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Old 07-28-2020, 07:34 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

So, our 7.5gal (12x12x12) cube has been up and running for about 6-7 weeks and it hasn't been going well. Not only has plant growth been anemic at best, but despite being fully cycled it seems to kill off livestock quite rapidly. We've lost a batch of RCS (within two hours of introduction), three Nerite snails (a few days), a much smaller batch of Amano shrimp (one of them lasted about 60 hours), and even a batch of Malaysian Trumpet Snails (lasted about a week during which they seemed normal, but now none of them have moved in 48 hours). We've managed to create a surprisingly efficient death machine.

So, clearly there is something very, very wrong. We are not new to aquariums, so we do know how to do introductions and the tank is fully cycled (tested every day). (We use Seachem Prime as our dechlorinator.) And thus, we're at a loss.

Here's today's test results:
pH: 7.0
ammonia: 0
nitrites: 0
nitrates: 5-10ppm
GH: 6 (I follow Diana's water hardening recipe to raise GH, KH of our NYC-area water though it seems I'm still a bit low on both)
KH: 6
phosphates: 5ppm


So here's a fuller narrative to help the Hive Mind troubleshoot with us.

We used a local nursery's organic potting soil (ingredients of peat moss, Canadian sphaghnum moss, "forest products", and perlite). I did a full (nearly 10 days) mineralization process, which removed all the perlite. Because we live in an area with NYC's soft water, we did add in some dolomite and muriate of potash to the soil. And a very small amount (less than 1/4 lb) of clay for CEC (my wife is a potter, so we had that on hand). We used the Black Diamond Blasting stuff for the cap. The soil was kept at an inch and the cap at less than an inch.

We do not currently have a heater in the tank (our house stays 74-77 F in the summer), and just a very small HOB filter (the AZOO Mignon 60, which has a very low flow of 15 gph). We have had biofilm (on water surface) issues since week 3: I skim it daily, though I ran a gentle airstone, which removed the biofilm immediately, for a couple weeks as an experiment.

There is a (relatively) large piece of spiderwood driftwood in the tank but it was placed on a stone which was sitting on the glass. Though this may not have made any difference (see below).

The light is a 12 inch Finnex FugeRay Planted+. I can't seem to find published PAR values for the 12" size of this light anywhere, but the FugeRays are known to be fairly high so I built two sets of risers to put the light up off the tank (one set is 7 inches up, the other is 12 inches). I have had the tank on the "siesta" regimen (5 hours on, 4 hours off, 5 hours on) since day one, with no serious algae issues that I can see (just some usual start up diatoms) and now a bit of brown algae on the glass and the pennywort leaves.

We saw pearling on the plants the first two days and then none since. Plant growth has been poor. The amazon swords all melted away. The bacopa struggled with lots of die off until they acclimated and put out some small roots; they've since grown slightly. Dwarf Hairgrass has hung on but hasn't grown. The dwarf chain sword is similar. The tiny crypts largely died off, though that might be because it was tissue cultured and I stupidly planted it in clumps and in too shady of a location (under a driftwood shadow). Even Hornwort, which was doing okay (though the growing tips were brown) has been dying slowly and losing vigor since we added Pennywort and Salvinia. The Marsilea hirsuta (sp?), Trident Java Fern, and some Weeping Moss were the only plants that have really grown much at all. The exception is the Salvinia, which reproduced like crazy, but the new plants have TINY leaves and are very, very pale green. The Pennywort too has seen its leaves get smaller and very pale (almost white).

After the amazon swords melted, we added some vallisnerias and some medium sized crypts -- both of those melted a bit but now seem to have adjusted. At the same time we also added some new small leaved anubius that are doing okay -- one seems to be throwing out a new leaf here in the last few days.

I kept thinking the plant struggles were due to the light -- too much, too little, etc. So I've played around with the different heights a lot. None of it has made any noticeable difference. After stumbling on a thread here last week, I now suspect that maybe it's been nitrogen deficiency. Even after the tank was cycled, our nitrates were essentially zero or just trace all the time: we cycled the tank "fishless" and so were not adding in fish food. My hypothesis is that all the plants were just sucking all the nitrogen up and starving each other -- hence the small, pale growth on several of the species. I removed almost all of the Salvinia (in case it was the nitrogen hog) and did start adding small amounts of fish food every couple of days in the last week or so and perhaps that is responsible for some of the new growth I'm seeing (Anubias and Java ferns).

