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Organics Analysis

108264 Views 450 Replies 29 Participants Last post by  Yorkie
The purpose of this thread is to (1) try to gather samples and data on the amount of organic pollution (i.e. Demand) that people have in their aquarium and (2) see if there is a correlation between the amount of organics measured (as TOC) and algae growth, specifically BBA.

The topic of 'organics' in the aquarium as a pollutant has always been very vague ... Often times, people talk about 'organics' as a problem in the aquarium but if you ask them about specific values of organics that cause problems or are acceptable or ask for specific articles about organic pollution level studies, most people are not able to provide any values or specifics. Instead they just wave their hands in the air and mumble generalizations like 'organics are bad and need to be as low as possible'.... how low is good? how high is bad? What are the average concentration values? Is there actually a correlation at all? That is the goal of this thread - to try to put generate analytical data on organic pollution (as TOC) and see if there is indeed a correlation between TOC concentrations and algae.

According to the Standard Methods Handbook, there are many ways to measure 'aggregated organic constituents' or 'organic pollution'. COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) is the most common method of measurement and is defined as the amount of a specified oxidant that reacts with the sample under controlled conditions. Other methods of organic pollution analysis include BOD (Biologcial oxygen demand), TOC (total organic carbon) and TOD (total oxygen demand).

I would like to gather and analyse samples for organic analysis for their TOC content in order to see if there is indeed a correlation between the TOC of a particular aquarium and the presence of algae, specifically BBA. I work for an environmental laboratory, one of the instruments we have is a TOC analyzer (total organic carbon). This is a machine that measures the carbon containing compounds in your water by converting the carbon to CO2 and measuring the CO2 via an IR detector. Basically, there are two steps. In the first step, the sample is acidified. This converts all the inorganic carbon (HCO3- and CO3--) to CO2 and the amount of CO2 is determined. This portion is the TIC (total inorganic carbon). In the second step, an oxidant is added to the sample to decompose all of the organic carbon to CO2 and, again, the CO2 is detected. This portion is the TOC (total organic carbon).

If you are interested in participating and sending me samples for analysis, I ask that you collect and label your samples with the following information:

Name, Date of Collection, Aquarium Name (if you have multiple aquariums, usually the size), BBA present or not, CO2 injection or not, Water change frequency (and when your sample was collected with regards to them)

Also, be sure to include a sample of your source water (tap, RO water, RO water reconstituted).

For convenience sake, please collect samples in a DOUBLE SEALED ziplock sandwich sized bag, ~1/4 to ~1/2 full. Remove as much air as possible from the bags and seal the opening with packaging tape (or any other heavy duty tape like duct (or duck) tape, not scotch tape). Place all of the water samples into a larger gallon size ziplock bag for extra protection in case the bags leak. If you need or want to collect multiple samples over time, please refrigerate all samples for storage in order to minimize the amount of TOC degredation. Please PM me for shipping information.

I will analyze the samples and organize the results into a table format so we can then all analyze the data. If you would like your data to be presented as anonymous, please just include a note with your samples and i will report them on this forum as anonymous (but i need to know the actual name in order make sure i receive your samples and for proper sample tracking.)

Disclaimer. This analysis is for personal use only and all results may not be used for compliance testing and monitoring or legal use. I will not be held responsible for sample shipping, sample contamination and any loses that may occur.
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I got a tank which has only fish, sand, and water. No plants. There is always Cladophora growing on the substrate. Over the last 2 years I have been able to run the tank in two very different modes. It is perfectly predictable and I think that the predictablity makes it a great candidate for the "organics" experiment. Here are the two states:

A. If I do big water changes (50-65%) every two days the Clado stops growing but does not disappear. The N and P stabilize - N is about 5 and the P is about 0.4. Interesting to note that this is a perfect Redfield ratio. After a few days (3 days more or less) BBA gets easily removed (unlike healthy BBA which is almost impossible to scrape) and eventually disintegrates by itself if I don't bother scraping it.
One visual change is the clarity of the water. In this state a day after the water change the water is perfectly clear despite the fact that in both big filters I have only coarse lava rock which is by no means a mechanical filter. There is no other filters on that tank. At times, but not every day if you look through the tank from the side (through 6' of water) it looks like the fish are suspended in thin air.

