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Discussion Starter #1
Hi there

I have had an experimental El Natural tank running since October:


The soil used is John Innes No.2 (picked arbitrarily) and is quite deep, perhaps too deep (it bubbles a lot):


However, so far I have had problems with very high nitrates (correctly diagnosed by DW as coming from nitrogen-laced soil), and several deaths.

Deaths are as follows:
1 pumila gourami, died within three days of purchase, presumed nitrate shock (November)
2 crystal red shrimp, presumed dead from trace nitrite caused by incomplete denitrification (in itself due to very high nitrates) (December)
1 remaining pumila gourami, died after developing black splotches on its back, one gill going bright red, bloating, not accepting food and then death. (January 22nd - after three months of vitality)

Since doing water changes to bring the nitrates down, I have had fairly bad problems with brown algae:


The remaining micro rasboras are okay but sometimes seem a bit agitated, and there is a bit of yawning and flashing going on, which in my experience is a bad sign. There is also one remaining crystal shrimp, who just seems to get on with it.

I really like the ethos of El Natural tanks, but I'm afraid after this last death I now mistrust it, and wonder if it is just too risky a system for trying to keep the more sensitive fish (like the pumila).

However I am certainly not giving up yet!

Can any light be shed on what is going on in my tank? Is it a case of the soil STILL being immature, or is there some nasties in there that have slowly poisoned my last pumila, and that I need to get some activated carbon on?

Also - is it possible to keep very sensitive fish in these systems?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks

Yours

Joe
 

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John Innes No2 is compost, not soil. It's really deep, 5 inches. This is where your nitrates are coming from.

It's capped with 1 inch of sand. Chances are, your soil is anaerobic, smell your tank after the substrate belches, smells like rotten eggs. Malaysian trumpet snails will help, most LFS give them away. You can also poke the substrate, I use a straightened out coat hanger for this. Not too much, 2-3 spots a day.

Trim and remove the plants that have algae. Brown algae thrives in low O2 conditions, you can increase O2 in the tank by increasing water flow, or putting an air pump in. I'd recommend an Oto, but not while you're losing fish.

You're substrate will take a very long time to settle in this tank. You'll have to do regular water changes to keep things in line until it does.
 

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Also, you do not want to go more than 1.5 inches of the soil. Like Nate mentioned, it will become anaerobic when you pack too much of it.

I would recommend that you rebuild the tank.
 

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Me would redo the tank and use a thinner layer of that peat/clay mix.
A gravel cap can reduce the problems further.
Regards
 

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A little soil goes a long ways. I recommend using 1 inch or less. Anything deeper than that may cause problems for fish.

However, for your tank, all is not lost. With time the soil will settle down and stop producing fish toxins. Your plants look like they're doing fine. You could try just waiting until the soil settles down. With frequent water changes and enough aeration, you may be able to get through this problem.

I would be comforted by fact that your plants are doing well. If substrate truly starts to melt down, your plants will start to show problems.

Good luck. Hope this helps!
 

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Unless I'm reading the ruler wrong...he has about 2 1/2 inches not 5. I don't think depth of substrate is the issue.
From the top of the trim, 3 inches. Tank doesn't likely start at the very bottom of the trim, so likely 4.5, which is still really deep. Keep in mind it's really nutrient-rich.

To the OP: I wouldn't redo the tank. Tanks like these teach you a lot. Like Diane said, if your plants start dying, then I would redo it.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
Hey all thanks for your responses.

To clear this up - the ruler is in cms, and the tank's base, in reality, starts at about 5mm on the ruler, so we're looking at 45mm of soil. Definitely not 5 inches!

But point taken - next time I will go much much thinner - and use a ruler!

On that note I am very tempted to re-do the tank because I am getting A LOT of bubbles coming up - some quite spectacular eruptions...there's me running over and sticking my nose under the lid - but no smell of sulphur. Still I do not like this gas - and when I had a problem with a bad substrate in a former tank I had the same symptoms of yawning and flashing - and when I got right into the substrate to remove it the sulphur smell was very evident.

If I am to re-do the tank, what sort of soil am I looking for at the garden centre? How do I tell the difference between soil and compost etc...?

