undergravel filter causing high nitrate levels?
I am new here but not really to owning an aquarium. I have had my current 55 gal setup for a good 2 years now with very minimal problems until recently. I decided that I wanted a few new fish so before I mossied ff to the store I decided to test my waters real quick and found some alarming news. firstly the equipment I am using are
55 gal tank with under ground filter
two aqua clear 50 power heads
and an emperor 400
I sometimes use the mag 350 pro to help rapidly clean teh debris when changing the dirty filters out.
the test strips I am using are mandel 5 in 1 that I have confirmed work with a friends salt water master kit, so they are somewhat accurate.
what I found is that the
nitrate levels are literally off the charts. greater than 230 ppm
very hard water
alkalinity levels are a bit lower than they should be and
PH around 6.2 still pretty low
I have done a test on the tap water itself and found that it is acceptable but I still use chlorout or some conditioner
also within the past few months I have noticed a lot of dirt building up on my substrate. it dosent have the same charistics as allege as that is more of a slimy more grouped together look than this which is more easily broken up with just the current and a med to dark brown color. I am assuming this has something to do with my extreme nitrate levels and am wondering a few things here.
#1 would it be wise to try and move the substrate with all of this dirt embedded? couldnt this prove to be more harmful than good at this point?
#2 if I do decide to basically break the tank down and do a full clean would it be best to just keep the UG in place or just throw it out and use the current emperor and power head combo alone?
I have had a thought recently about how to keep the UG filter clean but am not sure how exactly well it would work. I am thinking that if I were to use the mag 350's inlet split and coupled to both tubes for the ug filter and had a 90* elbow for the sharp turn then a few short runs of tube litterally underneath the filter that would prevent most excessive build ups of well you know that "stuff" haha.
I am at this point extremely amazed that my fish havent died yet due to these extremes in unbalanced chaos. I am going to setup either the other 55 gal or the smaller 29 gal temporally to perform what ever is needed but absoutley do not want to have to do this again. right now I am dealing with a serious back injury and dont know exactly how long it will last with me being up on my feet but something has to be done. the back injury is the reason why I have had to cut down on maintence lately. I can't just pick up a 5 gal bucket and walk off with it anymore, which for me being 245lbs is a really hard thing to comprehend, and when it goes, its gone for a few days so.
Hi crzy, and welcome to the board! We'll do whatever we can to help you and your fish.
To begin with, the "mud" you are seeing in your gravel is typical when running a UG system and not enough maintenance to it.
Do you have live plants in the tank?
The UG filter is more designed for plants than it is for fish. The way the UG works is that it pulls the solid waste down to the bottom, where it begins to collect under the plates. This is plant food as it breaks down, and is thus collected where most of the plants root systems will run to feed from it.
There are a few options for you, and disassembling your whole tank isn't really needed (or suggested). Do you own a Python No Spill Gravel Vac system? If not, I would highly suggest making the investment. It will save your back and eliminate the need for buckets. The Python hose hooks right up to your faucet, and with a push and twist, you can reverse the flow of water back into your tank. I wouldn't live without one... even if I didn't keep fish.
The best and safest thing you can do at this point is water changes with a lot of gravel vacs. With a python hose, this is easy and quick. Once you've gone through the gravel bed, push the gravel away from one of the lift tubes in the back corner of the UG and give things a few minutes to settle. Remove 1 lift tube and put the hose of the python into the hole where the lift tube was, and let it suck out some of the muck. You may even be able to get underneath a bit. (If the muck isn't too thick, you could also use a bucket and airline tubing to do this, which is small enough to thread under the plate). This might sound complicated and like a lot of work, but it really isn't, and it's nothing compared to completely breaking down a tank. Over a period of days/water changes, do this to both plates.
If you do this maintenance making sure to stop when you hit a 30% change of the water at a time, do this twice/wk... the tank will clear up safely for your fish, nitrates will go back down, and you won't have to risk injury to fix the problem.
To prevent this problem from happening again, you can simply disconnect the lift tubes and cap them off. Once you've removed most of the muck from underneath, so long as you gravel vac regularly and don't overfeed the fish, you shouldn't have any further issues with it. The plates won't hurt anything if they stay in there, so long as they're not hooked up and running. You should be able to find caps that fit over those holes if you check with your LFS, and they're cheap (here they run about 45 cents/each).
In the future, if not planting a tank with live plants, and heavily at that... I'd skip the UG filter and stick to the hang ons, internals, and canisters.
Be careful not to change the conditions in your tank too much too fast, or your fish will suffer for it. You mentioned the pH level in your tank, what does it read for your tap water? The bigger the difference in your pH the less water you want to change at once, but more frequently. (example: 10% daily instead of 30% twice/wk) Each time you do your water changes, vac part of the gravel. This will help you keep up with it and you'll then never have to do the whole thing at once, which isn't a good idea, anyways.
If you need to purchase the Python No Spill system, I can probably find you a link online from a reliable store/website, just let me know. In the stores here, it runs about $36 - $38 for the 25 ft, and $70 for the 50 ft, and they make/sell connection pieces (which screw right on) in 10 and 20 foot lengths. I am friends with the owner of the company, so if you really are in need and can't find one elsewhere, I'll give him a call for you. They sound expensive, but they are well worth it, and they work better than any of the others on the market, are easy to get replacement pieces for (instead of having to replace the whole thing if something breaks) and make up for the money quickly with the amount of work they save.
Good Luck to you! Let us know if you need anymore help.
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