B. If I stop the water changes the Clado starts to grow and eventually BBA appears (about 3-4 weeks after I stop water changes). Through water changes I have stopped the growth of both algae through water changes countless times. But I have not tested the N and P in that dirty state. Only one time I tested for N and P and found that P was way more than the N - in the ranges of P=3 and N=2.
In that state the water is clean but it has a lot of small particles floating in the water. Looked from the side through 6' of water the water looks a bit opalescent as if you dropped a few drops of milk in it so the lack of perfect clarity is not only due only to the visible floating particles.

I described the above situations as A and B because I want to hear if it makes sense to send you samples from both tank states or we should do something else. Just taking a snapshot of only state A or state B will not tell us much in my opinion. What do you think?

Another aspect would be to look at the impact of the fish food. I refuse to believe that it all boils down to N and P. There has got to be something else too: If I feed frozen blood worms the Clado grows the fastest. It grows a bit slower if I feed ground hamburger meat. Even slower with frozen brine shrimp. Slowest growth is with dry flake food (brine shrimp only flakes).

Right now the tank is in A state - super clean. Should I send you a sample to start with and then I let it go to state B and send you another sample? I will continue feeding the same kind of food and keep the same light and lighting schedule so at least those factors should be consistent. I guess I should also measure the amount of food I'm giving - I got a scale for that.

Another factor to maybe consider is the season. In the past people have noticed that BBA tends to show up right about now - in autumn (and I think in spring) - in tanks all over the US. Not sure if that's an easily accountable factor but I think we should keep it in mind.
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I don't see where is a guru going to jump out of because this hobby has no gurus any more. In the last decade it had a few idols and that was it. I've said it before - we need an American "Amano". But I don't see any candidates. And we are all sick of impostors so the situation is indeed new. And the situation in other countries is not better. UK is a bright example of trying to create gurus but all it is is a regurgitation of the past with a lot of moves meant to look stylish using imagery dated circa 2005.

We better realize something very valuable: We are on our own. That's a great thing no matter who you think "we" are or I think "we" are. Look what happened when a guru of the past skillfully implanted in our heads the idea that there are 3 ways to make an aquascape look good. We have arrived at nothing. Well, you copy and don't understand - you arrive at nothing, what else? It looks like that journey was a necessary step in the bubbling stinky-aromatic mix of a hobby and internet where everybody is an expert, has six pack abs, and a perfectly balanced real life full of cute cats, wonderful food, one-liner insights, and amazing aquariums.

Now tell my why use ziplock bags and not plastic jars? Contamination of some sort? Postal service suspicious of jars?
Also - why isn't this topic in the "Filtration" section. It is about how clean and how dirty a tank is, isn't it?

Bla-bla, allright. This topic is VERY exciting. Something truly new and interesting. A rare thing in the world of miniature trees, hills, and passages made of white sand. And exagerated fake perspectives.
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And I have to get rid of either plecos or a bunch of sword plants I just put in the tank. The plecos eat the leaves and there would be no point to check for "organics" when I have a bunch of plants bleeding what not in the water.

Anyone local wants 3 small bushy nose plecos for free?
Phosphate -$50.
Nitrate - $110.

Oh my, $160! For the same money I can get a real Chinese LED light with 3 different colored LEDs.

Dull joke or not, that is all true.

Algae can take over your tank overnight. Especially if you have any measurable N and P floating free in the water which most of us see as a necessity but that's not the end of the story at all. On the other hand there are many cases of badly polluted tanks (N>1 and P>0.1) which have no algae.

High or low fertilizers may seem like a confusing puzzle but it's not impossible to see how confusion can happen - the processes are dynamic and depend on each other. Experimenting with sugar may show you one result today and another tomorrow. It is all in how things interact - many factors are at play. Put a lot of N and P in a jar and set it outside in the sun and there is no guarantee algae will grow but they should. Some factors are not accounted for if you simplify everything. A perfectly clean tank can start to deteriorate for no apparent reason. Something that we normally do not account for comes into existence or gradually disappears. This thread is about one such "something" - "organics" which we have been neglecting for years.

A planted tank is not just fertilizers, CO2, and light. Finally we are starting to talk about that.
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You are missing the big picture. If you can, scan both this and the theplantedtank forum for the important post in the last decade. What do you see? What has been happening in the last 10 years? What are the popular notions, beliefs, approaches, recurring discussions? I don't think you will spend the time doing that so the following is an attempt to give you an overview how the US hobby has been rolling the last 10 years.

