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Life Buffer Theory
by Craig Thompson

Life Buffer Theory explains how we can all do our tanks in our own way, and at the end of the day our fish live and breed, and even though which ever way we maintain our tanks, one way may still be better than the other. We can improve our practices and SEEM to be just as successful, but in reality we will have a greater Life Buffer for maintaining long term successful aquarium maintenance, and in the short term if a problem arrises these "optimum" decisions can prevent the issue from having a greater detrimental effect than it otherwise could became.

I have called this the Life Buffer Theory, and it advocates that "an aquarium's life buffer capacity for maintaining life is determined by the number and quality of optimum decisions".

"It works for me", we've all heard it said, and have probably said it ourselves. I came to ponder why it is we can do things so differently and the fish still seem the same, when I knew it could be done better, though lacked an answer as to why someone should alter their habits. I had no ready answer to contradict this comment, even though in my own mind knew, "it works for me" was a litany for maintaining ignorance. Aquarium keeping is an information based hobby, and the more knowledge we have the greater our chances of success - the fish may be alive and healthy, but that doesn't mean you can't improve the Life Buffer capacity of your tank.

A hobbyist can ask several different people the same question, and receive just as many different responses and none of them necessarily wrong. How can that be? To that I would say some responses are better than others, and our decision on how we have put our tank together, will decide how robust our biological Life Buffer capacity is at supporting aquatic life. Dependant on how you combine all the different choices when setting up a tank, from tank size, to stand construction to filtration type, how this filtration choice is set up, to heater wattage, equipment brands, to lighting, how many bends are used in our plumbing, species mixing, fish numbers, pH, temperature, aeration, gravel size, depth and composition - every decision we make, will affect the final capacity of the tank's Life Buffer.


A tank's size will have a great impact on the Life Buffer- the bigger the better, however we can still have an extremely successful smaller tank with the right choices coupled with the tank size.

When we set up an aquarium, from the first decision to the last, we have a variety of choices to inform our decisions. Some of these choices will be forced on us, such as tank size for example (I would really like a ten foot long tank, but I can't afford it). Nevertheless, a choice is made and a tank of two foot is settled upon because of these constraints. It is fairly well known that when something goes wrong in a tank, it will do so faster in a smaller tank than a larger tank. So this simple economic choice has decreased the Life Buffer capacity of our tank and this is how the theory behind Life Buffer can start to impact. That doesn't mean you can't have an extremely successful two foot tank, it just means a number of other choices will hang off the reduced tank size. If we have made the most number of "optimum" choices in all the choices we have made, then our biological life support safety Life Buffer will be wider, if you have made poor choices in one or more areas, these poorer choices can have an accumulative effect on the Life Buffer's width. The narrower it becomes, the more chances you have of a situation, IF something goes wrong, that it becomes terminal to the tank's inhabitants by the Buffer narrowing to the point of elimination, and how long the tank can stay set up in its current fashion without further intervention/changes. That is, how successful long term overall the tank will be, and when something goes wrong, wether this problem is a mere "hiccup" or the fish suffer to the point of discomfort, ill health or death.


This tank has been set up with a denitrate filter (white PVC back left), 18 watt UV steriliser (middle bottom) and a UPS with external battery (right) which powers a small 15 watt Eheim 1048 that pumps water through all the bio media (in this case, Denitrate, bioballs and Matrix). The Eheim 1048 will continue to operate in the event of a power blackout due to the UPS providing a continuos supply of power to facilitate the pumping water/oxygen to these media. The Oase Nautilus 12,000 pump (front left) has also been plumbed in line rather than emersed in the sump, which will cause the pump to have less impact on the tank's temperature - important if you live in areas that get hot in summer. This tank will have a very broad Life Buffer capacity.

If we stay with the above example, what happens if one of the decisions we have made is to keep Oscars, which are readily available in shops at around 40-50 millimetres, so after being asked for advice the shop assistant looks at the length of the fish, and concludes that they will be okay in a two footer but doesn't take into account the fact the fish will grow and become much larger. We put five Oscars into the tank, and everything works well with the box filter that came with the tank, but as time goes by the fish get bigger, produce more waste, and even with increased water changes and filter maintenance the tank can't maintain a healthy balance due to its size and filtration method.

We may upgrade to a better filter, but the fish continue to grow and aggression problems increase. If we don't intervene, we may lose some fish due to this, so we take more advice (or come to our own conclusion), and we purchase a bigger tank which will increase our Life Buffer. Had we chosen a bigger tank originally with better filtration, or not put Oscars into a two foot tank with a box filter, we would not have be forced to make alterations as our Life Buffer's capacity would have been broader from the outset. If we don't improve the filtration and tank size the Life Buffer capacity will eventually narrow so much that it is in danger of snapping and be no longer capable of supporting our choice of biological life forms.

