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pH keeps rising and fish are dying in droves - Can you help?

3209 Views 18 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  Number6
Hey All,

This has probably been the worst week of fish keeping I've ever had since I was getting started with the hobby over 5 years ago. I've lost 5 Apistogramma Nijsseni, 4 Corydora Sterbai, and 10 cardinal tetras. I believe it's due to my wildly swinging pH, but I don't know for sure.

So let me paint the picture for you and see if you have any advice.

72 Gallon bowfront tank with a 29 gallon sump. My setup thread is here: (link)

As you can see, I had two large rock piles in the tank and two decent sized pieces of driftwood. I'm not sure exactly what kind of rock it is, because I gathered it from my in-laws' property, but it doesn't look like limestone. My substrate is a mixture of play sand and pool filter sand from Lowes.

My tap water is a bit high out of the tap (8+)

Week 1: Set up the tank and let water run through it to bleed some tannins out of the driftwood.

Week 2,3: 100% Water change (no fish yet) let some more tannins bleed out.

Week 4: Shipment arrives. Use Seachem acid buffer to bring the pH to 6.9, add some Prime to make sure Chlorine / Chloramine is out, add two decent size rocks from already established aquarium to the sump as a bacteria start.

I also added a large amount of live plants.

livestock at this point includes 5 Apisto Nijsseni, 2 Gold Rams, 6 Amano Shrimp, and 6 Nerite Snails

My excited picture post is here (link)

Week 5 : Very light feedings and nightly Ammonia / Nitrite checks. Weekly doses of Seachem Flourish and Flourish Excel. I had a small, barely measurable nitrite spike for two days, but never saw any ammonia. Fish are doing fantastic.

*FIRST MISTAKE*: I didn't do frequent checks of pH, so I have no idea if that was rising or not.

Week 6: Light feedings, doses of Flourish and Flourish Excel, everything is still going well.

*SECOND MISTAKE*: I stopped testing things, so I have no idea what was going on with my water here.

Week 7: 40% water change, I used Seachem acid buffer to bring down the pH of the water I was adding to match the 6.9 I assumed the tank was still at. (It couldn't rise that high in two weeks, right??)

Did a pH test at the end of the water change, and the tank was at 7.0, so I thought I was doing good.

Week 8,9: Everything is sailing along smoothly, or at least I think so because I don't notice any problems.

Week 10: Another 40% water change. Used the same mix of acid buffer to keep the pH of the water down around 6.9.

Week 11: Got another shipment of fish, added 12 Cardinal Tetras and 6 Sterbai Cories. Throughout the week, I lost exactly 1 cardinal a day, and I found one dead Sterbai. At first I thought it was just an acclimation problem with the Sterbai, and possibly a feeding issue with the tetras. (They weren't handling the full sized brine shrimp or NLS i was feeding).

*THIRD MISTAKE* -- Should have tested the water again here.

Week 12 (thjs week): Did another water change, same as before, and measured the pH at 6.9 afterwards.

On Tuesday night, I had lost another cardinal, so I was down to 8, and one of my apistos was looking a little pale. I tested the water, and my pH was at 8, so I added a little bit of acid buffer and went to sleep.

Wednesday morning, most of my apistos looked a bit unhealthy, and my cories weren't as active as normal. I was in a rush so I just left.

I came home to a disaster. All of my apistos were dead, two of my cories were dead, and another was gasping his way out. I was also down to 4 cardinals.

I tested the pH again here, and it was at 8.5.

Here's where I'm most confused. If everything was going well before, what would cause my pH to spike so high so quickly?

I couldn't think of anything that could bring my pH up so quickly except for my rocks, so I pulled them all out. It was a really sad experience scooping up all of those dead fish.

This evening, I had lost 1 more cardinal tetra, but everything else was holding strong. My pH went up to 8.7 though even without any rocks in the tank!!

So my big questions are:

1) What is killing my fish? I would think it's the pH swings, but it could be just how high the pH is. It could also be something completely different. I tested my water again today, and I have no Ammonia, No Nitrites and scarcely measurable Nitrates. I thought about heavy metal poisoning from the rocks, but I would think that would have killed the shrimp and snails (They're magically ok). Could it be an illness? Is the high pH a red herring?

2) Why does my pH keep going up, even without rocks? My only guess right now is that the Acid buffer from Seachem claims to turn alkalinity into CO2. If my plants use up all of that resulting CO2, does it turn back into alkalinity as a by product? I don't know the chemistry behind how plants use CO2.

3) What would you all recommend for me? If the buffering product is the problem, I can try to find some Peat or other material to bring the pH down. Are my plants causing a problem? Do I need to install a CO2 system to keep my pH down and the plants happy?