Yes, it is funny - we are going back to basics. Finally. Things that people knew and used literally 40 years ago. "Inventing the wheel" in a some ways indeed (one example: No one has put numbers behind what is a "clean tank" up until this thread you are reading now was started a couple of weeks ago). You don't even have an idea how long, slow, and frustrating the road to this point has been.

Besides - as we often see in life the fact that something is out there and it is true does not make it accepted, well known, or desirable. Non-American sources of information are normally ignored big time on both forums. I do not think that many folk even know how to pronounce the word "Rataj" or to tell if if that's a person's name or something else. I can show you a gigantic document in Russian that describes everything one needs to know about the planted tank and the planted tank hobby in details that most of us have not even dreamed about. You will find maybe two references to that document on the US forums. Same with a very comprehensive German website dealing with filtration specifically in aquariums. Your link to the Czech source from 2001 was probably the first ever reference to it on an US forum. What do you think about all that?

For too long our focus has been way too narrow - fertilizers/CO2/light. Since about 2006 a few people have tried to debunk the notion that we need to add a lot of fertilizers to the water to make plants grow well (the so called "Estimative Index" (EI) named so by a vocal individual named Tom Barr, which as you aptly noted has the habit of reinvention). We all marvel at the Japanese tanks which use tiny daily doses of ferts but you will find that most people believe in loading their water with chemicals until it qualifies as "severely polluted". The sarcasm here is that EI does not call for huge amounts of ferts but people misunderstand it and (again, as usual in life) fiercely defend what they do not understand but believe in. EI is also all encompassing - if you have ever varied the amounts of ferts you add and if you have ever changed water you have been following EI. EI existed before EI according to most folk. How is that for "inventing the wheel"? Please do not run over to theplantedtank and try to say anything negative about EI, quoting Czech sources from 12 years ago and so on - you may dislike this hobby all of a sudden because (put nicely) people will simply not like what you are saying. On the other hand the people that you see posting in this here thread are the people that are trying to change something for the better. This is the only place where you will find a more or less truly free discussion about planted tanks in English (forum moderators apply). Hope you start to see how the US hobby rolls, why "inventing the wheel" could be a good thing, and start to appreciate more this thread and the people that are part of it.
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I read only part of Rataj's article but it blew me away already. I know for sure that all of us can find empirical proof from our own experience for the things that he talks about - the importance of Oxygen delivered to the substrate, the importance of N and P only if the bacteria does its job well, BBA growing because of the presence of "organics" as the primary cause (not low CO2) and several other things we all have observed and discussed.

Time for Ardjuna to tell everybody who Rataj is and why it is a good idea to pay attention to what he says. It would be best if that is done in another thread with Rataj's name in the title because it is very important information. Basically that man is a source of information that we can trust. Which as we all know cannot be said with full honesty about many people in this hobby.

One of my recent experiences with "invisible organics causing BBA" as I like to put it. Because I've been working too much the big non-CO2 tank full of fish has been neglected. No point of sending a water sample to Jeffy because sure enough after I stopped changing the water every other day Clado got thicker and very happy. But something else made me happy yesterday: The 4-5 healthy swords from a high tech tank that I put in the non-CO2 tank have been turned into a Pleco feasting grounds. Now all the swords have leaves looking like Madagascar lace plants - holes everywhere and very happy Plecos always hanging around the plants. Certainly we will all agree there is quite a bit of plant juices flowing from the damaged leaves. Yesterday the BBA strands that I noticed growing on one of the leaves made my heart jump. "Organics" = BBA, period. But if you prefer call that "lack of CO2", I will not stop you. Just don't insist I hook up CO2 to the tank to fight BBA growing on plants oozing what not 24/7.

Another recent experience that shows the same thing: Tank with big discus fish, I change 30% of the water once a week. The owner likes to feed beef heart. The tank doesn't even develop spot algae lately after I dialed in the Redfield ratio and vastly improved the flow pattern. But the flow and the planting of Crypts in the tank is such that dirt accumulates in one particular small part of the tank. It is the same area where I inject the CO2. Yes, all the snails in that tank live in that area. Yes, there is BBA - and it grows on the sponge from which the microbubbles of CO2 gush out! With 108W of German T5HO with individual reflectors 1-1/2" from the surface you bet I run quite a bit of bubbles per second. But the BBA grows where the CO2 comes out! So much for Tom Barr's claims that increased CO2 will make all your dreams come true. Yes what he says works but there is more to the picture and we here are on a great quest. The plants in that discus tank grow very well but the area with the waste accumulation tells us something we need to listen to: It is not all about fertilizers, CO2, and water changes (EI). It is not about water flow rate and pattern, amazing PAR and filtration. It is about all those things and more. If you didn't read the article in the link that Ardjuna translated do so now. Please.
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"CO2 Deficiency" Definition discussion

