What To Do When Things Get Real Bad

Discussion in 'User-Created Articles' started by jhnrb, Apr 7, 2006.

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  1. jhnrb


    Mar 9, 2005
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    Problem Solving Your Aquarium

    Your aquarium is not in good shape. You have tried just about everything you can try, yet you still do not get the results you expected and your tank does not look the way it should. The water quality is low, the animals do not look vibrant, some are diseased, or a combination of all of these is what is occuring in your tank. You are basically at a loss and do not know what to do or where even to begin to try and restore the tank to the conditions it should be in so the animals thrive and do well.

    What I mean here is that the animals do not look the way they should. The fish may be sluggish, have cloudy eyes, they may not eat, loose color, be infected with parasites, have lesions, have fins that are damaged and so on; the corals may not fully open, may show signs of stress, may open partially open, may show damaged areas, and so on. The tank may show signs of algal and diatom growth, red algae may be present and generally poor water quality conditions are found when you test for your water quality parameters.

    Anything you try to bring the tank back to normal seems to fail or not produce the overall desired results.

    Any of the above situations, or any combination of them, obviously indicate that something is quite wrong with your water chemistry and that the animals are under stress, or have been stressed already to the point where signs of this stress (or these stresses) have become visible. This is especially discouraging when it happens to an aquarium that has been running for some time and has been doing well.

    When situations like this occur in an aquarium that is cycling, matters are different. Many biochemical processes occur during the cycle and most if not all of them create stress. That is the reason why no animals or hardly any animals should be present in the tank while it is cycling. The live rock alone has enough matter on it that will die and decompose during the initial weeks to get your cycling going (started) and proceeding as it is supposed to. There really is no need, in a reef tank, to add any animals to commence the cycle.

    In fish-only tanks this is different of course, and this difference is the reason why some hobbyists use ammonium chloride to cycle, or add a few damsels or similar fish to get the cycle going and continue to its completion (which takes usually 28-35 days).

    But back to our tank problem. It should be quite obvious from the above that if any of these conditions exist, or if a combination of them are present, that the aquarium needs immediate attention. One, but more than likely more than one parameters of your water quality are probably either somewhat, or totally, out of order. This is what leads to the stress and the depressed condition the animals are in, and show signs of.

    The problem often is that the hobbyist does not know where to start. This is especially so when more than one of the above problems are present, and usually that is the case. It is more common to find that many parameters are not in line than just one of them that is out of its normal range.
    Whenever a tank (its inhabitants really) is out of shape one needs to first establish what water quality parameters are not in line with generally recommended rules. This, of course, means that you will need to perform a whole series of tests to determine what the water quality parameters in fact are.

    Make notes when you do so, and date them, and make some general comments about the tank conditions as well. If you can, make some photos of the tank so that you have a reference that you can look at a few weeks later when things start to improve, or have returned to normal.

    I have found, over time, that the more reference material about your tank you have, the better it is in general, and the easier it is for you to compare present conditions with old ones. Perhaps you can even use the notes to diagnose what may have gone wrong, or use them to see what you did the last time when something similar happened to bring the tank back to its normal condition.

    Historical data on your tank and notes on the condition of the animals are an important part of tank maintenance and husbandry. Use a regular notebook or buy one of the specially made and printed for aquariums. A real good one is the Practical Reefkeeper's Log, by the authors of the book A Practical Guide to Corals for the Reef Aquarium (Ed Puterbaugh and Eric Borneman, Crytal Graphics, 2nd Ed. 1997, 112 pp with tons of high quality photographs). I really recommned both (and a note for those who may wonder why I do so: they are super books and, no, I have no financial interest in either the Publisher or the Authors' Company). They are just excellent books to have and refer to when you are thinking about getting a new animal.

    If you do not know the quality parameters of your water, you can not really decide what needs to be done to correct what needs to be corrected.

    This is pure common sense, yet many hobbyists do not have the tests they need, or if they have tests they are so old that the chemicals may no longer give accurate results. In addition some hobbyists may have tests that do not read in the right ranges (e.g. phosphates: a test that only measures down to 0.1 ppm is not sensitive enough to detect levels of 0.03 ppm, the level we should strive for to avoid green micro-algal growth in the tank).

