A cautionary word about "biologically active" substrates.
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Old 08-13-2010, 06:16 AM   #1
ukamikazu
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A cautionary word about "biologically active" substrates.


You have seem them online or in your favorite LFS: Substrates that claim to make the cycling and maturing time of your new aquarium happen instantly. They are especially popular with substrates that many of us rely on for planted aquaria but let's be honest with ourselves, we never believed it. We usually get the stuff because it's already rinsed which takes a lot of the headache and back breaking labor out of setting up a new tank. Generally speaking it's good stuff: A porous clay with laterite or other source of iron that has a high cation exchange ratio. All really anyone really needs, right? Simple, basic, grows plants, good enough. Everybody's happy.

As natural philosophers we all know that to keep the ammonia oxidizing bacteria alive they need food, the aforementioned ammonia, and oxygen preferably in solution, water. How, pray tell, can that biological reaction be kept going in a sealed bag that sits on a shelf in a warehouse for probably months on end? Well, it doesn't. It can't.

Most of the bacteria die, some enter cryptobiosis. Some bags can be pretty foul. You may have run into them, they look like someone poured a cup of milk in them, but I say there is still gold in them thar bags! A green gold called Ammonium.

As a humane, ethical fishkeeper and horticultural enthusiast, I abhor the idea of using live fish to kick start the biological cycle. It is unnecessarily cruel. I have always used the fishless method. Before, I would use pure ammonia from the hardware store which is a lot less nasty than just tossing in some rancid shrimp, but to each his own as long as ammonia is being consistently fed, it's all good.

Then I discovered ADA Aqua Soil. This stuff is the bomb for growing plants especially if you use the complete system, Power Sand below and the Aqua Soil itself on top. And it releases a ton of ammonium, preferred by plants which gets everything into high gear. The bacteria get a great start, the plants grow like mad and in 5-6 weeks, you do a large water change and it's ready for fish. Simple, easy, effective. No measuring ammonia and testing from a bottle every few days to make sure the reaction continues until the tank matures. There's enough in it to keep it going for the time necessary to get everything established. By now, everyone probably knows that Amazonia has the most amount of ammonium and Affricana the least. Here's a picture of a Tetra Ammonia test 24 hours after putting Africana in a new tank:



Here's the same vial, lit from below with a powerful LED flashlight:


Almost opaque, no? It's obviously off the scale and if I had to guess, I'd say 8 mg/L? After 6 weeks the water was perfect, the plants were lush and I could add fish. This is the normal time frame. Of course I tested for not only ammonia, but nitrite and nitrate weekly until what was left could be easily dispatched with a large water change and everything was good.

Again, this is most desirable as an aquatic gardener and ethical aquarist as well as convenient.

Now, why am I telling you things you already know? I want to give you a little caution about the other more common rocky, gravelly substrates we all know and love that claim to be biologically active and speed up the cycling of a new tank, a claim ADA doesn't make, thank goodness and likely never would have nor will.

First, the claim is bologna, as I mentioned above and we all know (suspect) why, as previously stated.

Second, while some components may still be there, you may have enough of a culture to get things started, but still no source of ammonia, especially if you have no intention of subjecting fish to an immature tank even if it is going to be heavily planted from the get go. You can still do it cruelty free if you stock lightly in the beginning but plant densely, it'll just take about 8 weeks, possibly more because the bacteria have to compete with the plants for what precious little ammonia there is and remember, plants preferentially absorb ammonium, then ammonia before they'll even touch nitrate. They'll take nitrite over nitrate even, so nitrate is their last resort in their search for nitrogen. I think you get the picture as to the interesting interactions that go on in a brand new aquarium and why it can be such a critical time.

Third, I love getting the old, fouled bags of Activ Flora and Eco Complete. These should be as valuable to us as light sweet crude oil but fortunately aren't as hard to find and extract. They are rich in ammonium and still have some viable populations of both nitrosofying and nitrifying bacteria. As much as I love Aqua Soil, these old bags are much more likely to be found at chain retail big box pet stores at heavily discounted rates. What with money being tight these days, this is what some of us must do.
Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that uprooting a large swordplant or Cryptocorynes from Aqua Soil is a bit messy and sometimes the smell is a bit much for those members of your household that can't appreciate the odor of good earth. Personally, I wish Glade made a scented plug-in that smelled like potting soil or forest soil after a good rain. I'd like that more than their other frilly silliness.

Simple gravel is just easier to deal with especially if your tanks are more propagators rather than permanent display tanks. That's why I go back and forth between the two substrates. Aqua Soil in the stable, permanent display tanks, gravel in the ones that are always in flux and meant to serve as test beds and propagators.