About the impact of fish food on what ends up in the aquarium: Many years ago I conducted an utterly unscientific experiment involving the cheapest test kits for N and P. I may have been way off (bad tests?) but I could not find a single fish food that raised N. All of them raised P though. I tried a few kinds of dry food and 3 or 4 kinds of frozen food. I think I tested the water the next day - so the food passes through the fish and the filter has a chance to process whatever it processes.

That same topic was discussed recently somewhere here. I think Yo-Han posted a table with the N and P content of foods if I'm not mistaken. But what is on a label somehow does not necessarily end up in the water. That's what would be interesting to figure out too, along with putting numbers to "organics".
Hey, lots of interesting reading added in one day. Don't you people work or something?

And before I read anything let me say what I deem to be extremely important, relevant, and intelligent; It's about BBA and... something going wrong. I cannot say if it is organics as I usually believe. I do not see any other explanation but this time things appear a bit different - both BBA and plants grow like crazy:

Tank with lots of CO2, diffused extremely well, great circular flow. 2 bubbles per second. So CO2 is not a problem. Normally BBA grows on the sponge of the CO2 diffuser because that is the only area of the tank where the dirt manages to settle. One big reason for me to believe that CO2 has no direct effect on BBA.

Tank had a big A. ulvaceus. The leaves of this thing are soft. Something has been eating the young leaves lately. For a month already. BBA grew somewhat healthy only on the CO2 diffuser sponge and the small area near it where dirt always accumulates. At that time plant growth was severely slowed down - barely any in a week.

My super scientific tests showed low (rather non-existing) Mg. N=10, P=0.5 - pretty good for a 55 gal. tank housing two big discus. I added some Mg. And 10 ml of Excel just because it "kills BBA". A week later the plants had gone crazy - I removed about 1 lb of clippings. Huge Hydrocotyle leaves with bubbles underneath. 3 big new leaves on a Lotus, Valisneria making very wide and long leaves, new Sword leaves looking extremely healthy, every Anubias had 1 leaf and another one starting. AND the BBA was eating the entire tank alive! I had not seen such healthy black BBA in ages... It had even covered the brand new sponge that I had put over the CO2 diffuser a week ago... My friend told me that she fed the discus much less that week - every other day instead of every day. So where is that BBA coming from?

My take on this is that the A. ulvaceus bled juices in the water until they accumulated to a level that caused BBA to explode. How else can you explain the strong plant growth, the pearling, the high CO2 and the vigorous BBA? One other thing is that with lots of CO2 the biofilter is suffocating. As we all hopefully learned recently pH = 8.5 is what the biofilter likes. With my 2 bps of CO2 I am far below that. Biofilter is barely working.

Long story short I pulled the badly bitten A. ulvaceus out. Removed lots of other plant's leaves. Trimmed in a way that the flow is not impeded even if all the plants grow a lot in a week. Flow was beautiful after that - a 90% gyre and all plants waving their leaves in the current.

I will see the tank this Saturday. Hopefully all my dreams will come true.
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another thing came to mind is that some people use Ascorbic Acid and Potassium Sorbate in their solution, do any of these cause anything organic?
I can't comment on any specifics but in my super duper example above it looks like BBA developed only after certain kinds of "organics" accumulated. BBA was not taking over the tank despite the 2 big discus being fed beefheart every day and once a week water change. If indeed organics cause BBA then it seems that it is certain kinds, but not others. Or it would be more realistic to suppose that certain kinds of organics cause BBA in certain conditions. Match them and you got a winner! A mismatch could cause obvious trash to not lead to BBA. Frustrating.