But even if I'm right about the cause of the lack of plant growth, the livestock deaths must have a different cause. Some more context:

Following advice in threads here, about a week or two into the tank, I began poking the substrate with a long piece of wire and sure enough I was releasing a LOT of hydrogen sulfide bubbles, particularly around the base of the driftwood. Those bubbles seemed to be inexhaustible -- every day I could release dozens or sometimes hundreds of them and the next day they would be back again just as bad. So, after the Amano shrimp debacle, I decided to pull the driftwood out. Wow! What a stink. That whole area just reeked. That discovery led to me tear down the tank: I scraped the cap off as carefully as I could and then removed the soil. About half of the soil smelled absolutely foul, particularly around the two rotting amazon sword root masses.

Not having any other soil on hand, the half of the soil that didn't smell so bad, I put back, in a much thinner layer, with a new and even thinner cap. (I did seed it with a handful or two of the old cap to help establish the bacteria colony.) And I replanted. The redone tank had a one day ammonia spike, but cycled (no ammonia, no nitrites) within 48 hours. Then we added the MTS, thinking they would keep the substrate aerated with their burrowing. They were seemingly fine for about a week (5-6 days) and managed to uproot almost all the Marsilea every few hours it seemed (so I removed most of it too), but now are all motionless for some 48 hours. Some of them are turned with the opening in their shell pointed up, and I fear the worst again.

So, I'm basically at a loss. I suspect the soil is the culprit but I can't see how or why it would have turned so toxic. Frustrated beyond words, in large part because without a plausible cause or explanation, I can't decide on what I should do now.

Do I just tough it out and give this yet more time to "stabilize"? Or, do I tear it all down and start over with new soil? And if so, which soil? (I'm leery of using using the same stuff that I mineralized and that seems to have gone toxic in case it has been contaminated with something.) I don't want to use my garden soil as it has a very high proportion of colloidal clay and the tank would not clear for months. Or do I just pack it in and go "high tech" with some commercial soil, CO2, and lots more maintenance effort (though to be honest, setting up this tank has already required many times more time, thought, and effort than I had thought it would).


EDIT: Since tearing everything out and redoing with only half the soil, I get no more bubbles of H2S, but I do know from some of Diana's posts in other threads that it can be dissolved in the water column and be leaching out of the substrate without ever forming bubbles. This is what I suspect is happening to my tank. If so, my question is why? My soil and cap are both thin (have been from the start) and the wood is resting on a rock (which is resting on the glass), hence there is no compaction of the soil happening there. Further, the Anubias and weeping moss and Java Ferns (all growing, perhaps the best of everything in the tank) are all attached to the wood, so if it was the source of the H2S one would think they would be suffering.



Pics for diagnostic purposes are below. (And I apologize for the length of this post.)











(my apologies for the red blob -- that's a reflection of my home depot water change bucket below and in front of the tank)


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Last edited by shudaizi; 07-28-2020 at 08:27 AM.. Reason: added phosphate test results and H2S clarification
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Old 07-28-2020, 08:18 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

Try removing the piece of wood to see if that's the cause of the shrimp die off, and do a water change.

Try adding ferts in the water column for the plants. The soil nutrients is mostly in the substrate so rooted plants can access it but epiphytes (anubias) and stem plants have a harder time getting nutrients. It looks like you might have the macro nutrients in your water, trying adding micronutrients.

Poke around the substrate if you're getting any anaerobic spots.

*Carbon (CO2) is pretty important nutrient too. You might be low on that too.

Last edited by mistergreen; 07-28-2020 at 08:39 AM..
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Old 07-28-2020, 08:40 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

Quote:
Originally Posted by mistergreen View Post
Try removing the piece of wood to see if that's the cause of the shrimp die off, and do a water change.

Try adding ferts in the water column for the plants. The soil nutrients is mostly in the substrate so rooted plants can access it but epiphytes (anubias) and stem plants have a harder time getting nutrients. It looks like you might have the macro nutrients in your water, trying adding micronutrients.

Poke around the substrate if you're getting any anaerobic spots.
Hi mistergreen.

I've been poking around the substrate. Since the tank redo (about a week or nine days ago), I've gotten virtually no bubbles of H2S (just one or two). But I know Diana has said that Hydrogen sulfide can be toxic even without bubbles: it can dissolve into the water and be lethal that way too. I suspect this is what has happened in my tank (I've added a clarification to my original post on this.)

The real issue for me then, is why? The wood wasn't resting ON the soil at all, so it can't have compacted it to make it anerobic. And the H2S smell when I redid the tank was far more generalized than just the wood area. So, again, why is it happening across half or more of the substrate? It was thin, so was the cap. If I can't explain why the soil turned bad this way, then I can't prevent it from happening again with new soil, or take measures to stop it from continuing to happen now with the current soil. Most frustrating.

