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Discussion Starter #1
Here are my specs:

55 Gallon Freshwater Tank
Heavily Planted
Marineland Penguin 350 Filter
2 Airstones
25 Mollies
78 Degrees
Ph 7
Ammonia 0
Nitrite 0
Nitrate 180+

In 3 months I’ve not been able to get my nitrates under control. I’ve been doing 20-30% water changes weekly using distilled water. I’ve added nitrogen filter media. I’ve used Tetra Easy Balance Plus. I’ve used a Nitra-Zorb Filter Bag. None of these things seem to be reducing the nitrate levels. My plants are growing like crazy so I know they are absorbing some of the nitrates. My fish seem to be doing great but I don’t know what to do next. Any help would be much appreciated!! Daymon
 

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Firstly, it could be that your test kit is compromised or expired and giving incorrect readings. I've had Nitrate test quits give false readings before. If you test your tap water and it is very high, it is likely your test kit that is incorrect. You can test your tap water, and then look at your tap water company's annual water quality report to see if the two numbers are close. The report should be available on your water company's website, or they may have mailed you one. It might be wise to get another test kit (API makes a good one) to doublecheck everything. That your tank is planted and has the filter media to absorb Nitrate makes me wonder if the problem is just your test kit. Mollies also tend to be pretty sensitive to elevated Nitrates, so if your numbers are really that high they should be showing distress, shimmying, or outright dying.

If the other test kit still gives you the same readings:

Have you checked to make sure that your fertilizer does not contain Nitrates? Some of them do, and you may want to switch fertilizers if yours has Nitrates in it. If you aren't keeping up on removing dead plant leaves and other parts as soon as you see them, that could also be greatly contributing to the Nitrate levels. I once had a bunch of moss in a tank die at once and the Nitrates shot up to dangerous levels. If you have mostly slow growing plants, adding some that use up a lot of Nitrates such as Water Sprite or Wisteria may help.

For freshwater tanks, water changes are the main way to remove Nitrates. So it would really help if you did 40-45% water changes at once. I regularly do this for my tanks, and it can be very helpful. If you aren't gravel vacuuming because of your plants, there may also be a lot of rotting detritus on the substrate that could be adding to the issue. Try to gravel vacuum just a bit above the substrate even though you have live plants. There are certain types of potting soil that have Ammonia and Nitrates in them that leach into the aquarium, as well, so double check that if you are using soil and change substrates to something more aquarium safe like Eco-Complete if necessary.

You might want to clean 1/3 of your filter media in aquarium water outside of the tank this week, then a third the week after and the final third the week after that. That should be slow enough that you don't lose much beneficial bacteria. Detritus in your filter media can still rot and raise Nitrates. Just because it is in the filter chamber doesn't mean it isn't still having an effect on the aquarium system as a whole.

I would also add a little salt to the aquarium, assuming your plants are not salt-sensitive. This serves two purposes. Firstly, aquarium salt can lower the toxicity of Nitrate so that your fish are at less risk of dying from high Nitrates until things are under control. Secondly, Mollies require hard water with lots of minerals in it to really thrive, and also do better with a higher pH of 7.5-8.5 pH. But distilled water does not contain those minerals and has a lower pH than is ideal for Mollies. So not only would the salt help detoxify the Nitrates, but it would help provide water parameters that are much better for your Mollies.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Thank you so much for your response. Just a couple of things.

I was originally using API test strips, when I ran out this last time I bought an API Master Kit. The pet store is also showing the same results. I tested my tap water and it’s at Zero Nitrates. Ammonia is a lot higher than I’d like, close to 1 ppm.

At the request of another group, I’ve stopped using distilled and I’ve been doing 30% changes every day just using tap water with Prime and Stress Coat and I’ve been Vacuuming, I’m at day 5 now.

My plants are hornwort and repens and my substrate is just gravel/rock. I did use some Excel Flourish like 4 months ago but was told to stop During the tank cycling phase.

The funny thing about this, the fish are happy, I’ve had no deaths, and they are breeding like rabbits. I just noticed this morning I have 6 new babies. That’s 30 new babies in 2 months.
 

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The plants certainly do look healthy. And Hornwort is a nutrient hog, so that's good. The type of substrate you have is known for getting detritus trapped in between the stones and then the detritus can decay, so that may be part of the issue. Also, are you moving the large stones and gravel vacuuming under them, and making sure detritus and other things aren't trapped underneath? For 48 inch long tanks like yours, it often helps to have a second filter so that you have a total of two. A filter with an adjustable current like an Aquaclear 70 (for 40 to 70 gallon aquariums) would be good since you already have a fair amount of current in there.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
You’re the second person who’s mentioned an Aquaclear Filter. I’ll definitely look into that. Would shrimp be a good idea to help keep the rock/gravel clean?
 

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I don't think Shrimp would be able to fully get into the crevices where the detritus is sinking to with that type of substrate. In my experience with Cherry Shrimp and Amano Shrimp, they are not diggers. Even Catfish types that burrow tend to burrow in sand, not rocks.
 
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