Another example could be about the amount of the organics: I had a tank in which BBA told me that there was a dead fish every single time. Those where fish that got severely territorial with age. They killed each other gradually - about 1 dead fish a week. If I didn't see the dead fish BBA showed up overnight. And it never grew again until there was another dead fish which I hadn't removed promptly. That correlation repeated at least 10 times. That was the first time when I connected BBA with organics. The 60 fish that I had in that tank did not cause BBA if everybody was alive. Tank had no CO2 and no plants so it all seemed pretty simple. What else could be causing BBA every time other than stuff oozing out of the dead fish?
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This line of thinking is straying into niko's filter territory ;)

It makes sense - lots of filtration capacity and aeration = happy bacteria that break down dissolved organics in the water quickly = less BBA (?).
Oh, I do like to hear that someone has been lead astray by my insistence that water flow and biofiltration are everything! One could specualte that that was my original intent - to let people that don't want to see the big picture go by themselves into another tight corner. But no matter how I want it to be flow and filtration are just part of the whole picture. I chant about them because somehow since about year 2002 no one discussed them in details. We were focused on things that some guru told us will fill the sky with stars for us. My point is - it starts to look simpler and simpler now - the tank needs proper flow, filtration, fertilizers... Filling the gaps is a good thing. Makes for an enlightened tank. Sort of like the tanks they had in the old days, ahaha.

Flow and filtration are The Great Equalizer. The tank does not have funny areas, suspicious spots, mini-ecosystems of evil. Food is brought in and trash is taken out. That's a pretty novel idea for most people I guess. And it doesn't mean that algae will not be happy to have food brought in.
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... In the first step, the sample is reacted w/ an acid to convert any inorganic carbonates to CO2. The CO2 is then analyzed via an IR sensor...
Thank you for the explanation of how this test is done.

Now tell me why the inorganic C has to be analyzed too if the organic C is analyzed in the end?

I see that Wikipedia describes two methods - measuring the total C and the inorganic C and subtracting, and removing the inorganic C and then measuring just the organic C.

Not being cheeky, just trying to learn a few new things.
@BruceF, yes. The filter bacteria that we typically talk about are chemoautotrophs. They eat inorganic carbon and make food. The heterotrophs eat their byproducts, or just them. If DOC causes algae, then it would likely be a photoheterotroph. If we can promote more chemoheterotrophs in our filter systems, then they can starve the photoheterotrophs of carbon. :)
I like that diagram. Not hard to remember, hope everyone remembers what is what now.

Since that post where you told me that the filtration is not about aerobic/anaerobic but about auto/heterotrophs I have been wondering one simple thing - How do we come up with an adjustable filter that allows you to have more of this or more of the other kind of organisms? This present discussion about organics is great, I love it. But it looks like one day we may have answers about organics and algae but not a clue how to control the organics other than vacuuming and water changes.

My notion that this is all about aerobic/anaerobic organisms comes from a simple observation: I've seen this happening countless times. Actually just this last week I saw it again: Vacuum a tank that is running so-so. Stirring some fines is inevitable. The water turns opalescent for 2 days. Then make a small water change without disturbing the substrate. On the 3-rd day the water becomes exceptionally clear. And the fish seem to perk up visibly. My take on that is that the substrate gets aerated. But it could be that the organisms in the substrate get to actually do what they do best when the clogging is removed. Not necessarily aerobic vs. anaerobic. Is that about Oxygen I do not know. But I can say with certainty that aerating the water on day 1 and 2 really helps - the water becomes closer to clear somewhere on day 2. I've observed that in different tanks - CO2 and non CO2. Maybe it is all about the ratio of different organisms and not about one group dominating. So the same question pops up here too - how do we create a predictable population?
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Algae love CO2 just as much as plants. So increasing CO2 when algae proliferate on something else is stimulating them...
Here. You just said that followers of EI that fight algae with more of the same medicine (ferts, water changes, and maybe increasing CO2 if possible) are wrong. I can see how they are right - if the lights was an overkill and the ferts where an overkill and somehow the CO2 was a bit low then, yes - you can fight algae by increasing CO2. But most EI followers have everything sky high because that is the meantlity of EI so low CO2 is not the usual issue. But I maybe missing the big picture - EI tanks never have issues.

What I do know for sure is that if you raise the CO2 in a dirty tank one thing will happen, guaranteed: Algae. Increasing the CO2 in a tank with algae and hoping that the plants will outcompete algae by brute force is a pipe dream. I learned the other day that in evolutionary aspect algae are at least 20 years older than plants and know a few tricks. I guess these tricks are part of the reason we are having this thread.
Pg 61
The full article citation is:...
Then it looks like someone should try to use a resin that soaks up Iron to see if this will inhibit BGA growth. Or add extra Iron (hoping it is in a form that BGA likes) and see if it increase BGA growth.
Wow! I learned a lot today:

- "Meromictic/holomictic"

- BGA <--> Fe

- Oxygen-hating "heterocysts" shielded by 3 walls come to the rescue if N is low and are being fed sugar by the neighbouring cells (Read this, it is an easy read and fun:

- How chemoautotrophs could be good for you and bad for algae

- How Jeffy does magic in the privacy of his own home by making use of TOC

- That we still don't know what is a "good biofilter" but it starts to get closer to our radar.

