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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
I think I may have a big water quality/treatment issue and am confused about what's happening. Googling has just added confusion, especially as it applies to a low-tech NPT. I fear I might have screwed my tank up royally, unless I didn't. I may just be impatient and/or overthinking it all. I don't know!

Last weekend, I finally set up my Walstad low-tech 40B using cheap mineralized topsoil capped with medium sand, some wood hardscape, and no filter, heater, or CO2. I now have a gentle circulation pump going. The lights are DIY adjustable LEDs. It's near a window that adds indirect sunlight if I open the curtains.

All plants and critters in it were/will be collected locally (St. John's River headwaters/Indian River Lagoon coastal drainage basin biotope.)

I collected a bunch of plants, came home, and immediately set up the tank (soil, sand, wood, and water). I added as many plants in as I could... valisneria, Ceratophyllum demersum (coontail), hygrophila, hydrilla, water lettuce plants, water hyacinth, duckweed, azolla (mosquito fern), and Salvinia minima. 2 large floating circles of tubing keep plant-free surface zones to let light reach the bottom.

Inevitably, we returned from "just plant" collecting with some random critters... a few fish, lots of grass shrimp, small crayfish, clams, and snails. Many are living in separate containers for now, but into the tank went several dozen grass shrimp, a golf ball-sized apple snail, a couple marble-sized snails, a gazillion small black snails with conical shells, and a few least killifish (we haven't seen them since, but then, they are very tiny and the coontail is quite dense).

I know, I really should have waited on adding any animals. Yet despite the water problems I'm about to describe, the things in the tank seem to be doing okay so far. The snails and shrimp are active, the plants aren't melting, the barely-visible microfauna are making their crazy little circles in the water.

So that's the tank setup... here's the water issue.

I used API Tap Water Conditioner, as we have heavy chloramines here (both LFS's say it is "really terrible"). I added 1 mL of conditioner per 4.5 gallons of tap water, and set the tank up with it.

According to my API test kit, the raw tap water specs are:

pH 8.4, Ammonia 1.0 ppm, Nitrite 0, Nitrate 0,
KH 17 ppm, GH 197 ppm.

I started testing the tank water a couple days after setup, after the water had cleared up quite a bit. There was some ammonia, which I figured was just from the inverts and fresh soil.

On day 4, my wife noticed I had somehow forgotten to test the tap water AFTER treatment. I did, and was horrified to find the ammonia was STILL at 1.0 ppm! I figured I had inadvertently poisoned the tank right from the start with ammonia-laden water.

I found it took 15 mL of conditioner per 4.5 gal (3.3 mL/gal) to actually get the ammonia of the treated water down to 0. That's 20 TIMES the recommended dose (0.17 mL/gal) of conditioner. What the heck?

On day 5, I did a 20% water change, using this "super-conditioned" water. However, it didn't help... the pH dropped again and ammonia doubled by the next day.

Here are the tank parameters so far:

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All values in ppm. Nitrite and Nitrate are 0 ppm for all tests.

DAYS 0-1: Setup days, didn't test water.

DAY 2: pH ≤6.0, Am 0.25, KH 36, GH 215.

DAY 3: pH ≤6.0, Am 0.50, KH ≤18, GH 179.

DAY 4: pH. 6.0, Am 0.50, KH ≤18, GH 179.

(Here, I added a small submerged circulation pump in an effort to increase ammonia uptake [as per Figure II-5/p.25 in Diana's book]. Previously, there was zero water movement.)

DAY 5a: pH 6.6, Am 0.50, KH 36, GH 197.

(Here, I did a 20% water change with heavily treated tap water (0 ppm Ammonia).

DAY 5b (after water change): pH 6.6, Am 0.50.

DAY 6: pH ≤6.0, Am 1.0, KH ≤18, GH 179.

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So... what's actually going on here... bad water, normal startup cycle, or what? What's with the acidic pH even though the water started out quite alkaline? And most importantly... how do I get the tank to a stable, healthy situation where fish will thrive? Am I just trying to rush the process too much?

Not sure how relevant this is, but I will eventually stock the tank with a variety of small native fish... golden topminnows, flagfish, least killifish, gambusia, sailfin mollies, swamp darters, tadpole madtoms, pygmy sunfish, etc. I'd like to get close to neutral pH (the collection sites we've visited so far range between pH ≤6 and 7.8, so 7-ish seems like a good target).