    Equip yourself with a good battery of test kits. You do need them to monitor your tank and what is happening to the water quality.

    Acquiring good tests and making sure that:

    -they measure in the right range,
    -that they are chemically active,
    -that they give you a result in units that are clearly specified and
    -that you can interpret,

    is more important than you may think. The latter can be illustrated in several ways that are quite common in the hobby:

    Nitrates: does your test measure in nitrate nitrogen or nitrogen nitrate, or in total nitrate? If your test measures in N-NO3 you need to multiply the test result by 4.4 to arrive at the total nitrates. That is the number we are really interested in. Recommendations for correct levels vary from author to author. My personal one is to keep your total nitrate level below 10 ppm, and below 5 if you can achieve that number. It is not necessary to have zero nitrates as some may imply. All you need is a low level.

    Calcium: do you get the result in calcium carbonate or in another form. It is important to know what you are measuring and how to convert to calcium ion concentration (which is the measurement you rely on to determine whether or not your tank contains enough calcium). Again recommendations will vary from 350 to 480 ppm levels depending on what author's recommendation you follow. I personally maintain levels between 450 and 480 ppm at all times.

    Silicates and silicic acid: does your test measure silicates only or does it measures silicic acid as well. Most tests only measure in silicate. This is really of no use to us. In fact, I do not even recommend that you buy a silicate/silicic acid test. The need to change silicate/silicic acid removing compounds can be determined visually! If no short brown hairy algae grow on the tank panes your levels are low enough.

    If you cannot find a test that measures both that is in your price range, use the silicate one and keep the levels below 0.5 ppm. If need be use silicate removing compounds to do so. Read up in the general web site library on diatoms and on silicate and silicate removing compounds to familiarize yourself more with this topic if you need to. There are quite a few articles in the main Saltwater Library of our web site on this subject.

    Alkalinity: are you measuring in dKH, in milliequivalents per liter or in parts per million. Do you know how to convert from one to the other (for those who do not: 1 meq/L = 2.8 dKH = 50 ppm). Recommended levels are around 8 to 11 dKH depending on how's recommendations you follow. Personally I keep mine around 9 to 10 lately and am testing a few tanks with a higher alkalinity to determine what the impact is on the corals and on coralline algae. To do so I have installed a Kalk reactor as without one it is hard to keep high dKH levels when one adds KW at the same time. If, however, you add Pure Calcium or calcium chloride you should have no problem buffering the water and achieving the higher dKH levels.

    jhnrb, Apr 7, 2006
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  2. jhnrb


    Mar 9, 2005
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    After your testing is done you should compare the numbers with the ones that are generally recommended for the type of aquarium that you maintain. Below are some guidelines to go by:

    pH : morning: around 8.2, evening: around 8.4

    s.g.: 1.023 to 1.025

    Nitrate (total): as close to zero ppm. as you can get it. 5 ppm total nitrate is an acceptable level.

    Phosphate: 0.01 to 0.03 ppm

    dKH: 8 to 9 in a reef and 14 to 15 in a fish-only tank. If you are using a kalk reactor the dKH may be higher (up to 12/13)

    Ammonia: 0.00

    Nitrite 0.00

    Calcium ion: in a reef 450 to 480 ppm. In a fish-only tank not that critical (300-350 ppm.)

    Silicic acid: as close to zero ppm., as you can be, max. 0.5 ppm (again there may be no need to test - see above)

    Temperature: 78 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit

    Oxygen: dissolved oxygen levels should be as close to saturation as possible (> 7 mg/L) It is better even to have higher dissolved oxygen levels.

    ORP: Redox potential should be between 350 and 400 mv as measured in the tank. This is a morning reading. The level will be closer to the higher number in the morning and closer to the lower number in the evening (at least that is the typical scenario). Those who use ozone may find that this is different.

    Having established what all the water quality parameters are, you can quickly scan the table above and see where the readings you came up with are off. You will more than likely find that several are not in line with generally recommended parameters. If such is the case intervention on your part is necessary to solve these problems.

    Note that there is no magical cure and that getting an aquarium back in shape is and can be a lengthy process. Not only is this so because several parameters need to be brought back in line, but in addition to that, they need to be brought back in line slowly and not quickly. If you make changes too rapidly, you will create stress and stress leads to problems (or I should say: more problems).