If we improve the tank size but keep the same filtration, this will help in the short term but soon the Life Buffer capacity will begin to narrow again due to the extra load on the filter from the increased waste produced from growing fish. So it will not be fully effective in this example to increase only the tank size if we don't also improve the tank's filtration capacity. That doesn't' mean to say we can't keep the five Oscars successfully with just a box filter in a bigger tank, it may mean more water changes and filter cleans for example, or more careful feeding, more experience coupled with more astute observation, and so on. However, the size of our Life Buffer will still be narrower; we just have to do more to keep it sufficient. If this tank was filtered by a system that turned the tank over 4-5 times per hour, it will be much more successful at maintaining a clean tank, and thus more healthy fish, not to say less maintenance for the hobbyist due to an increased Life Buffer capacity.

The choices we have to make are not only about equipment (type and brand) commensurate with tank size and biological load, but also how the equipment is set up and how it is maintained. Continuing with this example, we have five Oscars in a six foot tank and we have a great....canister filter on it and the tank is being turned over five times an hour. However, we have not packed the filter optimally and have reduced its effectiveness by not using the mechanical media in the correct order for example, putting the finest media first and the coarse last. What effect will this have? The filter will get blocked faster as everything will be trapped in the first layer of filter wool, while all following layers will remain relatively clean (unused). "So what", I hear you say, "just clean the filter more regularly, and there will be less to clean when you do it". True, one could do this, however, apart from what is the point in having other coarser media in there, more frequent maintenance means more effort, and people on the whole are lazy creatures, and if more work is required, that means there will be more chance the tank's filter is run at less than optimum for longer, and more often. In itself this will not kill the fish, BUT the Life Buffer capacity will be smaller. Also there is the knock-on effect to the biological media's inhabitants. A filter getting dirtier faster, and for longer, will mean overall less water flow, less water flow = less nutrients (ammonia and nitrite) getting through to your bacteria, less food for the bacteria = less bacteria = less denitrification = more possibility of an ammonia issue. In addition, less water flow through to the bacteria = less oxygen, less oxygen = less bacteria as this will now become an additional limiting factor on the bacteria's population level. This domino effect will happen, and have this impact. All in all, it probably won't kill the Oscars, but what happens if there is a power outage with the tank already not operating at optimum, this little 'hiccup' may then prove to be the deciding factor on whether your tank can ride out the blackout…or not.


How well we set up our tank can have different impacts on our fish depending on species. Some fish are more forgiving, others can be more prone to "mysterious" problems. Perhaps these mysteries could be better understood when the accumulating impacts on an aquarium's Life Buffer are taken into account? The aquarium housing this K1 colony has a denitrate filter, and receives regular water changes from water pre-prepared in a barrel. It also has two large canister filters on it - if one filter should fail, the second is still in operation. One filter was neglectfully not turned on for about a week after a clean with NO affect on the fish.

How does the Life Buffer Theory impact on the bacteria that cycle our tanks? There is a plethora of biological media choices out there, which is the best and which should you use? The end answer will be dictated a lot by individual circumstances, but that doesn't change the optimum order of rationale behind the choice, it will just make us select the best for our circumstances. Bacteria ALL need three basic things to exist, and any one of the three things can be a limiting factor on their population levels, and thus their beneficial effect on the tank. These bacteria need a surface area to live on (our biological media), oxygen (for aerobic bacteria) and a food source (fish waste). Limit one area, and this will be your limiting factor - the maximum beneficial/positive impact the bacteria's bio rhythms can have on your tank as you have limited their population size and thus its impact.

  1. Surface area - every thing has a surface, everything is capable of being a bacteria's home. The basic aim is to get as large a population into as small an area as we can.


  2. Oxygen is a big player, I think not as fully recognised as it should be, explained below.


  3. It is fine to have their food source (organic nitrogen) as a limiting factor as if this has limited the population level, there isn't excess pollution to cause damage to the tank's balance or the fish.


So two areas we need to have input on are 1) surface area, and 2) oxygen. Take a few common media; bioballs, matrix and sand (as used in a Fluidised Bed Filter), these three media all have MASSIVE surface areas.