Sorry for such a looooooong post. Thanks all!
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
73869

The tank - Day 5.
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #5 · (Edited)
UPDATE... It gets weirder.

Ended up not having a chance to do much with the tank today. It tested the same as yesterday, except GH dropped to 179 ppm. It looked a bit cloudy today, I think some algae may be starting up... but the critters seem okay. I need to figure this tap water problem out above all, I can't really do water changes until I do.

As suggested by @Michael above, I figured maybe the API Water Conditioner had gone bad (it was sold and fulfilled by Amazon) so I went down to Petco and bought a bottle of Seachem Prime, since so many folks seem to swear by it. I tested the water before and after putting it in the bucket, and... umm...

(4.5 gallons of water)

Untreated: pH 8.4, Am. 1.0 ppm
1 mL Prime: pH 8.4, Am. 1.0 ppm
2 mL Prime: pH 7.4, Am. 0.5 ppm

1mL per 5 gallons is the 2x dose recommended for heavy chloramines. Maybe I should have tried 3mL but I was called away at this point.

The bottle also says "Prime is non-acidic and will not impact pH". Hmmm... maybe the pH change is a clue here?

****
EDIT: These results are finally explained in the next post, so I deleted my original speculations and questions.
****
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #6 · (Edited)
WOOHOO... MYSTERY SOLVED!

I have been chasing ghost ammonia.

The Seachem Prime FAQ on Seachem's website is very enlightening. It seems that the apparent post-treatment ammonia rise is actually a false reading, caused by an interaction between the salicylate-based API test and the Prime-bound ammonia.


It does say doing the test quickly helps get more accurate readings, but I did it moments after mixing the water with Prime, so I don't know if that's really possible here. They also said Prime dissipates after 24 hours and ammonia tests should be reliable again then (the ammonia binding reaction is non-reversible, so the water remains safe for fish.) I'll set some treated water aside and test it again tomorrow to confirm.

The page for their ammonia tester further explains: "Other kits (salicylate or Nessler based) determine the total ammonia by raising the pH of the test solution to 12 or greater. At this high pH all ammonia removal products will breakdown and rerelease the ammonia, thus giving you a false ammonia reading."

(I didn't even know pH could go past 12...)

I also just found an online comparison of water conditioners that indicated the API Tap Water conditioner does NOT fix chloramine... unlike what the label says. I think that means that it only attacks the chlorine side of the chloramine molecule to break it apart, replacing it with hydrogen to release harmless Cl- ions plus ammonia. That ammonia was likely what I was seeing before. Prime does that too, but then it also converts the free ammonia (NH3) into harmless ammonium (NH4+ ions) which is safe for animals but bioavailabile to bacteria and plants. Which is just what we want to happen!

I'll go ahead and do a water change tomorrow, and we'll see how things go from there.

I'm done with freaking out about the tap water, now that I understand what's actually happening.I just wish it was easier to learn about all this stuff before freaking out and wasting so much time and a bit of money on it. They really should put a note about test errors right on the product bottles though, I can't be the only one who's been sucked down this vortex of confusion because of that!

Still... I learned something useful today, so it was ultimately a good day. 😁
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #10 · (Edited)
Thank you all for the valuable input. I went into this project with the idea of doing everything DIY as much as possible, from the stand to the lights to the collecting of the plants and animals. At first it simply seemed like it'd be less expensive (for some things yes, others no... overall, it's hard to say) but in reality, it's mostly about the learning process, and enjoyment of creating something that nobody else has an exact copy of. Extending that to the tank itself, I knew there would be challenges, but it's like anything else... the best way to really understand something is to actually do it, and your mistakes and unexpected problems will teach you far more than having everything fall into place right off the bat. I now understand far more about how water conditioners work and about chloramine, and by extension, how free ammonia and ammonium interact. Even though I read about it prior, it was just some bits of knowledge to me, buried amongst a blizzard of other bits of knowledge. Now, I see better how it works in the real world. Despite the recent frustrations, that better understanding is a very worthwhile payoff, and part of why I wanted to do this in the first place. It wasn't really wasted effort, and hopefully those reading this thread can gain some useful knowledge as well.

