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Tank evolution
John Shepard ( - Mon Aug 16, 2010 06:25:15 GMT - 1117
''I suppose I should probably have an icon for the aquarium. ''

The impressive condition of the tank on return from Canada kind of suggested it was time to take it to the next level.

The upgrade plan I'd had in mind even before vacation was to basically ditch the last of the Petco hardware and get real equipment, starting with an improved filter that is no longer the bane of my existence. The Aqueon that came with the tank... I just never liked it. Never quite put a finger on why, but I'll get to that mystery in due time.

I'd considered a Marineland biowheel, either a Penguin or Emperor, leaning towards Emperor because they are said to have fewer maintenance problems than the cheaper Penguin. Penguins are notorious for the wheel seizing up. Now, they work - there's a fair amount of efficiency to them, plus a coolness factor to having this waterwheel hanging above your tank - but many of the vague nebulous things I disliked about the Aqueon still applied, namely that a biowheel is still a hang-on-back waterfall type.

Some people love waterfall filters. There are two things in particular that annoy me about them: one is, a fish is happily swimming along and then catches the downdraft and is flung several inches downwards. The other is that it wastes food and contributes to poor water quality - you put anything on the surface, and before the fish get to it, it's been sucked into the downdraft and blown into the gravel at high speed. A third problem which some cite more as an issue with duckweed than with hang-on-back filters, is that if duckweed is allowed to reach the downdraft, it is pushed under the surface where it just gets sucked up into the filter intake and clogs it.

I solved that last problem by mounting a floating feeding ring where the water pours back into the tank, creating a barrier to keep duckweed out of the filter's path. It sorta worked, not very well, and every time I did a water change I had to turn off the filter before the water level got below the ring.

On one of the occasions I forgot to turn it back on for half a day, it claimed half my fish. You already read that story.

So basically I wanted a filter that was not incompatible with duckweed and doesn't need to be turned off when doing huge water changes.

I wanted to replace the gravel with sand, to make the tank safer for corys, which also rules out undergravel filtration. Most of the more advanced external filtration systems such as canisters and sumps - in addition to being expensive and complicated - still involve a return line that creates currents I don't want, and an intake that can be clogged. (Sumps have the additional fascinating failure mode of occasionally emptying your tank onto the floor.) Leaving just "box filters" like I had in 1983, and sponge filters.

Something drew me to the idea of using a sponge filter. I think it's the simplicity. It's a sponge, and inside it is an airstone inside of a tube. As the air bubbles go up, they take water up with them, creating suction inside the sponge. The tank's water is drawn into the sponge, where every internal surface of the foam is coated with nitrogen-eating bacteria, which scrubs the water before it is lifted out by the bubbles. The entire sponge is an intake, so it can't get clogged with duckweed, fish can't get sucked into it. The outflow is up, so nothing gets "pushed" into the gravel, and instead of duckweed clogging the filter, duckweed sort of forms a ring around the bubble stream where it hits the surface. Fish food stays on the surface for less waste. And it's a sponge. It has no moving parts except for the air pump that sits outside the tank somewhere.

One oddity of sponge filters is that they're hard to find. When I did find one, I was reluctant to buy it because it was at the store with the massive black brush algae problem. But I did buy it. And since then I have sort of retreated on my negative opinion of that store. But that's later in our tale.

As an experiment I put a small sponge filter into the quarantine tank, in place of the even-more-problematic hang-on-back there, and was happy with its performance.

So I got another larger sponge filter for the main tank.

The plan was to run the sponge filter and the hang-on-back filter together for awhile, until the sponge established itself. But about a week into it, I oopsed and forgot to turn the hang-on-back on again after a water change. The next morning I said "whew, the sponge filter saved me this time" and turned the hang-on-back filter on again. Brown clouds dumped into the water. Eight hours after that I had fish hiding and white worms on the glass and offscale-low pH.


My understanding now is that the problem isn't just the filter being off, it's what happens when it's turned back on. It's what happens inside the filter while it's off. The beneficial bacteria in the filter die inside it when there's no water circulation, allowing somewhat less beneficial bacteria to take over, and apparently all the material caught in the filter media sort of decays into this nasty brown stuff that is toxic to fish and drives planaria from their hiding places. I caught it in time, and did a hefty water change, and lost no fish. But that filter is now in a box of Stuff I Took Off The Tank.

The filter that was on the mini tank when the six corys died was also a hang-on-back. It too is now junked. It is probably a key player in their deaths, due to the effect by which it drives surface material deep into the gravel.

