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The elimination of the water change???

Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Mon Apr 23, 2012 5:07 pm

For a long time, I have been fighting the water conditions in my 55g display tank. Even before it became a Malawi tank and had only one pleco and one oscar (though both were over 10" long so I guess they counted as quite a bit more than just 2 fish!), I have always had trouble keeping nitrates at a safe level and fought a never ending battle with green water. I upgraded and then doubled filtration, reduced feedings, increased water change from 15% to 20-25%, installed a 6 stage RO system to provide my water for water changes, increased water change frequency to once a week (lately has been every 4 days!), and still fight a constant (losing) battle with very high nitrates (though the green water finally seems to be a thing of the past). To make matters worse, my little Malawi buddies are not staying little (duh, that's how it works! Fish WILL GROW!) and the problem amplifies with each bit they grow.

Recently, while waiting for my first fry to come along, I was looking at my holding female in the 10g fry tank and the question (which should have smacked me in the face a LONG time ago) finally popped up... "How does this all happen in nature???" Realistically, there is no one standing there every few weeks emptying 20% of all the oceans, lakes, and streams and replacing with clean water! Thus began a long journey of research, experimentation, and arguing with the LFS. Of course the LFS wanted to sell me a big expensive canister filter and ridiculously expensive media to remove the nitrates, but again came the thought "that's NOT how it happens in nature!"

My first experiment seemed to be the end-all-be-all answer... PLANTS SUCK UP NITRATES! Good in theory but when my Malawis (here on referred to as "the pigs") will reduce three large leaves of Romaine to a pile of stems and veins inside of 48 hours, you can imagine how other plants worked out with them. Plan B, was pretty non-existant at that point so my spur of the moment thought began to circle around a sort of homemade canister filtration system (thank god I came to my senses before I even started collecting parts for that one!). Throughout other failed experiments, I kept getting drawn back to the idea of a sump/refugium, but finding good information about a freshwater sump/refugium online is like looking for a needle in a haystack when someone forgot to hide the needle in there! So, I took it as a challenge and began designing my own. It didn't take long for me to have a design and a full list of "stuff" to buy, but the price was outrageous for an experiment that could possibly have me back at square one.

By the time I had my design, my fry were here and I was already none too thrilled about the "required maintenance" of the added fry tank while being a business owner as well as a full-time college student. That's when I decided to use the fry tank (much smaller scale) for my latest endeavor.

Unfortunately, I lost all of my pictures through the process of building, but here are the results:

Description: Since it is only a 10g fry tank, I opted for a 3/4" bulkhead for the overflow drain. The overflow is a sort of "dual overflow" that I designed to not only skim the surface of the water, but also to pull water up from the middle and from just above the substrate. The drain runs down into the first chamber of the sump, where it passes through Marineland Rite-Size filter pad, Accurel Filter Fiber, a media bag of carbon and Zeolite blend, another layer of Marineland filter pad, then a slew of bio balls, before exiting to the second chamber. The second chamber consists of simply a 150w Rena Smart Heater and a Lifegard Quiet One 2200 return pump. The pump is plumbed up with 3/4" hose to a pvc cross tee where it splits off to two 1/2" lines, one returning back through the first chamber and the other to the inlet of the refugium, with each line having a ball valve to control the flow to each section. From the cross tee, a 3/4" line continues up to the main tank where it splits off to two 1/2" lines on opposite ends of the tank. The return by the overflow has its holes almost horizontal to the bottom of the tank, and the opposite return is facing almost vertically with just a slight lean back towards the overflow side of the tank. This creates a true circulation of the water back to the overflow and back down to the sump.

Now, before the comments and questions begin, I'll give all the additional pertinent info... Yes, both of the return lines have been set up with siphon breaks which have been tested multiple times. Both the drain and the return are also equipped with ball valves, should the need arise to service anything in the sump. All connections have been glued with the exception of one on the drain and one on the return (both above the sump tank) because there just was not room on this particular setup to have threaded unions for servicing purposes. The refugium is home to a very simple group of 3 Ruby Nerite snails and 3 Java Ferns. The inlet of the refugium is very similar to the outer part of my overflow and filled with broken lava rock at the bottom. Substrate in the main tank and the refugium is Cichlid Sand stolen from my main tank when the fry tank was initially set up. For cleaning up the detrius in the main tank, I simply remove one (or both) decorations and close both of the valves diverting return water back to the filter and refugium, and run it full strength for about 10 minutes (usually takes less before all of the fishy doodoo is down the drain) then partially open the valves returning flow to normal. For feeding, I open both of the valves fully for the sump recirculation, thus almost stopping the flow to the main tank. This eliminates the waste of food lost to the overflow and allows my little friends to enjoy the all you can eat buffet without disappointment. After feeding, flow is returned to normal by simply partially closing the two "recirculation valves".

Water Parameters: The only additives I use to the RO water in both tanks is Seachem's Cichlid Salt, Malawi Buffer, and Cichlid Trace. Before adding the sump, the fry tank showed a consistent 8.1-8.2 ph, 0ppm NH3/NH4, 0ppm NO2-, and ~20ppm NO3-... Since adding the sump, everything remains the same except that I have watched the NO3- consistently drop to 0... Furthermore, I have done ZERO water changes since adding the sump and have 100% fry survival and healthy, fully active little guys almost ready to go to new homes. I have only had to top off water lost due to evaporation and have recently started topping off with the nitrate-rich water from my "pig tank" because my Java Ferns looked a little wilted. I also had to start feeding the snails algae wafers to keep them from eating the Java Ferns! Oh, and I have purposefully overfed my fry throughtout the testing of the sump just to see what kind of load the system can handle and have found that I only wasted a lot of food with no negative effect on the water parameters.

