Removal of nitrates and phosphates in a cichlid tank - The Planted Tank Forum
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post #1 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-16-2014, 06:42 PM Thread Starter
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Removal of nitrates and phosphates in a cichlid tank

Here is the deal, I am a shrimp person. The boyfriend and the kids wanted a "boy's tank". Mean cichlids, fighting etc. So we set up my 30 gallon rectangular tank and they stocked it (slightly over stocked it in my opinion). Our tap water here has very high chlorine and chloramine levels and I have never had much luck with either letting water sit or the prime type drops so I use RO. The tank is partly planted, plants get added at least twice a year from the shrimp tanks to replace the decimated ones. Thus far this has kept the nitrates at 0. The phosphorus can get quite high, but it takes it a few months to build up with the pants in the tank. The tank gets tons of algae growth. So much that there can easily be sheets 1/16 of an inch thick of dark brown, black, and green algae everywhere. I have nerites, and had a large sailfin pleco. The pleco helped quite a bit, but it still had algae issues even with him around. I took pity on him because at over 12 inches he had clearly outgrown the tank.

I am entering the clinical phase of medical school and am being told that I will be out of town at their discretion for up to six weeks at a time (and I might only be home for a day or two in between those assignments). The lights are on a timer, the boyfriend will feed them. But I know he wont do water changes. I was debating getting rid of the plants and going to cana snails to keep the tank clean, but I'm afraid the parameters will crash without the plants. Any thoughts on how to keep the tank stable and decent looking in between the times I can come home to maintain it??

Stock: salvini (over 6 inches with visible teeth), convict (4 inches), blue cichlid whose name I cant recall (3 inches), 3 siamese algea eaters (3-5 inches each). A few clams in the substrate, some spixi snails and about a half dozen nerites of different types (they keep killing my nerites).

equipment: high powered grow light 75watt t5. 300lpm canister filter (porous stone and bioballs for biofiltration, (I don't run charcoal) Purigen. 18w uv on a timer. There is a power head on the opposite side of the tank as the filter to help the crud get to the filter.
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post #2 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-16-2014, 11:59 PM
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Get a larger tank.
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post #3 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 01:18 AM Thread Starter
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Not going into the details, but not an option.
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post #4 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 01:29 AM
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Get a better filtration system, maybe a sump. You can have plants in the sump, with lights of course to soak up the nutrients. They don't have to aquatic. Only the roots will be in the sump.


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post #5 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 02:03 AM Thread Starter
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I have never worked with a sump, how much is involved in setting one up? There is space in the cabinet under the tank, I can fit a 10 gallon tank down there (I am assuming you use a tank in this process). Is there any good write up you can recommend on how to set one up. Money is tight so I will have to do it myself.
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post #6 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 02:21 AM
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I would not recommend a sump for a tank that is not drilled unless the person that is watching it is just a little bit savvy about making it work and correcting minor problems before the water lands on the floor.
The inexpensive way to set up a sump seems to require some minor adjustments. Not quite daily, but at least weekly.


If you want to do something like this (planted tank as filter) then run the two tanks side by side, same elevation.
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post #7 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 02:39 AM Thread Starter
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Side by side would be tough. I'm running a canister filter that is over sized. When I am around the tank is fine because I can do water changes. Even then monthly seems to be plenty to keep it stable.

I could drill the tank (I have quite a bit of experience with glass and ceramic and access to a machine shop). But I'm starting to think a couple plecos, and gluing java fern to a bunch of the driftwood and rocks may be my best bet. They don't eat the plants, they just dig em up. There is a piece of driftwood covered in java fern already and it is thriving. The other plants not so much.

So I swap the swords into a shrimp tank, swap some driftwood from a shrimp tank into that tank and just replicate the part of the system that is working. I could add frogbit or that crazy floating weed plant whose name I cant remember at the moment to the tank as back up. I doubt my first rotation is going to be a six week away trip. So I set the tank, leave it alone for six weeks and monitor water conditions. If it holds decent, then I'm good to go. After I graduate and get some real cash (and move out of an apartment with max tank size rules), I can move these guys to a much larger tank. Just cant do it right now.

What is the best thing to run in my canister filter to help the set up? I'm currently running two trays with just a floss/ sponge type material and one with a combo of bioballs and porous rock. I also keep purigen in the filters to keep the water from getting all brown with the driftwood. Normal parameters on the tank are no ammonia/nitrite/nitrate everything else stable. Phosphorous will go from 0 to 4 in about a month. Once it hits 6 or 7 the fish show visible stress. Nitrate seems to be the limiting factor on plant growth in the tank, since it is always 0. I am not sure if maybe adding a little now and then might help the plants take up the phosphate. Or maybe I need to find out what plant is a phosphate hog.

Last edited by ShyShrimpDoc; 08-17-2014 at 03:38 AM. Reason: additional info
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post #8 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 03:38 PM
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Algae is a symptom of poor plant health, not necessarily one of excess nutrients. Oversized filters/sumps/this or that media aren't going to have any real effect on algae.

Here's what you could do:

  • Raise the light or reduce the photoperiod
  • Add CO2 (DIY/pressurized/excel) to favor plant growth over algae
  • Make sure you have more than 0 nitrates. Plants need nitrate to grow, and without a decent amount (~10ppm), algae will absorb nitrates from food/waste faster. This may mean dosing a simple fertilizer regime.
  • Add as many plants as you can cram in the tank, especially hardy, fast growing ones.
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post #9 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 04:16 PM Thread Starter
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So, going on the simple side, my idea of planting the areas they cant dig (all the rocks and wood) and adding excel might be a simple fix?
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post #10 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 04:47 PM
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Haha, I totally get your dilemma. My hubby would not do w/cs either, and it's so easy!!!! Before I had planted tanks, (so glad I got into the plant realm) my nitrates were always present. I did weekly w/cs in my 33g with two angels and the nitrates would climb to 40ppm before the w/c. Then again, I only got them down to 20ppm with a 50% w/c.