This is where the cautionary statement comes in. Sometimes, you'll pay for a "fresh" bag that looks clean. It may not be. This happened to me last weekend as I was building a nano African biotope (more about that later). I read somewhere that PetCo was having crazy discounts on their planted stuff, so I went down to my nearest one, got two 16 poound bags for just under $20, exactly enough for a 10 gallon. I just planted the first few plants last night and tonight I decided to start testing to see where we were and to try and figure out how much ammonia I'd have to add. Apparently, not any. I'll let this picture speak for itself. Remember, other than some plants last night, nothing else alive has been added to this tank:



Ammonia/Ammonium 5 mg/L
Nitrite 1.6 mg/L
Nitrate 18.5 mg/L (best estimate)

Now imagine if I had added more ammonia without checking first? My plants would probably have gotten severe fertilizer burn and I would have crashed the population that appears to have already established itself. Or worse, if I had added fish or shrimp without testing at all to begin with!

Moral of the story:
1. Please attempt fishless cycles.
2. If you need to do something on the cheap, get a fouled bag of substrate.
3. Even if you do appear to have a fresh bag, test before you add animals. You just may be in for a surprise.
4. Just test your water regularly for goodness sake!

Thank you for your attention.
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Old 08-13-2010, 07:32 AM   #2
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Wow -- thanks for the detailed writeup. This is an invaluable tools for us noobs.
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Old 08-13-2010, 07:48 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Algaegator View Post
Wow -- thanks for the detailed writeup. This is an invaluable tools for us noobs.
You're most welcome.

I did have another thought about the matter, though. If you go to any LFS or chain store with this stuff and let's say it isn't on sale, consider looking for the bags that appear cloudy or milky, pull them out, ask to speak to a manager or whoever is in charge of the aquatics and explain yourself thusly:

"This stuff appears to be expired but it still has a good purpose and I hate to see you guys throw it out. Make me a deal on it and I'll take it off your hands. Half price, perhaps?"

The worst they'll say is no or they just may make you a deal which is another score for those of us on shoestring budgets. I've done things similar to this many times and come away with plenty of stuff for cheap.


*Just a reminder: Don't add ammonia laden substrate to an already running and established tank.
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Old 08-13-2010, 04:26 PM   #4
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So why does the rest of the muck other than the ADA aqua soil do anything?
The same results occur without power sand and also occur with DSM's.
Or adding mulm which is live bacteria that will speed the process up really fast, as fast as possible since it added precisely what is missing from a new tank.

The grain of the ADA AS gets oxidized on the outer layer first and then over a few months, to the center much slower. So the NH4 is oxidized and leaches mostly till the bacteria is going good. As long as NH4 does not get into the 15-20ppm ranges, there's not a lot of toxic effects on plants, at 20-40ppm, nothing will live.

Still, at lower levels, the plants mop it up, so there's never any need to do fishless cycling with planted tank to begin with.
Plants and the roots are covered with active live bacteria already.........much like mulm from an established aquarium.

With sediments like soils and commercial brands like ADA AS which have NH4, this can be mineralized and reduced over time by bacteria, by heat/boiling etc, water changes, or a DSM(same as mineralization methods for the most part) or perhaps Zeolite if you want to do chemical removal.

Plant roots are also growing and adding O2 to the soil during this phase as well, this aids the bacteria, which in turn, oxidize the NH4 further.

I do not buy bacterial starters, never have, never will, nor the monkey business about bio active sediments. Good job

BTW, after about 12-18 months, there is virtual no bioavailable NH4 or NO3 left in ADA AS(there's still some, but not enough to help the plants much). Plenty of everything else though.



Regards
Tom Barr
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Old 08-16-2010, 06:32 PM   #5
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Dang! Nice post! I think this should be made sticky for us noobs asking about ammonia in substrates.
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Old 08-17-2010, 01:27 AM   #6
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Tom, Caton, thank you very much.

I don't know that I would call this report groundbreaking, but I felt there was a gap in the information so I filled it as best I could.

I do feel the need to say that not every bag of substrate will be polluted with ammonium, it is just important to check first. I suspect some bags will have enough of a bacterial culture that when it expires, it'll be quite messy and some bags may not have enough to have any effect at all. What I will say is that an expired bag can be a blessing if you are starting a new tank, riparium, etc and be skeptical of miraculous claims.

Only a product like Aqua Soil provides consistent ammonium and ADA is forthright about it and doesn't claim it will jump start your cycle.
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Last edited by ukamikazu; 08-17-2010 at 12:15 PM..
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Old 08-17-2010, 05:20 AM   #7
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This is definitely a nice writeup. And I just wanted to say that after reading it a couple days ago, I found myself near Petco and figured I'd go have myself a look. I found an old bag of Activ Flora and BOOM!, half price! So regardless of how groundbreaking or not this is, thanks a ton for giving me a new way to get stuff for cheap.
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Old 08-21-2010, 10:39 PM   #8
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Thank you for this write up.
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