So now the main and quarantine tanks are both running on sponge filters, driven off an air pump and a gang valve. They are quieter, and they certainly seem more reliable. For maintenance you take the sponges off once in awhile and wring them out in a bucket of used tank water, and once in awhile you replace the airstones - and that's all I ever have to do to them.

Next: lighting.

They recommend 2-3 watts per gallon if you want plants. This is not a hard and fast rule - different lights produce different amounts of light per watt - but let's put it like this: the light I had, a 15-watt T-8, is worst case scenario for this equation. 15 watts over a 20 gallon tank, for approximately 0.75 watts per gallon. I'm pretty sure that's not enough for the plants I want.

I know I have no real hope of ever building a Takashi Amano underwater forest. That guy's tanks are aquarium extreme. He runs so much injected CO2 under scary-high-output metal halide lights and custom-made plant fertilizers that he has to turn on aerators at night to keep the oxygen from crashing. That's hardcore. I know it's possible to get something similar to the Amano "look" without your water chemistry dying overnight, but generally you must inject CO2.

See the idea is, you use bright lights and CO2 to encourage the plants to produce oxygen. In water, unlike air, CO2 and oxygen can both be dissolved at once, so that increased CO2 doesn't suffocate the fish - but what you don't know is, at night, once the lights are out, plants breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2, and the more CO2 they get in the daytime, as I understand it, the more oxygen they require at night. Moreover, when plants are happy with the CO2 they're getting, they also soak up excess pH and turn the water acidic. Sophisticated CO2 injection systems have pH monitors as a safety feature. No system I'm likely to buy for my tank is going to have such a device because it would cost as much as the entire rest of my system.

So basically if everything is working correctly, a CO2 injection system will probably kill my fish.

Shit, I can do that just fine without expensive equipment.

I want a happy medium: I want nice-looking non-plastic plants that can clean up my water and occasionally give off a little bit of oxygen without CO2.

I had some success making dwarf chainswords work in the quarantine tank at 2 watts per gallon and no CO2. So it seems plausible.

But to start with I need better lights.

I replaced the tank hood with a glass one, bought a fifty-dollar dual-T5 fluorescent fixture that holds two 14-watt bulbs that produce more light each than the one I had, and arranged it so that I still have the old fixture side by side with the new one. Result: 43 watts, 28 of which are "better watts" than the original 15 watts I started with.

Sucker is bright. And it puts the light up front of the tank where I want it, so the fish aren't backlit.

Next: the gravel. How do you change out the gravel in an active tank full of water and fish? Well, what I did was to take the "bell" off my big siphon, and just use the hose by itself to simply siphon the gravel out, a little bit every day. Getting the Estes black sand in was a little messier, but I eventually got it done. I worked in sections, left to right, with a cool moment in the middle where the tank was one-half black sand and one-half gravel with the sponge filter in the middle as a sort of dividing line. It's just amazing how much better the black sand looks. The gravel wasn't ugly, but when you see it next to sand, it's like, what were we thinking?

I went on a plant buying spree. Dwarf hairgrass. Elodea. Some sort of mystery-plant that turned out to be red Ludwigia. Another mystery plant that took me awhile to identify as an aquatic cousin of patchouli. Watersprite. Water wisteria.

About four days later I see white worms on the glass and the pH is offscale low again. And no Aqueon filter to be seen. What's going on?

Well, I did a couple rapid emergency water changes and kept looking for dying plant material (the usual culprit in pH crashes in non-CO2 tanks). I did notice most of the Elodea was dying off - but trouble persisted after it was removed. (Man, what must be wrong in a tank for Elodea not to grow?) I looked all over the tank, but couldn't find anything - until the next water change, when I noticed something odd about the duckweed that always sticks to my arm when I reach in the tank: it had no roots. The duckweed on the surface was about 75% dead and another 15% dying, probably scorched by the lights. That's what was affecting the water quality.

I also considered the possibility that duckweed and elodea are natural enemies and are having some sort of chemical warfare with each other. It's called allelopathy and is not fully understood - which is to say, the plants and chemicals known to do this have not all been identified, leading to lots of "that plant just won't grow in my tank and I don't know why" comments on message boards. Elodea and duckweed are both lake-chokers, so it would make sense if one emits poisons to remove the competition - but which one benefits if they both die? One tiny sprig of elodea remains in the tank, slowly growing, so maybe something else was poisoning the elodea, and the elodea poisoned the duckweed.

Note that despite all these tank chemistry crashes, I lost no fish.

Each time I do a water change, I take out about 30-40% of the water, and dump 10cc Amquel, 2tsp sodium phosphate pH buffer, and 5cc Fluorish Excel into the bell of the Water Python. I do this every day. The aim is to get the plants to take some of the load for me so I can do this once a week like normal people.