Finally, the epiphytes are really the only plants that have grown well -- and almost all of them are attached to the wood (one Java fern is on a plastic mesh disk and it too is growing better). So, if the wood is the source of the H2S, wouldn't these plants be doing poorly too?
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Old 07-28-2020, 08:48 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

Small amount of H2S isn't bad. They oxidize back to Sulfate (SO2, SO4) in contact with O2.
I'm thinking the wood might be treated with some chemical or it hasn't cured so take it out.
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Old 07-28-2020, 09:02 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

I suppose that's possible, though it was purchased from a reputable aquarium vendor and I boiled it for more than two hours and soaked it for more than a week before setting up the tank.
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Old 07-28-2020, 03:44 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

Sorry to hear about all these problems when obviously you have been trying hard.

I don't understand why the light source is so far from the tank. Perhaps the plants, especially the floaters, aren't getting enough light. Then those small rooted plants with not much light aren't going to keep the substrate safe or keep their root zones safely oxygenated.

Then. the spillway filter could be removing CO2. I would turn it off. After all, at this point what have you got to lose.

Finally, I would try to introduce at least one strong rooted plant. [I]With enough water hardness and a rich substrate, an Amazon swordplant should have easily taken over this tank. It could be that there just isn't enough light.

Still not sure what's wrong. You must be a patient person....
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Old 07-28-2020, 04:18 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

Hi Diana,

I like to think I can be patient.

The light is up that high because I suspect it was far too bright when mounted low. I don't have a PAR meter, so I don't have a scientific way to verify that, but many people have report growing real high lighting plants (some of the tough carpeting species) with this exact light in 12 inch deep tanks (when used with C02). For the first two or three weeks, I had the light down low (just 2 inches off the rim)and that's when the Amazon sword melted away. Nothing really grew during those weeks, except for the Marsilea (which is known to tolerate everything from low to high light), so I built the risers to tone the light down.

I'll try stopping the filter and see -- like you say, there's little to lose. But even if that works for the plants, I suspect it won't stop the livestock deaths, which (given the water parameters) I suspect must be rooted in the soil (pun intended).

EDIT: Are Vals and Crypts considered "strong rooted" plants? I have introduced them a couple weeks ago. If they aren't, would you have another suggestion (not sure I'm wanting to try the Amazon Sword again given the poor performance of the first two).

Quote:
Originally Posted by dwalstad View Post
Sorry to hear about all these problems when obviously you have been trying hard.

I don't understand why the light source is so far from the tank. Perhaps the plants, especially the floaters, aren't getting enough light. Then those small rooted plants with not much light aren't going to keep the substrate safe or keep their root zones safely oxygenated.

Then. the spillway filter could be removing CO2. I would turn it off. After all, at this point what have you got to lose.

Finally, I would try to introduce at least one strong rooted plant. [I]With enough water hardness and a rich substrate, an Amazon swordplant should have easily taken over this tank. It could be that there just isn't enough light.

Still not sure what's wrong. You must be a patient person....
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Old 07-28-2020, 04:57 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

The clay you added to the substrate could be a problem if it isn't 100% natural clay. Many "clays" sold for art purposes have plastics in them and those are not solid but are soft enough to possibly leach chemicals into the water. I haven't heard of this causing anyone a problem, but when you said your wife is a potter a bell rang in my brain! It should be easy to find out what the clay is, and if it is real natural clay, you can forget it being a problem. We all occasionally have problems getting our plants to grow like we want, but most don't ever have the fish/snails, etc. die in a new tank. That seems to be the clue that we should be thinking about.

Copper in the water could be a problem, but I haven't thought of how it would get into the water.
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Old 07-28-2020, 05:39 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

I'll ask my wife about her clay -- I'd bet one of my kidneys that it's 100% natural, but I'll have her make completely sure.

And I agree with you: the slow plant growth is one thing, but the livestock dying seems like not the usual suspects of things that go wrong. Even the shrimp, I could see being a "normal" thing to bungle a time or two. But snails? Malaysian Trumpet Snails? That seems a whole different level of wrong!

I too wondered about copper. It's the one test kit I don't have on hand, but I too can't imagine how it got into the tank unless there's just a huge amount in the water to begin with.

Quote:
Originally Posted by hoppycalif View Post
The clay you added to the substrate could be a problem if it isn't 100% natural clay. Many "clays" sold for art purposes have plastics in them and those are not solid but are soft enough to possibly leach chemicals into the water. I haven't heard of this causing anyone a problem, but when you said your wife is a potter a bell rang in my brain! It should be easy to find out what the clay is, and if it is real natural clay, you can forget it being a problem. We all occasionally have problems getting our plants to grow like we want, but most don't ever have the fish/snails, etc. die in a new tank. That seems to be the clue that we should be thinking about.

Copper in the water could be a problem, but I haven't thought of how it would get into the water.
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Old 07-29-2020, 07:44 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Default Re: Advice on Possibly Toxic Tank

Are you able to get a water quality report for the tap water you use? It should provide the concentration of copper typically in the water.
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