Thanks as always

Joe
 

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I would be comforted by fact that your plants are doing well. If substrate truly starts to melt down, your plants will start to show problems.
I have noticed that the larger Crypts (with the dark leaves) are not as happy as they used to be. Is this curtains for the tank? A sign that the substrate has gone bad?

And if I only put 1 inch of soil down, is it okay to have only 1 inch of sand on top (I love sand, I love sand, I love sand, before you ask). This sounds a bit on the thin side of things...

Joe
 

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Compost is decomposing organic matter, often sawdust from a lumber mill. It may be labeled Fir, pine, redwood etc to indicate the tree it came from. (Well, I am from CA, there are a lot of redwoods used for lumber!) Might also be some peat moss, leaf mold, or other organic things in there. As this material continues to break down it releases atoms and small molecules including many plant fertilizers, and especially nitrogen in various forms. Ammonia can be a significant problem when a soil mix is too high in organic matter.
Many potting soils and house plant mixes sold in the USA are actually more like compost, with very little real soil in them. There may be perlite or vermiculite in these products. Neither of these work well in an aquarium.

Actual soil has a scientific definition.
It may include some organic matter, but is really the mineral part. The particle sizes are defined as sand, silt and clay, with very specific size ranges of each of these particles.
There may be any % of each of these three size ranges, and there are names for various mixes. Such as a moderate % of sand and silt and smaller % of clay might be called Sandy Clay Loam.
(My training was based on USDA fertilizer and soils manuals. The same ideas may be expressed differently in the UK and elsewhere)

Particle sizes are very important in a planted aquarium. Finer particles, clay, hold fertilizers very well and allow plants to take those fertilizers pretty easily. It is called Cationic Exchange Capacity.
Sand cannot do this. Organic matter (compost) can, if it is fine enough. Clay and silt are so fine they can get stirred up into the water column and cloud the water for a while.

Sand allows more water movement into and out of the substrate. The coarseness of the particles make them fall back to the floor of the tank if they get stirred up, so sand will not cloud the tank. If it seems to there are likely finer particles mixed in there.

When there are mixed sizes of particles the substrate can pack down too tight, and not allow enough water movement through the substrate. Deep layers of substrate can do this, too, even gravel can develop anaerobic areas, if it is too deep.

In my experience using 2 materials in layers does not usually work very well. Either the one I had hoped to stay on top is too heavy, and sinks through the one I had hoped would stay on the bottom, or else they are so similar they mix pretty well every time the substrate is disturbed.
 

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On that note I am very tempted to re-do the tank because I am getting A LOT of bubbles coming up - some quite spectacular eruptions...there's me running over and sticking my nose under the lid - but no smell of sulphur. Still I do not like this gas - and when I had a problem with a bad substrate in a former tank I had the same symptoms of yawning and flashing - and when I got right into the substrate to remove it the sulphur smell was very evident.

Joe
In your situation (no smelly H2S gas, plants doing well), there's nothing wrong with substrate bubbling. It's just excess CO2 and methane (my book, p. 60). When I first set up my 50 gal with Home Depot generic "TopSoil", it was bubbling constantly. Now (6 months later) it doesn't.

The CO2 is great for plants! And gas bubbling aerates the substrate preventing it from getting too anaerobic while its getting established.

Your older, bad substrate may have contained sulfate-containing fertilizers (ammonium sulftate, potassium sulfate, etc). These fertilizers work fine for aerobic soils (lawns, vegetable gardens), but if submerged in the aquarium, the sulfates will be converted to H2S. That's why I always recommend that hobbyists use unfertilized soils.

Aside from your initial fish problems (which you can easily manage), I would be pleased with your soil selection. I think you've got a winner. :D

Bubbling aerates the substrate, provides CO2 for plants.
 

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On that note I am very tempted to re-do the tank because I am getting A LOT of bubbles coming up - some quite spectacular eruptions...there's me running over and sticking my nose under the lid - but no smell of sulphur. Still I do not like this gas - and when I had a problem with a bad substrate in a former tank I had the same symptoms of yawning and flashing - and when I got right into the substrate to remove it the sulphur smell was very evident.

Joe
In your situation (no smelly H2S gas, plants doing well), there's nothing wrong with substrate bubbling. It's just excess CO2 and methane (my book, p. 60). When I first set up my 50 gal with Home Depot generic "TopSoil", it was bubbling constantly. Now (6 months later) it doesn't.