I have seen videos or read articles about (almost) all the species I can collect in this area being kept successfully. I've had some gambusia, least killis, a tadpole madtom, crayfish, snails, grass shrimp, aquatic insects, and what may or may not be baby plecos doing well in temporary quarters for a week now, so hopefully they will prove to work out well long-term. I've previously kept golden topminnows, flagfish, and some other natives successfully too. Sadly, I lost a topminnow and a swamp darter due to my own mistakes (transporting them home in a bucket with too many plants in it)... again, learning important and useful info came by screwing up. Growing plants is more of a mystery to me, but so far they seem to be growing, some even thriving, so I'm excited there as well. I credit @dwalstad and her awesome book for giving me enough understanding to at least get started on that front.

The one thing I may go against y'all's advice on is removing all the driftwood. Not because I disagree with the advice or the reasoning behind it, but simply because of the way it's mounted and installed in the tank. It has a (probably way oversized) slate base that's sitting right on the bottom glass, with a substantial amount of substrate above it. Taking it out would tear out a huge chunk of the substrate, cause a gigantic muddy mess, and unfortunately I ran out of the "good" soil to restore that area. I had two batches of two brands of topsoil, I'm sure they both would have been okay to use, but after mineralization and much sifting, one brand had significantly more unfilterable but visible organic particles (plant fibers, etc.) in it than the other. I ended up with less volume than I needed of the cleaner soil though, and ended up having to mix in a bit of the "second-choice" soil to get what was needed. If I have to replace substrate, it will be with 100% of that stuff, which will be even messier, and probably more prone to cause another ammonia spike. I understand that leaving the wood in adds a whole additional layer of potential issues, and I may even regret this decision later. However, local waterways have very few natural rocks, but lots of wood, so I'm pretty heart-set on trying to make it work (plus, TBH I just love the look of it far more than any local-looking rocks). I just thought I should explain my reasoning on that, lest it seem like I don't value the advice of those advising me to remove it. I do understand why that would generally be the best idea. But it's not just sitting on top of the substrate in an easily removable way. At this point, at least, I'm willing to accept the likelihood of additional issues and more work, or simply waiting longer to achieve stability, as a result of this choice. If in some weeks I decide I was being totally dumb and pigheaded about the wood and am forced to remove it anyway, I hereby give you all explicit permission to loudly say "I TOLD YOU SO!" in any way you see fit, I'll deserve the flak. 😁😁😁

I'll try to get a picture of the tiny least killifish hilariously trying to swallow a bloodworm twice his size. They're very optimistic little things! :D

Thanks again to everyone, it's encouraging to know experienced folks are available to help.
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
These crazy little fish will eat food even in the middle of a major water change! The least killies seem to think they are much bigger fish, as does the bluefin killi. Took all the fish (except the madtom) about 2 nanoseconds to get over being skittish, and associate people with yummy food. Such personable little critters!

Get this... when the big crayfish (we have a big and little one, kept in their own tub) sees me coming... and specifically only when he sees me holding the eyedropper with the bloodworm/brine shrimp/flake mix in it... he literally scrambles up onto a plant, sticks his head all the way out of the water, and holds his claws up in the air. I then put the eyedropper in front of him, which he grabs with his claws... and directs the opening right to his mouth so he can literally eat the food directly from it while dangling upside-down in the water. It's just like a baby holding a bottle! He picked up this routine within 2 or 3 days from when I started using the eyedropper to place his food near him. Pretty smart for an invertebrate! I don't know if they'll ultimately end up in the big tank (out of concern for the safety of the other critters), but he's definitely at home with us.

Just a quick tank update/observation... 2 days ago, nitrite appeared in the planted tank for the first time (0.25 ppm). I came across a discussion about getting the nitrogen cycle going without using plants or fish by adding pure ammonia. Someone posted that they found it took about 4 ppm ammonia to get the cycle started in a reasonable length of time. A light came on in my head (dim and flickering, but still...) that without enough food, those bacteria are of course going to be slow to establish. Obviously, since I already have inverts in there, there's a limit to how much ammonia is tolerable. But I decided to watch the inverts carefully and let the ammonia level creep up a bit more than before. After holding the ammonia at 4 ppm for a couple of days, so 'nuff, the nitrite finally appeared. The pH climbed from <6 to 6.6 too. The snails and shrimp seemed fine, so I decided to hold off on a water change for a bit longer. Obviously I'll likely have to do that at some point soon, but it's encouraging to finally see hard evidence that the nitrogen cycle has finally started. Patience is definitely a virtue with an NPT!