If we were selecting a media by their surface area capacity alone, bioballs would be the weakest of the three choices. However, bioballs when set up as they are intended to be, in an emersed, out of water situation with water trickling through them, don't have the limiting factor that submerged matrix and sand have of oxygen availability. In addition, with a properly set up system containing bioballs, in the event of a power outage with the bioballs staying moist the bacteria will not suffer, and with their easy access to oxygen will not suffocate. With any sort of biomedia in an enclosed/submerged situation no matter how well it is set up, after about an hour the bacteria will start to suffocate and die. In a sump situation, it won't be as bad, but still not as good as when the water stops flowing through them, oxygen will not be brought to them and they will have to rely on what is in the still water about them, which they can quickly exploit. This means when the power comes back on again, we not only have no (or less in the case of a sump) bacteria in your biological media, all this pollution will be pumped directly back into the tank. With the bioballs, the power starts again and the bacteria get back on with the job. Keep your bacteria alive, and you keep your fish alive (this is a key point), and not the other way around as they are the LIFE blood of your tank. In addition, with water trickling through bioballs, you are in effect increasing the tank's footprint and with it, its ability at oxygen exchange. Bioballs actually add oxygen to a tank, where as other forms of biomedia take it out.

"My tank has plenty of oxygen" I have heard said, "why do I need more and what advantage do I obtain?" The advantage is to increase your tank's Life Buffer capacity.

Matrix's main differentiating feature is that it advertises that in addition to converting ammonia to nitrite and then to nitrate, it can also break nitrate down. This is pretty good, however, for those of us who do our regular water changes, this build-up of nitrate is being exported anyway, and while it is terrific to remove it further with the use of matrix, fish will suffer in the case of emergency or over crowding (or a combination of the two) much faster from lack of oxygen than they will from an excess of nitrate (this is also a key point).

Fluidised Bed Filters (FBF) have a VERY large surface area and you can get a lot of bacteria into a very small area. Its most prominent characteristic is its ability to more quickly match fluctuating fish population levels to eliminate any pollution issues due a sudden increase in ammonia. They can rapidly, with more speed than bioballs or matrix, build up their population to deal with the increased bio load resulting from a large number of extra fish being added to a tank. FBF have wonderful potential for maintaining cycling with fluctuating fish numbers as found in a commercial situation, say a wholesaler where population levels can change dramatically. However with a huge bioload, they also hold the possibility of efficiently stripping oxygen out of the water (due to their equal potentially huge population capacity at consuming oxygen), and in addition as a by-product can have a negative impact on pH with the carbon dioxide they produce from their respiratory process. All aerobic bacterial colonies will consume oxygen, and release CO2, but if the fish load produces enough food to support the potential number of bacteria that the surface area of a FBF can maintain, then there are negative effects that one needs to be aware of and address, otherwise you may limit the Life Buffer capacity of your tank. In addition, as with biomedia inside a canister filter, the biomedia inside a FBF is in a completely enclosed environment, with the power off they will run out of oxygen and die. So a FBF, unless employed to utilise their optimum benefits (matching large fluctuating fish populations), can reduce the Life Buffer capacity of a tank. Used in the correct circumstances to take advantage of their best features, and countering their potential negatives, they can increase the size of the Life Buffer's Capacity.

Bioballs do have an over riding advantage that matrix and sand cannot match with their oxygen giving/access characteristics, but not every tank can be set up with bioballs, it simply will not be practical for a host of reasons. But that doesn't alter the fact that a tank which is properly set up with bioballs in a trickle situation will have a broader Life Buffer capacity than a tank without them.

If you set the bioballs up in a submerged situation, then another media would be better, as if used immersed (under water) you would reduce your tank's Life Buffer capacity due to their smaller surface area. Better still, a set up with correctly used bioballs and Matrix will give the best of both media, and the Life Buffer capacity will be even broader than if used individually.

If a hobbyist makes a number of less than optimum choices, these less than best decisions may combine to further decrease the Life Buffer and potentially equal one bigger decision of poor quality. That is, a single poor choice can be equalled by a larger number of lesser poor choices. The final total of these less than optimum choices will affect the amount of Life Buffer our tank will have to ride out short term problems, or the long term health and life of the tank. The more optimum choices made will combine to increase the tank's Life Buffer capacity, and the better chances our tank has for long term success and overcoming short term issues.


This is a water change tank situated under a much larger tank. All water is pre-prepared, in this case with salts for Tanganyikan fish, and heated to match the tank. Such forethought as this, or the use of a barrel or other containers to store and pre-prepared water for water changes can have a positive impact on the Life Buffer.

All the choices are ours as a hobbyist to decide upon and to understand the ripples from our choices is the information and knowledge our tanks are maintained by. It is the Life Buffer capacity that underpins all the decisions that make up our aquarium, and ignorance of these impacts will overshadow our success as an aquarium keeper, where as exploitation can increase our success.

When someone says "it works for me", this may be so, but that doesn't mean it can't be done better and improve the tank's Life Buffer capacity.

 

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