Tropical Fish Keeping - Aquarium fish care and resources

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Sunsetsonata 05-23-2010 06:35 PM

Confused the local aquarium experts
I am setting up a 20g tank for the first time in many years. While no expert I am not a novice at fishkeeping, and had at one time cared for 4 tanks total.

I had a new tank up and running for a good week and a half before taking a water sample to the aquarium shop around here. I was told my water was right on target for everything but ammonia, and was asked a few questions about my set up. I was advised to suction the old gravel and change a quarter of the water, and I'd be good to go after waiting a few more days. I did as advised and also replaced the charcoal and filter, since I had been running on old rinsed out supplies. I waited another week.

So today I brought in another water sample, fully expecting to be able to pick up some starter fish. Got another guy and told him what happened last week. He was surprised to find an ammonia reading as well as a slightly elevated reading of nitrates, and asked me a bunch of questions. I explained I was using old gravel from a tank that died during the ice storm of 91 when I was out of electricity for 2 weeks. The guy didn't think that be a problem as people reuse old gravel all the time, and thought surely any ammonia would have dissipated after all this time, so he went and consulted someone else. When he came back he said he learned something today, he had not known that aquarium gravel is porous enough to absorb the ammonia that would build up during a tank disaster. I also told him I had 2 large pieces of driftwood that was also in this tank. I was advised to toss these and start fresh.

Well, as patient as I've been I'm a little discouraged I have to start fresh. I looked for new gravel right away, but everything I've seen for sale so far has been the larger size gravel, whereas my old gravel was finer. I anticipate owning kuhli loaches more than anything else so I imagine the larger size gravel is a no-go.

I've looked online thinking it would be easy to find out if ammonia is something you can BOIL out, but no luck. I am probably grasping at straws here, but can you boil old gravel and driftwood for that matter for this purpose?

If not, is there a name for this smaller size gravel, a grade or something to make it easier to look for online?

I'd love a sand aquarium but fear cleaning it and its effect on my filter.

Any advice about using old gravel and decorations coming from a tank catastrophe?


Byron 05-23-2010 07:59 PM

Stuff and nonsense. I have never heard anything so foolish. Those store people need to do some research.

Ammonia and nitrite exists in the water and to the best of my knowledge does not get absorbed into gravel and wood and then spring to life after being dried out and then being placed in water. I had a 60-gallon garbage pail on wheels full of gravel that was in one or more of my tanks for years, and pulled out and not even washed, then dried out over 4 years until I used it last July when I re-set my 115g. There was not a trace of ammonia or nitrite in the tank from day 1, and I had 95 fish in it the second day (with the plants), and a 5-6 inch deep substrate of that old gravel.

I have also used bogwood from tank to tank, and rock, both dried out and then used with nothing more than a rinse to remove dust.

I would be very careful with any future advice from those store people. This is a forum and if what I've written above is wrong you can be sure others will be posting to say so.


JouteiMike 05-23-2010 08:03 PM

It's great that you want to get back into aquariums after all these years. Although disappointing, let's try to get to the bottom of this.

For starters I would invest in a liquid test kit of your own, that is if you want to know the parameters of your water first hand. If you are fine with having to bring it into a fish store, than that is fine as well. These numbers are crucial in the beginning parts of a tank. And I am sure you remember the process a tank goes through when it cycles. The fish make ammonia, nitrifying bacteria colonize the tank and filter and cover it into nitrite, which is then turned into the final product of nitrate which is expelled through water changes. Now that that's out of the way, I am curious on what is in your tap water. Could it be possible that your tap water contains ammonia? I would either bring a sample of it in to the fish store, OR buy a test kit of your own and test your own water. It is crucial to know the parameters of your tap water, because this is what you will always be putting in your tank, and in most cases, is the source of many problems that may arise.

Once you can rule out your tap water, then you can start to look further into the contents of your tank...the gravel, the wood... I do not have any experience with using relatively old decor, so I have no knowledge of whether it can still contain ammonia.... and it sounds rather foolish to me. I would tend to think it is unlikely.

For gravel, there are several varieties of color and size. Are you looking smaller than pea gravel? Sand would be another great alternative. Sand has to be rinse thoroughly though prior to going in the tank. This will keep the dust or residue that clouds the tank up to a minimum, although even thoroughly rinsed sand still can cloud the water up a little when churned. A precaution that could be made would be to turn off your filters during cleaning, but if the sand is rinsed well, there shouldn't be too much stirred up. Usually a light skim with the similar gravel vacuum hose, and an occasional churning to release gas pockets. Made does come in different sizes, as play sand is very very fine, while onyx, coral, or aragonite sands are more course and have bigger grains - maybe this is the look you are trying to find?

Is it a matter of money that is preventing you from starting fresh and buying new gravel and driftwood? Many websites have a decent variety of gravel types and sand types. A lot of this depends on what kind of tank you are aiming to have. Do you have a certain theme in mind? Types of fish? All of this will help us steer you in the right direction too if you needed any help in what type of substrate and fish to get.