Best of all - this amazing thread is everybody's work!
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Hm, BBA naturally grows in water that is unpolluted and moving. Wow.

I think we could use Tom Barr's logic which is proven to work wonders by assuming that aquariums are not Nature and you can create an unnatural environment which will work within the glass box only. And work especially well on the internet and even better if you don't ask too many questions. That means that BBA in aquariums will not grow in polluted and barely moving water. So here we are, starting with a flawed basis I arrive at a junk conclusion. Except that apparently that is not what happens in Nature.

I am now confused about clean water, flow and BBA. This last week I cleaned 2 tanks from BBA by doing water changes and improving flow. Just yesterday I rubbed off BBA from some leaves and it came off like lose dust - it was already dead. With 2 big discus in the tank "organics", N and P are never zero. In the other tank I have so many fish that the "organics", N and P are never zero either. So what causes BBA and why my triumphant water changes work?

I've said that before but this is a good place to repeat it: Some years ago I had a tank in which the BBA grew only in certain small area. After some months I got tired of that and removed everything from the tank, rubbed all glass sides with salt, put brand new substrate, new filter, new biomedia, new heater, new water flow direction. BBA showed up again. In the exact same area! There were no fish in the tank, just plants. Organics or not the "special" area that BBA liked really did not make any sense.

It seems that all of us here are after a barely scientific conclusion. Meaning that we will get our answers about organics some day but the science behind the results will most likely be blurry. I bet that Jeffy will get to test tanks that show low organics and have BBA too. I personally will be happy with any definite results that let us reduce and even completely eliminate BBA and other algae when we really want to. Numbers and "gurus" have done more harm to this hobby than plain old observation and experience. I think that combining the two is what we are after here.

Which, once again, leads me to the question that I already put out there: When we find out what causes BBA and other algae to grow what equipment and practices will we come up with? So every newbie that shows up all disappointed can actually get real solutions for their issues.
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I think the hobby will split in two; a technological approach and the natural approach. The naturalist will accept that a certain amount of algae is normal and plants don't need to grow an inch per day. The technology side will strive to control everything....
The "naturalist" approach will have less or no algae at all. That's because in the old days people ran tanks without CO2, no pumps, and not even water changes. Someone messaged me recently about a fish store run by a guy that does everything the old way. Very infrequent water changes, does not believe in filtration and a few other things that we, today, find very odd. Guess what? Zero algae in all tanks.

And when I was getting into the aquascaping hobby in 1981 it was because of a person that did things in a similar way. Tiny water changes, no pumps, no CO2. And there where no heaters - the incandescent bulbs warmed up the tanks during the day and let them go cool at night! Plants where busting the tanks out of the seams every week, fish where spawning on a regular basis. There was no algae in sight. I got introduced to aquariums without any algae. Had no idea how they looked like. One day I saw something green and slimy in a pet store aquarium and I liked it and wanted it in my tank... Old school magic I guess.

To me anything forced throws an entire universe of natural reactions into a very unpredictable state. Our high CO2, high light, water changes using tap water that we don't even know is the same as last week's, big flows and so on are perfect examples of forcing things. The "technological" approach has led us to where we are today - about 15 years of using high light/CO2/ferts and still having very little understanding of how to handle problems because we don't understand how it all works. I am not saying that an old school approach has understanding. But only chasing numbers and chemical concentrations is indeed wrong.

Darcobra' post above with the fancy graphics makes a lot of sense to me now. We all know the feeling of hitting a "sweet spot" in your tank where everything works perfectly. And along with that there is a feeling that this is all pretty fragile - it is indeed finding a "local min/max" as Darkcobra says. To me the old school approach was way closer to a clean AND stable tank because everything was done without any rush. That does not make it right or wrong, but you do end up with a way, way more stable tank. Which cannot be said for a high-tech approach, not even close. In our hobby today it is customary to "shut down" the tank when you go on a vacation and to "fix it back up" when you are back. That says everything about all the amazing methods that have become widely used in the last decade (EI and PPS). But your choice of running an aquarium has to do with your mentality. It is not hard to agree that most people's mentality is "I want it fast and I want it now." That has lead to the ridiculous state in which for years we have ignored filtration and "organics". Very much every single newbie that has scanned the forums and wants to do a planted tank asks about light, CO2, and fertilization. Nothing else. I take that to be a natural response to what is found on the forums. That's why topics like this one about organics make me happy. They are a chance to move forward, away from 15 years of Dark Ages.