This is my first SA tank, and my first fully planted tank, and it's not going well at all so far. Any help at all would be greatly appreciated.

I've done pretty well with Malawi and Victoria cichlids, and have done a bit of successful breeding, so I thought this would be a great step up for me. Maybe I wasn't quite ready yet....
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Sorry about all your problems. Avoid using all those buffers. Try some more natural methods like peat , r/o, rain water, leaf litter ect. I think your obsessing over the ph and are causing most of the problems. You should pay closer attention to the hardness. Your fish will be more sensitive to the kh and gh, rather than the ph alone. loose the rock, you aren't doing the fish any favors by them and they may be causing some of the problem.

It seems odd that the alkalinity is converted to Co2, but I've never used those buffers and don't know what they do. However, if Co2 levels climb too high it can choke out the O2 suffocate your fish. Some fish will gasp at the surface, while others tend to ly on the bottom. There colors will drastically change. I'm assuming from a lack of O2 in the blood stream. When plants use CO2 the produce O2. However without enough light plant will use very low levels of CO2. At night the process reverses, plants use O2 and produce CO2. A combination of the alkalinity converted into CO2 and the plants producing CO2 at night could wipe out a tank. Some aquatic creatures can handle low o2 and high Co2 levels. Which would explain your shrimp living.

On another note: Excel and other brand organic carbons can kill fish if overdosed. I've noticed some fish are really sensitive to it. Eartheaters will go belly up with a double dose.

You have so many things going on. It is hard to say what is causing the problem. It could be all of the above.
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The rocks are gone, so I've corrected that problem, and I'm going to be a lot more thorough with all of my testing for a while. I don't have a hardness test, so I guess I might need to get one of those.

It sounds like the biggest problems that I still have are the buffering powders. I was hoping to avoid having to buy an RO filter, but if I have high pH water, is that going to be a necessity? I know you say fish aren't super sensitive to the actual number and just to swings, but Apistos and other SAs aren't going to do well in 8.5 are they?

I can add peat and other natural things to lower the pH, but if my tap water is high, they won't bring things down enough will they?

I guess there is some argument to simply keeping fish that work with your out of the tap water chemistry. Trying to change that is making this freshwater tank as complicated as keeping salt water.
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I agree, obsessing over ph and adding chems could well be the biggest part of your problem. While SA's and esp apistos may not be as happy in hard water .. if they were tank raised in this water it is probably of little consequence. They may not breed or be as colorful as they would be in soft water but they will probably do ok. You can switch to RO water and see how that helps. Depending on the fish I add 25% treated tap water to the RO when filling/changing water and the fish have been fine. No need to add chems to adjust ph if you are doing frequent water changes and watching parameters. My fish breed like crazy in this water so if it works for me I am sure it will also work for you.
Best of luck!!

A few observations/advice from experience:

Apistos are sensitive fish and I personally wouldn't be adding them to a new tank. I'd wait for the tank to balance out before adding them (or rams, which are also sensitive). Personally, I'd go with rummynose tetras (their reds noses will help you monitor your water. when they're not red, you're in trouble.) Have them and the sterbai that are left inhabit the tank for a while before adding back dwarf cichlids.
I'd start using RO water (I use Drink More) about 50/50 with your tap and start using pressurized Co2 -- both will help stabilize your pH.
Start testing daily or every other day and get into a regular cycle with your water changes. Keep the water changes at about 30 percent so you're not dramatically affecting the water chemistry with each water change. (You could do twice a week at 30 percent rather than one large change once a week)

Good luck!

And I saw the photos of your apistos and gold rams and they were lovely fish. I'm sure you're sick over their deaths . .. sorry
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Adding pressurized CO2 depends on what you are trying to do with your plants, how much light you have and fertilization. I find CO2 only drops my ph from 7.0 to 6.5. I do like the rummynose trick. I have found rummies to be very sensitive to even minor swings in the water, so until you stabalize things, they would be best avoided if you don't want to kill them. I used to kill 75% of the rummies I would add to my tanks. I was advised to acclimate with a slow drip and which resulted in 100% survival.

I would start with dwarfs that are more tolerant to your water like A. cacatoudies, Bolivian rams, and Laetacara sp.

South American tanks are great. I hope your experience hasn't ruined them for you. Good luck
Good suggestions for alternative fish. Rainbow cichlids are another good option. they are hardier and OK with higher ph (and have more personality IMHO than most apistos or rams).
great advice...

xWingman48 Sorry about your losses... a harsh lesson indeed.

So, your lesson?

What you need to do is stop adding a thing to this tank, fish included! Stop doing water changes, stop everything!!!!