Sunsetsonata 05-24-2010 08:12 PM

Well, I'm relieved that it might not be the gravel, as the smaller stuff no longer seems readily available in my area. And it would be nice if it's not the driftwood, as around here real driftwood seems to have been replaced by the fake stuff.

I've just placed an order online for a freshwater master test kit - half the price of what's in stores, so it's worth the wait for me.

Realizing a stupid fact. I really don't remember how I started my very first fish tank all those years ago, but I always added a new tank by using that first tank's water.

I have not REALLY cycled my tank - I knew the water had to age before adding fish, and that it would get cloudy before it cleared up. It did seem a little cloudy for a few days. Maybe that was from using the old gravel?

I NEVER ADDED FISH FOOD or fish or anything for the bacteria to build on - could this have something to do with a prolonged reading of ammonia?

Sigh. Well, patience is a virtue, right? I added some fish food, am waiting for my test kit, will test the ammonia when it arrives, and THEN start over if I'm still having problems. Or am I on the wrong track here?

Thank you so much for your replies so far!

Byron 05-24-2010 08:19 PM

OK, so there are no fish in the aquarium, correct? Using fish food is one method to start the nitrification bacteria cycle. Once you get the test kit you can monitor this, but in the meantime as you've started, just add a few flakes each day. You want to maintain a source of ammonia to establish the nitrosomonas bacteria, and then the nitrite they produce will establish the nitrospira bacteria. When these are at the level to handle the ammonia introduced daily, ammonia and nitrite will read zero (it will first rise and then drop). Several members will be able to lead you through this.


Sunsetsonata 05-28-2010 06:36 PM

OK now I'm really confused
I did start adding fish food to help cycle my new tank.

But I still wanted to test this ammonia-soaked gravel theory that pet store brought up. I pretty much just wanted to verify that they actually had no idea what they were talking about.

So I took some gravel and rinsed it out really well with regular tap water. I left it in a jar with fresh tap water overnight. Tonight I tested that water for ammonia.

I'll be damned, there was a reading of .25 ppm.

I immediately tested water right out of the tap to make sure my water is fine, and it is.

If gravel soaks in ammonia, then my old driftwood really should be tossed. I really am surprised to find an ammonia reading. I swear, it's just regular aquarium gravel and I had rinsed it so well for this test!

Guess I really do have to get new gravel. Just thought I would let you all know what happened.

Byron 05-29-2010 09:58 AM

While I cannot explain the results of your test, I can say that from my experience this is simply not possible. I mentiuoned that I used about 70 pounds of gravel taken from an aquarium that was not washed, dired for 4 years, and then used as the substrate in my 115g last July without washing again. And it produced absolutely no ammonia. If you want to waste your money, fine; but I could think of many things to spend it on were it me--like nice fish and plants for the new setup.

Guko 05-29-2010 10:41 AM

Personally I dont think the ammonia reading is something to be concerned about. You just need to watch it to make sure it doesnt spike. If I were you I'd get some hardy fish to start and then work from there. I used my parents old gravel that they had used to 3 years and then stopped for 2 years and its turning out great right now. As for the logs I can't say for sure. Dunno what to do there

PS. Are you using test strips or the actual vials with the drops?

Sunsetsonata 05-29-2010 11:30 AM

Lol, well I'd certainly rather spend money on fish than gravel.

I got the API master test kit. As soon as I got it Thursday I tested the aquarium itself, and there was a reading of .50 ppm. Well, I had been adding fish food to the tank (finally) so that might explain it. But when I tested the gravel specifically, the level was .25 - certainly less, but then the gravel had only been soaked 24 hours. To be honest I was trying to see pure yellow to reflect a 0 reading, but there really was an undeniable tinge of green. If my reading is not .25 ppm then maybe its very slightly less, but it's definitely not 0. I'd like to say I'm colorblind but someone else verified the reading.

In time I plan to get kuhli loaches and (shudder) rams - a nice combo of scaleless and tempermental to begin with. I think neons and cardinals tend to be on the tempermental side too, and I plan to get those as well. At this point I feel like I'm looking for trouble. Certainly wasn't expecting any tank issues when I don't even have any fish in it yet.

How long does it usually take to cycle a 20g tank? It's been almost a month at this point.

I'm thinking the ammonia will never get to 0 at this point, sheesh.

Byron 05-29-2010 12:44 PM

With the proposed fish, you should have live plants. If you plant the tank now, you can add fish immediately as the plants assimilate the ammonium/ammonia from the start and there is basically no "cycle." I would certainly do this over messing with trying to fishless cycle. And as I say, the proposed fish almost require live plants, which should not be a problem with your soft acidic water, ideal for both.

I would not add blue ram or cardinal tetra to a "new" tank, they will be better once it is established (2 months depending). It is your setup and I hate suggesting fish, but I would not combine neon tetras and cardinals, nor would I have neons with rams which is even more of an issue. Rams prefer warmer temperatures, at least 82F, which cardinals find OK but not neons that would quickly burn out at such high temps; they are more in the 75-78F area, and this would be harmful to the rams. Check out the profiles of these fish here, thee is a lot of useful information [you can click on shaded fish or plant names in posts to go to the profile].


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