Gas bubbling aerates the substrate and provides CO2 for plants. All good things.....

Your older, bad substrate may have contained sulfate-containing fertilizers (ammonium sulfate, potassium sulfate, etc). These fertilizers work fine for aerobic soils (lawns, vegetable gardens), but if submerged in the aquarium, the sulfates will be converted to H2S. That's why I always recommend that hobbyists use unfertilized soils.

Aside from your initial fish problems (which you can easily manage), I would be pleased with your soil selection. I think you've got a winner. :D
 

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Discussion Starter #16
Okay - so I should hold the line, just let things calm down.

Yesterday when I was doing a water change I had a little exploratory tug of some of the plants, and they ain't coming up without taking half of the substrate with them, so I think they're doing okay.

But assuming that in principle the tank will be okay, how do I know when it is safe to add more fish? If the soil might still be leaching toxic substances (which are doing the pumila and shrimp in but not the brigittae rasboras) is there any way of knowing when it has ceased being dangerous?

PS - many thanks for all your responses: they give me fresh hope!
 

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Just my two cents - and maybe all it's worth. ;)

It used to be about a third of all the fish I came home with didn't make it past a couple weeks. They seemed to never start eating or they stopped or they seemed to die suddenly from some mysterious internal malady. At no time did I ever suspect the environment because the other two thirds were/are doing just fine and managing to survive nicely through all the ammonia/NO2 spikes common to a new tank.

In one NPT, established for several months, the fish just started dying shortly after the introduction of some store-bought Angel fish. There were no outward signs other than the loss of appetite. I got one of those UV sterilizers and voila - mortality ceased. As a prophylactic, I put sterilizers on the other two NPTs a couple months ago, and haven't had a mysterious death since. (Passing away from old age is not a mystery.)

Another thing I've done is stop buying fish from the local fish stores and started getting them from a local guy who has about 50 tanks set up in his garage. He ships them in directly from breeders and fish farms, and uses individual filters for each tank instead of one centralized filter. All his fish are still flourishing.

About your tank, I wouldn't throw in the towel yet as long as your plants are doing OK. You might consider adding some floating plants to help pull the nitrates out of the water column, and whatever other nutrients which might contribute to any future algae blooms. Also, some Apple/Mystery snails could act like canaries in the proverbial coal mine. Just keep an eye out for their egg masses unless you want a hundred! :(

Hope this is helpful,
Jim
 

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Just my two cents - and maybe all it's worth. ;)

Hope this is helpful,
Jim
Your input is worth plenty. There's nothing more discouraging to hobbyists than sick and dying fish. Too often beginners are grilled about water conditions (ammonia, etc), when the truth is that the fish were diseased when they were purchased.
 

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Discussion Starter #19
Hi Jim

Thanks for your input. On the canary side of things I have Malaysian trumpet snails, some 'pond snails' (don't know the species - think it might be phydra something), zebra nerite, horned nerite, cherry shrimp and crystal shrimp - and I have to say, at the moment - all are fine. I agree that if water quality was the main issue, you would expect some of these inverts to drop dead.

On the fish health side I am also inclined to agree. Over here in the UK there are a couple of large chains (Maidenhead and Pets At Home), and the ones near me put the trade to shame. I am now going farther afield to get my fish, and frankly, I don't expect them all to make it, especially when dealing with dwarf cichlids and the like.

Another strategy I have found, which is both practically effective and rewarding, is to purchase that fish you see looking miserable for weeks or months in a little tank every time you go in the shop. This way you can almost guarantee that they are disease resistant, and you get the pleasure of 'liberating' them into more luxurious surroundings! I have done this with a couple of Bolivian rams that I have in my non-NPT, the female of which (I think she's a female) hardly had a fin on her when purchased because she was in a tank full of kribensis cichlids. Now both are doing fine - more than fine and every time I see them at the top of the tank, feeding together and with their fins flowing I get a real warm feeling inside heh heh :D and think YES! This is what the hobby is about!
 

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chains are evil...I buy my fish from independent fish shops or from amateurs.
The local aquarium club hosts regulary fish fairs where members and other amateur breeders sell their fish.
These fairs are a nice thing, even if I don't buy anything, because one could have interesting talkings with other hobbyists or those experienced amateur breeders.
regards
 
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