What I am trying to say, is cichlid tanks are not the same as shrimp tanks, at all. Nitrates as high as 40ppm would be ok unless there was fry in the tank. The only way to bring those nitrates down is by doing w/cs or adding a ridiculous amount of fast growing, water column feeding, simple plants like elodea.

Since most of your bio is stored in the filter media/substrate etc, and not in the water column, I would make sure to do a big w/c when you are back home. Cichlids are crazy dirtier than shrimp, so nitrates will climb faster especially if it's overstocked, but I can't figure another way to keep that level down. Just be aware that adult cichlids are not-so-sensitive to nitrates as you might think. As long as you are not seeing ammonia and nitrite, your filter is taking care of the bioload.
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post #11 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 05:00 PM Thread Starter
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My nitrates stay at 0. The problem is phosporus, and its a slow build up. Even if I wait like I did during studying for boards and go a touch over a month without any water change my nitrates are still 0. The phos was like 8 and they were breathing funny so even though I really needed to study I did a massive tank cleaning. I have amazon swords in the tank, they are hogs for nitrate. They would prob be doing better if the fish would quit digging them up.

And yeah, crazy dirtier is an understatement. That filter gets disgusting. I am thinking of getting a second canister filter and leaving it set so all he has to do is move the tray with the media and pop it in place. Then add some water... maybe he will actually do it. I could leave the water in the 5 gallon jug next to the tank.
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post #12 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 05:22 PM
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The plants can't use the phosphates when there is zero nitrate in the water. The missing nitrates are in effect slowly killing your plants, since they can't keep or increase their biomass. They will slowly beak break down. Since the algae can often use organic nitrogen compunds, they will thrive in these conditions.
I would suggest you clean up the tank, do a large WC and get your phosphate level down, then dose with phosphate free ferts and some micros to get your plants back in competitive shape.

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post #13 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 05:43 PM Thread Starter
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I just did a massive cleaning, and a 50% water change. I also just went and got a pleco to help control the algae. He will be blessed with zucchini if he does a good job and needs back up food.

micros??? This sounds like a plan to me, get things balanced and let the plants help extend the life of the water in the tank... but not sure what you mean by micros. Microorganisms... micronutrients?? Any specific type of ferts I should try? I have excel, flourish and one other by the same brand sitting in my closet that someone gave me. I just don't know much about them. I use the flourish in my shrimp tanks off and on and the plants in there rock! Those tanks also stay at zero nitrates though. So maybe I what we figure out here can help me bring out more of the reds in them. I think I have some RO right sitting around if that will help with micronutrients. I just need a little clarity. I swear I am really trying to set these guys up the best I can.

Last edited by ShyShrimpDoc; 08-17-2014 at 06:00 PM. Reason: Add info
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post #14 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 05:56 PM
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Micros are fertilizers plants use in small amounts.
Fish food has a fair amount of most micros, lacking only iron.
Fish food has a fair amount of N and P, but is low on potassium. These 3 are macros. If the plants are already using all the N, then I would suggest that is the first lack. If you want to solve this with plants, then adding more plants, especially floaters that will get their CO2 from the air, and adding some nitrogen and potassium could very easily solve the phosphate issue.

Another fix is to add a phosphate adsorbing media to the filter.
I do not know how long they last, how much phosphorus these remove, but it may be worth a try.
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post #15 of 21 (permalink) Old 08-17-2014, 06:03 PM
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I do not agree there is zero nitrates based on details in the post

Its just a test reading, our threads are full of mis reads. Post pic of reading and comparison test,taken when the water is dirtiest just before a water change. The lfs will usually test, have them use a kit other than the API kit you may be using.

Unless a second kit can be shown to verify zero nitrates compared to the API nitrate test original we would work from the assumption the algae is enjoying the excess nitrate from overstocked fish loading, all heavy feeders and waste producers, and the system is eutrophic

The plants didnt use up the nitrate nor the algae, there's some there.

Post pics

We look for pocketed organic reserves, any type of clogged sandbed etc

The right move is a total tank clean down in such a way as to prevent recycling and reduction of the fish bioload, thats specifically what lessens water change work and nothing else. Adding filters, catch basins for waste, won't...it needs to be reduction in biomass until you can be home to change water

Diluting with extra tanks helps, if you can't expand then downsize fish and clean that tank free of organics. Its like a plaque ridden mouth, tons of anaerobic pocketing and increased biological oxygen demand, favors pathogenic growth all kinds of reason to clean out a eutrophic tank and take forced control. Each large algae eating fish was actually setting the stage for future problems. Time to clean the entire sandbed and system 100%, done right it doesn't hurt your filtration one bit Ive done it twenty times

I don't agree that much free phosphate would be left unbound while the nitrate is left to zero, the demand is opposite.

Something needed to change anyway, the enjoyment factor of the tank wasnt at an all time high with sheets of algae

If we watch post trends, you see comparison threads where various test kits give wild reading variances, don't accept one off API posts as any kind of accurate reading, go off biology. Biology says you may have a nutrient sink in the presence of high organic sludge decomposition and its time to flush out all that waste to get control of things


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