I do notice oxygen bubbles on the leaves of the plants sometimes - but only right after a water change, and not when I dose Excel straight into the tank. I think there's CO2 in the tap water.

The ultimate goal is to have a tank whose chemistry doesn't crash and whose bottom layers do not become anoxic, so I can keep a fleet of Corydoras habrosus. I ain't liking how this is proceeding, since the process of getting there already caused two additional chemistry crashes.

But I began to get confident enough to at least start getting the quarantine tank ready for some corys.

The plan was to get corys the week following our friends' wedding, in order to get fish activities not complicating wedding activities.

So I set a date: May 1, I would go get corys and put them in the quarantine tank to begin that process.

A week before that, I made a horrifying discovery: there is black brush algae growing in the quarantine tank.

Not in the main tank, oddly.

You know how I feel about blackbrush. It's black mold for water: not toxic like black mold, but just as pernicious and difficult to eradicate, and just as unsightly. It's actually a type of red algae, which makes it one of the simplest forms of life on earth - it was the dominant form of life on this planet for half a billion years. It has the frustrating property of wanting to become the dominant lifeform in the tank if you can't get it under control - with a certain fish store serving as a warning, all its tanks coated with black fur that waves in the breeze.

(They have since done an amazing job cleaning up their tanks in the west half of the building. Now it's the east half that needs help.)

Well shit. I read up on treatment options, one recommendation was introducing CO2 (not gonna happen), another was using hydrogen peroxide which might make the tank unusable, and eventually I decided to attempt using an algae eater.

Which may have been something of a mistake.

The first problem with algae eaters is that any "algae eater" you know about is not a very good algae eater. The black Plecostomus types get large, make a bigger mess than the mess they're supposed to clean up, and will eat your plants and any fish that sleeps on the bottom. The gold "Chinese algae eater" outgrows its algae-eating phase and grows into an eight-inch territorial douchebag that only eats Hikari wafers. Otocinclus make pretty good algae eaters, but they won't touch blackbrush and they also have a very high mortality rate following transport - seems they don't eat while in transit, and some of them never start eating again. American Flagfish are an unusual but promising option, but are very hard to find - I have only ever seen one. Which leaves the Siamese Algae Eater, Crossocheilus siamensis.

And therein lies the other part of the problem: there are some 17 different species of nearly-identical fish that keep showing up in fish stores as a "Siamese algae eater". Some stores will try to sell you a Flying Fox as a Siamese algae eater. Some stores will sell you a legitimate Siamese algae eater but call it a "Siamese flying fox". It's easy enough to tell a SAE from a Flying Fox - SAEs don't have the extra bright stripe - which is why it's annoying to see stores get it wrong. Even if you get past that matter of confusion, there are still the dozen or so other species in Crossocheilus that look alike, of which one or two species actually eat blackbrush.

I think mine is Crossocheilus langei. It does a good job on brown algae, but doesn't touch black. I suppose the right way to do it would be to provide it no other foodstuffs - no other algae - then it may get hungry enough to eat the black fuzz. The tank I bought it from, they were attacking blackbrush on an object that had probably been cultivated for this exact purpose, to prove this fish does the job - but everything in the tank might not have been the same species, maybe this was one that wasn't eating the blackbrush.

After a week of frustration, I ripped the plants out of the quarantine tank, carefully cut the infested parts off, soaked the rest in hydrogen peroxide, rinsed it really good, and planted it back in the tank.

Problem solved.

The SAE, or whatever the hell it is, is quite a handsome fish and will grow to twice its current size. It does clean up brown and green algae. I'll keep it, I'm not going to get rid of it. But its performance is a little disappointing.

On May 1 I added two C. habrosus.

Most of the overhaul of the main tank occurred while I had the SAE and the two corys in the quarantine tank.

I had my concerns about the quarantine tank after it killed six fish. I rebuilt it and it housed a couple danios for a few weeks, one of which eventually died. Then it sat unoccupied for awhile - still with water, lights, filtration and plants, but no fish - and during that time it turned into a slimy horror show of decaying plants and fibrous green algae. Could it keep three fish alive for a month? Obviously if it failed, it would be junked.

I did almost-daily water changes on it - with the quirk that I wasn't replacing it with fresh tap water, I was replacing it with water from the main tank. Kind of risky, since that's old water, but the idea is, the big tank in a day doesn't accumulate as much crud per gallon as the little tank the same time period, and it has the advantage of always bringing with it fresh nitrogen-eating bacteria and pH buffers and small amounts of Amquel and Fluorish Excel.

