doing very well as are the anubias.  The micro chain sword (I think) isn't growing as well as I'd like but I doubt it's the aragonite.  It's always been rather stunted.  Anyway, I can't say if an entire tank substrated with aragonite would have plant problems but I do know that in my case, 4-ish pounds isn't a problem.

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On 6/17/2021 at 7:52 PM, DebSills said:

@Nirvanaquaticswhat substrate brand/color is that, I really like it!

It's actually not substrate at all, it's something called safe-t-sorb, which is calcined clay meant for absorbing oil and chemicals. It's incredibly cheap, but it has a good CEC capacity. Only downside is you have to "charge" it by soaking it in fertilizer for like two weeks before you plant into it. It's not very beginner friendly, but it works well and looks great 😊 it's actually capping worm castings in this setup and it grows plants quite well. 

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If the cloudiness is from the substrate, mechanical filtration (floss) will clear it. If it is bacterial, it won't. 

Bacterial blooms are often caused by excess food in the water for the bacteria to eat. the cloudiness will clear if the food source is curtailed. Be careful not to overfeed. A weekly fasting day is a good idea. Fish can easily go without food for a day or two. They do it in the wild.

It is also a good idea not to clean the filter too often or too well. That is where your beneficial bacteria is. That brown sludge in the filter contains the good bacteria and is actually good for biological filtration, which is much more important than mechanical filtration. It is difficult to overcome the belief that a cleaner filter is better, but life will be better for your fish if you do. Filter media for biological filtration should occupy most of your filter. Many aquarists achieve clear water with zero mechanical filtration.

aquariumscience.com has excellent articles on filtration and clear water, as well as many other topics.

Good luck!

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