With the system proven strong, I guess it's time to build the sump/refugium for the "pig tank" (anyone have a mag drive 24 for sale? haha)... And change the return lines over to clear rigid PVC for that cleaner looking install! I'll try to make sure I have better "in progress" pictures for the next build!

Almost forgot the latest addition... Albino Bristlenose to keep any algae in the main fry tank under control:
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Postby Pizzle » Mon Apr 23, 2012 6:55 pm

That is a very nice set-up. It is amazing that those fry could clean the meat off of that skull and yet you are not even measuring nitrates. Seriously though, what is it that is using up the NO3? It certainly couldn’t be those little java ferns. I must be missing something. What is the secret?
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Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Mon Apr 23, 2012 7:39 pm

Thanks! I need to do the little changes to make things look better (like the clear rigid PVC for the returns)...

It has got to be the java ferns... The only algae is on the holey rock in the main tank and you can see that is not heavy by any means. And as I said, I resorted to topping off the tank with nitrate rich water from the "pig tank" because the java ferns were wilting. Obviously I will need a much larger stock of them in the "pig tank" but they apparently handle the load in this tank. I definitely have no secrets in this...
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Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Mon Apr 23, 2012 7:43 pm

Oh, and the skull seems to be a "theme" between all tanks. I have a pirate in the other tank. That's the extent of the artificial deco though! :lol:
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Postby Pizzle » Mon Apr 23, 2012 8:08 pm

I am still doubtful that the java ferns can have that kind of impact on nitrates. The drop in nitrates should equal rapid growth in the plants, yet java ferns are notoriously slow growers. I would think that you would be better off using a fast growing, floating plant such as duckweed.

When I was first readin through your story, I was thinking that you should be doing 50% water changes on the piggies tank.
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Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Mon Apr 23, 2012 9:07 pm

I probably should be but it takes a LONG time to get that much water from the RO even though it is a 100gpd system.

I was doubtful that 3 Java Ferns could handle it too until I saw the results... Now, you do have to remember that I use Zeolite in the filter so the ammonia is reduced. That may be the only thing keeping it down enough for them to handle the nitrates that are there. I guess I will find out soon enough when I do the big sump (which by my design is about 45 gallons) but I will have a lot more than three Java Ferns in there. I had some Anacharis in the fry sump too but the only thing that survived the water parameters were the Javas...
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Postby mithesaint » Tue Apr 24, 2012 6:37 am

I'm with Pizzle. Not sure what's going on, but I doubt that just a few little Java fern are keeping the nitrates that low. Even if they are, think about how many plants you're going to need when you have a tank full of adults, and they're producing 10-20x the nitrate load that they are now.

Don't quit the water changes anyway. There are other things in the water that build up and need to be removed, like other dissolved organic compounds. Nitrate isn't the only reason we have to do water changes.
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Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Tue Apr 24, 2012 8:52 am

The title was fairly facetious. I know there are still other things that build up but the serious reduction in the needed frequency of water changes was the point. Don't take this as a post looking for an answer, it was a post to share the experience... And doubting is pointless... I shared all the info... There is no secret, there is only a very carefully planned out system to bring the entire system as close as possible to "how it happens in nature"...
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Postby deaver » Tue Apr 24, 2012 6:18 pm

very interesting post....if we never experimented we would not have learned anything. thanks for sharing....and please update from time to time.
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Postby JimA » Tue Apr 24, 2012 9:04 pm

All you have really done is create a sump with small ecco system. Cool idea but you will still have to do water changes eventually.

It would be interesting to do on 165 gallon like mine. But then I am only doing a 50% change once a week and all is fine.

The tough thing to try and copy nature's cycle is well, one it's got millions of years of evelou tion and also millions upon millions of gallons of water,tides, ecco systems and well basically life in general to make things go round and round.

To re-create that in a tank in your home, no matter how hard you try is impossible! Way to think out of the box, but I believe others have already tried that type of stuff or something similar.
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Postby lufbramatt » Wed Apr 25, 2012 3:59 am

My first thought is that the concentration of nitrates has dropped because you have kept the fish load the same but essentially doubled the water volume of the system. Cool idea though and great project :)
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Postby BillD » Wed Apr 25, 2012 8:35 am

The addition of the zeolite, if working as it is supposed to, removes ammonia, and therefore, there will be no nitrate. This is not how it happens in nature.
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Postby JAyliffe » Wed Apr 25, 2012 3:06 pm

I will say that my nitrates, whilst rising a little now as my juvies start to get bigger, were up until recently close to 0 most of the time due to the collection of vals and java fern in the main tank. My thought right now as I'm measuring about 20ppm with a weekly change of 25 to 30% is to increase my plant load and see if I can drop them back. I liked bi-weekly water changes!
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Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:21 am

deaver wrote:very interesting post....if we never experimented we would not have learned anything. thanks for sharing....and please update from time to time.

Thank you. I appreciate that someone got the point of all of this. I will be updating as things change. So far all is the same except that I have now introduced ghost shrimp to the refugium to finish off my clean-up crew.
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Postby TheOriginalFuzzy » Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:27 am

BillD wrote:The addition of the zeolite, if working as it is supposed to, removes ammonia, and therefore, there will be no nitrate. This is not how it happens in nature.

There's always a few who don't pay attention to the point of a post. The point is to use things that are naturally occuring to bring the system to a more stable, more self-sustaining point. Zeolite is a naturally occuring substance that occurs when the lava and ash from a volcano reacts with sea water. And, if you read, I already mentioned that the nitrates would be lower because of the zeolite. But, I also said that I have been topping off with nitrate rich water from my big tank. Read before you make comments.
Last edited by TheOriginalFuzzy on Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:34 am, edited 1 time in total.
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