First week of June arrives and all three fish are alive, the quarantine cycle is over. I move them to the main tank without incident, whereupon the corys begin doing cory things and the Siamese Algae Eater decides it is actually a zebra danio and begins attempting to school with the danios.

Naturally they were quickly replaced in the quarantine tank by two more corys and one tiger barb. The idea is to grow the schools slowly. I have three barbs in the main tank and they fight amongst themselves. Supposedly the magic number is six, at which point they stop fighting and start schooling. I can't keep three barbs in the quarantine tank - they'll chase each other out of the water. So I have to add them one at a time. The corys don't fight amongst themselves but I have already learned my lesson about trying to grow the school too fast.

Actually - here is what I have learned about Corydoras habrosus - that what happened to the others is not unusual. First, gravel is a death trap for corys - in cases where tankfuls of corys drop dead mysteriously, once the gravel is stripped, a layer of nasty is usually found below it. Second, some Corydoras species are known to emit poison when they die - and I don't mean like the ammonia that follows from decomp, I mean they actually cough up a blob of highly lethal mucus. And while no one is sure which species do this, since not all of them do, I have every reason to suspect C. habrosus does it - from my own experiences and from reports I've heard, that they die like dominoes and the dead are sometimes found with white slime oozing out of their gills. This, for me, means that if I have bought new corys, and don't know how healthy they are, for fuck's sake don't put them in the main tank. Keep them in the small tank, as few at a time as possible, for 30 days, until I'm sure none of them are dead-fish-walking.

In light of the poison-mucus theory, it's possible my earlier analysis of the loss of the six corys was incorrect - the situation could be explained just as well by one of the six corys already being sick at the store when I got it, and when it died, it took the others with it. But this much is still also true: I'm not the only one who's had problems with corys on gravel.

Right now I have two corys in the main tank and two in the quarantine tank. I have yet to lose a cory on sand.

By the middle of June I was beginning to place bets on which fish would finally be the one to break my winning streak. My last casualty was in early April. The front-runner was, of course, the zebra danio that stopped eating while we were on vacation - it regained its appetite briefly but had stopped again. It was beginning to show the sunken belly and the drooping tail. Notably, it's also the first female danio of mine to show these symptoms. The other deaths were males, without the characteristic "egg tummy" that on this danio was now shrinking.

Danios, and barbs too, are messy eaters. They eat about 30% of the food I put in the tank, leaving me to have to clean the rest up. Moreover, if one is sick, you can sometimes get it to eat by overfeeding and hoping it notices some after the fast-moving douchebags have gotten their share - but that of course puts excess food in the water.

I had this idea formulating that I'd add some more janitorial staff. The tank was getting messy in other ways too - algae, roundworms, even seed pods from dwarf hairgrass going into bloom.

Nice thing about invertebrates is, there are almost no diseases communicable from invertebrates to vertebrates, so there's no real need to quarantine, you can just go buy shrimps or snails and drop them straight into the tank. (You may sometimes need to quarantine new invertebrates from other invertebrates, if there is concern that for example a new snail may bring a disease that wipes out your six-year-old, tennis-ball-sized apple snail which you have named Kyle Petty.)

So I brought home two Amano shrimps.

It was of course a half-hearted attempt at saving that danio's life, probably more an excuse to buy something cool and add it to my tank - but I also knew the only other thing I could do for the danio was move it to another tank and dose it with methylene blue, and the move would probably kill it.

And spent about two days being generally creeped out by what I had done. They're too much like bugs. They use six of their legs for walking in a rather cockroach-like fashion. They have legs for jaws. They have legs for gills. You can see their "jaws" working through their transparent bodies - and of course you can see what they had for lunch. They're aliens.

But they also pick up and examine each and every grain of sand in the tank, one by one. They scrape the algae off the leaves of my plants, they crawl on the sponge filter and eat anything that's stuck to it, and if there's food nobody else wants, they'll claim it.

A few days later I discovered the streak-ending casualty.

First there was a haunting premonition: a ghostly shape in the tank, at first look I thought it was a dead fish that had been hollowed out (recall I had a lot of this happen in the 1980s tank). It wasn't a fish at all. It was actually the shed skin of one of the Amano shrimps. Like any animal with a rigid exoskeleton, Amano shrimps occasionally change clothes.

Couple days later I found another such shape. But this time it wasn't hollow. The same Amano shrimp that had shed its shell, was now in pieces - a partially hollowed torso, a severed tail that had bleached opaque in the tank and now looked like a cooked cocktail shrimp.