    The next step obviously is to bring them back in line. The more readings are off the longer it will take you to get the aquarium back to normal. That should make sense. If only one reading is off then fixing the problem is going to be a lot easier than if many are off.

    The key to getting your aquarium back in shape though remains the same. The water quality parameters need to be adjusted so that they all fall in the recommended ranges. This is not an overnight task either as, if you do so, you may bring about too much stress.

    Make changes slowly, but steadily, until the parameters of the water in your tank are close to the recommended levels. Test regularly to see how conditions change and keep notes so you know what you did to solve the problem. These notes may come in very handy the next time you encounter the same problem.

    You can certainly work on several changes you need to make at a time and need not bring individual ones back up to par before you can begin working on another one. The only difference is (as explained later) that some need to be modified in the tank itself and not by means of water changes. This will require the use of certain additives. Make sure you have an ample supply available.

    Say, for instance, that your dKH is way too high and that you have decided to lower it by means of seltzer water (see article in the library on how to lower the dKH using seltzer). Make sure that you have several gallons of it if you have a large aquarium, as that is what it may take. You will not be adding a lot at one time, but you will be adding it frequently throughout the day and for days on end. This will bring a gradual reduction of the dKH about without stressing the animals.

    Assume your pH is low. You will probably need a complete buffer and may need sodium carbonate. Again make sure you have all you need on hand. Read up on how to use the products. Our web site contains many such articles on so does the NetClub library. Make sure you are aware of how to use the products correctly. When in doubt contact the manufacturer. Do not use a product if you not sure how to use it. This can be very dangerous and lead to very stressful situations for the animals. Caution is the word here.

    If you are dealing with disease and have decided to use the Vitamin C method, calculate in advance how much Vitamin C you will actually need for a full therapeutic treatment for the size tank you have. Order that quantity so you do not run out in the middle of the treatment period. Actually, it is best to order a little more so you have some excess tablets should you need them. It is all to easy to underestimate what you will need. Don't fall into that trap. In the case of Vitamin C it is also a good idea to go from the therapeutic levels slowly back to the prophylactic ones when the therapeutic phase is completed.

    After you have done all that is necessary, your tank should look a lot better and you should not be experiencing the problems you were. Note that the animals make take a little longer than you expect to recuperate. The stress they have been under does not go away overnight. Patience is needed when problem solving an aquarium, especially when quite a number of parameters are out of hand.

    When things are really out of control, often the best method to use is to perform large, daily, water changes. Make sure though that the water you add is not greatly different from the pH, s.g. and the temperature of the water in the tank. By large I mean 50 to 75 % ones.

    If those parameters are out of line in your tank, you must first bring them in line slowly before you start the water change approach. Indeed, say you pH is low and the pH you want in your aquarium is 8.2: you cannot start adding large amounts of water to that tank that has a pH of 8.2 to adjust your tank's pH, as that would stress the animals too much.

    You must first bring the pH in the tank up to 8.2 by adding buffers, or KW, or sodium carbonate. Once the pH in the tank is in line, you can start your water changes. The same applies to specific gravity and temperature. If these need to be adjusted, do so in the tank first before you begin the water changes (which are usually meant to lower nitrates, phospahtes, silicates, organic matter that is dissolved, lower yellowing matter, terpenoids and so on).

    Changing the nitrate, phosphate and silicate levels through successive water changes will not create stress. On the contrary, it will reduce it. Indeed, their high levels is what creates stress to begin with.

    So before resorting to large water changes (fifty or more percent a day) you need to adjust the important tank parameters first. These certainly include temperature, pH and specific gravity. Again you can work on all three at the same time if you need to, but do so slowly. Take you time. Too drastic changes in a short period of time stress the animals even more than they already are. This is not a good practice.

    When all is well and the tank looks good again (meaning the animals) keep monitoring conditions and if you discover that one or more are again getting away from the norms, you will need to try to determine why that is happening. Correcting the situation is one thing, preventing it from happening again is yet another and a more important one. Indeed, stability within certain limits of all tank conditions is a requisite to success.

    Albert J. Thiel, 1997

    Posted jhnrb
    jhnrb, Apr 7, 2006
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