When setting up a planted soft water setup, you need to follow a recipe. Try baking a cake or making salsa from scratch without a recipe... how did it taste? :wink:

Acid buffers, plant fertilizers and random decorations don't belong in a good recipe.
I know an R/O system sounds expensive, but it really isn't... ebay has some for $100 with a holding tank and everything. I use one for my Reef keeping and it still gives me water with a TDS reading of 0 to 1ppm. What you would spend on acid buffers and plant fertilizers will pay for the R/O unit in time!

Possible recipe:

Get R/O, and mix with your R/O waste water to arrive at the right GH and KH for your target fish species. Yes, the waste water... it is triple filtered tap water, use it!!!
Only use substrate, rocks and wood that you have identified and/or tested in pure R/O water.
Leaving something to sit in R/O will tell you plenty. pH shoots up or down? that is what that stuff wants to do in your tank over time.

Add plants...

You then make sure that your tank has plant growth before adding a single fertilizer or doing a water change. Plants need to grow before I test or change a thing. New leaves without the old ones dying off is a clear sign that the plants have adapted and are ready to grow. Injected CO2 during this time is fine... once you've got growth, you need fuel. Add fish... if the plants show any signs of deficiency, you can then test and add ferts as identified.

Result? happy tank, happy fishkeeper.

There are many other recipes that will work, from Tom Barr's estimative index to Diana's low tech planted tanks all the way to something that might be my creation of the partially lit/ partially planted tank using move-able substrate. I can point you towards links, give you details etc. of any recipe. They all work, but they were tweaked by a planted tank enthusiast AFTER learning how to care for a planted tank from a different tried and true recipe.

I hope this all helps.
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Hey Guys and Gals,

Thanks for all of your help and advice. I really do appreciate it. This site (and the folks who contribute on it) is a fantastic reference for fish keepers at any skill level.

The biggest lesson I've learned from this thread is that trying to keep fish that don't match your out of the tap water conditions is a whole different ball game. I think it could be a fun challenge, and another good excuse to flex my geek muscles and learn about some new things.

I think I'm going to do my best to do the right thing and follow the expert advice, so I'm resigned to the fact that it's going to be a *while* before I add any more apistos to this tank. I think the fish that have made it this far are going to be my only residents for a bit.

I've been looking into RO/DI units a bit, because it sounds like that's the best place to start. The problem I'm trying to solve now is that these units only produce 100 - 150 gallons of purified water a day, correct? I think that means I'm going to need a reservoir somewhere, and I'm going to have to cart water around right?

I think the only place I'd have room for a reservoir is in the basement, and this tank is on the second floor of the house. That means lots of trips carrying water up two flights of stairs (not fun). I guess I could always hook up the filter somewhere in an upstairs bathroom, and start running the filter into some totes are garbage cans a few hours before I'm ready to do a big water change. How do you all handle it?

Another alternative might be using water that has gone through my home water softener. That comes out of the tap at a pH of 7. Letting it sit in a bucket with an airstone or pump will have it up to 7.5 by the end of the day (as dissolved C02 dissipates).

How do you all feel about using this water? If I added a pressurized CO2 system, I would imagine that I could keep the pH down at or under 7 if I find the right mixture. That would allow me to do water changes right from the tap without having to wait for large reservoirs to fill or lugging water up two flights of stairs.

What do you all think I should do here?
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Really truly -- this is what you should do IMHO -- get rainbow cichlids. They will do just fine in your tap and are fine with plants and with a wide variety of other tank inhabitants (tetras, cories, BN pleco, etc.) In a 72 gallon, you could have at least two mated pairs, maybe 3 depending on how it's landscaped. You will have a beautiful fish with personality and you'll see some amazing raising of fry without a cichlid that is too hard on its roommates.

Another option, although I personally find them less desireable, are Bolivian rams. They are also hardier and probabaly just fine with your tap. You can get a large group of them and let them squabble and mate as they see fit.

You can do apistos in a much smaller tank somewhere down the line and it will be easier to use bottled RO water mixed with tap without a lot of water storage, hauling water up and down stairs, etc., (which I think will get old fast and cause you to lose enthusiasm quickly for water changes.)

Just my two cents.
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the softened water might be salty... depends on your softener. Otherwise, R/O water is first choice followed up by the softened water and peat in the filters.

If you go with R/O, then yes... you need somewhere to hold it. Much to my wife's irritation, I have a rubbermaid garbage can in a cupboard. Other folks put it in the basement and use water pumps to move it up through water lines. 2 floors makes it unlikely you can pump it that high... I might lean towards trying the soft water before I risk the usual wrath!
Measure the GH and KH of the soft water. The pH is unimportant... I almost feel like banning you from measuring pH :wink: I find it nothing more than a huge distraction! I don't even measure it on my reef tank...