The temporary tank with the fish was an even bigger surprise. It developed high ammonia (8 ppm... yes I changed 50% of the water immediately)... but also had significant levels of both nitrite and nitrate! Mind you, this is just a simple ~2 gallon plastic tank with no dirt, maybe .25 inches of medium sand, just a few small fish, shrimp, and small snails. It only has a few sprigs of hortwort/coontail, hydrilla, and a couple of loose floating valisneria leaves, with water fern and duckweed on top... which are all growing like crazy. I've only lost one shrimp and maybe a couple snails so far. Maybe I have a good cycle started in that tank already? I almost dumped water from that tank into the big one to build up the desired bacteria, but figured it was mostly living on the substrate and not in the water, so I didn't.

All in all, I think the most important thing I've learned here is to have plenty of patience and do lots of research. And above all... DO NOT taunt a hungry crayfish! 🤣
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Diana, thanks for taking time to comment.

I understand that the "goal" of an NPT is to get the growing plants to do virtually all of the removal of toxic nitrogen waste products, but... would it even be possible NOT to have some nitrifying bacteria naturally develop in an established NPT tank?

Robust plant growth is clearly the ideal filter. It produces no nitrites and consumes no free oxygen from the water, as nitrifying bacteria does (as stated in your article.) Thus your sensible advice to plant tanks heavily.

However, am I wrong in thinking that having nitrifying bacteria established in an NPT is actually a good thing in the long run, even though we aim not to depend upon it?

My reasoning:

1) Nitrification can act as a "safety net" to carry the tank through times of insufficient absorption of nitrogen (ammonia) by the plants, which might happen for many reasons and which may not be noticed immediately... such as having too few plants, poorly chosen plants, having plants melt, failure of a light or timer, a dead fish rotting in a hidden place, plants getting eaten, etc.) The nitrifcation cycle might buy you more time before fish are harmed.

2) Detecting some bacteria-produced nitrates serves as a simple and reliable indicator that animal waste production is exceeding the current plant uptake capacity, without being harmful itself.

3) As plants are more efficient at absorbing ammonia and nitrites, bacterial nitrification activity shouldn't significantly impair plant growth (as it only utilizes "leftover" ammonia the plants couldn't fully absorb)?

I very well be missing something here, if so please let me know. I'm learning a lot, and hopefully others are too!

BTW, things have really stabilized in my tank! I consistently measure 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrites, 0-5 ppm nitrates, the pH stays at 6.6, KH 3°, GH 10°, temp 70° F, and I have many healthy/happy/growing animals.

The biggest issues now are that the 3 big apple snails have been randomly eating plants (even clearing out thick duckweed & salvinia... we now offer them leafy veggies daily), and (probably) the tadpole madtom is eating the grass shrimp during the night. The water is a bit tannic from the wood, but it's natural looking and clear. All in all, I am really enjoying all this aquarium stuff!
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
Johnwesley,

I think there may be a misunderstanding of what I was actually trying to say. I certainly am celebrating that the tank is where it needs to be!

I didn't mean to imply that I believed the bacteria really disappears at all. What I meant was, if your NPT has no ammonia or nitrites, but does have tiny (safe) amounts of nitrates, it would seem to indicate that the plants simply "missed" taking up a little nitrogen, but it was still successfully processed by bacteria. The water quality is still good, so no worries. It's just a question of interpreting what the nitrate indicates... my hypothesis is, it says you probably just need a little more plant uptake (growth) to attain 0 nitrates (i.e., perfectly "de-nitrogenated" water), and/or you need to reduce the input of waste products a bit.

It's all good. Part of all this was intended to create a good discussion for edumacational purposes. 👍
 

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Discussion Starter · #22 ·
I think we're quibbling over the anthropomorphic qualities of plants and bacteria. :giggle:
Wait... what? Your plants and bacteria don't talk back to you? Mine get downright argumentative at times!
🌱🌿🔬💬🙉

Hehehehe......

Up next (maybe): Using this experience to start a new 10 gallon NPT for the crayfish that are currently living in a plastic tub... and maybe the tadpole madtom too, so I can re-stock the grass shrimp in the big tank.

I believe becoming a tank hoarder is the inevitable next stage of aquarium hobbyist disease, may as well embrace it...
 

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Walstad low-tech 40 B, central FL biotope, creator of Jordanella floridae x Mobula birostris hybrid
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Discussion Starter · #25 ·
"If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason."

- Jack Handy
 
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