And here's a mental experiment for all of us to try: Imagine a aquarium with low flow and visible trash on the bottom and some of the decorations. Then imagine another tank - with water moving everywhere and no trash in sight. Do you feel like BBA has more chances in tank 1 or tank 2? I believe most of us will say "Tank 2 is going to be BBA-free.". But scientific research apparently says otherwise. The conclusion is that we are used to think in a certain way but WITHOUT all the facts. If we somehow start to see at least part of the big picture (close to indefinite number of reactions that can take place in our tank) we will start to develop a mindset that will be rooted in reality better and will allow to run cleaner tanks and actually provide better solutions. Sticking with only ferts/CO2/light/water changes is an extreme partial approach although it does feel right. A feeling similar to the mental experiment that I described above.
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That guy is my long lost brother! :D
I too believe that the old school is not something we want to go back to 100%. I don't remember all the plants that where in those 1981 tanks. There were crypts, swords, Cabomba, Bacopa, Ceratopteris, Fontinalis, Valisneria, Elodea, Riccia. I can guarantee you that back then that was the best collection of tropical aquarium plants in the entire little country. I now wonder if the owner of these tanks could actually grow some "modern day" plants too despite any logic.

Funny thing, eh - the old school way allowed you to keep only certain plants. Just like Amano never uses certain plants I guess. Heteranthera, Erios come to mind. His goal is money and to make things look easy and sleek. So it looks that ADA uses very much a limited number of species because that is what works in their environment. Phil Edwards visited the ADA gallery and in his opinion the tanks are clean and healthy but they look somewhat on the weak side, as if slightly starved. On the other end of the spectrum, away from old school and ADA is EI. It makes you believe you can keep any species you want and do it "cheap and easy" as the original post says. Along with that cheap & easy promise it introduces a plethora of problems without a solution. I might agree that without EI you cannot grow certain species of plants. But how on Earth do they make in in Nature where you never, ever, find N=20 and P=2 combined with 30ppm CO2? It does start to look like the middle of the road seems to be the best of all approaches.

Something about the stability of the high tech or mid-tech tanks. I have said that before - there is a way to setup a virtually indestructible tank by using CO2, ferts, and mid or even high light. It can be left to evaporate 30% and go without water changes for many weeks. The way I have encountered that phenomenon was through another phenomenon - pure laziness. What has to happen is the tank needs to let establish VERY slowly for many weeks, months rather. One of these tanks started by being only water and substrate. There were some kind of seeds in the substrate and they sprouted. I let them grow and about 5 months later the tank was full of plants. I continued to barely take care of it and it never developed any algae. 30% evaporation, only adding water, or doing a proper water change - the tank didn't care.

That extreme stability can be achieved intentionally by starting a tank from zero and increasing the fertilizers in the water very gradually. Letting the tanks guide the dosing. What happens is that you end up adding quite a bit of ferts but they are consumed super fast. Algae has very little chance. If it develops one to three water changes take care of it, guaranteed every time. And the tank can be let be by itself for a few weeks, possibly very long. The plants just stop growing but do not die. If anyone is interested in details do a search here on APC for "SubZero". I named that fertilizing approach that way because most of the fertilizers do not appear on common tests but since you added them yourself you know they are in the tank.

Honestly, it could be that our concern for organics and all kinds of interdependent secret bio reactions is best taken care of through patience. Letting the tank develop without forcing it. Some years ago Luis Navarro, a person that knows planted tanks like no internet guru, told me that to him a tank is fully established only after 6, possibly after 8 months! (Maybe I will run to TPT now and post that so I get all kinds of monkey reactions.) That came from a guy whose tanks appear fully established and picture perfect somewhere on week 4. One of his newly setup tanks had water so clear that I thought it was empty! Somewhere in 2004 I mentioned organics to him and he laughed and said he knows about them and takes care of them. Today, 2014, we, here on APC are talking about things that should have been in the spotlight a long, long time ago. Instead we have all the things you see me bash left and right.
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