Other thoughts...
What about upping the size of the 29g tank used as a sump? or adding a second tank of some kind under the tank?
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You make a big deal of checking PH, but what about other readings such as ammonia, nitrate etc??
hollyfish2000 said:
Really truly -- this is what you should do IMHO -- get rainbow cichlids. They will do just fine in your tap and are fine with plants and with a wide variety of other tank inhabitants
My approach to your situation, (which echos hollyfish) is to keep fish that work with your given water parameters. A lot of SAs probably wont work for you, but many CAs and some from northern SA could.
Number6 said:
The pH is unimportant... I almost feel like banning you from measuring pH :wink: I find it nothing more than a huge distraction! I don't even measure it on my reef tank...

Other thoughts...
What about upping the size of the 29g tank used as a sump? or adding a second tank of some kind under the tank?
I keep hearing more and more about the fact that the pH isn't all that important, which i guess is good news for me. My test kit doesn't have any hardness tests, so I'll either pick some up or have my LFS test it for me.

This tank used to be a saltwater tank, and my brother in law gave me ALL of his equipment, so I'll bet there's a way to test salinity in there. Are the readings you can get with a refractometer sufficient to tell if my softener adds too much salt.

I'm not sure what upping the size of the tank sump would do for me. Are you suggesting using that as a RO reservoir? The space under the cabinet is already pretty full so that isn't an option. I think the best RO option for me would be to use a large tote and start filling it the morning of my water change.

Gordon, all of my other readings were normal. No ammonia, no nitrite, scarcely perceptible nitrates. That's why I thought for sure it was the pH that was causing the problem. I do really appreciate the advice from all of you that the pH specifically isn't as big of a deal as us newbies really think.

Since everything was going so well for the weeks prior to the tank's massive die off, my only real suspects are:

1) Flourish Excel overdose -- I actually used less than the recommended dose, but my plants weren't fully established, so they might not have used it all

2) Some chemical got introduced by the cleaning lady -- I tell her to leave the tanks alone, but I wasn't home when she was there...

3) The rocks caused a problem -- I'm not too sure this was a big deal, because from what I understand they couldn't have raised the pH that quickly (especially if it was stable before), AND just the pH rising shouldn't have killed everything. Also, if they leached a heavy metal, my shrimp and snails should have died too.

I know I've said this before, but I really do value all of the advice from you folks. I'm amazed at how many enthusiasts there are here, and how there is a fantastic group for every genre of cichlid. Thanks for the great feedback, keep it comin!
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FishFlake said:
hollyfish2000 said:
Really truly -- this is what you should do IMHO -- get rainbow cichlids. They will do just fine in your tap and are fine with plants and with a wide variety of other tank inhabitants
My approach to your situation, (which echos hollyfish) is to keep fish that work with your given water parameters. A lot of SAs probably wont work for you, but many CAs and some from northern SA could.
FishFlake -- What other CAs and SAs would you recommend? I'm looking for dwarf cichlids with lots of personality and interesting parenting behavior. Thanks for the suggestion on rainbows Holly, but I'm not really a huge fan of them. I've kept a couple in the past, and they're colorful, but they haven't really caught my interest.
Just a thought... I'm no expert on west africans, but they may be a solution. West african dwarfs would appriciate much of the same planted set-up with wood ect. and would be more tolerant of your water. There are african tetra species and you could trade the corys for some smaller synodontis. For cichlids, some Pseudocrenilabrus nicholsi would be great, if you can find them. Or maybe even some pelvicachromis sp. I would wait until you measure the hardness of your water before choosing a direction.
If you want dwarf, that does limit it. I haven't kept them, but I'd suggest rams, which you have already decided on. If you are trying to push the limits of a fish's tolerances for water parameters I'd stay away from anything wild caught. And yes, measure your water hardness. Try here for help and suggestions Good luck, and sorry for all your losses.
There are more cichlids under 4" than over so there are lots of choices. I have to agree with Number 6 that pH is not the issue. The water hardness may be.
xWingman48 said:
Since everything was going so well for the weeks prior to the tank's massive die off, my only real suspects are:
I doubt it was any of those three but more of a combination of common beginner errors. The Seachem acid buffer is a great example... adding something to hard water to try to "fake" or make soft water? Not really the way I try to remove hardness from tap water. That action would be my number one suspect.

Apistogramma borelli are not actually a soft water fish... you might want to see if any LFS could ever order these guys for you int he future! :thumb:
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