Buffering and pH - The Planted Tank Forum
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post #1 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-22-2016, 02:44 PM Thread Starter
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Buffering and pH

My water comes out of the tap at ~20 dGH, 7 dKH, >8.0 pH. My tank substrate is Fluval Plant and Shrimp Substrate and I have a few good sized chunks of Malaysian driftwood, so the tank buffers the water down to 3 dKH and 6.5 pH. This will be good for my fish choices but not so good for cycling as the pH is too low.

Right now I am letting the plants establish themselves and am not worrying about the cycle yet, planning on a month of rooting before I bother adding ammonia to begin the cycle.

My questions are these:

1) Is it a good idea to not cycle the tank while letting the plants root, or is it better to cycle the tank now?
2) Will adding enough baking soda or seachem alkaline buffer to raise the pH have any long-term effect on my tank's ability to buffer back to a low pH?
3) If the answer to 1 is that it's fine to wait to cycle, is it better to start raising the pH now or should I wait until later?
4) Am i overthinking it?

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Last edited by ArchimedesTheDog; 11-22-2016 at 04:04 PM. Reason: splelnig
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post #2 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-23-2016, 04:21 AM
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I think you are over-thinking this. (Unless I'm over-thinking?) A pH of 6.5 will not stop the cycling of a tank. It may be that a pH of 5.5 will stop it, but 6.5 is not very low. It there are any plants in the tank, other than those that are tissue cultivated - never in a tank of water before - there will already be some bacteria surviving on the very low amount of ammonia from dead plant matter or substrate matter. As you add some more ammonia from either a small group of fish or from a bottle, those bacteria will grow into a larger colony to match the bigger "food" supply. The plants use ammonia as a source of nitrogen, so the presence of ammonia helps the plants.

To answer your question, I like to plant the tank as completely as I can before completely filling it with water the first time. And, I immediately start fertilizing and using CO2 or Excel, to encourage the plants to grow well from the start. Then cycling occurs naturally, as I wait a couple of weeks or so before adding any fish.

I'm not saying that those who use ammonia and worry about cycling are wrong, just that I see it differently.

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post #3 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-23-2016, 04:52 AM
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I'll second Hoppy's comment that you're probably overthinking it. There's no reason a low pH will prevent cycling. Ammonia exists primarily in the protonated, ammonium, form at pHs below 9.4, so if that's your concern you'd need the tank pH higher than most of your plants would probably like anyway. So most tanks cycle just fine even at pHs up to 7 or 8 with tap water and an inert substrate.

And I personally wouldn't recommend seachem buffers in a planted tank. I suppose they should technically work fine, but they switch the buffering system in the tank from one using carbonates to one using phosphates. So that means your carbonates will be next to none and your phosphates will be through the roof. It's fairly difficult to reverse this process, requiring big water changes and potential tank crashes. So overall, I'd say not worth it.

You can feel free to add ammonia to your tank now to get your cycle going. And I too plant as much as I can and start pumping CO2 right from the start. My tanks in the past have cycled after three weeks or so with amazonia, CO2 dosing, and pH around 6-7.

Old tanks, all torn down:
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Hope to get a new tank (or two) up soon...
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post #4 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-23-2016, 05:05 AM Thread Starter
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Thanks, Hoppy and Ethan, for your replies. I'm basing my contention about the pH on my experiences detailed in this thread from earlier this year with my last tank. My pH was a similar level (slightly higher, even) and cycling stalled for weeks. Diana -- in the linked thread -- recommended I raise my pH level, and once I did so, my tank completed its cycle.

I discovered tonight that my ammonia is 1ppm -- something is leaching ammonia in the tank, possibly the Fluval Stratum. I decided tonight to raise the pH now in order to not get behind on consuming the ammonia. I added 2/3 tsp of baking soda and pH rose to 6.8, but a few hours later was back down to 6.5. This substrate buffers well! I just added another 2/3 tsp and we will see in the morning what it says. (The dose is based on Diana's recommended 1 tsp per 30 gallons until pH rises, as stated in that thread, and I have a 20 gallon tank.)

I have a bottle of Ace Hardware ammonia for dosing when the ammonia drops.

None of this means I am not overthinking it however.

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post #5 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-23-2016, 05:26 AM
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Well, I wouldn't recommend adding buffers with active substrate. Cycling will go with your pH, maybe adding some will make it quicker, but your substrate will be garbage. It's not like it has infinite capacity.


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post #6 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-23-2016, 05:26 AM
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Ah I see, so it's the bacteria that struggle at low pH, not the ammonia converting to ammonium (or perhaps they're related). A quick perusal of several links suggests that at a pH of about 6, nitrification can completely halt as the bacteria do not survive those conditions. And at 6.5 they operate quite slowly. So yes it seems the cycle will lag or slow at low pH levels. However, if you have bottled bacteria, you can continue to add them until they establish themselves even at the low pH levels, that will help your cycle.

And I wonder with a buffering substrate, if you're fighting a losing battle there adding baking soda... though I don't know how efficiently it will continue to buffer back down, so maybe you'll win out eventually, but after that your substrate may not effectively buffer.

I know anecdote is poor evidence, but I stand by my statement that I've not had trouble cycling tanks at a pH between 6-7. It did take a month or so, but they did cycle and I had no problems adding fish/shrimp thereafter.

Old tanks, all torn down:
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Hope to get a new tank (or two) up soon...
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post #7 of 7 (permalink) Old 11-23-2016, 05:32 AM Thread Starter
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That seems like sound advice. I'll try it without raising the pH. Thanks.
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