What killed it? I suspected one of the barbs maybe, then I had suspicions about the water quality, then I considered that having molted, maybe it had some nutrient imbalance and died trying to rebuild its shell. But after doing some reading I learned that Amano shrimps are not yet being bred commercially - they can be bred in captivity but it's a pain - so these guys were wild caught, and with almost any wild caught species, expect about a 40% loss rate as some of them never adapt to aquarium water. And rather than being vulnerable because it had recently dropped a shell, it's said that Amanos drop their shell as a stress reaction and what kills them is what caused them to shed.

This established a strange precedent: I buried what was left of the shrimp in the fish burial grounds out back. Do invertebrates somehow earn the right to be buried alongside the fish? Does this extend to all major inverts, such as snails? What if I ever get cherry shrimp, which are so tiny that dead ones would probably never even be found? Who cares. With the Amano shrimp at least it seemed obvious: it cost me money and was bigger than some of my fish, just seemed no reason not to treat it like a fish for burial.

I only bury them. I don't hold funerals for my fish. Not that I wouldn't, it's just that - well, what would I say? I dig a hole with a garden trowel, I dump the fish (or shrimp) in the hole, I put the dirt over it, and I get on with my day. We never had proper funerals for the bunnies, why would I have them for fish? And at the rate of losses I was seeing for awhile, I'd run out of things to say. Besides, I do better weddings than funerals.

And that broke my winning streak - or did it? A shrimp, bought from the store three days prior and probably already dead shrimp walking? Does it even count?

One week later I can't find one of the danios. It's the one that got skinny after vacation. It had started to get better, put on a little weight, and was shrinking again.

I find it in the tree stump decoration, hiding - alive but with shot equilibrium, severe droop, and patches of white on its scales.

I knew it wasn't doing well anyway, but I'd hoped it could stay in the big tank until it got too weak to swim, and then could be moved - but with patches on its scales, it had to come out of that tank or risk infecting others. The problem of course is that the hospital tank, 1.5 gallons, is risky itself - it's hard to keep the water quality decent, and can't run proper filtration because I'm doping it with methylene blue. But methylene blue is the only chance that fish has. So I try it.

It was dead in 24 hours.

I know what I did wrong: I should have filled it with water from the main tank. Instead I used tap water, hit it real quick with Amquel, then added the methylene blue. Methylene blue and Amquel are not allies; combined, neither works properly, which meant I put a sick fish in untreated tap water.

Would it have survived if I hadn't goofed? I did notice, once I fished its dead body out of the hospital tank, that the white patches were gone; they may have been bits of the fish's "slime coat" shedding, as is common when fish get sick. However, that fish was in pretty bad shape before I moved it out of the tank, so it may have already been doomed.

And thus the streak is really broken. It is buried in the "new plot" by the shrimp, over on the other side of the tree away from the other fish.

Still. Two and a half months. That, to my mind, is a definite sign things are improving in there.


It's now the middle of August.

I have lost no fish since then.

The current fleet in the main tank is four tiger barbs, two zebra danios (one of which is the only survivor of the Original Three), a Siamese algae eater which is now large and in charge, four Corydoras habrosus, three Amano shrimps, and various small snails that were hitchhikers on the plants. In the quarantine tank is a clutch of cherry shrimps, in hopes of establishing a breeding colony; cherrys are slightly better cleaners than Amanos, but are small and have a tendency to be inhaled by tiger barbs, so I don't want them in the main tank until I have a self-sustaining population in the small tank as a source of replacements.

It all but proves my thesis about zebra danios that I have to date lost no tiger barbs - even though they came from the same two stores. The local zebra danio supply is contaminated with something, and I am not yet sure why these two are lucky.

There is, once again, a shortage of C. habrosus in town, so I can't add any more corys until there are some. I keep hoping the four I have will breed, but nothing yet. Breeding in corys is seasonal, so maybe it's just the wrong time of year; they can be tricked with water temperature, but so far it hasn't worked. Love just isn't in the air.

And the plant situation in the main tank is something else. The watersprite is growing up and out of the tank, the hairgrass is establishing a lawn, I'm running out of places to put the watersprite as it breaks off and forms new plants. It's maybe not an Amano forest, but it is a forest. I have to prune. I have trouble taking the daily fish count because there are now so many places for them to hide. It's awesome. It helps that I'm basically growing weeds - but those weeds are not unattractive, they're cleaning my water for me, and I don't even use carbon dioxide injection.

With fair suddenness it has turned into an awesome tank. It's actually worth sitting and staring at. It's working the way I want it to.

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